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Sunday, March 29, 2020

“The Harvest Is Plentiful, but…”

A sermon based upon Matthew 9: 35-10: 25
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, BA, MDiv, DMin.
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership,
Fifth Sunday in Lent, March 29th 2020

Carl A. Boyle, a sales representative, was driving home when he saw a group of young children selling Kool-Aid on a corner in his neighborhood. They had posted the typical hand-scrawled sign over their stand: “Kool-Aid, 25 cents.”

Carl was intrigued. He pulled over to the curb. A young man approached and asked if he would like strawberry or grape Kool-Aid.

Carl placed his order and handed the boy a dollar. After much deliberation, the children determined he had some change coming and rifled through the cigar box until they finally came up with the correct amount. The boy returned with the change, then stood by the side of the car. He asked if Carl was finished drinking.

“Just about,” said Carl. “Why?”

“That’s the only cup we have,” answered the boy, “and we need it to stay in business.”

It’s difficult to a business if you only have one cup.  That’s a good picture of what is happening in this text, “Jesus does not let the gathering opposition stop his mission in the world.   He goes through the cities and villages, teaching in the synagogues, proclaiming the good news, and curing every disease.  He is surrounded by the crowds, and he has compassion for them because they are like sheep without a shepherd.

In a wonderful moment, confronted with such great need, Jesus needs ‘more cups’ to do God’s business and asks the disciples to pray that God will send helpers to do God’s work.  The mission of the church has begun.  The disciples’ prayer is answered.  Surprisingly, the answer turns out to be them.”  (Stanley Hawerwas, Matthew, Brazos Press).

Still today, the answer to Jesus’ prayers; the answer to the disciple’s prayers and hopefully the answer to your own praying for this needy world  is also ‘YOU’.
YOU.  You who are the disciples of Jesus today.
You, who are the Church of Jesus Christ.
YOU still hold the keys to the kingdom.
You are God’s answer to His dream for redeeming this world.
You, the body of Christ, alive in flesh, blood, and filled with his Spirit—the Holy Spirit, You reflect and reveal God’s desire for the renewal of humanity and for the redemption of all life.

But how are we, as his disciples today, to carry out and fulfill God’s mission?   This mission is certainly still needed now, as much as, it ever was.   But how is the mission calling of God still heard and heeded by us?   Each and every generation has to answer God’s call and receive Christ’s commissioning for their time.

But be certain of this.  It isn’t OUR MISSION. It’s GOD’S MISSION and we the Church, are God’s MISSIONARIES.   Each and every one of us have been commissioned and called by his love; a love which was revealed in Jesus’ sacrifice and Jesus’ obedience to God’s call.   For just as Jesus fulfilled God’s mission of mercy by his own obedience on the cross of shame and death, we are called to continue God’s mission of mercy through Christ’s glory by our own obedience to God’s call.   “Go, learn what this means: I desire mercy, not sacrifice’ (9: 13).  What God desires from of us,  is not an obedience of death but an obedience for life lived in answer to God’s love (Heb. 5:9, 1 Jn 2.5).

And how are we sent on God’s mission?   Even in a world of constant change, the more everything around us changes, the more God’s mission remains very much the same.   The needs of people remain very much the same too.   People are still people.  The world is still the world.  And God’s church is to be on God’s mission of mercy, healing and hope.  The major difference for us, is that our mission field is no longer ‘the uttermost parts of the earth’, as it was for the early church, but it’s right here, like it was for those disciples, in our own backyard.

So, what are the mission rules of engagement for Christ’s disciples today?  This final message focuses on finding, training and sending workers to gather in God’s potentially plentiful, harvest.      

First, this sending starts with the message’  as ‘ proclaiming of the good news of the kingdom (Matt. 9:35 NRS) that has come ‘near’ in Jesus Christ (10:7).  This was the theme of Jesus’ preaching, and it’s the message Jesus charged his disciples to take into the villages and cities.  They are to seek the ‘lost sheep’ of their own land first.  The sharing of the gospel begins, not out their in the world, but close at home.  Could this be a starting point for us?  Could the sharing start be our homes, our family, our neighbors, and our friends?

The message was that the time is ripe and short.  As the prophet Isaiah once said, ‘Seek the Lord, while he may be found, call upon him while he is near.
Let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.  For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.

You didn’t see that coming in Isaiah, did you?  Did you also hear this strange saying coming from Jesus, when he instructs his disciple to go ‘nowhere among the Gentiles’ nor among the ‘Samaritans’?  Jesus will go there, but God’s saving work starts at home among our own.  Gods sending to the ‘lost’ at home, is God’s way to begin to share the message of goodness?

And having a God who seeks to save rather than to condemn is central to the message of God’s kingdom.  Jesus is a seeking savior sending his disciples on God’s mission with A hopeful message of pardoning, forgiving love.

The motive of Jesus mission comes straight from God’s heartbeat of compassion.  When Jesus saw the crowds following, we are told he ‘had compassion on them because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.’  This means they were leaderless and clueless on how to proceed with their lives.
 When Jesus saw their predicament, he understood and felt their pain.   The lost who have become numb in life and love, need to be lead to find hope and healing.

Later, writing to the Corinthians for a second time, remembering Jesus missionary motive Paul says,”For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died.  And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them (2 Corinthians 5:14–15 (NRSV).  Here, Paul’s own missionary motive is urged on by Christ love.  He no longer lives just ‘for himself’ but he lives in a love from Him (Christ) that has now become a love for them.

C. H. Spurgeon said that this line about Christ’s great compassion weighed on his heart more than any other text in the Bible!  It haunted him continually (Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit [Pilgrim Publications], 19:466).

Earlier in the 18th century, another British Baptist, William Carey, is often referred to as the “Father of Modern Missions.”  He began the modern missions movement with a sermon  calling British Baptists to forsake the wrongly interpreted Calvinistic view that if God was going to convert the heathen he would do it without himself.  When Cary preached his Heartfelt sermon, he called upon Christians to use whatever means necessary for spreading the gospel among the lost in the world.  He called upon his hearers to expect great things from God and attempt great things for God.  Carey’s call was simply an echo of the original call of Jesus to take the gospel to the world.

It is the same kind of compassionate feeling that caused Oskar Schindler to make lists of Jews he dared to save at the risk of his own life.  Oskar Schindler was a German industrialist and a member of the Nazi Party.  But he was credited with saving the lives of 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust by employing them in his factories.  Schindler was initially motivated by profit, but was moved in his heart showing extraordinary dedication to save the lives of his Jewish employees.

But Oskar Schindler wasn’t the only man who saved the lives of many Jews.  Raoul Wallenberg was a man with even more genuine love.  During World War II the Nazis were sending Hungarian Jews to concentration camps, and no one could stop them.  Hitler wanted all Jews exterminated.  Wallenberg was determined to save as many Jews as possible. Wallenberg succeeded in convincing the Swedish embassy to negotiate with the Germans that anyone who had protective passes would be treated like Swedish citizens. They would be exempt from wearing the yellow star of David.

He used unconventional methods to accomplish his purpose, including bribes and extortion threats.  The Swedish diplomats were initially hesitant because they did not approve of his tactics, but in the end they gave their support.  Wallenberg was initially given only 1,500 passes. When that wasn't enough, he negotiated for more and more, even stooping to promises and empty threats.

In the end, the Hungarian foreign ministry ended up granting him 4,500 protective passes. Then he had a new idea. He built 30 safe houses under the protection of the Swedish embassy.   These became safe havens for the Jews.

Eventually, the Nazis started the brutal death marches, forcing more and more Jews to leave Hungary by foot. When they started to transport the Jews by trains, Wallenberg came to the rescue.  He courageously climbed into the train boxcars. He walked along the boxcar roofs, and he even stood on the tracks in front of the trains.  He was willing to do anything to stop the deportations.  The officers gave orders to shoot him.  However, the soldiers admired his courage and they purposely aimed their fire above his head.

When the Russians arrived in Budapest, they found 120,000 Jews who survived, most of them thanks to Wallenberg.  Eventually Wallenberg was seen being forced into a Russian car.  No one ever saw him again after that.

Hitler is dead but Satan roars and roams like a lion still seeking someone he may devour.  How much compassion do we have for those who are in his sights?  Can we see who Jesus saw, and do we feel what Jesus felt?  We will if his heart is in us.  And if it is, we will also do what Jesus did and go on the mission Help gather the harvest he has commissioned us to bring in for him.

“The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest.". This is true still today.  Where art those who have the heart of Christ which is a heart for others who are lost and leaderless?  Did Jesus not also have an undying compassion for us?  How much compassion do we have to labor and help in God’s mission for the lost?  This is the question this text places before us?

We have Christ’s marching orders, but don’t think there is a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all method for God’s mission.  Still, the method for God’s mission does have certain unchanging realities: it must be wholistic, it must be incarnational, and it must be strategic.

In regard to being wholistic, Jesus ministered to the whole person, and he sent his disciples out not just to preach and teach, but to help and heal.  There was a spiritual side to the gospel and there was also a social side.  You will have only half of a gospel, if you only reach out to the soul without touching upon the needs of the body.  In the same way, all the curing, healing and helping, pointed to the ultimate hope and healing in the human soul.

It naturally follows, then that the method of Jesus’ was also incarnational.  This is a big, Christian word, but it’s also an indispensable one.  As Scripture says,  ‘The word became flesh and dwelt among us, and was full of grace and truth.’  That’s what incarnational means. God’s word and Spirit only touches lives when it found in flesh and blood.

For this reason Jesus needs laborers to bring in the harvest.  And he didn’t choose the  professional, elite, and most gifted to do the job, but he called ordinary, unspecialized, fishermen, even one who would betray him, another who would deny him, and the rest who were no different than any of us.  Why did Jesus’ method choose common, ordinary, earthy people like you and me?  The apostle Paul said it best when he said, ‘We have this treasure in body’s of clay, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.  (2 Corinthians 4:7 (NRSV).

The final important unchanging method of Christ’s mission is that requires a strategic approach.  This is something the hasn’t thought about much before, since most our growth and outreach has been biological.  Our major method has been reaching our own children, but that day is over.  The church today’s, if it is to remain viable, needs a community approach that goes beyond ourselves and our own families.  We may start with our children and family, but we can’t stop there.  We have take the ministry and witness of the church to those who live beyond church doors.

That’s exactly what happens in this text.  Jesus instructs those first missionaries to take both the message and the ministry to the masses.  The were to show compassion and goodness to outsiders and to expect nothing in return, only to wish peace on them and to seize the opportunity wherever it presented itself among whoever was open to God’s goodness of renewing and redeeming grace.            

Finally we come to Christ’s mission mandate that can be rewarding, but’s also demanding, and at least in certain times in human history, has been dangerous too.  That’s why disciples then, and now, are mandated to be ‘sent out as sheep among wolves’ and are told to be smart in how we carry out God’s mission, and are also warned of possible persecutions, being reminded that ‘a disciple is not above his master’.

Still, in spite of the presence and possibilities of obstacles, the church is given a mission mandate from the master and for the master of compassion and hope.  Why are we to accept such a mandate that still carries great discomfort and risk?

There is a beautiful scene in the movie Dr. Zhivago. The Comrade General is talking with Tanya, who, unbeknownst to her, is Zhivago’s daughter. He is asking her about one of the traumatic experiences in her childhood, a time when she became separated from her adoptive father, a lawyer named Komarov. He asks her, “How did you come to be lost?”

She replies, “Well, I was just lost.”

He asks again, “No, how did you come to be lost?”

Tanya doesn’t want to say. She says simply, “I was just lost. My father and I were running through the city and it was on fire. The revolution had come and we were trying to escape and I was lost.”

The Comrade General asked more emphatically, “How did you come to be lost?”

She still didn’t want to say. Finally, though, she did say. “We were running through the city and my father let go of my hand and I was lost.” Then she added plaintively, “He let go.” This is what she didn’t want to say.

The Comrade General said, “This is what I’ve been trying to tell you, Tanya. Komarov was not your real father. Zhivago is your real father and I can promise you, Tanya, that if this man had been there, your real father, he would never have let go of your hand.” (2)

That is the difference between a real father and a false father, is it not? A real father would never let go of his daughter’s hand. That is also the difference between a real god and a false one.

The late great Roberto Clemente was killed in a plane crash New Year's Eve, 1972. He was a long time player for the Pittsburgh Pirates. He was on a relief effort to deliver supplies to earth quake victims in Nicaragua. His devotion to help others cost him his life. His teammates described him as a compassionate man and his work bore that out.

His own words tell his story. "Any time you have an opportunity to make things better and you don't, then you are wasting your time on this earth."

Jesus had compassion on the crowds. He “had compassion for them,” Matthew tells us, “because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”  Jesus would not let go of their hand.  Jesus did not waste his time with tribal pursuits.  Matthew then tells us that Jesus turned to his disciples and said, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” Will we let go of the hand of the harassed and helpless?  Will we waste our time with trivial pursuits, or will we share in God’s mission of compassion today?  Amen

Sunday, March 22, 2020

“I Have Come to Call… Sinners”

A sermon based upon Matthew 9: 1-13
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, BA, MDiv, DMin.
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership, 
Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 22th, 2020

One day three doctors were in a conversation about what they considered to be the biggest contributing factor for most people's poor health.

The first one said he was convinced that the key to most people's poor health was how much food they eat.

The second physician said she did not agree. In her opinion the biggest factor is not how much they eat but what they eat.

Finally the third doctor injected his thoughts on the matter saying, "As important as diet is, the biggest factor in people's poor health is not how much they eat or what they eat. The biggest factor is what's eating them."

And you know, the third doctor was right. Poor habits with food and many others substances has a lot more to do with what’s in our heart which influences what we put in our stomachs.  That is not only true for our physical health but it is also true for our spiritual health.  The Great Physician, Jesus Christ, says that whats really eating us – is unconfessed and unforgiven sin.  It’s something we hardly even talk about anymore, but that doesn’t mean it’s not real.

Last week, we spoke of ‘following Jesus as staying the ‘flow of God’s grace’.
This week, Matthew’s gospel is going to tell us more specifically how to get into God’s forgiving, graceful flow?  Where is flow of grace headed?  Where is Jesus going?  Where does Jesus want us, his people, his followers, and his church to go?  It’s not just to let everything go and pretend that sin doesn’t matter.  Where God’s grace wants to carry us is right here, before us, in this story Matthew tells.   Are you ready to go where Jesus wants you, wants us to go?

Where Matthew’s gospel takes us, took 9 chapters to unwrap.  In Mark’s gospel the same story happened up front, right after the introduction in the second chapter.  Matthew took a detour, describing Jesus as the new Moses and giving us appetizers.    

But now, as Matthew comes to the main course, he tells us how this miracle happened right in the house where Jesus was staying.   He doesn’t fill us in on all the details like Mark did, but Matthew gets right to the point.  He gets straight to the heart of why Jesus matters to help us know what God is most about.

In the well known story, a paralyzed man is brought to Jesus in hopes of being healed.  Everyone knows that Jesus is a healer.  But the first words off Jesus’ lips isn’t “get up and walk” or “be healed” but it’s the shocking announcement: “Your sins are forgiven”!   

This causes quite a stir because Jesus’ agenda is different than everyone expected.  The sickness Jesus had come to heal is human sin, sin against God, sin against others.   No human had ever forgiven sins like this before.  This was new.  This was bold.  The experts said it was even blasphemous.  Only God could do this.  They were right.

What do we make of this unexpected miracle? 

Well, it really doesn’t matter what we make of it.  The only thing that matters is what Jesus says and does.  I’m not trying to smart, just direct and to the point.  Jesus is revealing his own agenda and his own authority too.  He wants us to know that he has the authority to forgive sins.  This is why he has come.  This is what he’s about.  He’s not come for the primary reason of healing bodies. He’s come to heal souls and to mend the human heart.  He’s getting at what’s eating us.  He’s come to be the doctor of the soul.

The objection to Jesus’s forgiving agenda by this Scribe was quite understandable.  Only God had the power to forgive.  What this Scribe didn’t yet understand is that Jesus is God.  He is God’s Son sent for this this very reason— to forgive our sins.  This is not hidden to us today, but it was to then.  What it means, however, and what it should mean for us, might still be hidden somewhere deep in us.  It might be hidden in us, or we might be hiding from this truth.  This is what this sermon is about.  God’s Spirit is still revealing Jesus’ agenda still today.  This Spirit knows our hearts, even more than we know them ourselves.      

But for now, let’s focus on this Scribe.  We shouldn’t fault him for missing the forgiving agenda of the Christ.  The Bible hadn’t predicted anything exactly like this.  Prophets had envisioned a coming Messiah and a suffering servant.  Most thought this to be Israel.  Israel was suffering under Roman rule.  God would redeem his people from their suffering and sins.  But this Scribe couldn’t yet fully see or know exactly what God was up to.  Who can know the ways of God, right?  God’s ways are not our ways.  His thoughts are not our thoughts!  The Spirit goes where it wills.  God throws curve balls.

But what we can and should fault this Scribe for, and often us too for that matter, is how we also fail to acknowledge Jesus’ claim of authority on our lives.  This Scribe witnesses this paralyzed man healed, but it doesn’t move him to have faith or to follow this Jesus or to accept this new agenda.  He’s stuck on what he chooses and refuses to believe. He can’t allow himself to be drawn into God’s new flow of grace.  Rather than rejoicing with the man who now could walk, he grabbing the limb of the law and deciding to resist what he’s against. He won’t let go and try to discover who and what God is for.   Will you?

Does anything keep you from being drawn into God’s saving agenda today?  We can even agree with it, but fail to be drawn into where it should take us.  We can be stuck in our own agendas, our own perspectives, our own prejudices, and all our own stuff.

Our minds and hearts can be clouded and crowded, so that we fail to find the flow Jesus is calling us to step in to. 

For not only does Jesus forgive sins, he wants us to forgive each other too.  God forgives us as we forgive.  This is how the current of Grace flows.  Jesus makes God’s work, our work.  He came to make God’s ultimate concern, our ultimate concern.  Jesus came to invite us to step into the flow of forgiving grace and forgiving love.  And this is not only a saving grace for when we die, but Jesus dies to call for us to make forgiving grace our agenda for our living too.  How do we do this?

The Scribe didn’t want to step into the flow but Matthew, the tax collector did.  Can you see how this story is put together?  Jesus was saying ‘follow’.  The Scribe didn’t, but Matthew, the tax collector did.  This is his story that he’s just got to tell.  Matthew had a lot to lose, but he found even more to gain, so he’s drawn right in.  He’s made dizzy by the swirl and flow of God’s Grace and the love that is being offered to him through Jesus.  He’s ready to dive in, not just as a spectator, but to go in head over heels, as we say.  Jesus says ‘follow me’ and Matthew leaves everything to get into the current of God’s saving, redeeming grace. 

Matthew takes Jesus’ offer ‘hook, line, and sinker’.  He even invites others to join him too. He’s telling this story his way, hoping to invite maybe even you too.  Can you see it?  Matthew throws a dinner party, inviting his friends and other ‘sinners’ to the table.  Now, they are all together sitting with Jesus around this table called grace.  The Scribe has already turned away, but now its a Pharisee who’s watching like a hawk.  Seeing Jesus strange new agenda, this Pharisee asks:  Why does Jesus sit around and eat with sinners?”  What’s up with this?  He doesn’t join in, and he can’t understand why this is happening.  Can we?  Do you?

What this Pharisee doesn’t realize is that he’s also welcomed to join in the party. Though he won’t admit it, at this party he’s just a sinner too.  He also needs this doctor of souls, like everyone else.  He needs to be nourished this table too.  But he’s not going to join in the party.  He’s going to refrain and to refuse.  He’s got his own agenda and his own view of things.  But he doesn’t realize what he’s missing.  Maybe he doesn’t even care.  The table was set for him too, but by refusing to eat with the sinner, he’s denying his own place around the table of God’s grace.

What keeps you from this table?  What keeps you from sitting down with sinners?  What keeps you from following Jesus to God’s table that has been prepared to rescue anyone whose life is wrecked by sin and hate?  Could you put yourself in this story?  Could you see what the Scribe and Pharisee failed to see?  Could you see how God’s table is sit for you?

Let me pause and read something that expresses this better than I ever could.  It tells us who gets to sit around Jesus’ table.  It sounds very familiar and goes:   
I stand at the front door of the church. It is Sunday. I like to stand here and watch people entering the church. What unites them? Sinners come in the church.

Some are still in their mother’s arms. Sleeping, they come, but not of their own volition. They look innocent enough, but they are still sinners. Though outwardly cuddly and cute, they are among the most narcissistic and self-centered in the congregation. When they wake up, they will cry out, not caring that the rest of us are about important religious business. When they are hungry, they will demand to be fed, now. Cute, bundled up, placidly sleeping or peevishly screaming. Sinners. Sinners come to church.

They are being led by the hand. They do not come willingly. Though they put up a fight an hour ago, a rule is a rule, and there they are. They have said that they hate church. They have said things about church that you wouldn’t be allowed to have published in the local newspaper, if you were older. Ten years old they are, and they lack experience and expertise, but not in one area: they are sinners. Sinners come in the church.

Sullen, slouched, downcast eyes. They were out with friends last night to a late hour, and the incongruity between here in the morning and there last night is striking. They know it and it is only one of the reasons why they do not want to be here. Dirty thoughts. Desire. Things you are not supposed to think about. These thoughts make these sinners very uncomfortable at church.

Sinners come to church, and they have put on some weight, middle-aged, receding hairlines, “showing some age.” They are holding on tight. Well-dressed, attempting to look very respectable, proper. Youthful indiscretions tucked away, put behind them, does anybody here know? A couple of things tucked away from the gaze of the IRS. And a night that wasn’t supposed to happen two conventions ago. These sinners are looking over their shoulders. They are having trouble keeping things together. Maybe that is why there are so many of these sinners here, coming in the door of the church.

Sinners come in the church, and the doors at last are closed. The last of them scurry to their appointed seats. The organ music begins, played by an extremely talented, incredibly gifted artist, who is also a sinner. And the lyrics to that first hymn, something about “Amazing Grace,” sung, appropriately, by those who really need it, need it in the worst way. They sing in the singular, but it ought to be in the plural. “Amazing grace that saved wretches like us.” Sinners come into church.

And now for the chief of them all, the one most richly dressed, most covered up, the one who leads, and does most of the talking. Some call him pastor. Down deep, his primary designation is none other than that of those whom he serves. Sinners come into the church, and now their pastor welcomes them, their pastor, the one who on a regular basis presumes to speak up for God, making him the “chief of sinners.”

 Sinners come to church, all decked out, all dressed up, all clean and hopeful. Sinners, sinners hear the good news, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1: 15). Jesus called as his disciples Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, Mary and Mary Magdalene. Sinners. Only sinners.

And Jesus got into the worst sort of trouble for eating and drinking with sinners. Only sinners. Sinners. Jesus saves sinners. Thank God. Only sinners. We sinners.” (From The Best of William Willimon: Acting Up In The Name of Jesus) .

Do you really want to learn and know what all this means?  As our text today comes to its end, Jesus is giving homework. It’s food for thought right off God’s table and it’s take home food for us too.   He says:
Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means:
 ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’
For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

In one one the greatest human discussions of sin, grace and Jesus, one of the greatest Christian minds of modern times, who was a sinner too, wrote that the only way we are be told about sin in the Bible is after we are told about Jesus, God’s Son who comes to forgive our sins.  God doesn’t tell us our sin, to guilt us, or only give us knowledge of sin.  We only gain knowledge of sin so we can come to know the forgiver of sin, Jesus God’s Son.  He wrote:
 ‘He took our place as Judge. He took our place as the judged.
He was judged in our place. And He acted justly in our behalf. (Karl Barth).

The central message of the Bible is that we too are the sinners Jesus calls.  It would be a great party of laughter and joy, if we would also come.

Bruce McInver tells just how hilarious this party that welcomes sinners can be. It’s one of those stories he couldn’t tell when he was a pastor.  Now, he tells all in a book.  One day, at the close of the service they came down the isle to request membership.  They were all shocked.  The pastor whimpered. 

During the next few weeks, the pastor did all he could to try to help them understand what it meant to be a Christian, to join a church, and to be baptized. 

“We’re ready to be baptized,” Alfred claimed.  His wife, Ernestine, nodded in agreement.  The pastor could only hope this was one of those miracles in ‘the real world’.  Maybe, just maybe.

Everything was made ready for the big day.  The organ played softly.  The lights were on the baptistry.  Ernestine was to be baptized first.  She came down to the water with dressed in a white robe, with an angelic shine on her face.  The pastor reminded himself,  this is really a miracle.  He quoted the words from Romans, as he put Ernestine into under the water;  Buried with him in his death.  Raised with him to new life.”  Ernestine had started her new life in front of all.  The pastor thought, this is real.

Then as Ernestine went back up the steps, her husband Alfred came down into the water.   The music played softly.  The attendant told Ernestine she could turn and watch her husband being baptized.   Then, in the quiet of the moment, after the pastor said the words once more.  ‘Buried with him in his death!’.   He heard Ernestine shout to the top of her lungs as her husband went under.  “I HOPE HE DROWNS!”   

Can you learn what this means?  God only saves sinners.  This is why God desires mercy, not sacrifice.  Jesus came for sinners.  We are all sinners before he came.  We were all sinners when he came.  We are still all sinners now, after he came.   But count me in.  Jesus calls sinners to reach out to sinners.   This is what the party is all about.   Amen.

Sunday, March 15, 2020


A sermon based upon Matthew 8: 18-23; Luke 9: 57-62
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, BA, MDiv, DMin.
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership, 
Third Sunday in Lent, March 15th, 2020

Today I want to begin this message by asking you a question:  Are you living your life forward, or backwards?  

It seems that life requires us to live our lives forward, doesn’t it?   Clocks move forward.  The days move forward.  Calendars are turned forward.  The seasons continue to change in a forward cycle.   You are getting older and you can’t stop aging or go back to how things where when you were younger.   Life is constantly moving forward toward the future—a future that doesn’t belong to you, but it’s gift, a future, that  is only known to God, unless he is sharing it with you. 

Years ago, Novelist Tom Wolfe wrote a book entitled, “You Can’t Go Home Again.”   I’ve understood what he was saying in my own life.  I left home, and after being away for nearly 20 years, I came back to the community where I used to live.  I came home, but home has changed.  My parents are gone.  Many of my friends have moved away.  The school is different.  My home church is different.  The Statesville I grew up in is not the same as Statesville is now.  

As much as I hate to admit it, Tom Wolfe was right.  “You can’t go home again”.  The truth is, you really can’t stay home either.   As the Indians used to say, “You can’t step in the same river twice.”  An even greater truth is that you can’t step in the same river once, can you?”   You can’t because a river, like life, is always on the move to somewhere else.  If you’re not on the move with it, it will move without you.

My wife learned a hard lesson about moving rivers many years ago.  We were kayaking down the Dan River with some church members.  She was in a boat by herself and got caught in some low hanging limbs.  They penned her against the bank.  I told her to take hold of a limb and try to push herself away.  She did what I told her, but forgot to let go.  While she had hold of the limb, the boat got loose and quickly moved out from under her.  She fell in the river and was struggling to swim.  She was starting to panic in the moving water, she thought was over her head.  I yelled out: “Stand up!”  She did and it was only waist deep.  I laughed because I’d made that same mistake before.

Like a river running into the sea, the river called life keeps moving forward too.  If you don’t understand that, and you grab hold the reality you now experience too tightly, you will fall out of the boat.  The key is to staying afloat is to let go and to keep going with the flow.

I believe, ‘going with the flow’ of life, is part of what following Jesus is about.   I know that many people want to see Jesus as a person who goes against the grain of the world and challenges our comfortable ways and understandings about life.  And that’s certainly part of it.  Jesus’ teachings were revolutionary and radical for his time.  When Jesus touched the leper and forgave the sinner, it did cause quite a stir. 

But I don’t think this was simply because Jesus was grabbing hold of limbs or sticking his heels in the mud and taking a stand.  No, I think Jesus was going with the flow of where life was supposed to have been going all along.   I think it was Israel, and the religious leaders of his day who were ‘stuck in the mud’.   God had long promised that a new day was coming, and that he would take out their ‘old stone hearts’ and give them a new ‘heart of flesh’.   Jesus was calling them toward their future; God’s future.  Jesus’ timing was right on cue.  It was Israel’s timing that was off.   The religion of Jesus’ day was trying to ‘hold back the clock’ of God’s coming kingdom.  They were grabbing hold of the low hanging limbs of the law.  They were trying to keep their boat afloat, but fell off in the process. 

Now of course, learning how to go with the flow of God’s future is never as simple as letting go of everything and ‘floating’ down stream.  In a world of sin and rebellion turned against God’s saving purposes, there are always obstacles that might block the flow of God’s grace.  We still have to navigate the current of grace correctly.  We still have to learn where flow of love is headed and we have to learn to let go of low hanging limbs. 

Learning how to navigate the current of God’s grace is what following Jesus is all about.  We’ve been looking at Christian Discipleship through the lens of the Gospel of Matthew, but in today’s lesson we including the parallel in Luke’s gospel.  We need Luke’s added details to help us understand how to stay in the flow.

You’ll notice that Matthew and Luke share two, almost identical encounters with Jesus. Matthew specifically explains that a Scribe came to Jesus vowing to ‘follow’ Jesus ‘wherever he goes’.  This was the normal pattern of a student and a teacher in that time.   The student would choose his teacher and ask to join his group.   It’s still much the same today.  Student apply for college and hope to get accepted.   You apply, but that doesn’t mean you’d be accepted.   

Jesus took a different approach.   Here, Jesus is doing the inviting.  Jesus was known for selecting disciples himself; Andrew, Peter, James and John, Matthew and the others too.  His invitation was always: “Follow Me!”  

Here, however, this Scribe is inviting himself.   Master, I will follow you wherever you go…”.   We don’t know whether his request was sincere, or whether it was a trick.   When it came to getting into the flow of grace, Scribes had a special challenge.  They were the protectors and promoters Moses’ Law.  They were also the most conservative and traditional.   They didn’t think much of the Prophets, read the Psalms or any of the other wisdom writings.   Their ‘job security’ was Moses and the Law.  They were not very willing to get into the flow of where God’s grace might be going.

Besides, this Scribe was used to setting behind a desk and scribbling his way through life.  He was a lawyer.  Most Scribes would not enjoy a trip down a wild, flowing river going God knows where.   This is part of why Jesus responded to him like he did:  "Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head." (Matt. 8:20 NIV).   Could a ‘pen pusher’ understand what ‘following’ Jesus might mean?   Was he ready to flow off the religious map where only faith could go?

I find it ironic, and sometimes troubling too, that most people of us religious types are conservatives and traditionalists too.   But in the New Testament, the true river of God’s grace seldom remains in the establish flow of peace and calm.   While Jesus did invite the troubled masses to ‘come to me,…and you will find rest for your souls,’  what was an invitation of ‘rest’ is these who were struggling, hurting, and hungry, could mean sacrifice, discomfort, and irritation for the established or the wealthy.  
As preacher once said, “I preach to comfort the afflicted, but also to afflict the comfortable.”  It is this same kind of roaring current of grace Jesus preached.   

God’s grace may take us to some uncomfortable places so that we will have to let go of some low hanging limbs.  If we ‘hold’ on to these ‘limbs’ of law and tradition too long, we can get thrown out of where the flow of God’s grace needs to take us.  Like this Scribe, sometimes we have to be willing to let go of what seems most comfortable and safe, so we can move on, down the river of God’s redeeming grace.

This is how the new always comes.    If you move into a new home, you have to leave the old one behind.  If you get a new car, you have to trade in the used one.  If you want to get a learn a new job, you have to try to gain some new skills and ideas.   This can be exciting and fun, but it can also be challenging and sometimes it’s hard. 

In the same way, if you want to go where God is going, you can’t stay where ve always been.   You have to learn to open your minds, and even more importantly, you have to learn to open your hearts too.  For example, when Collide Church was starting several years ago, a local pastor protested that they weren’t going to ‘have a cross’ in their sanctuary.  To him, he just couldn’t float down that river of grace without hanging up a cross, even if they promised they would be preaching the cross.  This was a limb that pastor was holding on to, and now, unfortunately, our whole Association fell out of the boat of where God was going, and Collide Church is today a member another Baptist Association. 

It’s sad, but its also kind of funny, at least to me.  I remember years ago, a man in my home church protesting because some wanted to put up a cross in a Baptist church, which he said was being too much like the Catholic Church.   What was being said in in both instances, I think, is that both people were struggling to go with the flow of God’s grace.  People were hanging on to limbs and falling out of the boat.

Grace doesn’t always take us to a comfortable place.   Following Jesus makes some demands on us and has challenges too.  This is what Jesus was trying to tell that Scribe, and what Jesus still reminds us too.  You can’t just write down what you believe ‘on paper’ and live with that.   If you believe in the Holy Spirit, and the ever-widening love and grace of God, you also can’t just go with what was once written down, and ONLY go with that.  Yes, the Bible is our foundation, but we still need the Holy Spirit to help us follow where God’s grace wants to take us. 

Isn’t this where Jesus was going in the gospel?   He was going in a flow that led him to strangers, to the outcast, and to invite sinners to know God’s love.  And he wasn’t putting ‘new wine in old wineskins, Jesus was doing a whole new thing.    He was asking his disciples, to get into the boat, and let go of the low limbs of the law and to stay in the flow of grace.   It’s risky.  It’s unknown.   It can even be dangerous.  But this is what grace is about.  This is what the cross was about.  And this is what it means to follow Jesus, to take up our cross, or even our oars, and to stay in the flow of God’s amazing grace.

The second example Matthew gives us, which Luke gives too is about a fellow Jesus invites to come and ‘follow me’.   That’s what Luke clarifies for us.  The answer that comes is the same in both gospels.   This fellow says he’s willing to follow, but he’s got something more important to do ‘first’.    But first I must go and bury my Father.”   Do you hear that word, ‘first’?   This fellows says he’s willing to follow Jesus, but he’s got something more important to do ’first’. 

Jesus’ answer to him sounds harsh.  Follow me now, and let the dead bury their own dead’.   But this man’s father wasn’t dead yet.  It was the duty of the first born to bury their parents.  It was Jewish custom to bury the dead immediately, so this is not what he meant.  He meant he was going to wait around for his father to die.  Jesus appears to quote a saying implying ‘others can do that’.  But this man says no, this is more important ‘first’.

What we need to understand here is that Jesus’ time was short.   He didn’t have time for waiting on the man’s father to get older and die.   If this fellow was serious, he needed to follow Jesus now.   He needed to make following Jesus ‘first’.   This moment of the kingdom coming near came ‘first’.   Putting God first, came first!

I recall when Teresa and I answered God’s call to leave our families and become missionaries in Europe, both of our families struggled without decision to go.  My own father was normally very supportive of me, but I overheard him saying to someone,  “I don’t know why Joey wants to go….”   Teresa’s family had problems too.  When we were commissioned in Richmond, the head of the Mission Board shook her dad’s hand saying, “You must be proud of your daughter…”   Her parents just stared straight ahead and never said a word.

It’s not easy to put God first, in any of our lives.  Even though I told my parents and her parents that we would return if they needed us, it was still hard.  I had cleared it all with the mission board, telling them that I was an only child and it could mean I would have to return early, and they said that was understandable.  This was God’s time.  Go!  They said.  Follow!   And we did.

For many of us, we have this moment when God comes calling, asking us to put him ‘first’.   It may not be to go overseas, it may just be a certain decision we need to make, or a person we need to speak to, or some work we need to do.   Jesus is saying, “Now, is the time, follow me!   Follow me ‘first’!  Put me ‘first’.  Trust me ‘first.’  If we don’t follow now, it will get harder later.  How is Jesus calling you to put him ‘first’?

We were only able to stay in Germany for 6 years, but these were some of the most wonderful moments of our lives.  Both my parents did get sick, and I had to return to take care of them.   It was the right time to return.  The Mission Board was inviting us to consider another location in Austria, to start Bible Studies there.   We loved Austria.  It was the home of Mozart, and the place where the song Silent Night was written.  It was a magical, majestic place and job, but now God was saying to us.  You’ve put me first, now I want you to go home and put your parents first.   Do you duty.  It’s time.  Follow me!  

And we did this again, did this again when God called us to come here and to work with you.   God said ‘come, follow me’, and we put him ‘first’.  We’ve been putting him ‘first’ all our lives, and we are going to keep on doing that, as long as he calls.  What about you?  What has God called you to do?  Where has God called you to go.  In what way is God calling you to follow and to put Jesus first?  Other people will keep putting him last, and still others can’t hear what your hearing today.  Why don’t you follow him, and put Jesus first, and see where the ‘flow’ of God’s grace takes you?

There’s one more example.  It comes from Luke’s gospel, which perhaps was added to help his readers understand the determined forward flow of God’s grace, even more clearly. 

In Luke 9: 61, we read how one more person came to Jesus saying, “I will follow you Lord; but first let me go back and say goodbye to my family.”   That seems like a fair request, and in most cases it would be.  There is really no way to understand Jesus response unless this reminds us, in no uncertain terms, just how ‘urgent’ ‘the flow’ of God’s grace is.  It only goes in one direction---straight ahead   Jesus answered: "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God." Lk. 9:61. 

When you Jesus ‘hard’ demand, you might think of Lot’s wife.  On the run away from the destruction of Sodom, she was told by the angel ‘not to look back’, but she did.  She then turned into a pillar of salt.   It’s not a happy image, just like Jesus words don’t sound very nice either. 

But perhaps it helps to understand where this gospel story is going.  Some very urgent things are happening.  Jesus was determined and headed for Jerusalem to die on a cross for you, and for me.   This flow of grace was moving so strong his heart and mind that Jesus no time for anyone who had time for anything else.   It was all or nothing.  No one and nothing could deter or delay Jesus from his call or his destiny.  Aren’t you glad?

When God’s grace and goodness is flowing forward, it will not be delayed.  Even the most precious human love, the love of family, will not stop Jesus, and he calls us to follow with the same kind of determination.  

The call of God to get into the forward-moving flow, could be just like a teenager or young adult who comes and tells his or her parents they are moving out.  It’s not that they don’t love you, it’s just time.  You can’t stop the clock.   When the time is right to answer the call, moving ahead takes priority, even over the greatest love we’ve ever known before. 

Or it’s like the elderly lady, who lost her husband.  She loved him dearly.  They had many good years.  But now he’s gone.  Her grief is strong.  Will she ever love again?   It won’t be the same, but it’s time to move ahead.   There’s more love to share.   Don’t look back.   

It’s the same in many areas of our lives.   God’s grace wants us to let go of what holds us back and trust the flow.   Maybe it’s to love someone you haven’t liked.  Maybe it’s to reach out and touch someone who’s needs some care.   Maybe it’s to forgive someone, or to offer hope, or a simple word of grace. 

 Whatever it is, let God’s grace and goodness call you forward, to answer the call, to love even more, to do what you’ve never done, and to live in this moment and to follow the flow where it may go.   Don’t look back.  Let go of the low hanging limbs.  They may help you get moving, but don’t hang on too long, or you’ll fall out of the boat.  Get back in the current.  Trust the flow.   Know this, the future that has belonged to him, he wants to give to you.  Trust him.  Let go!  Follow Jesus and let God’s grace take you where God is calling you to go!    Amen.

Sunday, March 8, 2020

“…Such Great Faith”

A sermon based upon Matthew 8: 5-13
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, BA, MDiv, DMin.
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership, 
Second Sunday in Lent, March 8, 2020

What does it take to have ‘great faith’?    

Recently, I read an article about the current owner of In-N-Out Burgers, a popular west-coast Hamburger Chain based in California.  It was confessional article based on an interview with the granddaughter of the founders of In-N-Out.  She currently owns the 3 Billion Dollar Hamburger chain. 

In that article, Lynsi Snyder tells of her own personal struggles, especially with drugs and alcohol after her dad’s untimely death when she was a teenager.  She also had three failed marriages due to abuse.  But in the midst of all her desperation, Lynsi came to ‘a life-change realization’.  She told reporters: I finally found that the deep need in my heart can only be filled by Jesus and my identity in Him.  Snyder decided to ‘surrender her life to Jesus Christ and dedicate her time, energy, and talents to glorify him.’ The article went on to express just how much this Christian CEO is beloved by her employees.  Her business, like her life, is now fully dedicated to the ‘glory of God’

We love to hear stories like this, don’t we?  Stories of human struggle, failure, and then, finally comes great redemption.   You see a lot of these kinds of stories in the movies, even without ever mentioning God.   Such dramatic turn-around, success or redemption stories give us hope because sometimes we all find ourselves struggling.  We all hope for at least, some kind of redemption.  We hope things will get better and turn out good in the end. 

What is important to understand about Lynsi Synder’s story is her redemption didn’t come in complete isolation.  Her Grandparents, who started the Hamburger Chain, had been Christian from the beginning.  An uncle had been in charge of putting Scripture verses on Drink cups, French Fries holders, and Hamburger wrappers.  Lynsi’s story is wonderful to hear, but she already had everything going for her; she was rich, her family were dedicated Christians.  All she needed to do was get her act together and everything came together for her own good. 

Let me be clear.  I’m glad for Lynsi’s rediscovered faith.  It was ‘great’, especially for her, but it’s still not as ‘great’ a faith as what we see in today’s biblical text.  Lynsi’s faith came out of somewhere, but this Roman’s Centurion’s Faith came out of nowhere.  Lynsi had everything to gain by getting her life together.  The Roman Centurion took a very great risk of losing his position as a Roman commander, and was making a great leap into to the unknown when he expressed faith.  This act of faith was not even for himself, but it was for someone else.  He had great faith because he wanted to bring hope and healing to a Jew.

This story was especially important to Matthew.  Matthew was writing to show how his own Jewish people needed to dare to take a ‘leap of faith’ so they would open themselves to God’s hope and healing for their own nation.  Matthew has told this story to invite others, including us, to develop this same kind of ‘great faith’ to trust in the healing and hope that Jesus brings.

When look more closely, this is a rather remarkable story Matthew uses to introduce the healing miracles of Jesus, especially for his fellow Jews.  Instead of starting his gospel with a story of faith among Jews, Matthew begins with a story of the faith of a Roman.   This is actually the very strange case of a Roman who believes in Jesus, not for his own sake, or on his own behalf, but on behalf of his Jewish slave and his servant.  Perhaps he has some selfish motives.  Maybe he just needs a servant.  We’ll answer that question later.   But the point Matthew makes is that it’s the Jewish servant who needed the healing, but it’s the great faith of the Roman that opened this work of hope and healing.  Can you see how remarkable this is?

This choice of beginning with the faith of a Roman Centurion is shocking because about the time the book of Matthew was written, the Romans had just completely destroyed Jerusalem, forcing Jews to disperse over the 4 corners of the earth.  There was no more Jewish temple.  There was no more nation.  There was practically no more Jewish religion.   The Roman soldiers were the enemies, and they were the destroyers.  Can you imagine Jesus making an Arab a hero after 9/11?  That’s what this story must have felt like.   But it’s right here, in this story, Jesus is declaring a Roman intruder to be the hero.  He is a person who has faith far greater than anyone in “Israel’ (8:10).  Did you catch that?   It’s certainly the kind of story that would certainly get attention, especially if you were a Jew who had just had your homeland destroyed and you thought that everything was gone with it.

When I worked in Germany during the 1990s, most Germans respected Americans. German Youth especially loved America.  Maybe it wasn’t for all the right reasons, but they loved us.  They loved the music.  They loved the bigness and newness of America.  Although I’m sure that there were some who still resented America because of all the bombs we dropped in the war, most Germans understood, that by losing that war to us, there also came a great time of healing and hope for the German culture after so many years of Nazi darkness.

Perhaps what Matthew wants to show his fellow Jews is that even through that terrible Roman war and occupation and all the destruction of that time, hope and healing was still being offered to them through Jesus as the Christ. Just as a Roman’s faith brought healing to this humble Jewish servant, Matthew is offering Jesus as God’s Messiah who can help his own Jewish people to regain faith in life and hope in God.  As God worked in the heart of this one Roman Centurion to bring healing to his Jewish servant,  Matthew wanted them to understand how God can still release hope into their lives, if they would also come to trust in God’s healing power, just as this Centurion did.

This is where we come in.   This story of Great Faith is not only meant for hurting Jews who needed to have faith in Jesus then, but it also provides a lasting example of the kind of faith it might take to release God’s hope and healing into our own world, and into our own lives, even in the worst of situations.  In this Roman Centurion we see a faith that is great because this Centurion, in such a high position of privilege and power, lowers and humbles himself to take a dramatic ‘leap of faith’ to show just how much he is willing to trust in the healing only God can bring.   He is willing to take a great, big, trusting leap, will we?  But what kind of ‘leap’ was it?

Have you ever heard of this term “leap of faith”?  It’s not a term found in the Bible, but it came from the great Danish Pastor from the 18th Century, named Soren Kierkegaard.  He used this term to express what it takes to believe in God, especially in a world where we might be convinced otherwise.   That Danish pastor said that in order to have faith in God, especially in a scientific, technological world that prefers to have all the ‘facts’, that believing and trusting in God is often like taking a ‘leap’ into the dark, a leap without proof, and a leap into a hope that we all need, whether we have any certainty or evidence.  Kierkegaard reminded modern people, that this is what faith has always meant---both in the ancient world, and in the modern world too.  In order to have a faith that brings hope and healing, we must trust in what we don’t always have proof of, but we must decide to take the ‘leap’ anyway.  

Kierkegaard used the story of God’s request for Abraham to sacrifice his only Son, Isaac, as the example of what great faith means.  Most of you are familiar with this Old Testament Story, aren’t you?   It’s the kind of story we sometimes don’t like to admit is in our Bible.   In Genesis 22, we read how in a moment of testing Abraham’s faith, God demanded for Abraham to take his only Son and to sacrifice him like an animal.  It’s a story that still shocks our senses and modern sensitivities.  But in that time, religions sometimes required this kind of thing.  Don’t you remember hearing about how Hawaiians used to throw a beautiful maiden into a volcano in hopes of appeasing the gods and stopping future eruptions?  It happened.   But what sounds so strange about this story is that it’s in our Bible, and that it’s a holy, loving God who is making this requirement.  What was God thinking?   Was God trying to prove that Abraham’s faith and Abraham’s God was just as demanding as other religions were?  That actually might have been part of it, but not all.   But the whole thing sounds outright outrageous especially to us.   What we need to remember, is that it was wasn’t at all outrageous then.  How do we get behind this and move beyond to some positive purpose?

Well, keep reading, for one thing.  Before Abraham actually slays his Son, an angel of the Lord stops him.  We often say in Christian language that what God didn’t allow Abraham to do, God did when he sacrificed his only Son, Jesus.   But I don’t think this kind of dedication and devotion to God, which demands such cruel sacrifices of violence convinces many people today.  People today wonder why any kind of God who says he is merciful and compassionate would ever demand anything like this?

Today, having such violent stories in our Bible prove to them just how demanding and dangerous religion is---Jesus or not.   So, people run to Science and hope that the gods of science will be kinder to them.  Good luck with that!   Science may not have all the answers you might think it does.  Have you had to submit yourself to the methods of healing in Science lately?  It might help, then again, it could hurt more, more than even dying itself.  Science is human knowledge, which can be a gift of God, but it can also be a curse too.  I hope you don’t really think that Science has all the answers.

Now, let’s get back to Abraham, and the Bible.   What so many people miss here, is that it was in midst of all this cruelty and violence that God wanted us to ‘stop it’ not join in with it.   Do you this this?   A message of hope was primarily being given, both through the faith of Abraham and through the message of Jesus too.  It was through Abraham’s own risk of faith, that God was able to say to the ancient world of human sacrifice: ‘No, Stop!’  You don’t have to a child to prove your love for me!  It was also through the death of God’s only Son that Jesus God made Jesus the ‘last’ and ‘final’ sacrifice for all sin, once for all.  God was working through humanity to stop the bloodshed, and the hate too, not asking us to celebrate it.  When we sing about the ‘blood of Jesus’ or talk about God’s ‘sacrifice’ for sin, God was trying to lift us up, take us to a higher and better place, not to call to us to celebrate violence and bloodshed.

When we only look at what was happening on the surface, it might all look ridiculous and ugly, but if we look closer and see what God was doing, and where God was trying to take humanity, we can understand that it was in a very bloody, violent, and hateful world, that God’s message of goodness, love and healing being proclaimed and preached. 

All this ‘blood’ language might still sound strange too us, and it should, because it is strange, and it’s tragic too.    It’s tragic that it took something so bad, so terrible as threat of the loss of an only son, or the actually cruel death of a good, innocent man on the cross, to get a sinful world to start to look into at our true selves, and to realize just how much we are broken up by human sin.  But every generation has to face itself, and this truth doesn’t it?   This is the call of the gospel, and it’s the beginning of the good news.  The good news always starts in us when we are willing and ready to face the bad in us, head on.  Abraham had to face the ‘bad’ in his world, just as Jesus’ love and forgiveness still confronts our own underhanded, selfish, and violent human ways.   Before we can ever get to the healing power and resources of God, we have to begin to ‘let go’ of what keeps us from receiving God’s power of healing and hope.
This is kind of ‘letting go’ is exactly what makes the faith of this Roman Centurion’s so great.  He was not only willing to ‘face’ who he was, (“I don’t deserve to have you come under my roof” 8:8), but he was also willing to ‘face’ who his servant was, and was willing to come to Jesus for help.   And what makes this so great, is that he wasn’t doing this for his own sake, but he was willing to risk and humiliate himself for this other person, who was a Jew, not a Roman, that really got the attention of Jesus.   This man who was ‘under authority’, who is ‘under the orders of others, was willing put himself under the authority of Jesus so that his servant might be healed.

The popular British theologian says we mustn’t miss that ‘authority’ is very important in this story.  When this Centurion comes to Jesus, he was submitting himself to another authority other than Rome.  And the other amazing thing is that Jesus had no official authority in that world.   Jesus wasn’t a certified Rabbi.   Jesus wasn’t a legitimate Pharisee or a Sadducee.  Jesus was only an itinerant preacher and wandering teacher of wisdom who had no other authority, other than the power of God’s hopeful, healing and caring love.  The Centurion was willing to ‘take a leap’ and ‘trust’ in exactly this kind of Jesus, a Savior and Messiah who had no other claim of authority other than the power of God’s healing and hopeful love.

Years ago, I remember reading about how Mr. Bost, the founder and owner of Bost Bread, was willing to spend most all the money he had, in hope of bringing healing to his wife, who was then dying with cancer.   When Mr. Bost was told that by doctors in America that they had done all they could do, he went to the doctors in Mexico and in Canada too.  Because he had the money, he had a lot of different options, which were not available to most people.  Why did he do it?  He did it out of love, and most of us, who have the resources he had, would have done the same, for those we love.

But perhaps an even greater faith, is available to us—a faith which is not limited to what money can buy.  When turn to the God who loves us all, we can find hope and healing in God’s loving care.   Isn’t this what Mr. Bost finally had to do that too? In spite of all the money he had, his wife died.   He had to trust the life of his wife, and his own life too, into God’s loving hands.   Wasn’t this the same kind of trust that Lynsi Synder had to have too.  No matter what kind of money she had, she had to surrender it all to Jesus. 

I think this exactly what this story of the Roman Centurion is trying to teach.  Only a faith that gives itself fully and completely to Jesus, will give us the hope of healing we need.  Even though Jesus healed the Centurion’s servant, that servant ultimately died, just like the Centurion ultimately died, and just like everybody dies.   The ‘great faith’ Jesus encourages is the kind of faith that points to the greatest miracle of all.  The healing that comes when we trust the healing God’s love intends for us all, no matter whether we live, or we die. 

When Jesus saw the ‘great faith’ in this outsider, he made him an ‘insider’ to God’s love and blurred the lines we all tend to draw in our lives.  Here, Jesus reminds us that, in the end, we are all alike—both Jew and Gentile, both sinner and saint, both rich or poor.   We all need hope and we all need healing. We all want healing now, but we know we also need healing that goes beyond the ‘now’, because of the reality of life and of death that we all must face.

As I started this message,  I told you how a Lynsi Synder, a young girl who was the Billionaire heir of a Hamburger Chain, struggled with what happened to her father, and lost faith in God and struggled until she finally surrendered her own life to the healing power of Jesus Christ.   She was rich, very rich, but she still needed Jesus.   I could also tell you stories of how other people, both rich and poor, powerful or weak, have found healing and hope in Jesus Christ.   I’m a preacher, I’m supposed to tell you those kinds of stories, right?

But what if I told you how I need that hope of healing too?  What if I told you how I don’t preach this to you because I’m paid to do so, but I preach this to you because Jesus is how I find hope and healing too.   I gave my life to become a preacher, when I was very young, because of the hope of healing Jesus gave to me.   I was in a terrible car accident, nearly lost my life and became crippled for life, and I needed God’s help to get through it all.   But what makes my faith even greater, I think, and what makes God’s healing power even greater, is that what started out as a hope I had that God would bring healing to me, is now a calling that I have found because also feel the call of God’s love to offer hope and healing to you.  

Maybe that’s the greatest part of story about the faith of this Roman Centurion who wanted Jesus to heal his Jewish servant.   It wasn’t just that he needed his servant.  He could have easily claimed another Jew to served him.  He was a Roman.  He was a man of power.  He could have had any servant he wanted.  But what is happening here, the greatest miracle, the miracle of faith that caught Jesus’ attention, and caught Matthew’s attention too, is that this Roman had already stepped out of his ‘place’ and his ‘position’ in life to express his love for a lowly nobody, his own Jewish servant, whom now he is treating as another human being, just like himself.   What this Jews service had done was brought them together.  What this sickness had done, was to seal the bond of love between two people, who had come from very different worlds, but now this Centurion realizes how much more alike they are than different.  And he believes this not for his own sake, but he believes this for the sake of his servant.

It is the great faith of this Centurion is great, even before the Servant was healed.  Do you notice that?   His great faith reveals that we all in this together.  We live, we die, and we need healing and hope.   And if we will think about it long enough, and if we’ll go just a little deeper, you will also realize that we all need the hope and healing that God offers to us through Jesus Christ.   We need it, because the greatest faith in the world is always based on love; the love we have for others, and the hope we have in this God who loves---and reveals himself in the dying, sacrificing, and eternal love of Jesus Christ.    It is belief in this kind of God who loves likes this, that any faith can be called ‘great’.   Amen.