Sunday, December 16, 2012

A Scandalous Love

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The passage was Luke 19:1-10. This series was based on A Different Kind of Christmas by Rev. Mike Slaughter.

Bishop Will Willimon tells the story of the first time he went to visit a prisoner on death row.  He said he was a little nervous going in knowing that the person he was going to be meeting with had probably committed some atrocious crime.  After arriving at the prison he was searched and then given a long set of instructions about what he could and could not do and could and could not say, and when he entered the room he had no idea what was going to happen.

After the prisoner he was meeting with sat down, Bishop Willimon asked him what he wanted to talk about, he said “Do you think the United Methodist Church is doing enough to reach out to a new generation offering them Christ?”  That was not really the question he expected to start the conversation out with.  As they continued to talk, Bishop Willimon found out that the man had become a Christian while on death row.  When asked how he came to Christ, the man said “well I heard a lot about Jesus and I thought he and I had a lot in common.”  To which Bishop Willimon said, “are you Jewish too?”  “No,” the man said, “Jesus was on death row and was executed by the state, and I’m on death row waiting to be executed by the state, so I think we’ve faced the similar things.”

Sometimes I think we have so domesticated and boxed in the gospel message, that sometimes we forget that the Jesus we worship was arrested, tried and executed by the state and the symbol of that execution is hanging here right in front of us every week.  I think people have a better sense of what crucifixion was like because of Mel Gibson’s Passion, from a few years ago, although I think that Gibson over did it but if you’ve seen most of his other movies you know that he has an interest in gratuitous violence.  But the Romans were really good, and very creative, in their torture techniques, but when we sanitize the cross, when we sanitize how Jesus was killed and why he was killed, we lose a lot.  We lose the scandal of the cross.  Jesus was killed because he was seen as a threat to the Empire and to those in power.  If he was just some guy who was walking around saying that we should all just get along, nothing would have happened to him, he would not have been arrested, and sometimes we sanitize what it means to be a Christian to that sort of message, but we have to understand the edge of Jesus’ ministry, we have to understand the threat that he posed to those in power, both other Jews and the Romans, and we have to understand his offering of God’s scandalous love.

In addition to sanitizing what actually happened at the cross, we also sanitize and sentimentalize what happened when Jesus was born, which we covered last week, but let us remember that Mary was a young girl, maybe no older than 13 or 14, and she became pregnant before she was married.  The penalty for such an offense, especially since she was engaged, was death by stoning, and this wasn’t just an idle threat that was never carried out, it would have been a real threat for Mary, and yet that is what we are told about Jesus’ birth.  He is born to a teenage mother who was not married when she became pregnant.  Like the cross, this too is pretty scandalous.   I’m sure that Mary got plenty of criticism from friends and family.  I’m sure that she was chastised and maybe even ostracized by some, and would her reception be any different in the church today? How many churches, even though we all know the story, would welcome a pregnant teenager who was not married, or even if she was a married, with open arms?  How many churches would be willing to extend a welcome to a Mary in their midst?  Or how many would be willing to extend a welcome to someone who is, or has been in prison, let alone death row?

I’m willing to bet not a whole lot, because in a survey done a few years ago, adult churchgoers with teenage children were asked, from a list of situations provided, what would be most likely reason to stop them from going to church, and the number two reasons were a son who was arrested, or a daughter who became pregnant.  We worship as the messiah, who was born to a teenage mother and who was arrested and executed by the state, but the number one reason given by parents of teenagers of why they would stop attending church was if their teenage daughter got pregnant or their son got arrested.  What part of the gospel message are we missing?        

We see time and time again in scripture that God and Jesus offer a scandalous love, by  offering that love to people others think are not worthy, people who clearly have fallen away from God’s ways, people who are outside the pale of acceptability, and yet they are offered God’s love.  Scandalous is defined causing scandal or shocking, and that is the type of love that God offers and calls for us to offer.

CrossRoads United Methodist Church has been ordered by an Arizona state court to stop offering free meals to the homeless community of Phoenix.  Neighbors complained about the church inviting the homeless into the neighborhood to be served, you know bringing “those types of people in,” even though the church has been reaching out to the homeless population in the area for more than 50 years.  Rev. Dottie Frank, the pastor of the church, said they would fight the decision.  “We must stand together with those who are suffering,” she said.  “We just can’t stop caring for and feeding those who need us most.”  Scandalous love is in reaching out to those the world says we shouldn’t be reaching out to.  “the son of man came to seek out and save the lost,” Jesus says, which is exactly what Jesus does in today’s passage as well.

Zacchaeus is not a good guy, at least in the eyes of the world in which he lived.  He’s not only a tax collector, but he is the chief tax collector.  Of course with the impending financial cliff, as they are calling it, looming in front of us, we are hearing a lot about taxes right now, as we did in the election, but regardless of our own feelings about taxes, we cannot apply our understanding to that of the ancient world.  What happened in the Roman Empire was that Rome would open up a contract on tax collections, and whoever bid to give them the most money would win.  Then that person, or family, or group, would go out into the cities and countryside to collect whatever they could, with the bare minimum being what they had agreed to pay to Rome.  But, in order to make any money at the enterprise, they had to collect money above what they owed to the Romans.  Rome really didn’t care what tactics tax collectors might use to get the money, as long as there was no unrest caused.  As you might guess the system was ripe for corruption, and the fact that we are told that Zacchaeus was rich tells us that he was really good at what he did, which was shaking people down for everything he could get.  Tax collectors were viewed as traitors to their faith, as collaborators, they weren’t even considered Jewish anymore. 

But then Jesus displays his scandalous love.  Zacchaeus has climbed a sycamore tree in order to see who Jesus was, and Jesus calls him down and tells him that he is going to stay at his house.  In today’s translation, we are told that Zacchaeus is happy, but a better translation of the Greek word here is “rejoiced.”  Zacchaeus rejoiced in welcoming Jesus into his home, and of course the people grumbled.  How can Jesus associate with this sinner?  How could he possibly want to be seen with someone who has betrayed not only his people but his faith?  How can he socialize with one of those people?

But Jesus’ scandalous love says that salvation has come to Zacchaeus’ home.  The man who is beyond redemption has been redeemed.  Zacchaeus says that he will give half of his money to the poor, and he will give a four-fold restitution to those he has cheated.  The problem is he does not have enough money to carry out what he has pledged to do.  He couldn’t even give a two-fold restitution because everything that he has, all of his wealth is gotten from collecting taxes, so all of it is from cheating and defrauding people either directly or indirectly. Salvation comes to Zacchaeus not because what he pledges to do, but because Jesus has entered his house and because God’s grace and love are truly extravagant and scandalous, and they flow even to those of us who are undeserving of it.  Salvation comes to Zacchaeus because he is willing to climb down from the tree to receive God’s scandalous love, and because of God’s scandalous love Jesus is willing to climb up on a tree and become the Christ.

The Church of the Common Ground is located in Atlanta, Georgia, and every Monday they too run a program reaching out to the homeless population of Atlanta, but there program is a little different.  Every Monday, Rev. Bob Book and a group of volunteers wash the feet of the homeless men and women who show up.  They get a soak, a pumice rub, nail trim, massage and a fresh pair of socks.  The service isn’t merely symbolic, reenacting Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet, but it also helps stave off foot infections, which affect the homeless disproportionately, many of which also lead other health problems.  If any of those being served need medical attention for their feet, Rev. Book tells people when they can come back for a free medical exam when there’s a doctor volunteering their time at the church.  And while their feet are being cleaned, other volunteers clean their shoes, providing air fresheners, and even new insoles.  What does scandalous love look like?  Let me provide one more story from scripture.

Hosea, a prophet with whom most of us are probably not familiar, is told by God to go and marry “a wife of whoredom,” that is to take a prostitute as his wife, and so he married Gomer, and later again God tells Hosea “Go, love a woman who has a lover and is an adulteress.”  And why does God tell Hosea to do this?  Because Gomer, Hosea’s unfaithful wife, represents the Israelites, represents you and I who turn from God, who are unfaithful to the things we are called to do, and yet in spite of all of that God loves us.  God wants to be in relationship with us, and God enteres into this relationship knowing all that will happen.  Hosea says “the Lord loves the people of Israel, though they turn to other gods and love raisin cakes.”  I don’t really understand that last part, maybe it’s like living fruit cake, but God loves us scandalously because God loves us regardless of all the things we do wrong, regardless of the fact that we fail to live up to what we are called to do, but God is faithful nonetheless.  God offers a scandalous love that includes pregnant teenage girls, and chief tax collectors, and homeless men and women, and ranchers and teachers and postal employees and those who work for the railroads and retirees and even poor preachers.  God loves each of us scandalously, and what does God want in return?  God wants us to love scandalously as well.

“God is not oblivious to the fact that one child dies every five seconds of a hunger-related cause,” Rev. Mike Slaughter says.  “God knows that one child dies every forty-five seconds from malaria, which could be prevented by a simple mosquito net that costs less than ten dollars.  It is not a secret to him that, each year in Darfur, as many as sixty thousand children die from dehydration due to diarrhea caused by water-borne illnesses,” and I believe that God cries over each of these situations, because they are preventable by scandalous love.  God cries over the 27 people who died in the terrible and senseless shooting on Friday, but God also cries for the average of 55 children and teens that are killed by guns every single week according to the Center for Disease Control.  Every week there is the equivalent of two shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, every single week.  Now in doing some research on this this week, one of the common refrains I read was that that number included teenagers, and in particular African-Americans who are involved in gang activity, implying that they shouldn’t really count because it’s those people who are doing those things.

What Christmas reminds us again is that God’s ways are not our ways.  “For God so loved the world, that he gave us his only son,” John says.  The incarnation is the revelation of God’s scandalous love affair with humanity.  “Behold I bring you good news of great joy,” say the angels to the shepherds, “that shall be for all people.”  It is not good news for some people, it is for all people, “to you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, who is the messiah, the lord.”  Good news of great joy that shall be for all people.  God’s love is truly scandalous.  We began this series by talking about the miracles that we might create this Christmas season, and most of those miracles are created simply by offering a scandalous love.

Hosea loves Gomer, and Jesus goes Zacchaeus’ home, and Bishop Willimon visits prisoners on death row, and Elizabeth, pregnant with her own scandalous child John the Baptist, says to Mary “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”  I’m sure that is not the greeting that Mary expected, but that is the scandalous love that she received.  What the Christmas story shows us time and time again is that God’s ways are not our ways.  God loves scandalously and bounteously, but God wants us to live the same way. 

Helzberg Diamonds is currently running an ad, in which they are asking us to tell them “how you know you’re loved.”  Of course what they want is for you to buy a diamond, or to receive a diamond, in order to prove that you love or that you are loved, but you want to know the ultimate way that you know that you are loved?  It is to look into the manger and to know that we have received  the greatest gift that the world has ever received, the gift of the Christ child, because God so loved the world, and it is because of the scandalous love of God  that God loves each and every one of us, and wants to be in relationship with each and every one of us, and who wants us to return that love, by having us offer a scandalous love the world.  The question that must then be answered is what are we going to do about that?

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