26 Then they arrived at the country of the Ger′asenes, which is opposite Galilee. 27 And as he stepped out on land, there met him a man from the city who had demons; for a long time he had worn no clothes, and he lived not in a house but among the tombs. 28 When he saw Jesus, he cried out and fell down before him, and said with a loud voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beseech you, do not torment me.” 29 For he had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many a time it had seized him; he was kept under guard, and bound with chains and fetters, but he broke the bonds and was driven by the demon into the desert.) 30 Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. 31 And they begged him not to command them to depart into the abyss. 32 Now a large herd of swine was feeding there on the hillside; and they begged him to let them enter these. So he gave them leave. 33 Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and were drowned.
34 When the herdsmen saw what had happened, they fled, and told it in the city and in the country. 35 Then people went out to see what had happened, and they came to Jesus, and found the man from whom the demons had gone, sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. 36 And those who had seen it told them how he who had been possessed with demons was healed. 37 Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Ger′asenes asked him to depart from them; for they were seized with great fear; so he got into the boat and returned. 38 The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but he sent him away, saying, 39 “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” And he went away, proclaiming throughout the whole city how much Jesus had done for him.
Poem For The Sunday Lectionary (Pentecost +5
Luke 8: 26-39

I am the lost one trapped in depression;
I am the broken one trapped in my rage;
I am the hurting soul chained to addiction;
I am self-harmer abused at young age –

I am the many-name victim of madness,
my humanness naked, nowhere to hide;
drowning like flotsam in cold seas of sadness,
wracked by despair until bits of me die;

haunted by fear, or strange inner voices;
tortured by dark thoughts in pitiless tide . . .
Blame me? Shame me? And what other choices –
fear me? Ignore me and let my needs slide?

Gerasene brother, when you met the Christ
who banished the illness into the swine,
your healing came without judgment or price;
mercy itself helped bring rightness of mind.

But note still the fear of those who kept score,
finding you clothed, sitting calm and at peace.
Madness is feared, but is mercy feared more?
It’s Christ, not Legion, who’s asked there to leave.

Copyright ©2016 by Andrew King

Two passages inspired today’s sermon.  One is from the Gospel lesson assigned for today; the other is from a poem by Andrew King.  The poem is printed on your bulletin insert.
From the Gospel according to Luke:

37 Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Ger′asenes asked him to depart from them; for they were seized with great fear; so he got into the boat and returned.

From the poem by Andrew King:
Madness is feared, but is mercy feared more?1

Why did the Ger′asenes ask Jesus to leave? Once again, Jesus has performed a miracle unlike anything anyone has ever seen.  Wouldn’t they want him to stay around? Wouldn’t they be hoping for another miracle?  Wouldn’t they want to keep a local celebrity in town?

If Willie Nelson played a concert in Toronto/Big Rock, wouldn’t we invite him to stay a little longer? Imagine the crowd and Willie sitting at a table of card players eager to deal him in.  That wasn’t the case at Ger′asene.  They couldn’t wait to get rid of Jesus, even though he ha cured a man who must have been, if not frightening, at least a nuisance.  They should have given Jesus a key to the city and a banquet in His honor.

Why did they ask Jesus to leave? Our passage says they were afraid. Doesn’t it seem logical that they no longer had to fear the possessed man, that they could relax a little, now that this violent man was sane and gentle. The cause of their fear is gone–no crazy man running around.  Yet, the person who took away that fear was the one who is feared.

What is scary about Jesus?  Jesus changes things.  He changed the way the locals saw the possessed man.  The role of community crazy man is now vacant.  Every community needs someone to fill the role of loser, of misfit. By having one person that doesn’t fit in, everyone else, by comparison, can feel better about him/herself.  As long as there is a crazy person, a bum, a loser, everybody is better than somebody else.  It’s important to our self-esteem, to our personal image, to be better than someone else.

There are lots of ways to be better than someone else—own more property, have a better garden or a cleaner house, have more education, a better job, smarter kids, cooler car.  We can take the most basic of necessities and make them status symbols, and use them as evidence that we are better.

That need to be better is one of the reasons being a Christian is so difficult.
As soon as we think that being a Christian, or going to church, or putting the most in the offering plate makes us better than somebody else, we’ve fallen off the “love your neighbor as yourself” bandwagon.  Why?  Seeing your self as better than your neighbor diminishes your love for your neighbor. Your neighbor becomes a target, a challenge, an enemy to your own status.

By restoring the possessed man, Jesus took away the foundation for the pecking order of the Ger′asenes. He changed the way everyone saw themselves. Suddenly the loser guy is a pretty decent guy, and a new kind threat–to anyone who has lost a little status.  The predictable threat of him running around town yelling and screaming has been replaced by the unpredictable threat of a neighbor who now has to be welcomed into the community as one of them.

What can be so hard, so frightening about welcoming someone into community?
God didn’t create us to be unfriendly, but because we are sinners, we have to deal with our sinful human nature. Our human nature needs everything to stay the same, even when it is inconvenient or dangerous.  We learn to cope with the inconvenient and the dangerous and we don’t necessarily welcome a change in the routine.  I think of my friends who have nursed a spouse through a long illness.  It is not a pleasant experience.  It is sad, it is exhausting, it is disrupting, but there is always something to do. When the spouse dies, all the routine of caring, of doctors’ visits and special meals and changing dressings and bathing disappears. Wouldn’t it be a relief to not be tied down now?  Maybe, but then what do you do without all that work?  When the person being cared for dies, the whole purpose of one’s life is taken away.  There is an empty space.  For the first few months, you’re tied down with lawyers, bills, rearranging the house, but then what?  How do you give your life purpose?

The Ger′asenes were not the only ones to find Jesus threatening.  Remember that when Jesus preached in his hometown of Nazareth, he was asked to leave via being stoned, as in being the target of rocks thrown by his parents neighbors.

You may have been horrified by the slaughter of fifty people in Orlando last Sunday. Or maybe you just reacted with a shrug–a here-we-go-again kind of resignation.  Did you feel anger?  Did you wish for a way to get even or did you wish for way to wave a magic wand?

Why did the killer need to shoot as many people as possible?  Was he afraid of something?  Did he feel threatened by people who were different from him?

I think we operate on that level pretty often.  I don’t think there is anything unique about that man, other than he operated on a larger and more violent scale than most of us are able.  I think we all try to destroy that which threatens us.

I see this phenomena of threat as a continuum.  It starts with perceiving that something is different; when the something that is different is not understood, we are afraid that this difference might be a threat to our security. First we try to isolate ourselves from the threat.  We determine, for instance, in grade school, who can be our friends and who can’t be our friends.  We determine, as we move into the responsibilities of adulthood, who is like us, and who is different.  We sort out all the different people and institutions and rank them according to how threatening they are to our social or financial security.

None of this has to do with loving your neighbor.  We are governed by the fear of something out of our control, out of fear that what we have worked for, is going to change. Why is change scary?  Because change can go either way.  Life can get better or life can get worse.  I’m not talking about the change we initiate, like getting a better job or repainting the living room.  I’m talking about change outside of our control, change with unpredictable results.

Jesus changed the dynamics of this one community by changing one person. The citizens couldn’t take anymore.

I went to a meeting the other night.  You might have seen mention of it on television.  The meeting was at the Metropolitan Community Church of the Quad Cities.  The room was packed–standing room only–with people on a mission.  There have been similar gatherings all over the country, all over the world, since last Sunday. All of us were there because of the murder of fifty people gathered in a place where they felt safe.

Most of these people were gay. They were killed for being gay.  They were not killed for public intoxication or assault or drug dealing.  They were killed for being born gay.

Through the work of many people, both Christians and non-Christians, among people like me, gay people, are no longer the evil persons in our culture. People like me no longer consider gays perverts.  It’s not they who have changed; no one waved a magic wand and made them straight.  It’s as simple as realizing that being gay is as normal as being straight.  But that change of perception by many of us is threatening to those who are afraid of being gay.  So, when you are threatened by the concept of homosexuality, you have to do something about it.  Most of us are able to smother these fears with shunning gay people, with reassuring each other of our own straightness.  Some people find homosexuality threatening enough that they pass laws to limit the rights of gays. Some people find gays so threatening that they harass them, bully them, or murder them.

We all need somebody to pick on. And maybe we all need someone to fear.  The Ger′asenes needed the nameless man to fear.  He was predictable; even if he was out of control, he was predictable. Even change for the better is frightening, because we have to rethink how we relate to the rest of the world and to our neighbors.

Jesus upset the civil order in Ger′asene; he did not receive even one thank you.  No thanks, Jesus, they said. We were doing just fine, even if we did complain a little about the crazy guy. We were doing just fine before you came.  Why didn’t you do something cool like spread a picnic before us or cure all our illnesses?  You didn’t make anything better for us, Jesus.  You picked the least deserving person in our town and cured him.  You  did nothing for us, Jesus. We don’t need anymore of that kind of help. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

That’s the thing about Jesus.  He decides who’s in and who’s out.  He decides on whom he has mercy.  He makes the rules.  Lucky for us Jesus doesn’t have rules about who receives His mercy. He doesn’t look around the room and say, that one needs to be kinder to his sister, that one needs to stop gossiping, that one needs to invite the neighbors over for supper, that one needs to spend more time with the Bible, that one needs to do this, that, and the other thing.
Jesus treats everyone of us the same way he treated the crazy man.

And I expect He wants us to use his method.  So, if Jesus doesn’t follow our rules, do we un-invite him?  Jesus, not today.  I don’t like what you’re selling. Come back another day when you’ve got something better for me.  You want me to visit at the nursing home. I don’t think so; it smells bad. You want me to take some flowers to my neighbor? I could do that.  happy to.
Or do we open the door, let in the fresh, frightening air of change? Who deserves mercy? Jesus doesn’t let us pick and choose. It’s all or none.  Thank you, Jesus, that we all receive  your blessed, undeserved, incomprehensible, amazing mercy.  Amen.


36 A Pharisee invited Jesus to have dinner with him. So Jesus went to the Pharisee’s home and got ready to eat.[
37 When a sinful woman in that town found out that Jesus was there, she bought an expensive bottle of perfume. 38 Then she came and stood behind Jesus. She cried and started washing his feet with her tears and drying them with her hair. The woman kissed his feet and poured the perfume on them.
39 The Pharisee who had invited Jesus saw this and said to himself, “If this man really were a prophet, he would know what kind of woman is touching him! He would know that she is a sinner.”
40 Jesus said to the Pharisee, “Simon, I have something to say to you.”
“Teacher, what is it?” Simon replied.
41 Jesus told him, “Two people were in debt to a moneylender. One of them owed him five hundred silver coins, and the other owed him fifty. 42 Since neither of them could pay him back, the moneylender said that they didn’t have to pay him anything. Which one of them will like him more?”
43 Simon answered, “I suppose it would be the one who had owed more and didn’t have to pay it back.”
“You are right,” Jesus said.
44 He turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Have you noticed this woman? When I came into your home, you didn’t give me any water so I could wash my feet. But she has washed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. 45 You didn’t greet me with a kiss, but from the time I came in, she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You didn’t even pour olive oil on my head, but she has poured expensive perfume on my feet. 47 So I tell you that all her sins are forgiven, and that is why she has shown great love. But anyone who has been forgiven for only a little will show only a little love.”
48 Then Jesus said to the woman, “Your sins are forgiven.”
49 Some other guests started saying to one another, “Who is this who dares to forgive sins?”
50 But Jesus told the woman, “Because of your faith, you are now saved. May God give you peace!”
8 Soon after this, Jesus was going through towns and villages, telling the good news about God’s kingdom. His twelve apostles were with him, 2 and so were some women who had been healed of evil spirits and all sorts of diseases. One of the women was Mary Magdalene, who once had seven demons in her. 3 Joanna, Susanna, and many others had also used what they owned to help Jesus and his disciples. Joanna’s husband Chuza was one of Herod’s officials.1
Three people.  Three very different people.  Two men. One woman.
Simon, Jesus, the Woman.
Simon is a prominent member of society, a Pharisee.
Jesus is an anomaly, a freak, a curiosity.
The Woman is a nameless whore.
What brings these three together, not only in the same community, but in the same room, at a shared meal?
Have you ever been in one of those situations where you can’t believe you’re in the same room with someone? I look back over my life and I think, “Wow!”   Probably a “wow” moment that I should have paid more attention to was when I chatted with Michelle Obama in the Operahouse lobby.  It was 2008 and she was campaigning for her husband.  A sizable crowd had gathered, listened, discussed, and left and she was preparing to move on.  I can’t remember what we talked about—some social issue–and what remains with me is her passion and her intelligence and her sincerity. Wow!  How did an ordinary person like me end up talking to the First Lady?  Of course, “first lady” was a dream in 2008, but there I was.
I hope I was a better host than Simon. I hope our First Lady felt welcome and comfortable and safe. And I hope all the people who came to see her felt welcome.
That little vignette from 2008 and the dinner party at Simon’s house don’t have that much in common, yet it’s a basic archetype of human social history.  You invite someone to your home; you offer certain amenities.
Simon invited Jesus to his home.  He offered food, but for one reason another, he did not treat Jesus as an honored guest. He did not have a servant wash Jesus’ feet; he didn’t even  offer Jesus a basin of water so he could wash his own feet.  He did not greet Jesus with a kiss, which for us would be a handshake.  He did not smear a little oil on his head.
These customs may seem strange to us, but they were taken for granted in Jesus’ time.  Everybody went barefoot or wore sandals and all the roads were dusty and dirty, so it was a courtesy to everyone if you joined the party with clean feet.  A kiss on the cheek was the handshake of the day, and probably spread fewer germs. The oil was not Wesson oil.  It was perfumed oil and surrounded the guest with the pleasant odor of a flower or an herb—a nice contrast or coverup for the smell of a body sweaty from a long walk.
If you walked into my home this afternoon, I would not wash your feet, I would not kiss you, and I would not smear oil on your head. Times change, customs change.  But I would do everything I could to make you feel at home.  Simon did very little to make Jesus feel welcome.
So, why did Simon invite Jesus in the first place?
Simon was a prominent member of the community, a Pharisee.  The Pharisees made being Jewish their life’s work. They strove to be the best Jews possible, by meticulously following the law.  They saw themselves as a good example for those who were not able to follow all 613 rules, for those who were not able to give generously to the temple, for those who had neither the education nor the leisure to be able to argue the pros and cons of every jot and tittle of the law. Simon was the kind of person we want to admire and hate at the same time. The Pharisees saw themselves as the ideal for which everyone should strive.  It was just too bad that everyone couldn’t be as good as them.
Simon, being a leader in the community, had heard of Jesus.   Simon, being a student of scripture, knew and, at least nominally, believed that God would send a Messiah. Simon, being a guardian of Jewish tradition, had heard rumors of an on-the-ground Messiah floating in the neighborhood.  Perhaps a group of Pharisees had gathered for a meeting and the subject of Jesus had come up.  Someone brought up Jesus’ name, and it seemed (in my hypothetical meeting) that everyone present had heard something about Jesus.  Because the leadership and power of the Pharisees was tenuous, because of the fragile tension between the Jewish community and the Roman occupiers, concerns were expressed about Jesus’ growing popularity and how it might appear to the Roman authorities.  As the meeting rambled on, Simon sought to bring it to an end by offering to invite Jesus to his house.  The rest agreed that this would be a great way to check out Jesus’ intentions.  Meeting adjourned.
Some scholars like to think that Simon was personally curious about Jesus and wanted to learn more. Wouldn’t it be nice if Simon wanted to follow Jesus more closely, that Simon was close to believing that Jesus was the Messiah?  I don’t think so, because if he were interested in becoming a follower of Jesus, he would have treated him with the customary respect given to a guest.  Simon was spying on Jesus.
What can we say about Jesus, the guest?  We know everything there is to know about Jesus, right?  We’ve been studying Him in this space for a long time.  What else is there to say?  Well, with Jesus, there’s always more to the story.
Why did Jesus accept the invitation?  There’s no indication that any of his comrades were invited.  There’s no hint of any topic of conversation. What was Jesus’ purpose in entering the home of a stranger, of a member of a group whom he frequently criticized? It would be like one of us accepting an invitation to the White House or the Ku Klux Klan, depending on your comfort level.  Maybe Jesus was hungry for a good meal and couldn’t pass it up.  Maybe he was just as curious about Simon as Simon was about him.
Jesus right had been raised right by Mary—that is, he knew the social customs and he was confident in any situation. She had raised him to be polite and confident and open-minded. He did not walk into Simon’s house as less than an equal. He made that clear to Simon.
And then we have the Woman.  She is a sinner.  By the end of the story, we are again reminded we are all sinners, so what was so special about this woman’s sins? I can hardly talk about her “sins” without pointing out who her clients were.  In the wake of this weeks “three months probation with good behavior” sentencing of a very special freshman student at Stanford University, the vitriol rising in my throat is inappropriate in a setting where we say everyone is forgiven and we should all love one another.
But the Woman, who is such a loser that none of the gospel writers gives her a name, is a sinner, who makes her living by selling her body to men who are apparently willing to pay her for sex. An objective reading of the Bible or our current laws seems to indicate that paying for sex is fine, but selling sex is not. This woman is not ignorant of her sin.  She is overwhelmed by it. Why else in the world would she have such over-the-top reaction to Jesus?
But let me back up here: what does this woman, who knows that she is both scorned and encouraged by her culture, see in Jesus? How long has she known about Jesus?  What message has she heard?  Why does she risk coming into this house, when she could easily be thrown into the street?  What does she know about such an abstract idea as forgiveness of sins?  What propels her to spend all her money on expensive perfume instead of saving it for shelter or food? What good does she think washing Jesus’ feet will do her?  Or is it for her? Does she have a thing for Jesus? Is she trying to win his attention or his affection?  Is she a temptation sent by the devil?  Or does she, in the purity of her soul, understand exactly who Jesus is and what he means to her as a whole person, a beloved Child of God?
Who is the most admirable person in this scene?  Luke makes it clear that Simon has room for improvement.  We all know Jesus is the best person that ever lived.  But this woman….how do we categorize her?
Ostensibly, nobody wants to be a whore. We can justify the breaking of every other commandment, but that one is just too fascinating, too complicated, too intriguing to ignore–at least in other people.  You can steal and lie all you want, but if you act out of physical desire, you are  evil and you need to be punished.  Say what you want about a candidate’s financial shenanigans, such trespasses usually sink to the bottom of the gossip wastebasket, but any physical transgression can sink a campaign in the shake of finger.
This woman has integrity. Who would think…?  She knows her sin and she admits it.  She seeks forgiveness for her sin—in front of everybody, in a most obvious way.  Simon and Jesus see two different scenes.  Simon sees an admission of guilt. Jesus sees repentance.
“Your sins are forgiven. Because of your faith, you are now saved. May God give you peace!”
Forgiveness.  Faith. Peace.  Simon could have offered water, a kiss, some oil to the greatest person who ever entered his house. He offered nothing.  Jesus offered the lowliest person who ever lived forgiveness, faith, peace.
What does that mean to you, today?  Are you more like Simon, secure in your status, or are you more like the woman, heartbroken by your own weakness, throwing yourself at Jesus?

Jumping through Hoops

When we have something precious, we guard it. I have two precious tablecloths, each with twelve matching napkins. One belonged to my husband’s grandmother and one belonged to my grandmother. One has beautiful insertion work and the other was lovingly embroidered by my grandmother’s best friend with the initial “S,” for my grandmother’s married name.  I use them on very special occasions and I send them to the dry cleaner’s afterward, so that they remain in good condition. Maybe your special possession is a vintage car, which you drive only on paved roads when the weather is perfect.
When we guard our precious possession, we also protect it from other people. We only let special people dine at our table or ride in our car.  If someone asked to borrow either of my tablecloths, I would have to think about it.  And if I asked to drive your vintage car, I’m pretty sure I know the answer.

The new converts in Galatia had a precious possession.  It was their Jewish faith and heritage. Their faith had taken a new twist when they heard the good news of salvation offered by Jesus Christ.   They had accepted that the Messiah had arrived in the form of Jesus Christ.  Paul had brought them this good news and his sincerity and passion and experience had convinced them that belief in Jesus was a natural extension of their faithful practice.

However, they had a hard time welcoming any who were not Jewish into this new way of life without making them jump through the hoops of Mosaic Law.  Those hoops included circumcision and following Kosher food laws.

The church has always struggled with or even delighted in making its converts jump through hoops.

Traditionally, hell has been the threat that makes us run toward Jesus.  Because, as human beings, we are not able to grasp how great and all-encompassing God’s salvation really is, we assume that we have to do something to assure our salvation and prevent our going to hell. The church of the middle ages acquiesced to this weakness by giving people “extra credit” for good deeds. This extra credit was called by an “indulgence.” By saying extra prayers or doing good deeds, one might get a little closer to heaven and a little further from hell.  However, by the thirteenth century,  one could buy an indulgence, a piece of forgiveness, by paying a church official a handsome sum of money. This was one of the practices that Martin Luther protested and in our protestant tradition, we claim that indulgences, good deeds, and special actions have nothing to do with our salvation.  Our salvation is guaranteed through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, not though our own power.

All we have to do is believe that Jesus is our Savior.  We have two rules that go with that belief: Love God.  Love your neighbor.

On the other hand, every church that exists has added more rules.

Every church I can think of welcomes visitors.  However, when those visitors start to act like members, they are shot down.  When Bill was nominated to be on the council at Toronto, he joyfully accepted.  He was given a set of by-laws and he took them home and read them.  How many church members have ever read the by-laws?  Bill was passionate about church and when he read the by-laws,  to his dismay, he found out that he was not eligible to be on the council because he had never been confirmed.

We took care of that.  I brought a red carnation to church the next Sunday, pinned it on his lapel, and we repeated the words of confirmation from the Book of Worship.  At Big Rock, we ran into the same love of rules.  As we gained new members, we welcomed them and their contributions to our worship and our building. But when it came time to exercise the power of voting, we protected our power by again falling back on our own rules and declaring these newcomers were not real members.  Again, we pulled out the Book of Worship, repeated the necessary words, and power was shared.

The fact that there is a big black book with all these services underlines the fact that we crave rules, we crave ways to make our selves special, to make our groups exclusive.

This is what Paul was railing against in his letter to the Galatians.

I spent most of Friday with a group of forty pastors and lay people going over a binder this thick full of rules. These rules pertain only to who and who may not serve as a pastor in any of the churches of my denomination.

Now, for the flip side.  If we do not have these rules, what happens in our churches.  For instance, what if you call a pastor who wants to go back to Old Testament practices?  What could possibly go wrong?  The Old Testament is part of our Bible.  We swear by it, we read it, we pray from it, we study it, we believe it.  By what if that pastor focused specifically on the rules about animal sacrifice.  What if I required each of you to bring an animal to sacrifice on this altar? Those of you living strictly on Social Security could get buy with a couple birds. If you had a larger income, you’d be wrestling a goat or a bull, down the aisle. And that animal would not be the runt, but the best of your flock or herd.

So, imagine, if you will, each of you, three times a year, hauling in some birds or livestock and imagine me having to slice each creature’s throat on this altar.
It’s in the Bible, so we should do it, right?

So, yes, we have rules and rules and rules.  But we must be careful about what we are protecting.  Are we protecting a culture, a way of life, a building, a tradition?  Or are we protecting the Holy Word of God as revealed through Jesus Christ?  Are we promoting our own comfort or are we promoting the Kingdom of God?

I know too many churchgoers whose only vision is to see the church return to what it was in the sixties.  What was the church in the sixties?  It was full of worshippers and Sunday School kids and there were twelve kids in every confirmation class and there were church suppers attended by hundreds of people.

It is not possible to get the vision back, nor is it desirable. Churches were also strongholds of segregation and cultural norms.   If we were to return to the sixties, we would have to embrace sixties’ medicine, sixties’ technology, and be satisfied with three television channels.

In our defense, change is very hard.  So we protect the one thing we count on not to change: the church.  You could lose your job tomorrow, Congress could slash your Social Security benefit, your car could blow up, herbicide drift from your neighbor’s cornfield could kill your garden.  The church is the one thing we can count on.  But we have to remind ourselves that the church exists in many forms.  Friday, I learned that church exists more often outside the walls of any specific building.  The church is thriving where it is most needed, in communities, among the poor and disenfranchised, the neglected.  The people who are following in Jesus’ footsteps do not spend time in an exclusive group, serving themselves. They walk among those who need a loving presence, who need shelter, who need affirmation.

The Galatians wanted to make sure all males were circumcised

The Galatians wanted to make sure all women maintained Kosher kitchens.

Equally painful choices, in my opinion.

Paul claims that Jesus did not come to promote circumcision or Kosher kitchens. Jesus came to save the people He loved, the people He called brothers and sisters. Jesus invited His brothers and sisters–that is, each of us, to walk with Him, loving God and loving our neighbors. Jesus did not say, come sit on my lap and be comfortable.  Even though I believe that we should rip out some of our pews and put in recliners and couches, I know that comfort is not one of Jesus’ rules. His rule is to love God, and to love our neighbors.

What does that look like? We know in part that we love God by worshipping and that we love our neighbors by our friendliness and by our contributions to the wider community.  But sometimes loving God, loving our neighbors is more than following rules. Sometimes, walking with Jesus is like walking barefooted on the gravel. You get there, but it’s not much fun. Sometimes walking with Jesus is ignoring the rules we make for ourselves.

Just when we count on the Church to be the one predictable thing in our lives, Jesus steps in and says, Well, done, good and faithful servant.  Now, I want you to do this instead.  Amen.

Memorial Day 2016

Memorial Day is a very personal day.

It owes its existence to the personal grief of the widows of soldiers who lost their lives in the War Between the States. When spring flowers came into bloom, these widows and their orphaned children gathered the most beautiful thing they had, their flowers, and carried them to the cemeteries where their dear husbands and fathers and brothers lay.

Memorial Day is a day of tradition.  Like everything else, even traditions change.  The first Decoration Days were established by the widows of Civil War soldiers.  They were called Decoration Days because the widows and friends and family of the soldiers decorated the graves with flowers.
Unfortunately and inevitably, more wars secured the permanent annual observation of Memorial Day.  When all the Civil War widows were gone, there remained the children and the grandchildren and the great-grandchildren of not only the Civil War, but of the Spanish American War, World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and occupations and wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Africa.  We will never be able to stop observing Memorial Day.

Nor should we.  We are citizens of a country that is not so different from what Thomas Jefferson and John Adams and Patrick Henry imagined.  Minus the technology, minus the population explosion,  minus some barbaric practices, our founding fathers would recognize the constitution that we uphold and they would recognize the rights we maintain for ourselves. Have you ever noticed that we are not speaking German or Japanese?  Jefferson and Adams and Henry would even recognize our language.

We have our soldiers and sailors to thank for this way of life that comes to us easily because of their sacrifice. That debt is so great that we pause for one day, for a hour of music and oratory, to honor them.

By the time I was first put in the back seat of the ’51 Pontiac with a vase of iris balanced on my lap, Decoration Day had become a day to remember all of our family members who were dead.  With Grandma Hildie, we would go to Greenwood Cemetery to decorate the graves of my great-grandparents and great aunts and uncles.  With Grandma Helen, we would drive to Grandview Cemetery, to honor a different set of “greats.”  If you were allowed, you could plant geraniums, petunias, and ageratum around the headstone.  Otherwise, mason jars stuffed with peonies and iris were left at each plot.

We will always need a Memorial Day—a day that looks back in grief and forward in hope.

Decoration Day has changed for every generation, not just because new wars have been fought, but because our culture has changed.   From the Civil War widows having nothing but flowers to honor their dead to parades to picnics, Decoration Day has been reinvented with each generation. Its name changed to Memorial Day, its date changed from May 30 to a three-day weekend. Its significance broadened from honoring war dead to remembering all those who lay in the family plots. Its accoutrements have grown from garden flowers to cookouts and camping.

My father-in-law  was among the first troops to land directly in France after D-Day. He served in the World War II version of a M.A.S.H. unit.  It wasn’t funny or entertaining.   He shared a few stories with us, of caring for both German and American soldiers, of cots lined up underneath trees, of the danger of capture.  But I know there was a lot he didn’t share because of one phone call he made. November, 1989, he called us with the news that the Berlin Wall had fallen.  He was weeping because, as he told us, “this means my grandsons will never have to fight in a war.”
The relief and hope that engulfed him in 1989 expiated the horrors of France in 1944.

Twenty-seven years after the Fall of the Berlin Wall, seventy-two years after D-Day, one hundred fifty-one years after the end of the American Civil War, the relief and hope he saw has withered in the flames of subsequent wars. His six grandsons have not gone to war, but plenty of their classmates and their neighbors have volunteered to put themselves in the same danger that every soldier has faced.

War cuts across all boundaries. Even though wars are fought over boundaries, be they economical, political, or geographical, the cost of war knows no boundaries.  My husband and I commemorated the seventieth anniversary of D-Day by visiting battlefields and cemeteries in France. We were there just days after the official celebration. French, English and American flags hung side by side from every window, every balcony.  One site in particular reminded me that even though Memorial Day is a day to honor the fallen soldier, the ceremony itself is to comfort the living.  Ironically, in the German cemetery I saw the most poignant reminder.  On one grave was a bouquet of fresh flowers tied with one of those broad ribbons that florists use.  On it, in gold letters, was printed, “Deine kleine Heinrich.”  Little Henirich, seventy years later, now an old man, still mourns a father or a grandfather.  The lesson here is that the solider in the grave does not need our flowers or even our thoughts. We are the ones who need this day to express our sorrow, our loneliness, and our thankfulness.  We need this day to intentionally appreciate what we take for granted every other day.

Memorial Day is created to honor specifically those men and women who have died in the course of their service to our country. They did not return home.  They did not come back to raise families or retire on the porch in a rocking chair. They gave up their chance to live as our neighbors, as our artist, our bosses, our bus drivers, our farmers, our doctors so that the very lifestyle they gave up could be ours.

Praise God, from whom all blessings flow, even in the horrors of war.  Praise God, who restores our souls and walks with us through our losses back into life.  Praise God, who has gathered these soldiers into God’s everlasting arms, rescued from death into life.  Amen.

Need Not Be Present to Win

Do you ever worry about the people who aren’t worshipping with us today? For a minute, focus on one person you wish were here with us today.  What are your concerns for that person?  Let’s call this person Casey–Casey can be a man or a woman. Would Casey be a happier person if Casey worshipped with us?  Would Casey be a kinder person if s/he worshipped with us? Would Casey be a healthier person if s/he worshipped with us?   What if Casey lives in fear of death? What are your concerns for Casey?
As regular church goers, we have a hard time accepting the disinterest of so many of our friends and family who don’t attend church.
I grew up thinking that people who didn’t go to church were living in terrible danger of damnation. I also grew up thinking that I was better than them.

Today’s story teaches me that Jesus isn’t that much into polity or protocol.

Let’s review what we know of the man Jesus, when he lived, where he lived, with whom he lived.  He was born to a Jewish mother and father, attended a Jewish synagogue and studied Jewish scripture.  He was a scholar of scripture, in fact, and could interpret it as well as anyone of his rabbis or teachers.  The Jewish people were unique among the nations and tribes conquered by the Romans in that they were allowed to retain their religious and cultural practices.  One reason the Jews kept their cultural identity was that they did not associate with anyone outside their nationality.

That meant they did not go into the houses of Gentiles, socialize with Gentiles, eat with them, intermarry with them.  As much as possible, they did not do business with Gentiles.
By extension, Jesus associated with only Jews.  That made historical sense, because all the prophecies of the Hebrew Bible implied that the Messiah would come to the Jews, for the Jews, to rescue the Jews from the oppression of any other government.  In Jesus’ time, this meant that the Messiah would rescue the Jewish nation from the oppression of Roman government.

However, Jesus occasionally hinted at an inclusivity that was reprehensible and threatening to Jewish authorities. Why would it be so bad for Jews to associate with Gentiles?  They would lose their identity.  Rules would be relaxed, then broken. Traditions would change, people would adapt their Jewish practices to work more easily with their Gentile counterparts. The strength of Judaism, its exclusiveness and uniqueness would be weakened by compromises, so that the Jewish nation would lose the advantages of their distinctive practices.

One of the most distinguishing practices of Judaism was its worship of one God.  Every other culture in the region worshipped multiple gods, who behaved very differently from the one God of Abraham.  Hebrew Bible stories have examples of the Hebrew God versus other gods. Naturally, the Hebrew God always wins, because Hebrew authors wrote the stories.  One of the strengths of the Hebrew God, the same God that we worship was that God cared about the ordinary people who worshipped God. The multiple gods of other cultures seemed to care more about playing and fighting with each other, while ordinary people suffered the consequences. Think back to your favorite stories from grade school–the stories of Zeus and Mars and Pegasus.  They really didn’t take much notice of humans, other than to toy with them.

Back to Jesus and today’s story of healing.  Keep in mind that Jesus made it clear that he was the Jewish Messiah.  Based on some of his teachings, it seems that his followers were familiar with the Hebrew Bible, so I assume they were mostly Jewish.  Yet, because Jesus was such an amazing teacher, and because word of his miracles spread far and fast to other parts of the area, Gentiles, too, heard amazing stories about this Man.

One Roman soldier dared to approach Jesus to ask for help. This is odd for a number of reasons.  First of all, he was a centurion, a man with authority over eighty soldiers. He answered to others in authority.  He was a part of the system that most Jews regarded as the enemy. Most Jews would rather spit on such a symbol of their oppression than welcome him to share their Messiah.  Second, Jesus made it obvious that He was working exclusively for the citizens of the Jewish nation, for the people who followed Him from place to place, for the people who wanted to learn from Him.

There are three characters in this story: Jesus, the Centurion, and the Centurion’s servant. If you read the story carefully, you realize that Jesus and the Centurion never meet.  Nor does Jesus ever see the servant.  The Centurion’s request is typical: he wants Jesus to heal his servant.  I wonder how many times Jesus was asked to heal someone. I wonder how many times he refused. The Centurion is used to giving orders, as well as taking orders.  But this situation requires more subtlety. He asks a group of local Jewish leaders to approach Jesus with the request for healing.   They readily accede because this particular Centurion has been a very good neighbor; he even helped to build their synagogue. That kind of neighborliness was atypical of Roman soldiers.  They were the occupying force and therefore did not need to interact beyond keeping order.  But here is a really nice guy who happens to be a Roman solider.  Or maybe he’s a Roman soldier who happens to be a really nice guy.  Regardless, he has gained the trust and respect of the Jewish community and the community responds by finding Jesus and asking for the healing of the servant.
They caught Jesus in a good mood; he immediately leaves with them to go to the Centurion’s residence.  Then a strange thing happens:

“When Jesus wasn’t far from the house, the officer sent some friends to tell him, “Lord, don’t go to any trouble for me! I am not good enough for you to come into my house. 7 And I am certainly not worthy to come to you. Just say the word, and my servant will get well.”

The Centurion continued to explain why Jesus did not need to come to his home. “8 I have officers who give orders to me, and I have soldiers who take orders from me. I can say to one of them, ‘Go!’ and he goes. I can say to another, ‘Come!’ and he comes. I can say to my servant, ‘Do this!’ and he will do it.” ‘ He treats Jesus as an equal, as a man who has authority and power.  At the same time, he exhibits amazing humility.

I would like to know more about this Centurion, this Roman soldier. He should have been the bad guy; the Roman soldiers at Jesus’ fake trial and execution were certainly the bad guys.  Yet this Centurion shows such nuanced respect for Jesus and for the Jewish community.  He does not approach Jesus directly, but sends a Jewish delegation.  He acknowledges Jesus’ amazing power to heal without questioning. And he saves Jesus the embarrassment of entering a Gentile household.

This brings me back to our hypothetical person who boycotts church.  Like the Centurion, our Casey, as we called him or her, is probably a good person.  Like the Centurion, he or she is helpful, caring, and kind. Like the Centurion, Casey’s prayers are answered.  Like the Centurion, Casey is loved by Jesus.

If the Jewish leaders could see beyond the Roman soldier’s official status, beyond his Gentile status, perhaps we can see beyond church attendance. If Jesus could come to the aid of someone who would never worship with him, perhaps we can come to the aid of others without making rules or deciding who’s in and who’s out.

This sounds like heresy coming from someone who truly believes that worship is a valuable and necessary experience for the Christian believer. Remember the hymn, “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world.”  Jesus loves them when they grow up, too, to become our friends and neighbors.  Maybe we don’t understand everything about them, maybe we would be much happier if they worshipped with us, but Jesus has this amazing power to love everyone, to care for everyone.  I doubt that Jesus ignores prayers or praise from anybody whether they spend Sundays camping, sleeping, or throwing balls around.  Jesus changed the world in many ways, but perhaps the most significant change is transforming worship of the One True God from an exclusive cultural phenomena to include all of us, in church or not, as totally loved, totally cherished. Let us, like the Centurion, exhibit respect and faith, inviting without criticizing, welcoming without judging. When our invitations are refused, let us remember that Jesus healed the servant without ever setting foot in the Centurion’s house.  Who knows where Jesus is hanging out today?  Amen.

John 7

7 After Jesus had finished teaching the people, he went to Capernaum. 2 In that town an army officer’s servant was sick and about to die. The officer liked this servant very much. 3 And when he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish leaders to ask him to come and heal the servant.
4 The leaders went to Jesus and begged him to do something. They said, “This man deserves your help! 5 He loves our nation and even built us a meeting place.” 6 So Jesus went with them.
When Jesus wasn’t far from the house, the officer sent some friends to tell him, “Lord, don’t go to any trouble for me! I am not good enough for you to come into my house. 7 And I am certainly not worthy to come to you. Just say the word, and my servant will get well. 8 I have officers who give orders to me, and I have soldiers who take orders from me. I can say to one of them, ‘Go!’ and he goes. I can say to another, ‘Come!’ and he comes. I can say to my servant, ‘Do this!’ and he will do it.”
9 When Jesus heard this, he was so surprised that he turned and said to the crowd following him, “In all of Israel I’ve never found anyone with this much faith!”
10 The officer’s friends returned and found the servant well.