Unlikely Disciples and the Roadmap of Grace: Sermon for June 16, 2013

"Anointing His Feet", by Wayne Forte

“Anointing His Feet”, by Wayne Forte

Soon after I moved to Massachusetts, I met a friend whose Christian life really impressed me. She was involved heavily in her church and she did a lot of outside ministry work too And she carried herself with a humility but also a quiet certainty of who God was and who she belonged to.

I attributed it to the fact that she had grown up with a parent who was in the clergy. I thought surely that was what had shaped her faith and her interests. And one night we were talking and she was telling me about some of the ministries she was involved in. And one of the ones to which she was most devoted was a ministry to people in prison. And so, I asked her what had caused her to get interested in prison ministry.

She replied, simply: prison

What I hadn’t know until that point was that she herself had done time. As a young woman she had battled a serious addiction. And one night she made the choice to get high, and she stole a car. And she ended up going from a well-known New England prep school to serving several years in a Georgia prison

I was thinking about her when I was reading this text because this is the classic text about unlikely disciples. Jesus is invited to a Pharisee’s home to eat dinner, and you should always be a little wary of dinner invitations from Pharisees, because it’s probably less about getting to know you, and more about looking for what you’re doing wrong

And on this night, something scandalous happened. A woman, who was apparently known to be a sinner, came into the dinner party. She had a jar of expensive oils with her. And on the ground she wept and washed his feet with her own tears. And then she anointed them with the oil.

The Pharisees were aghast. This was all the evidence they needed that this man was not a prophet. If he were, he would have known who she was, and he would never have let her come near him.

But of course he does. Jesus lets everyone come to him. He allows her to bathe his feet with her own tears. Tears shed for a life ill lived. Tears shed for a redemption that is to come.

And he uses it to teach them.

Jesus asks Simon about a man who forgives two debts. One is small. And the one who is forgiven does love the man who does it. But one is big, and how much more does that person receive in the forgiveness? The one whose life is changed most drastically will become the one who most loves the one who forgives.

For the woman who was washing his feet, who probably was Mary Magdalene, there had been a life of bad choices. And yet she was one of the first to recognize the grace that was in Christ. So much so, that it is she, not the disciples, who anoints Jesus for the first time. Her debt had been large, and now she saw it being forgiven purely out of Christ’s love for her.

Sometimes the people who need grace the most are the first to really understand it when it’s offered. And sometimes they are the people who we never would have expected.

In college our chaplain was a man named Sammy. And he had gone to seminary in New York City during the 1950’s, but afterwards he returned back to south Georgia, where he had grown up. And one of the reasons he came back was that he wanted to work for civil rights.

One Sunday he delivered a sermon about segregation to his entirely white congregation. And afterwards someone came up to him and said, “some people aren’t too happy about your sermon.” And the same guy said, “you see that man over there? He’s the head of the Klan here in south Georgia.”

From that point on Sammy and the head of the Klan butted heads, and it was made clear to Sammy that he was not wanted there. And then, one night, he got a call. It was the Klan leader asking him to meet him out at a bar on the highway. This was the sort of bar where there was a lot of drinking and fighting and sympathy for the Klan, and he was a little worried about why he was being called out there.

But when he got there, the Klan leader was sitting at a table. And he was broken. And he told him how he couldn’t stop drinking, and how his wife was leaving him, and how his whole world was falling apart and now he was questioning everything about how he had lived his life. And he said to Sammy, “Reverend, would you pray for me.”

And Sammy looked around at the bar and said, “Here?”

And the man replied, “Pastor, don’t you believe in Jesus?”

This man whom he had disagreed with in every possible way taught him something about the grace of God that night. First, that no one is beyond it. And second, that Jesus is everywhere waiting for us to accept it. Even in that south GA roadside bar, and even to a Klansman.

Sometimes the best representatives of Jesus’s grace are not people who have led perfect lives. Sometimes they are people who have struggled to make the right choices. Sometimes they have a past. Sometimes there are things that seem shameful. But they are often the best witnesses to the fact that Jesus’s grace can find you, no matter where you are.

For the disciples this was an issue. They were already facing problems. And now the face of the movement, this man they followed, was letting this woman with a past touch him in front of the Pharisees. It didn’t look good. Surely there were “better people” who could attest to who Jesus was.

In the musical Jesus Christ Superstar the scene is played out like this, with Judas singing these words:

It seems to me a strange thing, mystifying
That a man like you can waste his time on women of her kind.
Yes, I can understand that she amuses,
But to let her kiss you, stroke your hair, that’s hardly in your line.
It’s not that I object to her profession,
But she doesn’t fit in well with what you teach and say.
It doesn’t help us if you’re inconsistent.
they only need a small excuse to put us all away.

Judas was right. They only needed a small excuse. But he was wrong about the rest. No one could preach to the grace of Christ more than this woman could. And so when he sings about “wasting your time on women of her kind” he couldn’t be farther off the mark. Unfortunately, that’s how society, and often the church, sees some people sometimes. As wastes of time.

But they are not wastes of time, but are often the best witnesses to Christ’s grace. Last week I told you the story of a ministry in Nashville called Magdalene House, and the business the women run called Thistle Farms. I didn’t tell you what some people in Nashville often said about this ministry. Things like, “Why waste your time and the church’s resources on these prostitutes. Use it on “nice” people.”

This church was the sore spot for the diocese. Never got funding, etc. They were sort of ashamed of it.  Yet this program changes lives. Women who had been left for dead are now self-sufficient, healthy, and full of hope.

And they also become witnesses.

I participated in a baptism service for them once in a river. You could almost feel the release of the past, and the river could have been their own tears. And I wondered, why are these women’s stories not plastered in every church in the diocese? This is grace. This is what the Gospel is all about.

We’re the church and this is what we do. We welcome people with a past. Because there are things in all of our lives that we regret. The ones who accept Christ’s grace belong here the most because they are some of Christ’s best witnesses to the Resurrection, because they themselves have been resurrected.

The thing that I’m always struck with about people who have truly been transformed by God’s grace is that they don’t deny where they came from. They may not tell you about it all the time, but they don’t deny where they were. Part of that is because they’ve come to realize no matter where they were, Jesus was already there. They never would have found a way out if he hadn’t been there, offering his grace.

Hhe was there in prison with my friend who served time. he was there in the roadside bar with the klansmen. and he was there on skid row in Nashville with the women who were trying to escape a life of addiction and being treated as commodities. And he’s there in all the dark places of our lives.

Our affiliation with the UCC teaches us that. The United Church of Christ has a slogan: No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here. And that’s the truth of the Gospel. We are welcomed no matter where we have been. And we are welcomed because where we’ve been is not where we are ultimately going.

Our past brought us here today, and it informs our journey. But it does not dictate it. Only Christ does. And grace is our only roadmap on the journey of life.

If it can find the young woman in prison, the alcoholic at the roadhouse, and the women on the streets, then surely it can find us. And it is only when we truly receive that grace, that we can truly follow Jesus. Without it, the words of the Gospel are hollow. But with it, they are everything. May Christ’s grace illumine even the darkest corners of our lives, and bring us all to the table with him. Amen.

Rise: A Sermon on Everyday Resurrections – June 9, 2013

nain - tissot-resurrection-nain777x561When I was a kid, I knew exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up: I really wanted to be a pilot. I was convinced that I was going to go to one of the service academies and then I was going to learn to fly. My bedroom had pictures of airplanes on the walls, and I even was a Civil Air Patrol cadet. I knew that flying was going to be my life.

But one day, when I was about 12, I went to the eye doctor. And he was asking me about school and what I wanted to do when I grew up, and I told him that I wanted to be a pilot. And he immediately said, “But you can’t be a pilot…you don’t have 20/20 eyesight!”

I was heartbroken. It sounds so trivial now, but at age 12, I really thought my life was over. And in a way, it was…not my actual life, but the life that I had always seen myself living.

Today’s reading from the Gospel is about something more serious. It’s about a young man whose life, to everyone who knew him, literally seemed to be over. He is walking into a town and he runs into a funeral procession. A young man has died, and he’s being carried out of town.

And the man’s mother, who is also a widow, is weeping. And Jesus sees her and he says “don’t cry”. He goes and touches the platform they are carrying the body on and he says “young man, I say to you, rise”. And the man sat up, and started to talk.

Scripture says the crowd was “seized with fear”. That’s fair. If I saw that at a funeral I’d probably be a little afraid too. But then, when the shock wore off, they all began to praise God and to understand who Jesus was and what he was capable of doing. And slowly the news about Jesus began to spread.

The Christian faith is centered around the concept of resurrection. It’s why Easter is the most important day of the church year for Christians. Jesus himself defeats the grave, and lives again. And we tend to think that resurrection is something that happened only to Jesus.

But then there are stories like this, where resurrection happens to someone else. It’s still because of Jesus, but it’s not Jesus. And someone whose life was over, rises again. There are a few examples of this in Scripture, where Jesus brings new life where it seemed like there was no hope.

But the really good news for you and I is that resurrection doesn’t have to be so dramatic or literal as someone rising again from the dead. Most often, resurrection happens when we think that there is no hope. It happens when we feel like our lives are over. It happens when we think, “I’m as good as dead”.

But this is such a huge part of what it means to know Christ. It means that when our life feels like it’s over, God’s love and grace somehow get the last word, and we find that we somehow live again.

Sometimes that’s in small ways. I told you that story about how I wanted to be a pilot as a kid and one eye exam crushed those dreams. I look back now, and am thankful that’s not the route I took. It’s clear that, though my 12 year old self thought my life was over, God had other plans. And, frankly, better plans.

(And, to tell you the truth, now as an adult I don’t really like flying. I hate running into turbulence on a airliner, so being a military pilot probably wouldn’t have worked out so well.)

But there are more serious examples of resurrection too. When I lived in Nashville I learned about a ministry founded by an Episcopal priest there. They reached out to women who had been sex workers. Some had begun to be trafficked when they were only 11, 12, or 13 years old. They had known unspeakable violence, dehumanization and abuse, and many had turned to alcohol or drugs as the only way to deal with that trauma. Some had as many as ninety arrests. Most had come to believe that there was no other life they could live, and there was no hope.

But this priest said to them “there’s a way out. There was no judgement, no condemnation. Just hope. And the women moved into community together, and they got sober, and then they started working together on building a business called Thistle Farms. They made candles, bath soaps, lotions, and more. And they were able to learn a new way to support themselves, and to give back to the other women in the community. And the program has something like a 90% success rate, which is unheard of in recovery programs.

In the eyes of society, in the eyes of everyone who saw them, even in their own eyes, these women were as good as dead. And yet, what has happened to them is nothing short of a resurrection. What has happened to them is what happens when Jesus says “rise”, and you can do no other.

Maybe you’re hearing this story and you’re thinking “that’s pretty incredible, but my life isn’t that dramatic”. And maybe you’re also thinking one of two things: first, that you don’t have any need for resurrection. Or, second, that you do but for whatever reason resurrection can’t happen to you.

To the first point, I’m convinced that at some point in all of our lives we will need resurrection. Whether it’s fighting back from being sick, or getting out of a relationship that’s not good for us, or climbing back after losing a job or a business, or living again after grief, or recovering from addiction, or just finding hope when it feels like we are as good as dead…we will all need resurrection at some point. And if you haven’t needed it yet, or if you’re not needing it now, I hope you never will. But my guess is that at some level, at some point, we all do.

And the second issue is that you might think it can’t happen to you. You might look around and see other people climbing back from something. You might think that things change for them, but not for you. And you might think that you are too far gone to deserve the grace and the hope that others are receiving.

But grace and hope come regardless of whether or not we deserve them. They come because God loves us, and because God is capable of bringing resurrection to us no matter what. And sometimes, it’s just a matter of recognizing that resurrection when it comes.

Sometimes that’s hard to do. When the young man first sits back up, Scripture tells us that the people all around him are “seized with fear”. That’s fair. If I went to a funeral and the guy I was there to remember sat back up I’d probably be seized with fear too. But then they realize what happened and who did it and slowly they begin to glorify God, and to tell everyone that they know.

When resurrection happens in our own lives, it’s often less dramatic than a guy sitting up at his own funeral. But that doesn’t mean that it scares us any less. It’s pretty easy to be “seized with fear” when we suddenly see signs of new life.

Maybe that’s happened to you too. Maybe you have seen something start to turn around, and it has scared you to death. Maybe you weren’t expecting it, and now that things are changing it means that you actually have to respond and get involved and get excited. And maybe you have found that resurrection is sometimes both wonderful and highly inconvenient.

A friend of mine was diagnosed with HIV in the “bad old days” when anyone who was given that diagnosis was not expected to survive for long. And so he did what a lot of others he knew were doing at the time: he prepared to die. He quit his job, moved away, spent all his money, drank heavily, and got ready for the end. He didn’t think it would take long.

But then something happened. His doctor had him try out a mix of new medications. It was called a cocktail. And he started to get better. He still had the virus, but he was not as sick. And then he started to get to a place where it became clear he wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon. And then the virus became virtually undetectable.

He realized he was going to live. Resurrection was happening. But almost in the same breath he realized that that meant he had change the way he was living. He’d been so busy preparing for death that now he had to go back out and get a job, and save some money, and stop drinking, and start making plans for what was now clearly a long future. And it terrified him. He was “seized with fear”. But slowly, with God’s grace, he started to rebuild. And he worked to create his own resurrection. And I look at his life now, and it’s pretty incredible. It’s as though Jesus has been standing there, saying “rise”, and he could do no other.

When resurrection comes to you, my guess is that at first it will look mighty inconvenient. And it is. Because you haven’t been expecting it. And you might be “seized with fear”. That’s okay. Feel the fear, and then participate in your own resurrection, building something new with God. You may have thought your life was over, that you were as good as dead, but God has other plans.

They might surprise you, or frustrate you, or throw everything you expected off, but in the end, you may find yourself praising God’s love and grace in ways you never expected. Resurrection is real. I know, because I’ve heard about it, I’ve seen it, and I’ve lived it. And it’s frightening. And it changes everything. But it is always worth it. Always.

Jesus once said, and he says to us still: Rise. Amen.