Luke

King of the World

There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”

 Today is Christ the King Sunday, and whether you are here in this room at the end of the Christian Year, or watching from home at the beginning of the calendar year, it is an important day.  It’s a day when we announce to the world that we have no king but Jesus.

There’s a scene in the book of Revelation where the 24 elders, seated around the throne of God, take the crowns off their own heads and cast them at his feet.  If it were up to me, on a day like today I would put a throne right here at the front of the church, and give each of you a crown as you came into the sanctuary, and then during the closing hymn ask you to imagine that Christ is seated on that throne, and invite you to come forward and cast your crowns at his feet as a way of letting him know that for you he is—and will always be—the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.  That would be a good way to celebrate.  But if it were up to Luke he would do something completely different, and he does.  He doesn’t ask us to imagine Jesus on a throne; he asks us to imagine him on a cross.  Why?

Because Luke is up to something.

He gives us a hint in the first paragraph of his Gospel when he says that after following all things closely and interviewing a number of eyewitnesses he has decided to write an orderly account so that someone named Theophilus may “know the truth” concerning the things about which he has been instructed. Let me warn you that I wrote a 300-page doctoral dissertation on the first paragraph of Luke’s Gospel, but then let me see if I can sum up my findings in something less than that.  One was that Luke doesn’t actually say he wants Theophilus to know the truth, but that he wants him to have some certainty about what he has already learned.  The Greek word is asphaleia, and it is usually translated as “assurance.”  In my dissertation I argued that assurance is an affective word: it describes a feeling.  Luke wants Theophilus to have that warm, comfortable feeling that comes when he realizes that everything he has learned about Jesus is true.

So, something must have happened to Theophilus.  I believe he was a God-fearing Gentile, like the ones we hear about in Acts 17, who attended the synagogue in a place like Thessalonica and who heard from Paul that Jesus of Nazareth was the long-awaited Messiah.[i]  Theophilus heard that Jesus had been crucified by the Romans, but that God had raised him up again and given him “the name that is above every name,” and he believed it.  But then someone came along and told him it wasn’t true.

I’ve seen this illustrated in the videos I’ve been watching from the BibleProject.com as I read through the Bible this year.  They show those early Christian missionaries going from place to place preaching that Jesus is the Messiah, and the way they represent that message is by showing that the cross equals the crown.  It’s up there in the little speech bubble over the missionaries’ heads: cross = crown.  But then they show how others would come along later and say that the cross does not equal the crown.  In the speech bubble there’s a diagonal slash through the equal sign.  But why would anyone say that?  Why would they say that Jesus is not the Messiah?

A blogger named Tracey Rich has helped me understand much of what traditional, observant Jews still believe about the Messiah.[ii]  He writes: “The Messiah is the one who will be anointed as king in the Last Days.  He will be a great political leader descended from King David. He will be well-versed in Jewish law, and observant of its commandments.  He will be a charismatic leader, inspiring others to follow his example. He will be a great military leader, who will win battles for Israel.  He will be a great judge, who makes righteous decisions.”  And then he writes: “In every generation, a person is born with the potential to be the Messiah. If the time is right for the messianic age within that person’s lifetime, then that person will be the Messiah.  But if that person dies before he completes the mission of the Messiah, then that person is not the Messiah.”[iii]

And what is “the mission of the Messiah”?  To redeem Israel, and to do it in a very specific way.  Listen: “The Messiah will bring about the political and spiritual redemption of the Jewish people by bringing them back to Israel and restoring Jerusalem. He will establish a government in Israel that will be the center of all world government, both for Jews and gentiles.  He will rebuild the temple and re-establish its worship. He will restore the religious court system of Israel and establish Jewish law as the law of the land.”[iv]  Had Jesus done any of those things?  No.  Instead he had died on a cross like a common criminal; he had been buried in a borrowed tomb.  But Paul said Jesus had been raised from the dead, and Theophilus had believed him.  If Paul was right about the Resurrection then Jesus could still accomplish the mission of the Messiah, but if Paul was wrong then Theophilus would have to go back to waiting, and hoping, that one day the Messiah would come.

So, Luke writes an entire Gospel to assure Theophilus (and others like him) that what he has heard about Jesus is true: the cross equals the crown.  When Theophilus finishes reading his Gospel Luke wants him to have that feeling—that warm, comfortable feeling—that Jesus really is who Paul said he was.  So, how does Luke do it?  He tells a story.  He tells the story of Jesus from the very beginning.  He creates a narrative universe and invites Theophilus into it so that he can have a first-hand experience of Jesus, because nothing is so convincing as experience.

This is where I spent a lot of time in my dissertation, talking about the story world and how the reader enters into it.  You know what I’m talking about, right?  Sometimes you start reading a novel and it takes a little while to find your way.  There are all these new characters, settings, and situations.  You have to listen closely to the narrator as he or she guides you through those first few pages.  It’s the same with the Gospel.  The world of the Bible can be a very strange place.  You need someone to take you by the hand and guide you through it and that’s what Luke’s narrator does.

Some people speak of the narrator as the “whispering wizard” in a story, the one whose presence you are only vaguely aware of, but the one who helps you understand what you are reading.[v]  You could think of it like this: if you were sitting in a box seat watching a play the narrator would be the one sitting beside you, whispering, “Now, these cowboys in the white hats are the good guys, but those other ones, in the black hats, are the bad guys!”  In the Gospel of Luke, just after that one-paragraph introduction, the narrator introduces us to Zechariah and tells us that he is one of the good guys, but he is a good guy with a problem: his wife has not been able to have children.  Already we begin to feel sympathy for him (did you hear that?  We feel sympathy), and we rejoice when Gabriel gives him the good news that Elizabeth will conceive!  But then we are whisked away to Nazareth, where Gabriel tells a virgin named Mary that she is going to be the mother of a child who will sit on the throne of his ancestor David.  In other words, she will be the mother of the Messiah.  And there you are, sitting beside the narrator in your box seat, watching all this happen on the stage.  You lean in close and whisper, “Is that true?”  And he whispers back, “It is!”

And so it goes, through the entire Gospel, at Jesus’ birth and later at his baptism, when he heals the sick and when he raises the dead, when he feeds the five thousand and when he rides into Jerusalem on a donkey.  Every time he says or does something remarkable you say to the narrator, “Wow!  He really is the Messiah!” and he says, “Yes, he is!”

And then we come to the tragic part of the story, where the religious authorities, out of jealousy, have Jesus arrested and brought before Pilate, and where Pilate, out of cowardice, gives in to the demands of the crowd.  And there you are, sitting beside the narrator as the soldiers strip Jesus of his robe, nail him to a cross, and hang a sign over his head that says, “King of the Jews.”  And then everybody begins to mock him and taunt him, saying, “If you are the king of the Jews save yourself!”  The sky grows dark and the rain begins to fall and there’s Jesus, the one you have come to love and trust, gasping for breath under that horrible sign, and with tears in your eyes you turn to the narrator and whisper, “But it’s true!  He really is a king!” “Yes,” whispers the narrator: “He is.”

And that’s how a gospel works.

Back in the late seventies a religion professor named David Rhoads invited his friend Donald Michie, an English professor, to show the students in his New Testament class how to read one of the gospels as if it were a short story.[vi]  He writes: “As I listened to an English teacher interpret the gospel, I was fascinated by the fresh and exciting way in which he discussed the story.  He talked about the suspense of the drama.  He spoke of Jesus as a character struggling to get his message across.  And he showed how the conflicts come to a climax in Jerusalem.”[vii]

Of particular interest was his friend’s discussion of irony, when a speaker says one thing but means another, or when a character thinks one thing is true when in fact it’s the opposite.  He writes: “Irony has a way of drawing readers into accepting the narrator’s point of view.  By showing the authorities ridiculing Jesus [and mocking him as ‘King of the Jews’], the narrator leads the reader to sympathize with Jesus, thinking, ‘There’s more truth to that than they know.’  And because the reader sees what the real situation is, in contrast to the characters who do not see, the reader is led to be on the inside, perhaps even to feel superior to the blind victims of the irony.”[viii]  Luke was up to something, and when you read this Gospel faithfully you can feel it.  There you are, sitting beside the narrator in your box seat, looking down on those fools who keep calling Jesus the King of the Jews without realizing that he actually is.  If everything works the way it’s supposed to, then at this point in the Gospel you will have the feeling Luke has been working toward from the very beginning: the assurance that comes from knowing that Jesus really is the Messiah, no matter what anyone else might say.  Because in this story they say it, don’t they?

Luke tells us that while the crowds stood by watching Jesus die on the cross the religious leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!”  The soldiers also mocked him, saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!”  Even one of those two thieves who were being crucified along with him kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah?  Save yourself, and us!”  These characters in the story make the assumption most of us would, that if you had power you would use it to save yourself.  Most kings would.  But not this one.  Jesus is up to something.  The surprising thing about him is that he uses his power not to save himself but to save others. And let me ask you: if you could choose between a king who would use his power to save himself and a king who would use his power to save you, which one would you choose?

I know I’ve told you this story before but back in 1984 I went to the polling place to cast my vote for president.  It was the year Walter Mondale was running against Ronald Reagan, the incumbent.  I was 25 years old, I had just started seminary, I was out to change the world. To tell you the truth I hadn’t paid a lot of attention to the presidential campaign and as I made my way to the polling place, I found that I didn’t have strong feelings about either candidate.  I’ve never had a lot of interest in politics, never pinned all my hopes on any elected official.  I stood in that voting booth for a long time, looking at those two names, and finally I chose the third option: I wrote in my dad’s name.  When I told people about it later, I told them that, honestly, I couldn’t think of anyone who would make a better president.  No offense to those two candidates but I knew my dad, I knew he was good and kind and wise. And I also knew this, that if it ever came right down to it my dad would lay down his life for me, and that’s the kind of president you would want, isn’t it?

“If you are a king,” the religious authorities said to Jesus, “then save yourself.” “If you are a king,” the soldiers said, “then save yourself.” “If you are a king,” the other thief said, “then save yourself.” But Jesus turned out to be the kind of king who cared more about saving others than saving himself, and so he hung there on that cross, under that sign, until his work was done.  I don’t know what kind of king you want, but if I could choose, I would choose a king like that.


—Jim Somerville © 2022

[i] Acts 17:4

[ii] http://www.jewfaq.org/mashiach.html

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] My doctoral supervisor, Alan Culpepper, used that phrase. I don’t know if he invented it or if he was quoting someone else. I probably have a footnote in my dissertation.

[vi] David Rhoads and Donald Michie, Mark as Story: an Introduction to the Narrative of a Gospel (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1982).

[vii] Ibid., p. xv.

[viii] Ibid., p. 61.

It’s All Coming Down

When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”

 In today’s Gospel lesson Jesus warns his disciples that a time will come when the religious world is in a state of chaos (vs. 8), the political world is in a state of chaos (vss. 9-10), and the natural world is in a state of chaos (vs. 11).  Twenty centuries later that prophecy seems to have come true.

If you talk to some people these days they will assure you that religion is on its way out, that science has eclipsed all of our old superstitions and none of them are relevant anymore.  If you talk to other people they will assure you that our nation hasn’t been so divided, politically, since the last civil war.  They predict the next one could be right around the corner.  If you talk to other people they will assure you that the plethora of natural disasters we have experienced lately is not random.  They attribute them to climate change and warn that this is just the beginning.

So, when Jesus says that false messiahs will arise who somehow convince people to follow them; that there will be wars and insurrections, with nation rising against nation; and that there will be natural disasters: earthquakes, famines, and global pandemics—he sounds a lot like someone who has just turned off the television news.  I read this passage before I went to vote early last Tuesday morning and almost wasn’t surprised to see a bloody red moon hanging over the polling place, a lunar eclipse that looked like the fulfillment of end-time prophecy.

I’ve got to say: there’s not much in this passage that sounds like good news.  Jesus makes all these predictions about religious, political, and natural disasters and then he says, “But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you,” which doesn’t really sound like good news either.  He says, “They will hand you over to synagogues and prisons….  You will be betrayed by friends and relatives; and they will put some of you to death.”  And if that’s not enough Jesus adds, “You will be hated by all because of my name.”  It’s not the kind of thing you would want to put on a recruiting poster and yet Jesus doesn’t apologize for any of it.  If anything he exaggerates the demands of discipleship, so that no one will be surprised when following him turns out to be hard.  “Even if your discipleship gets you nailed to a cross,” he might add, “you can’t say I didn’t warn you.”[i]

True, but still…how am I supposed to preach a passage like this?  I read the text over and over again last week in search of the Good News, and finally began to feel something I can only describe as a presence, looking over my shoulder, reading the text with me.  It took me a while to figure out who it was, but then I realized: it was Luke, the author of this Gospel.  I don’t always think about him when I’m reading it.  I think about Jesus, and the disciples, and whoever else shows up in the story, but I don’t often think about the one who wrote these words in the first place, or what he might have wanted us to see.  But as I read back over the text last week I thought about how Luke was the traveling companion of the Apostle Paul, and how Paul experienced exactly some of the things that Jesus describes.

“You will be brought before kings and governors because of my name,” Jesus says.  “This will give you an opportunity to testify.  So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”  Do you remember how Paul was brought before Felix the Governor, in Acts 23 (which was also written by Luke)?  And how he was brought before Agrippa, the King, in Acts 25?  In both cases, without writing or rehearsing a speech, Paul delivers an eloquent defense of his ministry, as if to fulfill Jesus’ promise: “I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”  It’s possible that Luke was sitting right there next to Paul, taking notes, and that he referred to those notes when he was writing his Gospel.

When did they start traveling together?  We can’t be sure, but in Acts 16 we get a clue.  Luke tells us that Paul and Silas and Timothy had gone down to Troas, on the coast of the Aegean Sea, and during the night Paul had a vision of a man from Macedonia saying, “Come over and help us.”  In the very next verse Luke writes:  “When [Paul] had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.”  So I wonder: did Luke live in Troas?  Was he the local physician there?  Did Paul seek him out because he needed a doctor?  Did Luke invite them to stay the night?  Was it there that Paul had his vision?  Did he share it with his traveling companions at breakfast the next morning?  And is that when Luke decided to go with them?  Again, we can’t be sure, but from that moment on Luke uses the pronoun “we” when he talks about Paul and his traveling companions.

And if that’s true then Luke would have been with Paul during some of those misadventures he describes in 2 Corinthians 11, including the floggings, the lashings, the beatings, and the stoning.  “Three times I was shipwrecked,” Paul writes; “for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked.”[ii]

“You will be persecuted,” Jesus says to his followers, “handed over to prison, possibly even put to death.  But before that you will be hated by all because of my name.”  And if anyone was ever hated for bearing the name of Jesus, it was Paul.  He was eventually imprisoned in Rome, and according to our most reliable sources it was there, under the persecution of Caesar Nero, that he was killed by the sword.  In 2 Timothy 4 we have the closest thing we can find to Paul’s last words.  He writes: “As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come.  I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”[iii]  Just after that he writes that everyone else has deserted him, that Luke alone is with him.  Was Luke with him on the night before he died?  Did he ask Paul if it had all been worth it?  And did Paul smile and say, “For me to live is Christ; to die is gain.”[iv]

Apparently Luke was able to get out of Rome alive and over the next twenty years gathered material for the Gospel that bears his name.  In the opening paragraph he writes: “Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, Most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know that truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.”[v]  Now, we don’t know who Theophilus was, but his name means, literally, “Lover of God,” so that Theophilus could be anyone who loves God and wants to know the truth about his Son, Jesus.  But what interests me today is Luke’s assertion that the Good News he is about to share has been handed on to him by those who, “from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word,” that is, his is an “eyewitness account.”  But where did he get that account?  Who did he talk to?  It’s an educated guess, but I’m guessing that Luke went to Ephesus, for two reasons: 1) that’s where John was, the one who is sometimes called “the Beloved Disciple,” and 2) that’s where Mary was, the mother of Jesus.

I’ve been to Ephesus.  I’ve seen the ruins of the church of St. John.  And I’ve seen the little house up on the hill above it where Mary is said to have lived out her last days.  Do you remember that moment in John’s Gospel, when Jesus was dying on the cross and his mother and the Beloved Disciple were standing at the foot of it, and Jesus said to his mother, “Woman, behold your son,” and to the disciple, “Behold your mother,” and how from that hour that disciple took Jesus’ mother into his own home?[vi]  Well, at some point the two of them had to get out of that home.  You may remember that the followers of Jesus experienced persecution in Jerusalem shortly after the stoning of Stephen, and that they were scattered across the ancient world.  And you may remember that in 70 A.D. the city of Jerusalem fell to the Romans and the temple was destroyed, just as Jesus had predicted.

In fact, all those things Jesus had predicted came true in the years between his death and the publication of Luke’s Gospel.  Most of the stones of the temple were thrown down (although some are still there).  A number of pretenders claimed to be the messiah.  There were wars and insurrections.  There were earthquakes, famines, and plagues.  And, yes, as Luke could testify, the followers of Jesus were arrested and persecuted.  Some of them were betrayed by friends and relatives.  Still others, like Stephen and Paul were put to death.  Most of them were hated because they were followers of Jesus.  If Luke had spent any time at all with John, the Beloved Disciple, he would have heard all those stories, and evidence suggests that he did spend time with him.  There is a passage in Luke’s Gospel that sounds as if it came straight out of the Gospel of John.[vii]  And the story of the woman caught in adultery from John 8?  Most scholars say it has the language, style, and grammar of the Gospel of Luke.  I think they knew each other.  I think they swapped stories.  And I think Luke may have had a chance to ask John, “Was it worth it?  If you had it to do all over again, would you do it?  Would you drop your nets and follow Jesus?”  And what do you think John would have said to that?  Is there any question that this disciple, the one Jesus loved, would say anything other than yes?

And finally there is Jesus’ mother.  If it’s true that she lived in that little house on the hill above John’s church, and if Luke had a chance to interview her as one of his eyewitnesses, what do you think she would say?  Would she say it was worth it?  I sometimes think Luke must have interviewed Mary.  Where else would he have gotten some of the information for his Gospel?  Who else could have told him about the time Gabriel came and told Mary she was going to have a baby?  Who else could have filled him in on that long trip to Bethlehem and that birth in a stable?  Who else would have remembered that old Simeon had talked about this child being destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel and then saying to Mary, “A sword will pierce your own soul, too?”  A sword had pierced her soul, certainly.  How could she stand at the foot of the cross and not feel the pain of a mother watching her son die?  I can almost hear her sobbing through that story, and when it was done I can almost hear Luke asking, gently, “Was it worth it?”  What do you think Mary would have said?  Would she have closed her eyes and started singing that old song again, the one she sang in the beginning?

My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor
on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on
All generations will call me blessed.[viii]

Jesus was right.  He was right about the destruction of the temple and the persecution of his followers.  But he was also right about this: that all of these terrible things would give us a chance to testify about the most wonderful thing.  For Paul and John and Mary that was Jesus.  Nothing was more precious to them than him.  No one else was so worth living for, and, if necessary, worth dying for.  But maybe that’s not the most important thing to consider this morning.  Maybe the most important thing is not to imagine what they would say, but to think about what you will say when someone asks you,

“Was it worth it?”

—Jim Somerville © 2022

[i] Luke 9:23

[ii] 2 Corinthians 11:23-27

[iii] 2 Timothy 4:6

[iv] Philippians 1:21

[v] Luke 1:1-4

[vi] John 19:26-27

[vii] Luke 10:21-22

[viii] Luke 1:46-48

A Place in the Resurrection

All Saints’ Sunday

Luke 20:27-38

 Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him and asked him a question…

 “Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection,” came to Jesus and asked him a question about a woman who had been married seven times, to seven different men.  They wanted to know, “In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will she be, for the seven had married her?”  It’s a hypothetical question.  It’s a question meant to trip Jesus up, and to make resurrection look ridiculous.  We’ll get to it in a minute.  But for now let me remind you that for some people that question is not hypothetical at all.  They have been married more than once, and they wonder: “When I get to heaven whose spouse will I be?”  Or they’ve been happily married to the same person forever and they wonder, “Will we still be married in heaven?”  I think we can find the answers to those questions and more in today’s Gospel lesson, but first I need to give you some background.

Let’s begin with the Sadducees themselves.  They were the wealthy ruling class in Jerusalem.  They held the majority of the seats on the Jewish religious council and among them were the chief priests and the high priest.  They maintained the peace in Jerusalem primarily by enforcing the decisions of Rome, and some thought they were more concerned with politics than religion.[i]  They were ultra-conservative, accepting only the first five books of the Bible as authoritative, and perhaps for that reason did not believe in the resurrection.  The Pharisees, on the other hand, did.  One of my Sunday school teachers helped me remember that distinction by saying, “It’s sad-you-see: there is no resurrection.”  And then saying, “It’s fair-I-see, there is resurrection!”  I will add to that distinction only this observation: that the people who have everything in this world often seem to have far less interest in the next.  In first-century Israel, those people were the Sadducees.

Secondly, I believe that the question they asked Jesus was their standard test question for the resurrection.  It was intended to make resurrection look ridiculous by appealing to the practice of “levirate marriage,” where a man would marry his brother’s widow in order to keep his brother’s memory alive.  Here’s how it is explained in Deuteronomy 25:5-6:

When brothers reside together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married outside the family to a stranger.  Her husband’s brother shall go in to her, taking her in marriage, and performing the duty of a husband’s brother to her, and the firstborn whom she bears shall succeed to the name of the deceased brother, so that his name may not be blotted out of Israel.

This, for the Sadducees, was the Word of the Lord (thanks be to God).  It was from one of the first five books of the Bible.  They say to Jesus in verse 28, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother.”

And let me pause long enough to point out that the Greek word for “resurrection” is anastasis.  It comes from the word stasis, meaning “to stand,” and ana, meaning “again,” so that anastasis means “to raise up,” or, literally, “to stand up again.”  The Sadducees didn’t believe in that, but they believed in this: that a man could “raise up” children for his dead brother.  The Greek word is exanastase, which sounds just like the word for resurrection but with an ex on the front, meaning “out of,” and in this case “out of his seed.”  It’s an earthy analogy but in levirate marriage a dead man’s brother was expected to plant his “seed” in the “soil” of his widow’s womb so that children could be raised up for him like a farmer plants seed in his garden to raise up cabbages.  This is the only kind of resurrection the Sadducees believed in, and in their test question it created a problem because (verse 29): “There were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second; and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless.  Finally the woman also died.  In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be?  For the seven had married her.”

The real conundrum in this question, as far as the Sadducees are concerned, is not whether or not people can rise from the dead, but who gets the property rights.  Because in first century Israel wives were considered the property of their husbands (I’m not saying it’s right; I’m saying that’s how it was).  All seven of these brothers had, at one time or another, “owned” the same property.  In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will she be?  The Sadducees could almost picture these seven fighting over the same woman and to them the whole thing looked ridiculous.  To us it’s not so ridiculous.  We believe in the resurrection.  And we’ve all known people who were married more than once.  You may be one of those people, and you may be wondering, “In the resurrection, whose wife will be?” (or whose husband), and for you it’s not about rights; it’s about relationship.  So, lean in close and listen, because I think Jesus has some answers to your questions.

In verse 34 he says, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.”  Let’s pause for a moment and think about when people do that: when they “marry” and are “given” in marriage.  It’s at a wedding, right?  In Jesus’ time that’s when a man “took” a wife.  That’s when a woman was “given” to her husband.  So, I don’t think Jesus is saying there won’t be any marriages in heaven, but he does seem to be saying there won’t be any weddings, and that’s because there won’t be any funerals.

He says, “Those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.”  Why?  Verse 36: “[Because] they cannot die anymore.” And when Jesus says that he makes it clear that in his time marriage was not usually about being so in love with another person that you couldn’t live without each other, but rather about the creation of a stable social structure in which children could be born and raised.[ii]  It was about building up the nation of Israel initially, and beyond that about ensuring the survival of the human species.  I love the child’s letter to God that says, “Dear God: instead of letting people die and having to make new ones why don’t you just keep the ones you’ve got?”  Jesus seems to be saying that in the resurrection that’s how it is: God keeps the ones he’s got.  There is therefore no need to make new ones and therefore no need for marriage.

“But wait a minute,” you say.  That’s not why I got married.  I don’t see marriage as merely the means of procreation.  I see it as a lasting commitment to another person.  What about me?”  Ah!  Now you’re talking about relationship, and that’s what matters most to us.  I sometimes say, “Relationships are the most important thing in the world and the only thing that really lasts.”  Occasionally I test that truth by asking mourners at a funeral, “Do you love this person more or less now than you did three days ago?”  They usually say, “More!”  The person has died but the relationship hasn’t.

That’s what Jesus is talking about in verse 37 when he invokes the story of the burning bush from Exodus 3, one of the first five books of the Bible and therefore a story that would have had authority for the Sadducees.  He says, “Do you remember what God said to Moses?  He said, ‘I AM the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.’  He didn’t say, ‘I was their God’ (past tense); he said, ‘I AM’ (present tense).  And for Jesus that’s all the proof the Sadducees should need.  “For he is not the God of the dead,” Jesus says, “but of the living.”  And then he ends with something that sounds almost like a poem.  He says,

For to him

All of them

Are alive.

I think he would say the same about those you have loved and lost: that “to him all of them are alive.”  And I hope that can be a comfort to you.  If you get nothing else out of this passage I hope you will get this: that according to Jesus the two things that survive death are identity and relationship.  Because somehow Abraham is still Abraham after all these years; his identity survives.  And somehow God is still his God after all these years; the relationship survives.  But that is not only true for Abraham.  It is true for all those who have made him their God, and for all those whose names were read this morning.  Their identity survives, and their relationship with God—the one who made them and loved them and called them his own—survives.  That’s good news.  But there may be some of you who are still wondering about marriage and asking, “In the resurrection what happens to that relationship?”

This is where I move beyond the things I can say with certainty and into the realm of speculation, but I think Jesus gives us some important clues.  In verse 34 he says, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage” while “those who are considered worthy of a place in that age” do not.  Listen carefully: he doesn’t say that people on earth get married but people in heaven don’t.  He says that people in this age get married but those in that age don’t.  An age is not a place; it’s a time.  Jesus is borrowing the language of Jewish Apocalyptic Eschatology, where people talked about “the present evil age” as compared with the messianic age: “the age to come.”  That’s when they believed that God’s chosen one, the Messiah, would ride onto the scene, conquer evil, and usher in a golden age of peace and prosperity.  For them heaven wasn’t up there somewhere, in the sky, it was out there somewhere, in the future.  For us it might be that moment when God’s kingdom finally comes and his will is forever done on earth as it is in heaven.

Wherever it is or whenever it is, Jesus says in verse 36 that when that new reality dawns we will no longer be mortal (that is, subject to death).  Instead we will be like the angels (who never die).  He says that in that day we will be the “children of God, children of the resurrection,” and I’m fascinated by his use of the word children.  Because one of the things I know about children and one of the things I love about them is that they live in the moment.  For them there is no yesterday, and no tomorrow; there is only now.  I know this because I have struggled to explain the concept of time to my grandson.  I tell him that I will see him tomorrow, or remind him of something we did yesterday, but he doesn’t know what that means.  He’s two years old; for him there is only now.  But if that sounds like a handicap consider this: he doesn’t have any regrets about the past or any worries about the future.

He lives in the moment.

This seems especially relevant when I think of how some modern theologians have described the realm of God as “the Eternal Now.”  You’ve heard me talk about this.  In my Easter sermon this year I suggested that when we die we “step off the time line” and into the realm of God.  I quoted that old hymn, “When the Roll is Called up Yonder,” the one that begins with a reference to that moment “when the trumpet of the Lord shall sound and time shall be no more.”  Even then I thought, “These old hymn writers had it figured out!  Time is not always our friend; sometimes it is our enemy.  But sometime there will come a time when time will be no more!”  Maybe then we will all be like my grandson, Leo: living in the moment.  But unlike him, we will live in that moment forever.

One of my favorite pictures is a picture of Leo and his little friend Charley on the playground at preschool.  Charley is just about the cutest little girl you have ever seen and Leo is, well…he’s my grandson.  In this picture the two of them are hugging each other hard and laughing hysterically.  It’s adorable.  And it’s a little too easy to start matchmaking, to start thinking that maybe the two of them will remain friends throughout childhood and adolescence, and someday tell us that they’re getting married.  “Wouldn’t that be sweet?” we think, for these childhood friends to end up married to each other?”  Well, yes, it would be sweet, until that night when they’re in their mid-thirties and both exhausted from working at demanding jobs so they can pay the mortgage on their beautiful home where the sink is full of dirty dishes and the dog just ate the remote control and one of the kids is spreading peanut butter on the living room curtains and the other one needs a diaper change in the worst possible way.

In a moment like that you might think, “Why complicate things?  Why can’t they just stay the way they are?  Why can’t Leo and Charley just be best friends forever?”  Is that what Jesus has in mind when he says that those who are considered worthy of a place in that age are the “children of God,” and “children of the resurrection”?  Does he mean that in that blessed state they will never have any regrets about the past, and never have any worries about the future?  Does he mean that they will always hug each other hard and laugh hysterically?  I don’t know.  How could I possibly know?  But sometimes the questions are even more exciting than the answers. They leave me scratching my head, searching the Scriptures,

And dreaming about the future.

— Jim Somerville © 2022

[i] From the “Got Questions?” website, which promises biblical answers to your questions (https://www.gotquestions.org/Sadducees.html).

[ii] This is my usual definition of biblical marriage. I’m currently reading a book on the history of marriage that includes things like political alliances, division of labor, etc. (Stephanie Coontz, Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage).

Saving the Lost

The Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 19:1-10

 He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature.

 Let’s begin with a pop quiz:

According to Luke 19:1-10, Zacchaeus was:

  1. Short in stature
  2. A chief tax collector
  3. A sinner
  4. A Son of Abraham
  5. All of the above.

If you picked “e,” you’re right, but if you’re like me there was a time when each of those seemed like the right answer.

When I was a boy, for instance, I knew that Zacchaeus was a “wee little man, and a wee little man was he.”  We sang that song in Sunday school.  But we also learned the story of Zacchaeus, and if you had asked me I could have told you that one day when the Lord was passing through his town he climbed up in a sycamore tree to see him.  I could relate to that.  If Jesus had passed through my town I might have had to climb a tree; I was a wee little man myself.  But I could have also told you that when Jesus passed that way he looked up in the tree and saw Zacchaeus and told him to come down.  Why? “For I’m going to your house today.  For I’m going to your house today.”  That’s the end of the song, and in those days, as far as I was concerned, that was the end of the story.  The good news was not that Zacchaeus was a sinner who got saved; the good news was that Jesus was going to his house.  It made me wonder what kind of songs we would sing if Jesus came to my house.

But as I got older I learned that Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector, and as far as his fellow Jews were concerned, that was a bad thing.  He was working for the Roman government, the same government whose armies had conquered Israel back in 63 B.C. and whose soldiers still swaggered through its streets.  He was taxing his fellow Israelites, and handing over a substantial portion of their hard-earned income to Caesar.  But apparently he was keeping a good bit for himself.  He was growing rich at his neighbors’ expense, and nobody liked that.  They grumbled about him behind his back.  They called him a “sinner.”

And when I got to seminary I learned a little more about that.  The Greek word for “sin” is hamartia. It means, literally, “to miss the mark.”  I pictured someone shooting an arrow at an archery target, aiming for the big, red bullseye in the center, but missing—maybe by an inch, maybe by a mile.  So, I learned that a sinner is a “mark misser,” and that was new for me.  It made me hopeful.  It made me think that most sinners are at least aiming for the target; they’re trying to get it right, but they’re missing.  Doesn’t that describe you most of the time?  I mean, do you wake up in the morning looking for ways to sin, or do you wake up determined to do your best but by the end of the day realize, that in more ways than you want to admit, you missed the mark?  Zacchaeus’s sin seems a little more deliberate than that.  If the whole of the Jewish law could be summed up in the command to love God and love neighbor (as Jesus suggests), then Zacchaeus was not doing a very good job of loving his neighbors.  He wasn’t even aiming his arrow in that direction.  He was taxing them.  He was taking more than his share.  He was reducing some of them to poverty.  It’s no wonder they called him “a sinner.”

So, when I became a pastor, and when this story showed up in the lectionary for the first time, I seized the opportunity to talk about Zacchaeus’s glorious conversion.  He was a sinner, but for some reason he wanted to see Jesus (maybe there was something inside him that knew just how much he needed to be saved), and when Jesus saw him he did exactly what his Heavenly Father might do: instead of looking on Zacchaeus’s outward appearance he looked on his heart, and what he saw in that heart was good.   So, he called him down out of the tree.  He said, “Zacchaeus, you come down, for I’m going to your house today,” and Zacchaeus was so moved by the invitation that he knelt at Jesus’ feet, and with tears in his eyes promised to give half his money to the poor, and if he had defrauded anyone to pay them back fourfold.  Jesus was amazed.  He turned to the crowd and said, “Today salvation has come to this house, for he too is a Son of Abraham!”  And that’s how it works, right?  If you are a sinner who confesses your sins (as it says in Psalm 32), and if you repent of those sins as Zacchaeus did and promise to live a different kind of life, then Jesus can forgive you of your sins and offer you the gift of salvation, right?  That’s what I learned in church when I was growing up.  That’s what I shared with my congregation the first time I preached this passage.  It’s absolutely true, but it may not be what this story is about.

Because the last time I preached this passage I learned something new.  I learned that the verbs Zacchaeus uses in his defense are not in the future tense, but in the present tense.  That is, when the crowd starts grumbling about him and saying he’s a sinner, he doesn’t say to Jesus, “From now on I will give half of my money to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone I will pay them back fourfold,” he says, “I already give half my money to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone I pay them back fourfold.  It’s my standard business practice.”  Well, that changes the story completely, doesn’t it?

So, why didn’t I see it before?  Why didn’t we all see it?  Because everyone wants this to be a conversion story, including the people who translate the Bible, even the New Revised Standard Version, the one I have trusted since seminary, the one that’s in our pew racks!  The translators of that Bible and the New International Version want so much for this to be a story about a man whose life was changed forever by his encounter with Jesus that they have changed the verbs forever: they have taken an ordinary present tense verb and twisted it into something they call the “future-present,” as if Zacchaeus were saying, “From this moment on I give half my money to the poor.”  But if you ask them how many times the so-called future-present appears in the New Testament they will have to admit, “Only once.  Only here in Luke 19:8.”  Because it isn’t a real thing.  They made it up.  Their love for a good conversion story has skewed their translation.

But others have taken the verbs at face value.  If it’s a present active indicative verb then that’s how they translate it.  In the English Standard Version, the one I have on my phone, Zacchaeus says, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor.  And if I have defrauded anyone of anything I restore it fourfold.”  And when Eugene Peterson paraphrased this passage in his version of the Bible, the Message, he quoted Zacchaeus as saying, “Master, I give away half my income to the poor—and if I’m caught cheating, I pay four times the damages.”  And if that’s too modern for you take a look at the King James Version, published in 1611, where Zacchaeus says, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have taken any thing from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold.”

Reading these verbs in the present tense rather than the future tense makes it harder to hear this as a conversion story, but it makes it easier to understand Jesus’ response, because when the people start grumbling about Zacchaeus and saying that he is a sinner, and Zacchaeus defends himself by saying he gives half his money to the poor, Jesus says, “Today salvation has come to this house.”  Why?  “Because he too is a Son of Abraham.”  If you can hear it, Jesus is restoring Zacchaeus to his place in the community by restoring his identity as a good and faithful Jew.  And if the community can hear it, then this story has the potential to become a different kind of conversion story, a story in which it is not Zacchaeus, but the people of Jericho, who are converted.

Think about that archery target again.  What if that big, round circle were the circle of community, and what if the people who ended up in the center of that circle were not necessarily the most righteous, but simply the most acceptable?  Can you see how Zacchaeus would be pushed out because he collected taxes from his neighbors?  But can you see how many other people might get pushed out of that circle through no fault of their own?  On Friday morning I posted this question on Facebook.  I asked: “What are some of the things that push people out of ‘polite’ society? For example: the man who gets fired from his high-profile job and finds that no one will return his phone calls? Or the woman whose cancer diagnosis makes it hard for people to know what to say, so they begin to avoid her? Failure, illness…what else?”  And then I waited for the answers.

The first one came within minutes: “Becoming a religious wacko will do it. By which I mean—falling so in love with Jesus and being so intoxicated by the Spirit that everything else in this fallen world seems dark and drab.”

The next person wrote: “Divorce.”

A few minutes later someone wrote: “So many things will [push you outside the circle]. Grief or loss come to mind foremost.”

Another wrote: “Insecurity, self doubt”

An old college friend added: “Becoming a widow/widower or being divorced…  Losing a child due to illness or miscarriage… Telling your friends/family/coworkers that you are gay.”

Someone wrote: “Drug addiction/alcohol abuse.”Bottom of Form

Another added: “Having a disability or being disfigured in an accident.”

Someone wrote: “Depression.”

Another added: “Being a trauma survivor with all the challenges that linger on for years.”

Someone wrote: “Marrying a person of another race.”

Another wrote a long post that began with the words: “Society’s intolerance of introverts.”

Someone wrote: “Extended illness,” and another agreed, writing: “The world gets tired of dealing with a person’s infirmity.”

Someone else wrote: “Divorce.”

The next person wrote: “Divorce and being gay.”

Someone wrote a longer post about the challenges of mental illness.

Someone wrote: “A child with behavioral problems. That has isolated us for years now.”

Someone wrote: “When you make a horrible mistake and you think you can’t be forgiven.”

Another added: “Poverty. Your life is going well. Then, boom. Medical event, loss of job, divorce, economy, etc. It’s amazing when poverty or loss of status strikes you. Your circle of friends or acquaintances shrink. Downright crater. You learn fast who your REAL friends are.”

A pastor wrote: “When you leave a church and people think you did something wrong.”

A church member wrote: “Gender transitioning.”

Someone mentioned the stigma of suicide and said she left church for more than ten years after no one reached out to her after her father’s death.

Someone wrote: “Being a felon. Even for non-violent offenses.”

Someone else mentioned the awkward pause in a workplace conversation when you say anything that sounds too Christian.

Another wrote: “Shame or self-pity due to not being able to measure up intellectually, financially, family circumstances, etc.”

There were more: people talked about aging, Alzheimer’s, grieving, loss of a spouse, loss of a child, loss of hearing, leaving a promising career to care for your children, disability, addiction, coming out, and again divorce, which was mentioned a half dozen times in that thread.  One person wrote: “When you get divorced, no one brings casseroles!” which made me think we need to start a new ministry.

I hope I’ve given you enough examples to convince you that people get pushed out of polite society by all sorts of things.  It’s as if there’s this place at the center of the circle for people who are bright, young, attractive, healthy, happily married, gainfully employed, with 2.4 perfect children, and then there are the rest of us, somewhere outside the circle, wondering how we got there.  But here’s the good news: Jesus is outside the circle, too.  If you look hard enough you can almost see him, poking around in the darkness, looking for people who have been pushed out of polite society, finding those whose hearts are still good, picking them up, brushing them off, and bringing them back to the center of the circle.  At the end of today’s Gospel lesson he stands beside Zacchaeus and says, “Today salvation has come to this house, for he too is a Son of Abraham.”  And then he says, “For the Son of Man came to seek and save the lost.”

And that’s the end of the story.  There’s Zacchaeus, restored to his rightful place in the community.  But there’s no guarantee he will stay there.  There’s no promise that the people who pushed him out the first time won’t do it again.  And maybe that’s why Jesus felt the need to create a new community, one he called the Kingdom of God, where everyone would be welcome, no matter what.  In his thinking it would be a place where you didn’t have to be perfect; you only had to be human.

Sometimes I meet people who ask me, “Do you think I would be welcome in your church?”  And I look them up and down, wondering what kind of reception they would get.  These are good-hearted people for the most part.  They want to come to church and I want to say yes, but I have to be honest: some of them might be hard to accept.  So, here’s what I do: I say yes anyway, and then I hope and pray that they will be accepted, that this church will be for them the kind of community Jesus had in mind, the one he called the Kingdom of God, where everyone is welcome, no matter what.  And sometimes I picture Jesus himself standing there beside them, introducing them to the congregation at the end of the service and saying, “Today, salvation has come to this house, because this one, too, is a child of God.”

Jim Somerville © 2022

What Makes Us Right?

The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 18:9-14

 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector…”

 For nearly three months now we have been on the road with Jesus, walking with him through the Gospel of Luke as he makes his way to Jerusalem, the city where he will suffer and die.  But along the way he has been teaching his disciples everything they will need to know when he is no longer with them and as his modern-day disciples we’ve been listening in, learning as we go.  Recently Jesus has started telling parables: the parable of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin; the parable of the Dishonest Manager; the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus; the parable of the Persistent Widow.  He seems to believe that the lessons contained in these short, memorable stories will be an essential part of his disciples’ formation, and possibly ours as well, but those lessons aren’t always easy to discern.

One of my favorite New Testament scholars refers to the parables as riddles, and that’s not a bad way to think about them.  Riddles are verbal puzzles.  You have to think about them, you have to figure them out.  For example: “What has many keys but doesn’t open a single door?”  A piano.  “What is more useful once it is broken?”  An egg.  “What is small and brown, has a head and a tail, but no legs?”  A penny.[i]  You see?  Some of the parables are like that, like riddles that have to be figured out (the one about the Dishonest Manager comes to mind; I’m still trying to solve that one).  But others are more like jokes in the way they upset our expectations.  For example: I’ve enjoyed some of the “Dad Jokes” I’ve seen on TikTok, where two men sit on a dock and try to make each other laugh.  One says, “I went to the bookstore yesterday and saw a book that said, ‘How to solve 50 percent of your problems.’  So I bought two.”  His friend says: “If 666 is all evil, then 25.8069758 is the root of all evil.”  He says: “I ate a kid’s meal at McDonald’s today.  His mom got really angry.”[ii]

Jokes like that set you up to expect one thing, and then they deliver a “punch line” you just didn’t expect.  Some of the parables work like that.  This one, for example, from Luke 18, the one about the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.  In fact it may be the best example of a parable that sets you up to expect one outcome and then delivers another.  Because when Jesus said, “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one of them a Pharisee and the other a tax collector,” everyone in his original audience would have expected him to say that the Pharisee went home justified. The Pharisees were the best people anyone knew in those days: they were the solid, hard-working, church-going citizens of First Century Israel.  As the Pharisee in this parable says: “I’m not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers.  I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.”  I wish I had a church full of people just like that!  Tax collectors, on the other hand, were the worst people anyone knew, because they had betrayed their fellow Israelites and gone to work for the Roman government.  Not only did they not love their neighbors, they taxed their neighbors, and always seemed to find a way to hit them up for a little extra.  If their neighbors wouldn’t pay they would send someone around to beat the money out of them.  They didn’t have many friends, but when you’re filthy rich, who cares?

So, when Jesus told this parable for the first time, when he said, “A Pharisee and a tax collector went up to the temple to pray,” the people who were listening must have nudged each other and said, “This is going to be a good one!”  The very idea of a tax collector going up to the temple was laughable, and the thought that he was going there to pray was funnier still.  “What’s he going to pray for?” they must have wondered.  “A tax increase?”  So, what Jesus said about the Pharisee wouldn’t have surprised them at all.  Of course he was a good person.  Of course he tithed and fasted.  But what Jesus said about the tax collector would have shocked them to the soles of their sandals.  He called himself a sinner?  He asked God to have mercy?  What kind of tax collector is that?

Well, it’s exactly the kind of tax collector we’ve come to expect, because we’ve heard this joke a hundred times.  It doesn’t shock us anymore; it doesn’t upset our expectations.  When Jesus says, “A Pharisee and a tax collector went up to the temple to pray” we know exactly who is going to come home justified, which means that this parable doesn’t work for us anymore, if it ever did.  We have come to think of Pharisees in the way Luke describes them at the beginning of this parable: as those who “trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”  We don’t expect them to come home from the temple justified; we expect them to come home condemned.  So, I’m wondering if there is any way we can adapt this parable so it works for us.  I’m wondering if we can learn to have some sympathy for this poor Pharisee.  And the best way I’ve found is to think of my dear mother, because while she was one of the very best people I have ever known, she sometimes regarded others with contempt.  I’ve spent years trying to figure out why.

I think it comes down to this: that she grew up in a home where she wasn’t completely sure of her father’s love.  She used to tell a story about having a nightmare when she was sixteen and coming to her parents’ room where her mother invited her to get in bed with them.  A little odd for a sixteen-year-old girl, but as she snuggled in between them she felt loved and accepted in a way she rarely did otherwise.  And when she woke up in the morning she felt “healed” of an eating disorder that had bothered her for years.  She said, “I used to sneak into the pantry and gobble down anything I could find, but after that night I didn’t feel the need anymore.”  She felt loved; accepted.

But later on in life she wasn’t always sure of God’s love, and I think it stemmed from those early experiences of insecurity.  So, she tried to be the very best person she could be.  She tried to be deserving of God’s love.  She would prop her Bible up on the kitchen windowsill while she was washing the dishes and turn the pages with wet, soapy fingers.  You could always spot her Bible in our house because those wrinkled pages made it twice as thick.  And she would pray without ceasing—well, she had to; she was the mother of six boys; there was always something to pray about.  She would visit with the poor people who came to our house looking for my dad, and she would help him deliver food boxes to them at Christmas.  She started a clothes closet where she charged ten cents per item and kept most of the county in decent clothes.  She was a good woman, a good person, as I said, one of the best I have ever known.  But she did have this tendency to look around and compare herself with others, and when she did she would often judge them unfavorably.

Why?  Because she wanted to be sure that her heavenly father would judge her favorably.  So, she would look around at what this neighbor or that one was doing and say, “Humph!  That doesn’t seem very Christian.”  She would put others down in order to lift herself up.  “I might not be perfect,” she would say, “but at least I’m not like so-and-so.”  I always cringed when she did that, partly because I was so often on the receiving end of her judgment, but also because it seems like the very thing Jesus condemns in this parable, which he told to some who “trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”  Now I see that it may have come out of an old insecurity, that my mother may have wondered if her Heavenly Father loved her in the same way she used to wonder if her earthly father loved her, and she wanted to be sure she was accepted by being the very best person she knew how to be, and by looking around to make sure she was at least a little better than others.

If I read this parable with my mother in mind, and with some understanding of her old insecurities, I find that I can begin to have some sympathy for this Pharisee.  Maybe he just wasn’t sure that the Heavenly Father loved him.  Maybe he wanted to prove to him that he was worthy.  So he fasted twice a week.  He tithed.  And when he looked around he could see that he was better than a lot of people, better than thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even this tax collector.

Let’s talk about him for a minute.

If he was anything like the rest of the tax collectors in Israel at that time then he was a superlative sinner: one who had sold his soul to the evil Roman Empire, and defrauded his righteous Jewish neighbors over and over again: he deserved the worst punishment he could get.  But this tax collector seems to know that.  He isn’t trying to justify himself, that is, he isn’t trying to “make himself right.”  He knows he is wrong, and that he has done wrong, and if he is ever going to get right someone else is going to have to do it for him.  Which is an important thing to understand.  One of our problems as Americans is that we are so independent.  We seem to think we should be able to do everything for ourselves.  And yet there are some things we can’t, and getting right with God is one of them.

In my house these days there is a place where we change our grandchildren’s diapers.  It’s a foam pad covered in soft cotton fabric that sits on top of the dryer.  It’s got a little safety belt on it so the children won’t roll off.  But that’s where Christy and I put them when they need to be changed and here’s the wonderful thing about them: they know they can’t do it for themselves.  They can’t change their own diapers, although I wouldn’t put it past Leo to try.  If he does, at two years old, I’m pretty sure he will make a mess of it.  But his three-month-old sister, Vivi, would never attempt it.  She doesn’t even seem to know when she needs a diaper change.  Christy and I do; we can tell right away.  And so we put her on that changing pad, strap her in, and go to work, and she just looks up at us and grins.

I don’t mean to be indelicate.  I apologize for talking about such things during a Sunday morning worship service.  But maybe you can see how it relates to the question of dealing with our sin.  We might be independent; we might think we can do everything for ourselves; but we can’t do that for ourselves.  We will mess it up every time.  This tax collector seems to know that.  He seems to understand that he needs some help.  So, he goes to the helping place.  He goes “up to the temple to pray.”  And when he gets there he goes to the darkest corner he can find.  He doesn’t want to be seen.  He doesn’t even look up to heaven, but instead stands there, beating his breast and saying, “God have mercy on me, a sinner!”

Good for him. Because God is the one who can have mercy on sinners, and who does.  He not only does it, he loves to do it.  So you don’t have to put it off until the last possible moment, you don’t have to spend your life trying, and failing, to save yourself.  You can say, when you wake up in the morning, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner!”  And you can say, when you go to bed at night, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner!”  It’s no harder than a two-year-old knowing that he needs a diaper change and it may be the reason Jesus said, “Unless you turn and become like children you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”[iii]  You’ve got to realize that you can’t do this on your own.

“Two men went up to the temple to pray,” Jesus says.  One of them was an insecure Pharisee who wasn’t sure that God loved him, so he did everything he could to earn God’s love, but there were still plenty of times when he wasn’t sure it was enough.  The other was a tax collector who knew exactly how sinful he was, who knew he didn’t have a chance of saving himself, that if it was ever going to happen God was going to have to do it.  “I tell you this man, rather than the other one, went home justified,” Jesus says.

This man went home changed.

It’s not much of a joke, not in our way of thinking, but it does upset our expectations.  Who gets saved?  The one who knows he’s a sinner.  The one who isn’t afraid to ask.  Who doesn’t?  The one who may be the best person you know.  The one who thinks of himself as righteous.  It’s not much of a joke, and it’s not much of a riddle, but it ends with something that sounds like the answer to a riddle: “All who exalt themselves will be humbled,” Jesus says, “and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

I think my mother figured that out in the end.  In the last years of her life she would often say, “I’m not good enough to get to heaven, not on my own; I’m just going to hang on to Jesus’ coattails.”  “Yes,” I thought.  “That’s it!  None of us is good enough to get to heaven, but Jesus is, and if we hang on to his coattails we will surely get there.”

When my mother died her hands were just like this (fists clenched).  I believe she was holding on tight to the Love that would not let her go.

Jim Somerville © 2022

[i] From a website called “Classic Riddles” (https://www.riddles.com/classic-riddles).

[ii] From @loganlisle on TikTok. #dadjokes and #doktok.

[iii] Matthew 18:3.

What God Is Not

The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 18:1-8

 Jesus said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’”

 Today’s Gospel lesson is the parable of the Persistent Widow from Luke 18:1-8.  It begins with a brief introduction by the evangelist who says, “Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not lose heart,” and sometimes we stop right there.  We may listen to the rest of the passage but we already know what it’s about: it’s about praying always and not losing heart.  So, when we’re praying for someone, and our prayers aren’t being answered, we just pray harder.  But if you look closely you will notice that Jesus doesn’t use the word pray at all.  Instead he uses the word justice, and he uses it four times.

I’m reluctant to bring it up because the word justice has fallen on hard times lately.  Some Christians hear it as “social justice” and confuse it with socialism.  But let me be clear: the word socialism is found nowhere in the Bible.  The word justice, on the other hand, is found 173 times.  I’m not talking about social justice; I’m talking about biblical justice, because the God of the Bible is a God of justice.

Here’s the way I think about it.

I think of injustice in those situations where you look at something and say, “That’s just not right.”  And there are plenty of those, aren’t there?  They may look different to different people but there are some things almost all of us can agree on.  One of the things the Bible agrees on is that when we mistreat widows and orphans we are doing a great injustice.  Widows and orphans are among the most vulnerable people in society, and when we make sure that they have what they need to live that’s justice.  So, Jesus tells a story about a widow who needed some justice.

The word in Greek is ekdikeo.  It has the same root as the word righteousness, but it begins with the prefix ek, which usually means “out of.”  This woman is trying to get some righteousness out of a bad situation.  She comes to the judge saying, “Grant me justice against my opponent!”  And the word for “opponent” is interesting, because it has that same root, the one we find in the word righteousness, but here it is preceded by the prefix anti, which you can probably figure out on your own.  This widow’s opponent is “anti-righteousness.”  He’s against it.  He has done something that just isn’t right and now she wants to see if this judge will help her get some “rightness” out of the situation.

What did her opponent do?  We don’t know.  Jesus doesn’t tell us.  But it wouldn’t hurt to imagine something just to make this parable a little more concrete, and to make this widow a little more human.  So, let’s imagine that her husband (when she still had one) worked in a quarry (which would have been a dangerous place to work), but his boss had assured her that if her husband died on the job he would see to it that she was taken care of.  He would give her an accidental death allowance of one denarius a day, which would be enough to live on.  Well then, let’s suppose that something did happen to her husband, that a huge slab of granite fell on him while he was working in the quarry and he died.  And then let’s suppose that the owner of the quarry told the woman that it was her husband’s own fault, that he had been reckless and careless on the job, and that she wouldn’t be getting so much as a widow’s mite from him.  You and I might say:

“That’s just not right!”

And so the next day this woman (now a widow) got up and went to see the judge.  But here’s the problem: apparently there was only one judge in her town.  Everybody knew that he was a scoundrel but nobody could do anything about it.  If you wanted justice, that’s where you had to go: to the unjust judge.  So she went, and she made her case, but this judge didn’t have any regard for God or people—he only cared about himself—and this particular case didn’t interest him.  After the widow had poured out her heart he dismissed her with a wave of his hand.  “Next!” he said.

But she would not be so easily dismissed.  She came back the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that.  She just kept coming and pleading for justice until the judge finally said, “Enough already!  Even though I have no regard for God or people I am going to give this widow some justice so that she won’t wear me out with her continual coming!”  And that’s when we usually say, “Yep, that’s how we’ve got to pray.  We’ve got to keep coming to God no matter what.  We’ve got to wear him down until he gives us what we need.”  As if God were an unjust judge!  But Jesus says, “No!  God is the opposite of that.  God is the most just judge there is.  He will quickly grant justice to his chosen ones who cry out to him day and night, and yet when the Son of Man comes will he find faith on earth?”

Luke tells us this is a parable about our need to pray always and not lose heart, but it wasn’t until I noticed how many times Jesus mentions the word justice that I wondered what it is we are supposed to pray for.  That question took me back to Luke 11, where one of Jesus’ disciples came to him and said, “Lord, teach us to pray.”  It might be another way of asking, “Lord, what are we supposed to pray for?” which is an excellent question, especially when you are keeping company with Jesus for whom physical healing—the thing we pray for the most—doesn’t seem to be a problem.  So Jesus said, “When you pray, say:

Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.

Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer is shorter than the one we usually recite from the Gospel of Matthew, but it has a lot of the same features, including the request that God’s kingdom would come.  Suppose the disciples started praying for that, and suppose they did it every day, in the same way this widow appealed to the unjust judge.  “May your kingdom come,” they would say, and the next day they would say it again.  Because when God’s kingdom comes, and when God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven, then all will be right with the world.  Did you hear that?  All will be right with the world, from the same root as the word righteousness or the word justice.  And can I say this?  I’m praying that God’s kingdom will come and God’s will be done, because God is the only one I trust with making things right in this world.

I think this is one of the reasons some Christians are so uncomfortable with the idea of social justice; it’s because the people who are talking about it have different ideas of what justice might look like than they do.  For example: I went to a clergy conference on racial reconciliation this weekend where I was shown the huge disparities between white people and black people living in Richmond when it comes to things like jobs, housing, health care, education, and transportation.  I didn’t have to look at those charts and graphs very long before I concluded, “That’s just not right!”  And the other people at my table agreed with me.  They had seen the same information.  But if I stood in the pulpit this morning and said, “We’ve got to do something about the inequity between black people and white people living in the city of Richmond!” you might not agree with me.  Those might not be your issues.  You might not care about affordable housing… until you can’t afford to pay the rent; and you might not care about education… until your son can’t pass his SOL’s; and you might not care about health care… until you can’t pay for your prescription medication.  But when you can’t, and you’ve done everything you know how to do, and nobody seems to want to help, that is, when you have experienced injustice then you might find yourself caring about justice, and you might find yourself praying that God’s kingdom would come and God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

You have to remember that Jesus was talking mostly to poor people, living under foreign occupation in a remote corner of the oppressive Roman Empire.  They had experienced injustice first hand, and they had experienced it over and over again.  So, the first thing Jesus taught them to pray for was that God’s kingdom would come, because when it did, when God (rather than Caesar) had his way in the world, then every wrong thing would be made right.  “Pray for that,” Jesus said, “and keep on praying even if it seems like it’s a long time coming.  Because if an unjust judge can grant justice to a persistent widow, then surely a good and loving God can grant justice to his chosen ones who cry out to him day and night.  He’s not going to delay!  He’s not going to drag his feet!  And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”  In other words, will he find anyone who still believes that God’s kingdom is on its way into the world?

I don’t know.

We talk about that here at First Baptist Church.  We talk about bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, and sometimes we use the Lord’s Prayer as a guide.  I say, “It’s the kind of prayer a soldier might pray before going onto the battlefield, the kind of prayer a missionary might pray before going onto the mission field.  ‘Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name,’ it says.  ‘Thy kingdom come!  Thy will be done!’ but then (don’t miss this part) ‘on earth as it is in heaven.’  Or, as we pray it in staff meeting each week, ‘In Richmond as it is in heaven.’  And then we ask God to give us our daily bread, because we’re going to need our strength.  We ask him to forgive us our sins, because they would only drag us down.  We ask him to lead us not into temptation, because we can’t afford to be distracted.  And then, just in case we begin to have some success and think it’s because of our efforts, the prayer reminds us that the kingdom, and the power, and the glory belong to God forever and ever.

Amen.

Richmond’s First Baptist Church wants to be an answer to the Lord’s Prayer, and there are days when I feel as if we are getting close.  But there are other days when it feels as if God’s kingdom is a million miles away, and on those days I feel like that persistent widow, pleading my case in front of an unjust judge.  That’s when I need Jesus to remind me that God is not an unjust judge; God is the opposite of that.  If an unjust judge can grant justice to a persistent widow then how much more will God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry out to him day and night?  And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

It’s a good question.

I came to that clergy conference on racial reconciliation Friday night.  It was being held right here in our fellowship hall.  I sat down at the assigned table and got acquainted with the other people who were there, but it wasn’t long before one of them asked, “How much longer are we going to have to do this?  How much longer are we going to have to talk about justice in the city of Richmond before something actually happens?”  She didn’t say it this way but I could tell she was on the verge of losing heart, the very thing Luke warns us about at the beginning of today’s Gospel lesson.  She was tired.  She was discouraged.  She almost hadn’t come.

But then we had dinner (which was delicious) and afterward we had conversation around the tables that began to change the mood and maybe even her mind.  Because here we were: white people and black people talking to each other, laughing with each other, understanding each other, relating to each other.  Near the end someone at our table said, “If the whole city of Richmond could have the experience we’ve had around this table tonight things might actually change!”  And then the musicians got up and began to sing.  They sang a song about how hard it is to keep on hoping and praying when nothing ever seems to change, but then they segued into another song, an old, familiar song.  They began to sing “We shall overcome,” and we all got up and started singing along with them.

We shall overcome,

We shall overcome,

We shall overcome someday. 

Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe

That we shall overcome someday.

And then something happened: as we sang we began to believe what we were singing.  You could feel it.  And one of the musicians got so excited that he began to sing, “We shall overcome today!”  And everybody joined in, and we sang louder and louder until revival practically broke out right there in Flamming Hall.

When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?  Will he find anyone still praying that God’s kingdom would come and God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven?  Well, if he had come to that conference on Friday night, he would have.  And if he comes to First Baptist Church in the next thirty seconds he will, too, because, pray with me:

Our father who art in heaven,

Hallowed be thy name.

Thy kingdom come.

Thy will be done, on earth,

as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our trespasses,

as we forgive those who trespass against us.

And lead us not into temptation,

but deliver us from evil:

For thine is the kingdom,

and the power, and the glory,

for ever, Amen.

Jim Somerville © 2022

One Came Back

The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 17:11-19

 On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him…

 On almost every Monday morning—after I’ve gotten up and brewed the coffee, said my prayers and read my Bible, gone for a five-mile run and made the oatmeal—I sit down at the kitchen table and open my laptop and while I’m having breakfast give some thought to the sermon for the following Sunday.  I used to do it on Monday afternoon, but then our worship planning team moved its weekly meeting from Tuesday to Monday and I had to start thinking about the sermon earlier, which is fine; earlier is almost always better.  Last Monday I had the good sense to read the Gospel lesson before I went for my run so I could think about it along the way and by the time I sat down to breakfast I had some thoughts.  This is what I wrote to the worship planning team: “I don’t think this week’s Gospel lesson is mostly about leprosy or Samaritans, even though each of those might find a place in the sermon. I think it is mostly about gratitude and our ability to express it.”

“Gratitude and our ability to express it.”  When I wrote those words I thought about how important thank-you notes were to my grandmother, who was raised in some form of polite society in the early part of the last century and who kept her 1922 First Edition copy of Emily Post’s Etiquette right next to her Bible.  Because thank-you notes were important to her they were important to my mother, who insisted that if we ever received a gift from our grandmother we should sit down and write a thank-you note immediately.  I think she wanted her mother to believe that even though my brothers and I were being raised in near-poverty in rural Appalachia, in a home with no running water and no indoor plumbing, we were still being raised right.  There was a copy of Emily Post’s Etiquette in our home, too, where we found examples of thank-you notes like this one for a wedding present:

Dear Mrs. Worldly:

All my life I have wanted a piece of jade, but in my wanting I have never imagined one quite so beautiful as the one you have sent me. It was wonderfully sweet of you and I thank you more than I can tell you for the pleasure you have given me.

Affectionately,

Mary Smith.

Or this one written by a man who had been convalescing at a friend’s house:

Dear Martha:

 I certainly hated taking that train this morning and realizing that the end had come to my peaceful days. You and John and the children, and your place, which is the essence of all that a “home” ought to be, have put me on my feet again. I thank you much—much more than I can say for the wonderful goodness of all of you.

 Fred.[i]

But nowhere in that book were there any examples of how to thank the person who has just cured you of your leprosy.  To find that we have to turn to the pages of scripture, and to this morning’s Gospel lesson from Luke 17:11-19.

Jesus was on the way to Jerusalem, and apparently on the road that followed the course of the Jordan River as it made its way from the Sea of Galilee down to the Dead Sea.  He was going through the region “between” Galilee and Samaria, which is a little hard to find on a map, but which may explain why at least one of the ten lepers he encountered was a Samaritan: one of those half-breed descendants of the Eighth-Century Israelites and their Assyrian conquerors.  There he was, standing outside his village along with the other nine (who were presumably Jews), and that’s just where he should have been.  According to Leviticus 13, “The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be disheveled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean.’ He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean…his dwelling shall be outside the camp” (Lev. 13:45-46).

So, there they were, these ten, obeying the Law of Moses and keeping to themselves in a kind of leper colony outside their village.  They approached Jesus as he entered but were careful to practice social distancing.  And then they covered their upper lips (which may have been an early form of masking) and called out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”  What does Jesus do?  He says, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.”  Why?  Well, again, because of Leviticus, chapter 13.  That’s where you can find all the rules and regulations about leprosy (if you’re looking for them), and there it clearly states that when people have been cured of leprosy or when it has abated on its own they must show themselves to the priests in order to be pronounced “clean.”  “Go and do that,” Jesus says, as if there might be a good reason.

And so they do what he says (these ten are nothing if not obedient).  But along the way something happens.  Along the way they are made clean.  And that’s when one of them stops doing what he’s told.  If you pay attention to what he does you can tell that he has never read Emily Post’s Etiquette because he does not sit down to write a thank-you note, instead:

  1.  He saw that he was healed.  In a sermon on this same passage Barbara Brown Taylor says: “As these lepers went to do as they were told they were cleansed—the scabs disappeared, the color returned, the feeling came back into limbs that had been numb for years.”[ii]  I’m sure all ten of them noticed the difference, but one of them did something about it.  When he saw that he had been healed he,
  2.  Turned back.  Which is not what he had been ordered to do.  Jesus had told them to go and show themselves to the priests.  I’m assuming the other nine did exactly that.  But not this one.  This one’s sense of gratitude was overwhelming.  It turned him around and sent him back to Jesus.  And as he went he,
  3.  Praised God with a loud voice.  Can you picture him?  Marveling at his newly restored skin, saying, “Thank you, Lord!  Thank you!”  I don’t know what gratitude looks like to you but to me it looks like this—like this former leper praising God at the top of his lungs as he makes his way back to the place where it happened and to the person who healed him.  When he got there he
  4.  Prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet.  The Greek text says that he “fell on his face,” but you get the picture.  He didn’t saunter back, stick out his hand, and say, “Hey, thanks a million.”  He turned back, fell at Jesus’ feet, and lying there with his face in the dirt, he
  5.  Thanked him.  In Greek this is a present active participle.  It describes something that happens during the action of the main verb.  Which means that while the man lay prostrate at Jesus’ feet he was thanking him.  And you can almost see him, can’t you?  Sobbing and saying, “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”

And that’s when Luke tells us that he was a Samaritan, which may not be the most important detail in the story, but it is nonetheless remarkable enough to elicit a response from Jesus.  He says, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they?  Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”

It’s a haunting question, isn’t it?  It makes me wonder if I am one of the nine, going my own way and minding my own business rather than returning and giving praise to God.  In a book called Let Your Life Speak Parker Palmer writes about a condition that is far too common among Christians.  He calls it “functional atheism,” and explains: “This is the belief that ultimate responsibility for everything rests with us.  This is the unconscious, unexamined conviction that if anything decent is going to happen here, we are the ones who must make it happen—a conviction held even by people who talk a good game about God.”[iii]  He goes on to say that it is a debilitating condition, one that can lead to burnout, depression, and despair.  But along with believing that it’s all up to us functional atheism can manifest itself in the belief that everything we have we got for ourselves.

Do you remember the story about Abraham going up on the mountain to offer his son, Isaac, as a sacrifice?  It’s in Genesis 22, one of the darkest chapters in the Bible.  God says to Abraham, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah and offer him there as a sacrifice on one of the mountains I will show you.”  And Abraham doesn’t say a mumbling word.  He takes Isaac and goes to the mountain, a three-day journey away.  Together the two of them climb to the top and there Abraham builds an altar, binds Isaac, heaves him up onto it, and then lifts his knife to slay his son.  Only then does the Angel of the Lord say, “Stop!  Don’t do it!”  And when Abraham lifts his eyes he sees a ram caught by its horns in a thicket.  He offers the ram as a sacrifice instead of his son and on the way down the mountain he calls the name of that place Jehovah Jireh, meaning, “the Lord provides.”

I’ve often tried to make sense of that story, and one way I do it is by imagining that Abraham had fallen into a kind of functional atheism, that when he sat at the door of his tent and looked around at all that he had acquired in the land of Canaan he began to congratulate himself, thinking, “My flocks, my herds, my servants, my son…” so that God had to remind him who had given him that son.  Only as Abraham comes down from the mountain, only as he remembers that Isaac was then and always had been a gift from God, does Abraham think to call the name of that place, “The Lord provides.”

I think that’s what happened for the Samaritan leper.  On his way to see the priest he was healed, and as soon as he saw it he knew he hadn’t done it for himself.  He may have been a functional atheist up until that moment but in that moment he knew that it wasn’t all up to him and that he hadn’t gotten everything for himself.  This was a miracle!  This was the power of God working through the person of Jesus.  And so he stopped, turned around, and made his way back to where it had all begun, praising God with a loud voice.  He fell at Jesus’ feet with his face in the dust and if you had asked him he might have said that for him the name of that place would be from now on Jehovah Jireh: “The Lord provides.”  Barbara Brown Taylor writes: “[Nine of those lepers did exactly what they were told].  They behaved like good lepers, good Jews; only one, a double loser, behaved like a man in love.”[iv]

And maybe that’s why Jesus says to him at the end of this passage, “Get up and go on your way, your faith has made you well.”  In a previous sermon I pointed out that the word Jesus uses here is the Greek word sozo, which can mean “your faith has cleansed you, healed you, made you well, made you whole” but which can also mean (and literally does mean), “your faith has saved you.”  And I think that’s how this former leper might have described it.  He wasn’t only healed of his disease.  By returning to Jesus, by falling at his feet and praising God, by acting like a fool in love he was healed of his functional atheism.  He realized he couldn’t save himself.  He realized that only God could save him and miraculously God had.  “Get up and go your way,” Jesus said.  “Your faith has made you well.”

Before I close, can I tell you how hard it’s been to keep this sermon from turning into a lesson on tithing?  Because it would be so easy.  Ten lepers were healed; one came back to thank Jesus.  It could almost be a children’s sermon about the ten little dollars that went out into the world and the one that came back to church.  But a sermon like that would not do justice to a story like this, which is not about feeling a sense of obligation, but about being overwhelmed by gratitude.  It’s not about counting out your dollars at the kitchen table and putting one out of ten in an offering envelope; it’s about acting like a fool in love; it’s about praising God with a loud voice, and running back to Jesus, and falling at his feet.  This is not a story about tithing, but the next time you make out a check to the church you could think of it as a thank-you note, and you could write:

Dear God:

 For too long now I have behaved like a functional atheist, saying I believed in you but acting as if it were all up to me. It’s exhausting.  I’m ready to stop.  And even though I have thanked you for what I have I still probably believe that I wouldn’t have most of it without my own hard work.  I’m ready to give that up, too.  You are the one who provides.  You are the one who helps, and heals, and saves.  So, I’m writing this check like a thank-you note, and I’m thanking you for what you have done for me.  Ten percent wouldn’t begin to cover my gratitude.  If I could give you everything I’ve got I would.  But I’m giving what I can and I hope you will receive it in the spirit with which it is given: a spirit of overwhelming gratitude.

 Yours, now and forever,

 Me.

 You won’t find that letter anywhere in Emily Post’s Etiquette.  My prayer for you is that you will find it in your heart.

Amen.

—Jim Somerville © 2022

[i] From the First Edition of Emily Post’s Etiquette, published in 1922 and available online in PDF format at Project Gutenberg (https://www.gutenberg.org/files/14314/14314-h/14314-h.htm#Page_448).

[ii] Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life (Boston: Cowley Publications, 1993), p. 109.

[iii] Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak, p. 88.

[iv] Taylor, Preaching Life, pp. 109 and 110.

Increase Our Faith!

The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 17:5-10

 The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”

 “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed!”

How many times have we heard those words, and how many times have we wished for mustard-seed faith so we could, you know, uproot mulberry trees and plant them in the sea?

I used to have a mulberry tree in my back yard when I lived in Washington, DC.  It was fine most of the time, but when the mulberries got ripe they would fall from the tree and leave big, purple blotches on our sidewalk.  And when they got too ripe they would ferment, and the squirrels who ate them would get drunk, and then they would fall from the tree.  I can’t tell you how many times Christy said to me, “If only you had faith the size of a mustard seed you could tell this mulberry tree to be uprooted and planted in the Potomac River, and it would obey you!”  It was embarrassing on so many levels: the purple stains, the drunken squirrels, my apparent lack of faith.  I don’t think I preached on this passage the entire time I was in Washington.  But now I’m here, and I don’t have a mulberry tree in my back yard.  I don’t even have a back yard.  All I have is a tiny little back deck, hardly big enough to plant a mustard seed.  Problem solved!  But it’s not, is it?  I still wonder what Jesus meant when he said these words, and I wonder why I can’t seem to conjure up enough faith to move mountains or mulberry trees or much of anything else for that matter.  Is it me?  Or have I misunderstood Jesus’ meaning?

I’m indebted to a scholar named Chelsey Harmon for reminding me that one of the ways to translate this verse is to say “faith as, or like, a mustard seed,” rather than “faith the size of a mustard seed.”  In fact, the little Greek word that stands between faith and mustard seed in this verse is usually translated, “as,” or “like,” and almost never translated, “the size of.”  So it makes me wonder: if Jesus actually said, “faith like a mustard seed,” what kind of faith does a mustard seed have?  Chelsey Harmon writes, “A grain of mustard seed knows its end and purpose,” that is, a mustard seed knows what it is and what it’s there for.  You plant it in the ground and it is going to become a mustard plant.  It’s in its DNA.  So, what’s in the DNA of a disciple?  What is Jesus looking for when he puts us under the microscope?  Well, one thing certainly is forgiveness.

In the verses just before today’s passage Jesus says, “If your brother sins against you, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.”  And then he says, “If he sins against you seven times in a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.”  And this is the point at which the disciples say to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”  It’s the way some people say, “Lord, give me strength!” when they are faced with a difficult challenge.  The disciples could have said, “Lord, give us strength, because that’s what it’s going to take to forgive our fellow disciples seven times in a single day!”  But instead they say, “Increase our faith!”  Maybe they thought it sounded more religious.  Maybe they thought Jesus would appreciate that.

But he doesn’t.  To him it sounds like the most preposterous thing in the world, which may be why he answers in such a preposterous way.  “Increase your faith?” he says.  “Why, if you had faith like a mustard seed you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea!’ and it would obey you.”  And the disciples must have looked at the mulberry tree, and then looked at the sea, and then wondered why they would ever say such a thing.  It’s preposterous!  But so is asking for more faith when Jesus is simply telling you to do something that is in the DNA of discipleship.  Forgiveness is not an option for us; it’s essential.

Some of you know that my brothers and I have picked up this tradition of asking each other at the end of a visit, “Do I owe you any money or any apologies?”  It’s a good tradition, and as I’ve mentioned it through the years other people have adopted it.  My friends Chuck and Joe—my regular backpacking partners—have adopted it.  At the end of every annual trip Chuck will say: “Do I owe you guys any money or any apologies?”  And Joe, who is our backpacking bookkeeper, will usually say, “Yes, Chuck, you owe Jim $37 for gas and you owe me $21 for groceries.”  But after we get that sorted we turn to apologies, and usually there aren’t any to be offered.

But this year was different.  This year I was haunted by the memory of something that happened back in the late eighties.  Joe and I were in seminary together.  I was serving as the pastor of a little church out in the country and he was the part-time youth minister.  One night he and his wife Sylvia drove out to the church parsonage, had supper with Christy and me, and then stayed overnight in our guest room so we could all get up and go to church the next morning.  But I was up earlier than anybody else and needed to get to church sooner.  So, I went out through the back door to the garage, raised the garage door, got in my car, and backed it out into the driveway.  But in my haste I forgot that there was already a car in the driveway, Joe’s car, and I backed right into the driver’s side door.

I got out and looked at the damage.  It wasn’t bad, but there was a noticeable dent.  I came back in and made my miserable apology to Joe and Sylvia, who were just sitting down to breakfast.  Joe came out and had a look and he was gracious about it, as always.  It was an old car.  They were planning to trade it anyway.  What’s a little dent between friends?  And we never mentioned it again.  But in the last few months I remembered that moment and began to wonder: did Joe have to do something about that dent, take it to the body shop and get it fixed?  Or did he leave it as it was, and get a little less for the car when he traded it in?  What I’m saying is, I began to wonder if I owed Joe some money.  And that made me nervous.  Because if it cost $500 to fix that dent back then, and if I adjusted for inflation, I would owe Joe about $1,300 dollars.  But if I didn’t bring it up we could leave things just as they were and I wouldn’t owe him anything.  And that’s the option that began to haunt me.

From the time I picked him up at the airport I felt like there was this unspoken “thing” between us.  He wasn’t aware of it.  He was as friendly as ever.  But for me that thing just kept getting bigger and bigger, and so, the next day, when we had stopped for a rest break during our hike, I said, “Joe, I think I may owe you some money.”  And then I reminded him of that dent in his car, and how all I had offered at the time was an apology.  Well, Joe could hardly remember the car, much less the dent.  He laughed and said, “Don’t worry about it!  That was a long time ago.”  And I breathed a sigh of relief and we went on our way.

It didn’t occur to me until after I got home that he had never actually said, “I forgive you.”  And it didn’t occur to me until last week that I actually needed to hear him say it.  So, I called him, and left a long voicemail message, and he called me back, and we talked for a half hour or more, but when it sounded like he was bringing the call to a close I said, “Did you get my voicemail?”  He said, “No, I just saw that you had called so I called you back.”  So, I brought up the whole painful subject again and told him what I needed to hear, and even before I finished he laughed and said, “The fact that I didn’t even remember that incident is a pretty good clue that I wasn’t carrying a grudge, but if you need to hear me say it then here it is: I forgive you!”  And apparently I did need it, because as soon as he said it I felt a load slide off my shoulders.

This should be in our DNA as disciples, this ability to forgive each other.  And it might not hurt us to realize that sometimes our brothers and sisters need to hear us say it.  But Jesus thinks that something else ought to be in our DNA as well, and that something is obedience.

Just after he talks about mulberry trees obeying the command to plant themselves in the sea he asks, “Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’?  Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’?  Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded?  So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’” (Luke 17:7-10).

Maybe Jesus is still thinking about forgiveness.  Maybe he’s wondering, “What is it with these disciples?  I tell them to forgive one another but they won’t do it.  They call me ‘Lord’ and ‘Master’ but they don’t seem able to obey a direct order.  They say, ‘I can forgive, but I can’t forget,’ which may be only another way of saying, ‘I can’t forgive.’”  Maybe the problem is not with forgiveness but with obedience.  Maybe we are simply refusing to do what Jesus has so plainly told us to do.

I went to sailing school in Deltaville last week, and even before I got there I knew there might come a time when I had to obey my instructor no matter what.  His name was Clay.  He was in his early thirties with a beard and long, brown hair pulled up into a topknot.  Come to think of it, he kind of looked like Jesus.  I was on his boat with two other students and Clay was trying to teach us what to do when someone falls overboard.  Now, when someone falls overboard it’s an emergency situation, especially if the weather is rough or the water is cold.  You’ve got to get that person back on board as quickly as possible.  I knew that, but when it was my turn at the helm and Clay threw a boat cushion over the stern and yelled, “Man overboard!” I didn’t know what to do.

I know what I wanted to do: I wanted to put on the brakes, stop the boat, and then back up and get him.  But you can’t do that in a sailboat.  You have to work with the wind.  And the wind was being difficult that day.  I made one failed attempt to rescue the boat cushion.  And then I made a second failed attempt.  On my third try Clay told me what to do: “Bear away,” he said, which means to turn the boat away from the wind.  I did it.  I didn’t even think about whether it was right or felt right I just did it.  I trusted Clay to know what he was talking about.  “Now get on a beam reach,” he said, which is sailing with your boat broadside to the wind.  I did that, too.  After what seemed like forever he said, “Now tack to a broad reach,” which is like taking the exit ramp off the interstate and clover-leafing around until you’re sailing almost downwind.  I did it.  And after a minute or so he said, “Now head up to a close reach,” which means turning back into the wind.  I did, and as we approached the boat cushion on the leeward side he said, “Now ease the sheets,” which means letting your sails flap, and when I did we slowed to a stop beside the boat cushion, and the wind began to push us toward it, and one of the other students was able to reach out and grab it with a boat hook.  The whole thing worked like a charm, and after a little more practice I was able to do it myself.

Do you see what happened when I stopped trying to figure it out and just did what Clay told me?  Can you imagine what would happen if we stopped trying to justify our reasons for not forgiving and just forgave?  When you plant a mustard seed in the ground it doesn’t have to spend a lot of time figuring out what it is or what it’s supposed to do: it simply does what’s in its DNA.  I think Jesus wants that for us.  I think he wants us to have faith like a mustard seed.  Not faith the size of a mustard seed, faith like a mustard seed.  I think he wants us to trust him enough to assume that he knows what he’s doing, and I think he wants us to obey him so unflinchingly that if he tells us to forgive our fellow disciples seven times in a single day then that’s what we do: Forgive them.  Seven times.  In a single day.

Jesus says, “When slaves have done everything they were supposed to do they don’t expect to be thanked.  So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’”  But he also suggests that when the work is finished those slaves, too, will be invited to the table.  And so, on this Worldwide Communion Sunday, he invites us to gather as one family seated around one table, and receive from his own hands the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.

—Jim Somerville © 2022

Are You Listening?

The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 16:19-31

 There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus…

 In the fifteenth chapter of Luke there are three parables: one about a lost sheep, one about a lost coin, and one about a lost son, but in the sixteenth chapter there are only two parables, and each one begins with the announcement that, “There was a rich man.”

The first rich man serves as a kind of bridge between these two chapters, because even though the father in chapter 15 has lost something—a son—he is also, obviously, a rich man.  He can afford to give the younger son his share of the inheritance, and, even after he squanders it all, his happy father can welcome him home and throw him a lavish party.

My friend Michael Renninger has pointed out that that parable and the one that follows it (the one about the Dishonest Steward; the one that our guest preacher decided not to preach last week because in that story a manager cheats his master out of a lot of money and his master commends him for his shrewdness; after which Jesus says, “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone they may welcome you into the eternal homes!” [Luke 16:9].  That parable [which may be the hardest one of all, and which I don’t blame our guest preacher for not preaching] and the one that precedes it) have a lot in common.[i]  In each there is a master of the household who is wealthy, a member of the household who squanders the master’s wealth, and a response from the master that is surprising: in the first he welcomes the Prodigal home, in the second he commends his manager’s shrewdness.  But notice that these parables are not about the Prodigal Son or the Dishonest Steward: they are about the master of the household.  Michael Renninger says, “Parables are always about God and God’s Kingdom.”[ii]  And in both of these parables, Jesus focuses on God’s surprising (yes, even amazing) grace.

But if grace is the link between chapters 15 and 16, then perhaps wealth is the link between the two parables that follow, because in them there was a rich man who showed surprising mercy, and there was a rich man who did not.  Today our focus is on that second rich man, and the fact that the first one showed mercy teaches us that wealth is not the problem.  Remember, it’s not money that is “the root of all evil”; it is the love of money (1 Timothy 6:10).  In his comments on the parable of the Dishonest Steward Jesus says, “No man can serve two masters; for he will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other.  You cannot serve God and Money” (Luke 16:13).  In the very next verse Luke tells us that “the Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him” (Luke 16:14).  So, Jesus tells this parable for them.  And, just as a reminder, it’s always important to identify the audience of these parables.  In the parable of the Prodigal Son Jesus was talking to the scribes and Pharisees who were complaining because he welcomed sinners.  In this parable he’s talking to the Pharisees, who loved money more than they loved people.

What does he say?

“There was a Rich Man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.  And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the Rich Man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.”  Did you hear that?  In roughly two sentences Jesus has perfectly illustrated the gap between the rich and the poor, what some people these days refer to as “wealth inequality.”[iii]  The Rich Man dressed in purple and fine linen and feasted sumptuously every day, Jesus says.  It’s as if you can see through the windows of his house, see him in there rubbing his hands together as he chooses what to wear each morning, and watch him smacking his lips in the evening as he slurps fine wine and gorges himself with food.  But you can also see Lazarus, lying at the Rich Man’s gate, slowly starving to death as the dogs come and lick his sores, showing him more pity than the Rich Man ever has.

There is a huge gap between these two, but at this point in the story it not uncrossable.  The Rich Man could do something for Lazarus.  He could have him taken to a hospital or a nursing home.  But he doesn’t.  He ignores Lazarus.  It’s not that he doesn’t see him (I mean, seriously, Lazarus is lying right there at his gate!); it’s that he takes great pains not to see him, just as we do when someone is holding a cardboard sign at an intersection.  He doesn’t stop to ask himself, “What if that were me?”  No, he turns his head, he looks away, perhaps even thanking God that he is not in that place.

But then, suddenly, he is.

“The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The Rich Man also died and was buried.”  Do you notice the difference in those two descriptions, the directional difference?  The poor man was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham.  He went up!  But the Rich Man (who also died, as we all will) was buried.  He went down.  And in Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.  Only in Greek Lazarus is not at Abraham’s “side” (his lapara, from which we get laparoscopic surgery), he is in Abraham’s “bosom,” his kolpos, from which we get no words in English but a very precise meaning in Greek.

To be in someone’s “bosom,” at a formal dinner party, was to be in the place of honor.  For example, listen to the way Fred Craddock explains the seating arrangements at the Last Supper in John 13.  He writes: “Jesus and his disciples are pictured as reclining, Roman style, around the central table like the spokes of a wheel.  Diners reclined on the left hand and used the right hand for eating, so the Beloved Disciple was on Jesus’ right, the place of honor.  The phrase ‘in his bosom’ reflects the closest communion; the same Greek word is used in John 1:18 to describe Christ’s relationship to God as the one who remains “in the bosom of the Father.”[iv]  So, what does it mean to say that Lazarus was in Abraham’s “bosom”?  It means that he was the guest of honor at the heavenly banquet, enjoying the closest possible communion with Father Abraham, the Patriarch of Israel!  The Rich Man, on the other hand, is in torment.

When he looks up who does he see but Lazarus, and the fact that he recognizes him is all the proof I need that he has seen him before, maybe even asked his name, but has chosen not to do anything for him.  But God has.  God has bestowed his highest honor on the lowliest of human beings.  He has put Lazarus next to Father Abraham, in his very bosom.[v]  Does this remind you at all of Jesus’ advice in chapter 14 about taking one’s place at a banquet, where he says, “Take the lowest place so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, come up higher!’ and then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you” (Luke 14:10)?  Whether or not Lazarus took it, he was in the lowest place on earth, and in heaven God said, “Friend, come up higher!”

The Rich Man, meanwhile, has ended up in a place below the earth: he’s in the depths of Hades, the pits of Hell.  And in those wretched circumstances he calls out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.”  Do you see how, now that he needs him, he sees Lazarus?  How, now that he needs him, he remembers his name?  How often have we done the same thing: completely ignored the person serving our meal at a restaurant until we needed a refill on our iced tea?  We don’t often see these people.  The Rich Man didn’t see Lazarus until he needed him, and then it was, “Oh, Father Abraham!  Please ask my good friend Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in some cool water and come and touch my tongue!  I’m in agony in these flames!”  But what does Abraham say?

Nothing doing.

He says, “You’ve had your party.  You used to dress in purple and fine linen and feast sumptuously every day while poor Lazarus lay at your gate in misery.  But now the tables have been turned, the last have become first.  Here he is feasting at the heavenly banquet and there you are roasting in the flames of hell!”  From Abraham’s Old Testament perspective it makes perfect sense.  It’s justice!  It’s as reasonable as asking children to take turns when they want to play with the same toy.  “Besides,” Abraham says, “Lazarus couldn’t do it if he wanted to.  There’s this huge, uncrossable chasm between us so that he can’t go there and you can’t come here.”  And that’s an important point.  What Jesus seems to be saying is that the gap between the rich and the poor is not uncrossable now (you hear about it sometimes, about poor people climbing up out of poverty, or rich people stooping down to help, or government leaders working to make things more equitable) but there will come a time when it is: when the opportunities we have in this life are no longer available to us.  And then what?

You’re stuck where you are.

So the Rich Man, realizing he’s stuck, makes one last plea: “If Lazarus can’t come to me,” he says, “then send him to my father’s house.”  Because he has five brothers (just like me), but apparently his brothers are just like him, indifferent to the suffering of others.  “Send Lazarus to warn them,” he begs, “so they won’t end up where I did.”  But Abraham says, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them” (and of course he’s talking about the Bible; Moses and the prophets were all the Scripture they had in those days).  “They should read the Bible,” Abraham says, essentially.  But the Rich Man replies, “No, Father Abraham; they won’t do that.  But if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.”  And Abraham says, “No they won’t.  If they won’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they wouldn’t listen even if someone came back from the dead.”

And there’s Jesus looking the Pharisees in the eye and telling them that if they won’t listen to Moses and the prophets they wouldn’t listen even if someone should rise from the dead.  He’s talking about himself, isn’t he?  That’s bold!  But what did Moses and the prophets say?  What did Jesus want these “lovers of money” to hear?  That there is something more important than money, and how I wish we could learn that lesson!

Do you know how much time we spend thinking about money, talking about money, worrying about money, trying to make money, trying to make more money, spending the money we have, wanting the money we don’t have, wondering what we would do with money if we had it, wondering what we would do if we didn’t have money?  If I could put a pie chart on the wall that showed the percentage of time we spend obsessing over money I think we would all be shocked.

I think Jesus was shocked.

He could see what kind of hold it had on the people of his day, and not only the Pharisees.  Maybe it’s no coincidence that this parable comes after all those parables about lostness; maybe Jesus knew that this is one of the ways we get lost—by loving money more than we love God or neighbor.  And maybe it’s no coincidence that Jesus talked about money more than almost anything else except the Kingdom.  In many cases it is our love for money that keeps us from entering the Kingdom.  We’re like those monkeys who get their hands stuck in a jar because they won’t let go of the piece of fruit that’s at the bottom.  There we are, trapped, holding on to our love of money so tightly we can’t get free, or at least not free enough to enter the Kingdom.  What’s the answer?  “Listen to Moses and the prophets.”  What do they say?  That the most important thing in the world is not money—it’s love:

If my friend Michael Renninger is right, and parables are always about God and God’s kingdom, then this parable may be telling us that you can’t buy your way into the Kingdom; you can only love your way into it.  If the Rich Man had done that; if he had gone out there and bandaged Lazarus’s wounds, having poured oil and wine on them; if he had carried him into his own house and put him into his own bed; if he had fed him and cared for him until he was healthy and whole again; he would not have ended up in hell.  How do I know?  Because of a parable Jesus tells in Luke, chapter 10: the one where a certain lawyer asks him what he must do to inherit eternal life and Jesus says, “What is written in the law?  What do you read there?”  The lawyer says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”  And Jesus says, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live” (Luke 10:25-28).

It’s right there in the Bible.  It’s been there all along.  The only question is this:

Are you listening?

—Jim Somerville © 2022

[i] Michael Renninger, A Sermon for Every Sunday, September 18, 2022 (https://asermonforeverysunday.com/sermons/c43-the-fifteenth-sunday-after-pentecost-year-c-2022/).

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] See a humorous, helpful illustration of wealth inequality in the US by clicking HERE.

[iv] Eugene Boring and Fred B. Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004), p. 334.

[v] In my notes on this passage I wrote, “This may be a clue that Jesus is having some fun with this story, rather than offering us a literal description of either heaven or hell.”

Christ Will Let You Love Him

Let me say what a joy it is for Deb and I to be back at Richmond’s First Baptist Church to join you in worship to see so many long, long time friends and just have some good laughs this morning already as we shared some good memories to sharing worship with an incredible staff that you have.  I hope you know and appreciate the staff you have.  They are awesome.  And to be here and worship with you and join them is a special gift.  I would also like to take just a moment to say thank you on behalf of the Baptist General Association of Virginia for your faithfulness to our state organization as well as your generosity.  It is not taken for granted and is deeply appreciated, so thank you for not only the way you support it financially but the leadership you give on such a regular basis in BGAV life, so thank you for every bit of that.

For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son.  That whoever believes in him shall not perish, but shall have everlasting life.  He did not come to this world to condemn this world.  He came to save it.  Here’s a story of love.  This is a story that a good friend of mine, Grady Nutt, many of you know Grady, and Grady shared this story on numerous occasions.  I heard it many times, loved it every time I heard it, and he shared it on the day of my ordination when he gave the ordination message.  Here’s the story of love.

It was a family.  It was a special Sunday at the church.  It was the ministers family.  I guess preacher was coming and it was going to be a big day, and mom wanted to have a great dinner after the service for the guest preacher.  She worked hard.  She poured her whole heart into that dinner.  There it was, steaming vegetables, casserole’s, homemade bread, getting hungry?  Delicious desserts, it was a knock-out dinner she was preparing.  Not only that, she had gotten out her finest china, finest crystal, the silver was on the table all polished and shiny.  She had even gotten her favorite white linen tablecloth.  It was quite a set for a meal.  She couldn’t wait.  They had four children.  Two teenaged boys, one eight year old girl, and a four year old boy.  Now days like this are particularly hard for children.  And this is the kind of day when you gotta wear your Sunday best, at least when this happened.  This happened a good while ago.  Everyone had to come in their Sunday best.  Everyone had to have their best manners on, and it was a guest preacher so you had to sit and listen to all this boring conversation that the adults were having.  It was a difficult time for children to have to just sit there and mind their manners.  But finally, dinner was ready.  Everybody went and sat at the table, the guest minister was asked if he would do the blessing, which just gave him opportunity to preach a second sermon it seemed.  It just took forever to get that blessing done.  Finally the blessing was over, and the eight year old girl named Joanne was ready to eat, and she reached across her plate to get the glass of tea, to take a sip, when she miscalculated where that glass was, and knocked over her tea.  I mean that tea went gushing out of that glass, onto that white tablecloth towards her four year old brother who had nothing more in his mind to do but to dodge that rushing tea towards him, he jerked back and overwent his tea, and now you have all this brown oozing tea all over the white tablecloth.  Five seconds after the closing of the blessing.  All those hours of hard work, and preparation for that meal, all now destroyed, and everyone looked to mom to see the reaction.  Shock was on her face.  Then a little bit of rage started appearing on the face, and she was about ready to say something that probably she would regret saying.  And she looked at her husband, who just smiled at her, reached over and knocked his tea over.  She couldn’t believe it.  Well, the two teenaged boys were sitting there, and they’ve never seen an adult knock over their tea on purpose, particularly their dad, and they’re not missing out on that fun, so they reached over, and they knocked their tea over.  So now you have five glasses of tea, 27 ice cubes floating on that beautiful white, linen tablecloth, and mom is absolutely destroyed.  She looks at the guest preacher and he just smiles at her and knocks his tea over, he never has any fun anyways, it was the most fun he’s had in a long time.  And she’s really befuddled by all that, looks at her husband, and he just winks at her, and she says, Oh why not?  And she knocks hers over.  And everybody died laughing and they almost fell out of their chairs, they were laughing so hard, until one by one they noticed little eight year old Joanne sitting there, tears in her eyes, and one by one they all stopped laughing.  Those weren’t tears of embarrassment, those were tears of love and adoration.  She knew what her dad had done for her.  He had knocked that tea over for her.  He was saying to her, as special as this occasion is, as hard as we all worked, particularly your mom in getting this meal ready, as special as it is to have this guest with us, you matter more to us than all of that.  Jesus was at a white linen tablecloth affair too.  He was at Mary and Martha’s, and Lazarus’ home.  It was a special occasion because Lazarus was just raised from the dead.  I don’t know about you, but that fits for a special occasion. Martha was doing what Martha tends to do in all these stories, she’s in the kitchen preparing for the meal for this special occasion, and there sits Mary doing what she always does, sitting at the feet of Jesus.  She’s been listening.  She knows what he is about to do.  She gets him, and he’s about ready to be spilt.  And he’s going to be spilt for her.  And it’s going to be, she knows those disciples, it’s going to be an oozing embarrassment to those disciples.  In a week, they are going to deny him.  Even one at the table who criticizes her will betray him.  She knows those disciples, and knows what an oozing embarrassment all this is going to be for them, but she is so filled with the love and adoration because of what he’s going to do for her, for them, for you, for me, for this whole world, and all she knows to do is to bring a gift.  Now I have to say, that I think one of the most awkward moments that ever occurs in human relationship is that moment when one person give a gift to another person.  It’s one of the most vulnerable moments that we have, and there’s a long list of reasons why it’s a vulnerable moment to give a gift.  It takes a long time to pick one out, It takes an eternity to hand it to someone, place it in their hands, and they open it, and they look at it, and they give you a response, and if the response isn’t very exciting, it hurts.  But if they’re excited about it, why you’re more delighted than they are, and it’s their gift.  Lot’s of reasons for that vulnerability, the list is long.  But I think it all boils down to this.  Giving a gift to someone is like taking a risk, because every gift we give is the symbol of our love and it’s a symbol of us.  It can be pretty simple things, I mean I can go to the store, see some peach rings hanging there.  I know Deborah likes those peach rings, I take them home and if they’re old and hard, and she bites into it, and she says oh these aren’t very good, that’s very disappointing.  I really wanted to do something.  But if she bites into it, and says oh yeah, this is really good.  I want you know, the boy is good.  He really did well.  Over something as simple and silly as peach rings.  A gift is a symbol of ourselves and the other persons hands.  Not only do we have the need to be cared for and loved, we have a tremendous need to be able to pour out our care, and pour out our love onto others.  That’s why we have pets.  I mean, pets really can’t give a whole lot of love back, but boy do they let us pour out our love on them.  It’s why we give little children teddy bears.  Teddy bears are totally receptive to any love that a child would give it.  It’s a good thing for them to practice loving and caring for something.  That’s why we give them teddy bears, and a teddy bear doesn’t mind if you poke out its eyes and pull out its stuffings, and leave it out in the rain.  It doesn’t mind.  Love has its risks. When we let someone love us.  Now here’s the saddest thing I know.  There are so many of us who have so much we want to give, pour out, and others won’t let us.  How often do I hear this from sons and daughters?  I wanted so badly to get through to my father.  He wouldn’t let me in.  A wife pleads with her husband to look at her.  To accept her as a full partner in the marriage, but he keeps her at an arms distance.  Parents ache for children and reach out to them only to have their children not reach out back to them.  You extend a friendship to someone only to have that friendship declined.  And it doesn’t always have to be outright rejection, sometimes we want to love and give our love or care to someone, but we’re told in return sure, I will take it but not the way you want to give it, I’ll take it only if you give it to me this way.  There are many, many ways for love to be disregarded.  And I’ve got to say this, it’s okay by the way.  It’s okay for people to reject our care, and our love.  We can’t force that.  It wouldn’t be love if we’re forcing it.  And that’s true with God too, you know.  But it doesn’t change the fact that every one of us needs to pour ourselves out just as it is.  Now that brings me back to Mary.  Mary has a gift, and she’s bringing it to Jesus.  It’s a strange gift, not one I would give, not one you would give.  It’s a bottle of perfume, and not only does she give a bottle of perfume, it’s the way she expresses that gift that’s equally as strange.  It was not only strange to you and me, it was strange to the disciples.  They saw it, they smelled it, they didn’t get it.  Not useful, not practical, what in the world is she doing?  I wouldn’t give it, you wouldn’t give it, but Mary would, and Mary did. And what did Jesus do? Look at his feet?  They aren’t moving?  I mean, she’s pouring an entire bottle of perfume on his feet.  You know those bottles with the itty bitty little hole at the top?  It takes a long time to pour a bottle of perfume out, and not only that this is a huge bottle of perfume, and she pours out onto his feet, every single drop, and Jesus doesn’t move his feet.  What would you do?  Know what I would do?  You start pouring perfume on my feet, my feet would move so fast, you’d say wow, quick feet man.  And not only did Jesus keep his feet still for the perfume, he kept his feet still when she lifted those feet, and dried those feet with her hair.  Now some in the room particularly one who was about ready to betray him, criticized the gift, and he just said, leave her alone.  And he just receives it.  Why is this story important to us?  I think some of us need to hear this.  We have so much still inside of us, we want to give in this life.  You and I have so much, regardless of our age that we still want to pour out, we just aren’t sure it’s going to be received.  We just aren’t sure yet that it’s going to be acceptable.  Hear this.  No matter who you are.  No matter where you’ve been.  No matter what you’ve done.  No matter what your limits.  There is someone that will receive what you bring and find it perfectly acceptable as you bring it to him in love.  I think I finally understand Mary.  She she’s what’s about ready to happen with Jesus.  And at that cross, she’s going to look up at those extended arms, and she’s going to be able to look through the pain, and look through the agony, and see in those open, extended arms, an invitation.  An invitation to bring her failures.  An invitation to bring bitter disappointments.  An invitation to bring our sins, and all those sicknesses unto death that we have in this life, and they will be received, and they will be forgiven, and they will be absorbed into the very heart of God, and here’s the good news.  They will be transformed into love and life.  Boy, I saw this when we were in Taiwan as missionaries.  We were on the east coast, in a little village called Taitung, and our two sons have befriended a little fellow named William, this little guy, the mother was quite concerned because we were one, Americans and he was Chinese, number two we were missionaries and Chritians and they were Buddhists, and they’d been Buddhists for 48 generations.  She could name all the generations, and she was uncomfortable with her son spending so much time in our home, so she came to our home, and she said I want to learn more about you before I let my son come over here, and I want to know more about this Christian thing that you probably will be talking about, and I need to know more about that, and so I sat there and just told her the basics, and she said well I want to read on this, so I said let me give you the Gospel of John.  Oh no, no, no, no.  You give me that big book you’ve been looking at.  You’re going to read this whole thing?  Yes, I am.  Well, here.  I’m going to go back home to the US and tell people you did this.  It wasn’t but a couple days later she was knocking at the door, and I let her in, and she said you lied to me.  Now in Chinese, piàn rén is pretty strong language to lie to someone.  You ultimately lied to me.  I read that book.  I didn’t get to the new part, but I read that old part.  I said, you read the whole Old Testament?  Holy cow.  She said, yes I did, and I read that story about this guy named Abraham, and his son Isaac, and you said God was a loving, kind God, he asked him to put his son on an alter to be sacrificed.  I only have one son, you telling me that God can ask me to put my son on some alter to be sacrificed?.  I don’t see that as a loving story at all.  I said, well I got to be honest with you.  That’s the most loving story I actually know.  That story hits me every single time.  Well, how is that?  Because God knows you’re going to put your son on some alter.  You’re going to sacrifice him to something, and your son goes to school every day, and goes to pram school every night, seven days a week.  You put him on the altar of education.  I don’t see him being very happy.  I know a lot of people who put their children on the altars of success, popularity, things.  You’re going to put your child on some altar.  What God is saying to you is putting it mild.  Because on my altar he’ll be saved, he’ll be free because in the bush there will be a ram, and that ram will be my son.  I’ll make the sacrifice for you.  She actually started coming to worship, and this is the gift she gave us.   As we would stand to sing one Sunday, she stood up and said, stop.  I didn’t know where she was going.  Stop right now.  I just read these words, and this hymn.  They’re the most beautiful I have ever read in my life.  Can we before we sing, read the words before we sing them?  Wow.  Phil, what a beautiful language we have in the handbook.  I had the privilege of baptizing her.  Now Jesus knows the risk of our love.  He’s seen what we do to teddy bears.  But he also knows we give the only love we have, and that’s a flawed love.  He’ll take it.  He’ll delight in it.  And what God is saying to you and me right now is that your love has a place in this world.  Your life has a place in this world, let it loose.  Pour it out.  Offer it as Mary did, unhindered.  Your way.  Your gift. Offered every single drop.  Give it to Christ.  Give it to the body of Christ. Pour it out on the body of Christ, offer your heart to the stranger, offer your heart to the children, to the elderly, to the lonely, to the lost.  Offer your heart to everyone who Christ will put on your path.  This is our response to the life that was poured out for us.  Amen.  Let’s pray.

Our heavenly father, when we come to you we need to feel vulnerable.  There’s so much in us yet to give.  We just don’t know if it’ll be received or even if it’s acceptable.  Give us the courage to pour it out.  We’re living in a world right now that’s so hurt, and so angry, and so divided, let us be the presence of your love in this world, because you first loved us now we are able to open up and love.  Set us free Lord.  Turn us loose.  I pray this in Christ’s name.  Amen.