Sinners Welcome

sinners only

Luke 7:38-8:3 NRSV

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.

Lost Without Christmas

nl-Griswold-HouseLuke 3:1-6 NRSV

The pet peeve of nearly every pastor this time of year is driving around town seeing the number of houses which are decked out very ostentatiously with Christmas lights and decorations while knowing that the people living in those houses will not step foot in a worship service during the entire Advent and Christmas season. They have the biggest Christmas tree in their living room, the most lights on the trees in their yard, the prettiest wreaths on their doors, the brightest candles burning in each window, appearing from every indication to be anticipating the coming of Christmas, the coming of the Messiah, Savior and King; yet, for some strange reason, they do not feel the need to gather together on the Lord’s Day to worship and acknowledge their need for Christ. They have no desire to be here this morning to a light another candle in anticipation of advent of Christ.

I wonder what they are celebrating? What has brought their lives so much fulfillment and happiness and peace that they have the energy and desire to go all out decking their homes with lights and evergreens and candles but have no desire to gather for worship? What is so wonderful about their lives which makes them feel as if they simply do not need Christ in their Christmas?

What are they celebrating?  Getting off a few days of work to spend with their lovely families?  Presents? Santa Claus?  Christmas parties and dinners?  Their home?  Are their decorations merely saying, “Look at me!” “Look at my beautiful yard and my beautiful house? Look what I have built!  Look what I have bought!”

During a conversation with a friend of mine from seminary who was serving as a missionary on the outskirts of the Republic of Congo, I said:

Brad, I don’t know how you do it. How you can leave all that our wonderful country affords us to share the gospel of Jesus Christ in a depressed third-world country!

To my surprise, he responded:

To tell you the truth Jarrett, I don’t know how you do it!  How on earth do you share the gospel of Jesus Christ in the affluent United States?  How do you convince people who have everything that they need a savior!  People are so spoiled in the U. S.  They have so much which they believe brings them happiness and fulfillment and peace. They don’t believe they need Christ. People where I minister have nothing. They are starving for the gospel!  They need the gospel!

We do have much, don’t we? The very best technology: computers, smart phones, smart watches, and smart TVs with digital signals carrying more information than our brains can possibly  comprehend beamed from satellites that were employed by space shuttles!

Yes, perhaps all of us living in the affluent West are tempted to look for our peace and fulfillment in the vast accomplishments of humanity. We marvel at science and technology and say, “Look at us, look at what we can do, look how smart we are!”

Because our capitalistic economic system is based on the what humans can accomplish if they are given the freedom to work for themselves, all of us have more clothes than we could ever wear, more food than we could consume, and bigger houses than we really need.

And with our freedom, we have so many choices. We can do so many different things. We can go to so many wonderful places. With our freedom there are no limits to what we can be and we what we can do and where we can go!

We are free to make as much money as we possible can, to marry who we choose, to have as many children as we want, and to live in the neighborhood and home of our choice.

Perhaps that is what so many are celebrating with their lights and evergreens and candles. They are celebrating freedom. They are celebrating the American way of life. They are celebrating their material possessions. They are celebrating technology and the accomplishments of humankind. They are celebrating Santa Claus and his great big bag of goodies made by the hands of mortals. They are celebrating family, the gift of human love and children.

So, maybe my missionary friend is right. In America, we are free to have so much which brings so much happiness and fulfillment and peace that there is really no need for a Savior.

Yet, deep inside, we know, that even within our wealthy country, within our most affluent communities, there is indeed much unhappiness and unfulfillment.

If wealth and freedom and smart human accomplishments are all they’re cracked up to be, why does the United States have highest rate of suicide per capita than any other nation on the planet? If our children have so much more, more opportunity, more toys than the other children of the world why is the suicide rate for children 14 and younger double that of other nations?

I believe that one problem we have with our country is that it takes a great degree of honesty to admit our unhappiness and unfulfillment. After all, with our great freedom of choice, we are free to fashion our lives as we choose. If the lives that we fashion are unfulfilling, guess whose fault it is? We have nobody to blame but ourselves; therefore, we are reluctant to admit to any sense of unfilfillment and unhappiness. Our pride and our ego prevent us from admitting that we ever reflect on our lives and ask ourselves the question: “Is there anything more than this?” We can’t admit that we are in need, that we yearn for something more.

So we cover it up with lights and evergreens and candles. We say to the world: “Look at me, I am happy, I am fulfilled. I don’t need church. I don’t need worship. I don’t need community. My choices and my consumerism are enough. My house, my clothes, my toys, my freedom, my family, my intellectual prowess is all I really need. It is enough.”

And yet, deep inside, we know that it is not enough. Deep inside we all know that there has to be more, but because of our freedom, our pride and arrogance, we are afraid to admit it.

Advent is a season of looking for something. It is a season of hoping and believing that “there has to be more.” It is a season of yearning.  Have you noticed the hymns we sing during Advent? Not the Christmas carols, but the advent hymns like the one we are going to sing in a few moments. The hymns we sing this time of the year are somewhat restrained. They speak of desire, of waiting, of expectation. The Advent prophets speak to a people suffering from homelessness and despair. It is no coincidence that John the Baptist’s voice is that of one “crying out in the wilderness.”

John the Baptist is crying out in the wilderness, because that is where the good news of the gospel is needed. In order to hear the message of Christmas, we must first realize that we are living in a wilderness. We must be able to be honest and say: “The choices I have made on my own have not brought me fulfillment. My freedom, my material wealth, my high tech gadgets, my diplomas, a nice home, a nice car, a vacation in Hawaii, New York, Paris or Southern California, even a wife, two kids and a dog are not enough. I need something more!”

With our freedom, it takes courage and it takes conviction to admit to yearning, to admit to our need to look for something else.

In order to see the fragile light of Christmas, we must first realize that we are in the dark. Even in an information age, we must confess that humankind does not have all of the answers. Advances in technologies, and the freedom to make choices and to make money cannot protect us from our dark world of evil.

As much as we try to decorate it with lights and evergreens and candles: gadgets break; space shuttles crash; family members get sick; relationships fail; loved ones die. Human beings, with all of their potential to accomplish good, are at their core, depraved.

A beautiful December 7th Sunday morning in Hawaii and a crisp September 11th Tuesday morning in New York City can be suddenly transformed into a burning hell without notice. An evening on the town in Paris, even a joyous Christmas party with friends and co-workers can become scenes of unimaginable tragedy.

One of the greatest things about coming to this place during this time of the year is that here, before God, in the midst of a dark world of falsehood and deceit we can be honest. We can come here, if just once a week, and tell the truth.

We can be honest and admit that nothing Santa could ever bring us, nothing made by mortal hands, will bring us fulfillment and peace. Nothing we can accomplish with our freedom and our intelligence can bring us joy.

So, maybe that is the real reason people will not step foot in a church this Advent and Christmas season. Because, what they see here is often really no different than what they see out there. They see, in the church, people who believe they have it all figured out; they have all the answers; they have everything they need for peace and fulfillment; they no longer have to keep yearning for Christmas; they no longer live in the desert. They see people who are unwilling to be honest.

So, here, in this place, let’s get back to what our faith is all about: honesty, authenticity. Let us be honest and admit that we do not have what it takes to experience true peace.

So, hear the good news on this second Sunday of Advent. To those of us who are honest enough to admit that we live in exile, in the wilderness, lost, wandering, hear the good news that God is making a way.

Listen to John the Baptist: “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth.”

God is making a way through our desert, a highway straight to us.

Let’s be honest. Let’s realize that we need more, and let’s keep looking, keep yearning, keep working, keep serving, keep loving, and keep inviting others who do not have a church this season to join us, until we shall see the “salvation of God.”

Until we shall see Christmas and truly know peace, now and forevermore.

How to Get Something Out of Worship

worshipExcerpt from Why Worship Seems Like a Waste of Time

There is simply something inalienable about our God that loves to forgive sinners. Our God always surprises us by embracing those, who, because of their sin, seem to be outside the boundaries of God’s love. Our God always surprises us by accepting and loving those people that the world, especially the religious people in the world, despises.

Do you want to get something out of worship?  Then we must understand that every aspect of what we do in the service on Sunday morning is an acknowledgement that we are all, every one of us, fallen, broken, sinful human beings in desperate need of God’s grace. Not one of us is any better than any other.