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Sunday, May 26, 2013

When People are Bears

A Sermon Based Upon Colossians 3: 12-13; Luke 8: 40-48
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Trinity Sunday, May 26th, 2013

“Bear with one another, and if anyone has a complaint, forgive each other….”   (Colossians 3: 13, NRSV).

I was an only child.  My wife, being the oldest of 7, will say that it’s very obvious.  We ‘onlys’ have ways that are not always likeable, nor very social.  We can be self-absorbed.   But don’t be too hard on us.  It was the way we learned to survive in an adult world where we often felt alone.   Bear with us.

The first time I realized that it was not good to be alone, I was still a child.   I had a coloring book and I loved to color.   A friend from the neighborhood came over.  I loved having him around---having someone to play with.  We got to the coloring book.  Then came the problem.  He wanted to color the page I wanted to color.  He could not color the way I could color.  He was going to mess up ‘my picture’ and ‘my book’.   I snatched the book away from him and said,  “Let me show you how to color in the lines.”   My mother heard me, came in the room and ordered me to give the book back.  (How did she know?).   Then she said,  “Joey, if you want to have friends, you have to let him color the picture he wants to and to color how he wants to.”   It was then, for the first time, I understood what it means to “bear” another person.   I was a little behind on learning the human skill of ‘bearing’; and still have trouble with it at times.

If you don’t want to end up a grumpy person, all alone without any friends at all, you have to learn to ‘bear one another’.   This is what the Apostle Paul instructed the young church filled with new Christians.  What do you think was behind these words?   What was the ‘bear’ behind the bearing?  How can, as the French philosopher Paul Sarte once said,...How can Hell be other people?"   

For Christians especially, there is indeed a ‘bear’ in this command to ‘bear one another’.   For you see we Christians understand ourselves as people who are supposed to live rightly—who are, to put it in this coloring book image, suppose color rightly, and are even called to help others learn how to life live so that they ‘color between the lines”.   But we also know that this is not always easy to define.   The lines are gray in some areas.  Everybody does not have the same skill in coloring.   Sometimes our ability to ‘get it right’ keeps us from ‘bearing’ the difficulty others have in ‘getting it right’.

The great example we have from the New Testament story, is what happen when the Jews handed the coloring book over to the Gentiles.   The Gentile Christians could not color like the Jewish Christians.   The Gentiles did not know how to color ‘circumcision’ or kosher diets, or other rituals of the Jewish Christian church.   Some wanted to snatch the coloring book back and show them how to do it right.  Others said it didn’t matter what color they used or whether they got it all right, as long as they were on the same page.  The whole idea of letting strangers color in God’s coloring book made some people difficult to bear.   

In response to the difficulties and differences in how people understood the right way to ‘color’ the gospel, Paul made a big issue in the church about learning to ‘bear’ with one another.   You read a lot about the details of the early church’s struggle to learn about how to share the coloring book of grace letter to the Corinthians.   Particularly in 1 Corinthians 8 and 9, the apostle Paul writes about what to do about ‘food sacrificed to idols’.   Some Christians refrained from eating anything that had ‘idol’ stamped on it, just like many today won’t get close to alcohol, tobacco or other things that can pull people down.   Other Christians said, since there is no such thing as idols, or we know better, would eat or partake, never letting any food, or any other substance get in the way of their life and faith.   Both of them claimed to know what was the right thing to do.  Both of them had found a way to deal with the temptation to deny God.   But which way was the right way?     What was Paul’s answer to such a relational quandary?  How would Paul help them early Christians to ‘bear with one another’ even though they had their differences in customs, in beliefs, and in habits and in viewpoints?

This is still as ‘hot topic’ today, as it was then.  People in churches, synagogues, mosques, communities, cities and nations see things differently.   If we don’t learn to ‘bear with one another’ in our differences we cannot bear with each other very long.   Without some understanding, appreciation, and maybe even the ability to celebrate our differences, the world can become a violent, hateful, and disgraceful place.   Paul knew this when his first word about which ‘knowledge’ was the right knowledge, answered clearly, “We all think we possess the right knowledge.  Yet, knowledge puffs us up, whereas love build us up.  Just knowing something does not give you all the knowledge you need for living in hope;  God knows you, but your hope for life is built a greater truth; God loves you.  Love is the greatest knowledge.”  (My paraphrase of 1 Cor. 8:1).

To learn to love people you don’t agree with can be a bear.   We all know this too well.   Our news/media world today (or should I say circus), capitalizes on our differences; different viewpoints, extreme ideas, exceptional ways.  It does not make money unless it has a story to tell.  Stories are made up of contrasts, differences, and conflict.  Our media is also based upon trying to remain neutral, with no ideal, no truth, no vision, and no resolution other than the facts.  This can lead to more coldness, more division, and less understanding and more confusion. 

If a news reporter were reporting on the differences in the early church concerning food, he or she would never speak the way Paul spoke later about the ‘food issue’ saying, “Food will not bring us close to God.  WE are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do.  But take care that this liberty of your does not somehow become a stumbling-block to the weak.”  (8:8-9).   The News media can’t say there is a god---there is no proof.   The News media also can’t say it doesn’t matter what you eat, because that makes there ‘news’ not matter.  Finally, the News media can’t tell you not to be a ‘stumbling block’ because they are to remain neutral, without any encouraging any kind of moral value other than valuing their skill to report the truth as they see it. 

 But here’s the rub.  Nobody can report the truth except ‘the way they see it’ or ‘want to see it’.  There is a value judgment in everything we see and say.   Pilate was indeed asking the right question: What is truth?   The only truth that exists in this very human world is what we decide we want the truth to be.  This does not mean there is no absolute truth, but there is always some kind of angle on truth.   You and I have to decide who or what determines or constitutes ‘truth’ in our world.   To have faith in God is deciding for a certain truth---a truth that is not automatic, but must be decided by faith.  To believe that you need to go on a religious diet is much different than going on a regular diet.     One is obvious, but the other is not.  It is decided from the heart---from the inside out.   

And this is exactly what Paul is getting at.  If you want to bear with others, then you have to decide that what kind of spiritual ‘diet’ you are going to go on.   Are you going to have a faith that feeds on hate, differences, and dislikes or are you going to feed on a diet of love, similarities, or common goals, such as  Paul suggests to the Colossians, as ‘compassion, humility, gentleness, patience and ‘bearing with the other’ as the greater good, the greatest knowledge and the best decision.  What do you want to happen here, Paul is asking us too?   You can’t have a human race without learning how to bear our differences in love.   You can’t have a church without deciding whether to make grace exactly what it is.   We can only learn to bear one another when we learn how to implement God’s own grace into our own human relations.

When we learn to ‘bear with one another’ the real question comes down to where do we draw the line, and how firm or flexible will we be with drawing that line.

When I went on my first overseas mission experience in Brazil back in the late 1980’s, one word of advice that was given to us ‘would be missionaries’ was whatever you do, be flexible.   Don’t try to make everybody in Brazil into a Baptist.  Don’t try to say that just because they are not Christian like you are Christian does not mean that they are not Christian.  We all come to God with a different set of cultural eyes, cultural viewpoints, and cultural experiences.  

I really didn’t know what the Mission trainer meant until I hit it head on.   I ran into a Brazilian Baptist who told me that everybody who smokes a cigarette is going straight to hell because they already smell like hell when you get close to them.  That was quite a shock.  It wasn’t that I was for smoking.  I didn’t smoke.  I often confronted my mother about the unhealthiness of her smoking.   But I didn’t like the fact that this Brazilian Baptist had it all figured out and didn’t allow for things like wrong choices, the power of addictions, or cultural difficulties, like people in Iredell and Yadkin county, where I grew up who had tobacco farms.  I knew that these folks were promoting tobacco by selling it, but I also knew they were just trying to make a living.  Some were trying to get away from it.  Others couldn’t.   I didn’t like that Brazilian calling my people devils from hell preparing to go back to hell by participating in the tobacco industry. 

But I also knew he had a point.  Tobacco is not a Christian ideal.  Tobacco is not good for you.  Growing tobacco is a sin that we need forgiveness for, like a lot of other sins we all have committed in our lives.  Getting rid of our sin is not always as easy as saying “stop that” or “don’t do that”.  Sometimes sin is all wrapped up in who we are, who our families have been for generations, and it is not that easy to just ‘stop’ and ‘do better’.   Sin requires grace.  Getting rid of, or overcoming sin is not that easy.

One of the most difficult and controversial issues in our day is homosexuality and gay marriage.   As a Christian, I sincerely believe that the highest ideal is heterosexual marriage.  I believe this is what God intended, just like he didn’t intend for people to pick up a cigarette and light up.  I can’t preach that smoking is O.K., just like I can’t preach that homosexuality is what God intends.  But should gay people be loved, be accepted, and be part of our world?  Science tells us that Homosexuality has been part of our world since the beginning.   You can call it sin, you can call it a flaw in the DNA, or you can call it a choice or a social problem, and you can even call it 'normal' for some people, but the truth is there is nothing any of us can do to stop them from being a part of our world, our nation, our communities and even our churches.    

But like other less than ideal behaviors we can’t stop, and other people can’t stop,  we must come to make a bigger decision about what to do in the future.   If as Christians, we must draw the line about homosexuality, could we learn to draw the line like most of us did about smoking.  It’s not what we want.  It might not be what’s needed.  It’s certainly not what I can preach.  But it is what it is….and what we must do is decide whether or not we will love someone we can’t understand, even someone we don’t like. Can we understand that being with others will always mean ‘bearing with’ people in this imperfect world that is not yet fully redeemed.   Remember in heaven, there will be no cigarettes and there will be no sex.   Well, the truth is Jesus didn’t say whether or not there would be cigarettes, but he did tell us there would be no sex.  So, my advice to everyone should be to stop sex now, since there won't be any in heaven---right!  Wrong!  My advice should be to love each other, bear each other let’s the courts do what courts do, and trust that one day God will do what only God can do---make us complete, perfect, whole and righteous.  I’m counting on God’s court of forgiving  love.

For now, in this imperfect world, if we are going to be the church is a world where people are different, we have decide where to draw the line, and we also have to decide what kind of line we will draw; and what will we do when people color outside of those lines.  Paul has a suggestion, or should I say command from the Lord.  Paul suggests that even if we have to draw lines, that when we draw them, we still ‘forgive’ each other when people step across that line.   This is exactly what ‘forgive us our trespasses’ means in the Lord’s prayer.  To sin means to step across God’s line, or not to be able to reach God’s standard, ‘to fall short’.   When God forgives ‘sinner’s’ who fall short, he calls us to do the same thing.  Only when we forgive are we able to keep ‘bearing with each other’.  

When I told my mother it wasn’t O.K. that she smoked.   I also told her I didn’t wouldn’t allow her to smoke around my daughter.   I wanted my mother to try even harder to break her addiction.   But if my mother failed.  I would love her anyway.   I always forgave my mother.  I remember how she also forgave me.  I gave my mother grace, just like she gave me grace.  I didn’t look down on my mother.  She was my mother and I loved her more, not less, due to her struggle with tobacco.  In the same way with all the other hot button issues of our day.  We may have to draw the line with what we can handle or not handle.  But we still have to forgive each other.   When I came home from the mission field, one of my best friends in church and school told me he was gay.   I immediately went to him.  I told him that did not want that for him, but I accepted him, loved and forgave him, whether I needed to or not.  I only asked that he also accept, love, and forgive me, for not always understanding.  But no matter our different worlds, I would still be his friend.  If he ever needed me, he could call on me.    

A lot of things happen in this world that God does not intend.    In a healthy understanding of God, we can say that God allows things to happen in this world that are not according to his perfect plan.   If he didn’t, we wouldn’t be here.   Life still has flaws.   Life is not perfect.   Look at a diseased person, a handicapped person, or a person who struggles in life.   We might say, their life is not worth it not valuable or worthy, but God says that life is still worth it and even sinners are welcome.   Again, many things happen in life that God did not intend like idols, dishonoring parents, lies, stealing, murder, adultery, or coveting what others have.  These are all things that are against God’s law---and at least to God, they are far more important to God than the lines people might draw about cigarettes or sexuality.  So if, we are going to draw the lines, draw them where the God has drawn them in the 10 commandments.  But no matter where you draw them, and no matter whether or not everyone else can ‘color’ within the lines, remember that if you are going to share life with others, even share God’s love with others, you are also going to have to be able to forgive those who transgress the lines you have drawn, because God forgives those who transgress his lines.  

How do we gain the power to forgive those who cross the line---either the line God has drawn or the line we have drawn in the sand, or in the Bible, or wherever we draw it?  I want to suggest something that comes out of Luke’s gospel story about Jesus’ healing power.  Jesus has the power to heal and help us.   I believe that this power of Jesus can help and heal us now, even in days of moral and ethical confusion.   Even when the lines are being redrawn, or unclear, or transgressed, I believe that Jesus’ line of love is the one line that can’t be moved.  Just as the 10 commandments were immovable lines for Moses and Israel, and are still immovable lines for a healthy culture, I also believe that love is the immovable line for Jesus, even when the commandments have been broken and forgiveness, grace, and healing is needed.   Jesus did not change the immovable lines, but he did forgive and reach out to people who could not ‘color’ within those lines.  This is part of what made Jesus---well, Jesus.   He let people color in his book, even if they couldn’t always stay between the lines.  I first heard Jesus in the voice of my mother.  She first instructed me to be like Jesus so I could love my neighbor who could wanted to color, but could not color like I did.   So what did I have to do to love, forgive and help that ‘stranger’ fell loved and welcomed in my house and in my book?   I had to let go of my power over the book.  I had to let go of having to have everything my way.  I had to ‘bear with’ them, to suffer their difference, even if it wasn’t me, wasn’t what I wanted, and definitely wasn’t how I wanted to see my book all colored up.   I had to allow some mis-coloring to have a new friend.   I had to allow that people were not like me, for them to like me.  I had to ‘bear’ even what I didn’t want to bear.   I had to forgive them, just like I would forgive myself, if I couldn’t color between the lines.

How do you and I give up ‘power’ to control what happens in this world, like God has given up ‘power’ to control people?   How do we give other people a chance to live an love, even if their idea of life and love is very different than our own.   Of course there are still lines.    We must draw lines.   But perhaps we can also forgive the lines, when others can’t color in those same lines.   But How?

Turn again to this story, where the great Healer is going through the crowd trying to heal people who lives are different.  They are different because they are not whole, and they are not what or who God intends.  Who cares whether they made choices that made them this way.   Jesus doesn’t seem to care.  All Jesus cares about is helping and bringing healing to people who realize how they hurt and need his healing touch.  On this particular mission Jesus is on his way to heal someone, but another someone, a stranger, a trespasser touches him.  You see it was not allowed for a ‘woman’ to touch a rabbi or any man in public.   But Jesus allows this woman to touch him.  Jesus allows anyone to come to him.  Jesus refuses no one.   Jesus does not draw lines when it comes to love, care, compassion, gentleness, kindness, and patience.  

But notice what happens when this woman touches Jesus.   Luke tells us that ‘power goes out of him’.  This is what happens when we love and bear other people.  We have to let go of some of our power.  When I went to see my friend who was struggling, I had all the power in the world to condemn him, to curse him, to criticize him or to cut him down.  Instead, I let the power go out of me, so that, at least between us, there could be healing love.    This may be the most needful image of power in our day---not the power we hold on to because of fear, hate, or lines that have been drawn in the sand; the greatest source of healing may still be for us as it was for Jesus, the power we let go out of us and into them.   Amen.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Hurry Up and Wait!

A Sermon Based Upon Colossians 3: 12; Luke 18: 1-8
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Pentecost Sunday,  May 19th, 2013

“ …. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?"   Luke 18:8 (NRSV)

Some of my earliest memories are of a waiting room.  When I was a young boy and my mother was in her 40’s she developed a blood disorder.   She was falsely diagnosed with chronic Leukemia, as her white blood cells were eating her red blood cells.   Because my Dad had to work, I spend many hours, which seemed like days and months going with her to the doctor’s office.  Those were hard, difficult days, of not knowing and of waiting, waiting, and more waiting. 

Today I still don’t like waiting rooms.   And it’s not just the waiting that is hard.  It’s also the mystery of the unknown.  If you knew when they would call on you, perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad.   So, once I entered a German waiting room to renew my work visa for Germany.  When I entered the room, there were a lot of people in the waiting room.  I was somewhat relieved that I was given a card with a number on it.  I thought this was a great idea.  There was a number on my card, and the number of the person now being served was up on a screen.   My number was 47.   The number on the screen was 3.    I still don’t like waiting rooms.

Waiting can be hard work.  This is what the woman in Jesus parable knows.  She’s waiting on a judge to hear her case.  He’s not a very nice fellow.  He’s inconsiderate of her and a lot of other people.  He’d not very fair and is known as the ‘unjust’ judge.  Thus, he probably plays favorites and who knows  when or whether he will consider her case at all?   What’s important for us to see for now is that this woman is in the waiting room.   She waiting, but she’s still making appeals.  She does not rest in her patience, but she keeps pestering that scoundrel and is determined to keep on bothering him until he has to listen to her.   Her patient waiting is neither passive, lazy, still or silent, but it’s very loud, determined and unwavering.  She is confident that her patient pestering will cause even this unjust and apparently deaf judge listen to her case.   She is the not just the persistent widow, she is the patiently persistent widow, who, even while patiently waiting, never gives up.  

The most important spiritual lesson Jesus wants to get across is that God is nothing like this.  God will not delay long in helping.  God will answer.   But the other question that begs an answering is this: will we do as good in our waiting or complaining room as this patiently persistent widow?   Jesus is not worried about whether or not God will answer, but Jesus is worried about whether people will keep praying and keep the faith.   “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”  That’s Jesus question.   The great problem of prayer is not getting answers.  The problem is not wondering whether prayer works, but it is whether or not the pray-ers are working---or are giving up way too soon.  Will people remain patiently engaged in well doing and in demanding what’s right and just until the answer comes?      

Will faith continue on the earth?   Jesus wondered.  Maybe we are wondering too.   As the apostle Paul speaks of ‘clothing’ ourselves with patience, Jesus’ parable reminds us what patience must mean if it really makes a difference in the way we live and in the final outcome of our lives.   What is most important for us, in this message about the Christian virtue of patience, is to discover that in no way is patience to be understood as a passive virtue, but it is a virtue that is full of energy, vitality and activity.   Patience is a virtue that remains full of a faith that works.   Because of this, I’m convinced that only a believer can develop the virtue of patience.  Only a person who sees and hopes beyond the here and now, which is what it means to believe, can reclaim this apparently ‘lost art of waiting’; which keeps working for the good, even while we wait.

Why I call waiting a ‘lost art’ is something you probably already know.  We live in world where waiting hold little value or appears as a negative.  As Rodney Clapp has written: “E-mails and cell phone calls are instant. Our food is fast. Our cars are too. Pressing a cell phone button or clicking an e-mail message, we may instantly commune with a friend on the distant West Coast.  But to be bodily present to that friend, we must “suffer” and endure several hours of travel.   And it is suffering, as in ‘long-suffering” (the older word for patience), a word which Paul uses in another place, it is this “suffering that  produces patience, which produces character, which in turn produces hope —the kind of hope that will not disappoint” (Rom. 5:3- 5) (As quoted in The Christian Century, July 25, 2012, p 45).  But if you never have to wait, and you never decide to suffer long, you will not develop patience, but you will eventually lose patience.  And without some willingness to suffer, patience can quickly become a lost art.

This is why I say that only a believer can develop patience.  Only the person who has belief in something beyond the ‘hear in now’ would be willing or able to take on an amount of suffering for the sake of others or for the sake of something bigger than themselves.   Those who have no perspective of God, no hope of good winning in the end, and no sense of justice or answers that are still out-there, and still coming---only people who have hope, can, in their right mind, be patient.   I wouldn’t expect unbelievers to be very patient.  People who only believe in the now, have to have everything now, because as far as they are concerned, tomorrow will never come.   For unbelievers it’s about now or never.  Only believers will prove their faith by trusting in the tomorrow of God.  Only believers learn and know how to wait.  Only believers are willing to suffer the moment and be patient until the good finally comes.  Jesus is exactly right in his worrying and wondering: Will there still be faith on the earth?   Without ‘faith’ on the earth, there will be no praying, no waiting, and eventually, because there is no belief in tomorrow, all human patience will wear out.

Even as a believer patience is not automatic.  Patience still has to be learned through the experience of life and it has to be practiced in daily living.   This is the second thing Jesus’ parable teaches us about prayer and patience.  The widow not only believes and has patience to believe her request will be heard, she also has to keep asking, and asking and asking.   Her patience is a practice.  And this practice of persistence praying is what teaches her and gives her even more patience.   She learns by what she does and keeps doing, and does again and again so that it becomes a part of who she is and a part of what she does. 

Just because you call yourself a Christian, does not guarantee you are a patient person.   Psychology teaches us that the capacity of having patient is learned very early in life.  When a baby cries and learns that someone will answer and come, that baby learns to trust.   The next time the baby will wait longer, or the parent will wait a little longer, and finally the baby learns to trust that someone will always come.   But if that Baby does not learn who that it can trust, nor it learns who it can trust, then that Baby becomes less and less able to have patient, then as an infant, and it has learned impatient behavior for all of life.   In our world where mothers and fathers are often more absent than present, where there are more and more outrages of anger, we prove to be a society is losing its patience because it doesn’t know how or who it can trust.   Learning to have faith can redeem and heal the pain of mistrust, but it can take years to undo the damage already done.

This is why it is so important to learn and to practice patience with each other.  The learning of patience can help to redeem the loss of trust in the world.  Again, as Paul wrote, “suffering produces patience, patience produces character, which teaches us to hope.”   The opposite can also be true: learning to have hope can give an example of character, and people who seek character want to learn patience, and when we have learned patience, we are able to suffer with and for each other and make the world a warmer, more caring, and more loveable and more live-able place.   The whole point Paul makes is that learning patience is part of a process.  Patience is something you must want and if you really want it, it is something you can learn.  When we learn it, it makes us new people with new opportunities with new results in life.

The way to learn patience comes from the most important truth we discover in Jesus’ parable of the persistent widow.  Because she persistently asks, she gains patience.  Because she patiently asks, she gains in her persistence too.   Through what she does and keeps doing, she becomes a person who is more likely to be noticed and heard.   This daily, persistent, faithful, and unrelenting asking will get her the hearing she wants, even from an unjust judge.  

If we keep praying, asking and taking our needs to God, we can do much better than her.   God is much more ready to hear us than an unjust judge.   God wants to answer more than we want to ask.   But this is still not the whole point.   What Jesus wants us his listeners to know is much more than how to persistently pray and get more things from God, but what Jesus wants us to know is how we can become the kind of people who persistently and patiently ‘pray and never lose heart’ (Luke 18:1).  

Luke tells us that this is the point Jesus wants to get across:  People who patiently pray become the kind of people with the very kind of enduring, patient, long-suffering, and character shaping faith, Jesus is looking for on the earth.   But such a long-suffering, enduring, character-shaping patience is best learned through a life of constant prayer.   “Pray without ceasing”, is what Paul suggested elsewhere.   This is not a skill learned through saying a prayer now and then, but it is learned through a constant and consistent life of persistent caring, continual acting, constant communication, and endless asking, seeking and knocking for the just, right and best things of life.  When we seek the ‘things from above’ this is what results in us learning to be faithful people who learn to be patient with each other, to be patient without ourselves, and even more patient with and for God.  You don’t become a patient person without also being a faithfully praying person—a person who lives for and daily acts upon what is faithful, beautiful, true, right and just.  Persistence in prayer and patience perseverance go together like hand in glove.  You don’t develop one without developing the other.  If you lack in one, you are most likely insufficient in the other.

But let’s make one more thing very clear.  When we say that patience is learned through a life a prayer, we are not simply talking about saying elaborate, well-crafted prayers.   This persistent widow teaches us that the ‘prayer’ is, as Jesus said elsewhere, all about seeking, knocking, and asking; but not just asking alone.   Words have power, but action can speak as loud as words; and achieve more than words.   Some of us are verbal people; who pray often with our lips and live what we speak.  Others of us are less verbal, who live what we believe and are less able to articulate it in words.  When Jesus described a life of prayer as seeking, asking, and knocking; he implied that prayer is only one-third words, and two-thirds action.  Even in prayer, the activity of what we do and keep on doing in our lives, speaks much louder than the things we say in words.   The kind of prayer that changes things and changes us might also be understood as much or even more as action, than just words.  

The development, the learning and the practice of patience with others, with God and with ourselves will mean that we do more than say we want to be more patient or that we pray for more patience.  We learn patience through how we live and through the habits we have we the virtues we practice daily.  Again, the ‘persistence’ in this widow is what Jesus says it means to have faith.   Her faith was not proven merely by her asking, but by her persistent asking and also by the rightness of her asking, her living, and fairness and justice in her case.  Even the unjust judge could not forever resist a person who proves who they are by getting up and doing it every day, every week, and every moment of their lives.   A patiently persistent person, who is doing, living, and speaking what is right, still has great power, even in a world where power is constantly questioned.

Recently I came across a interesting website.   The website known as “”, claims to “provide a [free] service for the most universal desire: the desire to be a better person.”   I read on: “To fulfill this desire, you can use the state-of-the-art personal development system designed by Benjamin Franklin. Eventually, with persistence and dedication, you can develop and maintain balance in your life and attain your aspirations and achieve your goals.”  

With this introduction, it went on to explain what this ‘virtue’ website is based upon:  “In his twenties, Benjamin Franklin identified the thirteen virtues in life by which he chose to live. He designed a pragmatic method to assist him in practicing them and making them “habits of the heart", all throughout his long life.   Franklin believed that by living this virtue-filled program for self-improvement he would be able to reach his goals and to achieve health, wealth, wisdom and good reputation. He featured a specific virtue each week and designed a method of rigorous self-control, registering every fault committed against the virtues.   As a result, he became one of the most prolific people in American history and influential and beloved Founding Fathers of the United States of America.  He was a leading author and printer, a satirist, a political theorist, a politician, a scientist, and inventor, a civic activist, a statesman and a diplomat. He did all this in one lifetime!”

In his own words, Benjamin Franklin's virtues had persistence and patience written in everyone though he never used those words:  His list included things like, Temperance — Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.  Silence — Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.  Order — Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.  Resolution — Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.  Frugality — Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself, i.e., waste nothing. Industry — Lose no time; be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.  Sincerity — Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.  Justice — Wrong none by doing injuries or omitting the benefits that are your duty. Moderation — Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.  Tranquillity — Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.   Chastity and  Humility — Imitate Jesus and Socrates.”   When considering his list of virtues, one does not have to guess how did Ben Franklin became Ben Franklin, in a world of much lesser people.   Neither do we have to guess how did the Persistent Widow got the attention of the unjust judge?  They have something very important in common.   The results realized in their lives were anything but automatic.  In the matter of gaining virtue, Franklin became who he became the same way the widow got her hearing: They patiently persisted in practicing what and who they wanted until they no longer had to practice them.   They became what and who they persistently tried to be. 

It’s the same way with practicing patience.   Being patient in our very short and sometimes difficult lives can be hard.  Patience is never automatic, but we can and must learn patience.   Patience is learned out of a life of faith and trust.  Out of a life of faith and faithfulness,  our gains more trust, less worry, more peace, less rush,  and of course, we then become more patient with others, with ourselves, and also with God.   Amen.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

‘Winning In the End’

A sermon based upon Colossians 3: 12; Luke 14:1, 7-14
By Rev. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
The Second Sunday of Easter, May 12th, 2013

Let’s start off with a bit of comic book trivial:  Who is the ‘mild-mannered reporter from the daily planet’?  The answer of course is Clark Kent--Superman in disguise.  

When the comic books say that Clark Kent is ‘mild-mannered’ it also means that he is meek and gentle.   In fact, the word ‘meek’ comes from an old Scandinavian word, mjukr, which mean ‘soft.’  In the German language, which often builds words out of word pictures, the word for ‘meek’ is “sanftmut’, which is literally, ‘soft courage’.   So, even though Clark Kent is really the ‘man of steel’, he appears in daily life as a very meek, mild, gentle, softly courageous person who couldn’t hurt a fly.   But we know differently. That’s part of what makes the ‘myth’ of superman interesting.  He’s meek, but when you least expect it, he can be strong-really strong, even invincible.   When the late Christopher Reeves played Superman, he portrayed Clark Kent not just as weak, but also as clumsy and awkward---to make it even more fun.   Reeves Clark Kent is maybe too meek, but he’s anything but weak. 

The ‘fictional’ Superman is a good visual to remind us that when the apostle Paul calls for Christians to ‘put on’ the virtue of ‘meekness’, he does not mean ‘weakness’.   Maybe it will help you to know that the English word ‘meek’ comes from directly out of an Old Norse word meaning gentle or soft.   The Norsemen were the Vikings and they were anything but weak.  Did the English pull ‘meek’ from Old Norse as Wishful thinking?

Our Bible passage from the gospel of Luke contains another picture of meekness, humility, modesty or patience.   In this story, religious leaders are ‘watching’ Jesus very closely.  Since Jesus appears to have true wisdom which they cannot discredit, these leaders want to try to trip him up by finding a flaw in his character.   But ironically, as these leaders watch Jesus, we see that Jesus was also watching them.  Jesus notices how most of the guests want to sit at the ‘place of honor’, or at the ‘head table.’   Seeing this, Jesus tells them all a story about a very smart fellow who was invited to partake in a wedding feast and wisely chose not to sit at the ‘head table’.  If you sit at the ‘head table’ and someone is more-distinguished that you comes in, then you will be terribly embarrassed.   But if you take a back seat, and then the host invites you to move to the head table, then you will be greatly honored.   Jesus then gives the punch line:  “All who exalt themselves will be humbled; but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” 

According to Jesus ‘meekness’ has much more to do with humility, cleverness and patience, than it does with weakness.  Meekness does not mean that you are unable to sit down where you want, but it means that you are willing to wait on someone else to point out just how important, how honored, and how significant, strong and powerful you really are.   When you are ‘meek’ you prove just how strong you really are.   In ‘waiting’ on someone to discover you prove just how much self-control, self-discipline and real strength you have.   When you are humble, gentle, kind and meek you patiently wait for God to reveal your true identity, which is, for now, as Paul says, is ‘hidden’ in Jesus Christ, who one day will also be ‘revealed’.  Meek does not mean weak, but it means waiting for the appropriate moment for the truth to be revealed.

My parents taught me not to fight back at bullies in school, but they did not want me to be weak.   I think I’ve told you about the time when I was in the 7th grade, the girl behind me dropped her pencil on the floor and could not reach it, so I got bent down to pick it up under a desk.   A very aggressive, and perhaps jealous fellow, jump on my back and attempted to strangle me.   I could not get him loose quickly enough and it almost caused me to pass out.  Afterwards, he laughed and I did not like what he did.  I did not go home and tell my parents, but I went and told my friend and saved my allowance and bought a book on Judo, which we practiced together.  Several months later, when that bully jumped me again, he was in for the ‘revelation’ of his life.   When he jumped on my back, I made a successful defensive move, and this time he was the one lying on the floor.  I put him in his place and didn’t even have to lift a finger.   I learned a few defensive moves, gain in strength and prepared myself, and simply waited for the opportunity.  It was the last time he ever jumped me.  I was still meek, but now he knew for sure, meek does not mean weak.

I’m not recommending you challenge all bullies this way, but I am trying to illustrate what meekness means.   The late New Testament scholar William Barclay was well studied in classical Greek.  He once explained how Aristotle taught that ‘great virtues’ lie between two extremes.   For example, he said, ‘gentleness lies between excessive anger and excessive passive indifference.’  The person who is meek is a person who is able to keep their composure.   The one who is praus, (gentle and meek) is always angry at the right time and never angry at the wrong time   (See N.T. Words, by William Barclay, p 241).   As an example, Jesus did get angry about some things.  He did overturn the money-changers tables in the temple.  He did call the Pharisees a bunch of ‘dead heads’ or literally, ‘white-washed tombstones’.  He really did call Herod, ‘that ole fox’ and he named his misinformed disciples ‘Satan’, and also told corrupt leaders that their daddy was the devil.  When you think of Jesus as ‘meek and mild’ and also lowly of heart, don’t ever mistake his meekness for weakness.  

What meekness is really about is ‘true power’.   Again, in Jesus’ story about the dinner party, and calling for guest to wait on the host to seat them, Jesus is not negating the place  of ‘power’ or ‘honor’, but Jesus is revealing where the real power and the true honor lies.   When the person humbles themselves and takes the back seat, they will now be moved to the ‘first seat’, near the central seat of power in the room so that everyone comes to recognize them and their position.

The ‘movement’ that takes place in this parable is important to visualize.   Recall in the Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus says “Blessed are the Meek, for they will inherit the earth”.   Here also, there is also a movement from the back side of life to the front side; from being a nobody, to being a somebody, do you see it?   The person who ‘inherits the earth’ is anything but powerless—as they are now in waiting, contented with the back seat in this current moment of life, waiting to claim ownership of what is rightfully theirs.  And what is rightfully theirs is not only going to be revealed in heaven, but it will be revealed in the coming, which is connected to this world of the here and now.  The meek will inherit THE EARTH, which is nothing less than THIS EARTH.   Because they are, and will continue to be ‘blessed’ by the eternal God, they will be given an enduring and eternal claim to possess the world and rule with Christ.  St. Augustine rightly expressed it this way: “You who wish to possess the earth right now, take care; If you are meek, you will possess it, but if you are ruthless, the world will possess you.”  

If ‘meekness’ is true power, what does it mean to have this power?   An illustration comes from my high school days and my two school friends, the Chamber’s brothers, Terry and Michael.  Terry was a freshman, like me, but Michael was a senior.  He was big, and strong, an undefeated wrestler, but not the smartest.  Michael grew up on hard work at the saw mill, not with books and smart moves.  Once, during his final year of wrestling, a very smart wrestler got Michael down on the mat.   We all thought Michael’s undefeated season had come to an end.  He was put on his back with a half-nelson.  There was practically no way to escape, you could only attempt to keep yourself from getting pinned.  But as we all cheered on, that strong, gritty, young man did the impossible.  He used the strength of his body to push himself up and broke the hold that was put on him.  Michael’s strength saved him that day.  It was hidden until he needed it.  Then all that off-bearing, all that sweat, and all that pushing his muscles beyond their limit each and every day came into play.  Michael was quiet, humble, meek, unassuming, and now, he was also UNDEFEATED.

What enabled Michael to win was not his clever wrestling skills, but it was his true strength.  It was this true strength---raw but real, which pulled him out of the worst situation.    In the same way, it is our true strength which can also pull us out of the worst of situations.  You cannot train, prepare, or plan on everything that will happen to you, but you can be faithful to everyday, work hard, and then, when the worst day comes, you overcome with your true power and true strength of faithfulness, humility and grace.  You don’t have to prove yourself, because you have proven yourself by how you live each and every day.   You remain meek, but not weak, because you have all the strength you will ever need to pull you through.

I think I told you about how I once lost my meekness, and it nearly cost me.  I was being sued for $52 thousand dollars for an accident my wife was involved in, which had been ruled  no-fault.  In spite of that, the other party sued us for damages.   When they put me on the stand, I lost my meekness and became angry at the attorney’s attempt to twist my words.  After the trial was over, it was called a hung jury because they figured that a preacher should not display his anger in court.  If only I had kept my composure, I would have won, but now it the whole ordeal was to be retried.  Fortunately, now that the evidence was out there, the other party became content to settle out of court.   If had only known the true ‘power’ meekness has.    As the Daily Study Bible puts it: “Oh the bliss of the person who is always angry at the right time, never angry at the wrong time, who has every instinct, and impulse, and passion under control because they are God-controlled, who has the humility to realize their own ignorance and their own weakness, for such person is King among all!” (As quoted in “Beatitudes” by Ronald Lello, Element Press, p 37).

Consider the central part of this quote from the Study Bible; ‘who has every instinct, impulse and passion under control because they are God controlled….”   The key to meekness is that a person is ‘under control’ and not ‘out of control’ because they have given ‘full control’ of their life to God.

Think about what makes Jesus’ special.  Really, there was nothing that special about Jesus.  He never made front page news in the ancient world.  Even the Bible tells us so.  Remember what Isaiah said about the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53?  The Jerusalem Bible translates: “He had no form or charm to attract us, no beauty to win our hearts; he was despised, the lowest of men, a man of sorrows, familiar with suffering, one from whom as it were, we averted our gaze, despised, for whom we had no regard.  Yet ours were the sufferings he was bearing, ours the sorrows he was carrying while we thought of him as someone being punished and struck with affliction by God; whereas he was being wounded for our rebellions, crushed because of our guilt. ( “Also from “Beatitudes” p. 40-41).  

What made Jesus most notable was that as a human being he was a fully surrendered to God.   This is why we are called to be like him too.   Jesus’ mark on the world is the trait we all are and will be called to emulate: surrender—full surrender, surrender of anything, everything, and of especially, our ‘own thing” to God.   As George Eliot once said, “When death, that great Reconciler comes, it is never our tenderness we repent of, but it is our severity”.    It is our holding on that prevents us from entering God’s joy; and it is the letting go and full surrender to God that is the gate to the greatest peace, warmest grace and the sweetest happiness.  The songwriter poet John Denver once got a glimpse of it and called it “Sweet Surrender” in his song about life.  Other singers, like Sarah McLachlan, still sing about it as ‘sweet’.  But what is so ‘sweet’ about surrender?  What is so sweet about surrendering your anger, your rights, and everything in your life to God? How can THAT be ‘sweet’? 

The sweetness of surrender is on display at the conclusion of Jesus’ story.   Like those religious leaders in Jesus’ day, we too might see ‘meekness’ as weakness or as a great negative because it is recommended that we surrender our place of honor, privilege, or hold on to some power which is rightfully ours.  We might see this meekness as weakness, because we it looks like surrendering and submitting to the power of others, who will in turn, possibly run all over us.  That is certainly not sweet, and it is not what Jesus envisions.  In this story, the best seat in the house is not taken away from the one who deserves it, but it is fully and finally given by the host, the master, and this lord who truly has the power to give it so it can never be taken away by anyone.  “How sweet is,” as Jackie Gleason used to say, when this one who takes the back seat is now acknowledged and waits for the master of ceremonies to call his name, right in front of all the others, and say, as Jesus suggests, 'Friend, move up higher'; you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you (Luke 14:10 NRS).

When I was a child, I attended church a lot.  I heard a lot of sermons and stories.  I remember very few of them.  But there is one story that hasn’t ever left me.  It was the story that came out of the days of ocean liners, when people traveled slowly across the ocean by ship.  One person coming into harbor on this ship was a missionary, who had spent his life working among the poor, the forgotten, and the unnoticed.  He had spent his entire life overseas and was finally coming home.  Having written letters to his family and his church, he wondered who would be there to greet him when he came home.  As he neared the port, thousands of people were on the shore cheering.  As he first heard the great celebration, with flags waving and the band playing, he could not help but wonder, even hope, it was for him.   But as he came closer, his fantasy was foiled by the reality.  Also on board this ship, but kept secret and unknown to him, was the president of the United States.   Now it became clear.  All the cheers, the praise, the celebration and honor was for the President.  But before his heart sunk, he remembered one important point.   Then, this missionary realized, that it was not yet his time to be honored, for he was truly not home yet.   

Meekness always remembers we are not home yet.    The time of recognition has not yet come.  But the sweetness of all that has been surrendered to God is still to be revealed when the master of all ceremonies finally says, “Friend, move up higher….you will be honored in the presence….”    In this story that belongs to God, the best is always saved for last.  And in our life with God, in humility and meekness, the best is yet to come.   We have not yet arrived, but we are still on the journey, and the value of our surrender will be fully realized or revealed when all truth is revealed.    Because of what is still to come, meek is not weak, but it is true power.   By putting on the clothes of meekness, we still have something to believe in, something to wait for, and something to hope in.  Now, being meek may still be painful at times,  but in time, like the best wine Jesus saved for the last in Cana, all that we have surrendered to God will become the sweetest of sweet.  Amen.  

© 2013 All rights reserved Charles J. Tomlin, B.A., M.Div. D.Min

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Getting Comfortable In Your Own Skin

A sermon based upon Colossians 3: 9-17; Luke 18: 9-14 NRSV
By Rev. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
The Fifth Sunday of Easter, May 5th, 2013

 "As God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with....humility...  (Col 3:12 NRS)

When Jesus called us to follow him, he didn't give us a list of personal qualities to develop like Paul did.  Instead, Jesus told stories, and the stories Jesus told made pretty clear what is expected of Christ's followers. The following parable is an example.  It's taken  from The Message Translation:

He told his next story to some who were complacently pleased with themselves over their moral performance and looked down their noses at the common people: 10 "Two men went up to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee, the other a tax man. 11 The Pharisee posed and prayed like this: 'Oh, God, I thank you that I am not like other people - robbers, crooks, adulterers, or, heaven forbid, like this tax man. 12 I fast twice a week and tithe on all my income.' 13 "Meanwhile the tax man, slumped in the shadows, his face in his hands, not daring to look up, said, 'God, give mercy. Forgive me, a sinner.'" 14 Jesus commented, "This tax man, not the other, went home made right with God. If you walk around with your nose in the air, you're going to end up flat on your face, but if you're content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself."

This is definitely a case of a very odd couple, and it's beyond clear which of these two serve as a model of the kind of person Jesus wants his followers to be.  But of the many positive qualities Jesus desired that we possess, humility may be the hardest.  Mac Davis sang the truth of it: 
“Lord, It’s hard to be humble. Oh Lord it's hard to be humble 
when you're perfect in every way.
I can't wait to look in the mirror cause I get better looking each day.
To know me is to love me, I must be a heck of a man.
Oh Lord it's hard to be humble but I'm doing the best that I can.”

It is hard to be humble for lot of reasons.  For one thing, you can sort of measure how well you're doing in matters like honesty, compassion, kindness or helpfulness.  But how do you measure your own humility?  Do you become a door mat and let people walk all over you?  Do you take everything lying down and never stand up to anyone or anything?  What does humility mean, especially when there are bullies everywhere? 

It might be possible for someone to know when you’re not being humble, like Mac Davis sings,“I must be a heck of a man”  But the real question is: How do you know when you are being humble enough?  Is humility really something you can measure or practice?  Would you be humble if you proclaimed, as the fellow in Jesus' story did, as he is basically saying, “Here is my humility and How I Achieved It"?    Think about it?  Everything this Pharisee did well---by not being like other people and by avoiding evil---was making him less and less humble by the minute.   When you think about it, humility is really hard.   

Arrogance and Pride, which are the opposites of humility, are much easier to see and to quantify.  Arrogance can also sneak into our behavior in very subtle and unsuspecting ways, like it does for the Pharisee.  He prays more than anybody else and probably actually does pray better.  Doing anything well and often---being faithful, being honest, being hardworking, and being diligent will often lead to success.  Then, when you end up better than other people----well, you know what I mean.  It’s almost as if being good, being honest, and being righteous has a build-in hazard of self-righteousness so that it is practically impossible to maintain a certain degree of humility unless you work just as hard at negating yourself.  (Some great saints actually did this, in physical ways, such as having themselves whipped, nailed to crosses, or beaten down verbally, just so they would not succumb to selfish pride.  Is this really what humility means---beating ourselves on the chest and telling God just how bad we are, so we can keep form becoming arrogant about it?  If you do that psychologists and psychiatrist are really going to have a hay-day with you!

Here, in this ‘tax man’ , who ‘beats himself down’ is exactly why most people misunderstand humility.  Many of us see humility as a way we must belittle and depreciate ourselves, as we put ourselves down and beat ourselves up over and over to remain humble.   But is this really what God wants us to be---people always thinking about how sinful, how sorry, and how shameful we look in the eyes of God.  Is this what it takes to be humble?   If it is, there is little wonder true religion is losing ground in our culture.     

I don’t believe that 'beating ourselves up' is what Jesus meant in this story or what God wants us to do to stay humble. Years ago there was a gospel hymn which said:  
"Oh, to be nothing, nothing!  Only to lie at His feet, A broken and emptied vessel— For the Master’s use made meet!  Emptied that He might fill me As forth to His service I go;   Broken, that so unhindered, His life through me might flow.  Source:

There is, of course, something meaningful about giving your brokenness to God, but I don't believe the gospel calls us to be "nothing."   I believe we're called to be who we are created to be.   As the saying goes,   "God don't make no junk." Humility should not mean self-effacement. God created us, and we do not honor God by depreciating God's creation.  Since we are created in the image of God putting ourselves down is to put God down, for he is the one who made us and his image remains in us no matter what.   Our whole self-esteem is important to God and so it should be important to us.  This is precisely why the second great commandment, the one following "You should love the Lord your God with everything you have," is "You should love your neighbor as you love yourself."  We are commanded to ‘love ourselves’ too.

There is a cartoon which shows a man standing in front of his mirror while shaving and saying, "If you're your own best friend, how come you don't like yourself any better than you do?" Behind the humor may be an element of truth that somewhere along the line, that person heard they weren't supposed to feel good about themselves.   Do we sometimes mishear the gospel's message about human sinfulness that fails to stress the image of God in all humanity.   Could it be that some leave the church God forbid, so that they can feel better about themselves?    

So humility has can have an 'image' problem because it's hard to quantify and is easily misunderstood.  Perhaps we could begin to correct this by realizing first that one can be "over-humble" just as one can be too prideful.   When people launch out into the job market, they had better be able to claim their good qualities and be able to give strong reasons why an employer should hire them.  Modesty is not likely to get them a job.  It's one thing to post a boasting poster about yourself to the world, but it’s quite different to answer questions like:"Why should we hire you?" or “What are you good at?”   You are not being humble when you negate who you are!

Interestingly, in this story Jesus told about the Pharisee and the Sinner, the sinner not really negating himself, but he is actually owning up to who he actually is in that moment.   This is exactly what the Pharisee is not doing.   The Pharisee is a sinner too, but he will not admit it.   And that is exactly his problem.  The Pharisee become ‘blinded by his own goodness’ and no longer can he see the value of God’s mercy nor the goodness of grace God has for him as a sinner.   Jesus cannot enter into his heart or his head because there is no room.

A painting that creates an impact is one entitled, "The Presence in the Midst" by Quaker artist James Doyle Penrose.  It shows the interior of humble meeting house. Your attention is immediately drawn to the altar area where two leaders of the congregation are seated with heads bowed in prayer.  Everyone in the meeting house is bowed in prayer with them.  Right in the middle of that humble congregation, between the two seated individuals, one male and one female, stands the spiritual outline of Jesus.  The point is that when people bow themselves humbly before God, the living and real presence of Jesus is to be found in in their midst.   If Jesus is to be found anywhere in this world, it is among the people who feel, admit and know their need of God. 

Why is Jesus found there in the presence of the humble?  Well, one reason is because people who bow humbly, are more able to receive the presence of Christ than arrogant people.  But I think there's another reason as well, and that is that Jesus wants us to understand that humility doesn't need to be humiliation.  When a person admits their need of God---when they confess, repent of sins, feel sorry for failures or simply feel insignificant or in need of a power beyond themselves, this does not mean making an apology for being alive.   We are to come to God humbly so we can come to terms with not only who God is but with who we created to be.   If we come to God bowing with humility, confession, prayer and sincerity of heart, God can remake us, reshape us, and help us realize and become all we are created to be.  Humility should not mean negating ourselves, but humility should be the key to discovering our true self, our best self, our most desired self, and then, by deciding to be the person we actually are---a person who is a sinner, who falls short, we also become the person who with only a few words, within a few steps and with only a few intentional deeds is a prayer away from becoming a saint.

With humility in Christ there is a great freedom of acceptance as a result of the forgiveness and grace we all need which comes from God's great love.  This is the kind of love that has come down to us in Christ's own humble way of taking on flesh and becoming one of us.   This is greatly illustrated story based on the ancient saying which goes::  "I eat peas with honey, /Been doin' it all my life; It tastes kind of funny, /But it keeps the peas on my knife." 

Most of us have never known anyone who eats peas with a knife.  But there was a story which appeared in GUIDEPOSTS by a lady named Cori Connors which spoke of it.  In that article, Cori tells the story of her mother, who, to this day, is teased for eating peas with a knife, instead of a fork. But there's a wonderful story behind this strange custom.   Cori's mom grew up during the Depression. Her family was poor, like much of the rest of the country, but they had a vegetable garden that kept them from starving. Strangers passing through town in search of work were welcome at their table. They never turned anyone away hungry. 

One day, her father brought home a man named Henry. Henry didn't know much English, but his gestures of gratitude toward the family were easy to understand. At dinner that evening, the family waited to let Henry start his meal first. Eagerly, he grabbed up his knife and dug into his peas. The children in the family were astonished. Henry had an amazing ability to balance all the peas on his knife perfectly. The children began to giggle at this strange eating habit. But the father of the family, giving his children a silencing look, picked up his own knife and began eating his peas. Although he had much less success than Henry, he kept at it and eventually captured every last pea. That day, Cori's mother saw a concrete example of humlity which resulted in acceptance and grace, of treating people with dignity,being humble and being willing to share our humility, in spite of our differences. That message has been passed down to her children and her grandchildren. Who knows how many generations will learn from the example of a father's acceptance of a man who ate peas with his knife? (From Guideposts, March 1997, p. 36). 

The more I think about Jesus making a ‘sinner’ the hero in the story, the more I realize why Jesus should be so important to each of us.   Jesus did not come to be our savior by showing us bad we humans can be (we already know that), but Jesus came to be our savior because he wants to show us who we can be, if we will come to him as we actually are, accepting ourselves as we accept others, becoming comfortable, not complacent, but accepting and open, not putting up any pretense, fa├žade, or deception in our hearts.   God already knows who we are and who we aren’t, but now Jesus has come to make it clear to us who we can become.  We can know that we most loved, most chosen, and most elected exactly because we know who we aren't.

That God has good reasons to call us to humility can be clearly seen in the result of this Sinner's humility in Jesus story.   It is only the humble 'sinner' who 'went home justified' (vs. 14a), and it only the one who was humble who "will be exalted" (vs. 14b)

Some people misunderstand the Christian Church to be a fellowship of do-gooders who think of themselves as a notch above everyone else. Now, I think most of us in the church know better than that, but maybe that's another way in which we have mis-communicated to the world. Charles Clayton Morrison left us with an outstanding description of the Church. He said:  "The Christian Church is not a society of integrated personalities, nor of philosophers, nor of mystics nor even of good people. It's a society of broken personalities, of men and women with troubled minds, of people who know they're not good.  The Christian Church is a society of sinners. IT IS THE ONLY SOCIETY IN THE WORLD IN WHICH MEMBERSHIP IS BASED UPON THE SINGLE QUALIFICATION THAT THE CANDIDATES SHALL BE UNWORTHY OF MEMBERSHIP."

Now, that’s quite a humbling definition of being a church member and appropriately so. It doesn't lead me to claim some lofty moral status over others, nor does it relegate me to the dung heaps of failure and worthlessness. What such humility does is enable me to be quite honest about myself, both about my failures and my capabilities.  It reminds me that the church is not only a factory that could make us all saints, but it’s also a hospital for sinners, to come for help, healing and to be made well and whole in the presence of Christ.  It reminds me that I don't have to be someone I'm not, but I can come to God as I am and leave his presence becoming more than I am.

Writer Philip Yancey tells a disturbing story in his book, WHAT'S SO AMAZING ABOUT GRACE? He heard it from a friend who works with the down and out in Chicago. His friend said on one occasion, "A prostitute came to me in wretched straits, homeless, sick, unable to buy food for her two-year-old daughter. Through sobs and tears, she told me she had been renting out her daughter, two-years-old to men interested in kinky sex. She made more renting out her daughter for an hour than she could earn on her own in a night. She had to do it, she said, to support her own drug habit. I could hardly bear hearing her sordid story. For one thing, it made me legally liable.   I'm required to report cases of child abuse. I had no idea what to say to this woman. At last I asked if she had ever thought of going to a church for help. I will never forget the look of pure, naive shock that crossed her face. 'Church!' she cried. "Why would I ever go there? I was already feeling terrible about myself. They'd just make me feel worse."   "That's what so many feel about church today.   But in the time of Jesus,  Prostitutes and sinners were more likely to run toward Jesus, not away from him," says Philip Yancey,  "The worse a person felt about themselves, the more likely they saw Jesus as a refuge (From What's So Amazing About Grace by Philip Yancy as told in a sermon by King Ducan), Jesus wanted his followers to humbles themselves with the the hurting.  Has the church lost that gift?"  Could we be humbled by the fact that it took the same amount of grace to save us, as to save the lowest, maybe more.

Jesus Christ became 'flesh and dwelt among us'  not only so that God could be with us in human skin to save and forgive, but it was also to teach us the value and potential of our humanness---that is, so we might become comfortable in our own skin.  A Spanish philosopher has said that, "being close to heaven is to love myself as much as God does."  After Jesus became flesh, and brought heaven and God’s perfect love down to earth, we should forever be reminded not to discount ourselves.   Feelings of 'unworthiness' to be in God's perfect presence must never mean that we have no worth toward God or in life.  The tax man was was not discounting himself, but he was accounting for his sin.  Jesus always taught the opposite of discounting ourselves, because at one point in his ministry, you'll recall, in the wake of having done something amazing and remarkable, Jesus told his disciples, "Greater things than these will you do."  So of all things, never count yourselves out of doing remarkable things for God.

"Humility is being precisely the person you actually are in the presence of God”, Thomas Merton once said.  This is exactly what the 'tax man' is doing.  What Jesus admires about him is that when a person becomes aware of God's presence, they will not focus on what they've done, who they are, nor what they've achieved  but in God's presence, when you humble yourself, you will focus on the God who is still bringing out the best in you, even as you bring him your sins, your failures, your flaws and your successes.    Humility does not lower you in God's eyes, but it lifts you up.   For if God is really with us, in us, around us, and before us, we will be humble.  When we are fully aware of God’s presence, it is not as hard to be humble.   What is hard to do when you humble yourself, is to remain the person you were.  "The one who humbles themselves, will be exalted."   Becoming 'comfortable' in your own skin, should not make you spiritually lazy, but it should make want to do and be more---not less.   It is only the humble man who returned home justified.  It is only the human person, who doesn't leave God presence at the altar, but invites God's presence into their lives.  When we go with God, and we know God goes with us,  there is no way but up.     Amen.