Sermon based on Romans 5: 1-11. Have you ever wondered whatever happens to the turkeys that the Presidents of the US pardon in November? Do you know what I am talking about? Every November right before Thanksgiving are these enormous turkeys for the White House Thanksgiving, but the President pardons them. What happens next?
Well, their lives are quite short. “The bird is bred for the table, not for longevity,” said Dean Norton, the director at Mount Vernon, the home of former president George Washington where the turkeys are sent. “Some of the pardoned turkeys have been pretty short lived.” Compared to domesticated animals, turkeys bred for consumption are usually plump and slaughtered after a period of months, and aren’t expected to live much longer on their own.
I doubt that over the years our various Presidents have included the pardoned turkeys in their official number of those pardoned. As you may know, article II of the United States Constitution gives the president the power of clemency. The most commonly used clemency powers are pardon and commutation. For example, over the course of 8 years, former President Obama issued 1,385 commutations and 212 full pardons.
There is a significant difference between a commutation and a pardon. According to Wikipedia: “A commutation shortens the sentence of a convicted offender still incarcerated but does not change the fact of the conviction or imply innocence. While the guilty party may be released from custody or not have to serve out a prison term, all other punishments still apply. A pardon however, does not signify innocence either, but it does give full legal forgiveness, sets aside any ongoing penalty and restores all civil rights to the person. The person accepting the pardon, must however, acknowledge, that the crime did take place.”
At this point in time, early in President Trump’s first year as president we do not know if or how many offenders he will commutate or give a full pardon but I suspect he will follow the practice this coming Thanksgiving of pardoning the turkeys who get to live another month or so.
Why should any of that interest us in the season of Lent? Today’s second lesson, from Romans 5 is one of those key scriptures that is quoted often and will be read again on Trinity Sunday in June. So, I thought we would spend a few minutes reviewing these verses.
First, the reason is read on Holy Trinity because found in the space of five verses, this reading mentions God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit. We have peace with God (vs. 1). This peace, as well as access to grace, has come through Jesus Christ (vs. 2). Moreover, God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit (vs. 5). The Son gives us access to God’s glory and the Spirit pours out God’s love for us.
The reading, however, is something more than a lesson on the Holy Trinity. It is a bridge between the “What?” of Romans --- Chapters1-4 --- and the “Now What?” of Romans --- Chapters 5-8. In other words, Chapters 1-4 talks about the who and why of Jesus, whereas 5-8 talks about what difference does it make.
To briefly review, in the first two chapters of Romans, Paul demonstrates the universality of the power of our brokenness from God; both Jews and gentiles have fallen short of the glory of God. In chapters 3 and 4 of Romans, Paul announces God’s response to humanity’s plight: because of Christ’s righteousness, humanity now stands justified by God’s grace. This is not something to boast about --- no childlike nah-nah to the people around us --- instead Paul goes on, because “a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.”
But as you have already noticed Romans does not end at the end of chapter 4. It could have. Instead Paul continued, because justification is not the religious equivalent of a fairy tale ending, “They lived happily ever after.” Rather in chapters 5 through 8 of Romans, Paul turns to answering the “Now what?” question. As he does so, we see that in the world Christ has redeemed, our human brokenness continues to exercise influence and suffering remains so acute that Paul is at pains to say it cannot separate us from God’s love. According to Romans 5:1-5, the life of the justified is a mix of peace, hope, suffering, and love.
However, over the years that I have been a pastor, I’ve noticed that Paul’s language that we are justified by faith sounds like a foreign language. So, instead I have at times used the word “pardon.” “Pardon,” you probably know, is a term that is not unfamiliar as a synonym for divine forgiveness of sin, an action God alone can do. Like its legal equivalent, divine pardon sets aside the penalty for one's wrongdoing.
But, if you're looking for the word “pardon” in our reading from our second lesson, our reading Romans, you won't find it. In fact, the word only appears in the Old Testament. That's not to say that the New Testament writers didn't talk about pardon. They did, but they used other vocabulary, including but not limited to "forgiveness of sin."
Paul, for example, writing here to the Romans, speaks of believers being “justified by faith.” And as you may remember, he's talking about our being made right before God by God’s grace through Jesus Christ. Saying that, Paul was fully aware of the concept “pardon.” Because the actual word “pardon” received a great deal of attention in the Old Testament something in which Paul was taught. If you remember, Israel's story depends greatly on the covenant God made with the Israelites as a people, God promised to be their God, and God remained faithful to the covenant even when the people of Israel were not. Thus, if their life with God was to continue, there had to be some means of restoring the covenantal relationship. God granted pardon as that means. Moses, for example, recognized that pardon was indeed the only way for the relationship to continue after great sin on the part of the people. Like after the golden calf incident in the wilderness, Moses prayed, “If now I have found favor in your sight, O Lord, I pray, let the Lord for with us. Although this is a stiff-necked people, pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for your inheritance.” (Exodus 34:9).
That leads us back to the New Testament. Although the actual word “pardon” does not appear in the New Testament, the gospel of Luke does contain a great pardon story in Jesus' parable of the prodigal son. If we remember that parable quickly, we might assume that the moment of pardon, the moment of justification, was when the father threw a party to welcome the son who took his inheritance early and came back home. But that misses the deeper movements of human emotions.
For the prodigal, pardon had to begin in the far country when deep in the pits of his bad decisions and careless living, “he came to himself” and remembered his father's love. Before the young man could find pardon, he had to confront himself and acknowledge, “I have sinned,” and then he had to return to his father. And when he did, the prodigal did not receive a commutation, a reduced sentence, which what he thought he would receive, rather the pardon he received was a full one. He was completely restored to his place in the family, justified and allowed to join the family again, and his father rejoiced. Or, as Paul put it to the Romans in our reading: “We even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.”
The second reason I sometimes use the word “pardon” to help explain Romans 5 is for what follows: “And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings,” --- “… boast in our sufferings? --- what does this mean?
Well in comparison, I remember one woman who would quote this Bible verse to me --- “boast in in our sufferings” --- every time she came to tell me that she gave money again to her long struggling son and family. She had concluded that God had given her an ill-stared son as God’s endurance race for her, and by telling me it was a way for her to boast!
Rather, if we understand this portion from Romans out of the context of pardon knowing what we know about the “what next?” of Chapters 5-8, we see that it takes on a deeper meaning. Remember those pardoned White House turkey’s? Their lives did not end at the kitchen counter, rather bred to be meatier, they had a life but short after being pardoned. But have you ever wondered about those individuals who have either served their time, paid the penalty or had their sentences commuted or even pardoned, what happens next? What about those over 1,500 men and women who President Obama pardoned or commuted?
They return to their families and/or communities and is it all a bed of roses? Will they each will now receive a high paying job, easily reconnect to their children and spouses and find a life of comfort. If any of you have ever had a conversation, served time yourself or know someone who after serving their time, the question becomes --- what next? Once pardoned, does it really matter what happens next? Or is different than that? For example, after the prodigal sons’ party remember there was the matter of the resentful elder son? As many of you know it is far easier to go back to jail for far too many.
Suffering does not mean it’s God’s gift we need because look --- we will gain endurance, character, hope, and ultimately God’s love. Instead, Paul continued in Romans beginning with Chapter 5 struggling through this, “now what?” Now justified by faith, now “pardoned? How do we live?”
Fortunately, God, like any good parent --- like the father of the prodigal son --- wants us to live in a way that is good for us and representative the forgiveness we have received, the pardon we have received, the justification we have received. But, it is a struggle. As Martin Luther wrote in the Small Catechism, for the 5th petition of the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” In describing Luther wrote: “We ask God that God would give us all things by grace, for we sin daily and indeed deserve only punishment. So, on the other hand, we, too, truly want to forgive heartily and do good gladly to those who sin against us.” Life after being pardoned, justified, is a mix of peace, hope, suffering, and love. We continue every day pardoned, justified by grace, challenged to integrate our redeemed lives back into this world around us, not only seeking to live pardoned, --- but to live pardoning others. May God help us and give us longer lives that the pardoned, White House turkeys. May God help us live out the reality that we are justified by faith. Amen.
 cf. Romans 3:21-26
 Romans 3:28
 Romans 7 - Romans 8
 Luke 15:17