My Neighbor is a Sinner

I have often been approached by people who have been wounded by well-meaning comments from friends and loved ones.  I was intrigued by a recent read, Half-Truths, in which Adam Hamilton examines some of these phrases which can be cancerous.  This month, the saints at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights  are considering some of those sayings.  The scriptures for September 24 included Luke 18:9-14 and I Peter 4:8-11.  


To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please click on the 
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OK, Let me start this morning’s message by saying that I’m not sure what kind of dirt you thought you’d get on the Gielarowski family when you saw the title of today’s message, “My Neighbor is a Sinner”, but Jessalyn saw the signboard outside and sent me a certified letter containing a notarized copy of our Mutual Neighborly Non-Disclosure Agreement, so the only thing I can tell you about the residents of 1581 Cumberland St. is that their home is an unending parade of sunshine, lollipops, unicorns, and rainbows. Isn’t that right, Ron? Are we good? OK.

But seriously, I’m thinking this morning about every time I have ever been interviewed, or conducted an interview, for a ministry position. There are questions about education, faith, previous work experience, and ideas for the future. And then, invariably, someone comes up with a question that asks the candidate to imagine a scenario where he or she is put into a situation where someone is in the midst of pain and brokenness. “Hypothetically,” the interviewer begins, “what would you do if you got this job and encountered a young person who did ________?” Usually, but not always, the question involves some sort of behavior involving either human sexuality or the use of a controlled substance. And usually, but not always, someone (sometimes the candidate, sometimes the interviewer) ends this portion of the conversation by saying smugly, “After all, you know, ‘Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin!’, right??”

And when I have heard that phrase quoted by those with whom I have interviewed, it almost always uttered with the same reverence and in the same tone as if it were a passage in The Sermon on the Mount. “Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin.” It’s one of those things that “everybody knows,” right? At least, sincere, gentle, loving, tolerant, kind-hearted souls like us know it, right?

Except, of course, it is nowhere to be found in the Bible. More to the point, I’d suggest that this phrase is actually anti-biblical. There are a couple of reasons for that…

First, it presumes that I decide what sin is. Both the Hebrew word for “sin”, chata, and its Greek counterpart, hamartia, are terms that come from archery or spear-throwing. They mean something like “miss the bulls-eye”, or “fall short”, or “fail to achieve or connect as was originally designed or hoped.” We see that in some English words that begin with “mis” – like “misconduct” or “misappropriation”; or with words that begin with “dys”, like “dysfunction” or “dysrhythmia”. When something is chata or hamartia – when something is sinful – it is not functioning up to its design; a person is not behaving at or experiencing their best. When we understand it this way, we think of sin as being in a place that is other than God’s best for us. Sin is a condition, an experience, an attitude, or a reality in which I am stuck (sometimes voluntarily, other times as a result of choices that others have made).

And yet somehow, when we use a phrase like “Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin”, we stop talking about the condition or reality of Sin. Instead, we find it easier to talk about sins – a list of behaviors that I find objectionable or offensive, and over which I am the ultimate judge or authority. Often when we are stuck in conversations about sins, I find that what you do with your time, your money, your sexuality, your diet, somehow becomes mine to judge. When that happens, then, your falling short of the Creator’s intent somehow becomes my business, or an affront to me.

I’m not saying that there is no such thing as Sin, or that you have to accept or ignore everything that I do, but when anyone says or does anything that would seem to put themselves in a place that is reserved for God, then that person is making a grave error. And “Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin” simply smacks of that sort of judgmentalism and condemnation.

Even worse than presuming to determine what Sin is, however, is the more dangerous implication of that phrase: namely, that it presumes I know what you are. You are a sinner. You are one who has failed. You don’t work right. You’re not quite as up to snuff as the rest of us.

Icon from Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church, Marietta, Georgia

When Jesus was active in his ministry, he attained a sort of celebrity status. There were all kinds of people who wanted to connect with him, or to see or be seen by him. And so the Gospels are filled with descriptions of him being welcomed by Teachers of the Law and Pharisees and other religious leaders; by wealthy and responsible people; by Roman soldiers and lepers and children; by tax collectors and drunkards and prostitutes. Jesus, it seems, would hang around with anyone. And he refused to dismiss anyone out of hand.

He, who bore all the purity of the Godhead, poured out his anger, scorn, frustration, and condemnation, not on the people who already stood in public judgment because of what they ate, or what they drank, or who they slept with…No, he reserved his harshest words for people like me…and maybe people like you: the religious elite who thought that they were better than everyone else.

The Gospel reading for today tells a story that Jesus told “to some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else.” It’s pretty plain in the story about the Pharisee and the Tax Collector who the “good guy” is, and it’s not the person who is most likely to get elected as a Deacon around this place.

How dare I look at you, or something you’ve done, and say something like “well, Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin”? How can I speak those words without putting you and me in different categories? How can I even think that without elevating myself and diminishing you?

Like some of the other “half-truths” we’ve been considering this month, this one is just too long. It’s about five words too long. What if we simply said, “Well, you know… love.” No exceptions.

What if we followed Jesus’ lead and treated each other, not as “sinners” who were more or less messed up than we are and instead simply as “neighbors”? What if we looked at the people who surround us, who disappoint or inspire us, who irritate or enliven us, as someone who, just like us, falls short of God’s glory, and errs, and “misses the mark” from time to time?

Peter writes to his community and says that we need to come alongside each other in love.

Look, I know that there are places in my life where I miss the mark. So how can you, in a spirit of love and truth, help me to apprehend and learn the will of God more adequately? Rather than dismissing me as some poor slob who just isn’t measuring up to your standards, what if you considered me to be your neighbor; one who, like you, is crafted in the image of God and formed for His glory?

Now, listen: if you observe anyone hurting someone else in their conduct; if you see someone who is careening through life in a blaze of violence – whether it is abuse, or racism, or anger, or more subtle forms of manipulation or control – you will need to call them on that. You may need to put yourself between the predator and the prey in some of those situations.

But the only way to engage another person in truly meaningful conversation such as any of these scenarios implies is to make sure that we all stay on the same level.

My mother used to respond to situations wherein someone was experiencing great struggle or disruption in their lives by saying something like, “Well, what can I say? There but for the grace of God go I…” When one of my pastoral colleagues saw his life and family ruined by a particularly ugly and salacious series of behaviors, a wise mentor of mine cautioned me against adding to the scorn that this man was already receiving by simply saying, “Look, Dave: what makes you any different than him? How is it that you are better than that?”

The prime message of Jesus, over and over again, was “the kingdom of God is at hand!”. And when he was pressed for a vision of what this kingdom looked like, he said, “Love God, and love your neighbor.” And when he was pressed for a definition of who the neighbor might be, he told a story indicating the dangers of looking too far up at some people and too far down at others.

May we – each of us – have the humility and wisdom to be kind and gracious to each other as we seek to embody the Kingdom of God at work in our world.

Author Frederick Buechner was writing about how the sacrament of communion binds us together, and his words are instructive in this context, as well. He said,

It is…called the Mass, from missa, the word of dismissal used at the end of the Latin service. It is the end. It is over. All those long prayers and aching knees. Now back into the fresh air. Back home. Sunday dinner. Now life can begin again. Exactly.

[Our calling] is to meet at the level of our most basic humanness, which involves our need…for each other. I need you to help fill my emptiness just as you need me to help fill yours. As for the emptiness that’s still left over, well, we’re in it together, or it in us. Maybe it’s most of what makes us human and makes us brothers and sisters.

The next time you walk down the street, take a good look at every face you pass and in your mind say, “Christ died for thee.” That girl. That slob. That phony. That crook. That saint. That damned fool. Christ died for thee. [Remember] that Christ died for thee.[1]

I’m here to say that you can’t do that, day in and day out, without starting to look at those faces and seeing your neighbors. And that’s a good thing. Remember who you are. Remember who they are. And remember who God is. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC (Harper, 1973), p. 52-53.

I’m Just Sayin’…

For much of 2015/2016, God’s people at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are seeking to be attentive to Christ’s call to follow as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount.  

On April 24, we began our work in the third part of that message, found in Matthew 7:1-6.  In addition, we considered Paul’s advice to the divided church in Rome delivered in Romans 14:9-19.  

 

As someone who spends most of my life either talking or listening, I’d like to come clean about one aspect of our English language that frustrates the heck out of me.

I’m just saying…

Have you heard that? I know you have. He says, “Man, if I had to sit through one more of those classes, I think I’d have smacked my head against the wall!” You say, “Um, you know that’s my uncle that teaches those classes, right?” And he says, “Oh, man, look – I’m just saying…”

National Public Radio host Scott Simon says this:Puzzled male shrugging wearing lab coat

“I’m just saying,” puts a fire escape onto the end of a sentence. It lets you express a stern — even rude — opinion, but not really. You’re just saying. It invites the listener to discount what we’ve just heard, even as we’re reeling from it.

The Urban Dictionary website explains that the phrase makes it “possible to deliver a rude comment or burn and have it bounce off simply as an opinion disguised as an objective opinion, and who can argue with you over an opinion that you don’t apparently support.”[1]

You’ve seen it. You’ve said it, perhaps. You drop a verbal bomb and then just before it goes off, you think you can disarm it by simply stating, “Hey, I’m just saying…”

I’d like to ask you to try something with me this morning. I understand that folks who play for our team have been told, with good reason, to avoid ‘graven images’. I don’t want to incite you to idolatry at all. But I do want you to spend a moment and come up with an image in your mind. The only thing I’ll tell you is that you’re not allowed to use “Jesus” as your answer to this question.

If the church had a single face, if Christianity had a profile, who would it look like to you? If you had to describe the way that the church looked as a person, and you couldn’t use a picture of Jesus, whose picture would you use? Think about that for a moment.

I’m afraid that for too many people in the world, the church looks like this:angryChristian

I’m not sure why or how it happened, but I think that there are a lot of people who, if I asked them to describe for me what they imagine when they think of those who bear the name of Jesus, they picture an angry, judgmental, person who is screaming.

Now, I’m just saying, but… if this is what comes to mind when people contemplate the followers of the Prince of Peace, well, maybe we’re doing it wrong.

The Sermon on the Mount Fra Angelico, c. 1440

The Sermon on the Mount
Fra Angelico, c. 1440

We begin the final chapter of the Sermon on the Mount today. If you’ve been here all year, you’ll remember that way back in chapter five, we talked about the perisson – the extraordinariness that marks the life of the disciple. Do you remember that? How often Jesus said, “Look, you learned it this way, but I’m telling you, you’ve got to go beyond that… Look past murder to anger; past adultery to lust; past not lying to being a person of absolute integrity… If you want to follow me, you’ve got to be willing be inwardly and totally transformed, not merely pick up a few new habits.

And then in chapter six we considered the call to true righteousness that Jesus set before his followers – the ways that we practice our prayer, our giving, and our fasting that transform us and make the world better for our neighbors.

As we come into the home stretch of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus invites us to consider how we who would follow Jesus are to relate to each other and to the world around us. Even as he tells his disciples that they are obliged to live lives that are different from those who surround them, the Lord says, in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Discipleship does not afford us a point of vantage from which to attack others; we come to them with an unconditional offer of fellowship, with the single-mindedness of the love of Jesus.”[2] We are to approach each other from the stance of love and encouragement rather than judging or critique.

“Do not judge, or you, too, will be judged…” What is Jesus’ point here? It can’t be that he’s telling us to avoid making any kind of discerning remark or turning a blind eye to the faults of others. He’s not saying that we are not to evaluate the behaviors and strategies of those around us, and to seek to model healthier choices where appropriate. There are all kinds of places in the Sermon and in Gospels where he tells us to do exactly those things.

Censorship-Quotes-27What he is doing, I believe, is warning us against the sin of censoriousness. That’s not a word that we use every day, but perhaps you know the word “censor” – one who decides which idea or behavior is appropriate and which is not. When I say a person is censoriousness, I mean that person is a negative critic who enjoys pointing out how others have fallen short – someone who gets a real kick out of noting all the ways that someone else has failed, and gleefully correcting that person – often publicly.

In the passage we’ve heard today, Jesus is saying, “Look, I’m inviting you to come on board as a follower, a disciple. I don’t need any enforcers.”

logineyeMore than that, Jesus specifically (and humorously) warns his followers against hypocrisy. The image of someone attempting to do the delicate work of helping a friend remove a small particle of dust from their eye while having a giant log protruding from their own face is meant to be alarming. Earlier in the sermon, Jesus warned against the hypocrisy of practicing our faith in order to be seen by other people rather than as a means to commune with our Creator. Here, he condemns the ways that we are prone to become fascinated with the apparent shortcomings of someone else while conveniently overlooking our own sinfulness.

The first two-thirds of the Sermon on the Mount teach us to live in a posture of humility and repentance; our Lord challenges us to grow a generous spirit and a gracious heart. How can I attack someone when my arms are open toward them in an embrace? How can I step on you when I’m already on my knees in repentance and gratitude?

In this passage, Jesus invites us to remember and to recognize our own sinfulness and shortcomings before we presume to call attention to those of our sisters or brothers.

And you say, “Fair enough, Dave, but are we just supposed to let anything go? Doesn’t the scripture point out time after time that if we see someone engaged in sin, we’re supposed to help them through it? We’re supposed to call them on it? We’re supposed to challenge them to do better?”

You’re right. We are called to do that. But not in a way that weaponizes the truth or diminishes the humanity of our sisters and brothers. We can only begin conversation with the other when we recognize that we, too, have fallen short of what Christ expects of us.

Why do you think that we have a prayer of confession near the beginning of worship every week? Because before we can rightly hear the Word of God, before we can approach God in prayer, before we can offer our gifts to God, we need to remember that we’re not who we’d like to be, we’re not who we’re called to be, and lots and lots of days, we’re far from who we pretend to be. When we acknowledge that kind of brokenness in our own lives, it’s hard to get too self-righteous about the sin we see in our neighbor’s life.

Richard Rohr is one of the leading Catholic social thinkers today, and he has said, “Authentic spirituality is always about changing you. It’s not about trying to change anyone else.”[3]

If I am paying attention to the first two chapters of the Sermon on the Mount, the only way that I’ll be able to approach you with any commentary on your own behavior is in a posture of gentleness and humility. Paul said as much when he was writing to his friends in Rome. Apparently, there had been some disagreement in that congregation as to whether it was appropriate for believers to buy meat from pagan butchers – if an animal had been sacrificed to a false god, could that animal be eaten in good conscience? Friendships were breaking up over this question, and the unity of the church was at stake. In response, Paul reminded Christians that each of us is accountable to God in every situation; the people with whom we are so upset are people for whom Jesus died. Paul wondered whether our treatment of others would be more likely to draw them closer to the love of Jesus, or to drive them away.

Look, there are all kinds of reasons for us to look at each other’s behavior and wonder about it. Chances are you’ve already had sixteen opportunities today to either take or give offense to someone else. We disagree on who we want in which bathrooms, on how our government should spend its money, on what we ought to do on the Sabbath, on how we discipline our children… I know. I know.

And much of that merits conversation. Some of that deserves to be challenged. I know. I know.

Yet how will we speak? And how will we be heard?

Again, to return to Richard Rohr: he once wrote, “I have prayed for years for one good humiliation a day, and then, I must watch my reaction to it. I have no other way of spotting both my denied shadow self and my idealized persona.”[4]

What a gutsy prayer that is! What if every day, before I got on Facebook, before you showed up at work, before either one of us thought it was our responsibility to proclaim where the rest of the world has fallen short, we asked God to show us a place we needed to grow?

And what if we were gutsy enough to ask each other for help in being that kind of people?

I’m just saying…

No, I’m not just saying… I’m telling you that every day (and twice on Sundays!) I know that I fall short of being the man that God calls me to be, and yet here I am standing up here challenging you to do it better. I’m asking you to live with a generous spirit today, to choose to know the truth about yourself and to believe the best about your neighbor. I’m asking you to cut that person with whom you disagree some slack, to risk being a little more encouraging than you might normally be, and to try to get a glimpse of someone else’s life from their perspective before you presume to tell that person how wrong she or he is.

Here’s the deal, my friends: at the beginning of this message I asked you to imagine what people might think of when they think of the church – what picture they had when they thought of what Jesus might say, and how he might say it.

face2facebook_faces_matrix-blackI don’t know who you pictured when I asked you that, but here’s the truth: do you want to know what your world thinks Jesus looks like? Look in the mirror. That’s not the whole answer, but that’s a part of it – or it should be.

 

JesusMosaicLook in the mirror, and remind me to do the same, and perhaps together we can help the world to see the Christ who loves them like crazy. Let us “make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification”. Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

 

[1] “It’s Rude! It’s Crude! It’s Stupid! Just Sayin’” http://www.npr.org/2010/12/18/132160770/its-rude-its-crude-its-stupid-just-sayin

[2] The Cost of Discipleship (Macmillan Paperback, 1963, p. 204)

[3] quoted at https://twitter.com/cccstayner/status/701775977668431874

[4] from Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life.

The Vision Test

During Lent 2015 I will be exploring a number of persons who met Jesus, and for one reason or another left his company, and then re-engaged him at a later time.  My hope is that in exploring these people who returned to Jesus, I can learn more about what it might mean for me to continually orient myself in a Christ-ward direction.  Our reading for March 29 came from John 9:35-41 and focused on the day that Jesus healed a blind man and the conversations that ensued.

I am not sure how Google or FaceBook know what they know about me, but something in my internet history seems to indicate that I would be interested in seeing the recent film Unbroken. It’s the true, or at least true-ish, story of a young World War II Airman who is shot down, survives 47 days adrift in the Pacific Ocean, is captured by the Japanese, and endures some horrific treatment in POW camps.

I have not seen the movie, but it would seem to me that it has something in common with other blockbusters of recent years such as Life of Pi or 127 Hours. In each of these cases, we follow the story of an amazing individual who is lost from society but who somehow holds on through grit, determination, or even cutting off one’s own arm in a desperate attempt to re-enter life, to re-engage the world on one’s own terms, or to succeed. We like those movies, and even if you are not familiar with those particular films, you’ve seen stories like that – we love to make them into movies.

You have not, however, come across the movie version of the day in the fall of 1975 when the AFS club from Cologne, Germany, was visiting the AFS club in Wilmington DE. During that visit, a beautiful young fräulein named Heike had the misfortune to be smitten with a dashing trombone player from Concord High School as we made the obligatory field trip to Washington DC. We may or may not have been whispering sweet nothings to each other and may or may not have been paying close attention to the announcement as to where and when to meet the bus for the trip home. Oddly enough, we did not get on that bus for the trip home until the police picked us up wandering outside the White House looking for a group that was waiting at the US Capital Building.

The Corn Maze at the Connors Farm near Danvers, MA

The Corn Maze at the Connors Farm near Danvers, MA

You probably also never saw a film about the family of four who, after having been lost for hours in a corn maze in Massachusetts, called 911 in a panic. “We came in during the day time and we got completely lost and we have no idea where we are,” the caller told the 911 operator.  “I’m really scared. It’s really dark and we’ve got a 3-week-old baby with us… We thought this could be fun.  Instead it’s a nightmare”. A rescue unit, complete with K-9 dogs was dispatched and located the couple 25 feet from the maze’s exit.

Unbroken, Life of Pi, or 127 Hours? Blockbusters. Field Trip Blunders or Cranky in the Corn Maze? Nobody wants to see those movies.

There is something in us that loves to hear about people who have thrived under difficult circumstances. We love and applaud self-made men and women who have pulled themselves together. All of our best stories about people getting lost have something to do with plucky heroes and stick-to-it-iveness. Even The Wizard of Oz, for crying out loud.

In our worship this Lent, we have been looking at stories of people who came back to Jesus. We’ve met John’s disciples, the demon-possessed man, the twelve apostles, Mary from Bethany, and the seventy-two who were sent out. All of them met Jesus at one time or another, and then left, and then came back. Each of them sought intentionally to re-engage him. They saw him, they knew that he was something special, and so they found him at a later time and presented themselves, their issues, their stories, their needs, or their hopes to him. Does that sound about right?

The Healing of a Blind Man, Duccio di Buoninsegna c. 1310

The Healing of a Blind Man, Duccio di Buoninsegna c. 1310

John 9 tells us a different story. The central figure is a man who apparently knows nothing about Jesus. The chapter opens with Jesus and the twelve walking along engaged in a theological discussion about the nature of God, healing, forgiveness, and more. Jesus, apparently wishing to make a point, pulls a blind man into their midst, heals him, and sends him on his way as they continue the discussion.

Unfortunately, this happened to take place on the Sabbath, which created a firestorm of controversy with the religious leaders. These men, who were already angry with and threatened by Jesus, decided that they needed to make an example of him for doing something so offensive as healing on the Sabbath.

And so, for the second time that day, this unsuspecting man who is, so far as we know, simply minding his own business, is drawn into a group of people having a theological argument. This time, the religious leaders demand that he denounce Jesus. He won’t do it.

The authorities drag his parents into it, and we learn that they are afraid because anyone who confesses that Jesus has power will be “cast out” of the worshipping community.

One more time, they go out and find this poor man and interrogate him, only to have him say, “Look, all I know is that I was blind, and now I can pass any vision test that’s offered. I don’t know this fellow. Go find him yourself.” That angers the religious people so much that they drive him out of the congregation.

All of that action happens prior to our reading for today, when, in keeping with our theme for the Lenten season, we see what happens as the man re-encounters Jesus.

The Man Born Blind (Laura James, used by permission. More at http://laurajamesart.com/portfolio/book-of-gospels/)

So far as we know, not once in this man’s life has he ever gone looking for Jesus, but now, for the second time in as many days, Jesus finds him. And although Jesus has healed the man, he’s also made life a little tricky for him, to say the least. He is no longer eligible for membership in the covenant community – he has been driven away by the leadership.

And yet Jesus, once more, comes looking for him.

This should not be surprising to readers of John’s gospel, because in chapter six Jesus says “whoever comes to me I will never drive away” (6:37). The end result, for this man, at any rate, is that he worships the living God in the person of Jesus. He was not looking for Jesus, and yet Jesus sought him, changed him, healed him, accepted his worship, and embraced this man. A man who, let’s not forget, was not even looking for Jesus in the first place.

So what’s the point here? What are we to take away from this encounter, or, more precisely, this re-encounter, with Jesus?

Well, it strikes me that too often we are content to simply pass people by. If we notice at all, we notice in a way that does not permit any real interaction. “Ah”, we say, “Look at that one. She is so ________. He is too ___________.” And we keep on going. It’s not that we are blind to others or to their situations. We simply can’t – or won’t – see them. What would happen, I wonder, if we were to stop and engage on a meaningful level?

And sometimes we notice, all right, but then we respond less than admirably. How many religious communities can you think of who are known for or somehow proud of the height of the fences with which they surround themselves and by which they keep undesirables out? Think about the people you know who have been wounded by the church of Jesus Christ – people who are often broken or scarred in some way who experience greater pain at the hands of those of us who are called to serve. There are times when, in our zeal to be “pure” and “worthy” followers of the one who said, “All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away,” we wind up, well, driving people away.

You know as well as I do that the church can be one of the cruelest places on earth. Christians, I say with some shame, can be downright mean.

I love my daughter for all kinds of reasons, but one of the things for which I am grateful is the way that she sought to include me in a group of friends that she made while she was in college. She found herself gathered with a number of young adults, many of whom had been kicked out of their churches. They were guilty of crimes like being tattooed, or using tobacco, or asking difficult questions… They may have been girls who got pregnant at the wrong time, or who enjoyed the “wrong” music… Ariel invited me to spend time with these young people who loved Jesus, but who had experienced rejection from a group of people that used his name. While I am deeply saddened by the pain that these young people endured, I am gratified that my daughter thought that my presence would be of some encouragement to her friends.

I’d like to share a special word with those who might be present who have experienced this kind of pain from the church – either this congregation or some other group of Christians. Beloved, look to Jesus Christ. Please do not confuse anyone – including me – who has somehow ever done anything that drove you away from the Lord with the person or presence of Jesus. To the extent that anyone – including me – has driven you away from God’s best, we have failed to be disciples, and therefore need to ask forgiveness from you and from God.

Today is Palm Sunday, and we gather today to remember the time that the folk in Jerusalem tried to throw Jesus a party. It did not go well, in part because it ended with Jesus weeping on a hillside as he considers the fact that even the ones who meant best were unable to see him for who he really was. In fact, he said, they were not even sure who they were themselves. “Oh Jerusalem, Jerusalem,” Jesus said… “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace!”

And as we walk through the events of this Holy Week, we will remember the fact that he came to his own people, but they could not accept him. The story of much of this week is that he himself was driven away by those who claimed to have the “inside track” to God. If you’ve ever been wounded by the church, know that you have company – Jesus was hurt by the religious establishment a long time before you were.

Here’s a “spoiler alert” for next Sunday’s worship: he comes back. They drive him away, all right, in incredibly cruel and vicious ways, but they cannot keep him away. He is still looking for those who are willing to be shaped by him and used for his purposes.

This lent we have considered the fact that some people see Jesus and come running to meet him, again and again and again. Heal me, Lord. Take me. Use me.

But others don’t ever really get a glimpse of him, it would seem. Because they don’t see him, they don’t know, and therefore they don’t care.

And, saddest of all, there are many who have laid eyes on the savior, but who have somehow become convinced that they are simply not welcome to be with him. Somehow, these have been driven out.

Today, we are called to remember that we love and serve the Lord our God, who is eager to embrace those who seek him. We are called to point to the one who is willing to turn aside and engage even those who do not seek him and who, in fact, seems partial to those who have been told that they are not worthy of his attention at all.

In that light, friends, let us not give up on Jesus, or each other, or ourselves. May we have the vision to see and to know that Jesus is not particularly overwhelmed with those who heroically make their own way in the world day after day after day, and seems instead to be delighted to simply find people who realize that they are not where they should be.

I’ve done a lot of stupid things, and while I may never have been stuck in a corn maze, I’m here to tell you that my most common prayer is “help!” And Jesus has always seen me. I have been lost. Many times. And I have been found. Not once, but always. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Who Let THEM In?

In Advent of 2014 we looked at the shepherds who led us towards the stable: previous entries explore Abram, Moses, and David.  On this fourth Sunday of Advent, we take at look at the only shepherds who were actually there – the shepherds of Bethlehem mentioned in Luke 2.  Isaiah 56:3-8, although not specifically about shepherds, is instructive here as well.

There are a lot of times when I look at my life and think, “Holy smokes…I can’t believe I did that.” Sometimes, those are words of regret – I’m filled with remorse at doing something unthinkable. Other times, I’m in awe of some great privilege that was extended to me. And some times, I just can’t figure out how my parents let me do something that I’d never let my own child do.

CircusFor instance, when I was a teen, I spent several weekends a year working with the Shrine circus when they rolled into town. I was there, my parents thought, to put on my clown makeup and suit and assist wheelchair-bound children as they experienced the show. And I did that. But they let me sleep in a trailer with five or six other teens on the circus lot. We got there early, and watched as the carnies set up the big tops. Late at night, after the crowds went home, we’d wander up and down the lanes, where I saw more bad teeth, hip flasks, tattoos, and what I might politely call “adventurous behavior” than I thought possible. When my parents came to see the show, they saw the fresh-faced college kids who’d been hired to take the tickets and operate the side show bannerschildren’s rides. I liked watching the rough assortment of humanity charged with setting up the tents, clearing away the elephant dung, and running the sideshow. These weekends did more to enlarge my vocabulary, my understanding of human nature, and my appreciation for human anatomy than anything I ever saw in National Geographic, I can tell you that.

I thought a lot about carnies – the rough-edged men and women who travel with the circuses and shows – this week as Sharon and I set up our Christmas decorations. You may know that my bride collects nativity sets. We’ve got several dozen scattered around the house now, and more in the basement. All of them have at least Mary, Joseph, and a baby Jesus. Some have the wise men. And most have a few shepherds and some sheep.

shepherds-angel-nativity-setMostly, when we think of the shepherds to whom the angels sang about the baby’s birth, we think of simple, gentle folk who must have enjoyed a tranquil, pastoral existence as they tended the little lambs under their care. I would imagine that many of us think about shepherding as a noble profession and an accepted vocation. I mean, “The Lord is my shepherd”… Abraham, Moses, and King David all spent time with the flocks. And look at the shepherds in our nativities – the strong, silent, types. It’s pretty easy to think about one of these fellows grabbing his son and pa-rum-pa-pa-pum-ing it all the way into the stable, right?

Those might be the shepherds that you see on my coffee table, but they are not the men invited to the stable on that first Christmas Eve. At the time of Christ, shepherds were people on the fringe of society – that’s what brought the carnies of my youth to mind as I decorated this week.

sheperd-300x204Shepherding was a despised and lowly occupation in first-century Palestine. Those who were hired to do this work were without rights or any stature in society. Jewish law forbade them from testifying in court, which means that if someone attacked you in broad daylight in front of a dozen shepherds, each of whom could identify your attacker and knew him by name, nothing would happen – because, by law, no one could believe what a shepherd says.

The Mishnah, which is the written record of the Jewish oral law, refers to shepherds as “incompetent”, and says that if you happen to encounter a shepherd who has fallen into a pit, you are under no particular obligation to help him out. In fact, it was forbidden to buy wool, milk, or a kid from a shepherd because that would be equivalent to receiving stolen property.[1]

Shepherds were considered to be ritually unclean, which meant that they were not able to present themselves for worship in the Temple.

Whereas my mother would have been horrified to find her oldest son sitting at the feet of circus carnies like the contortionist woman or the elephant keeper, a good Jewish mama two thousand years ago would have done everything she could to make sure her son steered clear of low-lifes like shepherds and lepers.

The Adoration of the Shepherds, Hugo van der Goes 1480

The Adoration of the Shepherds, Hugo van der Goes 1480

And yet, those who are, by definition and understanding, called “unclean” are invited to worship by the angels themselves. The ones who are prevented from entering into the Temple for worship are now called to the feet of the Lord himself. People who are not “good enough” to watch the priest make the sacrifices on the Day of Atonement are summoned to greet the One who represents God’s greatest, and most deeply self-sacrificial, gift.

Here in the second chapter of Luke, the illiterate bumpkins who are presumed to be untrustworthy and unreliable now find themselves in the position of telling other people in the village about the new thing that God is doing! Before any king gets word of the Messiah’s birth, it is these transients and oppressed, these “undesirables”, who are given a glimpse of what the Kingdom of Heaven looks like. People who have been told for their entire lives that there is just no place for them in civilized society have a privilege and a responsibility with which none can compare.

If that’s true – that is to say, if in fact, shepherds were as despised and mistrusted and ill-treated as the literature suggests that they were; and if, in fact, those shepherds were actually called to the scene of the holy birth by an angelic choir in the manner that Luke records – then I have three questions for our consideration this morning.

Who are you to think that somehow you are not “good enough” for God to use in a meaningful way? I mean, sure, if all shepherds are to be held to the standard of Abraham, Moses, or David, then we have the right to be a little intimidated. But the angels didn’t invite any of those men to witness Jesus’ birth – just the group of outcasts who were pulling the night shift in Bethlehem that week. And if God decides that God can use people like that, then how dare you take it upon yourself to say that you, of all people, are just not up to God’s standards.

You’ve got baggage, I’ll give you that. The things that happened to you when you were little. That massive amount of debt that you’re sitting on right now. Your secret sin – that brokenness that you’ve managed to hide so well for so long. I get it. You’ve got baggage. Do you think that the people sitting in front of you don’t? Do you think that you alone are supremely unqualified to participate in that thing that God is doing in the world?

Look: if God can use first-century Palestinian shepherds, and God can use me, and God can use people like that guy just behind you…God can use you. Who are you to say otherwise?

And before you turn around to look at the person behind you, let me ask my second question: who am I to judge you? What gives me the right to think that because of the way that you look, or speak, or walk, that somehow the image of God is clearer and more pronounced in me than it is in you?

Now, listen to me: obviously, there are certain areas of life in which we expect there to be some qualifications present. I mean, there is a reason that the doctors hang all those diplomas on the wall. Certain tasks require specific expertise. I get that. But for me to look at another person and determine that someone like that is too far gone even for God to mess with? That kind of thinking has no place in the Christian walk. I have been incredibly blessed by the wisdom of dirty, barefoot men – men who didn’t look like much, but who walked with God. My spirit has been revived by the prayer of a smelly, clumsy, schizophrenic woman. Who am I to call “unclean” those whom God has called to himself?

And the final question that comes to me from the mute and rough faces of the shepherds in Bethlehem this morning is this: who are we to tolerate, or, even worse, to actively participate in systems that contribute to the tendency to render another faceless or voiceless?

When the people who wrote the Bible talked about Jesus’ birth, only one person mentioned the shepherds being present. Do you know why? Because no one else saw them. Not that they weren’t there – they were invisible. They were only shepherds, after all.

It seems to me that, increasingly, our way of life is built on rendering gifted, beautiful people of God into anonymous objects. We used to get the things that we needed from the people who were close to us. We made them, we borrowed them, or we bought them from the guy at the corner store. But increasingly, we turn on a machine, click a few buttons, and the things we want show up on our front porches. How? Who knows. Where did they come from? Who cares. Were the people treated well? Not my problem.

It used to be that we had real relationships with real people. Today, more people will use their computer to click on porn sites than Netflix, Amazon, and Twitter combined. Because the people on the porn sites are always beautiful, always available, and never demanding.

Who do you see when you go through your day? The people who wash your dishes? The ones who clean the bathrooms at work or school? The farmer who grew your food or the trucker who brought it to the store? Who do you see? And who sees you?

The miracle of Christmas is that God became one of us and moved into the neighborhood. He has a face. He tells his story, even to outcasts and those who other people think are invisible. But by this very act of becoming enfleshed and sharing that news with those on the margins requires us to honor all flesh-wearers and seek out especially those who have been marginalized.

Is Pastor Dave telling you it’s God’s will to send your kid on the road with the carnies, or that everybody is always good and there’s no reason to fear? Absolutely not.

What I am asking is this: who are you to be so quick to assume that God isn’t interested in using you? And who am I to presume that I’m better than those folks over there? And who are we to participate in systems that dehumanize and depersonalize those humans, those persons for whom Christ came at Bethlehem?

Today, let me ask you to embrace Christmas by standing for the dignity of those who have been given the gift of being made in the image of God. Start with respecting yourself. Remind me to respect the other people we know. Get yourself to that stable and offer who you are, right now, in worship. And don’t be surprised who else shows up right next to you. Amen.

[1] http://www.epm.org/resources/2008/Mar/11/shepherds-status/#ixzz3MHA2M1Ab