A Problem of Religious Snobbery
This is a sermon manuscript from my message on Sunday, September 15th 2019, at St. James Episcopal Church, Potomac MD. As a sermon manuscript it breaks my usual goal of staying at 500 words in a blog post, lol, clocking just over 1,700. The day’s Gospel passage was Luke 15:1-10.
Who has ever lost something and found it?
Our gospel passage today is in part about losing and searching and finding, and the joy that comes with being found. Jesus tells two stories about things being lost, first one of a hundred sheep, and then one of ten coins. When was the last time you lost something, and found it? Or maybe you’re like me, you like to think that you never lose anything important and love to be a little judgey when other people do? I’ll admit it, I’ve been that “How could you?” guy too many times… that is I was until I lost my wallet… on a cross country drive… in East Africa.
I don’t have my wallet at the hotel!
It’s the year 2000, and I’m driving across Tanzania with a friend, bringing home a new truck which we had just imported and outfitted for work in the rural areas where we were planting churches. After a long day of driving toward home from an area near Mount Kilimanjaro we were pulling into a beautiful safari hotel in the heart of the Serengeti game reserve for a well-earned night’s rest. But when I went to check in, I didn’t have my wallet and I couldn’t find it anywhere in my new truck. The folks at the hotel were understandably like, “Sorry, no money, no room.” That wallet had my money, US ID, Tanzanian drivers license, checkbook, everything… oh man.
Jesus is speaking to religious snobbery.
So we find Jesus was doing his normal thing one day, teaching the crowds around him… you might remember some of the recent gospel passages have been a little on the hard-to-hear tough side, yeah? He’s been talking about the cost of discipleship, or how seriously they should think of a decision to follow him. It’s a deep thing, choosing to follow Jesus, and it should be treated seriously and with dedication. And who should gather around and be listening to Jesus, but sinners. And worst kind of sinners, tax collectors, those who colluded with Rome and stole the wealth of the people. The good religious folks watching are like, “Man, Jesus hangs out with the worst people: Sinners!” Sound a bit snobby? Sound a bit judgmental? Yeah, it does.
A Clue! I find a map on the grill of my truck!
Back in Tanzania I’m standing at my new truck with my friend and we’re talking about this missing wallet thing while my stomach twists and sinks lower and lower. I last had the wallet at the gate into the park where we stopped to pay the game park entry fees… I know I had it at the gate! I start looking around some more and as I inspect the truck inside and out, I find a game park map stuck to my front grill. Putting things together I begin to imagine what I had done… leaving the office at the park gate after paying my entry fees, I must have set my wallet and the map I had grabbed on the hood of my truck. I must have forgotten and left them there. And as my luck would have it, my wallet didn’t get stuck anywhere in place like the map.
What does sinner mean? What will make the angels party?
Something else we know about Jesus from the recent gospel readings is that when invited he would totally go to the house of a Pharisee or religious leader for a meal. It’s not even like he exclusively eats or only hangs out with those sinners, but he is available to everyone. They’re a bit jealous maybe? We also know from many Gospel stories that Jesus doesn’t tolerate religious snobbery. To answer their anxiety at his choice of company he tells a couple of parables, short stories, actually two of three we find in Luke 15, to very pointedly reorient them back from their judgmental stance. He tells stories that will help them understand that sinner doesn’t really mean what they think. Lost doesn’t really mean what they think. For Jesus, sinner apparently means beloved. Lost means desirable. In the first story a man finds one of a hundred sheep has gone missing. Instead of simply being glad of the 99 and writing off his loss, he leaves them to find the one. And when that one is found the party gets started. There is rejoicing! I wish rejoice wasn’t such a church word these days… if we’re going to honest, the man and the angels partied when the lost one was found. In the second story we meet a woman who has lost one of ten coins, and she is relentless in finding that coin! She doesn’t give up but turns her world upside down to find what was lost. And when the lost coin is found? You guessed it, she and the angels start partying.
We just have to drive back, hoping and praying for the best.
Having figured out that I had left my wallet on the hood of my truck we were faced with a couple of problems. We had driven two hours since coming in that park gate, and it was getting dark. We’re not supposed to drive in the park after dark, it’s too dangerous with animals and possibly even poachers roaming around. I mean, could we even hope that it wasn’t already seen and grabbed up? Or maybe it was run over and scattered? It was also beginning to rain. We talked it over for a few minutes and eventually decided to drive back toward the gate and hope, and pray, for the best. You know that sick feeling when you can’t even talk? Everything inside is so tied up and you’re feeling so stupid and worthless that you just can’t even. I drove on, even out pacing the rain after some time, eyes glued to the road, and my friend sat there with a hand on my shoulder praying grace for me, for courage for me and for a wallet for our hotel stay.
Jesus is consistent that this kind of snobbery is not acceptable.
Maybe you’ve heard the kind of whispers and judgements that the people with Jesus heard from the religious leaders that day. Maybe you have felt unworthy in life, in church, in work, in play, in anything and everything. Maybe you’ve had the label sinner applied to you. Maybe you’ve had the label lost applied to you. Like many of the religious folks that day, we at church mostly find ourselves among the 99, the found. We find ourselves among the nine, tucked safely away in God’s purse. When you’re the 99 or the 9, terms like sinner or lost start sounding kinda bad. But in the stories told by Jesus, lost seems to mean desired, sinner seems to mean beloved. What the 99 and the 9 have to remember is that they aren’t giving up any of God’s love for it to be shared with the outsider, the other, the one whom God is pursuing instead of just always hanging with the insiders. So here’s a thought… we recently read Jesus telling a dinner host not to invite just friends and family to the table, but those who needed a meal, those without food, those without a table. Does that start to make more sense now? Do we have an extra layer now of understanding of the kind of love God has for all people so that we get a better idea of why spreading a table for the ones least likely to be invited, most likely to be overlooked, is so important?
What about my wallet?
We had out paced the rain and were driving in the dark for about an hour heading back toward the gate. We’d seen nothing in the dusty dirt road and now strained to peer through the high beams of my truck as we moved as fast as we dared. No, this wasn’t a paved highway, this wasn’t I-95 South toward Richmond. This was dirt, soon to be mud when the rain caught up to us again. Can you imagine what my heart did when at the edge of the high beam’s light, a small brown shape off the side of the road came into view? Can you imagine my lack of strength to even get out of my truck and go pick it up, when it was so obviously my wallet with the colored rubber-bands still holding all the contents safely in place? Can you imagine the relief, the joy? Can you imagine the party on our drive back to the hotel? I kid you not… we had found the wallet and started back for no more than ten or fifteen minutes when the rain storm caught up to us and poured down, obscuring a lot of our visibility for the drive back to the hotel. I don’t know if we could’ve found that wallet in the rain. Oh man, we partied like the angels in heaven! God is good.
Let’s make more solidarity, less fear more love!
What I believe Jesus is so often pushing the people around him to do, is to fear others less and feel a deeper sense of solidarity with them, a longing for them, a love that shatters complacency. He would seek and spend time with the lost and the sinner, because those are just synonyms for the beloved ones, the desired and desirable ones, the ones worthy of a great search, worthy of turning the world upside to get close to. Behind all that we do, all that we say, all that we would accomplish, let there be a deep sense of our being found, our being loved of God, and our being made worthy. From that understanding, let us also hold tight to the love of God that also embraces those outside of our community, making them worthy, worthy to be missed, worthy to be sought, worthy of our love and respect. Amen.
I was blessed to be asked to preach again at St. John’s Episcopal Church this past weekend. Heres’ the transcript, with a warning that it’s a bit longer than my usual posts. =)
Sermon of June 12, 2016, St. John’s Episcopal Church
Any prepared sermon is going to be undeniably challenged by a tragedy the likes of which we have witnessed in the past 24 hours. So as we begin, we also stop. We’ll take a moment to pray for those who have died and been hurt in Orlando, Florida, and their grieving friends and families.
“God of the Dance, God of Love and God of Life,
Our hearts break at these tragic deaths
and this horrible glimpse into the darkness.
Welcome the souls of all those who have died needlessly
in Orlando this past night, by an act of humanity’s deep
and dreadful love of violence, hatred and division.
For their souls we ask a place at your feast table,
at your home of light and life and love, forever.
For survivors, their families and friends we pray peace and comfort,
that your Spirit and your people will surround them,
hold them, and heal them in their rending grief,
and that they may know joy and healing in the coming days.”
“Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so
move every human heart in this our broken and needful society,
that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear,
and hatreds cease; that our divisions being healed,
we may live in justice and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen.” BCP pg. 823
Tonight’s Gospel Reading from Luke 7:36-50…
36 One of the Pharisees asked Jesus[j] to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. 37 And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. 38 She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. 39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.” 40 Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Teacher,” he replied, “speak.” 41 “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii,[k] and the other fifty.42 When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” And Jesus[l] said to him, “You have judged rightly.”44 Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. 45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47 Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” 48 Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49 But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” 50 And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
Maybe you’re not like me and don’t have stories from your childhood which embarrass you. Maybe you matured faster than I did and you avoided the worst of decisions and moments we often experience as forming people, but I had some real doosies.
Tonight I’m thinking of 7th Grade Todd, and a time when I was at my worst. I was in the Art Club, and our much anticipated field trip to the Zoo in Dallas had arrived. We were going on a sketching trip! I was fired up, until we started assigning seats with parents to drive to the Zoo. My closest friends were all in one car, and I was assigned to ride with someone else and his mom. Now, this other guy… he was not a friend. In fact, he was a bully at whose hands I had occasionally suffered some hurt and harassment. He wasn’t smart, either. This is back in the day when they divided our seventh grade class into groups from the most smart to the least smart; our groups were labeled 7:1, being the smartest, all the way down to 7:6, being the least smartest. And this guy was a bit behind me and my friends. I’m also pretty sure his family didn’t go to church anywhere, and we know those things in a small town. I loudly proclaimed my horror at riding with him and his mom, “I don’t want to ride with him! Why is he in Art Club anyway?” I was told to quiet down and get in his mom’s truck, and I’d get to ride home with someone else. It was a tense, joyless ride to the Zoo.
And on days when I read stories like the one from Luke 7, I’m reminded of the lesson so painfully illustrated by 7th Grade Todd. Like Simon, I was the one who would invite Jesus over to supper, not the other person. I was the one who would be most likely to have Jesus over for supper (at least in my way of thinking), not them. I was the one, not them… I’m “the one most” (fill in any other descriptors you want): deserving, good enough, forgiven, allowed, expected, invited. But in a Gospel view of the world they are the one who is welcomed, grateful, forgiven, closest to Jesus.
Oh, Simon. I get it. I really do. Imagine working so hard to be ready for Jesus to come to dinner, making sure the right people are present, the food is perfect and you look your best. And then this sinner crashes the party. That word sinner says it all, huh? This sinner takes center stage. This sinner becomes the focus of discussion and begins to take Jesus’ attention and energy from your dinner party. Why is she here anyway? Wouldn’t a prophet know she doesn’t belong?
It’s easy enough to say that Jesus loves everyone. What takes a little more energy is really digging into Jesus and getting a hand on his way of seeing people, God’s way of seeing people. It differs so dramatically from the way I have so often viewed people. Did you notice in the words of Jesus that this sinner seems to be both responding to forgiveness and also still waiting to receive it? He says that her act of love flows from having much forgiven, and then afterward says to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”
She seems to be responding to a forgiveness that has yet to be articulated, maybe even yet to be sought after, but that has totally consumed her. She teaches us something of how God sees people: forgiven before even asking. in the story she is returning a love that Jesus has yet to express directly to her. She’s an inspiration. Of course, Simon’s not all that inspired, because he only sees her as needing to be forgiven, while Jesus seems to have forgiven her before the first tear, before the anointing.
There’s a really good old theological term for this: prevenient grace. This is an term that states, in various ways in differing Christian traditions, that God’s grace and forgiveness pre-exists our seeking it and in fact enables us to seek it and understand it. This concept doesn’t in way lessen our turning to God and experiencing grace in repentance, but it does help us with taking what scripture teaches about forgiveness and form a daily Way of living with that understanding. So scripture teaches that Christ died while we were still sinners, that God predestined us, elected us, chose us before… these statements are familiar to biblical students, and they point us to way God sees us, viewing us in our intended beauty, in our intended state of grateful love, in our very best and deepest place of love and dignity. I especially like this as a counterpoint to the idea of Original Sin, that instead we are born into a state of Original Forgiveness. Perhaps, we are born into a state of Indelible Grace.
Wouldn’t that bring us to the feet of Christ, too? Do you think that maybe just hearing Jesus teach in the marketplaces and streets, maybe preaching on a mountainside, this woman got it, she understood, and that grace brought her to her tears? The story reminded me of times when scriptures instructs against partiality, judgement…
“1 My child, do not cheat the poor of their living, and do not keep needy eyes waiting. 2 Do not grieve the hungry, or anger one in need. 3 Do not add to the troubles of the desperate, or delay giving to the needy. 4 Do not reject a suppliant in distress, or turn your face away from the poor. 5 Do not avert your eye from the needy, and give no one reason to curse you; 6 for if in bitterness of soul some should curse you, their Creator will hear their prayer… 22 Do not show partiality, to your own harm, or deference, to your downfall.” (Sirach 1:6 & 22)
“2 My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? 2 For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, 3 and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” 4 have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? 5 Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? 7 Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you? 8 You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 9 But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors… 12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. 13 For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.” (James 2:1-9, 12-13)
And Jesus in Matthew 7:1-2
“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.”
I don’t think these passages are only good teachings in times of economic disparity, but must be applied to a broader sense of partiality which threatens to divide us, blind us and to honestly make fools of us. Simon seems to have had some justification for knowing that the woman was sinful. But Simon is intimately shown that he doesn’t understand forgiveness and his own love-debt to God’s grace. This sinner does. Simon is ultimately shown a new definition for “sinner,” which he may think means “undesirable” or unforgiven, but in actuality means deeply beloved and sought after.
After our trip to the Zoo I was relieved to be informed that I would get to ride home with my two closest friends. I crammed happily into the back seat with them, and then began one the of longest hour and half rides of my life. My friend’s mom figured that I didn’t go to the right kind of church, wasn’t good enough. So for the next hour and a half she illumined me on my impending damnation and sinfulness. To top it off, after I was dropped off at the school, she later called our home to accuse me of stealing a class ring from their car, a ring later found to have slipped between cushions and into the trunk of the car. Oh, Simon. You and me, brother. Some of us must learn the hardest lessons of life in the hardest ways to sink them through our hardest of skulls and into our hardest of hearts.
I will probably continue to fail at this, but I hope that every time I am confronted with someone I imagine to be the least forgiven, the least lovable, the least worthy, Christ might help me see them in their prevenient beauty and grace. I pray that the next time I feel so unworthy and believe the worst of myself, I will hear that call of grace, and my tears will be a thank offering for all the love and forgiveness God has already intended to lavish on me. 7th Grade Todd was not prepared to understand Martin Luther’s poignant exclamation, “Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly.” 7th Grade Todd wasn’t ready to get it, and I can only hope I am before I’m 70.
Once more little gem from the Book of Common Prayer, one more cry to heaven…
“O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us
through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole
human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which
infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us;
unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle
and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth;
that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you
in harmony around your heavenly throne;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.” BCP pg. 815