Sometimes when we tell a story there are good guys and bad guys and it helps to understand the story if we know who the good guys are and who the bad guys are.
So Jesus told this story about two men.
First we have the Pharisee. He’s standing on the huge wide steps of the shimmering shining golden temple in Jerusalem. Crowds of people are streaming up the steps walking past him going into worship and there he stands, praying. You remember the Pharisees. They’re the religious leaders whom we have talked about a lot recently. They were threatened by Jesus and they harassed him and looked for ways to discredit him and harm him. And we are sometimes very hard on the Pharisees for that and for other things. But the other truth is that they were well respected religious leaders in Jerusalem. This Pharisee is well dressed and speaks well and has had a very good education. He is given the best seats at banquets and people greet him politely when they see him in the streets and they defer to him as soon as they see him. He washes his hands in just the right way before he eats. He knows the Bible by heart, and he often recites it. He’s a legal expert, that Pharisee. He knows all the laws and he interprets all the laws and keeps all the laws and helps other people do the same. In fact sometimes he even goes one step beyond what the laws requires. People ask him all sorts of questions about how to please God and he always knows the answers immediately. He’s the one who’s holding the faith and passing it on to the next generation as the generations of Pharisees before him have done. He’s the reason we have the Bible today and know the Bible. And all of that is very good. We are grateful for his deep faith and his example to all of us. We admire him for the way he keeps all the laws. He’s a good guy for sure.
And the tax collector is at the temple, too, and he’s praying, too, but he’s standing where nobody can see him - way out of the way of all the people coming up the steps. You remember tax collectors. We’ve talked about them a bit these last few weeks also. Many of them were Jews who were hired by the Roman government to collect outrageously high taxes from the Jewish people – that went straight all the way to Rome. And they often cheated and stole and overcharged innocent people. By a lot. And there was not a thing they could do about it. So people all over the country were being pulled downward into poverty by these tax collectors. And consider that the entire Old Testament is full of very harsh criticism for people who are dishonest and cheat other people. Nobody liked these tax collectors and everybody was suspicious of them – with good reason. A man like that must certainly be a bad guy.
Even if we didn’t know these two guys, it would be easy to tell them apart just by looking at them. One is standing there with his chest thrown out and his arms wide open and his face to heaven, loudly telling God how wonderful he is. And how he doesn’t do any of the awful things that other people do, and how he keeps all the laws perfectly, and how he fasts on Mondays and Thursdays and how he even gives a tenth of his income to God. He probably even gives a tenth of the spices in his kitchen. He’s the picture of perfection and the picture of confidence, and the picture of a pious man, and nobody around him would argue with that. He surely must be the good guy in the story.
And by contrast, the tax collector is over in the corner, out of sight, with his head down and clenching his fists in anguish on his chest and hardly daring to mumble his prayer to God. And what he’s saying is, “God, have pity on me. I’m a sinful man.” He doesn’t have to describe in detail how sinful he is because he knows it and God knows it and so does everybody else. And everybody would surely agree that he must be the bad guy.
Except that it’s the topsy-turvy, upside down kingdom of God, again. That we talk so much about in this congregation. Where everything is the opposite of what you would expect. And where the heroes of the story are the least likely people.
And Jesus says, “Those who make themselves great will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be made great.” And then who is the good guy and who’s the bad guy?
The good person, in Jesus’ eye is the one who says humbly. “I know who I am. I know all about my sorry little self. I know that I’m sometimes deceitful and sometimes cruel and sometimes I’m very selfish. At times I can be lazy and overbearing and I shade the truth when it suits me. I don’t get along all that well with my parents and my siblings and I preen too much in front of the mirror. I have real regrets about my marriage and sometimes I feel as though I have failed as a parent. I’m sometimes very stingy in my gift to the church and I’m selfish with others. So forgive me, God. Look at me all bundled up in a ball like this, and forgive me.”
Believe it or not, that’s the kind of honesty that God rewards. And God has not much use at all for people who prance around as though they’re perfect and announce their perfection to God and to the whole world.
This is the first Sunday in Lent, and Lent is a time for honesty in front of God. This is the time to look deep into ourselves and see ourselves clearly for who we are and admit that to God.
I am looking at a congregation full of very respectable people. You dress nicely and you speak nicely and you live in nice homes. You are well educated and many of you have been in one church or another for your whole lifetimes. You know the Bible. You study the Bible. You can answer questions about the Bible. You sit in adult discussion groups and have conversations about our Christian faith. You come to worship pretty much every Sunday and you are intent on passing on your faith to the next generation. More than that, you have a real heart for people in this neighborhood who are in need and you are involved in a very long list of local mission programs and you give generously to them and to this church. I honor you for all that. More that that, I love you for that. I love spending time with you and I’m very proud to be your part time temporary pastor. Sometimes when I’m with you I find myself smiling inside to myself. I hear what you say and I see what you do and watch you at work with each other and I smile to myself at how good it all is. And other times I can’t help myself and I grin widely at you and about you and you can see it.
But there’s more. What is required of us who think well of ourselves is that we should stand like that tax collector and be honest with ourselves in front of God.
And then we confess that we are really quite selfish. We confess that we only do what’s good because it makes us feel better, or to show off in front of others. We confess that sometimes even when we try to do good, we get it wrong and what we do becomes hurtful. And the truth is that we are seldom as sure of ourselves as we pretend to be. We are quite good at comparing ourselves with all the people we know who do bad things and we feel pretty good about ourselves by comparison. And in our own houses where nobody can see us we are sometimes mean and cruel. We hold onto old hurts. We refuse to forgive and we are judgmental. We are angry and make secret plans to get revenge. We refuse to recycle because we think it’s too much work. We are full of pride when really we have no reason to be.
And we stand in some corner, out of sight, with our heads down and clenching our fists in anguish on our chests and hardly daring to mumble our prayer to God. And we say, “God, have pity on me. I’m a sinful person.”
And if we are listening hard, we hear Jesus say to us, “Those who make themselves great will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be made great.”
Luke 9:28- 36
Sunday, February 15, 2015
Now aside from being here with all of you, and aside from my family, my great passion in life is doing historical research. For many years now, I’ve researched my Dutch and Swedish family trees on all sides back a very long way and I’ve written stories about several of my ancestors. And a couple of years ago now my mother gave me a very old photo album full of very old pictures of people in Sweden. Apparently it was an album that my grandfather had brought with him from Sweden when he came here over a hundred years ago now. I was thrilled to have it, of course, but I was also quite dismayed. Because there were no names on the back of any of the pictures, so we had no idea at all who these people were. I made copies and sent them to my cousins in Sweden, and they didn’t know who those people were, either. But then. I noticed that one of the pictures looked exactly like my cousin Chuck when he was in his early twenties. We have always said, in our family, that Chuck looks exactly like grandpa, and I knew for sure, at that moment, that that was a picture of my grandpa in his early twenties, before he came to this country.
For months, all over the country of Israel, people had been asking who this young man named Jesus was. He wasn’t a priest. They knew he wasn’t a leader in their synagogues. He hadn’t graduated from Rabbi school, so they knew he wasn’t a Rabbi. They knew that his supposed father was a woodworker in Nazareth and they knew his mother and all his brothers and sisters up there in Nazareth and there was nothing special about any of them. But here is this young man who appears at the age of thirty from nowhere, and nobody knows who he is. He is healing people who were sick, even people whom the doctors couldn’t treat, and disabled people, and he was curing people of their mental illnesses. And though he’s no Rabbi, he’s speaking eloquently in the synagogues and he’s talking about God and the Kingdom of God all the time, passionately. And shortly before our story for today he had healed a woman who had been bleeding for twelve years and he had brought back to life a little twelve year old girl who had died. And after that he had taken a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish, and had turned that into an entire meal for well over five thousand people. And people were asking, all over the country, “Who is this guy?”
Some people said he was John the Baptist come back to life, others said he was the prophet Elijah come back to life, who had been dead for a about a thousand years, or one of the other prophets.
One day Jesus chose three of his disciples. You remember that he had twelve male disciples, whom he had especially called to travel with him and work with him, and an uncountable number of women who were also his close followers. But he had three who were his inner circle: Peter, James and John. He took the three of them to a mountain to pray. And while he was praying there on that mountain, something happened that even today we cannot quite understand. As he was praying, Jesus face changed and his clothing became a dazzling white. And suddenly, somehow, Moses and Elijah were on the mountain there with them – Moses dead about 1400 years, and Elijah dead about 1000 years – there are both of them on the mountain with Jesus and Peter and James and John, and talking with Jesus – discussing his death. Two heroes of faith whom every single Jew knew well. Two men who knew God well and had actually talked with God. With them on the mountain. Reliable witnesses whom everybody would trust, to validate what was about to happen. It was a deeply spiritual experience, and Peter wanted to make it last.
You remember Peter, don’t you? He was always the first in line, always first with all the right answers, first in charge, first with the best ideas. We love Peter for his passion even if it was sometimes mis-directed. Peter wanted to build little structures so that they could all stay there for a while, together, in that deeply spiritual experience. He wanted to make it all last. But all of a sudden, a thick cloud came over that mountain, and they were terrified to be in such a dense cloud. And out of the cloud, a voice came – “This is my Son, listen to him.” And when the thick cloud passed and they could see each other again, only Peter and James and John were on the mountain with Jesus. And for a long time, none of those three told what they had seen and heard.
And the next day, there they were back down the mountain again, and life is back to normal for Jesus. And there he is, in the middle of crowds of people who need him once again and people are clutching at his clothes wherever he goes and he’s healing a young boy who seems to have had epilepsy.
Now even today I can’t exactly explain what happened on that mountain. And if I’d have been there with a camera, I’m not sure what I would have seen. But the message is powerfully clear: Jesus is the Son of God. That’s who this young man named Jesus is. He’s the son of God. That’s why he’s speaking so passionately about God and the Kingdom of God all over the place. That’s why he’s healing little boys with epilepsy and feeding people and bringing little girls back to life again. He’s doing all that because he’s the Son of God.
And here’s the real point. If you want to know who God is, look at God’s son. If you want to know what God wants, and whom God loves, and what God favors, and what God intends - look at Jesus. Take a good long look at Jesus. Listen carefully to what Jesus says. Watch what he does. And then you will know God. Only Moses has ever seen God face to face – Moses, the great partner of God. Not even Elijah was allowed to see God’s face, though he did go directly into heaven in a fiery chariot. But if you want to know God, then look at Jesus, the Son of God.
There is a special quality to those who have been in the presence of God. Moses’ face shone when he came down the mountain from talking with God – his face shone so brightly that people couldn’t bear to look at him or they would be blinded. And there on that mountain, Jesus’ face changed and his clothing became a brilliant dazzling white.
Even today there is something that happens when people experience God. We can tell the difference. We can sometimes tell by looking at them that something is different and wonderful and deeply spiritual about them. They have a certain calmness, perhaps, from knowing God well. They live in the silent certainty of God’s presence in their lives. Or they have a passion, maybe, for taking on the work of God in this world. Or they are centered, or they conduct their lives with a certain grace that comes from talking to God intimately and often. Or they are radiant at having experienced the love and peace of God in their lives. There is a humility about them, and a quiet steadfastness. They are fearless because they live their lives in the hands of a loving God and they know that nothing bad can really harm them there. They love who God loves, and honor those whom God honors and do I even dare to say that they start to think like Jesus.
This isn’t something that happens quickly. This happens over a life time of knowing God, and loving God, and listening for God, and being in companionship with God. And it starts when we offer ourselves, in silence, to God in the early mornings or the late evenings or at quiet moments through the days. We sit silently in front of God and breathe in and out. We watch the morning arrive or the day disappear into night and we feel the presence of God with us. We are calm at our core and we listen for God for long moments at a time. We don’t have Moses or Elijah but maybe we have a devotional book or some favorite Psalms or scripture passages that open the door for us into God’s presence. We have these experiences with God that we can never put into words, but they are beautiful moments with God and we wish they would last forever.
And then we go back down the mountain again, and we go to work and we tend our families and serve on boards in the community and volunteer at the homeless shelter and give our good used clothing. We bring boxes of cereal and toilet paper and people clutch at our clothing and we serve them. Because we have learned from Jesus and because we have been with God.
I love this story. I love this woman and I love her story. She’s desperately sick and almost at the end of her rope. She’s also strong and gutsy and I love her for that. Jesus heals her and calls her his daughter and I love him for that. And I love it that Luke tells us her story. It’s a short story and it’s wedged in between another longer one, and we don’t know very much about this woman at all. Mostly what we know about her we have to get by reading between the lines and remembering our Jewish History a bit.
We know that she had been hemorrhaging for twelve years. Now I checked with a doctor about this, and I learned that if a person has been losing blood for that many years she would likely have been anemic, and very weak, and very tired. She’d want to sleep all the time and would have had no energy. Her skin would have been very pale and her hair would have been quite dry. She must have had the energy to get up out of her bed once in a while and she had consulted a whole raft of various doctors during those twelve years, but none of them had been able to cure her. Though they had taken all her money. Which would have been difficult and discouraging enough, and maybe if you suffer from a chronic illness you can sympathize with her.
But there’s more. This woman is presumably a Jew. And she’s bound by the Jewish laws, which are full of restrictions for people who are bleeding. You might remember this. People who are bleeding are considered unclean, and they can’t associate with others. They are unclean, anything they touch is unclean, and anybody who touches them is also unclean. And there are long rituals that somebody has to go through to make themselves clean again once they have touched something that’s unclean. So nobody wanted to get near her, or touch her, and in fact they were forbidden to. Her clothing was unclean, her blankets were unclean, her dishes and cups and bowls were unclean. She was that word we hear and that we hate. She was an “outcast.” I can’t imagine how she managed to buy her groceries because she couldn't mingle with other people in the market. Once she got them I don’t know how she had the energy to cook them. I don’t know how she managed to get water from the village well with all the other women because she would have contaminated all the water and all the pails and all the other people there. And I don’t know where or how she managed to live – certainly not with her family. She couldn’t spend time with her children. She couldn’t play with her grandchildren. She couldn’t walk through the streets and she couldn’t worship in the synagogue with all the others. I can’t imagine that she had any friends. She couldn’t work, and she had spent all her money on doctors, so I don’t know how she managed to survive. For twelve lonely, exhausted, depressing, hopeless years.
And then one day she heard about Jesus. Who healed people. Everybody was hearing about Jesus, and everybody was drawn to him wherever he went. Huge crowds appeared wherever he was, and many, many people were being cured by him.
So this weak, exhausted, anemic, barely able to get out of bed woman sees a glimmer of hope. She learns that Jesus is about to come to her village. And she somehow got herself to the place where he was. She dared to show her pale face and her dry hair and her weakened body in public, knowing that people would know who she was and avoid her. Would clear a path in front of her. She even dared to push through the crowd and approach Jesus. And she dared to touch his clothing. She just wanted to touch his clothing. She risked making him unclean also, which of course was against every law in the Book. She gathered up all her guts and she touched Jesus’ clothing and he healed her. He felt the power go out of his body into hers and she was healed. He spoke to her very briefly. The whole interchange may have lasted a minute or so.
But there’s more. What Jesus said to her was powerful. He called her “daughter.” It was probably the kindest, most affectionate word anybody had said to her in twelve whole years. We would have expected that he would have lashed out at her in anger, for contaminating him and all the people in the crowd – for touching his clothing and brushing up against all of them. That’s what we might have expected. But he doesn't lash out at her.
He heals her and tells her that her faith has made her well. And the next thing we know, he turns his back and goes on down the road to heal a little sick girl who had already died. And she disappears in the crowd again.
But in that minute or so, her life was changed. Jesus’ power has flowed into her. She’s no longer bleeding and she’s no longer anemic and exhausted and pale. Her energy is restored, and her health is given back to her. Jesus gave her back her health.
He also gave her back her life. She’s no longer unclean. Now she’s free to go to the market and the well and move about with other people and greet them on the streets, and go into their homes and eat with them. She’s free to have friends again and see her family, and worship with the others. She’s no longer an outcast. Now she’s a daughter. She’s a precious, beautiful well-loved daughter. She has a future. All because of the power of Jesus’ healing and his gracious words to her.
Now I have been your temporary, part-time pastor for about three months. In that time I have spoken with almost all of you in small groups and privately around the table in the pastor’s office. We have drunk coffee together and I have heard your stories. I have heard your deep commitment to God through this church. I have read reports of the money you give to mission – local mission and also global mission. I have been given the reports of every week of the checks you have written for the ministries of this church – not your individual names, but the totals of the checks. I have witnessed how you volunteer in all the places with all the people Jesus loves most. I have heard about the hours and hours of time you have given to this church, in the past and now, and how many, many of you have stepped in to fill some gaps. I have heard your generosity and I have witnessed your gracious, warm hearted spirits. And I also sense that you are a little tired.
I have sat with many of you and I have heard what’s happening in your families and at your jobs. I know about some of your health issues and I know what you worry about. I know that some of you are grieving and I know that the weather has been too cold and too dark and too icy for too long. I don’t know the scout families here today, but I know something about the lives of families with young children and I can guess that you are a little tired yourselves. And all of us may be a little like that weary woman who wanted to touch Jesus and feel his power.
So in these next moments of silence, reach out to Jesus. Let the power of Jesus touch you where it needs to. Tell him about the old memories that still hurt. Talk about the ways you have failed and the regrets you have. Talk over the pain in your marriage and your concerns about your children. Tell Jesus about the troubles at your job. Let him know what you’re ashamed of. Let him know how tired you are and how lonely you are and how you grieve.
And then hear as Jesus calls you “daughter” or “son” and feel the power of Jesus’ healing in your life.
Maybe you remember (or maybe you don’t remember) that a couple of weeks ago we talked about this man Luke who wrote our words for today. We said that he had never known Jesus personally, or seen him or heard him speak, or had a conversation with him. So he tells us very clearly in the first words of his story that what he is doing is compiling the stories that others – eyewitnesses - have told him. And I shared with you my picture of Luke sitting at his writing table as he is writing his story of Jesus – with the gospel of Mark at one elbow, and referring to that as he writes, and copying from Mark. And at his other elbow he has this document that we call Q and he’s referring to that as he writes, also, and copying from that, along with some other sources. As he compiles his story of Jesus.
The words we have read today, that we often call the Beatitudes come directly from this document that we call Q. You remember how people followed Jesus wherever he went. They were eager to hear what he had to say and to be cured by him when they were ill. Huge crowds of them appeared whenever he was a wide open space like the lake shore, or in in a certain village, and they stood outside the home he was in, clogging the doorways, straining to catch a glimpse of him and hear snatches of what he said. We think what happened is that some people or one person, who were part of that crowd wrote down, on the spot, what he said, and compiled his sayings into this document called Q. Now you remember that we don’t have a copy of Q. Luke had it, but over the 2000 years since then it has been lost. But now very fine scholars have reconstructed it, and translated it, and that’s what appears in your bulletin for today. It’s about as good as we’re going to get, straight from the pen of somebody who heard Jesus in person. And here’s what Jesus says.
He says, “Blessed are the poor and the hungry and those who are crying.” He says it’s a blessing when people hate you and exclude you and tell lies about you because of him. He even says we should be happy when that happens, and jump for joy. He tells us to love our enemies and to pay back good when people do us evil, and pray for the people who abuse us, and he says we should give to everyone who begs from us. He says that if somebody steals our coat we should give them our shirt as well. And he says we should treat people the way we would want to be treated, and not the way they treat us. He says it’s not nearly enough to like the people who like us and who talk nicely to us and do nice things for us. He tells us to love those who have hurt us and have done and said unkind things to us. He says we should lend money to people who we know are not going to pay us back. He tells us not to judge other people and he instructs us to forgive when that’s very, very hard. That’s tough stuff. Every bit of it is tough stuff.
He warns those who are rich now, and those who are happy now, and well thought of now, because the day will come when they will be poor and hungry and sad and shunned.
It’s striking. In fact it’s unbelievable. Intelligent, thoughtful, successful leaders in business and leaders in politics would laugh to read such words. Parents would tell their children just the opposite. We tell our children to get a good job and work hard and make good money and invest it well and be smart with their money. Some of us teach our kids to fight back and defend themselves and every parent wants her children to be popular and well-liked by their classmates. None of us sees much advantage to being poor, or hungry or sad, and if somebody steals something from us we do everything we can to get it back. We’ve been known to take people to court when they’ve treated us badly. And forgiving is about the hardest thing we are asked to do as Christians. For a great many people it’s unthinkable.
But this is the Upside Down Kingdom of God we’re talking about here, where everything is the opposite of what we would expect. Where what seems big is really small and what seems small is really big, and where the most unlikely people are the heroes. Where the poor are the lucky ones and the hungry are full of good things, and where people actually love their enemies. And where those who have been deeply hurt learn to forgive.
And Jesus is telling us very clearly that if we want to be his followers, we have to have a drastic change in our thinking. The popular notions in our society, the way things usually work, are not for us if we want to be his followers. Following Jesus requires a drastic reordering of our priorities and a serious change in the ways we think and how we make decisions. The way we ordinarily do things won’t work in the kingdom of God. The way our normal thought patterns run won’t do for Jesus.
But I want to push back at Jesus a little. I know of a doctor, Glenn Geelhoed, a surgeon. He travels in Asia, South America and Africa, and he conducts medical clinics and does surgeries all over the world. He has one rule – that he never does surgery for a person who can pay him. And a couple of years ago now he and his medical team were in Sudan when the village where they were was attacked and burned. In the confusion and panic, Dr. Geelhoed was separated from the others. His team members hid out for several hours as the bullets were flying all around them. They all managed to escape and he later made his way to safety in Kenya and back to the States. And the last I heard he was off to the Philippines (which is also not a very safe place) to do surgery there – for people who can’t pay. And I want to say to Jesus, “How can you call that good? That a doctor who goes all over the world doing good in the riskiest places should have to run for his life from people who burn down his village? How can you say that he is blessed? Or how can you say that the people he treats are blessed if they are so sick and live in such impoverished, dangerous places?”
As you know, I live in Grand Rapids, near a very busy intersection, and there are often people standing on the corner when cars stop for a red light. There is often a man standing there, with a sign, telling us he’s a veteran and has three small children and asking for help. And one woman I often see. She’s obviously pregnant and she has a sign that tells us that she’s homeless and looking for some help – standing out there in this very brutally cold weather. And I want to say to Jesus, “How can you call that a happy story? What is so blessed about that? What is so blessed about being poor and homeless and having to stand on the street in the bitter cold? How anything about that picture be called good?” And you can add stories from your own lives and you can have your own conversations with Jesus about this.
Now you know that I do not speak for Jesus. He speaks eloquently for himself, and I speak very hesitantly here. But maybe Jesus is saying to me, “Paula, do you think you’re God? Do you think you can understand everything about God and about the kingdom of God? Do you suppose there might be some things that could true even if you don’t understand them? Do you suppose that maybe your problem is that you are so healthy and so rich and so happy that you can’t see the truth of what Jesus says? And would you leave all that to God, please?”
Now I tell you this story. I’ve been a pastor for a long time in many places so you won’t be able to guess who these people are. But their story is very powerful.
Once upon a time there was a pretty small church. The people were warm and generous and good hearted. They were also seriously divided. Over the issues of how they wanted to worship God. They used words like “contemporary” and “traditional” and pretty much everybody in the congregation had very strong feelings one way or the other. They took sides. For several years they took sides. You could even tell who was on which side by where they sat on Sunday morning in the sanctuary. Hard, harsh, angry words were said. A lot of hard, harsh, angry words were said. Feelings were hurt. The division was deep and painful and many had left the church. One day a woman named Doris invited me to her home and we sat together for a bit. She had been a member of that church most of her life and her children had been baptized there and her parents had died there. She cried and told me how hurt she had been and how deeply wounded she felt. We prayed for a bit. And over time, she thought and prayed and talked it all over with God and after a while some healing started to happen in her. And then one day I witnessed one of the most beautiful moments I have ever seen. I sat with Doris again, and this time another woman was with us – somebody who had been on the other “side” of the conflict and who had said and done things that were hurtful to Doris. We talked and held hands and prayed together, the three of us, around her kitchen table. And felt forgiveness around the table, and some healing from some very painful hurts.
And if you wonder how in the world that could happen, look at this table. Start with this Table, and Jesus’ pain for you. Think about his forgiveness of those who had accused him and abused and eventually killed him. And recall for yourself how God has forgiven you. And slowly, over time and in companionship with the Holy Spirit, let forgiveness seep into your heart and change your life.