Sunday, June 27, 2010

“Free-dumb?”

A sermon based upon Galatians 5: 1, 13-25
Charles J. Tomlin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
June 27, 2010

There is little doubt that the experience of freedom releases within the human spirit an incomparable exuberance and excitement.    

Last week  for the first time, I heard about the annual “Juneteeth” celebration.  I didn’t know about this until recently and have since discovered that “Juneteeth” is, in a word, a “portmanteau”--a blending of two words and their meanings, signifying a celebration of emancipation from slavery.   The celebration started, in of all places, Texas; one of the last places freedom rang for African-Americans.  Being the largest southern State, eastern Texas refused to honor the new law until Union General Gordon Granger, along with 2,000 troops arrived in Galveston on June 18th, 1865 and enforced the new law.  Ironically, it was in this last of the states to end slavery that the celebration of “Juneteeth” originated and is now spread to 36  other states (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Juneteenth#cite_note-TXJ19-8  ).

But what can a celebration of a freedom from slavery mean to us who’ve never been slaves and don’t know are still a bit dumb to it, because we’ve never been enslaved?   On two consecutive Wednesday evenings, we recently watched the moving story of William Wilberforce and the movie “Amazing Grace” which dramatically retold the story of the legal work and the religious and moral movement to abolish the slave trade in England with the passing of the Slave Trade Act in 1807.  As we watched we could help but be appalled, not only to see the evil of slavery reenacted, but to also consider the inhumane treatment human beings once received at the hands of other human beings on those slave ships as people were forced from their homelands and most of them died before they even reached their destination to  sold like animals at a slave auction.    
 
The ending of that kind of world and that kind of human cruelty is something to celebrate, whether we “feel” it or not.   We, as a nation, as a world, never want to go back there.   Even if we don’t feel this “celebration” in our hearts because we’ve never been slaves or never had ancestors who were slaves, we must never let ourselves become “free-dumb”, that is, stupid about that we don’t recall how precious freedom is and to renew ourselves to the costs of freedom everywhere for everyone.  If we take freedom it for granted, for ourselves or for others, or if we abuse or confuse it; we too can turn our freedom into being “free-dumb” and we don’t even want to know what might come after that.


In our text today, the apostle Paul has his own concerns about “Freedom” or being “free-dumb”.   He wants to warn the Galatians about the risk of losing their own newly discovered “freedom” in Christ and becoming ignorant of both the costs and the responsibilities of what it means to be and live free.    

LIVING LEGALISTICALLY IS BEING FREE-DUMB  
In his closing words to his “freedom letter”, Paul calls upon the Galatians to “stand firm” in their Christ-given “freedom” and he goes on to explain with great detail what freedom means, what freedom costs, and what it takes to maintain freedom as the centerpiece of our Christian and our human experience.   Considering Paul’s concern about freedom, we need to ask ourselves today, what would it mean to become “free-dumb”?   

Paul does not mince words in explaining that it is very “dumb” to go backward to legalism and the captivity of the soul, rather than going forward in the freedom of grace through faith that Jesus has brought us.   He warns them: “Do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (5:1). 

But who would want to do this?  WHO WOULD WANT TO GO BACKWARD RATHER THAN FORWARD?   Well, the Israelites did.  Don’t you still hear them saying after they were made free through the miracle of the Exodus as they faced the difficulties of the desert, how much they wanted to go back to the “fleshpots” of Egypt (Ex. 16:3)?   Don’t you also recall how Jesus had taught Peter and the disciples to move ahead in their ethics and living by “turning the other cheek” and “loving the enemy” but at Jesus’ arrest in the garden, Peter is the first to pull out his sword to fight, cutting off a man’s ear (Mark 14.47).   Now, here we are again, as the Spirit has moved the church beyond the legalistic requirements of circumcision, but there are some who wanted to go back old ways.  Instead of moving forward in the grace of what was unknown, it seemed easier to go back into what was known through the law. 

For these new Jewish Christians, the “yoke of slavery” not only meant going back to the practice of circumcision (5:2) but it meant being “obliged” to the “entire law” going back to how things were before Jesus Christ had set them free.   Paul warns: If you go back to the being “justified by the law”, you “cut yourselves off” from Christ (5:4).   The language in the Greek is very graphic and you can’t miss how it implies something similar to making a mistake with the circumcision knife; a mistake you don’t want to make.  

When you short-cut freedom, you short cut Jesus, and you when go back to living under the law, Paul also says, he also says very seriously, that you “fall away from grace” (5:4).  Falling from grace by trying to find salvation by living under the law can be visualized like walking a tightrope across a ravine and being in danger of falling off without a safety net.  Realistically, a few people might be able to do this, but most can’t, and for most of us, any attempt to do such a thing is not just ridiculous but sure spiritual suicide.  In terms of Christian spirituality, to go back to legalism is to be blatantly forgetful of everything Jesus has done to get us where we can be today---“saved by grace, through faith, and not of works, lest anyone should boast.”  (Eph. 2, 8,9).

But the question rises once again:  Why is it even “tempting” to go backward into legalistic interpretations of the law instead of forward with interpretations of love, mercy and grace?  WHY IS IT SO INVITING TO BE “FREE-DUMB” AND BECOME “ENSLAVED” AND “ENTANGLED IN THE YOKE OF BONDAGE”, rather than to be “free-smart” for deciding, living and loving in the world?   

Teresa and I will never forget the day we drove from “free” and colorful Western Germany into the former eastern bloc nation of East Germany.  It was literally like driving out of a color TV into a Black and White one; or like changing your TV back from High Definition to Standard Analog signals.   This was 1991, right after the Berlin wall had fallen.  Eastern Germany was now “free”, but it was “free” in name only.   It was still a dark and dismal place to our eyes and what made it so dark and dismal was not just cosmetic but also inward.  There had been no true freedom.  Everything was decided from the top down.  Government controlled everyone’s life and destiny.  No one owned anything, so no one took real ownership.  It was always somebody else’s world.  Because of these rules, few risks were taken and nothing was ever really gained.  

After we moved into the east and started to meet the people, we saw the other side of living under a “government” control and a legalistically controlled world.   There was little crime.  The streets were safe.  Everyone had very little, but most would help each other survive.   They got meat one day a week and people would share.  There was not much of anything in the stores to buy, so you had to find meaning and life in the simple things.    And this might sound a little bit strange to you like it did to me.  People who lived under communist rule would not want to go back there, but they also realized some very high costs to being free they had not anticipated.   Freedom created all kinds of new problems; like the difference between rich and poor; the new opportunities for greed, crime and self-centeredness; and the new responsibilities to decide and determine one’s own destiny.  All this is not easy and can be quite hard.   I’ll never forget how frustrated one woman was at going into the newly built supermarket and having to choose between so many different kinds of cereals.   She looked at me, as a more experienced westerner, and commented: “How do you choose?  I liked my store with two kinds of cereal better.”  

There is no doubt about it.  LIVING LIFE IN THE COLOR OF FREEDOM AND GRACE REQUIRES MORE OF US not LESS; just like that TV with HD definition takes twice the energy than the old analog set.   In some ways, for us in church too, it would be easier to go back to the days when one denomination or religion was perfectly right and all others were completely wrong.  Being “free dumb” might sound stupid, but it can seem nicer and neater to live with very certain contrasts of “black and white”, than to have to consider the many mysterious angles, depths and complex details of a life that must be lived in color.  In “black and white” the differences, the issues, the rules can seem cut and dry, simple and clean, or just true or false; with no multiple choice, no essay, no debate, no discussion, no compromise, and no constant communication being needed.  It doesn’t require much heart, soul, or mind work to live or stay there, though it did require a lot of body work:  blood, sweat and tears---so many tears.  Can’t you just see the tears of all those people being condemned under the law and being shut out until Jesus came to set them free?   The problem with doing only “body work” as your only “life-work” is that while your body does all work, your mind, your soul and your heart can go sound to sleep.  To make the choice of living in color requires that you also open your heart fully to God, allowing your soul to be touched by others, and use your mind to contemplate the deeper things of life and of God.  This requires not just living by laws and rules, but it requires living and loving by grace through faith.   While it is much more challenging to live in the color and on the higher level of faith and grace, a life in color has so much more potential and possibilities for fullness and life.    It is harder at times and also challenging, but it is also more rewarding and fulfilling.

Jesus clarifies what moving forward in grace means just as Paul knows what is going backward to the law means.   Jesus said that he did not come to dismantle the law, but he came to bring the law to a higher fulfillment (Matthew 5: 20ff).  The law is not an end in itself, but it a means which needs some “higher” ends: “Unless your Righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven…”(Mat. 5:21). Neither Paul nor Jesus declared that any of us should live ‘above” the law, but they do preach that we must live “beyond” the law: “You heard it said, “don’t murder”, but I tell you you shouldn’t even get angry” or “You’ve heard it said, don’t commit adultery, but I tell you don’t lust….” Over and over again, Jesus does not discourage nor disagree with the law; but he constantly challenges us to live beyond the law and to build our lives upon even as we supersede it.   Jesus wants his people and his disciples to live smarter than they have in the past.   The law is not meant to hinder, but is intended to teach, help and free us for our good and for gifts of grace.   Someone has said, “we only have 10 “thou shalt  nots” so that the rest of life can be full of “thou shalts,”, but I will add, that if we never get to the “thou shalts”, we’ll never have anything in life worth shouting about.”  Legalism might be able to save us “from something”, but the problem is that it can never save us “for” something and this is why legalism cannot save us like Jesus can.  

LIVING ONLY FOR YOURSELF IS ALSO FREE-DUMB
The other thing Paul warns about in this text, is just as dumb, if not “dumb and dumber.”   To misuse our freedom to live any way we choose or to live only for self (or your own flesh) even dumber than legalism.   This is what Paul refers to in verse 13, when he says: “For you were called to freedom…. only don’t use your freedom as an opportunity for self indulgence…”   If you trade in Jesus’ way of freedom for your own self-motivated version you can become “free-dumber” than you might look?

Don’t we all know a little about being this kind of dumb?  We might not have “traded in Jesus” for “getting what we want”, but I think we all had to learn, even as children, that if we were going to be smart in our freedom and maturity, at sometime or other we had to stop being so dumb as to only want what we wanted.   I remember on a hot summer days in childhood, how my friend, Kenny Burdett, had an grandfather who lived next to me on our street.  Kenny’s grandfather also ran the Five and Dime store that was just about 5 streets away from my home.  As a 6 and 5 year old, being bored one afternoon, Kenny and I decided we were “free” to hike to his grandfather’s store to see what we could get his grandfather to give us.   We made it to the store and later returned safely home with Tootsie Pops.   My mother, seeing the candy, questioned me and I refused to tell her where we’d been, because I knew full well that her giving me “freedom” to go to visit my friend did not mean wandering down city streets alone.   When I made up some story about where the candy came from, it was then that my mother informed me how Kenny’s grandfather had called, informing her where we were.   Because of my “abuse of freedom”, I ended up being in “heap of trouble” and losing some of my freedom, both for refusing to tell mom, and for going to the store without permission.

Children are supposed to learn the limits of their freedom, but it is much bigger trouble when as adults, we have not learned that freedom is not just license to have or go where we wish, but also means a responsibility to be and to do what needs to be done.  There’s a song we used to sing a lot in church, especially in the “Baptist churches” of my childhood, and there is in it a line that expresses the abuse of freedom when it says: “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love.”  (From “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing) I find that line “strangely true” because it speaks of living in both the blessing and in the risk of God’s grace, when it says:
             O to grace how great a debtor, Daily I’m constrained to be!
            Let Thy goodness, like a fetter, Bind my wandering heart to Thee.
            Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, Prone to leave the God I love;
            Here’s my heart, O take and seal it, Seal it for Thy courts above.

These words were written by a 22 year old English, Methodist pastor in 1757.  What we must not miss in his words is the “other side” of the drama and challenge of salvation which occurs after grace comes to the soul that has been set free.  This "other" drama is a call to be just as serious about keeping and maintaining the grace and the “freedom” we have been given, even after we have it.  Maybe we Baptists have not been as serious about the possibility of losing our freedom to our “wandering hearts” as this Methodist was, nor have we been as concerned as Paul was about “falling from grace.”  Should we be?   Paul actually believed that if you do not “stand firm” (5:1) in your freedom, Christ will be “of no benefit.” (5:2).   He actually believed that a person could “cut themselves off from Christ” (5:4) and could “fall away from grace” itself (5:4) while waiting for the full “hope of righteousness” (5:5) which is still to come.   Paul’s point is not that you can lose your salvation, but makes the point that if you start going backward in a salvation that only moves you forward, and you go wayward instead of straightaway, then you have indeed lost what you could have but do not have.   Paul believed you can lose grace and your freedom in God’s grace when you don’t have what you think you have, because you are not who you think you are because you don’t do what you are supposed to do.  Either way, you won’t just end up looking dumb, you will be worse than dumb; so dumb that you will not even know what you’ve lost, until may be too late.   That’s dumb!

BECOMING SMART ABOUT FREEDOM.   
What we all need to do and know to keep from becoming “free-dumb” is to know and do what it means to be “free-smart.”   Being “free-smart” requires us to join with God in his work of grace in us in ways that are both social (outward) and spiritual (inward).   Being “Free-smart means that we have a socially active love for others and for life (5: 13-21).  This other-directed love finds its source and resource in the spirit-led love that comes only from God (5:22-26).  If you want to find freedom and keep it, and you want to stay free-smart, rather than becoming free-dumb, you can’t ever separate these two ways of being responsible with your freedom in your love for God and your love for others.    

Do you see the many ways, after verse 13, that Paul goes on to show how true “freedom” in Christ comes “through love”?  Paul speaks of love that is not selfish, but serving (v. 13); love that is not flesh oriented, but Spirit motivated (16-21), and he finally speaks of having spiritual roots of love in your heart so that the fruit of love in grows in your life to give you and help you keep the very freedom you have been given in Jesus Christ.  What Paul is saying in all this is to simply remind us what Jesus first told his disciples: We keep our freedom because as we love and this love we have is only law we ever need (v. 18).   Having this “law of love” in us means we will seek to serve each other, rather than “bite and devour one another”, “be consumed by one another” (v. 15), become “conceited, competing against one another” or “ envying one another.” (v. 26).   Just as hatred, conflict and destructive competition will be the way to bring an end to our God given freedom, because we are so “free-dumb”, so will serving, respecting and caring for each other be how we stay free- smart.   

Perhaps what is most important in all of this talk of love is what Paul implies when he shows that freedom means “love” this love begins by learning to “walk in the Spirit” (vs. 16).  Being free-smart, is not much talk at all, but it is outward, loving action toward those around us which is based upon walking with the Spirit living inside of us.  In this spiritual logic, Paul implies that we stay smart in our freedom, because of what we now want to do, not because of what we learn we have to do (vs. 18).  In Jesus’ loving action for us and through God’s spirit still working in us, something changes inside of us, even when nothing has changed around us.    

Carlos Wilton, tells about a true story that comes out of the little Gerorgia country church where he grew up preaching professor Tom Long grew up. The older folks of that congregation loved to tell the story again and again.   The tale took place on a certain Sunday night in October of 1938. This was back in the days of Sunday-evening prayer services. The preacher was right in the middle of his sermon when a man named Sam — a member of the congregation and well known to everyone — burst through the church doors, trembling with fear. It took him a moment to catch his breath, but then he blurted out, “It’s the Martians! They’re attacking the earth in spaceships! Some of ’em have landed in New Jersey!”

Now, Sam was not a man given to flights of fancy; nor was he fond of practical jokes. He was a straight-arrow sort of guy. From the look in his eye, and his earnest tone of voice, it was clear he believed every word he said.   The poor preacher didn’t know what to do. He had never imagined, in his wildest dreams, that his sermon might one day be interrupted by news of an interplanetary invasion. The preacher just stared at Sam, open-mouthed. The congregation stared, too.
            “It’s true!” said Sam. “I swear it. I heard it on the radio.”

What Sam had heard, of course, was Orson Welles’ now-infamous Mercury Theater of the Air radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds. It was a fictional story, meant to sound like a real radio broadcast. It fooled an awful lot of people. The announcer said at the beginning it was only a story, but if you tuned in a few minutes late, you missed the context and were very likely to think it was a real, “we interrupt this program,” sort of news bulletin.

After a few moments of awkward silence in the church, one of the oldest members of the congregation got up to speak. He was a farmer, a plain-spoken “man of few words.”
            “I ’spect what Sam says ain’t completely true. But, if it is, I know this. We’re in the right place here in church. I say we go on with the meetin’.” And so, they did.
            “The old farmer sized it all up,  by walking in the Spirit of love, the church was better to be loving their brother and also to stay in church praising God than running around the cow pasture shooting buckshot into the night sky or making a fool out of their friend.”  (As quoted from Homileticsonline.com)

In a world that can be very enslaving in so many wrong ways, and can mislead us in so many ways, it is only when we “enslave” ourselves to God’s spirit in the best, most loving way that we find both the roots and the fruits of true freedom and grace continually born in us through love.  Out of these very spiritual roots of love, God grows the fruit of love, which will always be the root and fruit of freedom.  For as he says, out of the fruit of Spirit we find all fruit of freedom—freedom to speak our hearts and freedom to love even those we don’t agree with.  It is a the kind of spiritual love that always results in inward growth of outward joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control.  By letting God’s spirit work in us as we work for God, God keeps growing and giving us the spirit of Christ’s freedom from the inside out.  

I want to close this message with some words from a woman who became one of the most spiritual persons who ever lived, even though she was once a slave, not just to her white masters, but was also to her own humanity and the terrible experiences of her life--- until the day the fruit of God’s spirit began to grow inside her.  Her name was Sojourner Truth, and this is a dialogue of her conversation with the great American preacher, Henry Ward Beecher, as remembered and written down by Harriet Beecher Stowe:

            “Sojourner, this is Dr. Beecher. He is a very celebrated preacher.”
“          IS he?” she said, offering her hand in a condescending manner, and looking down on his white head. “Ye dear lamb, I’m glad to see ye! De Lord bless ye! I loves preachers. I’m a kind o’ preacher myself.”
            “You are?” said Dr. Beecher. “Do you preach from the Bible?”
            “No, honey, can’t preach from de Bible,--can’t read a letter.”
            “Why, Sojourner, what do you preach from, then?”
Her answer was given with a solemn power of voice, peculiar to herself, that hushed every one in the room.
            “When I preaches, I has jest one text to preach from, an’ I always preaches from this one. MY text is, ‘WHEN I FOUND JESUS.’”
            “Well, you couldn’t have a better one,” said one of the ministers.
She paid no attention to him, but stood and seemed swelling with her own thoughts, and then began this narration:--
“Well, now, I’ll jest have to go back, an’ tell ye all about it. Ye see, we was all brought over from Africa, father an’ mother an’ I, an’ a lot more of us; an’ we was sold up an’ down, an’ hither an’ yon; an’ I can ‘member, when I was a little thing, not bigger than this ‘ere,” pointing to her grandson, “how my ole mammy would sit out o’ doors in the evenin’, an’ look up at the stars an’ groan. She’d groan an’ groan, an’ says I to her,--
            “‘Mammy, what makes you groan so?’“ an’ she’d say,--
            “‘Matter enough, chile! I’m groanin’ to think o’ my poor children: they don’t know where I be, an’ I don’t know where they be; they looks up at the stars, an’ I looks up at the stars, but I can’t tell where they be.
            “‘Now,’ she said, ‘chile, when you’re grown up, you may be sold away from your mother an’ all your ole friends, an’ have great troubles come on ye; an’ when you has these troubles come on ye, ye jes’ go to God, an’ He’ll help ye.’  An’ says I to her,--
            “‘Who is God, anyhow, mammy?’   “An’ says she,--
            “‘Why, chile, you jes’ look up DAR! It’s Him that made all DEM!”
“Well, I didn’t mind much ‘bout God in them days. I grew up pretty lively an’ strong, an’ could row a boat, or ride a horse, or work round, an’ do ‘most anything.

            “At last I got sold away to a real hard massa an’ missis. Oh, I tell you, they WAS hard! ‘Peared like I couldn’t please ‘em, nohow. An’ then I thought o’ what my old mammy told me about God; an’ I thought I’d got into trouble, sure enough, an’ I wanted to find God, an’ I heerd some one tell a story about a man that met God on a threshin’-floor, an’ I thought, ‘Well an’ good, I’ll have a threshin’-floor, too.’ So I went down in the lot, an’ I threshed down a place real hard, an’ I used to go down there every day, an’ pray an’ cry with all my might, a-prayin’ to the Lord to make my massa an’ missis better, but it didn’t seem to do no good; an’ so says I, one day,--

            “‘O God, I been a-askin’ ye, an’ askin’ ye, an’ askin’ ye, for all this long time, to make my massa an’ missis better, an’ you don’t do it, an’ what CAN be the reason? Why, maybe you CAN’T. Well, I shouldn’t wonder ef you couldn’t. Well, now, I tell you, I’ll make a bargain with you. Ef you’ll help me to git away from my massa an’ missis, I’ll agree to be good; but ef you don’t help me, I really don’t think I can be. Now,’ says I, ‘I want to git away; but the trouble’s jest here: ef I try to git away in the night, I can’t see; an’ ef I try to git away in the daytime, they’ll see me, an’ be after me.’

            “Then the Lord said to me, ‘Git up two or three hours afore daylight, an’ start off.’
“An’ says I, ‘Thank ‘ee, Lord! that’s a good thought.’
            “So up I got, about three o’clock in the mornin’, an’ I started an’ travelled pretty fast, till, when the sun rose, I was clear away from our place an’ our folks, an’ out o’ sight. An’ then I begun to think I didn’t know nothin’ where to go. So I kneeled down, and says I,--
“‘Well, Lord, you’ve started me out, an’ now please to show me where to go.’
            “Then the Lord made a house appear to me, an’ He said to me that I was to walk on till I saw that house, an’ then go in an’ ask the people to take me. An’ I travelled all day, an’ didn’t come to the house till late at night; but when I saw it, sure enough, I went in, an’ I told the folks that the Lord sent me; an’ they was Quakers, an’ real kind they was to me. They jes’ took me in, an’ did for me as kind as ef I’d been one of ‘em; an’ after they’d giv me supper, they took me into a room where there was a great, tall, white bed; an’ they told me to sleep there. Well, honey, I was kind o’ skeered when they left me alone with that great white bed; ’cause I never had been in a bed in my life. It never came into my mind they could mean me to sleep in it. An’ so I jes’ camped down under it, on the floor, an’ then I slep’ pretty well. In the mornin’, when they came in, they asked me ef I hadn’t been asleep; an’ I said, ‘Yes, I never slep’ better.’ An’ they said, ‘Why, you haven’t been in the bed!’ An’ says I, ‘Laws, you didn’t think o’ such a thing as my sleepin’ in dat ‘ar’ BED, did you? I never heerd o’ such a thing in my life.’
“Well, ye see, honey, I stayed an’ lived with ‘em. An’ now jes’ look here: instead o’ keepin’ my promise an’ bein’ good, as I told the Lord I would, jest as soon as everything got a’goin’ easy, I FORGOT ALL ABOUT GOD.
            “Pretty well don’t need no help; an’ I gin up prayin.’ I lived there two or three years, an’ then the slaves in New York were all set free, an’ ole massa came to our home to make a visit, an’ he asked me ef I didn’t want to go back an’ see the folks on the ole place. An’ I told him I did. So he said, ef I’d jes’ git into the wagon with him, he’d carry me over. Well, jest as I was goin’ out to git into the wagon, I MET GOD! an’ says I, ‘O God, I didn’t know as you was so great!’ An’ I turned right round an’ come into the house, an’ set down in my room; for ‘t was God all around me. I could feel it burnin’, burnin’, burnin’ all around me, an’ goin’ through me; an’ I saw I was so wicked, it seemed as ef it would burn me up. An’ I said, ‘O somebody, somebody, stand between God an’ me! for it burns me!’ Then, honey, when I said so, I felt as it were somethin’ like an amberill [umbrella] that came between me an’ the light, an’ I felt it was SOMEBODY,--somebody that stood between me an’ God; an’ it felt cool, like a shade; an’ says I, ’Who’s this that stands between me an’ God? Is it old Cato?’ He was a pious old preacher; but then I seemed to see Cato in the light, an’ he was all polluted an’ vile, like me; an’ I said, ‘Is it old Sally?’ an’ then I saw her, an’ she seemed jes’ so. An’ then says I, ‘WHO is this?’ An’ then, honey, for a while it was like the sun shinin’ in a pail o’ water, when it moves up an’ down; for I begun to feel ‘t was somebody that loved me; an’ I tried to know him. An’ I said, ‘I know you! I know you! I know you!’--an’ then I said, ‘I don’t know you! I don’t know you! I don’t know you!’ An’ when I said, ‘I know you, I know you,’ the light came; an’ when I said, ‘I don’t know you, I don’t know you,’ it went, jes’ like the sun in a pail o’ water.
            An’ finally somethin’ spoke out in me an’ said, ‘THIS IS JESUS!’ An’ I spoke out with all my might, an’ says I, ‘THIS IS JESUS! Glory be to God!’ An’ then the whole world grew bright, an’ the trees they waved an’ waved in glory, an’ every little bit o’ stone on the ground shone like glass; an’ I shouted an’ said, ‘Praise, praise, praise to the Lord!’
            An’ I begun to feel such a love in my soul as I never felt before,--love to all creatures. An’ then, all of a sudden, it stopped, an’ I said, ‘Dar’s de white folks, that have abused you an’ beat you an’ abused your people,--think o’ them!’ But then there came another rush of love through my soul, an’ I cried out loud,--’Lord, Lord, I can love EVEN DE WHITE FOLKS! http://fiction.eserver.org/criticism/sojourner_truth.html

© 2010 All rights reserved Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, B.A., M.Div. D.Min

When you consider such a such a tremendous story of the triumph of spirit over the weakness of the flesh,   I’m not half as free-dumb as I was before.   What about you?  Amen.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Engaging the Powers

A Sermon Based Upon Luke 8: 26-37
Dr. Charles J. Tomlin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Father’s Day,  June 20th, 2010

Something is pathologically wrong with Joran Van Der Sloot.  He not only killed Nattily Holloway and got away with it, but now he’s killed another girl in Peru.  A lawyer for the Nattily Holloway family recent confronted Van der Sloot, just before this second murder.   He traveled to Aruba to meet with Van der Sloot in an attempt to get information about Nattily’s death.  The lawyer told NBC news that when he looked into this young man’s eyes, he saw nothing---no feeling, no compassion, no connection, but only anger and rage, especially when Van der Sloot did not get his way.   It is almost unfathomable to consider how “sick” and even monstrous the human mind can become; and how deadly the world can be, even for “daddy’s little girl” or for a “father’s own son”.  

Can you remember a time you meet someone who was completely unreasonable, uncivil, perhaps mean, or even acting a bit insane in their behavior?   Worst of all, was how it finally became obvious to you, in your conversation with this “troubled” person, that you had no power to influence them at all and that they would not listen to reason; yours or anyone else’s.  There was no real connection, no real interaction; and whatever there was, it made you desire never to be near this person again, not just because of who they were, but also because of how bad they made you feel within yourself.  You had absolutely no power at all to persuade them one way or another and in their presence you felt this haunting emptiness,  a naked powerlessness, and an almost all-consuming void.   You needed to quickly to remove yourself to a safer, less threatening place.

Today’s Bible text, at first, does not seem fitting for Father’s day.   It is a story about power, evil and all that threatened a young man’s life.   What does this have to do with Father’s day?   Could this story remind us that father’s have a responsibility to help their families resist the negative, evil powers that are indeed “alive and well” in the world?   Don’t we have a very important role to lead our families to find redemption and healing in a fallen world where, Satan is still like a “roaring lion” seeking whom he may devour?   

As we consider this very “strange” story about evil; this text of the Gerasene demoniac,  we must already acknowledge that this text alerts us to our human struggle with evil in some unsettling ways.    In this story of a ‘demon possession’ along with an exorcism, this pre-scientific description is both challenging and difficult in and of itself.   However, the theology suggested within the text is also alarming and puzzling.   For in this story, we not only see Jesus exorcising a demon, this story gets more complicated as we watch Jesus  seem to make a “compromising deal” with this “legion” of demons  by granting their own request not to be cast back into their spiritual prison.   The other “strange” part of this text is how Jesus’ granting the demon’s request to enter the swine threatens the very livelihood of some local farmers.   The whole text is about as “strange” as our own human experience of evil can be.

Since this text has its own twists, turns, surprises and even questions, let me get to points in a very simplistic fashion:

I.  One immediate truth from this incredible story, is to be reminded that evil is a constant and consistent vulnerability to our existence as human beings
Again, let me be clear.  Evil is not just a real possibility in this world, but it is our constant and “consistent vulnerability.”  We not only will suffer under some kind of evil during our lifetime, but any of us can be overcome, controlled, if not even “possessed” by evil, in ways that take away our human dignity and maybe even our freedom or will to do what it right.   And it can happen so fast, so sudden, and it can be so destructive.   

Just the other day, I walked out of my house, and suddenly felt an insect brush up against the side of my head.     Immediately I turned and saw it was what we call a Japanese Hornet, and it was making a nest in a wooden decoration on a nearby cabinet.    Fortunately, I was not stung, but I could have easily had been suddenly, swiftly overpowered by a terrible injury.  It even made me mad enough to get the wasp spray and to destroy him and his nesting place in the very next moment.   That is a good example of how quickly, suddenly and unexpected evil can intercept our lives in ways that are out of our control.   

The kind of evil lurking in our passage goes beyond the threats of natural evil, to the threats of psychic ,  supernatural or spiritual evil.  We are not given all the details, but we do read in this text that this young man “had demons”, was wearing no clothes and lived among the tombs.    While scholars believe that this  “possessed man” is an exceptional case,  meeting him was not unlike meeting the deranged mind of Joran Van der Sloot.   But we don’t have to go to that extreme to imagine our own vulnerability to evil powers in this world.   

Just this past week in Winston-Salem, while driving on Highway 52, a person driving a silver Chevrolet  SUV, struck a man on his motorized wheel-chair.   Witnesses say, the man stopped the SUV, for a moment, then drove away.   The man in the Wheelchair later died at the hospital.   How do you think “evil” captured this driver in a way that he did not stop to care for this man, but decided in that instant to drive away?   Was he or she some calculated evil person, or just a normal person, who in fear, allowed evil to overtake them, maybe even for just a moment in their own mind?   Of course, we know that even that one brief encounter and overcoming by evil, when he is caught, either by authorities, or even if only by his own conscious, will impact him for the rest of his life.   The occasion of the worst kind of evil can come to us either in a moment, or even in the chemistry of our own mind, but it can come; and that is the real vulnerability to evil we all must face and come to grips with, by living in this world, where evil and sin threaten, just because we are born, not because we are necessarily bad.

Have you ever heard someway say, after a murder, especially when it was a murder of passion:  “I just can’t believe they did this?”   “I never thought they were capable of such a thing!”   What is hard for many people to fathom or face, is that all of us have a “dark side”.    Most of the Americans soldiers who freed Europe of Nazi German could not believe the kind of evil they witnessed as they liberated the death camps.   In Buchenwald, one of the camps I have visited, the murders were carried out in such sophisticated ways, that people who carried out the crimes were not even aware of the full extent of the evil they were doing.    In one room left standing, you could see the calculated sophistication of how the murders were carried out.  One person brought the victim into the room.  Another conducted medical exam.  Still another stood behind a hole in the wall where measuring marks were pasted.  The person behind the wall simply pulled a trigger, seeing nothing.   Another person came in quickly to remove the dead body.  Another came in to clean up any blood.   It was all done in a calm, regimented, manner so that everyone had a job to do, but no one was really responsible, and no one had to see what they were doing to another human being.  

Evil can be that way.  It can use us to do things and we are not even aware of what we are doing.  Can you think of a time when evil overcame you, used you and you were not, at least at first, aware of it or even afterward, you realize that what overcame you was not really you?  What about that time one of your class mates was on the ball field and they couldn’t hit the ball.  Everyone was joining in the ridicule of the poor, untalented athlete, and you, just for fun, joined in the chorus as well.   It’s was so easy to be a part of the victimizers, wasn’t it?   It just seemed natural.  You were just having fun, but later you realized that the words you spoke were hurtful and you were part of something we call “mob” mentality and the words you spoke, were cruel, mean, and in some ways, just as bad for that person’s soul as some kind of physical assault would have been on their body. 

But evil doesn’t only come after us in this way.   Sometimes evil is more sinister.   Take for example the case of this young man who was possessed by a legion of devils.   I know we might not use the same kind of diagnosis or explanation today.   Instead of saying this guy was possessed, we might say he was mentally ill, or had a personality disorder, or some sort of chemical imbalance.   This may or may not have been part of what was taking place, but there was no way then they could psychologically or medical analyze the event.   But I’ve read articles, written by people who have described their own mental illnesses, and they said, while it might have in fact, been chemical or medical, it felt more like it they were overpowered, controlled, or even “possessed” by unseen powers or forces.  The ancient stories in the Bible still describe inner struggles of the mind as accurately as any calculated, medical or scientific explanations.   

No matter what terms you put on it, scientific or religious, the human is vulnerable to being sick, overpowered, possessed, out of control and having unspeakable evil overcome them .    And when we have to deal with such people, whether it is demonic or mental, we will react very much the same way people did in that day.  We feel we need to send the person away, put them out of sight, out of the community and hopefully, we can also put them out of mind before they drive us out of ours.   Such experiences of evil, then and now, can be a family’s worst nightmare.

II.  Which brings me to the second tragic aspect of this story that we must not overlook:  We can be our own worst enemy.   If seeing this “possessed” young man, running around naked and having his life and behavior “out of control” is not enough, there is something even more sinister and twisted that takes place as the story comes to a close. 

What seems even worse than this young man being possessed by “legions” of demons out of his control, it is seeing how “normal”, hard-working people are overcome by an evil they could control.   When these farmers see that having their own “swine” jump off a cliff was the “trade off” for having this man in his right mind, they are not happy.   The cost for the healing was too high.   And for these, and perhaps other reasons, people seem to be more afraid of this man’s regaining his right mind and returning to sanity than they were afraid of his insanity.   In this strange turn of events, people like you and I, who once had pity on the demon-possessed guy, are unwilling to pay the cost for what it took to make this fellow better.   So, as the story ends, Jesus is run out of town because he is seen as a trouble-maker by everyone.   As the curtain falls, quite ironically, it is the good and “normal” people who seem to be “insane,” and it is this “insane man” who has encountered Jesus, who is the only person left who has his “right mind.”    Could you even make up such a strange and tragic story?
Several years ago, a small town Baptist church was considering me as pastor, and I was considering them.  We were in the middle of some positive conversation, then suddenly we hit a snag, or at least it was to me, and I think they would have said the same thing.   I had asked the church about why their last pastor left, and they told me a story that just didn’t sound very warm.   It seems that the pastor had attempted to lead the church to work with a local, low security prison, where the next step for the prisoners was to be released.   This pastor told the church that statistics revealed, if prisoners were able to find a ways to contribute and fit into normal society before their release, they had a better chance at not becoming repeat offenders.  

At first, leaders of the church were excited that church could help in this “reform” and “redemption”  ministry, but after the prisoners actually starting showing up and getting involved in the church, people started getting nervous.  They started seeing just how “troubled” some of these prisoners really were, and they changed their minds about their new prison ministry.   It costs too much and was too risky.   Eventually, because the pastor had instigated the ministry and believed, along with the warden, that the ministry was working, he refused to back up on his promise to help the prisoners.   Finally, the church leadership felt their pastor had “lost it” and they felt the need to confront him and demanded he either give up the ministry for the prisoners in their church, or give up being the pastor of “their” church.   These “prisoners” who were supposed be reformed, converted, and “in their right” mind made them nervous.    They just couldn’t make themselves believe in ‘conversion’ or the power of Jesus this way.   

I’ve just finished reading a book describing the struggles Mark Twain had when he wrote the book, Huck Finn  (Fredrick Buchener’s book,  Speak What You Feel).  Huck Finn was Twain’s literary masterpiece, but it was also a book written out of the pains and problems Twain felt and saw in the human race.   When he wrote about Huck Finn, befriending a black man name Jim, it was no accident that he wrote about finding more humanity and kindness in this escaped slave named Jim, than all the laws, customs, religion or politeness of society around him which, at that time, would make a man like Jim a slave in the first place.   That’s why Huck and Jim were always on the move, on the run, or on the river, only once in a while, risking to land somewhere and take a chance to land in the “real world.  It was Twain’s nice way of saying, the world, the way it is, people they way they are, and even religion can be practiced, can be very much, and most of the time, insane.    

It is not enough to say that evil is loose in the world, but we must also admit, as we read this story, that evil can easily possess us, in our choices, even in our own visions of what is good, right, and just.   Who can’t recall one of those “cowboy” posies going after the “bad man” and ending up just as bad in how they were trying to do the right thing, as the bad man was in actually committing the crime?   We humans have some very ingenious ways of becoming our own worst enemies.

Speaking of being our own worst enemy, in the news last Monday, it became public that a woman in Florida, who was working for a Christian school, was fired for “fornication.”   But what makes this case more tragic and even scary is how the school officials fired her for being “honest” with them.    When she went to school officials to let them know she was going to have a child, the school did the math and realized she must have conceived just before getting married.    And not only did the school “fire her” for this reason of past “fornication”, whether justified or not, then they made the mistake of going to other staff persons, students and parents giving detailed accounts as to exactly “why” she was fired: Fornication.   While most of us would agree that a Christian school should have the right to hire and fire teachers, the law actually says that when you are teaching America’s children, whether you are religious or not,  you move into the area where government protects both children and teachers from religion, especially from religious abuse or public discrimination.   

This is indeed the worst part of evil, that it can even pervert the good.   Our text reminds us once and for all, that the insanity of evil can take hold of the most sane, as well as, the insane or sick.  Evil is no respect of intellect, religion, morality, economics, race, color or nationality.   We are all vulnerable to evil and we can also become our own worst enemy.  If we see the truth any less than this, we are being deceived by the very evil we deny.

The reality of evil is what makes me and you need Jesus, just as much as this demoniac did when he encountered this Christ who has  power  to give hope, promise, and even spiritual power over evil that can be overwhelming and overpowering.   This story appears in the gospel, to remind us, how:

III. Christ came to give us the power to engage the powers of evil in this world and to overcome evil with good.   What started out as a seemingly impossible situation to remedy, ends with a man having the demons leave him, going from being naked to having clothes on, from living among tombs to living in a house, falling around shouting to setting at the feet of Jesus, to finally, going from having demons seize and control him erratically, to being a person who has their “right mind” sitting at the feet of Jesus.    
How does this happen?  How does Jesus overcome this legion of demons in this man and how can Jesus’ power empower us against the evil that still threatens us?

The real answer is that we aren’t told, at least not completely.  And this may just be the point.   It is rather striking in this passage, as well as, with many passages about the miracles of Jesus, that the things we’re not told can be just as powerful and important as the truths we are told. 

Consider what happens when Jesus comes near to this man possessed by demons.   Jesus does not go after the man, but the man comes to Jesus.   Besides that, it’s the demons themselves, speaking through the man, who start “worshipping” Jesus (as Mark 5: 7 says), and the demons start the conversation, already feeling his presence and realizing the potential of being “tormented” by this presence.   And it is the same kind of image that we get at the end of the story, where we find the demons having left the man, and now he is “clothed and in his right mind”, but look what else.  “He is sitting at the feet of Jesus.”   The sight of a person, sitting at the feet of Jesus, not only made the demons fear and tremble, but the other people are just as afraid of having a perfectly sane “Jesus” man in their midst.

Do you see what is being said here about the great miracle of deliverance?  The whole idea of the demon’s being “cast out” is both “down played” and now “upstaged” by this man “sitting at Jesus’ feet.”  Don’t miss this, because it is the very key that unlocks the spiritual sense of this strange story in a very familiar and understandable way.   What disturbs the demons, and what disturbs the people possessed by their own “selfishness”, was the very presence of Jesus present in human life.    The power of Jesus is not magic.   The power of Jesus is not a method to learn.  It is not even about learning some kind of art of exorcism which challenges the evil or the people.    What is implied from beginning to the end of this story, is how it is the very presence of Jesus that releases the work of hope, redemption, and deliverance over evil.   There is no fancy footwork, just simple “faithwork” that turns this man around for good and no longer for evil.

Several years ago, I had a pastor friend who was trying to be good pastor and a good father.  He was several years my senior at the time, and had a teenage daughter when he was pastor of a small church near Shelby.  At that time, some people with youth, were leaving the church, because they said, there wasn’t a large enough youth group.   People took their youth elsewhere and were drawn to bigger and better things going on in some other churches.   But where could the pastor go?  What could the pastor do?  He had a teenager, but his daughter seemed to be perfectly sane and even content and committed to be in a small church, and get involved in the church,  even when she was the was only one in the youth group.   What the pastor then told me was astounding.   He said that the key to the fact, that only a few years later, after this incident, his daughter was the one who ended up very mature, more mature than all those who left,  and very educated, and also very dedicated to her faith and later called to ministry, and also, she was the valedictorian of her class.   What he believed, as her Father, was that she didn’t become that through special programs, special powers or tricks, but what she had, even in that small church that blessed her, and helped her rise above the struggles so many were having, was a family who loved her and she possessed a seriousness about being one person who really wanted to sit at the feet of Jesus. 

 The pastor wondered out loud to the rest of us:  why can’t people see that the power that they are all looking for to save their families, to save their children, and even to save themselves, is not in the razzle dazzle of this or that program, but it is being a family, being a church and being a person, who simple truly desires, with their whole heart, to be the person who wants more than anything else, to sit down, with their children, and with their church, at the feet of Jesus.   It is Jesus’ presence in our lives, and our spending time at Jesus’ feet that makes the difference.   And you don’t make Jesus happen to you, you do like this “insane” man, did: When you see or hear Jesus is near; you run up to him, you really worship him, warts and all or with whatever you have and don’t have, and then while you are doing this, really worshipping Jesus, it is his presence in you that the demons lurking inside just can’t stand any longer.  The power is the presence (didn’t I just preach that recently?)   When a person puts themselves in the presence of Jesus, evil flees.   As person who spends time with Jesus, has the power to overcome.   

We might not understand everything about this story.   We might still have questions, like why did Jesus make a deal with devils to release them to the pigs.   I’ve got some ideas for understanding this, but my interest is not what happens to pigs, but what happens to humans.   Maybe that’s the point.  When the story ends, there is something here that is so visible, so real and so powerful, we can’t argue with the impact it can have in our lives, if we will learn the power.   When you sit at Jesus’ feet, the devils and the demons of this world can’t stand it.   And the more time you spend with Jesus, the less and less you need from the world, but the more the world needs you.   That’s why the story concludes with Jesus telling this man, “go home, and tell your friends..what the Lord has done for you” (vs. 39).   Amen.

© 2010 All rights reserved Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, B.A., M.Div. D.Min

Sunday, June 13, 2010

A Matter of Perspective

A sermon based on Luke 7: 36-50
Dr. Charles J. Tomlin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
June 13th, 2010

It’s a well-worn story, but worth repeating again.

A family had twin boys whose only resemblance to each other was their looks. If one felt it was too hot, the other thought it was too cold. If one said the T.V. was too loud, the other claimed the volume needed to be turned up.  Opposite in every way, one was an eternal optimist, the other a doom & gloom pessimist.  Just to see what would happen, on the twins’ birthday their father loaded the pessimist’s room with every imaginable toy and game. The optimist’s room he loaded with horse manure.    That night the father passed by the pessimist’s room and found him sitting amid his new gifts crying bitterly.
                “Why are you crying?” the father asked.
                “Because my friends will be jealous, I’ll have to read all of these instructions before I can do anything with this stuff, I’ll constantly need batteries, and my toys will eventually get broken,” answered the pessimist twin.
                Passing the optimist twin’s room, the father found him dancing for joy in the pile of manure.   
       “What are you so happy about?” he asked.
         To which his optimist twin replied, “With all this manure, there’s got to be a pony in here somewhere!”   (http://lifelessons4u.wordpress.com).  


“Optimist are right.  So are pessimists.   It’s up to us to choose which we will be.”  It’s all a matter of perspective  (Harvey Mackey).

If perspective is everything, it certainly means something in our Bible text for today.  Simon the Pharisee invited Jesus into his home to eat with him.  Just as the dinner gets started, they watch the same surprising event unfold.   A woman, probably what we might call a “street-walker”, barges in and washes Jesus’ feet with her tears.   Both Jesus and Simon are surprised by the situation.  Both know the social rules declaring such a deed to be ethically “out-of-bounds”, yet their perspectives are very different. Jesus accepts this woman’s deed as an act of repentance and gives her grace, love and forgiveness.   But Simon thinks to himself: “If this guy were really a prophet, he’d realize the kind of woman this is, and he’d know she is a sinner” (vs. 39).   Why doesn’t Simon realize how much this woman needs God’s grace and forgiveness?    How has Simon lost the divine perspective?

SALVATION IS THE KNOWLEDGE OF GRACE
What matters most to God?   This is really the heart of issue in Luke chapter 7 and the entire gospel. 
Our knowledge of Jesus Christ is a saving knowledge (1 Tim 4:2) because through Jesus Christ, we come to know God’s saving grace.   As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “God has “shown light out of darkness” to give (to our hearts) the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 4:6).    But not all knowledge of Jesus is saving grace.  Listen to these words Paul gave Timothy concerning the “knowledge of truth’ he has addressed in his letter and now returns to in his conclusion: “20 Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to you. Avoid the profane chatter and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge; 21 by professing it some have missed the mark as regards the faith. Grace be with you. (1Ti 6:20-21 NRS).

Don’t miss Paul’s final word, because it is more than just a final greeting.  “Grace be with you” is what can go missing even among the faithful.   “Grace” is what saving knowledge in Jesus is about, but some were still missing it in Paul’s day, just as Simon missed it.   Is God’s grace the kind of knowledge that is foremost on our minds?
  
Now that school is out, it’s time for VBS in our churches.  It’s time when we have just a few precious days to tell our children and other children in our community what matters most to God.  Most of us, as insiders, have some wonderful memories of VBS and we cherish them.   It’s a time when we talk about God’s love, mercy and grace, but sometimes, especially as a youth, I can remember getting sidetracked. 

Brent Younger tells one something that happened as the pastor was explaining the plan of salvation to the children his final 6th grade VBS.   On the last day, he says, “we skipped the high tech missionary slide show, because it was decision day.  At the close of the assembly the pastor explained how to choose our eternal destination. The four points were: God loves us; sin pushes us away from God; Jesus died for our sins; and if we think this is true, then we are saved.   He then said, "Raise your hand if you believe this." Most years about half of us got saved.  Some of the sixth graders raised their hands every year just to be sure.”

It was the last year as a student in Vacation Bible School that a smart aleck child asked: "What about the Indians who were here before Columbus?  Did they go to heaven?"  The pastor said, "The Bible says that you have to believe in Jesus to go to heaven."   The sixth grader replied: "But the Indians never even heard of Jesus. That’s not fair. "The pastor, a bit defensive, said, "We have to believe what the Bible says."  The sixth grader protested, "But the Indians didn’t have a Bible."   Finally my father said, "Brett, we’ll talk about this when we get home." (“Salvation” by Bret Younger, in Lectionary Homiletics, June, 2010.)

This “pastor’s son” was causing problems, but some version of the question "What about the Indians (nor natives of Africa)?" has been around a long time, challenging everyone who takes God’s saving grace seriously.  The question goes to the heart of our faith.  It goes to the heart of the issue as to whether we believe in saving knowledge or do we believe in saving grace? I remember that once when a student asked a professor, “What about the people who have never heard the gospel, what will happen to them?, the professor answered rather bluntly, “It’s none of your business!”
 
What is your business, my business, and what should have been the business of Simon the Pharisee was to see how much this woman needed God’s grace.   But unfortunately, this was the one kind of knowledge Simon was not looking for.   He wanted answers for his questions, but he did not want the answers God was giving in Jesus.   By missing what Jesus was about, the question became, not whether not this “sinner” could be saved, but could Simon be saved?   It makes sense, doesn’t it?  If you don’t know what grace is, how can you be saved by it?      

SALVATION IS ABOUT OUR BELIEF IN GOD’S LOVE
There is something else Simon the Pharisee missed.   Simon the Pharisee not only failed to put the right emphasis on “saving grace”, but he also mistakenly put more emphasis on what he “believed” (and probably was true) about the woman rather than the unconditional “love” and compassion he needed to show to her, even as a sinner.  

What happened to Simon the Pharisee can also happen to us, especially when we look at the world around us, and get so taken by how bad things are, or how lost, sinful people have become.   We can becomes so “captured” by what is wrong by our own “beliefs” (even when they are right, as Simon’s was), that we fail to show the sinful world how much greater God’s love is than their sin.  The skill of putting the focus on grace and love means that we learn to love the sinner, even though we hate the sin.   This evangelistic skill is what the church needs now, more than ever, even more than the ability to defend our beliefs.  For, you see, what happened at Simon’s house can also happen here at God’s house----the church.   We never know when or what kind of “sinner” is going to come through that door and ask Jesus for help.   If they do, are we ready to respond with grace and with love?      

If we becoming are more demanding about our beliefs than compassionately showing Christ’s love, it could tear us apart, just as it tore Simon apart.   As our story displays,  Simon needed to understand that she was not the only sinner in the room.  Simon needed to realize what kind of sinner he was, and what kind of religious leader he was going to be. 

For you see, Jesus came to challenge our views of righteousness just as much or more than he did our views of sin.   Don’t you recall him saying, “Unless your “righteousness” exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom…”(Matt. 5: 20)?    If that’s not enough, in the gospel of Christ Paul preached said “there is none righteousness, no not one” (Romans 3:10), or as Jesus himself said, “we must not judge, unless we want to be judged (Matt.7:1).”   

So here is the difficulty Simon had, and we still have as “insiders” to God’s grace.   How, in a world where there is so much sin, and even confusion over what is and isn’t sin; how can we keep from falling into Simon’s trap---of getting stuck on defending what we think is right or wrong----rather than engaging in God’s priority: showing God’s unconditional love to sinners?  How can we keep God’s perspective and our evangelistic focus in this morally confused world?

The first we need to see is how Simon got it wrong.   It was wrong for Simon to label this woman a “sinner” when he did not realize that he was also a sinner.   The church will always lose its ability to love when it tries to label or name one kind of “sin” or a certain person as worse or better than another kind of ‘sin” or person.   When it comes to being in the presence of Jesus, we’re all sinners.   We all fall short of the glory of God.  Both those who are “good” people can be bad, and the so called “bad” people can be good.   Sin is much more complicated than what a religion can get rid of, or any of us can dispose of in our own lives.   Remember to powerful biblical words to be our constant guide to grace and love: “There is none one who is righteous, no not one” and there is “no one who is good but God.”  Because we are all sinners, there are no insiders because we are come to God as “outsiders” who desperately need God’s grace and love.  The ground is completely level at the foot of the cross.    

The second thing we need to see in this text is moment is how Jesus got it right.   Jesus does not condone the sin of this woman, but he receives the sinner who comes to him, just the way they are.  Jesus does not screen this woman nor does he preach to her or put any kinds of religious requirements or rules for her.   The only rule Jesus imposes are the rules of grace and love---“whosoever will may come, and drink from the waters of life freely.”

But when we say and preach “whosoever will, may come” and “drink freely of the water of life”, we must also remember that though God’s grace is free, but it’s still not cheap.   The “free pardon of sin” we preach still requires the “willing and humble admission” and the true “repentance of sin” which this woman displays in her complete submission to Jesus.    And when this woman came to Jesus, Jesus does not say to her, “You’re OK, I’m OK.”   Jesus told her that, “her sins were man”, and that “her sins were forgiven,” (verse 48) because of her “great love” (for Jesus).  Forgiveness is only real, when sin is understood to be sin.  For you see, the problem with Simon was not how he saw this woman as a sinner.   She was.  But problem is, as Jesus made clear, that Simon failed to see himself as a sinner also, and God’s forgiveness only comes to sinners, not to “Simons” who already think they are righteous and are in need of nothing.   Jesus can only offer his grace and forgiveness to those see their sin and are ready to submit to his the perfect judgment of his love.   

What I think is most reveling in this text, is while Simon did all the talking about what was wrong and who was the “sinner”, it was Jesus who did all the loving, all the forgiving, and very little talking.   If Jesus did any talking, it was more to Simon who did not love the sinner.   I believe that Jesus is our model for being church in this morally confused world and Simon is our model of what not to do.   We must be a church that is known by how much we love and showing mercy and grace to sinners, than being known for what or who we hate.   This is not easy, especially when sin becomes open and blatant and we feel the need to “take control” and “challenge” or try to “change” things on our own.   But the great truth of this text, is that it is not “perfect religion” that changes people, but it is God’s perfect love, as Jesus models for us in this text.  

How this can work in our world, where sin, even sexual sins, are so visible and controversial?  As prostitution might have been the “hot button” sin in that day, we might say that “homosexuality” is the “hot button” issue today.   On this issue, the church must be careful not to become a “Simon” when we must continue to follow Jesus.    We must keep our priorities and perspective clear, because having such a “sinner” come into our church can tear us apart, just like Simon was “torn up” over this “sinner” who came to his house.     

Recently in Charlotte, a group of pastors, many of them Baptist, attended a conference on the subject of homosexuality.   It was observed, that as the pastors came to their conference, most of had “preaching” on their mind, not understanding and compassion.   But then the first speaker stood up.   She was highly respected by the pastors, because she was a counselor running a ministry working to help gays change their lifestyle with the good news of the gospel.  

She started her speech with a testimony no one expected.   She told how she had grown up in a home that went to church, but was void of love and full of abuse.   When she was 16, she went looking for love and got pregnant.  Her family shunned her, and unfortunately, so did her church.   The first place she felt unconditionally loved, was not in her home, not at her church, nor with a boy, but at a “gay bar”, she had wandered into in complete desperation.   She said, her first experience of “unconditional” love was intoxicating.    But then, after several years of this lifestyle, after she had grown up enough to get a better grip on her life, one day she realize that this was not who she was, and she left that lifestyle.   Now, with the call of God on her life, she has begun a ministry to help others find love and the grace to change their lifestyle (As told to me by Pastor Ande Myers who attended the conference in Charlotte).

As this woman concluded her speech, the room of preachers, who once were all ready to pounce on sin, fell silent and felt ashamed.   What this woman and so many struggling people need to find most at church, is not what they often experience.   She found a lot of Simon’s at her church, but it took far too long for her to find Jesus, or a church that followed Jesus as the example---a church that  shared with sinners the same kind of unconditional, forgiving love and grace, we all need to save us from our sins.   And you can clearly see in this text, Jesus has a lot more trouble with “Simon’s” kind of (hate) sin than he did with this woman’s “love” sin.   It wasn’t because the sin was more or less, but because she brought her sin and her brokenness to Jesus and Simon only brought his fear and hate. 

What I think is so powerfully obvious in this text today, and what is most overlooked, is how Jesus didn’t even say a word to this woman about her sin.   The burden of her sin and her brokenness was already so heavy upon on her that Jesus did the right thing, not by preaching to or at her, but by showing her God’s love, grace and forgiveness.   Jesus did not condone her sin, (and that is the problem some churches fall into confusion about) but neither did he reject her (which is what other churches fall into confusion about).  Jesus welcomed her in repentance, even though he did not affirm her sin.  It might be amazing what would happen when a church learns again to hate the sin, but love the sinner, and to make church a place that welcomes sinners, even while they are still struggling and in need of Jesus and God’s forgiveness.   

 Richard Hayes, a professor at Duke, in his book “The Moral Vision of the New Testament” has a clear-cut strategy for dealing with homosexuality as a sin or any sin, for that matter:  People who come to Jesus or to church, must first admit their sin and confess it to God and not accept it as normal, or as God’s will.  When any person acknowledges their sin to God and admits their own need for God’s grace, asking for Jesus’ forgiveness and willing to let God’s power help them in their struggle with sin (through recovery or celibacy, he maintains), then the church must also trust God’s power to save, and stay with God’s perspective and priority of showing grace, love and forgiveness in this broken world.   This is what Jesus did, and it is exactly what Simon did not do.

GOD SAVES US THROUGH FORGIVENESS NOT PERFECTION 
But here where we must remind ourselves of one more thing.    This is why the word of “forgiveness” is the final word of Jesus to both kinds of sinners in this story: the woman who realizes her sin and comes to Jesus, and to Simon, the one who needs to see or admit his sin of self-righteousness and his failure to love.   More than anything else, it is not “perfection” or “goodness” that brings any of us to God, but it is our sin and failures that normally brings us here.   More than anything else, Jesus wants to show Simon and us that it is “the one who is forgiven most, who will love the most.”      

Fred Craddock tells of visiting a small church and being surprised at the appearance of a large pastor—6’4" and 300 pounds.  The pastor’s most noticeable feature was his stumbling, lumbering gait. He was awkward, almost falling, with long, useless arms at his sides, like they were awaiting further instruction. His head was misshapen. His hair was askew. He stumbled up the steps to get to the pulpit. "When he turned to face us, " Craddock says, "I saw the thick glasses, and through them I could see milky film over his eyes, one of his eyes going out, nothing coming in to the other. When he read, he held the book near his nose. When he spoke, the muscles in his neck worked with such vigor as he pushed out the words, as if he had learned to speak as an adult.

But I lost all consciousness of that after a while. He read 1 Corinthians 13 and spoke on the greatness of love. He wasn’t poetic or prophetic, but was warm and affectionate. The relationship between those people, the love that he extended as he preached, and the love that came back from those people who sat quietly, leaning forward, was captivating and I was captured. How could this grotesque creature be so full of love? I didn’t understand. I started remembering those stories about how people who have grotesque features are sometimes granted a special quality of affection, Beauty and the Beast or The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I thought of children with Down’s syndrome, how they have the capacity to grab you and hug you and kiss you, when other children stand at a distance. Is this what I’m seeing? Is this the providence of God that grants people who lack attractiveness on the outside to have that quality on the inside?"

"After the service, I lingered at the door and listened to the greetings and little words of pastoral care and comfort between him and the members. One woman I would guess to be seventy shook his hand at the door. She said, ‘I wish I could know your mother.’ She was having the same trouble I was. She didn’t understand the source of this love and thought maybe, ‘I wish I knew your mother.’ He said, ‘My mother’s name is Grace.’"
                A few minutes later, Craddock remarked: "That was an unusual response you gave to that woman, ‘My mother’s name is Grace.’"
                The pastor explained: "When I was born I was put up for adoption at the Department of Family Services. As you can guess, nobody wanted to adopt me. So I went from foster home to foster home, and when I was about seventeen, I saw some young people going into a church. I so wanted some friends, so I went in, and there I met grace—the grace of God."  She is my true mother. (Fred Craddock, Craddock Stories, St. Louis: Chalice, 2001, 49-502).

The great theologian Paul Tillich wrote: "Sometimes a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it as though a voice were saying: ‘You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you.  Do not seek for anything; do not intend anything.  Simply accept the fact that you are accepted.’"

At the close of this story, the surprise is that this ‘religious’ Simon the Pharisee needs the knowledge of grace and forgiveness more than this “sinful” woman.   “The one to whom little is forgiven, forgives little”, Jesus explains.  But the opposite is also true:  “The one who is forgiven much, forgives much.”   We still don’t  know whether or not Simon gets this, but the question is, do we still have it?   The saving perspective of God is something we can never afford to lose.   Amen.    

© 2010 All rights reserved Charles J. Tomlin, B.A., M.Div. D.Min