February 21, 2016 - 2nd Sunday of Lent
We passed out rocks on Ash Wednesday as a Lenten discipline. If you’d like to join us in this practice, come up and get a rock right now or at any time during the sermon. You are invited.
My rock reminds me of the ways I neglect my faith. I hold it and think of things that draw me away from Jesus.
I also hold my rock and remember that the Holy Spirit is with me. I hope you’ll take a rock and carry it everywhere from now until Easter Sunday. Be aware distractions and ask God to remove them. Be aware also of the presence of God.
This morning we will see another way this rock can serve a reminder in our lives as Jesus’ disciples.
Think of one or two people you do not want to see at church and write the names down. Everyone turn those names in and we’ll make a master list and give it to our ushers. They will man the door. If anyone on your list shows up, they will put up a stop sign. The “unwanted’s” will be rejected at the church door. But be careful. You may be on someone else’s list. The ushers may have to escort you out. Or me; I may be able finish this morning.
Anyone have Coach K on your list? We live in Chapel Hill. We’ve got to keep the unacceptable people out.
How about someone in a disreputable occupation? We’ll ban bookies, telemarketers, and sensationalist fraudulent faith healers. Who should we stop at the door?
On a more serious note, has someone hurt you or taken advantage of you. They betrayed you or gossiped behind your back. Maybe the damage is lasting damage. Could you stand and sing songs of praise alongside one who has caused so much pain and fear?
What is someone is neck-deep in pornography? It’s hard to imagine that person in church. He doesn’t belong.
When the Pharisees saw Jesus at Levi’s party, they asked his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners” (2:16)? Jesus is a holy man, but he parties with the unclean, the unrighteous. Why?
In the early 1960’s Will Campbell made his way from his humble beginnings in poor, rural Mississippi to Yale Divinity School. He became an aggressive civil rights activist and ended up back in the south where his Christian faith was tested when he saw white Christians reject black people at the doors of their churches.
Newspaper editor P.D. East agreed with Campbell’s politics of racial equality but rejected his faith. He dared Campbell to succinctly express the Christian message. “We’re all rebellious losers,” Campbell said, “But God loves us anyway.
P.D. East was unmoved. Episcopalian priest Jonathan Daniels was a friend to both men and a fellow civil rights activist. He murdered in broad daylight by Thomas Coleman, a Southern sheriff. To East, this was evidence that there is no God. Relentlessly he attacked Campbell’s definition of faith.
Was Jonathan Daniels a rebellious loser? He asked.
Everyone is a sinner, including Jonathan Daniels. So yes, he has rebelled.
Fine. East continued his assault. Is Thomas Coleman a rebellious loser?
The murderer? O yes. Yes that murdering sheriff is a loser (Campbell thought of other words I won’t say).
Then, the unbeliever, editor P.D. East, nailed the Baptist minister Will Campbell to the wall. Who does God love more, the murdered Jonathan Daniel who died fighting for equal rights, or his murderer, the sheriff, Thomas Coleman whose job is to uphold justice but is perpetuating injustice? Who does God love more?
Will Campbell wanted to hate Thomas Coleman, but in the midst of that hot emotion a light went on inside his heart. God’s grace isn’t grace at all until it extends to all sinners include the worst among us.
Will Campbell, civil rights activist resigned from the national council of churches and moved to rural Tennessee where he bought a farm. He became an apostle to rednecks. He knew many who were fighting for civil rights. He never let go of his believe in racial equality. It is a Gospel imperative to work for justice in the name of love. But he did not know anyone who was trying to penetrate the hearts of people in the Klu Klux Klan with the love of Jesus.
He knew how evil the Klan was. But he also knew the people in the Klan were sinners far from the love of God, as lost as people could be.[i]
Who do we want to reject at the church door? Klansmen? Members of ISIS? Sex offenders? The Pharisees asked, “Why does Jesus eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
The Pharisees were keepers of Israel’s law, the experts on the scriptures. Their diligence was a gift to the community until that diligence led them to care more about upholding rules than helping people find their way to God. When social mores mattered more than people, then the Pharisees went too far.
A few years ago I met a Korean woman, an academic. She was headed to North Korea officially as a visiting scholar there to train North Korean scientists. But, she told me, her real purpose was to sneak Bibles into the country. If she got caught it could mean years in prison, totally cut off from family and friends.
She went for the same reason some people sign up to be prison chaplains. She went because the North Koreans are from the love of God. Some Pastors do not serve in churches or as hospital chaplains or in campus ministry. They sign up to do their ministry inside of prisons. Their congregations are full of felons. Why serve there? These individuals are far from the love of God. They do this for the same reason Will Campbell was a missionary to the racists he spent so much of his life fighting. Those racists are far from the love of God.
Tax collectors were Jews who became rich working for the Romans collecting tolls. The Romans had a fixed amount people were to pay. The tax collector could force people to pay higher amounts and pocket the difference. The people of Israel were broken under the oppression of Roman occupiers and their own fellow countrymen, added to their pain by working for the oppressors.
Indeed, why would Jesus have table fellowship with them and with people who worked in unclean and unsavory professions? Those tax collectors like Levi, and sinners like Mary Magdalene, needed God. “Those who are well have no need of a physician,” Jesus said, “but those who are sick do. I have come not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
The Pharisees are already upset about who Jesus is with. Now, they don’t like what he’s doing. The disciples of John the Baptist are going without meals as a spiritual discipline. They’re fasting. The disciples of the Pharisees are fasting. Everyone fasting. Jesus, why aren’t your disciples fasting?
Why are you eating with those people, Jesus?
Why are you eating at all, Jesus?
Jesus welcomes the peoples rejected at the door. He is the Savior and His arrival is the onset of the new age. His arrival means the Kingdom of God is here.
There is time to fast, but not when we are in Jesus’ presence bodily. We don’t fast in the Kingdom of God. We don’t wear our funeral clothes on Easter Sunday. The coming of Jesus is a signal that God offers life to – to the worst of sinners including us.
To appreciate it, we have to love the tax collectors we’d rather keep away. We each have our lists, those people we want to reject at the door. When we hold on to those lists, we are old wineskins, stretched out, cracking, inflexible, not ready for the new, expanding truth of God.
New wine was still fermenting. It expands. That’s why the skins to hold is have to be flexible. When we come to Christ, we are filled and stretched. We don’t know what he’s going to do in our lives. We don’t know the tax collectors and sinners he’s going to call us to love. Never mind that we are as sinful and lost as those we think we can judge. Stiff old wine skins cannot enjoy the Kingdom of God.
To enjoy the kingdom and live it up at Jesus’ dinner party, we move from rejection, to welcome. We open the closed doors of our hearts. We throw away our gavels of judgment and open our arms for embrace. We can only do this by the power of the love the Holy Spirit puts in us. But when we are Spirit-filled, there is no limit to how much we can forgive, how greatly we can love, and how magnanimously we can welcome people we used to despise. Hate in us is melted by the warmth of Jesus’ grace and it becomes love because of Him.
Now you have your list – those people you’d prefer go somewhere else. That is your prayer list for the next 6 weeks. Pray for God to do wonderful things in the lives of the names on the list. I know. This is a list of people who are not nice. Hold them up before God.
And start a new list. This is one is of people you’re going to invite to church. It is an invitation to drink the new wine Jesus gives.
The rock that reminds us of obstacle to faith and reminds us that the Holy Spirit is with us also reminds us to pray for those people we just don’t like. It is hard to do this, impossible without God’s help. But the Holy Spirit gives that help. Hold onto your rock, pray for clarity, appeal to the present Spirit, and Pray God will bless the people on your list and that they may find their way to the party Jesus is throwing.