Sunday, June 16, 2013

Pentecost 4C

Who do you want to keep out of God's kingdom? Everyone has their list of people whose names they'd like crossed out of the Book of LIfe.

Even now, I'll bet there's someone in your mind that you hope will be nursing eternal heat blisters while you're enjoying celestial bliss.

We ALL have names of people in our heads whom we'd like to see on the outside looking in on God's heavenly banquet. Everyone carries a list.

"You know, pastor, " he said. "There are a lot of PEOPLE in our churches but there aren't very many CHRISTIANS."

"I beg your pardon," I replied.

"There are too many people who go to church but don't live by God's law, they live just like everyone else. They're fake Christians," he said.

"Is that right?" I replied, turning my chair to indicate that this was a conversation I no interest in being a part of. But he didn't take the hint.

"Yeah, too many people think they're Christians but they really aren't. There's no repentance. No outward evidence that they they believe in God. There's too much immorality. Too many concessions to the secular world. They don't believe in the Truth of the bible."


"Really?" I replied, hoping my monosyllabic answers might discourage him. But they seemed to do the opposite. He was just getting started.

"People think that they can sin and still be part of Christ's church. The bible is clear, God HATES sin. God demands obedience from us, not disobedience."

"But didn't Jesus die for our sins?" I asked.

"Jesus may have died for our sins but that doesn't mean we can still go on sinning and expect to go to heaven," he replied.

"So, we can stop sinning if we just put our minds to it?" I asked.

"Yes," he said. "God gave us free will so we can choose to sin or not to sin."

"If God has given us the freedom to sin or not to sin then why did Jesus have to die for our sins, why didn't he just say, ‘Hey folks, don’t sin...’? Wouldn’t that have been easier?"

And from there it was on. He had pushed my last button.

This was a conversation I had with a young man at a synod convention. It's a conversation I regularly have with people.

People who see more sin in the world than grace.
People who emphasize obedience rather than freedom. People who use Christianity to control other peoples’ behaviour rather celebrating the faith that brings new life in Jesus’ name.

People who want to divide the world into two competing camps: those who deserve God's love and forgiveness, and those who do not.

And they usually know which camp they fall in to. And they're glad to tell you where you spiritually stack up.

I share this story not to show off my stellar debating skills, but to show you that Pharisees, like the religious leader in today’s gospel, are alive and kicking.

People who don't really believe that faith can make us well. 
People who don't trust that God is active in the world and in their neighbours' lives.

People who just want to condemn others and feel superior to everyone else.

Just like we heard in today's gospel.

Jesus is having dinner at a pharisee's house. And during the salad course, a so-called "woman of the city" (and you know how THEY can be!) bursts in, lets down her hair, falls all over Jesus, kissing and caressing his feet, which is all too much for the religious people at the table to take.

"WELL....If this man were a real prophet," Simon the religious leader said in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear, "he'd know what kind of woman this is. He’d see that she's a sinner!"

And after asking a pointed question about forgiveness of debt, Jesus asks another, even more sharpened - yet also cryptic question. He asks the religious leader, "Simon, do you see this woman?"

“Ummm....yeah...she’s under the table doing who knows what to you...”

The implication is that the host, the self-righteous religious guy doesn't really see the woman. He only sees a "sinner." That's all he sees. When he looks at her he only sees “sin.”

But when Jesus looks at her, he sees something altogether different. Even though he knows who she is, and he knows everything she has done, and everything that has happened to her, when Jesus looks down at this woman at his feet, he sees a "daughter of Abraham and Sarah." A member of the family. Someone who has a claim on God's goodness and mercy.

Jesus sees what the pharisees cannot: a precious child of God. The religious leader only sees walking, talking, sin.

If you're listening closely, you'll notice that I might fall into the trap of reverse-phariseeism: passing judgment on the pharisees - the religious leaders - as if I'm somehow better than them. It's easy to condemn self-righteous religious folks for the sin of condemning others.

But if we're honest with ourselves we'll know that we're not any better. We have a foot in each camp. We're the self-righteous religious leader who makes up lists of who is in and who is out. And we're the sinner in need of forgiveness. Both. At the same time.

The challenge for us today is to see in ourselves both the self-righteous religious person and the sinner. That's not easy. We're too close to ourselves. We can't always see in ourselves what others see in us. We make excuses for our own bad behaviour while magnifying the flaws we see in others.

Thankfully, we have a God who sees us differently. Despite everything we’ve done, despite all the hurt we’ve caused ourselves and each other, despite those times of dishonesty and doubt, despite the promises broken and our moments of faithlessness, when Jesus looks at us he sees children of Abraham and Sarah, sisters and brothers of Jesus. Precious children of God who have a claim on God’s goodness and mercy.

The fellow who cornered me at convention couldn't see other Christians as fellow followers of Jesus. When he looked at other people, he could only see sin.

And I have to admit, I had trouble seeing him as a member of the family, a brother in Christ. I didn't want him at the same communion table as me.

I like to think of myself as better than him, more inclusive, more welcoming, and more accepting.

I like to think that MY vision of God and MY vision of the world is bigger than his. And even if that were to be true, the problem is that I think that that makes me a more faithful Christian than he is.

I want to keep him and people like him out. That makes me no better than him.

I only want people around me who think like me, that way I won't have to be challenged.

I only want to spend time with people who affirm what I already know, so I won't have to be pushed.

I only want people beside me who see the world the same way I do, that way I won't have to grow.

I am the self-righteous religious leader in this story. And that - also (ironically) - makes me the woman in this story, the sinner in need of forgiveness.

So I'm glad that I'm not in charge of who gets in and who stays out of God's kingdom. I'm thankful that that's a job for someone much more forgiving than I am.

And I'm glad it's not up to you, either.

We human beings are better at latching gates than we are at unlocking doors.

We're better at putting up fences than we are at opening borders.

We’re better at drawing lines than pushing boundaries.

Our limited vision makes us barely past our own spectacles. But God's vision is as expansive as eternity. God's mercy never ends.

It’s God who keep challenging us, pushing us, stretching us, and inspiring us, enlarging our vision of what is possible.

Erasing the lines that keep us needlessly divided. Opening our eyes to see grace at work in peoples’ lives. Lifting up our hands in celebration of the faith that makes us well.

God gives us eyes to see new life abounding in the lives of those around us, and ears to hear the good news that people proclaim with everything they have.

It’s God who keeps edging us further and further from our comfort zones, so that - one day - we ALL will behold the glory of God.

So, who do you want to keep out of God's kingdom? Who's in the Top Ten?

I want you to hold on to that list of people whose names you'd like erased from the Book of Life. That list is now your prayer list. Those are the people God wants you to pray for. And as you pray for each person on that list, those people might also be praying for you.



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