Sunday, July 03, 2005

Pentecost 7 - Year A

East Liberty Lutheran Church in Pittsburgh, PA, is, shall we say, an odd congregation. From the outside they look and sound like your everyday, garden variety, Lutheran church, but they have a unique way of living in their neighbourhood.

Well, maybe not unique by their neighbourhood’s standards. Located in the inner-city, they have some pretty odd folks coming through their doors. Folks smelling up the back pews. Folks babbling incoherently. Some folks have even been know to run naked through the halls, running away from the police. Folks coming to worship armed to the teeth (Yes, we’re talking about guns). Because the neighbourhood they live in is pretty violent. And the church has a “come as you are” policy.

Instead of moving to the suburbs when the neighbourhood changed, they chose to stay and change with the neighbourhood. They decided that these new neighbours needed to hear the gospel just as much, maybe even more, than the good, hard working, German immigrants who founded the church.

The church placed a sign on their front lawn: “Sinners Welcome.” A little pious, perhaps, but it was certainly the message they wanted to get to their neighbours.

Other churches in the neighbourhood, however, weren’t quite as gracious. The pastor received an earful from the other local pastors about how “wrong” their sign was. It turns out, people are supposed to clean themselves up before coming to church to hear good news.

Someone forgot to tell the church that. And someone definitely forgot to tell Jesus that. Because from today’s reading, it looks like he was fed to the teeth with all the self-righteous religious leaders that sat back and passed judgment on a harassed and hurting people while not lifting a finger to help them.

First, some of the religious leaders complained about John the Baptist. They accused him of having a demon. They said that he wasn’t preaching God’s truth and that he was deceiving people. But people knew what John was REALLY up to. Folks knew that John was giving people a fresh start with their lives and with God. He showed them that God was a God who believed in second chances. And he gave away those second chances like Mardi gras beads.

Then along comes Jesus seeking out those who knew they were far away from God. The worst of the worst. The bottom of the barrel. Society’s throwaways. He goes to them. He doesn’t wait for them to come to him. That means he had to go to some pretty sleazy places. He found himself in the hotel bars downtown chatting with people who probably felt like God wasn’t interested in them. He chatted up the prostitutes who stood outside those bars, showing them a genuine love and compassion that they hadn’t felt in a long, long time. If ever.

And again, the religious leaders sat back and passed judgment, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners; he hangs out in bars and hobnobs with prostitutes. A good man of God stays away from those places.”

Jesus snaps. “What do you know about it?” he bursts, “You guys think that with all your fancy degrees and snooty titles that you are better than everyone else and closer to God. You think that obeying the rules, and condemning those who don’t, make you more righteous. But YOU have NO IDEA what God wants. You’ve lost the longing, the burning heart of searching out God’s love. You’ve forgotten that God’s greatest strength is God’s power to cleanse, heal, love, and forgive. But you’ll never listen to what I have to say. Your life is too easy. Maybe you need to spend some time back in the wilderness to remember what it’s like to be in pain.”

Then Jesus turned and looked at the crowd, “Don’t listen to these guys,” Jesus pleaded, “They don’t speak for God. Come to me all you who are tired of struggling day after day trying to do good, trying to be the best person you can be, and you still fail. Come to me all you who are weighed down under the heaviness of life; trapped in situations that keep you from being who God wants you to be. I will give you rest. I am gentle. I am humble. My chains aren’t heavy. My load is light.”

A cool breeze came out of nowhere. The prostitutes on the corner breathed deeply. The drunks picked themselves up and looked into Jesus’ eyes to see if he really meant what he was saying. They hadn’t heard words like this coming from folks who said they knew God. They’d been lied to so many times before. They wanted to know if he was the real deal.

It’s easy to pick on the religious leaders. In a way, its kind of fun. But I’m guessing that Jesus didn’t enjoy saying what he had to say. I’m guessing that he was more interested in seeing what people do right, than what they do wrong. I’m guessing that Jesus would like to hear about where people are unexpectedly changed by God’s love.

A young woman slips into the back of the church, finds a pew far away from anyone else, and weeps. She cries silently but forcefully. The usher, a woman whose life experience lined on her face, hands her a Kleenex. She blows her nose and wipes her eyes.

The usher asks if she could sit beside her. She does. The young woman leans against her shoulder and whispers “I’m sorry.”

“Sorry for what?”

“For what I did to my baby.”

It turns out that this young woman, just barely 17, recently had an abortion, and she was grieving the future that’s been lost with her child. The older woman sat with this young woman, cradling her against her chest, and weeping with her. No judgment, no harsh words, no mention of sin. Just two women weeping together in a house of prayer, forgiveness, and healing.

“Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest.”

It was his third heart attack. His doctor warned him to cut back his hours at work - and to lay off the scotch. He didn’t listen. Now he’s lying in a hospital bed worrying if his boss will think he’s damaged goods. He could still hear the young punk in his office bragging about how he was going to beat the old man’s sales record. He was probably right.

He was sick. Probably out of a job. He hadn’t seen his ex-wife in months and he didn’t know who his kids were.

Alone in his hospital bed, he cried for the first time in 30 years. “My life is over,” he quietly said out loud; a quiet prayer to anyone who would listen, before he fell asleep listening to the rain outside his window.

He felt a touch on his hand. Familiar, but far away. He opened his eyes, and his daughter was standing over his bed holding a baby.

“I thought you might want to reintroduce yourself to your grandson,” she said passing him the little bundle. He smiled. The baby burped. He swore that things were going to be different now. He was going to cherish the love the surrounded him. He’d said this before. But this time he meant it. This will be a new challenge, learning again how to enjoy love’s commitment, but the payoff will last forever.

Jesus said “…my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

I find that those who think they have it all together are the ones Jesus comes down on the hardest. Its smugness, arrogance, and self-importance that Jesus had no time for.

Jesus went after “the little, the least, the last, the lost” so that they may find the love and forgiveness that the world denies them.

So where are you in all this? For me, I can see myself in the religious leaders, because it is so easy to criticize peoples’ personal or moral failings, even though I also have many. But such criticism doesn’t honour Jesus or advance his cause. Maybe you’re the same way. Criticism can be a deadly drug.

Or maybe you’re feeling weighed down; that despite your best intentions, life just seems to get in the way of real living. Maybe you feel like you’ve failed at life. And maybe you have. Maybe you’ve fooled everyone else into thinking that you’ve got it all together, but you haven’t fooled yourself and you certainly haven’t fooled God. You know your life isn’t working. You know you need help.

But today Jesus wants to give you a second chance and a fresh start. When you receive the bread and the wine, the body and blood of Jesus, you receive the food of forgiveness in the meal of freedom. Come; receive the bread of healing and the wine of forgiveness in the sacrament of new life and the supper of the second chance. God has placed a sign over the altar – Sinners Welcome.

Come, all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and he will give you rest. Amen.


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