Friday, June 29, 2012

Jesus and the Sinners

Preached at Eugene Friends Church
June 24, 2012

It makes me feel so much better that Jesus ends the episode about the woman taken in adultery by saying, “Go and sin no more.”  Whew, I think, thank God he didn’t get all gracious and forgiving without some accountability thrown in.  How awful if Jesus let a sinner get away with continued sinfulness.

Here’s the whole story:  Jesus was at the temple, and the Pharisees, et al., brought in a woman caught in the act of adultery.  They stood her before the group and said to Jesus, Teacher, this woman was caught in adultery.  Moses commanded us to stone such women to death.  What do you say about that?” Jesus bent down and wrote on the ground.  They hounded him with questions, until he stood up and said, “Whoever among you has no sin can throw the first stone.”  Then he wrote again on the ground.  Everyone drifted away, leaving Jesus alone with the woman.  He stood up and asked her, “Where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir,” she replied.  “Then neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.”

And then, sometime in the wee small hours of the night, I thought about this story:

Once upon a time, a Pharisee named Simon invited Jesus to dinner.  They were lying on couches when in came a woman with an alabaster box.  She stood behind Jesus at his feet.  She could not stop crying, and as she wept on his feet, she dried them with her long hair, kissed his feet, and poured perfume on them.

We have to understand that washing a guest’s feet was a sign of hospitality for valued and respected guests.  And Simon, the good religious man, had not had a servant wash Jesus’s feet.  Further, when Simon saw the woman washing Jesus’s feet with her tears, drying them with her hair, and pouring her perfume on them, he said, “If Jesus were a prophet, he would know that this woman touching him is a sinner. He would never allow himself to be contaminated by her.”

Jesus answered Simon’s unspoken thought with a story.  “Simon, I have something to tell you.”

Simon replied, politely, “Tell me, teacher.” (“Teacher” was a name of honor, so Simon appeared to be honoring Jesus.)

Jesus went on.  “Two men owed money to a certain moneylender.  One owed him $5,000 and one owed him $500.  Neither of them was able to pay anything, so the moneylender canceled both debts.  Now, which of them will love him more?”

Simon gave the obvious answer:  “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled.”

“Exactly so,” said Jesus.  “You have judged the case correctly.”

“Now, Simon, do you see this woman?” (Obviously Simon could see little else but the woman.)  “When I came to your house, you did not give me any water for my feet, but she has washed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair.  You didn’t greet me with the customary kiss, but she has not stopped kissing my feet.  You did not pour the customary oil of blessing on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. What do you think accounts for the difference?”

Awkward pause.

Jesus continued, “I’ll tell you.  Her many sins have been forgiven; you can tell by the extravagance of her love. But he who has been forgiven little loves little.”

Then Jesus said to the woman, “Your sins are forgiven.”

A buzz began among the other guests. “Who is this guy who thinks he can forgive sins?”

Jesus said to the woman.  “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

Why the different responses to these two sinners?

One possible answer is that each person needs an individualized response from Jesus.  Jesus meets each of us where we are and speaks directly to us what we need to hear.  Quakers call this “speaking to my condition.”  In that case, the first woman needed to hear that escaping death by stoning doesn’t mean a free pass to do anything.  Jesus doesn’t tell her that her sin is forgiven, just that he does not condemn her.  This might indicate that she hasn’t yet reached the place where she can accept forgiveness.  Therefore, Jesus makes a statement about himself, not about her.  

The second woman is in a different place with regard to Jesus.  She acts like someone who understands grace and graciousness.  Her tears combined with her actions speak to me about gratitude, and that’s what’s in the story Jesus tells.  Her gratitude and resulting graciousness are in contrast with Simon’s suspicious judgmentalism and resulting inhospitality.  Jesus speaks to her words that reinforce her gratitude and build up her faith.

Jesus also talks with Simon.  He points out directly the contrast between Simon’s inhospitality and the woman’s hospitality born out of gratitude.  He points out indirectly that Simon doesn’t love much because Simon believes God hasn’t needed to forgive him for much.

Probably one conclusion to draw is that neither of these shows the moment of conversion. The first woman is free to go and Jesus lifts off her the burden of condemnation.  But the possibility is opened for her to think about changing through Jesus’s words about sin.  (And the impossibility of “sinning no more.”  That alone would drive a penitent person to recognize the need for God’s forgiveness and grace, just as it later did the apostle Paul—the Law was a schoolmaster, he said, to bring him to acknowledge his need for grace through Jesus Christ. See Romans 7:7 and Galatians 3:24.)

The second woman appears to have already recognized and accepted grace.  That’s what Jesus's story to Simon implies.  And her gratitude is uncontainable and directed exactly at the person who extended grace.

Wouldn’t it be interesting if these two women were the same one, with the “conversion experience” left out of the narrative? (I don't, of course, insist on this.)

And, lest you think this is all about “bad women,” let’s look at someone else whose sins are forgiven, who experiences God’s grace (Matthew 9).  The four men who lower their paralyzed friend through the roof to where Jesus is teaching have the astonishing experience of hearing Jesus first say to the paralyzed man, “Your sins are forgiven.”  Wait, they must have said to themselves, we wanted him to walk.  The religious folks standing around are shocked and affronted by Jesus forgiving sins as if he were God, and they think this to themselves.  So Jesus addresses them directly: “Why are you thinking these things?  Do you think it is easier to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say ‘Get up and walk’? But, since you need to know that I have authority to forgive sins,” here he turns to the paralyzed man, “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.” Which happens. 

So which is easier to say?  I think it’s easier to say “Your sins are forgiven” because I have said it, whereas I have never had the assurance to say “Get up and walk.”  But it feels odd to tell people their sins are forgiven, even though it’s true.  Yet Jesus told us, “Don’t judge, and you won’t be judged; don’t condemn, and you won’t be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven” (Luke 6:37).  So what if we approach people who don’t know about God’s graciousness and forgiveness like Jesus did:  I don't condemn you; always try to hit the mark of goodness.  And then their turning to Jesus can take place in the privacy of their hearts in dialogue with Jesus himself.  

Sort of like this private conversion story (John 4). And a weird riddling story it is, a fact which we almost always ignore.

Jesus traveled through Samaria and took a break by Jacob’s well. His disciples went into town to buy food. A Samaritan woman came to draw water around noon, and Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?”  She replied, “Are you talking to me? How can you ask me for a drink, as if a Jew would drink a Samaritan’s water?”

Jesus replied, “If you knew what God offers you and who is asking you for a drink, you’d have asked me for living water, and I’d have given it to you.”

She said, “You have no bucket to let down into the well.  Where might you get this ‘living water’? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who dug this well and drank from it himself and gave it to his family and livestock?”

Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks from Jacob’s well will be thirsty again, but anyone who drinks the water I give will never thirst.  The truth is, the water I give will become a spring of water in those who drink, gushing up toward eternal life.”

The woman said, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t have to come to this well and draw water ever again.”

Jesus told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”
“I don’t have a husband,” she said. 
“That’s right,” Jesus said. “You’ve had five and the one you are now living with has not married you.  So you’ve told the truth.”

“I see you are a prophet,” she said, “and therefore you can settle this problem; you Jews say we have to worship in Jerusalem, but we Samaritans worship here, where our fathers worshiped.”

Jesus responded, “Trust me on this, Ma’am.  You Samaritans worship a God you don’t know; we Jews worship a God we know, for salvation comes through the Jews. But a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem; true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; these are the worshipers the Father is looking for.  God is spirit, and God’s worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.”  (She looks back to her fathers; Jesus points her to his Father. The God she doesn’t know will be the Father.  What a change!)

She says, “I do know that the Anointed One is coming and when he comes, he will explain everything to us.”

Jesus says, “I am that Anointed One.”

She runs back to town, leaving her water jar, and says to her neighbors, “Come see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Anointed One?” And, amazingly, they come to see him, and many believe in him, first because of her testimony, and then because they hear for themselves and know that “this man really is the Savior of the world.”

What an interesting story of convincement and conversion.  Nowhere does Jesus mention sin directly, nowhere does she repent directly.  She admits the truth of what he says about her life and finds that in itself worth sharing with others.  “He told me everything I’ve ever done,” she says, and that compels others to believe.  Why? Why is it so helpful to admit that what Jesus says about us is true? And why is there not more guilt and shame?  Jesus points out her pitiful marital history without condemnation, and she becomes an apostle of the good news.  Huh.

 This reminds me of a man I knew who was bathing when an earthquake struck.  He leaped from the tub, grabbed a garment from the coat closet and ran out of the house.  When he looked down, he was wearing a transparent raincoat.  That's what it's like to be in a conversation with Jesus--all our hidden stuff is just obvious to him.  And when he sees it, he isn't shocked and he doesn't shame us.  He just lets us know he knows.  C.S. Lewis suggests that heaven may be where we are truly known and that may take some getting used to.

Sin is error, straying from the path, missing the mark, wandering from God’s way.  In Greek drama, it is the tragic flaw that brings down the hero—hamartia.  And Jesus tells the adulterous woman to stay on the path, hit the mark, follow God’s way.  She knows now how sin can cause a person’s downfall, can lead to tragedy.  But Jesus knows that without help she cannot do what he tells her to do.

Jesus tells the second woman that her errors, her mistakes, her wanderings are all sent away, dead, disregarded, remitted, not under discussion, left behind—in a word, forgiven.  She is not obliged to think of them ever again.  She believes and has faith and can go in peace. Jesus tells the paralyzed man the same thing about his sins. Then he sends him home on foot.  Perhaps this is exactly the same in a visualized form as is true for the forgiven woman.  Both are set free from what paralyzes them, both are given the freedom to move, both get to go home.

The actual conversion of the Samaritan woman is a dance between Jesus and her.  He asks for something he needs, she deflects his request with a discussion of social standing; he says he has something she needs, she deflects his offer with a discussion of history; he says he can give her eternal life, she deflects his offer with the hope for earthly ease; he challenges her to tell the truth; she deflects with a partial truth; he confronts her with the whole truth; she deflects with discussion of theology; he tells her God is her Father and she can be a worshipper in spirit and truth; she says, wistfully, I wish I knew for sure from the Messiah; and Jesus says to her, you can.  I’m the guy who explains everything.

This is why we lean on the Holy Spirit of Jesus to do the drawing, the convicting, the convincing, and the conversion of every individual soul.  Jesus knows just the step to take, just the thing to say to the heart.  Our biggest challenge is to get out of the way, to clear the barriers of judgment and condemnation out from between the lost, the wandering, the erring and the One who will explain everything.  Neither do I condemn you; I see you just as you are; your sins are forgiven; Jesus will bring you into the light, introduce you to the Father and teach you how to worship in spirit and truth.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Soil Preparation

Preached at Marion Friends Church, June 10, 2012
The story of the sower collected from Matthew 13, Mark 4, Luke 8

Here is a picture of the secret of the way God governs:

Listen up! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.” And he said, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” ... The sower sows the word.

What is “the word”? It can legitimately be a number of things: a story, an event, a doctrine, an instruction, an explanation; for a follower of Jesus, it is speaking what God tells that follower to speak.

Some don’t understand what they hear, so they instantly forget it; some receive it with joy but don’t let it go deep in their lives, so they lose interest when times are hard; some allow the cares of the world, the lure of money, the desire for other things, the desire to be important, the need for affirmation to choke out any growing they might do, so that they don’t see any results from their belief; some are open and ready and honest; these take it seriously and act on it, and they see lots of growth and results. 

Jesus says to his disciples then, and to us now, pay attention to what you hear.  The more you listen to what God says and act on what you hear, the more you will hear; if you don’t act on what God tells you, you’ll lose the little ability to hear that you have.  God doesn’t whisper things to you so that you’ll keep them secret, but so you can disclose them to others. 

And be encouraged: the kingdom of heaven grows quietly under the surface—your obedience will have results in due time.  Trust God to tend the seeds you’ve sown. And the little seed you have sown will grow into a tree.  Trust God to make this happen.

And if you see that some weeds grow up in the field, don’t worry about it.  Let God separate the weeds from the grain.  If you try to pull them up, you’ll pull up the good plants also.  God can handle this in God’s own time.

The most obvious teaching here has to do with sharing the good news that Jesus has brought the Kingdom of God, the area where God rules, right down among us and within us. We can publish the truth of what God has done for us, and then trust God with the results.  God has set us free, has given us permission, to tell what we know of God’s love and mercy and to bring healing and freedom and forgiveness to others, just as Jesus did.  God is closer to us than the air, eager to help us live life well and joyfully, and present to carry with us the things that weigh us down.  We can tell people about this by how we live and also by what we say, both of which we are doing in obedience to the government of God.

But there is more here in this story.  I know because of how I used to read it and how I read it now.  I used to read it as four different kinds of people. But I came to realize that I have all four of these soils in myself.  I have the part that doesn’t understand what God is saying to me, so it slips out of my mind.  I have the part that doesn’t get into my deep soul, so it dies under pressure.  I have the part that doesn’t affect how I live because I am worrying about money or job or who did me wrong.  Thank God I also have the part that eagerly, honestly, openly welcomes God’s word and lets it affect how I think and behave by obeying it. 

So is there anything I can do about worrying, shallowness, or simple hardness of heart? (For the following, I use Richard Foster’s The Celebration of Discipline as a general framework.)

The stories I’m going to tell you are simply all illustrations of the fact that God honors us when we take our small, ineffective efforts to inch nearer by blessing us and others through them. I want to encourage those of you with hearts that long to be more and more open to the spirit of God to hear what follows and take the parts that speak to you. These are my stories, and they are not all for everyone here.  But I hope at least one will be for each of you.

The writer Flannery O’Connor ("The Enduring Chill") has a priest say to an agnostic young man who doesn’t pray, “Well, you will never learn to be good unless you pray.  You cannot love Jesus unless you speak to him.” A number of times in my life, I have kept a prayer journal.  At times I’ve written out my prayers, at other times, I have just kept a list of the requests I’m praying for and written down when there was closure on them.  The latter was more helpful to me in learning to trust God as I saw God answering so many prayers.  Praying about little things and seeing that God cares and answers gives me faith to pray about big things like war, famine, dying children, injustice, politics. 

Frank Laubach, a missionary in the 20th century and the founder of an effective literacy program, said that perhaps we were put on earth to pray for our neighbors.  I have yet to have someone say, “No, don’t pray for me,” even if they themselves are not able to have faith.

The 50 days of prayer in preparation for YM came out of a concern from a whole bunch of people.  I hope you are participating in this because as a denomination we want to hear from God and do what God says, we want to learn to be good and to love Jesus.

Studying or Paying Attention
Several years ago, I read the book of Mark all at one sitting for several weekends in a row to see how the readings might change. It blew my heart open to Jesus.  You try it.  Jesus leaps off the page when the whole story (all 20 pages) zips by. You can see why people dropped everything to follow him and hear him speak.  You can also see why people got mad at him, and you see why St Paul says that if Jesus is not resurrected, humans are completely miserable.  The universe without that person in it—not much of a place, really, particularly once you’ve seen him in action.

Listening and Obeying
In Quaker worship, there is often a spell where people sit silently and wait for God to speak.  I started feeling moved by God to speak in high school, and I was so honored, and still am so honored, that I want to be obedient.  Often, one or two people will tell me that what I said spoke to them, and that is confirmation to me that I was supposed to share. 

When I was in college, Bill Vaswig came to speak in our church.  Bill was a Lutheran minister who was preaching about obeying the Holy Spirit.  He said, why not trust in those impulses to do good.  Call that person on your heart; do that next good thing you’ve been thinking of.  See what happens.  So one thing to do is to listen and do what you hear.  George MacDonald wrote that God always makes clear the very next good thing we are to do, even if what we are to do after that is still unclear.

Dallas Willard taught me in The Divine Conspiracy that God is closer to me than the air I breathe.  Paul teaches that we are indwelt by the Holy Spirit as if we were a house.  I cannot be separated from God.  Thinking about that fact, living in that truth, what an awe-inspiring honor to carry God from place to place.  My car is often a place where God corners me and nudges me to grow up.  One of my most amazing experiences of forgiving another person took place in a car, with the radio on even, because God was right there also, pushing me to move a little closer to true forgiveness.

I really hungered for someone to confess to at one confused and desperate point in my life.  I confessed everything to God, but I really wanted to tell another person.  I did have a spiritual director/counselor at that time to whom I was mostly transparent, and that was helpful.  However, I hungered to hear someone tell me that my sins were forgiven. 

Almost accidentally, I was able to tell someone this truth—someone said to me, why do I feel so miserable about the past? And I said to her, you know, your sins are forgiven.  She witnessed to me a week later that those words lifted a burden from her heart she had been carrying for years. 

For me, this started with giving my tithe to the church back when I started working for money in high school.  Then as time passed, I read C.S. Lewis’s suggestion that giving ought to cramp your style a little.  When I got a dog, I felt convicted that if I could afford dog food and vet bills, I could afford to give money to the hungry.  Mark and I give money to people working for parachurch organizations because I’m a missionary kid, and to social causes or organizations I believe in because I’m a US and world citizen.  It does cramp my style a bit—but it helps weed my heart of love of riches and possessions.  I want to be thankful without being grabby.

I have also repeatedly given myself as completely as I know how to God, and I have discovered that God believes I mean it.

I find the next two attitudes enormously difficult and linked by the necessity of trusting God to give me what I really need.

I don’t think I’ve voluntarily gone without food for decades and maybe never.  I have friends who witness to me that this is one of the ways God works with them.  I get migraines when I skip meals, I get faint and cranky and I can’t think straight.  So I don’t go without food.

However, C.S. Lewis wrote that sometimes we think we really need something (like food, but maybe something else) and we don’t have it, and this is a fast God has sent us.  Like if I miss a meal, I can embrace that as a fast God has sent me, and offer it to God as a gift.  Or if I think I need praise or affirmation and none is forthcoming, I can embrace that absence as the fast God has sent me.

This is the hardest for me—I don’t trust easily, not even God, and to take the events of my life as expressions of God’s will for me requires very hard work on my part.  I try to start small by saying when I am impatiently waiting at a RR crossing, this is God’s will for me.  I am practicing for when life goes nothing like what I expected in big ways—it is an act of faith for me to take this as being from God and trust in God’s love despite disappointment.  And the part about letting anger go, letting my rights go, not insisting on being vindicated—that’s very hard.  Jesus said we need to take up our crosses daily.  This is what that word means to me.

One final way to get to know God better is by Celebrating.

The kingdom of God is compared to a party at least as often as it is to a garden or field.  When I hear God, I can risk being obedient; being obedient produces joy.  When we celebrate, we can get over ourselves—we can be holy fools—we can play games—we can sing out loud—we can do cartwheels or pump our fists in the air because God’s team just won the championship—we can shoot off fireworks to celebrate our freedom to love God; and we can invite others to join us.

So if, like me, you recognize that you have all four soils in you, and you want to see more results from believing Jesus’s message of good news, try praying, try listening, try obeying, try confessing, try studying, try accepting, try celebrating what God gives.  We don’t make God love us more by doing these things; we just make it easier for ourselves to know God’s love.

Isaiah 55:10-11, 1-2
As the water falls from the sky and does not return to the sky until the earth is wet so that seeds grow, buds form, and plants flourish and yield seed for the gardener and food for the eater, so my word (says God) goes out from my mouth and does what I want it to do.  My word does not return to me empty.

All who thirst, come drink the water; you with no money, come buy and eat; buy wine and milk without money and at no cost. Why do you spend money on what doesn’t feed you? Why do you work for what doesn’t satisfy you?  Listen to me (says God), listen to me and eat what is good for you and your soul will be filled with delight.