Sunday, September 15, 2013

Pentecost 17C

A Lutheran Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, once had a sign out front of their building that announced, “Sinners Welcome!”

Maybe I’m more naive than others, and maybe I’ve been hanging around the church way too long, and maybe I’ve had some REALLY good Sunday School teachers, but when I saw that sign on a movie about the church, I didn’t think it was any big deal. After all, we’re ALL sinners aren’t we?

Well, not so fast. Apparently some churches, the types of churches that like to stick their noses into the business of other churches, wildly objected to the sign. Angry pastors wrote strongly worded letters to the church council. Others alerted the bishop. Still other Christians filled the church voice mail box with nasty messages denouncing the sign and demanding that it be taken down or changed to something more to their liking. Letters were written to the editor making sure that people were not deceived, because not ALL churches welcomed sinners.

“You’re condoning sin!”

“This is moral relativism!”

“You’re selling cheap grace!”

“You’re preaching Christ without repentance!”

....the Christian chorus would cry.

Apparently, “sinners” in that particular Pittsburgh neighbourhood, were NOT welcome at many of the other churches. I guess you had to get your life together in order for Jesus to welcome you into the family.

And they probably had an idea of what “sinners” they didn’t want in their churches. And these sinners, I’m guessing, didn’t look anything like them. These sinners, probably, weren’t like a mirror held up in front of them to show them their own brokenness and failings. These churches probably shone a light at others, smugly condemning them, while they - and their own sins -stayed safely hidden in the dark.

I say “probably” because I don’t know these people personally. I don’t know their motives or their reasoning. 

But I have encountered a lot of people like them. 

Christians with their sin-detectors jacked up to maximum. Christians who seem to hate sin more than they love grace. 
Christians who seem to think that it’s their job to control other peoples’ behaviour. 

Christians who think they’re offering “tough love” when they condemn others, rather than doing the REAL and HARD gospel work of serving others in Jesus’ name.

It’s no wonder why so many people are turned off by Christianity, when there’s so many negative voices dominating religious discourse. 

When I encounter an atheist, or agnostic, or someone who simply walked away from Christianity, I usually encounter someone who’s been hurt by Christians. And I hear all sorts of stories of Christians behaving badly.

I hear stories about the mean Sunday School teacher who scolded them for asking uncomfortable questions about the creation story, saying questions reveal doubt and that doubt is a sin.

I hear stories about the angry preacher who condemned them for walking away from an abusive marriage, because, they say, divorce is a sin.

I hear stories about the overly pious aunt who said that science was from the pit of Hell when they told her they were studying biology at school.

And when they drive past churches, they don’t see places where God’s people dwell. They don’t see places where they feel they can walk through the door without wearing spiritual body armour. 

They see places where they have to become someone they know they aren’t nor who they want to be, before they can even start looking for a parking spot.

They see places where sinners are UNwelcome. And so they look elsewhere for something that God gives freely.

I’m not saying that is happening here at St. John’s. Personally, I’ve felt VERY welcome here as your pastor and as a divorced man. I have not felt anything but love and care since I walked through the door just over a year ago.

But the temptation for ANY church is to grumble with the pharisees at the “sinners” who come looking for Jesus. Because, whether we like it or not, we often see our own brokenness in others, and recognize our own limitations in the stranger’s failings.

It’s so much easier to point out peoples’ sins than to celebrate their salvation. 

It’s so much easier to be annoyed by peoples’ weaknesses than to recognize their strengths. 

It’s so much easier to dismiss the good that people do because we’d rather focus on the bad that they’ve done.

It’s the way we’ve been conditioned. For some reason we are drawn to the negative than we are pulled towards the positive. When we focus on one thing, that’s where our eyes stay fixed.

When we hear about crimes on the news we demand tougher sentencing laws, even though violent crime has been declining for over 20 years.

We hear about how some of the oil companies are destroying the planet and making record profits while doing so, and miss the stories about massively creative alternative energy start-ups making tremendous strides towards cleaning the earth while making PILES of money in the process.

We hear about the immigrant gangs and complain how these newcomers cause trouble, and ignore the immigrant business owners who are creating jobs and contributing to our community. 

We hear about the smart-mouthed kids, and fail to see the young people generously serving their communities. 

We hear about the smooth, silver-tongued preacher who scammed thousands of people out of their hard-earned paycheques to pay for their private jets and air-conditioned dog houses, and we fail to recognize the millions of faithful Christians living the good news in their daily lives.

But that’s who Jesus sees. That’s why Jesus goes after the one who has been lost. That’s why Jesus leaves the 99 to go after the one. That’s why God keeps searching. That’s why God keeps finding. That’s why Jesus goes after YOU.

When Jesus looks at you, Jesus doesn’t see a “sinner.” When Jesus looks at you Jesus sees a beloved child of God BURSTING with potential. 

When Jesus looks at you he sees someone whose life is contributing to the good of the world. 

When Jesus looks at you he sees someone of divine worth, someone who offers the others your own unique gifts, someone who brings Jesus’ resurrection light to a world stalled in darkness.

You may have failed, but you aren’t a failure.
You may be broken, but your love brings wholeness.
You may have sinned, but because of Jesus you are forgiven, and your sin does not define you.
You may be lost, but Jesus has found you, and you learned what life is like in the wilderness.

Your eyes may be closed, but God is opening them to new possibilities.

Your breathing may be laboured, but you are still running the race.

You may have a dark past, but because of Jesus, your future is as bright as a resurrection morning.

You are, as Lutherans like to say, simultaneously saint and sinner. But too often we forget the first part of that, and we focus only on the “sinner” part.

But God dwells on the “saint” part. The part where God declares us clean and gives us a new identity. An identity in Christ. An identity of love and forgiveness. An identity of joy and peace. An identity of freedom and healing.

So maybe WE should hang a sign out front that says “Sinners Welcome” because God welcomes everyone here, especially sinners. Especially those who know they’ve been hurt and who hurt others. Especially those whose lives have been hobbled by weakness. Especially those who feel they have no where left to turn.

It’s your brokenness, your lostness, your weaknesses, and your sins that God wants. That’s because God wants YOU, the REAL you. Not some plastic version of yourself that you bring out to meet polite company. But the YOU you are when no one’s looking. When the door is closed, and the lights are turned off.

Jesus wants your wounds, your scars, those parts of your lives that you hide from others, so that he can bear that burden with you, seeking you out when you wander off, and finding you when you are lost, so that your life may shine once again with the brilliance of God’s love.

So sinners ARE welcome here. Because it’s here, among God’s people, where the Word is proclaimed and the sacraments administered, that Jesus meets ALL sinners, 
ALL who need God’s love and mercy, ALL who are lost, ALL who are found, so that ALL may go out from here and meet Jesus in crucible of your lives, emerging victorious over the powers that try to keep you down, and the forces that try to misdirect you and keep you lost. The victory is yours in Jesus!

You who have been lost, are found in Jesus!

That’s why, as Jesus declares, the angels in heaven rejoice!

May this be so among us. Amen!

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