At Grace United Methodist Church in Southwest Florida, the pastor and church leaders pray a very specific prayer for whom they hope will come to their church. “God, please send us the people no one else wants.”
Has the prayer been answered? Some of the members are recovering drug addicts. Some are not exactly recovering. Some who attend are in fact prostitutes. Some are alcoholics.
Is God indeed sending those no one else wants? A woman prayed to receive Christ after a Christmas Eve service. She was filling out the info card. “What do you do for a living?” “I am a dancer.” She did not mean she was a ballerina or a tap dancer. She wasn’t the caller for square dancing. This “exotic dancer” had just become a believer, asking Jesus into her heart. Later that year, she wanted to volunteer to serve in Vacation Bible School. She had not, to that point, changed professions or shown any interest in doing so.
Quick, what’s the rule? Nude dancing? No, you can’t serve in VBS! But wait a minute. “God, please send us who no one else wants.” I am here and I believe in Jesus and I am a dancer and I want to serve in VBS.
The author writing the story about Grace Church pressed Pastor Jorge Acevedo on the issue. “Surely someone in that profession cannot be a children’s teacher.” Acevedo responded, “Well, 75% of men, if statistics are true, look at online pornography regularly.” So, when we are quickly responding to our rule as we evaluate this woman who is willing to serve in VBS, we have to come to grips with reality. We say to no to her, but what are we doing about ¾ of the men whose hearts are as dirty as hers because instead of going to the club to watch her dance, they go online to see the same thing? What are doing about them? Making them chair of deacons? Incidentally, Grace Church allowed her to serve in an auxiliary role, not working directly with children.[i]
Saint Martin’s Community Churches (there are several, all started by the same group) in Australia welcome pedophiles into their church. They are always accompanied by someone watching their behavior, keeping everyone else safe. They cannot even go to the restroom without their chaperone. But they are welcomed. Pedophiles.[ii]
Are we appalled at these stories of exotic dancers, child predators, drunks in church? Imagine the stories you might hear right here in your own church. I have been here 6 years, but have heard most confessions only in the last 18 months. It has taken that many years for individuals to believe it is safe to talk to me. I can assure everyone, no matter the darkness in your life, in this church, you are not alone. You’re surrounded by people who struggle mightily with sin. You are welcomed and loved here. Jesus loves you and yearns for you to come to Him and grow in Him and walk with Him in life.
We dare not judge those in Grace Methodist Church of Southwest Florida or St. Martins Church in Australia. We dare not look with scorn on those around us who have admitted sin of the most serious type. We’re too busy hoping that God will be loving and graceful with us in our own failings, every one of us.
“He called the crowd,” Mark writes. Jesus had something to say. Often he’d teach knowing that those around him were overhearing. He would not go to much effort to get people’s attention or to be understood or even heard. The onus was on the crowd to do the work to listen and interpret. Jesus was even intentionally confusing at times and those who really wanted to know what he meant would persevere and keep asking and following until they comprehended the message.
But here, Jesus doesn’t risk that they might miss it. “Listen!” he says. What is it they are to hear? Jesus is saying I need you to get this. What? “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” Of all that Jesus said, why did he put such emphasis there?
We have to back up all the way to the party in Mark 2.
14 And as he passed by, he saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him.
15 And as he reclined at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners were reclining with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. 16 And the scribes of[a] the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, “Why does he eat[b] with tax collectors and sinners?” 17 And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Jesus did not condone prostitution. He did not approve of tax collectors becoming rich by taking more than people could pay and keeping the surplus. He was not “OK with” rebels murdering Roman soldiers. He did not find sexually immoral behaviors like adultery and fornication acceptable. He did not participate in gambling or encourage others to do so. He did not give any place to violence or lies.
However, Jesus looked at the party crowd, and he saw people who had been completely rejected by those in power both in government and especially in faith, then the temple/synagogue, today, the church. Jesus looked at the party crowd and saw a people who knew themselves to be rejected by the decent, upstanding members of society. Jesus looked at the party crowd and saw a group who had heard professional preachers and theologians condemn them for so long that they figured God had condemned them. God certainly condemned some of their behaviors. But they didn’t know that God just as much condemned the loveless attitudes and self-serving actions of the preachers and theologians and churchmen who had condemned them.
Jesus came to love and heal and restore the lost souls who made up the party crowd, those the NT describes as tax collectors and prostitutes and sinners. Today we might say sluts, swingers, exotic dancers, drug addicts, porn addicts, gamblers, wife-beaters, brawlers, and cheats and liars. “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” Jesus has no time for us until we recognize our affinity with the base, reprobates of our world. Until we realize we are them, Jesus doesn’t really have anything for us.
This party in Matthew 2 shows Jesus is safe for people. His church must be also. I don’t know if HillSong is ready for the prayer, “God send us the people nobody wants. I don’t know if we are ready for that or not.” If we want to be Jesus-followers, we need to be, as a body, getting ready to pray that exact prayer. Part of us being made new is us letting go of whatever conceptions of church we have that would reject anyone. We need to be ready to become a safe place for the people who’ve been kicked out everywhere else. And, by the way, as we get ready to become truly a safe place where people meet Jesus, we have to be endowed with great grace because in the case of a few individual, there is a reason they’ve been kicked out so many times and that reason will be seen if they come here. It will get very messy.
At this point we join Mark 2 and 7. In Mark 2, at the sinners’ party held by the tax collector-turned-disciple Levi, also known as Matthew, we hear the complaint of the Pharisees. They don’t like the company Jesus is keeping. The same note sounds in chapter 7.
The disciples eat food without going through the established hand-washing rituals and the Pharisees, legalists who guard tradition and control how tradition is used to govern all areas of current life, notice. “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands” (v.5)? They weren’t bent on hurting people. The Pharisees believed the way to please God was by keeping the rules. They earnestly wanted to please God and at the same time they disdained anyone who broke what they took to be God’s rules. Jesus’ clash with these legalists was a clash over holiness. Is God pleased by our efforts toward being holy? Yes, said the Pharisees. No, Jesus replied, God expects us to have a heart like His. For Jesus, inner motivation and attitude was the most important thing.
As a side note, if in church or in life, you find yourself disgusted with someone because they break the church’s rules or the Bible’s rules or some other set of rules, examine your own heart. Why are you angry at that person? Why are you so quick to complain or criticize or condemn? I am not suggesting that rule-breaking is OK. Obedience is an important but separate issue. The matter at stake here, in our conversation and in Mark 2 and Mark 7, is heart attitude and how the heart attitude is conveyed toward people by each of us as individuals and us as a body of believers.
When the Pharisees complain about the disciples’ failure to do the ritual hand washing, Jesus condemns them as hypocrites. He uses care of parents to show that the Pharisees are so committed to pleasing God by keeping the rules, they have utterly ignored care of persons and in doing so they cut themselves off from God. It happens the same way today. We don’t call leaders in churches and organizations ‘Pharisees,’ but legalists do what Pharisees did. They identify the sinners, ignore their own sin, condemn the sinners, shames the sinners, and then either limit or completely ban the sinners’ participation.
Having heard enough, Jesus calls the crowd together. “Listen,” he says (v.14). It is what comes out of our mouths that reveals whether our minds are corrupted and our hearts are defiled.
Later, when the crowd weighing his words against the Pharisees’ teaching departs, he is with the disciples and expands on his teaching. “It is from within the human heart that evil intentions come: fornication (which all forms of sex outside of marriage and is sin), theft, murder, adultery, greed (which buys into the lie that a product or an experience or an amount of money will make me happy so I must have more and more), wickedness, deceit, licentiousness (which includes all forms of sinful sexual fantasies – they did not have dirty magazines or the internet, but the same temptations that plague people, especially men, existed in Jesus’ day), envy (which is huge today – I have to have a bigger car or a new kitchen or a certain game system or the latest smart phone to keep up with my neighbor), slander (I’ll build myself up by putting you down), pride (maybe the most dangerous inner defilement of all because it can be disguised as something admirable), folly (the fruitless pursuit of happiness instead of a grateful receiving of Godly joy and abundance). All these e evil things, Jesus said, come from within and they defile a person” (v.21-23).
Once again, Jesus changed everything. The disciples grew up in a world where the Pharisees imposed rules and you knew what they were and as long as you kept those rules or kept your violations hidden, you were acceptable. Jesus came along and said, no, God looks right into the heart. We can appear to have it all together, but we don’t and God’s knows it.
God’s desire is that what comes out of us – our words, our actions, our thoughts, our attitudes, our collective action as a body of believers – what comes out would show us to be pure. This the key to the second bedrock of HillSong Church. We want to be a safe place. We want to be able to pray, God send those who no one wants. Send all sinners. Send them to us. We want to get to that place where we truly are a place people can come.
When they come and when we come, we want to meet Jesus here. In the people who make up HillSong, the body of Christ, we want to meet Jesus. In the word, our reading, study, interpretation and application of the Bible, we want to meet Jesus. In our openness to the Holy Spirit, we want to meet Jesus; the same Jesus that said these words we read in Mark 7.
Meeting him, it is impossible to be unchanged. He did not leave the sinners in party in Mark 2 and just go on his merry way. Levi became one of the twelve disciples. It says in Mark 2:15, many followed him. Did they all immediately give up their greed, licentiousness, and sin? Does anyone ever stop cold-turkey and turn their lives around on a dime? It’s a process. In Mark 7, Matthew, the ex-tax collector turned disciple, is right there with the rest of the 12, confused, not getting it. At the end of Mark, he along with the rest runs in fear when Jesus is arrested. He stopped the theft and deception involved in tax collecting the moment Jesus called him, but he had a long way to go before what came out of him would show God’s holiness.
We all do. When we are called, like Matthew, like all Jesus’ followers we come with defiled hearts. The defilement may include the sins that our culture readily condemns, but in God’s’ eyes, greed or gluttony or jealousy or pride are as abhorrent as porn-addiction or hardcore drug abuse. It’s all sin. We are all defiled. And we are all called – called to salvation; called to be disciples; called to turn over every square inch of our lives to Jesus.
He is safe in that He welcomes all. But once we come, the work begins and goes on throughout our lives. We’re not made new one time. We’re made new daily. Transformation – the process in which our sinful selves die and we are born again as new creations – happens throughout life.
After the events we read about in Mark 7, Jesus moves on to the region of Tyre where he heals the daughter of a non-Jew, a Syrophoenician woman. Then, he heals a deaf man and it is a complicated healing. Then he feeds 4000 people with a few loaves and fish. A gentile. Come. A disabled person who would be pushed to the fringes of society. Come. A confused, directionless crowd. Come. You and me in all our secret sins, all our failings, all our dirtiness. Jesus says, Come and bring the mess. He welcomes us and if we are receptive and cooperative, he goes to work in us. The things that defile are drawn out, sometimes painfully, and deep inside, we become new people – sons and daughters of God.
Today, come. Come to the one who will make you new.