Guilty as sin and still set free


Sermon for August 21, 2022


Isaiah 58:9b-14
Psalm 103:1-8
Hebrews 12:18-29
Luke 13:10-17

It has been a long time since I last gave a sermon featuring insights drawn from the Andy Griffith Show, so y’all please indulge me for a couple minutes.

Season 1, episode 20. Sheriff Andy Taylor needs to go to the courthouse in Centreville to testify one afternoon, so naturally he leaves his deputy, Barney Fife, in charge. Barney is eager to show Andy what a good job he can do at maintaining law and order in town, so he is only too happy to take over for a few hours. 

When Andy returns later that afternoon and walks down the street toward his office, he is amazed at how quiet everything is in town. Everything is peaceful and calm and everyone in town seems to have left for the day. Then Andy opens the door to his office and he hears the commotion. The reason why the streets of Mayberry seemed so calm and quiet, is because just about every citizen was locked up in one of the town’s two small jail cells: the mayor, Otis, the president of the bank, even Aunt Bea and Opie. Everyone in town has done something to land themselves in jail. 

Well, one by one, Andy listens to Barney’s charges against each person, and one by one, Andy finds a reason to show leniency and dismiss them and to let the offender go free. Barney, of course, protests and says “these people are guilty as sin,” but Andy just doesn’t think that locking up the whole town is the way to go about it. Only Andy quickly discovers there is a problem: everyone in town starts to make fun of Barney. They tease him and laugh at him and scoff at his approach to the law. This is a real problem for Andy, because although he and Barney may have some different approaches to law enforcement, they both are on the same side of the law. Andy can’t have people treating the law as if it were just a joke.  And on a personal level, Andy can’t have people treating Barney as a joke either. Barney isn’t going to stay and serve people that treat him that way; he is prepared to quit and move on. 

So Andy really puts the town to the test. He starts to tell everyone that he has to let Barney go. He may be a compassionate and merciful sheriff, but he can’t have people treating the law, or a symbol or representative of the law as a joke. The law is there for their own good, and if the people cannot appreciate that, then Andy will have to bring in another deputy that the town will respect. Well, one by one all the townsfolk start to realize what they had done. They all really loved Barney, they knew that Barney wanted what was best for everyone, but when he pointed out to them something wrong that they had done, they let their self-righteousness get the better of them; they became defensive and indignant and it just about destroyed their relationship with him. Barney may have been overzealous in the enforcement of the law, but he wasn’t wrong. They were guilty.

At the very end of the episode, as Barney is taking off his badge and gun, and returning the one bullet that he keeps in his shirt pocket, Aunt Bea and Opie walk in, march over to the jail cell and lock themselves in. Then, one by one, almost every other citizen of Mayberry walks into the office, heads over to the jail cell and proclaims, “guilty as charged.” The people of Mayberry are no longer defensive about breaking the law, they are owning up to it. They may very much appreciate Sheriff Andy’s mercy and leniency in enforcing the law; they may hope for forgiveness of their trespasses, but they realized that Barney wasn’t wrong. Not really. The law existed for them. The law was for their benefit, and they had broken the law. So while this episode began with everyone in Mayberry proclaiming their own righteousness and defending their innocence, it ends with everyone in Mayberry proclaiming their own guilt. As you can probably imagine, there is way more peace and love at the end, than there was in the beginning. 

Now I’m not just retelling the plot to an episode of one of my favorite television shows for our mutual amusement and to eat up some sermon time. I think this episode is actually a pretty good illustration of our relationship, as Christians, to God’s law. Think for a second about the moment that the law, God’s law, was given to God’s people. I’m talking about the Ten Commandments and Moses and Mount Sinai. It’s OK, you can think about the Charlton Heston movie, we’re all doing it. But think for a second about the scene: you have a mountain with clouds and thunder and smoke and a burning bush and laws written in stone. Intimidating scary stuff. But these laws that are given, is God giving these laws to be arbitrary, to be a big meanie, to punish his people? Or is God giving these laws for the good of his people? Are they for his sake, or are they for ours? Think about the sabbath. What a fascinating law that is. God says to a bunch of people that were just slaves; God says to people whose lives were valued only by what they could produce, by their productivity; God says to these people, one day a week, YOU WILL NOT WORK. God isn’t trying to enslave people; he’s trying to set them free. God’s law was given for their benefit, not for their punishment. The people needed God’s law, it was for their good, even when they inevitably ended up breaking it. 

Christians know that we have a merciful saviour that will be our judge. We know that Jesus offers forgiveness and leniency. We know that for those who are in Christ Jesus there is no condemnation, but just because Jesus offers us mercy, that doesn’t mean that the law was wrong, or that it should be mocked and ignored. As Christians, if we really trust in God’s love for us, both in giving the law and in judging us with righteousness and mercy, then we should be able to walk right up to the judge, just like all those people in Mayberry, and humbly declare “guilty as charged.” We can trust that the law is good, while at the same time recognizing that we have broken it. We don’t need to be defensive. We don’t need to mock the law or scoff at it. We don’t need to point the finger at others and say, “well, they did it too, or they did it first.” We don’t need to be like lose in the gospel today who are so intent on catching Jesus breaking the law, that not only are they hypocritical about their own observance of the law, but they also totally miss the point of the law in the first place: setting people free from the chains that the world puts on them. God’s laws, God’s commandments were given to us as a blessing, not as a punishment. Commandments and justice, and mercy and forgiveness, they all come from the same God. We will never find peace in this world by imagining that we are on the right side of God’s law all the time and pointing the finger at everyone else, and we will never find peace by ignoring God’s law and the actions that he has declared to be good. We fall short and we are forgiven; we fail and we try again.

Peace, true peace comes to Mayberry, when its citizens recognize that both Andy and Barney are on the same side of the law. It isn’t either/or. True peace comes when the people recognize that you can be guilty as sin, and still set free.