Sunday, September 29, 2013

“Phone Call From Hell”

A Sermon Based Upon Luke 16: 19-31
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Pentecost 19c, September 29th, 2013

Mitch Albom is a Jew who tells good stories.  His stories are about death and dying, but his point is to give the living a message of why life is worth living and how we should best live it.   Recently, the national Hospice movement named Mr. Albom “Hospice Man of the Year”.

Albom’s notoriety started with the success of his 1997 book, “Tuesdays with Morrie”,  which reports Albom’s interviews with his college professor, Morrie Schwartz, as he slowly died with Lou Gehrig’s disease.   Albom used the profits from the book to pay  Morrie’s final medical bills.     With the success of this book about dying, wisdom, and how one should live until one dies, Albom continued to write.   Since “Tuesdays with Morrie” Albom has written about “Five People You Meet In Heaven”, “One More Day,” “TimeKeeper”, and his most recent book, “The First Phone Call from Heaven”.   All these books have similar themes that warm the heart, instruct on how to live toward death, and point to how we can redeem the time we have left.

But of course, Albom is not the first Jew to share wisdom about living, dying and death.   But in contrast to the ‘heartwarming’ approach of Mitch Albom, in our text today Jesus gives us a warning from hell.   Most of you know the story, pretty well.   It’s the story in which there is a conversation between Abraham and a very rich man who opened his eyes in torment.   Besides the torment of the flames, the rich man can see a poor man named Lazarus, whom he recognizes, resting beside of Abraham.   Realizing the reversal of their fate, the rich man begs Father Abraham to allow Lazarus to come and put drops of water on his tongue, but Father Abraham will not allow it.  Besides, between Lazarus and the rich man there is a very large crevasse that can’t be crossed.    This is anything but a heart-warming story that could make Jesus a nominee for “Hospice Man of the Year”.      

A SURPRISING RESPONSE
So, what is the point of this very graphic story from Hell?  Perhaps we see it at the end.  In the final moment it is this rich man that is begging, not the poor man.   But now, this rich man is no longer begging for mercy and he is no longer begging for another drink of cool water.   He is begging for Abraham to send Lazarus to go and warn his 5 brothers.  But Abraham sternly refuses, saying “They have Moses and the Prophets, let them hear them.”  Still, the rich man will not take ‘no’ for an answer, so he gets all religious, hoping to change Abraham’s mind: “No, Father Abraham, if someone goes back to them from the dead, they will repent!”     Abraham adamantly refuses again and explains: “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead” (vs. 31).  End of story.

That’s a mighty big claim, isn’t it?  When you think about it, this an amazing statement considering that right at the center of our Christian faith is the claim that God raised Jesus from the dead, and that Jesus himself raised Lazarus and several others.   Would it not make a huge difference if someone came back from the dead?   When I was a young boy someone told me about a body lying in the casket still having muscle spasms so that it had to be tied down.  I still haven’t gotten over that story yet.   Wouldn’t just about any kind of message from the dead get our attention?  Mitch Albom’s books about dying people sure do?  Didn’t that Neurosurgeon get our attention, when he said he could prove that his ‘death’ and his return to life is a fact of medical Science?  Didn’t that little boy in the book, “Heaven Is For Real” have the same kind of effect when he told stories no child should tell?  What about the guy who spent 90 minutes in Heaven?   Someone has recently written about having spent 23 minutes in Hell.  With all this incredible talk, how can Father Abraham assert that the testimony of someone ‘rising from the dead’ would not be persuasive?   

While Father Abraham doesn’t put much stock in messages from the dead, he tells us twice (just like Jesus says “truly, truly”) what people should be listening and obeying.   “They have Moses and the Prophets, let them hear them!”   This brings us to ask: So, what did Moses say?  “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might . . . And your neighbor as yourself.”(Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:18).  And what did the prophets say? “Thus says the Lord: Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, let not the mighty man glory in his might, let not the rich man glory in his riches; but let him who glories glory in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practice steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth; for in these things I delight, says the Lord” (Jeremiah 9:23–24).
The whole point of Jesus’ story about Hell serves as a warning to the Pharisees, who think they know Moses and the Prophets, but evidently they didn't.  If they did, really, they would be ready and willing to listen to Jesus. (http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/sermons/preparing-to-receive-christ-hearing-moses-and-the-prophets).

AN ALL FAMILIAR PROBLEM
But of course, these religious leaders are not willing to listen to Jesus because, as Luke has said, in preparation for this story, they are “lovers of money” and are ‘scoffing at (Jesus)’.   The law and the prophets have been preached to them from John the Baptist, but they did not listen.   The gospel of the kingdom is being preached to them through Jesus, and they still won’t listen.   The law is clear, and has not failed, not even in one single point, says Jesus.   It would be easier for the world to pass away than the truth of God’s law (16:17).  And what truth is it that these people will not follow? It’s simply this:  Since these hard-hearted people do not follow what Moses said, (love your neighbor), how will they understand or follow what Jesus is saying, “love your neighbor as yourself”.  Since they didn’t get what God said the first time, they don’t get it now.   And they won’t get it, even though Jesus (or anyone) will be raised from the dead.   

The “phone call from Hell” is the warning Jesus gives, not for comfort, but to confront.  He confronts the fact that we can fail to follow the most basic truths, rules, instructions, and when we do, the worse consequences imaginable can happen.   Take that driver of that runaway train which crashed in Spain back in July.   That driver knew what the speed limit was.  He knew that a curve was coming.   He had driven that way many times.  But what was he doing  He wasn’t paying attention.  He was talking on the phone.  That was surely also a kind of phone call from hell, because by taking that call and not watching his speed his train more than doubled its normal speed and went off the tracks, crashed into a wall, and killed 79 innocent lives, not to mention the fact that it will probably put him in prison for many years.   Don’t ever think there are not consequences for not paying attention to simplest rules of life.

This is what Jesus wants to remind these Pharisees.   If the most basic rules and laws of God have not motivated you to do the right thing, the most necessary thing, don’t think for a moment that Jesus can do anything with you either.   “Even if someone comes back from the dead,” it won’t change you.    If you don’t see the truth right in front of you, which in this case is Lazarus, a suffering neighbor sitting right at his gate, then you don’t get it.  If any of us can’t see the simple things we need to do, choosing to live for ourselves only and to ignore the needs in front of us, needs that are plain as the nose on our face, if we can’t respond to these things, then we can’t be helped.  God helped Lazarus; (the name Lazarus is Hebrew for “God is my helper”), but God cannot help the person who ignores the obvious truth right in front of them.

Paul Rauschenbusch, the grandson of the well-known Baptist pastor, Walter Rauschenbusch, who once pastored a church in the middle the part of New York called, “Hell’s Kitchen”, has said that the problem of the rich man was not merely ignorance, but “IGNORE—ANCE”   In other words, it wasn’t what he didn’t see that got him into Hell, but it’s what he didn’t want to see, who he didn’t care to see, and what and who he refused to pay attention to, and did nothing about, when he had the means and ability to care, but he didn’t.  He ‘ignored’ the need; IGNORE-ANCE.  He acted as if he didn’t see poor Lazarus, but he did see him.  Lazarus was there sitting at his gate every day, but the rich man did nothing.  That's and what got him into hell.  It wasn't what he did wrong, but what he didn't do that was the right thing to do.

HOPE FOR A DIFFERENT OUTCOME
I don’t want to end this parable of warning without giving us hope.  Remember, Abraham does not say that the 5 brothers will end up in Hell with their rich brother, but Abraham says, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets”.  That’s a big “if”.   Since they ‘have Moses and the Prophets’, they could ‘listen’.  They might hear.  Abraham leaves the door open for the 5 brothers and of course, Jesus leaves the door open for us, and for all the many generations to come.   What does it look like if someone like us, someone who has Moses, the Prophets, and also knows the preaching of Jesus, and fully knows what needs to be done, and will do it?  What does that look like in our world?  What does it mean not only to ‘hear the word’, but to ‘do the word’.

Did you read in the Statesville Paper the other day the article about the woman, now living in Mooresville,  who has a movie being made about her?  A book has already been written about her by Penny Loeb entitled: Moving Mountains: How One Woman and Her Community Won Justice from Big Coal.    The story begins with Patricia Bragg living in the tiny community of Pie, West Virginia.   When a deep coal mine drained her neighbors’ wells, Bragg heeded her grandmother’s admonition to “fight for what you believe in” and led the battle to save their drinking water.   She and her friends quickly convinced state mining officials to force the coal company to provide new wells.   However, large-scale mining continued on the mountains behind her beloved hollow.  Fearing what the blasting off of mountaintops would do to the humble homes below, she joined a lawsuit being pursued by attorney Joe Lovett, the first case he had ever handled.   So, in the case against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Bragg v. Robertson), federal judge Charles Haden II shocked the coal industry by granting victory to Joe Lovett and Patricia Bragg and temporarily halting the practice of mountaintop removal  (See Statesville Record and Landmark, July 28th, 2013).  

Patricia Bragg was not against the coaling industry.  She recognized that coal mining was the lifeblood of her community and her own husband was a disabled miner himself.   Still many turned against her, even people in her own church and community.    But Patricia Bragg battled on, even from Mooresville, making the two-hour trek to the legislature in Charleston, West Virginia over and over to continue to demand better controls on mine blasting and more concern for those who had been her neighbors.   In the end, she brought about one of the most important environmental and social empowerment battles in the nation in the past decade.  It was fought by a woman who saw a people like "Lazarus" in need, and she did not ignore what she could do.  She did not turn the other way.  She investigated.  She spoke up.  She took action.   She did the most obvious thing.

Of course, the gospel is much more than helping people have clean, drinking water, but it’s not any less either.   If you recall Jesus only was able to speak to the woman at the well about ‘living water’ (spiritual things) after he asked the woman for drinking water (physical things).   Jesus was not one to overlook the most obvious thing, and neither should we.   A German Theologian once said, “One cannot understand and preach the gospel concretely enough (D. Bonhoeffer, Collected Sermons, Fortress Press, p 34, 2012).   I could add that either Christianity is about the most concrete thing, or it’s not about anything concrete at all.    I believe that this is what Jesus is trying to say to us in this story.  If we overlook the most obvious thing, the most concrete need in front of us, whether it something we need to do for ourselves, for our world or what we need to do for our neighbor---if we do nothing, or even if we have intentions of doing something but never do, well, you know what they say, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”.   Jesus wants us to take another route and to arrive at a very different destination.    Amen.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

“The Best Policy”

A Sermon Based Upon Luke 16: 1-13
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Sunday after Pentecost, September 22nd, 2013

“And I tell you make friends for yourself by means of dishonest wealth, so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes."  (Luke 16: 9, NRSV).

Today we worship on the mountain.   Are you ready for a climb?

I’m not talking about taking a long walk up a hill, not yet.  I’m talking about our text today from the gospel of Luke.  This is indeed a strange story in the Bible.  It is one of the most difficult of Jesus’ parables to interpret.   It is as challenging to understand as it is to climb a steep hill.  But there are rewards for those who take the climb.  Are you ready?

THE MYSTERY IN THIS STORY
The parables of Jesus are not just simple ‘short’ stories.  They are short, but they are seldom simple.   They are not simple for a reason; they are told to uncover the spiritual realities and mysteries of life.

Some of the parables are easy to understand but hard to swallow.  For example, the parable of the lost son is easy to understand; that God loves lost people; but loving lost people ourselves is not easy.   We struggle with in in the same way that the elder brother did.   We don’t struggle because the truth is hard to understand, but because Jesus is a hard man to follow; his teaching challenge us to our very being.

While some of Jesus’ teaching are easy to understand, others are not.  The parable of Jesus that is told in today’s text is not easy to understand.   Will it be as hard to follow?  Let’s take a look.

What is so hard to understand in today’s text is that Jesus tells us about a dishonest money manager.   Now, that’s not so hard to understand is it?   We can all imagine all kinds of people out there who are greedy and are dishonest with money so they can get ahead.   This guy seems to be much the same, with a couple of exceptions.   But what makes this parable so difficult to swallow is because Jesus lifts up this ‘dishonest money manager’ as an example of how to be a Christian.   It almost sounds as if Jesus is trying to say “dishonesty is the best policy.”  This just doesn’t sound like Jesus, at least the Jesus we imagine.  What we can also imagine is that stories like this got Jesus killed.

Again, let me say again that is ‘almost’ sounds as if Jesus is saying “dishonesty is the best policy”.  But the dishonesty of this clever money manager is not the point.   The point Jesus is making is much harder to understand and is part of the mystery of this story.  Jesus seems to be making this story hard on purpose---so that we will stop and appreciate it, that is, when we figure out its meaning.   To get to the meaning of this story is much like climbing a mountain to the top.  I’m not a climber myself, but I do love to be up on a mountain and catch the view.   Mountain climbers not only love the view, but they also love the thrill of the climb.  I’ll take their word on that.  When I think about mountain climbing I can’t help but think about the people who fall off.   About all I like to climb are stairs.  

A NECESSARY DIFFICULTY
So, as we think about this dishonest manager, a mysterious teaching, and climbing to the top of this difficult parable, let try to do what Jesus wants us to do, climb to the ‘top’ of this mountain of truth Jesus would have us climb.   Whatever we can say about this story, Jesus makes the climb to get to its meaning intentionally hard.  He wants us to exercise our spiritual muscles.   He wants us to use our minds.  More than anything, he wants us to join him on the climb.   In other words, in this story, Jesus is intentionally unclear.   We have to work at it to figure it out.  

I guess you could say that the truth Jesus wants to keep from being too easy is somewhat like the young 16 year old who was out on his first date.   He comes home to his parents and they ask how it went.  He tells them it was “fine”.  That’s what you always tell your parents about your first date.  Even if it was great, you only tell them it was “fine.”  Or if it was terrible, you also tell them it was “fine”.  This is what teenagers tell their parents to keep them from knowing too much about your date life.  In this story Jesus wants us to know that the truth in this story is “God’s truth”---not ours.  If it were ‘our’ truth, it would be easy to grasp.  But because it is God’s truth it is more challenging.  God still wants us to know this truth, and he wants to tell us more than ‘fine’, but it will not be easy to grasp because it is knowledge belonging to God.   

Since this story points toward divine ‘knowledge’, the meaning behind this parable about the dishonest manager will remain mysterious, even when we finally get to the point.  So, what is the point?  What is this story about and why is this dishonest money manager supposed to be an example for us to follow?   What is the meaning of this story that even when we ‘climb’ to the top of its summit of meaning, still leaves us scratching our heads in wonder and amazement?  Can we figure it out?   Can we figure out what this ‘dishonest manager’ did that was so commendable and clever?

AN UNFORGETTABLE TRUTH
Some say that when this money manager realized he was about to lose his job, that he made friends with those who would take him in and help him out.   But this was an awful lot of money to start tossing around.  He could have been put in jail for giving away his master’s money like this.   Of course his customers praise him for giving them discounts, but the master could have seen it for what it was, dishonest dealing to pad his fall.
Whatever Jesus is trying to tell us hear, it can’t be fully understood by giving a simple answer.  Jesus wants us to take this home with us, to mull it over and over, to reflect, wonder and finally to solve the story not by what we figure out, but by what we live, how we live, in our life as we follow Jesus.   “He who has ears, let him hear!”  But it will take more than ‘ears’, we will need our ‘hearts’ to believe that Jesus is telling us something that matters---something that makes all the difference in the world.   We must have ‘faith’ not only to move mountain, but to climb this mountain of truth all the way to the top.

As we near the top of the view of this story, we see that the master, who discovers his dishonest plot has a number of options.  He could have him put in jail, beaten, tortured, or demanded his money back.   But it is not what the master does that makes news in this story; it is about what this ‘manager’ did.   It is the ‘gamble’ of this dishonest manager that stand out the most.  He is willing to bet his life on the fact that his master will be as generous to him as he has been with his master’s money.  The dishonest manager has bet his whole future on the good graces of his master.   Will the master want to keep his reputation more than the values his money?  The answer is yes.  This master is not as good as his money, but his money is as good as he is.

We should not be surprised to discover that it is the generosity of the master that we find at the high point of this story.   Luke has just told us the story of the Prodigal son---how much more generous can a father be than forgiving his rebellious son?  He can also forgive a very dishonest money manager who has shortchanged him on a lot of money.   God is like that.  He is not only generous with his money, he is generous because he is generous.  This is what his manager has figured out.  It’s what Jesus wants us to figure out too.   Why is the “Father” and this “Master” so generous?  It is not because of the deeds of the rebellious son, nor it is because of the cleverness of this dishonest manager.   The Father and the Master are generous because this is how generous God is.  God’s nature is like this.  Even the children of this age, live in the grace of God.   The children of the ‘light’ need to figure this out too.   The cleverest person is not the one who figures everything out in life, but he is clever because he or she has figured God out.   Rebellious people, dishonest people, and also crippled, poor and hopeless people have God all figured out.  How?  They haven’t figured God out because they have been to the top of life, but they have God all figured out because they have been to the bottom.   Before you can climb the high mountain of God’s truth, you have to hit bottom.   The mountain of God’s truth is not seen most clearly from the top, but from the bottom.  

This reminds me of the first time I saw the Alps.  The biggest mountains I’d seen were the Appalachians.  I’ve been to Mount Mitchell, but even though it is a high mountain, you can’t get a good view of how high it is, because the climb is so gradual.  But when we were approaching the alps, it was partly cloudy.  I looked up and this mountain is peaking out above the clouds.  It overshadowed everything.  I’d never see anything like in my life.  The whole top was cover in ice and this was July.   It was the grandest, greatest, strongest, highest point on earth I’d ever seen.   It was a mountain over two times, and almost three times higher than Mount Mitchell.   I could not believe my eyes, and I had no trouble seeing just how big this mountain was, because here I was approaching it from the bottom.   It nearly filled up the entire skyline.  It was overwhelming, exciting and it was something I could have never appreciated if I only saw it from above in a plane.  I needed to see it from the bottom to appreciate just how great it really was.

God is like that too.   We don’t figure out God when we’ve done great things or we feel god-like in our own lives.  No, we see the grander and greatness of God when we are overshadowed by his mercy, love, and grace.  We see who God is when we know what we are not.  And when we know that he comes to us in mercy and grace anyway, this is when we learn that the best policy we could ever have, is the same policy this dishonest manager had---it was the policy of trusting.   The dishonest manager is to be commended because he does what we all need to do---we need to trust the goodness of the one who is much better than we could ever imagine.  We need to trust our own lives into his hands, and know that God is the one who stands ready to look out for us when we fail and when we fall.    It is not who we are, or who we aren’t that matters most, but it is who God is, and what God does for us.   This is the ‘truth’ Jesus wants us to climb to the top and see.  This is the view from the bottom.   God can be trusted to forgive, love and give us his grace.   We can bet our lives on him.   Will you do that?     



Sunday, September 15, 2013

"Go Ahead, Make My Day!”

A Sermon Based Upon Luke 15: 1-10
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Pentecost 16c, September 15th, 2013

  " …I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents." (Luk 15:10 NRS).

Go ahead, make my day!”   Who is old enough to remember than famous line from Clint Eastwood’s movie character, “Dirty Harry” in the 1983 film, “Sudden Impact”?  It was voted no. 6 by the American Film institute’s list of best 100 year quotes. 

In the movie, Harry  Callahan (Clint Eastwood) goes into a diner for a morning cup of coffee.  When Callahan discovers a robbery in the diner, he kills the robbers in a shootout.  However, a surviving robber grabs the fleeing waitress Loretta, holds his gun to her head, and threatens to shoot. Instead of backing off, Harry points his .44 Magnum revolver into the boy's face and dares him to shoot, saying with clenched teeth and in his characteristic rough grumble, "Go ahead, make my day," meaning that if the robber attempts to harm Loretta in any way, Harry would be happy to dispatch the robber.  

Interestingly, the actual catch phrase, "go ahead, make my day" comes from independent filmmaker, Charles B. Pierce.  He says it came from his father Mack, who used to tell him as a child, "Charlie, just let me come home one more day, without you mowing that lawn, son just go ahead.....make my day"  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Go_ahead,_make_my_day).    Of course, Pierce’s father Mack was being factious.   He did not really enjoy getting angry at his son for not mowing the yard.  What would have made him really happy was that his son would have mowed the yard just like he told him. 

Our text today raises the interesting question of what makes ‘heaven happy?’   Jesus concludes his story about finding lost things by speaking about what brings heaven joy.   Who would even care about that, right?   Most of us are much more involved in making ourselves happy, making others happy on earth, rather than in heaven.  We think about a lot smaller things, like that little boy, like how to get out of mowing the lawn.  Who cares about bringing happiness that doesn’t center on us?

Jesus does.  This is what makes Jesus different.  This is why Jesus still challenges our world.  This is why we call Jesus ‘the savior of the world’.   Jesus puts us to finding joy and happiness in an entirely different way than we thought. 

GETTING LOST?
Any therapist will tell you that ‘happiness’ is something you’re least likely to find when you go looking for it.   Happiness is a by-product of living the right kind of life and doing the right kind of things, they say.   There is something moral, good, and responsible built into the true nature of happiness.  The Bible says the same kind of thing.  The truth is truth, no matter where you find it.  

But the Bible’s own view of ‘finding joy by doing the right thing’ has a surprising twist to it.  The way to joy is not found when we do just any kind of good or right thing, like being a responsible person, caring for our family, or doing a good deed or random act of kindness, but the way to heavenly joy is found when ‘lost’ people are found.   This is the entire focus of our text today about finding lost things.  The whole point of Jesus’ story is to get us to find joy in recovering people who get lost in life.   Of course, the whole idea of being ‘lost’ has a rather strange sound to it?   In a world with so much information, with so many resources, with so many opportunities in life, and even, with churches over almost every hill and around every corner, who in the world could ever still be ‘lost’?

Cory Monteith was.  I only bring up the recent much publicized death of the famous glee star by the dangerous mixture of alcohol and heroin to remind us that people still do get lost, even when it looks like they have everything.  Lostness as a condition of the human soul and spirit, is just as real and prominent today as lostness was in the world of Jesus.  People can get lost with addictions, lost in bad habits, lost by bad choices and more often than we like to think, people be lost in life due to no fault of their own.   

My wife and I have had a running discussion about my sense of ‘good direction’ and her lack of it.  She reminds me often, that my sense of direction is not as good as I think it is.   I can get lost too.  She reminds me of the time we were traveling in German looking for a hotel.  It’s just over the next hill.  Then it was just over the next one, and the next.   We keep looking for an affordable hotel so long, that we ended up stopping the car and sleeping in it on the street.   But of course, we still weren’t lost.  I knew exactly where we were on the map.  The only problem was the map did not tell us how cooled it be would be or how much a hotel would cost, which we couldn’t afford.  It was a lot cheaper to remain ‘lost’ on the street.

We don’t always realize what it means to be ‘lost’ or that we can be ‘lost’ in this world of GPS, cell phones, and instant navigations.   The designation of being ‘lost’ doesn’t have the fear or punch it used to have.  Besides, “how can we be lost, when we always know exactly where we are?”   When I’m driving down the road, all I have to do is push a button and find my coordinate anytime and anywhere.  There is much a less chance that I would make a wrong turn.  Right?   Not always. 
·         In 2012, Tokoyo students driving in Austria, ending up listening to their GPS give directions and they ended up trying to navigate a road in high water.  They didn’t have enough sense to realize they would get stuck.   
·         In 2011, three woman rented a Mercedez in Seattle and ended up on a boat ramp, kept following directions and drove straight into a swamp.  
·         Do you remember that lesson you learned in kindergarten, “Look both ways before crossing the street?”   A woman in California followed the advice of her GPS which took her the shortest walking distance right through a busy-4-lane highway.  She was hit by a car and injured and ended up suing ‘Google Maps’ and the driver who hit her.  She even claimed her computer for having a mental disorder, saying she would have been smarter to have figured out the route herself.  

·         Or what about that bus at the Tour De France this year, that ended up forcing the entire Bike race to change course, because it followed directions and got wedged under a bridge that was too low. 
·         My wife has her own story to tell.   When she became a realtor, was about the time they first came out with GPS.   So knowing her ‘directional’ handicap, and the fact we were living in the mountains, I bought her one.   She was able to make use of it on her very first showing.  She typed in the address.  Following the voice, but after circling that same mountain 7 times, she finally figured something had gone wrong.  “Do you think we could be lost, her client asked.”   

I don’t care how where you think you are, or even if you are where you think you should be, you can still get lost even with all the information, knowledge and technical gifts our world has to offer.  Lostness is real, and you can be lost even when you don’t think you are.

 GETTING SAVED?
But of course, the ‘lostness’ Jesus is most concerned about is as much spiritual as it is physical.   The religious leaders were upset with Jesus because he ‘welcomed sinners and ate with them’.   The people Jesus came to seek, find, and make heaven happy about, were lost to their religion, lost in their nation, and lost within the society and neighborhoods in which they lived.  Nobody cared about them.  They were not simply lost to God, but they were lost among their neighbors and in their communities, and they were lost, among all things, for ‘religious’ reasons, because not enough was being done to help them find their way back home.  

This is where we come to a roadblock when we think about what it means to be lost and saved.   Is salvation something we do for people, or is salvation something God does in people?    Is salvation something that happens as a result of a ‘social gospel’ of helping the disadvantaged, or is salvation something that happens when we preach, the spirit works, and when people repent of their sins and get right with God.   What does it mean to be found?  When Jesus ‘welcomed and ate with sinners?” how was he making heaven happy, even before Jesus ever died on the cross to pay for their sins? 

I don’t think the answer to heaven’s joy is either social or spiritual, but it’s both.   We should never choose between doing good for someone’s physical situation or showing someone how God can save their soul.   You don’t see souls saved by bypassing the body.  The way to the soul is through, not around the body.  Jesus knew that.   The savior of the world brings salvation to the souls and hearts of sinners by eating and socializing with them as he makes situation in life better.     

Again, Jesus does not circumvent the needs of the body, but the finds the way to the heart and soul through meeting the needs of the whole person.   This is why Jesus was not only a healer of souls, but he was a healer lonely, sick, tired, broken and sinful bodies.  The woman was caught in adultery, and Jesus did not just give her a ticket to heaven, but he gave her forgiveness that offered her a new chance for life.   The man who was paralyzed and was taken to Jesus by his friends, not only got his sins forgiven, but he also got a chance to get up and walk around.    After Jesus welcomes and eats with sinners, he speaks of how happy heaven is when just ‘one’ sinner repents.  Jesus does not overlook the heart, but it is how he gets through into the heart that makes heaven so happy.

Too many of us have over spiritualized the gospel and missed the main part of the drama, where Jesus is a physical healer who cared as much about people’s quality of life on earth as he did about getting them to heaven.    Scholars say when we focus too much on souls and not enough on human needs, we “Platonize” the gospel.   What they mean is that we only focus on getting people into heaven we, strangely enough, following a human philosophy that has overtaken and falsely interpreted the gospel, rather than staying with the good news of the God’s gospel which Jesus lived and preached.  And don’t you know what Paul said about preaching another gospel?  Let me just say that it is not good!   “If anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed!” (Gal 1:9 NRS).  I told you it wasn’t good.

What is good about the true gospel is that Jesus cared about people, period.   He brought God’s gift of salvation into the world through meeting human needs hear and now.   And surprisingly, this is what makes heaven happy.    Heaven is not most happy when people get into the heaven, but heaven is most happy when heaven gets into people.  And Jesus shows us how heaven can get into people through their social lives, through their stomachs, and through their ability to find God in ‘human skin’.   Perhaps you’ve heard the phrase, ‘the way into a man’s heart is through his stomach’.  That’s what Jesus is doing.  He’s getting to the heart, but he is going through the stomach to get into their soul.     

I think it is most interesting, as least for me as a Lutheran turned Baptist, who first introduced the churches of North America to the so called, “social” side of the gospel.   Rauschenbusch was “brought up in a very religious family, and I thank God for it," he said.  "We had household religious service every day."  After a period of rebelliousness in youth, he said, "I came to my Father, and I began to pray for help and got it.  I had my own religious experience."

After being schooled in Germany and then the United States, he decided: "It is now no longer my fond hope to be a learned theologian and write big books." "I want to be a pastor, powerful with men, preaching to them Christ as who alone can satisfy their groanings."    In 1885 he became pastor of the Second German Baptist Church in New York City, located at the edge of a depressed area known as Hell's Kitchen.  Here the young pietistic pastor confronted unemployment, poverty, malnutrition, disease, and crime.  "Oh, the children's funerals! they gripped my heart," he later wrote.  "That was one of the things I always went away thinking about—why did the children have to die?"  He immersed himself in the literature of social reform and began to participate in social action groups.   Slowly his ideas took shape. He had come to the pastorate "to save souls in the ordinarily accepted religious sense" but not all the problems he confronted could be addressed in this way.  Though his friends urged him to give up his social work for "Christian work," he believed his social work was Christ's work.   In other words, young Rauschenbusch help the churches in America understand that you not only needed to lead the lost to repent, but you also need to ‘welcome them and eat with them’.  The way to the soul was through the stomach, so to speak.

Rauschenbusch sought to combine his old evangelical passion (which he never abandoned) with his new social awareness.  The kingdom of God became the theme by which he pulled together his views on the social gospel. "Christ's conception of the kingdom of God came to me as a new revelation," he wrote. "Here was the idea and purpose that had dominated the mind of the Master himself …    I found this new conception strangely satisfying.."  Can you hear the renewed passion and joy in his heart?  The call of Christ was not only saving souls, but it was also participating in the lives of those souls who were lost.  It was not simply doing social work, but it was going through a person’s stomach to help them get things right in their heart and life.(http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/131christians/activists/rauschenbusch.html). It was this kind of ‘saving ministry’ that brought Rauschenbusch renewed joy.

BEING FOUND.
If the happiness on earth is as it is in heaven, it must be linked to understanding human lostness and figuring out what can be done about it here and now.  We don’t have to argue whether or not people are still lost, but we do need to think about whether we can lose the joy of being the people of God.  People out there still get lost, and sometimes, we can feel like we are too. So let’s see one final reason heaven jumps for joy. 

Do you see the reason that heaven is happy in the ‘rejoicing’ that goes on when the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son are found, that everybody is happy?    When the shepherd leaves the 99 and goes after the one lost sheep and finds him, he returns and ‘calls together’ his ‘friends and neighbors’ saying ‘rejoice with me’ (v. 6).   When the woman finds the lost coin, she also calls together her ‘friends and neighbors, saying ‘rejoice with me for I have found the coin that I lost.”  Finally, it is when the Father celebrates the homecoming of his lost son, that he says to his slaves, “get the fatted calf and kill it, so we can celebrate” (v. 23).  But when the Elder brother refuses to come to the party, the Father insists, saying, “But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life, was lost, but has been found” (v. 32).  

Two things stand out this final picture.   One thing is that the Elder brother has to be reminded that this lost son was also his ‘brother’.  That’s a lesson that still resonates in the hostility and culture wars of our own day.  Can we see people who are struggling as our ‘brothers’, rather than our enemies?   The other thing that stands out is that after finding and rejoicing over a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son, the only one who still needs to be found is the one who is ‘at home’, not the one ‘lost’ out in the world.   Make no mistake, the one who is blocking the joy of the moment is the ‘elder brother’ who remains the fatherliest away from home.   He’s also the one who is the least happy and who still can makes heaven sad.

I've told you this recently, but it's worth repeating again.  Tom Long, once asked in a sermon: “Why is it that sometimes Christians and Churches appear to be the least happy places on earth, and places no one wants to be?  What every happen to that Scripture which said, "I was glad when they said unto me, 'Let us go into the house of the Lord.'" Why should this be so?  If it is not what happened?  Dr. Long goes on to tell how “a few years ago, some members of the church where we worship went on a mission trip to Central America, to Nicaragua. For three weeks they lived in the homes of Nicaraguan Christians. They worked with them, studied the Bible with them, ate with them, and worshipped with them. The American Christians were very impressed by many aspects of the faith of the Nicaraguan Christians, but most of all, by the great sense of joy these people had in their worship and in their lives. These Nicaraguan Christians were very poor. They had no color televisions, no SUVs, no computers. All they had was Jesus, and their worship was free, spirited, and full of joy. The American Christians came home wondering if we were missing something.  Where, for us, is the joy, where is the great joy of our faith, the great joy of worship, the great joy of being in the house of God? (http://day1.org/471-is_there_joy_in_gods_house).

So, this story about lostness, salvation, and joy is not only a story about them, it’s also a story about us.   This means that lostness can happen everywhere to anyone, even in here.  It can happen to you not only after you think you know where you are going, it can also happen to you along the way to where you thought you were going, but somehow you got lost along the way.    What am I trying to say?   I’m trying to say that when we take the place Jesus’ left open, and we really do the things Jesus did, welcoming and eating with sinners’ we too can renew the joy of our own salvation.  Being ‘found’ in this world less religious than it is relational, and it is also reciprocal.  By ‘reciprocal’, I mean that when help those who have been lost in life know they have been found by God and by us (whatever form of ministry or mission that might take…Visitation, Senior Adult ministry, Youth ministry, Soup Kitchen, Working in a Shelter or opening your home to a stranger), when take the place Jesus took, we too know most fully the joy of being found by Him.  So go ahead, make God’s day, and you’ll make yours as well.  Amen.  

Sunday, September 8, 2013

“Jesus, You Can’t Be Serious!”

A Sermon Based Upon Luke 14: 25-33
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Pentecost 16c, September, 8th, 2013

“Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:27 NRS)

If the gospel is the ‘good fight’, as the apostle Paul once called it, then here, in today’s Bible lesson, it feels like Jesus hits below the belt when he says: “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions” (Luke 14:33 NRS).   

When Jesus says ‘give up all’, he can’t be serious, can he?  I know what you’re already thinking: “Preacher, you’ve got some explaining to do.  How are you going to get us out of this?”  

Good question, but not so fast.  Maybe that’s not my job to get you out of it, but maybe it’s my job to get you into it, that is, to try to get you into understanding just how serious Jesus was, and still is.  Let me explain.

GIVING UP YOUR POSESSIONS, Yeah Right!
Let’s get right to this outlandish demand: “You must give up all your possessions.”  If this requirement sounds like a strange way to encourage people to follow Jesus, and it does, try asking it another way: “Who are you without your stuff?”

Certainly we Americans are, according to Laura Cheifetz, ‘citizens of consumption’.  Today, more than ever, we are what we own, what our money can buy, and if we don’t have the money to buy it, that defines us too.  Are you an Apple person or Microsoft?   Do you carry a Droid or iphone?   Do you drive a Ford or Chevy, Kia or BMW?  If our brand is lesser, then Poor us! 

Perhaps there are still ‘some’ things in life that money can’t buy, but it’s not much.  Superstar Harvard Professor Michael Sandel makes an interesting list of some of the things today’s ‘money’ can buy and it’s quite a surprising list: 
A prison cell upgrade, $82 dollars per night.    Even prisoners can do things with money.
Access to the car pool lane while driving solo, $8 dollars during rush hour.   Yes, it’s legal. 
The services of an Indian surrogate mother to carry a pregnancy. $6,250.  Who wants to have                to carry that baby themselves?
The right to immigrate to the United States. $500,000.  All you have to do is create 10 jobs                    when you get here.
The right to shoot an indangered Black Rhino. $150,000.  If you are in to that sort of thing.
The cell phone number of your doctor: $1,500.  Yes you can pay your doctor to be on call just for             you.
The right to emit a metric ton of carbon into the atmosphere: $18 dollars.   That’s in Europe.
Admission of your child to a prestigious university.  The price is not listed but top university officials told the Wall Street Journal that they will accept less than stellar students whose parents are wealthy and likely to make substantial financial contributions  (See “What Money Can’t Buy” by Michael Sandel, 2012, p 3-4).

When you think about it, Sandel is right.  There is hardly anything that money can’t buy today.  But what happens if we let money and markets determine who we are and who we aren’t?   Will we come to regret it?   If you saw or felt what happened during the economic crash of 2008, some are already regretting it.  The people and nations who allow their lives, their values, and their worth to be determined by markets and money become a people where everything is for sale, even the price of their soul.  A smart jewish professor like Michael Sandel understands this and many Christians used too.   I can’t help but think about poor J.C. Penny, the man who built his company on honesty, hard work and faith.  My Father once worked in that company at its distribution center in Statesville.  Today the J.C. Penny company leads the way in false advertising, changing the price tags and trying to make a dollar on dishonesty.  J.C. Penny would roll over in his grave if he knew how his company lost its soul for the price of making or stretching a buck.  J.C. Penny is appears to be in a tail-spin of death.

So, let me ask it again.  Do you think Jesus is serious, when it comes to what we possess?  You bet he is.  It is one thing to have possessions, but the trouble comes when we let the possessions have us.  And do you know how can you tell whether you own something or whether it owns you?  Well, you can’t really tell, that is, until you are willing to give it up.  According to Jesus, you are what you give and what you can live without.   If you want what Jesus wants, if you want the kind of hope and life Jesus offered, and if you want the kind of world that comes close to us in Jesus Christ, then you’ve got to be willing to ‘give up’ the ultimate value of everything else.   Yes, when it comes to what we possess and what possesses us, Jesus is very serious.

HATING YOUR FAMILY, say what?
Jesus also says that to follow him as a disciple you must hate you own family.   We might understand Jesus’ problem with money, possessions and people who define themselves by how much money they have, but why did Jesus say that a disciple needs to ‘hate’ his ‘father, mother, brother, sisters, yes and even his or her own life’. 

It’s certainly easy to jump to the worse-case scenario.  When Jesus says ‘hate’ you think of all kinds of bad and negative situations.  You think of people going through a divorce and coming to ‘hate’ the one they said they once loved.   You think about children who had abusing parents growing up with an unshakeable chip on their shoulders.  You think of family situations where closeness that once was there, has been forever lost.  How in the world could Jesus tell people to hate their family, when from the looks things, many families are already full of too much bitterness, animosity, jealousy, and even sometimes rage?   When I think about that family in the Utah where the young Father killed his wife and eventually burned himself up in his home along with his two children, I can’t help but think that what this family needed most was a more love.  How could Jesus dare tell his followers that unless they ‘hate’ their families, they could not become his followers?  Is Jesus really serious?

To come to terms with what Jesus is asking, we must understand the very different world where Jesus lived.  These words are even more powerful when you consider where Jesus was coming from.   In that day, before welfare, before hospitals, and before all other kinds of social institutions, all people had was family.  There was no choosing your own profession.  There was no becoming a self-made person.  There was no striking out on your own.  A family determined who you were, what you had, and what you would be.  You did not simply have a family, you were family or you were nothing at all.  So, when Jesus says ‘hate’ your family, he sounds even worse, and it could even sound like he’s gone ‘nuts’.  (I’m quoting his mother as recorder in the Bible). 

In that ‘family’ oriented world, Jesus had something very radical to say.  He says that if you are going to be his follower and his disciple, you can no longer let your family decide who you are.  There are good families in the world and there are bad families---but the human family does not get the job done for God's salvation and coming kingdom .  If you want the kingdom to come near, you’ve got to stand for something beyond the comfortable place where you live, and you got to give shape to a kind of family that can put its arms, not just around you and yours, but around the whole world.   If you want the world to be a better place, you’ve got to put service to God beyond serving your own family.  In other words, in order to do more for the world, we’ve got to be more than who we have been.  Our family has got to be bigger than Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and his Sons, or even Abraham and his children.   If Abraham’s family will fill the earth and be a blessing, we’ve got to think even bigger than Abraham.  This is the direction Jesus is going.  I'm glad he did, because this is how the Christian Church included Gentiles, which means us.

Some of you may know the story of St. Francis of Assisi.   He was the founder of the order of Franciscian monks that bear his name and the wrote one of the most popular prayers ever written outside of the Bible, which begins,  “Lord make me and instrument of your peace….”   But Francis was not always an instrument in the hands of God.  Even though he was baptized by his mother and given the name Giovanni, or John, that is named after John the Baptist, his father, being a wealthy man of the world, a cloth merchant, gave him the name Francis, naming him after the rich and wealthy elite in France.   Francis grew up wealthy, having everything money could buy.  His life was easy, compared to others.  As a youth, he spent most of his time enjoying the pleasures and luxuries only a few people in the world could enjoy.  

But one day Francis had a longing to do something more with his life.   He came upon a church in disrepair, and decided to use some of the money from selling his Father’s cloth to repair the church.  When his Father learned about Francis’ deed of charity, he accused him of stealing the money and demanded that the money be returned.  Standing before the courts, Francis new what he had to do.  He had found a peace in God that he had never found elsewhere.   Since his father wanted everything he had, he gave him back the money, and then proceeded to stripped off all his clothes, and then, emancipated himself from his Father, saying, “You are no longer my Father, now I can freely say,Our Father who art in Heaven”.  (http://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=50).

Most of us have never been and will never be in a situation like that.  Fortunately, most of our parents are supportive of us and our faith in God.  This is why they brought us to Sunday School.  But even in the best of families, sometimes the choice has to be made: “Do I serve the voice of God that I hear in my heart, or do I serve my family.”  Most of us can do both.  But there are times we might have to choose.  Teresa and I had to do that when we answered the call to overseas missions.  I did this, when I answered a call to preach, and my mother objected.  Others do this when they choose their own way and do not stay in the family business.  There are also those who need to step outside of an abusive or dysfunctional family to find a way to be family and to have a new life. 

In the time of Jesus, “family/tribal affiliation was everything.  Everyone was "son of" or "daughter of."  Entire families converted, or didn't.  Families provided access, security, inheritance rights, a way to make a living.”  People without family connections, like widows, orphans, or aliens in foreign lands, suffered and had great difficulty surviving, unless they found some other family to take them in.  To voluntarily step outside of the family structure could mean death, but it could also mean ‘life’.  It was not always a rejection as it was a different understanding of priorities.   To hate one's family was a way of saying that family would not be the primary affiliation or the only choice.   (From a sermon by Laura Mariko Cheifetz, @day1.org, Sept. 1, 2010).   To choose to be a disciple Jesus meant you were putting your life on the line for something bigger, greater, and larger for the hope of the whole world.   Isn't this is what we mean when we sing, "He's got the whole world in his hands!"

ESTIMATING THE COST, and thinking it through.
To fully understand what Jesus means when he says, “give up your processions” or “hate your family”, you’ve got to look at the big picture and the specific situation.   Luke tells us that ‘large crowds’ were following Jesus at this time, but they did not have clue what discipleship meant or what it would demand from them.   I guess you could say he had a congregation full of ‘seekers’, but not many ‘takers’.  This is why Jesus holds up images of what business planners would call, “cost-benefit analysis” and “risk assessment” before his hearers.   Jesus says, “If you are planning to build something, wouldn’t you figure out whether you could pay for it first?”  “How would you look, if you couldn’t finish what you started?”  “And if you are a King thinking about going to war against another King, would you think about whether you had enough military strength to win?”    The point Jesus is making, is that that before you say ‘yes’, consider the cost?   The most important thing you can do to prove that you understand what Jesus is saying is to ‘think something all the way through’.

 RadioLab is a show on New York’s public radio.  One of its short episodes is called "Helicopter Boy" where a supporter of the show is interviewed because the show helped her son deal with an injury.  The story goes: “Over the period of a couple of weeks, this mother watched her 7-year old son try to solve the problem of flight.  He started out trying to make little things fly.  He rigged a tiny motor to run a propeller. He finally made the determination that if he could push the propeller himself, he could fly. He jumped off of a rock wall in a harness attached to a propeller, and swore that he hovered for just a moment.

One day, unbeknownst to his parents he pushed his hypothesis further. He jumped out of a tree. Not having yet conquered the physics of flight, he injured himself, and to get him to stop squirming while she attended to his wounds, her mother turned on RadioLab.  Not only did this kid listen to the radio show for 45 minutes, he retained almost all the information of their show on parasites.  His mother said to RadioLab she wished her son would retain what she told him about thinking all the way through the possible consequences of his actions, such as jumping from a tree.  The hosts of RadioLab made a special segment for her son about thinking all the way through one's actions.  They made the show ‘sticky’ with all kinds of radio props so he would take it all in. (From a sermon by Laura Mariko Cheifetz, @day1.org, Sept. 1, 2010).

A decision to follow Jesus requires thinking all the way through the possible consequences of discipleship.   He makes this lesson ‘sticky’ using words like ‘hate’ and ‘giving up everything’.   This very dramatic language makes a point: that following Jesus is more than an experience or a choice—it’s a way of life.   Sometimes it isn’t convenient to follow Jesus, but we still must follow.   Other times it might cost us everything, but we still must keep following.   Loyalty to Jesus comes first, then everything, family, self and things, come next.  The final word: "Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple." Seriously, Jesus?   Yes, seriously. Because following Jesus is serious business.

Life demands a challenge, but not everyone is able to give a definitive yes to the challenge today.  Sometimes, we need time to think about.   Jesus too says we need time to consider.  How about a definitive “I'll think about it?”  That’s a good place to start, because the life of Christian discipleship may always be a work in progress.  But one day, we will all have to say good-by to family.  One day we will all say good-by to all our stuff.  We might wonder whether we are up to such a ‘cross’, but one day we will all have to bear it, whether we want to bear it or not.   

Since one day Jesus will be all that we have, is it not advisable that we consider giving him more of our heart right now?  Could that not put us on a better course of living and using both our heads and our hearts?  
Who are we without our stuff?  Who are we when all our family are gone?  The question will be alive and well until the day we die.  What might it mean if we were more of a disciple right now?   Are you ready to think it all the way through?   Amen.


(With Thanks and apologies to Laura Cheiftetz for her ideas and the ‘helicopter boy’ story in her sermon that asks, “Who are we without our stuff?”).

Sunday, September 1, 2013

“Setting a Place for Grace”

A Sermon Based Upon Luke 14: 1, 7-14
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
September 1, 2013, Pentecost 15, Year C.

  “But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.
And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous." (Luk 14:13-14 NRS).

Several years ago it was popular for churches to take a new approach to naming their congregations.  Not only did new church starts name their churches differently, but some existing churches decided to rename their congregations.   In early times most churches were named either by their geographical location or with biblical names.  Hence, in the early days of American history churches took names like, “Flat Rock” as a geographic location or “Zion” as a biblical name, etc.  In more recent days, new churches have decided to name their churches based on the ideals or mission of the church.  Today we hear names like “Elevation Church”,  “Hope Church” or “Church of the Glad River” all having theological and biblical connotations but aimed at identifying what kind of congregation they want to be.  One of my favorite names ever given to a church was simply, “A Place of Grace”.

That is what the church is supposed to be more than anything else, isn’t it?  When you study the ministry of Jesus, his primary mission and purpose was to offer saving grace to God’s people, would you not agree?  Isn’t that we still love to sing the song, “Amazing Grace?”  At the center of everything Jesus was, lived for, taught and died for, was his desire to express God’s love for the world by offering people God’s grace through his ministry of teaching, healing, helping and caring.  

Of course, I say this---that at the center of Jesus’ ministry is offer of God’s grace, but as far as I know, Jesus never used the word.   Not one single time in the gospels is Jesus ever quoted as using the word grace.   It is not until we come to John’s gospel that we read that “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth”, but these were John’s words, not the word of Jesus himself.  Strangely, Jesus did not talk about grace.  Maybe it was because he was grace.  Jesus lived it and he was full of it.   It’s was as plain to him as the nose on his face.

In today’s text from Luke 14, we have one of the greatest depictions of the grace of God.  It is a story about a dinner table, one of Luke’s favorite settings.  Rather than being about the meal itself, it’s about the guests who were invited and how they should be seated.  It’s also a story about the people who were not invited, but should have been.  And finally, it’s about the people who didn’t show up at the party.   In the middle of all this partying, we find three of the most important lessons about the ‘grace’ of God.   They are stories that symbolize God’s table setting of grace for us, teaching us not only to appreciate what God’s grace means, but also teaching us never to take God’s grace for granted.

THE RADICAL HOSPITALITY OF GOD
If you want to get a picture of how radical, overwhelming, and extravagant God’s grace is, you need to first zoom in on the most important moment in this entire scene.    Jesus is talking with a Pharisee who had invited him and other Pharisees to dine with him.  As Jesus reviews the guest list, he makes a suggestion for the next party:  “…When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid.   But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.    And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous." (Luke 14:12-14 NRS)

No doubt, the Pharisee had never thought about throwing a party this way---putting the most unfortunate people in his neighborhood on the guest list.   I would guess neither you nor I would have ever thought about that either.  So on where does that put us?  Do we think more like a Pharisee or like Jesus?

What is Jesus thinking?  Isn’t this where Luke wants to take us--into the mind and heart of Jesus?   According to Jesus, when God throws a party, or when that final day comes when we all gather around God’s table, God will invite the most unfortunate, unwanted, and unexpected people to the party of the kingdom.  This is what God’s grace looks like.  God’s grace is amazing precisely because the last are first, the forgotten are remembered, and the undesirables and nobodies are invited.  This is how it is in heaven and how it should be on earth.  Jesus wants the see how amazingly incredible and unimaginable graceful is this God who is unusually hospitable.  In fact, the word hospitality itself means ‘welcoming strangers’.   When God throws a party, he opens up his table and welcomes any and all---“whosoever will, may come.”  

And we not only see God as the one who invites the undesirables, but we see that God expects his church to do the same.    Jesus says to the religious leader and he says to us, “Don’t invite your friends…family… neighbors, but invite those who can’t repay you….those who could never throw a party for you?”  Do you see where Jesus is going with this?  He is telling us this is how God works. If you are working with God and you want to God work in your church, you will not only invite the people like you or the people you like.  If that’s what you are doing, then the church you build will not be very hospitable.  In fact, as the rest of story implies, churches built by friends helping friends is a most often a church that ends up hostile, just as in this story where so called “friends” people battle each other for privilege and position.  That certainly isn’t what Jesus had in mind for his church.  His church is to be a place of grace, which is all about inviting the lost, the lame and the least.

So, are we setting a place for grace?  Are we trying to build a church based on family, friends, cronies or neighbors?  There’s nothing wrong with inviting your friends and family to church, but if this is all we are doing, we really haven’t gotten the main idea.  A place of grace should be much more hospitable than that.  Once I went to visit a church in central North Carolina, where a well-known visiting preacher was to speak.  My friend and I got there early.  As people started to come in, a dear old lady came and stood beside me.   There were empty seats in front of me and behind me, but slowly and surely, this woman proceeded to sit down, as if she was going to sit down in my lap.  As I moved over still in shock, I suddenly realized that I must have been setting in her seat.  This was her church and it was her seat.   Do you think that woman had ever thought about the fact that the church did not belong to her.  Do you think she ever thought about making a seat for others, rather than taking a seat from others?

Several years ago a missionary told me a story about a fast growing African church.  I don’t know what part of Africa, but I will never forget the story.   People in that area had never had a church building before.  After a church had helped them to build a building, there was never an empty seat.  It was filled to capacity ever service.  In fact, they were turning people away who had never had a chance to hear the gospel even for the very first time.  It was a problem, but it was a good problem to have for the church.  So, the deacons and pastor got together and decided what they would do until everyone in the village got to get into the church and hear the good news.   They decided that they would patrol the service and look for their members and ask them to give up their seat for strangers and visitors.  If their members or others persisted on demanding a seat, they would look at them and say, “How dare you come and hear the gospel twice, when there are still people here who have never heard it once.”

However you want to express the grace and goodness of God, you have to come to terms with the fact that Jesus turned the religious values of his day upside down.  Instead of a religion where the good, the righteous and the privileged are most honored, Jesus introduces the world to an expression of faith where the last are first, the first are last and where the lowest and the least are welcomed into the kingdom ahead of the brightest and the best.  That’s quite a different vision of the world than most people imagine; a world that is determined not by what people accomplish, earn or make of themselves, but a world that is determined by the God who loves and receives those who are unfortunate, have failed, or have been left out of privilege, honor and status.  This is the kind of faith-world that only God’s love and grace can make possible.  Picture it this way: As all the eyes were watching and waiting for that royal baby to be born back in July, the birth announcement God awaits is the announcement that hearts and lives have been reborn because they discover that there is a place of love and grace reserved just for them.  
 
GRACE SHOULD HUMBLE US TOO
Sometimes we all struggle to understand what God wants to do in our world.  Jesus did not seem to struggle in his understanding, but everyone else struggled with Jesus.   As Luke’s story opened, we already read how religious leaders are ‘watching him closely’ (Luke 14:1).  The point is that it can be very surprising, if not even extremely challenging and humbling to realize that God wants his church to be a ‘place’ where the sick, sinners, strugglers, and people crippled by life can come and find help and hope.  How do we set the table for grace where the radical hospitality of God can be made known and experienced?   

It will not happen, it does not normally happen, until something else happens.  That something else that must happen first is what takes place at the beginning of Luke’s story.   Jesus has been invited to a dinner party the Pharisees are having.   Many scholars believe it was probably at trap to show just how stupid Jesus ideas were.  On the way to the party (a party that was thrown ‘on the sabbath’),  a sick man just happens to be standing there in front of him, perhaps planted there to see what Jesus would do.  Jesus puts the question back on the Pharisees who are watching him: “Is it right, is it lawful to cure people on the Sabbath or not?”   No one answers.  It’s not that they are confused, but they want Jesus to break the law on the open road.  Maybe they want this to end up being the point of discussion that will follow at the dinner table.  But Jesus reminds them that if an animal has a need on the Sabbath, there is an exception made.  Shouldn’t it be the same, if not more so for a human being?  The answer is clear.  End of discussion.

So, when we get to the dinner table, it’s Jesus who has the first word.  Noticing how the dinner guests are all scrambling to take the most honorable positions, Jesus reminds them that they should instead be taking the most humbled seats.  If you take the honored one, and you are asked to move, just think how humiliating that would be.  So take the humble seat, Jesus suggests.  If you are later asked to move up, you will be ‘exalted’ in front of everyone rather than humbled. 

We must understand here that Jesus giving us a parable and picture of God’s kingdom work, not advice on seating etiquette.  The point is that if we would invite the least and the lost in our churches; that if we want this place to be ‘a place of grace’, it will have to start with attitudes and acts of humility among us.  You don’t fill up the church or expand the kingdom by getting people who are the least and the lost to step up, but you fill up the church and expand the kingdom by getting the people who are among the brightest and the best to step down.   We are the ones who have to send out the invitations.  We are the ones who have to give up our seats.  We are the ones who have to do what needs to be done to prepare the dinner for the lost and the least. 

Something interesting has just happened in a town not far from here.   It was one of those large steeple churches that most pastors would love to have as their church.  It is a place where many of the wealthiest and finest of the town want to belong.   But rumblings have been going on in that church for some time now.   The pastor had led the church to new approaches to try to reach people.  He had gotten the church involved in the community.  He had done away with the sophistication of their approach toward ministry.  He had attempted to help the church reach out to the needs of common people.  But some of the long term members of the church did not like what was happening, even though new people had come in.   So, some of the people with honor, prestige and money in that church started giving the pastor a hard time, all in hopes that these new attitudes and actions of ministry and change would not continue.  They liked the church the way it was before as a social and spiritual place for the successful and the elite.  I don’t know all about what happened, but I know that it is highly unusual for a  pastor to give up a church most would love to have.  But that’s exactly what the pastor recently did.  He left job as pastor to become the head of a charitable organization.   He said he had been wanting to help strangers find hope all his life.   The church never did understand why he wanted to step down.   Some also didn’t understand why the church needed to step down.  Stepping down is not the direction the world or the church is used to going.

But if we want to join in the work of God in this world, in a world that isn’t really that much different from the world Jesus faced, we too will have to be willing to take the lower seats and the places of less honor.   This is how the kingdom comes and it is where grace is most appreciated and will do the most good.   For you see, those who are in positions of prestige, power and privilege need God’s grace just as much as the rest of world does.   Until we realize just how ‘needy’ we all are, even if it is on an entirely different level, we will not find it easy to make a place of grace for someone else.

GRACE CAN BE A HAZARD, BUT ONLY IF WE REFUSE IT
Jesus has one more lesson about grace.   In response to a wish for the kingdom comes a warning.  Jesus tells another story about a person who gave a big dinner party and told his servant to go and hand out the invitations.  The problem was that the invited guest would not come to the party.  The host said “everything was ready” but unfortunately, those who were invited made all kinds of excuses, sent their regrets, or simply did not show up.  They said they all had ‘good’ reasons, and maybe they did.  But what does the host do, he goes to plan “B” and sends his servant back out on the street to invite all the undesirables, the sick, the lame, and the crippled.  They do come to the party, but there is still room.  Now comes the question: Should the servant go back out and invite more people?   Yes, of course, “but” the host and owner of the house says, “none of those who were invited (and did not come) “will taste my dinner.”   

A couple of years ago, Rob Bell, a popular evangelical preacher, wrote a book entitled “Love Wins!”  The subtitle of that book suggests that this book is about ‘heaven, hell and the fate of every person who ever lived’.   That’s quite a tall order for any book, and as a result of writing this book and the controversy that ensued, Bell lost his job as founding pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids.   What caused such a stir?     At the heart of the book, Bell discusses his belief in God’s unconditional love and grace, which God offers through no merit of our own.  So far, so good, but what Bell objects to is the idea that if you reject God’s invitation of love and grace, that ‘God will torture you forever’.  Bells goes go on to affirm his belief that since God’s will must be done on earth as it is in heaven (which is God’s will and wish to save everyone), ultimately God will gets what God wants, meaning that in the end love will win over all the evil that is in the world and the evil that is in us.  Whether it is through the purifying fires of purgatory or sheer grace and power of victorious love, Bell affirms that God will eventually save every person who ever lived.

Several years ago, a French lawyer and theologian, Jacques Ellul wrote a book about his own Christian beliefs.  I’ll never forget one statement he made about ultimate human destiny.  He said that a healthy minded Christian should hope and pray that everyone will eventually be saved, but he said he had to stop short of believing this is true.  Why did lawyer Jacques Ellul not go where pastor Rob Bell dared to tread?   Could it be that listen closely to the final word of the host in Jesus’ parable, who says resolutely:  For I tell you, none of those who were invited (and did not come) will taste my dinner" (Luke 14:24 NRS)?
To be fair to Rob Bell, I don’t think he meant to reject Hell as much as he just could not reconcile God’s loving heart with the idea that God sends people to Hell to burn forever and forever.   Anyone who has a loving heart and who believes that “God so loved the world” (John 3.16) or that “God does not want any to perish, but that all come to repent” (2 Peter 3.9) should take the Bible serious enough to have trouble with Hell.   Even in the Bible, Hell is not intended for humans, but for ‘the devil and his angels’  (Matthew 25:41).  But the greatest problem I have with Hell is not the burning of the fire, or the unending nature of the punishment, but the problem I have with Hell is that it represents something that I see each and every day as very real in this world.  Love and Grace have set the table through Jesus Christ.  Everything has been made ready, but there are still people, bad people, but also good people, even religious people, and even so called “Christian” people, who have received the invitation of grace, but are still too busy to come to God’s party.     
If you don’t come when you are invited, will you still get to enjoy God’s meal of goodness and grace?  Israel didn’t.   They rejected God’s offer of grace through Jesus, and within a generation, the nation was gone.  If we reject God’s invitation to love and grace now, “how will we escape, if we reject so great a salvation’ (Hebrews 2.3)?  If we take this life as seriously as God does, then our it must be our choices now, not our choices after death that determine our legacy and our destiny.  I think C.S. Lewis had it right when he said that if the door of grace is locked, it is locked from the inside.  But we can lock it.  God will honor and respect our choices.  As the poet rightly says, “We are the captain of our souls.  We are the masters of our fate”.   God is also the master host of his own table.   If God says that ‘none of those who were invited (and did not come) will taste his dinner’ (that final supper of the lamb at the heavenly table) I don’t think we have any theological or philosophical right to turn his ‘none’ into “all” or “every person”.  

What we can do, must do, and are challenged to do in this text, is to accept the invitation of grace and love ourselves and to keep handing out the invitations to God’s table, even if only those who have been lamed, crippled and blinded by life, are those who accept the invite.   We can’t control who comes or doesn’t come to the party, nor do we know what only God knows about ‘who will not taste the dinner’, but what we do know is that for now, the table is ready and it is open.  God’s grace is amazingly hospitable to outsiders and it is amazingly humbling to insiders.   The only ‘hazard’ I see in grace, is if it is rejected.  If we reject God’s grace and love what else is there that can save people like us---or save people like them---and save people like us any and all of the rest of us?   What else is there that can save and nourish us to eternal life worth living except the meal of grace and love that God has set for us in his son and our savior, Jesus Christ?’  Amen.