Dinners with Sinners

dinner with sinners SMALL

It was a slow day at Rupert Methodist this week.

We had some people traveling. A couple who were sick. Our organist and his wife, who lost her father this past week and whose funeral was just yesterday afternoon were not with us. My own wife was down in Massachusetts to be with her daughter.

On top of that, the heating system was on the blink. It’s an automated thermostat, but for whatever reason, it did not fire up early this morning and so when we walked into the sanctuary at 8:30 this morning, we could still see our breath.

We could turn on the heat manually, and we did, but it’s a big open space and it takes a while. Fortunately, the back room, where we have coffee and conversation warms up quickly, so we packed our organless, small gathering into the back room and held services for the fifteen or so of us who were there.

It turned out to be nice. It was intimate in a way things aren’t when we are in the sanctuary. We sang a few simple hymns acappela. And I did not so much preach a sermon as simply talk my way through the sermon.

Being in a relaxed setting the sermon turned into sort of a discussion, from time to time someone asked a question. From time to time, someone made a comment. It was nice. It was intimate in the best possible way. And I think, it caused us to feel the sermon together in a way we normally don’t. I wasn’t talking at a congregation, we were learning together.

I began by reminding them that I don’t often talk about other faiths or denominations.  

In my day, I have spent significant time worshiping in other denominations. I grew up Methodist. I spent nearly 30 years worshiping and serving in Baptist Churches. I spent time in the Presbyterian church, and my mother worked at a Presbyterian seminary. The seminary I attended was non-denominational, but had Presbyterian tendencies.

Also, I’ve traveled a lot and in my travels, I have worshiped in a lot of places: Pentecostal churches, Lots of Catholic churches, here in the states and overseas. Rock and Roll churches, A snake-handling church once, and lots of Episcopal and Lutheran churches

Once I spent a night in a tiny village in the Laurentian mountains of Quebec, worshiping in a French Lutheran church. I didn’t understand a word, but I felt the spirit.

And that’s the thing. I feel the spirit in a lot of churches. While details are different – different Music, different order of service, formality or the lack of it. details of theology, how conservative they are, or how liberal – while all these things are different, I have still experienced joyful, reverential, worship.

Let me surprise you a little: I don’t agree with everything in any denomination. Not even ours. I love the Methodist Church dearly and my roots here run deep, But I see healthy, loving churches in many faiths.

And mostly I go out of my way NOT to draw comparisons or complain. It helps that this is the Methodist way as well, to recognize that there are lots of valid ways to worship.

But…..

You saw that coming, didn’t you? There’s always a “but”. And I have one too. But there is one tendency of some churches that drives me crazy and I want to talk about it this morning.

 First, some scripture

Mark 1:40-41And a leper came to Jesus, beseeching Him and falling on his knees before Him, and saying, “If You are willing, You can make me clean.” Moved with compassion, Jesus stretched out His hand and touched him, and said to him, “I am willing; be cleansed.”

Mark 2:15-17  – Later, he was having dinner at Levi’s house. Many tax collectors and sinners were also eating with Jesus and his disciples, because there were many who were following him. When the scribes and the Pharisees saw him eating with sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples, “Why does he eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” When Jesus heard that, he told them, “Healthy people don’t need a physician, but sick ones do. I did not come to call righteous people, but sinners.”

 Luke 3:12-14 –  Some tax collectors came to be baptized.

Luke 15:7 –  Now all the tax collectors and sinners kept coming to listen to Jesus. But the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

John 4: 16-18    16 He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.” 17 “I have no husband,” she replied. Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband.18 The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”

Luke 15:1-2:   Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

These are all familiar scriptures

These are such familiar scriptures that sometimes we don’t think much about them. But when we look back at these things, all together, we see a pattern that I believe is important.

Looking back, we remember that in Jesus day, Rabbis and other spiritual leaders were the highest members of Jewish society. Everyone looked up to them. These religious leaders were strict adherents to the Jewish law and tradition, and they avoided those who they deemed unclean sinners.

Why? Because they had a clean image to maintain. And because there was a belief that sinners and the unfortunate in society were in their bad place because of sin. Mixing with these “wrong” people, sinners of all sorts, could taint you. Just their presences could make you unclean and unworthy.

Tax collectors, infamous for embezzlement and their cooperation with the hated Romans definitely fell into the sinner category. And the word for sinners, by the way, was a code word for prostitute.

So their reasoning was that they could not risk being tainted

And that belief came to permeate the religious society at the time. It was about self-protection. But let’s be honest, it was about pride as well. They could feel superior to “those people”. They could say “Thank goodness I am not like…..”

But Jesus did not live that way.

Dinner with Sinners was his norm. All the people that religion shunned, he spent time with. And this was not a single event. Today’s scripture is just a taste of how often he mingled.

I have always felt Jesus must have been good company. People seemed eager to have him around, even the worst of society. He was a welcome guest in people’s homes. They came to him in the streets. Children came up to him. So he must have been approachable.

So why wouldn’t people want him at the dinner table? He was good company. He was a good man. He was a godly man. And he accepted them as people, telling truth at times, but never in a denigrating way.

Sitting at Matthew the tax collectors table, Jesus may have broken some polite company, traditional taboos, but his regular presence there shows that he looked beyond cultural and religious norms. He looked into their hearts.

Where Pharisees and other religious leaders wrote people off simply because of their profession or their past or their mistakes, Jesus looked to their humanity and saw their need. Jesus looked past all that and saw their need.

Jesus saw… individuals. Not labels. Or th with some churcheseir failures. Or their status. He never let his righteousness keep him from treating the worst, well.

I believe that acceptance inspired them to know him better, and in many cases, come to know God better. They may have recognized his holiness, but they responded to his compassion and sincere regard. Even in their brokenness, perhaps because of their brokenness, they felt God’s love because they experienced God’s love.

Even when religion did not see them as worthwhile children of God. Jesus did.

Which brings us to my pet peeve.

You see, we all know this bit about all people have value. But the truth is that many churches are not welcoming of certain people. Not just overt sinners but because of race, or sexual orientation, or where they came from, or because they are an unmarried couple, or are poor, or because they are in a rock bottom place.

These churches drive me crazy. You see, as I read the bible, what I see is that Jesus’s love of people, his willingness to meet people where they were is so incredibly evident.

It’s not some obscure reference. It’s not a single event. It permeates his ministry, from the beginning to the end, when he hangs on the cross and blessed the thief that hangs beside him.

To Jesus, people mattered. All people. Not just people who fit this mold or that. Even sinners. Maybe especially sinners (since we all fit that mold.)

There are churches, and there are a lot of them, who give lip service to this idea until they are faced with it.

  • Until the homeless guy wanders into a service.
  • Until someone’s child comes out as gay
  • Until some young girl is pregnant at 15
  • Until…..

Then it’s condemnation. It’s about shame, not love. It’s Shooting our wounded. It is locking out, not physically, but by attitude, the sinner. “We have to keep our church pure,” they say.  Only the right kinds of people can come here they proclaim, not by pious Sunday proclamations, but by how people are treated.

Don’t get me wrong. Sin is sin. It needs to be acknowledged and treated. But the worst sin of all is to abandon and lock out people, the very people who need him, from God.

Jesus knew this.

He lived it, day in and day out. He took a lot of flack for it.  But he never hesitated. He never backed away. He gladly, joyfully, spent time with anyone

I don’t want us to ever become one of those churches. I will be bitterly disappointed if we ever do.

I don’t believe we are. I have seen your acceptance of people of all stripes grow. I have seen your kindness grow. Even when perhaps we struggle with some of the people who have wandered in and out of here – Broken. Different. Not quite the traditional churchgoer. You have treated them kindly. You don’t just tolerate. You love them.

But we all need reminders. It’s easy to fall into judgment instead of love. It makes us feel superior. And that’s a good feeling. But we aren’t called to be superior, or better than, or a club, or some secret society

We are called to love.

We are called to love as Jesus loved. We are called to love and let that love point the way to God. .Even the wild and crazy. The degenerate. The wrong color. The sexual orientation we do not understand. Whatever we think is wrong about a person, we are not called to avoid them but to treat them as individuals that matter.

We are called to love. And to trust God, to trust him to turn that love into something good for the people we touch. To trust him to do the work of healing and soul development that needs to be done. To trust him to protect us from becoming that same sinner. TO know he is stronger than what people may say. And his love is stronger….. when we put it to work.

So let’s look around our lives this week.

Is there someone we are avoiding because of what people might think? Maybe it’s time to do lunch with them. Is there someone we are avoiding bringing to church because they are different? Invite them. Is there someone we think is broken, would not fit in? Love them, and let them know we here, in this church, will love them too.

That’s really it.

Jesus came to save sinners. He has saved each of us.

Jesus came to save sinners. And it was never done by avoiding people of a certain kind, or locking people out by custom or words, or by protecting himself by avoiding the “wrong sort.”

It was done in love and acceptance and kindness. Every time. EVERY time. And love still works, when we let it. Remember that.

Love still works when we let it.

Be well. Travel wisely.

Tom