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Sunday, August 22, 2010


Straighten Up!
Luke 13: 10-17
Dr. Charles J. Tomlin
Flat Rock-Zion Partnership
August 22, 2010

Way back in cold February, fourth grader Patrick Timoney came face-to-face with what “zero degrees” really mean.  Not “zero degrees” Fahrenheit, but “zero degrees” of tolerance.

It seems Patrick had taken some of his favorite Lego toys to school to show off to his buddies. Any parent of young children can tell you those little, tiny Lego guys are natural born killers.   They hide in the couch to poke you when you sit down.
They stab you in the foot as you cross the floor.   They can single-handedly destroy expensive vacuum cleaners, dishwashers, and washing machines.

Patrick’s favorite Lego toy was an inch-and-a-half tall policeman figure. The Lego policeman came armed with his own teeny-tiny gun. That minuscule piece of plastic succeeded in getting Patrick kicked out of school. It seems the “zero tolerance” policy about bringing “weapons” on school grounds extended to include that Lego ornament, that toothpick-sized armament.

Sorry, but sometimes “zero tolerance” makes “zero sense.” At least zero common sense.  (From as sermon by Len Sweet… Mulligans, All.)

Len Sweet says:   “A “zero tolerance” policy is what the synagogue leader was advocating in today’s gospel lesson. Charged with keeping the reading and reflection of the Torah on the straight and narrow, this officious official couldn’t see beyond the letter of the law, beyond the jot and tittle of his title. No “work” on the Sabbath meant strict adherence to every stated restriction. No “work” on the Sabbath mean avoiding every rabbinically-vetoed activity.

In other words, the synagogue official had come to see the Sabbath as one great big “thou shalt not.” Instead of being a celebration of the divine presence, Shabbat became a cell to quarantine human activities and confine the Spirit. He had lost sight of what the Sabbath was FOR. In his effort to keep the Sabbath wholly separate, he had lost sight of what made the Sabbath truly holy.”


What makes us “holy”?  To give the Jewish religious leaders credit, they wanted to be “holy” and “keep Sabbath.”    The problem was, they did not realize that “holiness” is not about following the law but it is about doing and becoming love.   God says, “Be holy as I am holy”, not “do holy as I do holy”.   We become holy as we become loving because, God is love.

Holiness is about love.   This is what the religious of Jesus’ day were missing.  Do we get it?

This week I read a story about an episode that a minister witnessed in a hospital emergency room. He was waiting his turn to see the doctor when a young mother came through the door with a crying child of about three or four years old. The woman was holding a bloody handkerchief over the little girl’s mouth and looking around frantically for help. She hurried to the desk and started to say, "My daughter’s been hurt and I need to see…"   The receptionist cut the mother off in mid sentence. "You need to take a seat and wait for one of the clerks to sign you in."   "But my little girl was hit in the mouth by a…" The receptionist interrupted again. "Please take a seat ma’am. Someone will be with you shortly."

The ER doctor walked by and witnessed this. "Shame on you!," the doctor said to the receptionist. "This little girl needs help right now!" The doctor himself led the girl and her mother into an exam room. The receptionist was focusing on the hospital’s procedure, but the doctor was focusing on the child’s pain.


Shame on the president of the synagogue. By the rulebook a person can be right, but by the law of love still be dead wrong. Without love, even being right can end up going woefully wrong.

This same kind of attitude and behavior showed up in the church at Corinth. Quarrelsome factions, groups, had developed in the congregation. For example, people were saying things like this to one another: "My tradition is better than yours. I belong to Apollos. Or I’m in line with Peter." Church members had also taken to sizing themselves and each other up according to perceived spiritual gifts.     Some asserted, "My gifts are higher than yours. I know better than you do. Therefore I have, and deserve to have, more authority in the church than you. What I say should carry more weight."  The most highly coveted gift in that congregation was speaking in tongues, and anybody with that gift was considered, and thought him or herself to be, on a higher plane than ordinary church members.

While Paul recognized and appreciated the gifts he saw in the church at Corinth, he saw the same problem there that Jesus saw in the president of the synagogue. There was something lacking in the congregation’s love for one another. It doesn’t matter how right you are and how gifted you are and how much you do if you don’t do it with love.  Or, as Paul put it in First Corinthians 13, that great love text, we can have all these gifts and do all these self-sacrificing things, but without love it doesn’t amount to a hill of beans.  To put it another way, without love good works turn self-serving. Without love, gifts turn into idols. Without love, even the sacred law can turn into an idol, more important than the God behind the law, and more important than the people God loves.   Without love, even when we’re right, we’re in danger of going wrong. It can happen like this.   (From a sermon by Mary Harris Todd,, 2010.  Her great stories and illustrations provided the structure for this sermon).

In a book entitled Humble Leadership (Alban 2007), Graham Standish describes the sad case of a pastor he knew. This pastor confused his own ambitions with God’s will, speaking of blind spots. This man was a good preacher, a person of vision, had plenty of drive, and he really did want to lead people to serve Christ. He was a good man. But there was a problem. He assumed that he was the only person in the church who understood what God wanted. After all, he had special gifts and special training. Like the super-Christians in Corinth, he was sure he knew best. But the congregation resisted his vision, plans and programs, and he grew angry and bitter. When the congregation didn’t follow immediately, he thought they were deliberately undercutting him. Eventually he left the church and left the ministry altogether.

Maybe this pastor did have good ideas. He could have been right on many things. Certainly he had gifts and skills to offer. But as Paul says, what is that without love? Something was lacking in love for the flock. The pastor didn’t respect the people and their gifts and their faith (Standish, Humble Leadership, p. 10). Being right and being in charge was more important than loving the people. He needed to be straightened out.

Once a young minister came to me complaining that his deacons were trying to tell him how long he could preach.  He continually preached long sermons, sometimes up to 45 minutes to an hour going way passed 12 o’clock.  He told them they had no right to tell him how long he could preach.  He was arrogant, rude, selfish and uncompromising.  Finally, the deacons taught the young preacher a lesson, but it was difficult.   They let him know that he could preach as long as he wanted, but not in their pulpit.  He was fired.   He just couldn’t see the value of being caring and compassionate in his preaching, as much as he cared about being “right.”

Also, the president of the synagogue was more concerned about being right and being in charge than he was about a suffering woman. Sometimes being right does seem to be the most important thing, but it never is.


Do you know why this is true?   Do you know why “being right” is not as important as being kind, compassionate and loving?   Do you know why the first Fruit of the Spirit is love?  Do you know why the gospel is not about rules, but about developing loving relationships?   Do you know why it is just as important to love the neighbor we do see as it is to love the God we can’t?
It is important because “love” is the only real power that can heal and help straighten up the world.

In her book Strength for the Journey1 (Jossey-Bass 2002) Diana Butler Bass tells the stories of several congregations that she has been a part of. Some were quarrelsome, including the one she was a member of while she was a student in seminary.  Many studious people were a part of this congregation. Many were quite articulate, able to express matters of faith really well in words. There were several subgroups in this church: some were generational in nature, while others centered on differences with each other over various issues of faith and practice.
Whatever camp people were in, being right, being correct was very important to them. Indeed, at that time it was very important to Diana herself.  She wanted matters of faith and practice to be black and white. One pastor remarked to Diana much later that he had never served another congregation where so many people were obsessed with being certain. Folks felt that if they were right, then others must certainly be wrong.

Now this was an Episcopal church. Episcopalians are organized into regions called dioceses; and each diocese has a bishop, who is the shepherd of the whole diocese.   People in this particular church tended to be suspicious of bishops, wondering whether the leadership of the denomination was truly Christian or not.
When a new bishop was elected in that diocese and he started making the rounds getting to know the congregations, a number of folks in this congregation got ready to challenge him. When he arrived to visit them, these people were primed with questions, which on the surface is fine. Christians should be able to approach their leaders and raise questions. But they came with an adversarial stance. The truth was they wanted to catch the bishop making a mistake. Like the religious leaders trying to catch Jesus making a mistake, they wanted to be able to say, "See! We told you he doesn’t believe the right things!"

The bishop got a hostile reception, but he held his own fielding the questions. Then Diana’s husband raised his hand and said, "Bishop Johnson, it says in the book of Timothy that the bishop is to guard the gospel. Sir, listening to you, I cannot discern what you are guarding. Can you tell us, please, exactly what you think the gospel is?"

Silence. Nobody moved. The bishop didn’t rush to answer. He looked at the questioner, and looked around the room. Then, Diana writes, "he unfolded his arms—which he had held across his chest—and stretched them out so widely that he almost looked like Jesus hanging on the cross. ‘God,’ [the bishop] said deliberately. ‘God loves everybody.’
"’Well, yes,’ [Diana’s husband] started to protest, ‘but…’
‘God loves everybody,’ [the bishop] replied. ‘That’s it.’
‘God loves everybody.’"
It was clear that this answer did not please most of the audience. It sounded wishy-washy. It sounded like "anything goes."
But Diana herself was put to shame. She wrote, "Suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, I knew that [the bishop] was right, and I was wrong. God’s only boundary is love...and there, on that day in [the church] parish hall, I began to understand that orderliness is not faith, and certainty is no substitute for grace."

Mary Harris Todd says something we must say to ourselves:  “We need Jesus to point out our blind spots and correct them. We need him to show us where we need to grow in love. We need him to straighten us out.
When I find myself growing impatient and itching to be unkind to somebody, Lord, straighten me out.
When I find myself enjoying blaming the victim, Lord, straighten me out.
When I find myself growing arrogant, Lord, straighten me out.
When jealousy and pride come creeping in, Lord, straighten me out.
 When I find myself keeping a record of someone else’s wrongs, and rejoicing in someone else’s mistakes, Lord, straighten me out.
When I start thinking I can see more clearly than others can, Lord, straighten me out.
When I think I already know it all, Lord, straighten me out. When my need to be in control is more important than the person that is before me, Lord, straighten me out.
When I think I’ve arrived, that I’m perfected in love, Lord, have mercy. Lord, straighten me out.
Lord, straighten us all out.”  Amen!

At the end of this text we have a “healed woman” and a “unhealed” religion.  Do you know what the difference was?  It wasn’t the lack of power of Jesus to heal or to help.  But it was the unwillingness of religion to let God heal and help them.  Even Jesus doesn’t have the power to help the kind of “crippled” and “crooked” religion that doesn’t want to love.

Only when we want can God’s grace to “straighten us” our and up do we receive the necessary power to “heal” crippled hearts”.  Love is the foundation a healing and helpful Christian, a healing and helpful church and a healing and helpful religion.  Do you see it?  Do you feel the love?  It might sound wishy-washy, but the hardest and most rewarding thing you’ll ever do, is allow God’s Spirit to transform your heart with the power of love.   Let it be so, Amen!

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