Our gospel lesson is not only being read in churches all over the world today. It is being lived.
Today, sinners—some sick and tired, some broken and afraid, some young and naïve, some middle-aged and stressed, some old and in pain, and some severely wounded by racism, sexism, ageism, by all kinds of bigotry and evil spirits—today, sinners (look at verse 37) are still “learning” that Jesus is at the table, and they are still coming to worship at his feet.
A known sinner comes to Jesus, perhaps because she had learned the stories of Jesus welcoming and including, defending and saving, forgiving and healing other women who had injured by the evil of this world and counting them among his disciples: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna and many others.
The good news is that Jesus is still at the table today, and Jesus is still working in our world saving and forgiving, welcoming and liberating, and people are still learning about him. They are learning about a grace without limits and a love without conditions, and they are coming. They are coming honestly and openly. They are coming with humility, and they are coming with tears. They are coming saying “yes!” to this Jesus.
They are saying “yes” to this table, to the bread broken and to the cup poured-out. They are saying “yes” to the forgiveness of sin and the deliverance from evil. They are saying “yes” to loving their neighbors as themselves, to treating others how they wish to be treated. They are saying “yes” to fighting the demonic evil that is so much a part of our world today, and they are saying “yes” to welcoming others to the table as they have been welcomed to the table, graciously, lovingly, honestly, openly.
But when the one with religion saw what was going on at the table (see verse 39), “he said to himself,” which probably means he shook his head, or rolled his eyes. When he saw her with all of her sin at the table saying “yes” to Jesus, he said “no!”
The good news is that all over the world today, sinners are coming to the table, and they are coming saying “yes!” to Jesus.
The bad news is that there are people in churches today who are watching this, and they are saying “no!”
Last week, I learned of an Elder who has quit going to his church, because he didn’t like the way some of the new, younger Elders dressed on Sunday morning.
The same week, I learned of a couple leaving a church, because the church had too many of “those people” in it.
This week, I received a Facebook message from a woman who was told by her pastor that she could continue to give her money to the church, attend Sunday School and worship in the church, but she would never be able to serve in any leadership role.
And this week, I met two young women and a young man who told me that they want more than anything else in life to follow Jesus, but when they tried to find a church, it was made very clear to them by the people in the church that they were not welcomed.
Those with sin are saying “yes” to Jesus, and those with religion are shaking their heads, rolling their eyes, and saying “no.”
Jesus responds to the head-shaking and the eye-rolling and he naysayers by telling a story.
“A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty.
When they could not pay up, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?”
Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” And Jesus said, “You have judged rightly.”
Then turning towards the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment.
Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”
In other words, this religious one who says “no” to the sinner who was saying “yes” to Jesus simply did not see himself as a sinner in need of grace. Jesus is saying that the amount of love people give is directly related to the amount of grace they believe they need.
While I was in college, I had the opportunity to serve with the First Baptist Church of Marshville, North Carolina as their Youth Director.
Almost every Sunday, Sam and Sue Goodwin, whose daughter Sally was in the youth group, would invite Lori and me to their home for Sunday dinner. Sam and Sue cared for Sue’s homebound mother who lived with them.
After we had lunch, Lori and I would always go to her room where she was confined to a bed, and visit with her a little before we left.
Right after I graduated from college in 1988, Lori and I were married. Since Lori had one more year in college, I served with that church one more year before moving to Louisville, Kentucky to attend seminary.
I will never forget our final Sunday dinner at the Goodwin home. As was our custom, after dinner, we went to see Sue’s mother. As we walked in her, she asked if she could speak with me privately.
I said, “Of course.”
She then asked me to shut the door and come over and have a seat in the chair beside her bed.
I looked a Lori, shrugged my shoulders and somewhat nervously did what she asked.
She said, “Jarrett, I want you to do me a favor.”
I said, “Yes, ma’am. What can I do for you?”
She said, “Before you leave to go to seminary to study to be a preacher, I sure wish you’d marry that girl.”
I said, “Don’t you remember? Lori and I got married last year.”
With a great big sigh, she said, “Oh, I am so relieved. I was so afraid you were going to seminary to live in sin!”
Bless her heart, I am certain, that if she really thought about it, she would have known that there was absolutely nothing I could do, no ceremony in which I could participate, no laws I could abide, and no lifestyle to which could adhere that could ever keep me from living in sin. You can ask my wife. Getting married did not stop me from living in sin!
But thank God, that where my sin is great, God’s grace is greater.
And Jesus says that when we realize this truth, that all of us live in sin and fall short of the glory of God, that all stand in desperate need of God’s grace, then we will instinctively love and accept all sinners who are saying “yes” to Jesus instead of shaking our heads, rolling our eyes, and saying “no.”
And when a church realizes that we are all sinners in need of God’s grace, then that church never only loves a little, grudgingly, reservedly, cautiously, and comfortably. But it becomes a church that always loves a lot, generously, unconditionally, recklessly, and even painfully.
At the end of the service a few weeks ago, I said that people often make the mistake of not joining a church because they feel they are too sinful. They need to get right with themselves, get right with their neighbors, and get right with the Lord, deal with some of this sin in their life, before they join the church.
I said then, and I will say now: “That is the worst reason in the world not to join the church!”
For the only requirement to join the church is the acknowledgement you are a sinner and need Jesus. That’s it. You come just as you are confessing your sins and your need of God’s grace through Jesus Christ. There is no other requirement.
I have also said that, sadly, there are people in some churches who fail to meet this requirement. They simply do not regard themselves as sinners. They don’t need grace, because they feel that they have somehow earned God’s love with right beliefs, right thoughts and right lifestyles. And they believe they are a little bit better than those who have not earned it. Thus they are very quick to judge, criticize or demean anyone who might believe, think, or live differently.
When I my hair was darker and my sermons were crasser, I got into a little trouble one day when I preached a sermon entitled: The Church Is Not for Everyone. I got into trouble because that goes against everything I usually preach. However even today, although my hair is grayer, and I try to be more articulate, I still believe there is an element of truth in that statement: The Church Is Not for Everyone.
For how else does one explain the amount of hateful things that are said and done today in the name of God, or in the name of the Church? How else do you explain the little amount of love that is shared by some churches today?
And how else do you explain that there will be preachers standing in pulpits all over this country this very hour blaming the victims of the evil terrorist attack in Orlando, saying the most hateful, evil things in the name of God.
Obviously, there are people in some churches who simply do not belong, because they fail to meet the only requirement for church membership; that is, confessing that they are sinners in need of God’s grace.
In that sermon, I suggested that it might be a good idea to have a special invitation at the end of the service one day. It will be a special invitation, because instead of inviting people to join the church, people would be invited to leave to leave the church. “Go, get out, and don’t come back until you realize you’re a sinner like the rest of us!”
Sounds harsh I know. But if we did this, maybe the church would love a lot more and hate a lot less.
Thank God, that today here at Central Christian Church, to this table, Jesus invites sinners, all sinners, only sinners. And sinners are coming, saying “yes.” And no one here is saying “no.” For today, the gospel is not only being read in this place, it is being lived. Thanks be to God.