Pastor Glenn

Pastor Glenn

Rev. Glenn Schwerdtfeger, Pastor Maple Grove UMC
Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Luke 5:29-32

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

April 22, 2018

 

          The film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was released in 1967. It was Spencer Tracy’s last role. Katherine Hepburn won an Oscar for it. Sydney Poitier, on the other hand, wasn’t even nominated—I wonder why not? It’s the story of a black man and a white woman who fall in love and decide to get married. Both sets of parents strongly oppose the relation-ship (both fathers at any rate). But love is love, right? And—spoiler alert, here--love prevails in the end. But just to put this in context, in 1967 so-called “interracial marriage” was still illegal in 17 states. Who should marry whom, even who should come to dinner with whom, was a big deal in 1967. And in various ways, it still is in 2018. Guess who’s coming to dinner?

 

          Who’s at the table was certainly a big deal in Jesus’ time. Jesus had called a man named Levi—we know him as Matthew—to follow him and be one of his disciples. And this Levi was a tax collector. Now even today tax collectors don’t win many popularity contests. If you work for the IRS and someone asks what you do for a living, you probably learn to say, “Oh . . . I’m in collections,” or “I’m . . . an accountant.” You don’t say, “I’m responsible for taking a quarter of every dollar you earn and turning it over to the government to do things you don’t agree with.” No tax collector still isn’t up there with nurse or fire fighter in terms of popularity.

          But in Jesus’ day there was more to it. Tax collectors worked ultimately for the occupation Roman empire. They’d sold out to the enemy. The money they collected went to support the army that held them down. What’s more, they worked under a tax farming system. They were told how much they had to turn over to their Roman masters; anything they collected beyond that was theirs to keep. Tax collectors got rich cheating their own people. And of course Jewish tax collectors had daily interactions with Gentile Romans; therefore by Jewish law they were always ritually unclean—good Jews really weren’t supposed to be at table with them. Guess who’s coming to dinner?

          Actually, it’s even worse than that. It’s not that Jesus invited one random tax collector over to his house. It’s that Levi the tax collector, now Levi the disciple, had a banquet for all the tax collectors in town, and invited Jesus to eat with them. Also at the table, Luke says, were “sinners.” “Sinners” is a kind of technical term in the gospels. It doesn’t mean sinners in the sense of “Oh, we’re all sinners.” It means people who have been kicked out of the synagogue for notorious behavior. They may not be worse sinners than everyone else, but they’d got caught; they shocked and offended people. Guess who’s coming to dinner?

          Well, Jesus is coming to dinner. With the tax collectors and sinners. All at the same table. “I have come to call not the righteous,” he tells them, “but sinners.” That’s who’s coming to dinner.

 

          In verse 30, when the Pharisees complain about eating with tax collectors and sinners, they spoke not to Jesus directly, but to his disciples. They asked the disciples, “Why do you all eat with such people?” What this means, according to Bible commentaries, is that when Luke was writing his gospel, not just Jesus but the church—that is, Jesus’ disciples—was being criticized for its inclusive table fellowship. People were faulting the church for welcoming people who shocked them or made them uncomfortable.1 And the church defended itself by pointing to Jesus who not only welcomed all kinds of people to his table, but went himself and ate at the tables of all kinds of people.

 

          The evangelist, Tony Campolo, tells of arriving in Hawaii to preach at a conference. He went to bed but the time difference made him wake up at 3:00 am, desperately hungry. He got up and prowled the streets looking for a place to get breakfast in the middle of the night. The only place open was a grungy diner down an alley. He’s sitting at the counter about 3:30 when in walk eight or nine street-walkers, having just finished their night’s work. Tony admits he wasn’t entirely comfortable sitting with them, so he gulped his coffee to make a getaway. Right then the woman next to him announces to everyone: “You know what? Tomorrow’s my birthday. I’m gonna be 39.” To which one of the other women replied nastily, “So what d’ya want from me? A party? Ya want me to bake a cake and sing happy birthday?”

          “Aw, come on,” the first woman says, “you don’t have to be so mean. I’m just saying, it’s my birthday. I don’t want anything from you. Why should I have a party? I’ve never had a birthday party in my whole life.”

          Well, when Tony heard that, he had an idea. When the women had all left, he asked the guy at the counter, “Do they come here every night?”

          “Yeah, every night, about the same time.”

          “The one next to me, her too?”

          “Yeah, that’s Agnes. She’s come in here every night for years. Why do you want to know?”

          “Because she said tomorrow’s her birthday. What do you think? Could we could throw a little party for her here in the diner?”

          A smile came over the man’s grubby face. So they make their plans, and at 2:30 the next night Tony is back, with balloons and a sign that says, “Happy Birthday, Agnes!” The cook has enough cake and coffee for an army. And somehow word had got out. The whole diner was packed with streetwalkers.

          At 3:30 the door opens and in walks Agnes. Everyone shouts, “Surprise! Happy birthday, Agnes!” She’s flabbergasted, stunned. Agnes is crying so hard she can’t blow out the candles.

          Finally, Tony stands on a chair and says, “What do you say we pray together?” And there they are in that greasy spoon, half the prostitutes in Honolulu, at 3:30 am, listening as Rev. Tony Campolo prays for Agnes, her health, her safety, her family, her soul.

          Afterwards the diner guy comes over to Tony, with a trace of hostility, and says, “Hey, you never told me you was a preacher. What kind of church do you belong to anyway?”

          On the spur of the moment, Tony replied, “I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning.”

          Diner guy ponders a moment and says, “No way. There ain’t no church like that. If there was, even I would join it.”2 With Jesus as our leader, guess who’s coming to dinner?

          Peter Storey, who was a Methodist bishop in South Africa during the struggle against apartheid, wrote a little book on the seven last words of Christ. When it comes to the story about Jesus hanging on the cross next to two criminals, Peter Storey writes, “Because he died as he lived, Jesus did not die . . . alone. His life had always been one of solidarity . . . with the least and lowest. . . We should not be surprised, then, that on the day of his dying, Jesus was once more in the company of those whom society had cast out. . . Some tell us,” Storey writes, “that following Jesus is a simple matter of inviting him into our hearts. But when we do that, Jesus always asks, ‘May I bring my friends?’ And when we look at them, we see that they are not the kind of company we try to keep. The friends of Jesus are the outcasts, the marginalized, the poor, the homeless, the neglected—the lepers of life. We hesitate and ask, ‘Jesus, must we really have them too?” Jesus replies, “Love me, love my friends.”3

          Guess who’s coming to dinner?

 

          When I was pastor at another church, I got to know a neighborhood teenager named Pat. Pat was rough guy—he said rude things to girls, he tried to bully other boys out of their money, he sold drugs on the side. He was also a natural-born leader. All the little boys followed him around like a mother duck. I figured if I could get him to use those leadership qualities for good instead of bad, we’d really have something. He came to our after-school basketball program, so every afternoon I invited him to church. And I invited him to church. For months I invited Pat to church. And then one day, out of the blue, he showed up. It was Communion Sunday, and he came right up front to receive the bread and the cup. Everybody saw him.

          After church two moms of teenage sons cornered me in the lobby. I figured they were going to chew me out for letting someone like Pat in the church. “Do you know who that guy is?” Ruth asked me.” “Yes,” I said, “that’s Pat. I know him.”

          “Do you know he’s tried to hurt both of our sons?” Mary asked.

          “No,” I said, “but I’m not surprised.” And I waited for them to tell me to kick him out, to tell him he’s not allowed in church. Ruth picked it up again. “We think it’s very important for him to be here in church,” she said. No one needs church more than Pat,” she said, “and we just wanted to make sure he’s welcome here.”

          “If you say so,” I said.

          “No, we don’t say so,” Mary added. “Jesus says so.” Guess who came to dinner?

 

          You know, here’s the thing: in the end, the only ones who will not be at Jesus’ table are the ones who refuse to come. Everyone’s welcome; but some of us don’t like the company. Do you remember the story of the Prodigal Son? When the son who’d wasted his inheritance on women and wine came home, the father threw a party and killed the fatted calf. Everyone was welcome at that party. The older brother—the good son, the honorable son . . . the resentful son—he too was welcome at that table. The only question was—would he come? The only question is--will we come?

 

          So far, more or less, we’ve looked at this Bible story from the perspective of the Pharisees, as respectable folks who are sometimes surprised by who’s coming to dinner at Jesus’ table. And usually that is my perspective on this story. After all, I clean up pretty nice, I pay my taxes, I try not to make a scene, I’m a preacher, for heaven’s sake. Frankly, I am welcome at most tables. But once in a while, I’m not. Or I get to feeling like I’m not. A few times, I’ve been rejected from people’s fellowship because of stands I’ve taken, because people disagree with me. “Don’t come to my table with those ideas,” they say, in effect. And sometimes, when I’m weary and discouraged, when I’ve let people down or not lived up to my own standards, I get to thinking they’re right. Maybe there’s not a place for me at the table, or maybe there shouldn’t be. And that’s when Jesus pulls out a chair and tells me to sit down. And when I object, when I say, “Oh Jesus, there are people who don’t want me at this table,” Jesus says, “Well, they’re just going to have to deal with it. Because this is my table, and you’re staying put.” And whom am I go argue with Jesus?

 

          So guess who’s coming to dinner? Levi the tax collector. A table full of sinners. A criminal on the cross. Jesus Christ. Agnes from Hawaii and Pat the bully. Oh, and there’s me. And then there’s you, should you decide to come.

         

 

1 Fred B. Craddock, Luke, Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), 78. See also Ronald P. Byars, The Sacraments in Biblical Perspective (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 262.

2 See among other places, http://www.swapmeetdave.com/Bible/Agnes.htm. Accessed 4/12/18.

3 Peter Storey, Listening at Golgotha (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2004), 28-30.

John 21:1-14

Come to the Table

April 8, 2018        Maple Grove UMC

 

          What a wonderful story. Of all the resurrection appearance stories in the Bible, this one is my favorite. There are just so many things we could go into. For example, when Peter says, “I’m going fishing,” he doesn’t mean what most of us might mean by that. For Peter, fishing isn’t a pleasant diversion, not a time to get away and clear his head, not a way to bond with his dad or son. When Peter says, “I’m going fishing,” he means that after the death of Jesus, he’s going back to his old life, the only job he knows. It means he’s giving up on following Jesus as a way of life. But Jesus doesn’t let him give up for long. . .

 

          There are so many things in the story we could go into. At first, John tells us, the disciples don’t know it’s Jesus standing there on the beach. There are other stories where the disciples are mysteriously prevented from recognizing the risen Jesus, but I don’t think that’s what’s going on here. After all it’s just after dawn and the disciples are a hundred yards from shore. I doubt I’d recognize my own children from a hundred yards at dawn. No, to recognize Jesus you’ve got to come up close—get out of your boat, put down what you’re doing, leave behind your fear, and come right up close. That’s what it takes to recognize the Risen Lord.

 

          There are so many things in this story we could go into. Like when they’ve been fishing all night and caught nothing, Jesus says, “Hey guys, why don’t you try the nets on the right side of the boat?” And of course they get this huge catch of fish. Some people think this was a miracle—that Jesus had some kind of supernatural fishing power. Maybe. But maybe he was just saying, “Why don’t you try the other side of the boat for a change.” If you’ve been fishing in the same spot all night and caught nothing, try the other side of the boat for a change. If you’ve been trying the same thing over and over and not getting results you want, try the other side of the boat. If you’ve been singing the same songs and offering the same programs and people aren’t excited any more, then try the other side of the boat for a change. You never know what might happen.

 

          There are so many things in this story we could go into. Do you remember how in verse 11 the net is not torn, though filled with that overwhelming load of fish? As one commentator has put it, “Jesus would like us, in all our diversity [and differences] . . . to be one.   The net,” he says, “does not have to split, though filled with multiple, varied and outsized fish.”1 Surely there’s a message here for the United Methodist church: We can be different and diverse, and yet the net does not need to split.”

 

          There are so many things in this story we could go into. Such as this: the disciples are all together when this took place. Now we’re getting deeper into the story. “It is especially when disciples are all together,” writes Frederick Bruner, “that the Risen Lord . . . reveals himself.”2 Now, the truth is, they weren’t all together. John names Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, the two sons of Zebedee, and two other unnamed disciples. That’s seven disciples, not twelve, or by now, I guess, eleven. But given that there were almost 500 people here a week ago and, well, not that many today—seven out of eleven isn’t bad for the Sunday after Easter.

          The point is that Jesus invites all to come and dine. It’s especially when disciples are all together that the Risen Lord appears. The table is the place where Jesus welcomes all, and when all are together at the table is when Jesus shows up. “The church,” writes my teacher, Fred Craddock, “is a group eating together with glad and generous hearts. . . [So w]hen you separate the table you have destroyed the church. It is not a church,” he says, “where some refuse to eat with others.”3

          They were all together after Easter. It’s especially when disciples are all together that the Risen Lord appears. Wesley Allen tells of a church in Kentucky that began to experience growth due to folks from the community joining. But these new folks were different from the long-time members—ethnically diverse, some were LGBT persons, some were pierced and tattooed. Long-time members were uncomfortable but kept quiet as long as the new members put money in the offering plate and didn’t try to change anything. But when they had meetings to talk about how to move forward together, the same thing always happened: distrust arose, prejudices were expressed, conversation gave way to shouting. Then, on one occasion, the pastor started the meeting differently. He placed a loaf of bread and a cup in the middle of the group. “At the end of the meeting,” he said, “we’re going to share the Lord’s Supper. You are going to pass the bread and wine to one another in witness to the fact that Christ died for everyone here, whether you agree with or like each other or not.” And the conversation was different that night.4

          I know that some people can argue even at the table. But my grandma wouldn’t have stood for it. Neither does Jesus. The table is the place where Jesus welcomes all, and when all are together at the table is when Risen Christ appears.

Oh, there are so many things in this story we could go into. Depending on how you count them, not including the Empty Tomb stories, the gospels have eight appearances of the Risen Christ. Three of these, more than a third, involve eating. If it’s when we are all together that the Risen Christ appears, it’s when he eats with us that we know it’s him. Luke tells about two discouraged disciples walking along the road to Emmaus. The Risen Jesus joins them, but they don’t know it’s him. They walk and talk, they invite him to stay with them and he leads them in Bible study, but still they don’t know it’s Jesus. Only, Luke says, when he breaks the bread do they suddenly recognize him. In the next story, the Risen Jesus is trying to convince the disciples he’s real and not a ghost, but he’s not having much success. Finally he asks for something to eat and they give him a piece of fish. In eating, they know Christ is real.

And so in today’s story, at first none of them knows it’s Jesus there on the beach. Peter figures it out first and goes splashing ashore. But when Jesus gives them something to eat, it says, then none of them dared to ask, “Who are you?” because they all knew it was the Lord. The Risen Lord was known then, and the Risen Lord is known today, in the breaking of bread--not just here from the pulpit, but especially there at the table.

 

Oh, there are so many things in this story we could go into. Just one more. “Come,” Jesus said to those seven weary disciples, “Come and have breakfast.” Breakfast is the most intimate of meals. I had a friend who told me that he was about to ask his girlfriend to marry him. A few days later I called and asked, “How did it go?” “Well,” he said, “I invited her over to my place. She stayed for dinner . . . and she stayed for breakfast, and we’re getting married in August.” Breakfast is the most intimate of meals.

When our daughters were little, our family had a little story Bible. More pictures than words, kind of a “greatest hits” of the scriptures. Every night at bedtime we’d read them two or three of those stories. Every night, the girls would try to get us to read two or three more stories—I thought they just loved Bible stories; turns out they were just trying to extend bedtime! Either way, they heard a lot of Bible stories. One of Rachel’s favorite stories in the book was today’s gospel reading about Jesus sharing breakfast on the beach with his disciples. One summer when she was about four, we were on vacation in the Outer Banks, and Rachel told us that the next morning she wanted us all to have breakfast on the beach. We set an alarm and all four of us gathered on the sand at sunrise. And four year-old Rachel took bread and handed some to each of us, and she took fish—well, goldfish crackers--and gave us all a handful. Taking the lead role, she said to the rest of us, “Come, and have breakfast.” And suddenly there were not four of us there, but five on the beach. And none of us dared to ask, “Who is it?” because we all knew it was the Lord. Breakfast is the most intimate of meals.

 

O Come to the table, my friends, come and have breakfast. Come to the table, and eat with the Risen Lord. For the table is the place where Jesus welcomes all people and all kinds of people. O come to the table, my friends. For none of us here will need to ask, “Who is it?” because we will all know it is the Lord.

 

1 Frederick Dale Bruner, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012), 1213.

2 Bruner, 1207.

3 Fred B. Craddock, “Table Talk,” The Collected Sermons of Fred. B. Craddock (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 219.

4 Freely adapted from O. Wesley Allen, Jr., Preaching in the Era of Trump (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2017), 35.

Ephesians 2:1-10

Saved By Grace, Raised With Christ

April 1, 2018        Maple Grove UMC

 

          Certain believers like to start conversations this way: Are you saved? they ask earnestly. Are you saved? they want to know. And I know what they mean. They mean have I had an emotional conversion experience, asked Jesus into my heart and prayed the Sinner’s Prayer. And they want a one-word answer: Yes. Yes, I am saved. That’s what they want to hear. And the fact is, I could give them that answer—all of that is true for me. But that feels like such a partial, inadequate answer. There is so much more to being saved than that. I want to give them two additional, longer answers--a Lenten answer (a good answer) and an Easter answer (a great answer).

 

          Are you saved? My answer from the season of Lent, from the scriptures we’ve been looking at together, would be: Not only am I saved; I have been saved by Jesus. And Jesus saves means:

  • I have been restored to community, made welcome in the place of worship, un-ostracized
  • I have been accepted for who I am right now and for who, by the grace of God, I may become
  • I have learned to notice when I’ve been healed and have come busting back to Jesus like a man in love
  • I have not been rescued from pain, but Jesus has been with me in my suffering and through my suffering.

 

     I have been saved. A couple of weeks ago the Columbus Dispatch ran an article about a man who in January learned that he was dead.1 After working for 20 years in Turkey, Constantin Reliu returned to his native Romania to discover that his wife had officially registered him as dead. He went to court to overturn his death certificate, but he was too late. The decision, the court said, was final. He is, for the rest of his life, the living dead.

          Now not in a legal sense, but spiritually that’s the situation described in Ephesians 2. “You were dead,” it says, “through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived.” We were all that way, it says. Breathing, walking, going to work and school, having families, going to church, alive . . . but dead too, in a sense.

          This spiritual deadness results in all manner of sinful behavior. Ephesians doesn’t go into detail, but you know the kinds of trouble people get themselves into. But sinful behavior is just the outward symptom of the problem. The root cause, writes New Testament scholar Ralph Martin, is alientation.2 People are not in sync with the Creator; therefore we are anxious and out of sorts. People are cut off from God’s purpose for their lives; therefore we live out some other story, a story that’s not truly who we are. People are alienated from our own true selves; therefore we act out in angry, hurtful ways. The sinful behaviors are many and varied, but the root cause is alienation. It is a kind of death.

 

          But then something happened. The turning point of this scripture comes in verse 4. Actually the turning point of all existence comes in verse 4: “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us . . . made us alive. . .” We were dead, but God. Ephesians says, by grace you have been saved. We were dead, but God. Then it says it again: by grace you have been saved. Am I saved? you want to know. Not only am I saved; I have been saved.

          Everything in this scripture is in the past tense:

  • But God made us alive together with Christ
  • By grace you have been saved
  • God raised us up
  • And again, by grace you have been saved

And here’s what that means. Fleming Rutledge says, “We have been saved. Not ‘we might be saved,’ or ‘you could be saved,’ or ‘maybe you will be saved,’ or any other kind of ‘saved’ that has an ‘if’ attached to it. Not ‘saved if you are good,’ or ‘saved if you are proper,’ or ‘saved if you are better than somebody else.’ Just saved.3 It’s past tense.

          So the Easter message is not about trying harder. It’s not about needing to understand things better. It’s not about getting your act together. It’s past tense. Jesus died for us a long time ago, and God has loved us longer than that. Are you saved? people want to know. Not only am I saved, I have been saved. Past tense. Taken care of. Count on it. Blessed assurance. Amen.

 

          And that is some very good news. But are you ready for some even better news? Easter is not only the end of the old life; it is the beginning of a new life.4 Here’s how Ephesians puts it: But God, it says, who is rich in mercy,

  • Made us alive together with Christ
  • Saved us by his grace
  • But what is more, God raised us up with Christ.

Which leads to my second answer to the question we started with. Are you saved? people want to know. Why, not only am I saved—I’ve been raised. “The resurrection,” writes Justo Gonzalez, “is not the continuation of the story. Nor is it just [the old story’s] happy ending. It is the beginning of a [whole new] new story.”5 You know, raised.

 

          Now before I go on and tell about the goodness and glory of being raised, let me pause to acknowledge that being raised to new life can feel, well, unsettling. Here’s why: Craig Barnes says that “in order to receive this new life, we have to stop clinging to the old one.”6 So yes, we want new life, new growth, new possibilities . . . but we also like the comfort and familiarity of the old life. Sometimes we’d rather sit by the tomb weeping than embrace the new thing God is doing. There’s the old joke—how many United Methodists does it take to change a light bulb? Thirteen. One to change the light bulb and twelve to complain that they liked the old one better. The message of the empty tomb is that we have to stop looking for Jesus in the past—he’s not there, he’s been raised, and so have we. In order to receive new life, we have to stop clinging to the old one. I’m not going to dwell on it this morning. But I do want to acknowledge that change is hard—even good, holy, necessary change is hard. So pray for us.

 

               What does it mean to be not just saved, but raised?

  • I think of my friends in AA. It’s one thing to stop drinking. That’s necessary, difficult, for some it’s all-consuming. To stop drinking, you might say, is like being saved. But then what? Once you’ve stopped drinking, there’s still this hole in your life. And now that you’re not drinking, you know and feel that hole in your life. You’ve got to fill that hole with something other than alcohol—with God, with love, with a new purpose, with Step 12 which is taking the message to other alcoholics. Not just saved, but raised—that’s what Easter’s about.
  • My mother lived for six years after my daddy died. They’d been married for fifty years, and she’d been pretty much his full-time care giver for a couple of years. When he died, she wasn’t just sad--she was lost. After a few months I asked her how she was doing. She said, “Well, I don’t cry every day any more. I’m eating and sleeping better.” She paused, and then went on, “But that’s not enough.” And pretty soon she started volunteering at a thrift store, taking on tasks at church again, and babysitting regularly for her grandkids. She didn’t want to just eat and sleep and breathe; she wanted to live. Not just saved, but raised—that’s what Easter’s about.
  • I read about Grace Presbyterian Church.7 They’d been declining for decades. They tried adding services and programs, but nothing worked. Then one spring, the roof started leaking. The roofer said he could start work during Holy Week or they’d have to wait for months, which put the sanctuary out of commission. The Church Council began looking for another place to meet. Their young pastor took the opportunity to suggest that on Good Friday they walk through the neighborhood and sing and pray at places where trouble or violence had occurred in the past year. After two hours the small group returned, determined to share their experiences with the whole church. One by one on Easter morning they told what they had seen and felt, and finally one of them said, “We can’t stay inside this building any longer. This morning we are opening the doors of this church and committing ourselves to work for justice in this community. Christ is risen. Alleluia!”

          Soon they started serving a weekly meal for single moms. They volunteered in the neighborhood school. They picked up trash at bus stops. And little by little the church began to grow. They had to get over wanting just to be saved, to just keep existing, and start praying to be raised to new life, new ministry, new relationships with new people. Not just saved, but raised—that’s what Easter’s about.

  • And now here we are, you and me, this Easter Day. I’ve been praying and pondering for weeks about what to say to you today. How to help you see and feel that it’s not just that you are saved, but that you have been saved. Past tense. Taken care of. Blessed assurance. Amen. And more than that, I’ve been pondering how to help you see and feel that you can be not just saved, but raised. That things don’t have to be the way they’ve always been—in fact, things can’t be the way they’ve always been—but God gives new life, new growth, new possibilities.

     And then one morning, during my prayer time, it hit me. I don’t want to just preach about being raised; I want to be raised! I don’t want to just tell people about new life; I want new life! I want to be able to let go of criticism and just keep doing the right thing. I want to stop worrying about my daughters and just love and appreciate them. I want to stop fussing about where people in the church do and don’t want to go, and just go where God already is.

          I said all that to God Thursday morning. And do you know what God said? Here is what God said. God said, “Okay.” “Okay,” God said. I wonder what new life you’re longing for?

 

          If anyone should ever ask you Are you saved?, you know what to say, right?

  • Am I saved? Why, I have been saved! Past tense. Taken care of. Blessed assurance. Amen.
  • Are you saved? people want to know. Am I saved? Why, not only saved; I’ve been raised!

 

1 Alison Mutler, ”Dead Man Walking: Court Rejects Man’s Claim He’s Alive,” The Columbus Dispatch (March 16, 2018), A14.

2 Ralph P. Martin, Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon, Interpretation (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1992), 25-27.

3 Fleming Rutledge, “Saved!,” The Bible and the New York Times (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 180.

4 Samuel Wells writes this of baptism in Incarnational Ministry: Being with the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2017), 92.

5 Justo Gonzalez, ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­Luke, Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 274.

6 M. Craig Barnes, “We’re All Terminal,” Living by the Word, The Christian Century (April 6, 2004), 18.

7 Adapted from Claudio Carvalhaes and Paul Galbreath, “The Season of Easter: Imaginative Figurings for the Body of Christ,” Interpretation 63/1 (January 2011), 9-10.

Luke 23:32-43

What Jesus Means By ‘Saved’

March 25, 2018

 

          You drive along the interstate and see it on billboards: JESUS SAVES. Sometimes the sign will have the name of a church or organization, but often just those two words: JESUS SAVES. Pastor and author Frederick Buechner has written that those signs are a little embarrassing to him.1 Embarrassing, he says, because they remind him of old-time religion--pulpit-pounding, hyper-emotional, fundamentalist religion. Or perhaps they’re embarrassing, he confesses, because they remind him that he needs to be saved. Proud, self-sufficient, respectable as we are, there comes a time when all we can do is cry out, “Lord, save me!” We don’t like to be reminded of that.

          JESUS SAVES, the billboards say. Personally, I’m not embarrassed by those signs—more uneasy, I’d say. Yes, Jesus saves—but what does that mean? There’s more to ‘Jesus saves’ than can fit on a billboard, more to it than you can take in at 70 miles an hour. As we’ve explored together these past few Sundays, ‘Jesus saves’ means

  • to be restored to community, to be made welcome in the place of worship, to be un-ostracized
  • to be accepted for who you are right now and who, by the grace of God, you may become
  • to notice when you’ve been healed, and to come busting back to Jesus like someone in love
  • to be saved, Rev. Michelle taught us, is to be transformed.

Yes, Jesus saves—but I worry those two words will get oversimplified and therefore misused.

 

          It’s happened before. Three times in the crucifixion story the idea that ‘Jesus saves’ is used to mock Jesus. As people cast lots to divvy up Jesus’ clothing, Luke says, the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah.” The Roman soldiers taunted him the same way, saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” Even one of the criminals on the cross gets in on the act, saying, “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”

          ‘Jesus saves’ is reduced to a way of mocking Jesus because they completely misunderstand what it means. ‘Jesus saves’ does not mean that he will rescue us from pain or give us a get-out-of-suffering-free card. Rather, on the cross Jesus saves by entering into our pain; he saves by sharing our suffering.

          The other criminal on the cross gets it right. He accepts his suffering and simply says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And Jesus replies, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” – with me. The message of the cross is that to be saved is not to be rescued from suffering: to be saved is to be with Jesus, in your suffering and beyond your suffering. Or perhaps better, to be saved is for Jesus to be with you in your suffering and beyond your suffering.

 

          And then as saved people, as people who are confidently with Jesus, we can in turn enter into others’ suffering. Because we are firmly in Jesus’ presence, we can share the pain of others. Being saved is not about getting our ticket to heaven punched; it’s about caring so powerfully for others that, like Jesus on the cross, we will not let them go.

          Back in December the Columbus Dispatch ran a long article about a group working on the South Side to try to stop the violence that led to last year having a record number of murders in Columbus. This group, led by several black pastors, marches and prays and encourages people and talks to folks on the street. One of the group members said, “These dudes on the street are angry. Their friends are dead. They want to play tough with guns. But they really are that way because they have no hope. They think nobody cares if they live or die. So we intervene. Working with the babies, the kids, the women. . . You’ve got to be present. Every day.”2

          The newspaper article is called “Saving Souls.” I think that’s exactly right. No, they’re not really preaching. They’re not trying to get people to believe this or that about God. They’re being with people. They’re entering into their neighbors’ suffering and pain. They are being Jesus on the South Side: and what Jesus does is he saves.

 

          ‘Jesus saves’ does not mean he rescues people from pain or gives us a get-out-of-suffering-free card. Rather, on the cross Jesus saves by entering into our pain, by sharing our suffering. The message of the cross is that to be saved is to be with Jesus, in your suffering and beyond your suffering. And being saved yourself, to be Jesus to others.

          Let the billboards, let the church, let our lives proclaim it: Jesus saves!

         

1 Frederick Buechner, The Hungering Dark (New York: HarperOne, 1985), 59-69.

 

2 Holly Zachariah, “Saving Souls,” The Columbus Dispatch (December 22, 2017), F17-21.

Luke 23:32-43

What Jesus Means By ‘Saved’

March 25, 2018

 

          You drive along the interstate and see it on billboards: JESUS SAVES. Sometimes the sign will have the name of a church or organization, but often just those two words: JESUS SAVES. Pastor and author Frederick Buechner has written that those signs are a little embarrassing to him.1 Embarrassing, he says, because they remind him of old-time religion--pulpit-pounding, hyper-emotional, fundamentalist religion. Or perhaps they’re embarrassing, he confesses, because they remind him that he needs to be saved. Proud, self-sufficient, respectable as we are, there comes a time when all we can do is cry out, “Lord, save me!” We don’t like to be reminded of that.

          JESUS SAVES, the billboards say. Personally, I’m not embarrassed by those signs—more uneasy, I’d say. Yes, Jesus saves—but what does that mean? There’s more to ‘Jesus saves’ than can fit on a billboard, more to it than you can take in at 70 miles an hour. As we’ve explored together these past few Sundays, ‘Jesus saves’ means

  • to be restored to community, to be made welcome in the place of worship, to be un-ostracized
  • to be accepted for who you are right now and who, by the grace of God, you may become
  • to notice when you’ve been healed, and to come busting back to Jesus like someone in love
  • to be saved, Rev. Michelle taught us, is to be transformed.

Yes, Jesus saves—but I worry those two words will get oversimplified and therefore misused.

 

          It’s happened before. Three times in the crucifixion story the idea that ‘Jesus saves’ is used to mock Jesus. As people cast lots to divvy up Jesus’ clothing, Luke says, the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah.” The Roman soldiers taunted him the same way, saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” Even one of the criminals on the cross gets in on the act, saying, “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”

          ‘Jesus saves’ is reduced to a way of mocking Jesus because they completely misunderstand what it means. ‘Jesus saves’ does not mean that he will rescue us from pain or give us a get-out-of-suffering-free card. Rather, on the cross Jesus saves by entering into our pain; he saves by sharing our suffering.

          The other criminal on the cross gets it right. He accepts his suffering and simply says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And Jesus replies, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” – with me. The message of the cross is that to be saved is not to be rescued from suffering: to be saved is to be with Jesus, in your suffering and beyond your suffering. Or perhaps better, to be saved is for Jesus to be with you in your suffering and beyond your suffering.

 

          And then as saved people, as people who are confidently with Jesus, we can in turn enter into others’ suffering. Because we are firmly in Jesus’ presence, we can share the pain of others. Being saved is not about getting our ticket to heaven punched; it’s about caring so powerfully for others that, like Jesus on the cross, we will not let them go.

          Back in December the Columbus Dispatch ran a long article about a group working on the South Side to try to stop the violence that led to last year having a record number of murders in Columbus. This group, led by several black pastors, marches and prays and encourages people and talks to folks on the street. One of the group members said, “These dudes on the street are angry. Their friends are dead. They want to play tough with guns. But they really are that way because they have no hope. They think nobody cares if they live or die. So we intervene. Working with the babies, the kids, the women. . . You’ve got to be present. Every day.”2

          The newspaper article is called “Saving Souls.” I think that’s exactly right. No, they’re not really preaching. They’re not trying to get people to believe this or that about God. They’re being with people. They’re entering into their neighbors’ suffering and pain. They are being Jesus on the South Side: and what Jesus does is he saves.

 

          ‘Jesus saves’ does not mean he rescues people from pain or gives us a get-out-of-suffering-free card. Rather, on the cross Jesus saves by entering into our pain, by sharing our suffering. The message of the cross is that to be saved is to be with Jesus, in your suffering and beyond your suffering. And being saved yourself, to be Jesus to others.

          Let the billboards, let the church, let our lives proclaim it: Jesus saves!

         

1 Frederick Buechner, The Hungering Dark (New York: HarperOne, 1985), 59-69.

 

2 Holly Zachariah, “Saving Souls,” The Columbus Dispatch (December 22, 2017), F17-21.

Matthew 8:23-27 & 14:22-33

“Lord, Save Us!”

March 18, 2018

 

          The disciples are out in a boat. A terrible windstorm comes up and they’re afraid—they’re bailing to beat the band, flailing around and wishing they’d said goodbye to their families. Meantime Jesus is asleep in the back of the boat. Finally they think to wake him up, crying out, “Lord, save us!” Good call--Jesus saves! A few chapters later, it happens again: boat, storm, fear, flailing around--until Jesus comes to them walking on the waves. Peter wants to try that too, and he does for a moment. Until he notices the wind and the waves, panics and starts to sink. So he cries out, “Lord, save me!” Good call again—Jesus saves!

 

          I told a story on Ash Wednesday as the season of Lent began. I want to return to it now, as we near the end of Lent. Years ago I knew a man who got a new job at an insurance company downtown. It was a big promotion for him to a mid-level management position. He now had a whole team of people reporting to him, and no longer did he work at a cubicle; he had an office, with a door that closed! He was feeling pretty good about himself. But almost right away he started to struggle. There were a couple of computer applications that he never quite got the hang of. His supervisor was concerned because he wasn’t tracking his budget very well, and his team members were concerned that wasn’t keeping up with their work flow. But he didn’t want anyone to find out he didn’t understand those applications, so he kept that to himself and tried to compensate by working harder. Of course that didn’t help and at his six month review it was made clear that he would lose his job if things didn’t improve.

          He was literally returning from that fateful six-month review, back to his office with the door that closes, when he saw something he’d never noticed before. Around the corner from his office, on the very same floor, was a sign above a doorway. The sign said, “Tech Support.” So desperate was he at that moment that he poked his head in the door, and cried out, “I’m about to lose my job because I don’t understand two applications. Can you help me?” The woman at the desk said, “Of course, that’s what we’re here for. What’s your name?” She looked at her computer screen and said, “How about if someone stops by your office tomorrow afternoon?” Not only did they help him learn and feel confident with those applications, every time they were updated, they came back and got him up to speed again.

          He said to me, “Do you mean to tell me I went through all that stress, that I almost lost my job, for nothing? That all along all I had to do was ask for help?” Of course, he already knew the answer. What I was thinking was this: whenever we start bailing and fearing and flailing around, do you mean to tell me that all we have to do is ask for help? All we have to do is cry out to Jesus to save us? But of course, you already know the answer. If Tech Support saves, just think how Jesus saves!

 

          As I studied for this sermon I looked back at some previous sermons I’ve preached on these scriptures. One that caught my eye I preached during a capital campaign at another church. The problems with that building were so critical that if tuckpointing and drainage work weren’t done, it really was in danger of collapsing, falling apart. But we weren’t certain we could raise enough money to do the work. Several people asked me, “What are we going to do if we don’t raise enough money? What’s the back-up plan?” So in the sermon I tried to encouraged people, like Peter, to step out of the boat in their giving, to take a leap of faith in their generosity. And I said there really wasn’t a back-up plan except, like Peter, to cry out, “Lord, save me!”

          I wish I hadn’t said that. Or I wish at least that I’d put it a different way. Because when you’re out in a boat and a storm comes up, when the building is leaking and you don’t know what to do, crying out, “Lord, save me!” is not a back-up plan. Crying out, “Lord, save me!” is the plan.

 

          Most Bible commentaries agree that Matthew intended these stories of disciples, boats and storms not just as miracle stories, but as parables.1 The metaphor of the disciples in a boat, shaken by wind and threatened by waves, is a symbol of our life together in the church. In fact, one of the most common images for the church in early Christian is a boat. Here’s one that goes back to the 2nd century, from the catacombs beneath Rome:

 

It’s a simple picture, representing the church.

          In the Greek Orthodox Church, the disciples in a boat was a common icon for Christians contemplating the life of the church:

 

 

 

This picture shows Saint Nicholas, who lived in the 300s, as one of the disciples in the boat with Jesus:

 

 

 

And the image of the church as boat continues into modern church art and architecture. Here’s a beautiful church window from the 20th century:

 

 

 

 

It is a picture of the church.

          The image of the church as a boat is apt because, of course, the church is always facing some storm or other.

  • The first storm was the ascension of Jesus into heaven. One moment he was with the disciples; the next moment he was not, or at least not in the same way. They stood there staring into space, wondering What are we going to do now? Well, stay in the boat, and cry out, “Lord, save us!” There’s always some kind of storm.
  • And then Gentiles started believing in Jesus and wanted to worship and pray and even eat with these Jewish Christians, which the rules strictly prohibited. What are we going to do now? they wondered. Well, stay in the boat, and cry out, “Lord, save us!” There’s always a storm.
  • And then the Romans started persecuting Christians—burning them alive or throwing them to the lions if they wouldn’t renounce Christ. What are we going to do? they wondered. Well, stay in the boat, and cry out, “Lord, save us!” There’s always a storm.
  • You may know that the Methodist Church—then known as the Methodist Episcopal Church--split ages ago over whether Christians could participate in slavery, and it didn’t reunite for almost 100 years. For generations they wondered, What are we going to do? Well, stay in the boat, and cry out, “Lord, save us!” There are some pretty big storms out there.
  • I remember when people wouldn’t attend worship at my home church if there was a woman preacher. It seems silly now, but there were strong feelings about it back then. What are we going to do? they wondered. Well, stay in the boat, and cry out, “Lord, save us!” There’s always a storm.
  • And of course you know what the United Methodist Church is struggling with now—whether or not LGBT people will be truly and fully welcome everyone the way all people are welcome here. I know--people won’t always worry about this, but right now there are strong feelings about it. What are we going to do? people are wondering. Well, stay in the boat, and cry out, “Lord, save us!” There’s always a storm of some kind or another.

 

          Here’s the thing: In Matthew 8 when the church—I mean, when the disciples in the boat—were being swamped by the waves, do you remember where Jesus was? He was sound asleep! Not the slightest bit concerned. And in chapter 14 when the church—I mean, the disciples in the boat—were being battered by the waves, far from land, where was Jesus? He was taking a walk on top of the waves. In fact, Mark adds the detail that Jesus intended to walk right by them, not understanding why they were so worked up.

          Jesus is simply not preoccupied with our preoccupations; he is not worried by the things that upset us; he is not caught up in our anxiety and negativity. He’s seen storms come and he’s seen storms go. Therefore he can sleep right through them; therefore he walk right over the top of them. He can silence a storm with just a word. The trick isn’t to never be afraid of anything; the trick is knowing whom to call out to when we are afraid. Because Jesus saves. Crying out, “Lord, save us!” isn’t the back-up plan; crying out, “Lord, save us!” is the plan. The answer to so many, perhaps all, of the churches problems and concerns is just to stay in the boat and cry out together, “Lord, save us!”

 

          Now, there is another sermon in this Bible story. I mean, what about Peter? He didn’t stay in the boat, right? He got out of the boat and at least started to walk on water. And if I had time, I could preach you that sermon. There comes a time in every Christian’s life when you’ve got to step out of the boat. Every new ministry in the church was started by someone who dared to step out and try something new. Every social change comes about because someone dares to step out of the boat.

  • This church building hasn’t always been here. Someone dared to dream of building a beautiful church at the corner of Henderson and High, and someone dated to ask people for money to build it, lots of money. They stepped out of the boat, and here we are today.
  • And, for example, mission trips don’t just happen. Patti and John and Dan research projects and raise money and twist people’s arms to go. They step out of the boat every year, and think of all that’s been done.
  • And Rosa Parks, and Ruby Bridges, and John Wesley and all those kids from Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School speaking to legislators and marching on Washington. Ministries happen, the world changes, because ordinary people step out of the boat. Maybe you will too.

 

          But I don’t have time to preach that sermon today. And anyway, I think the message that’s needed most right now is the one about staying in the boat. You’ll notice that eleven of the twelve disciples did not step out of the boat, and nowhere does Jesus criticize them for that. There’s a lot to be said for just staying in the boat. The answer to so many of the church’s problems and concerns is just to stay together and cry out, “Lord, save us!” Because, you see, the trick isn’t to never be afraid of anything; the trick is knowing whom to call out to when we are afraid. Jesus saves. Crying out, “Lord, save us!” isn’t the back-up plan; crying out, “Lord, save us!” is the plan. Why? Because Jesus saves.

 

 

1 See for example Thomas G. Long, Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 95.

Luke 17:11-19

Ten Are Healed, One Is Saved

March 4, 2018

 

          Jesus saves. All this season of Lent we’re looking at what that means in the stories of Jesus. For the woman who had been bleeding for twelve years, ‘Jesus saves’ means not only that her hemorrhage stops, but that she is restored to family and community, made welcome in the place of worship, she is un-ostracized. Jesus saves. For the woman others called a sinner, ‘Jesus saves’ means being accepted, loved, respected for who she is and who by the grace of God she may become. Jesus saves.

          Today’s gospel story draws a distinction between being ‘healed’ on the one hand and being ‘saved’ on the other. All ten lepers, it says, are healed—“made clean,” Luke calls it. Iaomai, is the Greek word—it’s a medical term; we might best call it ‘cured.’ Ten lepers are cured, but to only one leper does Jesus say, “Your faith has . . . made you well,” it says. But of course by now you know that ‘made well’ is our old friend, the Greek word sōzō. It’s sometimes translated ‘healed,’ yes; and sometimes ‘made well.’ But it means saved, in all the ways that Jesus saves.

          So what’s the difference between being cured and being saved? What set the one leper apart from the other nine? Let me give you two answers to those questions.

  1. All ten lepers, it says, were made clean as they were on their way to the priest. But here’s what happened to the one that didn’t happen to the others. It says, “Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God.” He is saved because he sees what God has done--he notices, he pays attention.

Here’s how Chris Anderson puts it in his wonderful book, Light When it Comes: The key word in the story, he says, is seeing, realizing. And one of them, Luke says, realizing that he had been healed. . . “As if,” Anderson says, “you wouldn’t know you’d been healed of leprosy. As if that wouldn’t be obvious.”

“But we’re being healed of leprosy all the time,” he says, “and we’re always failing to realize it.” I drive down the road and the leaves are turning yellow and red. A friend says something kind. I raise the cup at Holy Communion, brimming with wine, like rubies in a brooch. But I let the moments pass, or I never realize they’ve happened at all.1

Those are his examples of lepers being healed all the time. I have plenty of my own. My wife had cancer; my daughter had a life-threatening condition. And both are alive and living the dream. Almost every Sunday I get to hold one of your babies, and take that precious life into my own fragile hands. I sat recently in the presence of two people tearfully forgiving one another after years of separation and anger. I’m being healed of leprosy all the time, but all too often I let the moments pass, or never realize they’ve happened at all.

Those are my examples of lepers being healed all the time. I suspect you have some of your own. And when we manage to see, when we take time to realize what Jesus has done, we turn and praise God. Already we’ve been cured, already we’ve been healed. But in the seeing, in the noticing, we are saved.

 

  1. That’s one: we are saved when we see what Jesus has done and turn and praise the Lord. Here’s the other one. Because their disease was contagious, lepers had to stay away from everyone else. They lived outside the city walls. If they went anywhere they had to shout out they were lepers so others would stay away. If lepers thought they’d been cured, only the priest could certify it; only the priest could give lepers approval to return society and their loved ones. So in the process of healing them, Jesus naturally sends all ten lepers to the priest, to be proclaimed cured. Nine of them do as they’re told, never to be heard from again. But one of them does not do what Jesus says to do. One of them does not go to the priest. One of them is disobedient. And that’s the one, it says, who has faith. That one is saved.

          What are we to make of that—that it’s the disobedient one that is saved? Well, for one thing, this one is a Samaritan—a “foreigner,” Jesus calls him. Literally, the Greek word means someone “of another race.” In other words, he is a double outsider—not only a leper, but a despised foreign leper. Maybe he has less to lose than the others. Or maybe he has less to gain by going to the priest. Whatever the reason is, nine lepers behave like respectable people, obedient religious people, rule-followers; they do what Jesus tells them to do, what you’d expect cured lepers to do—they go to the priest.

          But one of them, a double outsider, does not. One of them makes a scene. When he sees that he is cured, he turns; he comes busting back to Jesus, shouting for all the world to hear. He throws himself face-down on the ground at Jesus’ feet. He will not quit thanking Jesus and praising God. He is not obedient; he is not respectable. Instead, as Barbara Taylor puts it, he acts “like a man in love.”2 It’s one thing to be cured of leprosy, it’s one thing to go obediently and respectably to the priest—it’s another thing altogether to come busting back to Jesus, giving thanks and praising God like a woman or man, like a girl or boy in love. Ten are healed; one is saved.

          Barbara Taylor grows confessional in her sermon on this scripture. She says, I know how to be obedient; what I don’t know so well is how to be in love with Jesus. I read my Bible, say my prayers, pay my pledge. And there is nothing wrong with that. It’s the kind of steady, rule-following discipleship—the discipleship of the nine lepers—that keeps the church going. I am, she admits, one of the nine. But what we long to be, what our hearts cry out for—at least once in a while—is to be in love with Jesus, to come busting back shouting praise and throwing ourselves on the ground. What we long for, what our hearts cry out for . . . is to be saved.

          Where are the nine, Jesus asks the healed Samaritan leper. But of course we know where the nine are. They’re us. An even better question is, “Where is the one, the one who got saved?”

 

          To be saved is to be restored to family and community, made welcome in the place of worship, to be un-ostracized. Jesus saves. To be saved is to accepted, loved, respected for who you are right now and who by the grace of God you may become. Jesus saves. To be saved is to see how we you being healed all the time, and for once in your life be the one who leaves obedience and respectability behind to come busting back to Jesus with gratitude and joy. Jesus saves, if only we will let him.

 

1 Chris Anderson, Light When It Comes: Trusting Joy, Facing Darkness & Seeing God in Everything (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2016), 61-62.

2 Barbara Brown Taylor, “The Tenth Leper,” The Preaching Life (Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 1993), 107-13.

Luke 7:36-50

Saved = Forgiven and Unashamed

February 25, 2018

 

          Our worship theme this Lent is “Jesus Saves.” And last week we learned that the Greek word for ‘saved’ is sōzō, but sōzō gets translated different ways depending on context: ‘saved,’ yes, but also ‘healed,’ and sometimes ‘made well.’ For the woman with the flow of blood in last week’s gospel reading, ‘saved’ meant physical healing, but it was healing and then some—it was being restored to community, being welcomed in the place of worship, being made somebody instead of nobody. Jesus saves. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus says to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” And this time saved means forgiven. And forgiveness is a great big deal—don’t get me wrong. But even so, saved is forgiveness . . . and then some. Let me tell you what I mean.

 

          Simon the Pharisee is criticizing Jesus; the Pharisees were always criticizing Jesus. This time it was for failing to recognize “who and what sort” of woman this is who has cried on his hair and kissed his feet. That’s the sort of thing Pharisees care about—Pharisees back then and Pharisees here today--who and who sort of people others are. Are they respectable enough? Are they of the right nationality and social class? Do they follow the rules? Do they make us uncomfortable in some way? That’s what Pharisees care about—who and of what sort other people are.

          But Jesus says to Simon: Do you see this woman? Did you hear that question in the gospel? Do you see this woman, Jesus asked. Well, sort of, he had. He’d seen her enough to judge her. He’d seen her enough to know Jesus shouldn’t be with her. But seen her, who she was inside, what it felt like to be her, what her human potential was? No. When he looked at her, all he saw was “a sinner.” He didn’t even know--didn’t care to know--her name. He thought he had her summed up in one word: sinner.

 

          New Testament scholar Wendy Farley points out that this woman has almost certainly been mistreated, traumatized.1 Prostitutes then, as now, didn’t simply ‘choose’ to walk the streets. They were abused, beaten, threatened, deprived of other options—trafficked, is the word we use today. And for traumatized persons, Farley says, forgiveness is not enough. If we hear in this passage only a message of forgiveness, she writes, we remain in the world of the Pharisee. Pharisees can forgive people . . . but still despise them, Pharisees can forgive people . . . but still feel superior to them, Even Pharisees can forgive people . . . but those people are still unwelcome.

          It’s not that the woman doesn’t need to be forgiven; she does. But for her—and, I suppose, for all of us—to be saved is to be forgiven . . . and then some. For this woman, to be saved has to mean being accepted, loved, respected. Here’s how Farley puts it: “Jesus is not distracted by her sin but rather perceives the beauty of her soul shining in her beautiful actions [of loving Jesus]. She does not see herself as beautiful, but he does.” Simon, Jesus asks, do you see this woman? No, Simon doesn’t want to see her. But Jesus does. Jesus saves.

 

          The healing of shame, being truly ‘saved,’ is more than forgiveness. In her shame, one writer has suggested, this woman probably thought, “Joseph is a carpenter, Ruth is a seamstress, Ben is a priest, and I am a sinner.”2 But that’s her shame talking. Sure she’s sinned; we all have. But that’s not who she is. Jesus sees so much more in her than that; Jesus sees something beautiful in her. Jesus saves. And you know, on a good day, I’m fine; I’m okay with myself. But on a bad day, on one of those days that just keep spiraling down, I say to myself: worship attendance is down, the church budget is tight, some people are mad at me. I am a failure. But that, of course, is my shame talking. Sure I have failed at this and that, but that’s not who I am. Jesus sees so much more than that; Jesus sees something beautiful in me. Jesus saves.

 

          That is a beautiful and redeeming part of this story. But it’s only part of the story. There is in the gospel story this woman Jesus whom forgives and accepts; he sees something beautiful in her. In a word, Jesus saves her. But there is someone else in the story, someone who needs saved even more than her, and someone who at the end of the story is still not saved—and that is Simon the Pharisee. At the end of the story, he still thinks he’s better than others, he needs to feel more respectable than others, he still believes he doesn’t belong in the same room or the same category of people with this woman--this woman Jesus loves and who has loved Jesus back. Simon the Pharisee believes he doesn’t need to be saved, and so, sadly, he is not.

 

          Jesus saves. Which means that he heals, yes, but healed and then some. He restores people to community, welcomes people into places of worship, un-ostracizes people. Jesus saves. Which means that Jesus forgives, yes, but forgives and then some. He sees more in us than we can see in ourselves. He sees something beautiful in the broken and downtrodden.

          And the question for us is this: will we be the church of Simon the Pharisee or the church of Jesus the Savior? Will we be the church of Simon the criticizer, the judge, the one who endlessly finds fault--or the church of Jesus who sees something beautiful in everyone? I know what kind of church I need. Jesus saves.

The Lenten Prayer

         

 

1 Wendy Farley, “Luke 7:36-50,” Between Text and Sermon, Interpretation 69/1 (January 2015), 76-77.

2 Gerrit Scott Dawson, Heartfelt: Finding Our Way Back to God (Upper Room Press, 1993), 79.

Matthew 9:18-26

Saved = Made Well and Then Some

February 18, 2018

 

Jesus saves: you read it on billboards and church signs and even bathroom walls. Jesus saves: you hear it from TV preachers and gospel songs. But what does it mean—Jesus saves? Is it limited to old-time, evangelical religion, or can 'Jesus saves' come alive in the gospel stories? Can 'Jesus saves' change our hearts and make us new this Lent?

The idea for this Lenten series comes from a sermon delivered years ago by my teacher, Fred Craddock. Dr. Craddock was widely considered one of the best preachers in America. To me, no one could touch him. I want you to experience him yourselves, a bit from the beginning of his sermon called "Jesus saves." It's helpful to know that Dr. Craddock was a minister in the Disciples of Christ, so when he refers to 'Disciples,' he means members of his denomination, their traits and characteristics. He begins the sermon telling how so many important words have fallen out of favor, but he goes on to say how some of them were being used again—for example, 'Jesus saves.' See what he does with that:

Video clip of Fred Craddock

The New Testament Greek word for 'saved' is sōzō, but as Dr. Craddock suggested, several different English words are used for sōzō, even in the same translation. In Matthew 1:21 the Lord appears to Joseph and tells him Mary will bear a son who will sōzō‑‑save--his people from their sins. But in Mark 6:56 Jesus meets some folks who are sick and sōzō’s them—only now it’s translated healed; and in Luke 8:36 someone with a demon is sōzō'ed—healed, again. But when they're perishing on a boat in a storm, the disciples cry out, "Sōzō us!" Now it's not translated "Heal us," but "Lord, save us!" Save Greek word. And in today's gospel reading, a woman who's been bleeding for twelve years thinks to herself, "If I but touch the fringe of his cloak, I will be sōzō'ed—made well, it says this time. And Jesus concludes the episode by saying to her, "Take heart, daughter, your faith has . . . made you well." But I'm with Dr. Craddock: She was saved; you can call it made well if you want to.

We have these different translations of the same Greek word because, unlike Jesus, we try to separate healing of the mind from healing of the body. We make a distinction between an individual's health and the wellbeing of the whole community. For Jesus there’s no distinction. All of these are part of the same saving/healing/forgiving/reconciling/life-changing power of God. 'Saved" is 'made well' . . . and then some.

 

As we've been learning, in order to understand the full meaning of Jesus' miracles, you have to see them as symbolic events. Again, that doesn't mean he didn't actually do them. That miracles are symbolic events means he really did them and they have a significance beyond themselves. The woman in today's reading had been bleeding for twelve years. Mark’s gospel provides the detail that the little girl whom Jesus raised from the dead was about twelve years old. Twelve is, of course, the number of tribes of Israel, a number that stands for the whole nation.1 That Jesus takes the trouble to raise a girl, in a culture that values boys, is important—honoring girls heals the whole community. And being touched by a woman with a flow of blood breaks so many religious and cultural taboos—removing barriers that keep women down enhances the whole community. There’s a lot going on in these miracles.

 

Let's think about what it means for this woman to be 'made well.' Having a hemorrhage for twelve years had undoubtedly left her weak and exhausted. She must have been horribly uncomfortable, liable to all kinds of infection, physically troubled in many ways. But that's not all. According to Leviticus 15, she is perpetually and permanently "unclean," in a ritual sense. She can't worship or even go out of the house. Everything and everyone that comes into contact with her is also rendered ritually unclean. Think of it—for twelve years she hasn't shared a bed with her husband, hasn't hugged children. She can't eat with others, since her very cup and plate become unclean. As Dr. Craddock puts it, she is isolated from her family, she has no place in the community, she has no place in the place of worship, she has been ostracized and oscillated and is a nobody.

And then . . . she touched Jesus, just the fringe of his cloak. And the hemorrhaging stops, but so much more than that. She is restored to her family, welcomed in her place of worship, she can go about and shake hands and sit with people. She is somebody. Again, you can call it 'made well' if you want to. But Jesus saves.

Of course we don't follow Leviticus 15 any more. We wouldn't keep someone out because of an OBGYN condition. But think of all the ways people are still isolated and made to feel like nobody. In one church I served there was a man who put himself in charge of baby patrol. If a child got fussy or started to cry, he would tell the parents they needed to leave. They were cast out, unwelcome, over a baby crying. But Jesus said, "Let the children come to me and do not hinder them." Jesus saves.

At the other end of the spectrum, the way our families and society are structured, many elderly folks wind up feeling isolated and left out. Their kids and grandkids are always busy. Their contemporaries can’t get out to see them any more. And there they sit, lonely, their gifts and wisdom untapped. But 1 Corinthians 12 says that every member of the body of Christ is necessary and important. We may forget and neglect, but Jesus saves.

And we know there are still places where God's LGBTQ children are not welcome for who they are. After all, people insist, there are rules in the book. But the gospel says if we but touch the fringe of Jesus’ cloak, we will be restored to community, welcomed in the place of worship, un-ostracized. You can call it 'made well' if you want to. Jesus saves!

 

Here’s the most striking thing to me about this story: the woman with the flow of blood touched Jesus and Jesus touched the girl who had died. In both cases, according to Old Testament law, Jesus was supposed to be “contaminated,” made ritually unclean. Bleeding women were considered unclean, and so was anyone who touched one. Dead bodies were the most unclean thing of all, and so was anyone who touched one. But with Jesus a funny thing happens. Instead of a dead body making Jesus unclean, his touch brings the dead girl to life. And instead of the bleeding woman making Jesus unclean, his touch makes her well. Jesus touched people he wasn’t supposed to touch, and they were made well. Jesus saves.

The sort of people we’re afraid of, the ones we try to keep at arm’s length, changes over time. In Jesus’ time it was this bleeding woman and dead bodies. In the 1980s it was people with AIDS, until we learned better. Then we despised people dealing with addictions, until that became us and our families. Now it’s refugees and immigrants. But everyone needs to be part of a community. Everyone needs to be accepted. Everyone needs love. The touch of Jesus restores, un-ostracizes, welcomes with open arms. You can call it ‘made well’ if you want to. Jesus saves.

 

When you feel isolated and ostracized, Jesus saves. When you feel untouchable and unworthy, Jesus saves. When you are bleeding and left for dead, Jesus saves. Shackled by a heavy burden, ‘neath a load of guilt and shame, then the hand of Jesus touched me, and now I am no longer the same. He touched me, O he touched me, and O the joy that floods my soul! Something happened and now I know, he touched me and made me whole.” You can call it ‘made me whole’ if you want to—Jesus saves.

 

 

Join with me, from the bulletin, in our Lenten Prayer

 

Lord Jesus, save me, for I need your help.

Save me from isolation and shame.

Save me from sin and guilt.

Save me from apathy and greed.

Save me from trouble and save me from myself.

Lord, have mercy.

Christ, have mercy.

Lord, have mercy. Amen.

 

 

1 Richard A. Horsley, Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder (Fortress Press, 2002), 109.

2 William J. Gaither, song lyrics from He Touched Me, The United Methodist Hymnal, no. 367.

Mark 1:21-39

(Not) Just the Way Things Are

February 4, 2018

 

          Jesus cast out demons.  Did you know that?  What are we to make of these demons, or unclean spirits, that Jesus cast out?  People suppose the gospel writers talked about “demons” because they didn’t know much science or medicine.  For example, from the description of his symptoms, people assume the boy in today’s reading may have had epilepsy, but that people in those days didn’t know about epilepsy, so they blamed it on demons.  But the truth is, the Greek language of New Testament times had a perfectly good medical term for epilepsy.  It was . . . epilepsy.1        

The Bible doesn't refer to an unclean spirit here because it doesn't know any better; it refers to an unclean spirit because there’s more going on than seizures.  There’s the way this poor boy was treated because of his seizures.  There’s the history of trauma that leaves some people unwell.  In this case, the demon appears, of all places, in the synagogue, and on, of all days, the Sabbath.  Jesus is not just healing the boy; he’s confronting the power of religion to control people through regulations and shaming. 

          The New Testament scholar who did the most work on demonic powers was Walter Wink.  A demon, Wink said, is the name given to that “real but invisible spirit of destructiveness and fragmentation that rends persons, communities, and nations.”2 

          Sometimes demons manifest themselves in individuals.  When I was a student chaplain, I visited a woman painfully dying from cirrhosis.  She kept referring to “that old devil,” how she fought it, how it hurt her.  I pressed her to name her devil, wanting her to be more specific, to talk openly about alcohol.  But she just kept talking about that old devil.  Looking back, I realize she was being specific:  there was a devil in her life, a spirit which took her over and impelled her to destruction. 

          Other times demons manifest themselves collectively.  In 1961 President Eisenhower--a retired general, you’ll remember--warned about a “military-industrial complex”--that informal alliance between our country’s military and the arms industry.  Each justifies its existence not by peace but by conflict.  Each in turn justifies and supports the other.  This demon, this military-industrial complex, Eisenhower worried, could lead to deficit spending and to engaging in wars that no individual finds prudent.  Hmm.

 

          Demons maintain their power because we get used to them, because the forces involved seem too big to do anything about.  We shrug our shoulders and say, “Well, that’s just the way things are.”  Casting out demons means saying, in the name of Jesus, “NO, that’s not just the way things are!” 

  • No, I don’t have to drink the rest of my life.
  • No, I don’t have to be a second-class citizen because I’m poor, or have dark skin, or don’t speak English.
  • No, we don’t have to allow men to harass and assault women.

No, Jesus said to the demons, that’s not “just the way things are.  And I won’t put up with it!”

          When confronting demons, Wink insists, we must always address not just the physical, but also the spiritual realities.  He relates how when the Roman authorities ordered the early Christians to worship the emperor, they didn’t just refuse; they knelt down and prayed to God for the emperor.  This seemingly innocuous act of prayer, Walter Wink says, was far more exasperating to the emperor than outright rebellion.  It rejected the ultimacy of the emperor’s power.  There is Someone, higher than Caesar, to pray to.3  And in the name of that one, Christians say, “No, this is not just the way things are.”

 

          So what does this look like here and now?  How are demons cast out today?  Here are a couple of examples:

  • I’ve just finished reading Dreamland, about the opiate crisis.  You probably know that AA, NA and all 12-step programs begin by admitting that we are powerless over our addiction and that a Power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity.  There is no un-spiritual recovery from addiction. 

     And at the end of Dreamland, after describing how awful the drug problem is, the author begins to share some hopeful signs for Ports-mouth, Ohio.  People used to come from all over the country to the pill mills in Portsmouth; now people come from all over to enter recovery there.  Some local businessmen banded together to buy a factory to keep jobs in Portsmouth, so people wouldn’t have to sell drugs to make a living.  Finally, after years of shame and secrecy, people are talking openly about their families’ struggles with addiction and they’re helping each other out.  He concludes: The only antidote to heroin is community.4  To stand up together in the name of Jesus and say, “NO!”  We are gradually learning how to cast out this demon of opiate dependence, to say “NO, this is not just the way things are.”

 

 

  • And then there’s this children’s book by Robert Coles, called The Story of Ruby Bridges. 

Read book

 

     Ruby helped to cast out the demon of prejudice and segregation.  In the name of Jesus she said, “NO, this is not just the way things are.”

     We can say it too.

1 See Lamar Williamson Jr., Mark, Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1983), 51.

2 See Walter Wink, Naming the Powers: The Language of Power in the New Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 104-13.

3 Wink, 110-11.

4 Sam Quinones, Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2014), 353

Page 1 of 23

mg3

Connect with Us

We're on Social Networks.
Follow us & get in touch.