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“But When You’ve Done the Wrong Thing…”

(a sermon for September 15, 2019 , the 14th Sunday after Pentecost, based on Hosea 4:1-3, 5:15-6:6 and 1 Timothy 1:12-17)

(The podcast version of this message can be found here)

In biblical parlance, they are often referred to as “trustworthy sayings,” and there are at least five of them scattered throughout the so-called “pastoral epistles;” that is, 1 and 2 Timothy and the Letter to Titus.  Simply explained, these are major points that Paul wanted to make sure his readers perfectly understood before proceeding.  And the thing about these sayings is that you always know they’re coming; because, first off, Paul tells you so (in the NRSV, for instance, Paul announces, “The saying is sure and worthy of acceptance…”), and secondly, what follows is usually something that while absolutely essential for understanding our Christian faith what Paul is about to say might nonetheless be a little bit hard to hear and difficult to swallow!

And so it is with the “trustworthy saying” at the center of our text for this morning, “that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners,” of which, Paul hastens to add, “I am the foremost.”

Now, in at least in one sense, for Paul to proclaim that Jesus came into the world to save sinners does not seem like all that much of a radical statement or something hard to hear.  I mean, after all, that Christ died for our sins on the cross is central to just about everything we know to be true about our Christian faith; certainly not anything that Paul would need to first qualify before writing to these early Christians!  And yet, it does sort of hit us in an uncomfortable kind of way, does it not?  Because if Christ Jesus did, in fact, come into the world to save sinners it would follow that there were (and are!) sinners to save; and if the Apostle Paul, of all people, would refer to himself as “the foremost” of sinners (or as it’s translated elsewhere, “the chief” (KJV) or “the worst” (NIV) or even “Public Sinner Number One,” as it is rendered in The Message), then what does that make you or me?

I remember back in seminary how those of us who were serving as student pastors would often return to school on Monday morning ready to commiserate on the experience of preaching to these little congregations who were at once incredibly supportive and encouraging of our efforts in the pulpit but also a bit, shall we say, skeptical, which was more than a little unnerving to us!  I remember one of my classmates lamenting that he’d had an extremely difficult, to the point of nearly impossible time that week looking into the eyes of those sweet people sitting in the pews in front of him and saying that they were all, in fact, sinners in dire need of salvation!  I remember this because for my part, I’d preached on pretty much the same text that Sunday; and after worship one of the sweetest of the sweet elderly ladies of that church came up to me – I’ll never forget her: her name was Alberta Burrill and I used to call her “Sunshine” because she always sat in the back of the church listening to the sermon with her eyes closed and this wonderful, peaceful smile on her face – and she took my hand in hers that morning and said, “That was very nice, deah… but you don’t want to do that very often because people wouldn’t like it.”

See what I mean about some of these “trustworthy sayings” being hard to hear?

The fact of that matter is that none of us want to think of ourselves that way, do we?  Last week, as you’ll recall, we spoke here about the need, our call in Christ Jesus, to always be seeking to do the right thing in faith.  I’ll be honest; as I often do after the preaching is done, I found myself sort of self-analyzing the sermon that day, and I found myself wondering if perhaps it had come off as a bit… obvious!  I mean, who doesn’t think we ought to be doing the right thing, in faith or otherwise?   Maybe the real question, I started thinking, is what happens when we’ve done the wrong thing?  What about when our intentions are good, when we really do want to do what’s right in a given situation, but for whatever reason we just keep doing exactly the opposite?  Or even worse, when it’s become so easy, so convenient, so normal, or so, well, enjoyable that the right thing to do kind of gets lost in the process?  What then?

In other words, what happens when it’s begun to feel to us that if Paul is the chief and foremost of sinners then we might well be working our way up to second in command?

The Old Testament, of course, doesn’t hedge on such matters.  In our other text for this morning, from the prophet Hosea, we hear an indictment of the inability of God’s people to accept any real guilt for its sin:  “Swearing, lying, and murder, and stealing and adultery break out; bloodshed follows bloodshed,” (all clearly, by the way, wrong things to do!) to the point where there has been a judgment upon the land in the form of ecological disaster.  “Therefore the land mourns,” says the prophet, “and all who live in it languish.”  But perhaps most damning of all is the lament that despite the horrible result of such sin, Israel doesn’t seem to care:  “What shall I do with you, O Ephraim?  What shall I do with you, O Judah?  Your love is like a morning cloud, like the dew that goes away early,” that which seems promising at first but ultimately and swiftly dries up in the light and heat of another day.

It would seem as though as much as Israel wished for prosperity and plenty to return they were half-hearted at best about repentance and their faithfulness to God.  And the truth is, we get that, don’t we?  For as much as we desire and know to do that which is right and good and in keeping with God’s precepts of love and faithfulness, all too often all those challenges and temptations we face in the heat of the day pull us away from that which logically, lovingly and spiritually seemed so very… obvious to us.  It all comes back to a break in that sacred relationship we have with God; that innate human tendency to live independently, autonomously, of God… which, by the way, is the very definition of sin.  But even as the cycle of doing the wrong thing again and again continues, here’s the prophet calling for God’s people to return to the Lord, “for it is he who has torn, and he will heal us; he has struck down, and he will bind us up.  After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him.”

…which brings us back to Paul’s letter to Timothy and his “trustworthy saying” that “Christ came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the foremost.”

Once again what we have here in these “pastoral epistles” is a very personal appeal on the part of Paul to some “faithful co-workers,” namely Timothy and Titus, dealing with some real-life challenges to the integrity and purity of the Gospel message.  Simply put, these letters deal with a few of the “messier” aspects of trying to live in true faith.  I love what Thomas Long writes about this:  he says that most of the time we would rather read accounts of the church cruising down the highway of faith… in the Pastoral Epistles, though, we see the church on the mechanic’s lift, in the garage, and we are given guidance for performing an ecclesial engine overhaul… [which may] in fact, make them urgently important” for us today.

So, yes… Christ came into the world to save sinners, and like it or not, as hard as it may be to confess, we’re the sinners Christ came to save!  But as you consider this, Paul says, remember something:  that “even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief.” (NIV)  Or, as The Message puts it, “The only credentials I brought to [this ministry] were invective and witch hunts and arrogance.”  But, with a heart full of thanksgiving, Paul says, “the grace of our Lord overflowed for me.”

Think of this for a moment, friends.  GRACE… a gift freely given of love and forgiveness and new life.  GRACE… extended to the same one who, quoting Rick Power, who “stood as an approving witness to the stoning of Stephen, [who] dragged believers out of their homes to face imprisonment, [who] made it his sole purpose in life to crush this new movement of Christ-followers, and [who], perhaps worst of all, mistakenly thought he was serving God at the time!”  And yet, Paul writes to Timothy, “for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life.” Paul, you see, had begun as the lowest of the low – where the wrong thing was the starting place – but the point is that his story ends in the glory of Christ.  This was the assurance “sure and worthy of acceptance” that Paul wished to convey to Timothy; and for those of us seeking to do the right thing even when so often we’ve ended up doing the opposite, it’s a crucial word as well… and a reminder of true GRACE.

Perhaps it was precisely in those moments when we messed up and failed to “do the right thing” in faith and love:  maybe an ill-spoken word or some regrettable action done without thinking; or else when we made a choice not to stand up or stand with someone who’d been knocked down or rejected or subjected to some manner of hatred that’s become all too common in this present age, even as we knew better.  Could be an instance of discovering to your great despair that the ethical or moral standards of your life have… slipped.  Or it could be, I’m just saying here, an overwhelming shock and revulsion at the depths of selfishness and the realization that your life might well have fallen far as you think possible from the life filled with God’s love and purpose.  Understand, friends, it is not my desire nor am I seeking to send you forth from this place this morning stinging from words of judgment and rebuke… but I would say to each one of us here that as we are stand naked before God there is always going to be… sin.  We have done the wrong thing… in the words of the old confessional, “We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done.”

But the good news, you see, is that this isn’t the end of the story!  The good news is that through mercy, in great patience and in the light of God’s limitless and overwhelming grace bestowed upon us in Christ Jesus, we are forgiven, and redeemed and saved.  In the words of the anthem we heard earlier in the service, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.”  Amazing grace that opens up a new future for each one of us as a redeemed child of God; amazing grace that opens before us brand new opportunities for finding the right thing to do in a world sorely in need of simple human kindness and true compassion, peace and justice rooted in Christian love rather than political divisiveness, and a moral and ethical center that begins from the heart.  Because beloved, Christ Jesus came to save sinners – and yes, that means you and me – but Christ Jesus also came to send us forth as his disciples in the redeeming work of his Kingdom.

So let us go forth in that sacred calling, beloved; and “to the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever.  Amen…”

And AMEN!

© 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on September 15, 2019 in Church, Epistles, Ministry, Paul, Sermon, Spiritual Truths

 

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To Acknowledge the Lord

(a sermon for September 17, 2017, the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, based on Hosea 5:15-6:6 and Matthew 9:9-13)

I will always remember the reaction of a high school friend of mine when I told him that I was seriously considering answering God’s call to become a minister.  He stared at me for a long moment, not at all sure of what he should say; but when finally he did reply, he took a deep breath and asked, “This doesn’t mean you’re going to get all good on us, does it?”

No, I do not think he was commenting on my complete and utter lack of goodness!

Rather, I believe his reaction to my future plans was a reflection of how he viewed the church; both in our little town and as a whole.  To him, you see, the church was always that place willed with “Capital-G Good” people.  You know the kind: the solid, serious, religious-type people; the variety of folks who wear their good suits and nice dresses as they come to worship each and every Sunday morning and who were always calm, composed and assured of themselves as they sat there in the pews.  These were the people who appeared to have a handle on most everything in life; and who always seemed to be, well, a little bit better off than everyone else!

Thinking back on it now, I’m not sure if my friend didn’t really see me as fitting that kind of a mold, or if the fact that I did was somehow threatening to him.  But either way, I have to tell you that even back then I understood where he was coming from; because truthfully, I held much the same point of view!  For me, the church was that special haven of faith-inspired human goodness, and I deeply wanted to be a part of that kind of community!

And you know what?  After just about 35 years now serving as a church pastor in congregations of varied shapes and sizes, I can readily affirm that yes, the church of Jesus Christ is filled to overflowing (!) with wonderfully good people; but I can also tell you that the church also includes as unlikely a cast of characters as you’ll ever meet… anywhere!

What I didn’t know back then but have discovered again and again over the years is that whereas there are a great many joyful folk who populate the pews, there are also a goodly number who are angry; and who have come to worship harboring a great deal of resentment over what life has brought them.  Calm and composed in every situation?  Yes, I’ve known a great many parishioners who are just like that; then again, in every congregation of which I’ve been a part there have also been those who are depressed, despairing and occasionally delusional.  In every set of church pews, you see, there’s to be found the sick, the lame, the grieving and the broken, and plenty of people with problems: some with problems that have absolutely nothing to do with them, and others whose problems are of their own sad, misguided creation.

And yes… hard as it is for me to admit, it is true what you’ve always heard: that there exists a few – just a few, mind you (!) – hypocrites in the church!  Moreover, there are those people in our congregations who do think they’re smarter or stronger or better or more spiritual than everybody else; but I need to tell you that there just as many who labor under the false and needless  burden that they are of lesser value than anybody else around them!  There are lots of people who take the command to “love one another” very seriously, and make that conviction real in their lives; but in all honesty there are also those out there who, knowingly or unknowingly, actually kind of hate other people, but who hate themselves even more.

The worriers, the careless and thoughtless, the ungrateful, the impatient, the greedy, the gossipy, the gloating, the scowling and the self-pitying: they’re all a part of this community of faith we call the church.

And, oh… in case I’ve left anyone off this list …so are you …and so am I.

That’s right; it’s not always pretty, but we are the church, and amazingly, each one of us belongs!  Not to further shatter any illusions (!), but ultimately what we’ve got here is this rag-tag and rather motley assortment of ordinary people who fall just a little bit short of “good,” people whose love of the Lord is all too often as we heard described in Hosea this morning: “like a morning cloud, like the dew that goes away early,” not exactly fitting into that “Capital G Good” church member mold!

And yet, here we are – as we are – nonetheless welcomed into the company of the faithful: named and claimed as children of God, called to be the disciples of Jesus Christ himself.  It’s a wonderful thing; but the question is, “Why? Why have we, of all people, been welcomed in?”  As we’ve illustrated, it certainly hasn’t come about as a result of our inherent goodness; it cannot be said that we’ve earned our place in this community in any true and meaningful way, as much as we may have tried… so why then… why us?  It turns out that the answer to this question, the only answer there can be, is God!  What is true is that the God who desires from us “steadfast love and not sacrifice” has in fact been steadfast in his love for us; the same God who seeks our knowledge of him wants to know us as his own! Or, as Jesus said it, “I have come not to call the righteous but sinners.”

Or to put this another way, it’s all about grace.

Grace is what’s at the heart of both our readings for this morning: each one about how God loves sinful, imperfect people and is relentless in wanting them to return to him.  First, from the Old Testament book of Hosea, we have this marvelous dialogue between Israel and God: God declaring that he will wait for his people to return and “seek [his] face” and admit their guilt; Israel responding, “Come, let us return to the LORD,” (in some translations adding, “let us press on to acknowledge him”), even as God expresses some doubt as to the level of their sincerity!

Even so, the Lord continues to wait for Israel to return, and to truly know and acknowledge him.  And he does this because goal here is for LOVE; or in the original Hebrew, “hesed,” which actually includes the whole realm of steadfast love, righteousness, loyalty, and mercy.  Hesed, you see, represents a full and right relationship with God; it encompasses everything that God desires from his people. And what we find in the message of the prophet is that God will do whatever it takes for that kind of relationship to happen; even boldly welcoming into that relationship those whom others would cast out.

That’s made very clear in our gospel reading today, about the calling of Matthew, a simple and beautiful act of grace that provokes immediate controversy!  Matthew, you see, is a tax collector, and in those days to be a tax collector was to be a collaborator with the Roman occupation forces in Israel; and by extension a thief and a thug who cheated the people out of pretty much everything they had.  So it was no wonder that when the “Capital G Good” religious people of his day saw Jesus hanging out with the likes of Matthew, they were outraged; and then, as if that weren’t bad enough, now Jesus had gone to Matthew’s house for a banquet in his honor!  This caused a great deal of commotion; after all, being seen in the presence of one known sinner, that might be considered outreach; having dinner with a houseful, well… that’s collusion!  It was a clear violation of sacred tradition as the Pharisees understood it:  they believed that you keep yourself pure and you stay away from the wrong kind of people; because if you hang out with sinners, you must be a sinner yourself!

But to this, Jesus simply says, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.”  And then he does a very interesting thing; he pulls out a word from the prophets that so called “religious uprights” would immediately recognize: “Go and learn what this means,” he says.  “’I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’  For I have come to call not the righteous, but sinners.” 

It’s a perfect case of having one’s own words (or at least one’s own tightly held philosophies) turned back at them:  Jesus says, if what is needed is an acknowledgement of God and a desire for mercy, isn’t that what we’re seeing in this man Matthew who heard my call and immediately left his collector’s booth?  And isn’t that what we’re starting to see with the rest of these so-called “sinners” who have come to celebrate with Matthew at the beginning of his new life?  Isn’t the point that this one who was sick be healed; that this one who’s been torn and struck down “return to the Lord” and have his wounds bound up?  Shouldn’t his relationship to God be restored, for isn’t that what the Lord has wanted all along?

It was the point missed by the Pharisees of Jesus’ time, and it’s a point we still miss so often in the church today; that while it’s all well and good for us to aspire to be the “good” religious people of this world, but if we’re not careful such behavior can all too easily fly in the face of the one who desires mercy, and not sacrifice; and who seeks out the lost not on the basis of their inherent righteousness but rather on out their deep need to be brought home!  Our being the church ends up having very little to do with us, but everything to do with the depth of God’s mercy, his tender compassion and genuine acceptance; and we’re reminded in these texts that how we live as the church must show forth that same kind of depth.

To wit, just we have been welcomed into fellowship of God, as unlikely and as unworthy as we are, we also need to extend welcome to all those who stand in the need of hesed.  You and I are called to be givers of that kind of life-changing and ever enveloping relationship we have with God to all those around us who have never known what it is be truly LOVED.  You and I are called to a ministry of acceptance and inclusiveness and care; we are meant to be about the business of spiritual nurture and uplift.  That’s who we’re meant to be as the church, even here on Mountain Road; but for that to happen first requires us to acknowledge the Lord and to embrace his purposes.

It’s said that the difference between the waters of the Sea of Galilee and those of the Dead Sea, both of which are biblical landmarks in the Middle East, is that the Sea of Galilee is a natural lake that is formed by a depression of land.  Water flows freely from the mountains into this sea and keeps right on flowing, and as a result the Sea of Galilee always remains fresh, life-giving and full of fish.  The Dead Sea, on the other hand, also has water that flows in from the mountains, but has no outlet; the water basically collects there and eventually evaporates, leaving the salt and creating a body of water in which there is virtually no life, which is why it’s known as the “Dead” Sea.

Well, think of that as a parable, and it goes a long way in helping us understand what God wants us to be as his church.  The Sea of Galilee, you see, exists to give.  It receives its water, and gives it all away, and thus it remains fresh and full of life, with the ability to nurture and restore the land and life around it.  The Dead Sea, on the other hand, exists to receive; it only takes and never gives, it never seeks to nourish anything or anyone – and because of this, it dies.

The fact is, I do believe that we here at East Church are a church family made up of good people; as Garrison Keillor might put it, we’re “pretty good people,” but might I add we’re pretty good people by the grace and mercy of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.  We are the church, beloved; but in the words of William Willimon, “A church that stops reaching out is not his church.  A people who hunker down with their faith, holding on to what they’ve got, timid and uncertain, unwilling to move out are not his people.”

Are we his people, beloved?  Are we willing to acknowledge the Lord by our desire – his desire – for mercy, steadfast love and arms opened to all who would come?

That’s something good for us to think about as we do our work together.

Thanks be to God.

AMEN and AMEN!

c. 2017  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
 

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