All are Welcome

 

There’s conflict in the early church again! In Galatians 2:11-21 Paul has been working with a congregation for several years and in that time they have welcomed people regardless of their religious background. Jewish Christians and non-Jewish Christians are working and worshiping together and the community is flourishing. But then they have some visitors from outside the community. These visitors feel that by having Jewish Christians sharing the table with non-Jews, they are breaking the purity code of the Jewish tradition. Cephas has been part of the community and has been comfortable sharing the table with many different people. Once these visitors come, he starts to distance himself and refuses to share the table. Then others join in and the community is divided. The Jewish Christians aren’t about to eat with sinners who don’t keep the law.

Paul goes on to argue that everyone, whether Jewish or not, is sinner. To identify as a sinner isn’t always a comfortable place. To have sin pointed out to us isn’t always comfortable but sin simply means that we have missed the mark, that we have made a mistake, that we haven’t lived up to who we are meant to be. Sin may be very personal but it also has impact on community.

Sometimes it is difficult to identify the sin. Initially, in this story, the sin is seen as breaking the purity code and not following the tradition of a segregated table. In order to resolve this break in the code, the Jewish Christians refuse to eat with non-Jews. Paul challenges this and suggests that the real sin is refusing to share the table. Paul flips the idea of sin on its head. The people who are accusing others of sin become the sinners.

We want to keep nice neat boxes which allow some people to be insiders and others outsiders but the Holy Spirit is messy and doesn’t conform to our ideas of who should be welcome in our communities. The sin for which Paul holds people accountable is the sin of exclusion and division. We continue to struggle with this challenge. Any time we tell someone that they are unwelcome, we sin because it breaks the body of Christ. It is easy to point to others and say that they are sinners and should be unwelcome but neither Christ nor Paul would support that attitude.

This video from the United Church of Christ shows what happens when we believe we are better than others and want to maintain a closed community without sinners.

When you watch this video, where do you see yourself? Do you think you are one of the ones who might get ejected or would you be the person who moves further down the pew so as not to be in the way when people are tossed out? If would could eject people from this congregation, who would you eject? Where would you stop? Perhaps someone would eject you. If you were the one being ejected, how would you feel? We need to have compassion for each other.

The point of this story is that in God’s eyes we are all equal. None of us is more or less worthy to be a part of the community. None of us should live in fear of being ejected because of something we have said or done or because of who we are. We are all special and we are all loved. The church is Christ’s body and all of us are members of the body. All of us are welcome.

 

Advertisements

Repent: Be in the same place. Behave differently.

Luke 13:1-9,31-36  begins by talking about some terrible things that have happened. Good and faithful people have been killed. How do we make sense of that? Is it because they weren’t as faithful as everyone thought? Jesus ties these events directly to repentance. And there’s judgement in this passage. There’s an underlying sense that if you do not repent, God will cut you down—just like the fig tree that doesn’t bear fruit.

In the passage, Jesus is going around teaching and healing. As he does this, he continues to accuse the Pharisees of being hypocritical and of leading people astray. He accuses in ways that are sometimes very direct and sometimes by telling parables or stories. Some people come to Jesus and tell him that Pilate killed some Jews while they were offering sacrifices. Jesus is very mater-of-fact about these events. He responds by reminding the crowd that things like this have happened before and things like this will happen again. The people who were killed did not do anything to deserve these deaths. It simply happened.

And then he places responsibility onto the people telling him the news. “Unless you repent, you will perish just like they did.” During Lent, we are invited into deeper self-reflection. We are invited to think about our actions and lives. Sometimes sin and repentance can be uncomfortable topics because we connect them to  “worm theology”—a belief that we are horrible people. This theology suggests that we are the lowest of the low and we need Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross to prevent us from rotting in hell. It’s an icky theology and the way we avoid talking about this theology is to get rid of the words and concepts associated with it.

So let’s start in a different place. We are not bad people. We are good people, created in God’s image who make mistakes. These mistakes, in theological language are called sin. The Song of Faith (a statement of belief from the United Church of Canada) describes sin this way:

Yet we choose to turn away from God.
We surrender ourselves to sin,
a disposition revealed in selfishness, cowardice, or apathy.
Becoming bound and complacent
in a web of false desires and wrong choices,
we bring harm to ourselves and others.
This brokenness in human life and community
is an outcome of sin.
Sin is not only personal
but accumulates
to become habitual and systemic forms
of injustice, violence, and hatred.

These mistakes–or sin–do not make us bad. They do not lessen our worth or value but the behavior of sin has the potential to destroy life. If we continue to sin, it eats away at us. It destroys our relationships.

A way out of sin is through repentance. Repentance requires self-reflection. It requires us to look within ourselves and take responsibility for our words and actions. An Israeli soldier describes repentance as being in the same situation and behaving differently. He was witnessing and participating in the occupation of the Palestinian West Bank. He recognized his role in the violence and then refused to participate in violent actions. He is still an Israeli, living in Jerusalem but his behavior changed. Repentance isn’t about beating ourselves up or get stuck in wishful thinking. Repentance invites us into a true change of heart which leads to concrete change in our behavior. If we know we made a mistake and we keep repeating it then we haven’t truly repented.

Image result for parable of the fig tree

from: equipper.gci.org./2016/09/sermon-summary-parable-of-the-fig-tree

In the parable of the fig tree, the owner comes looking for figs. It takes three years for a fig tree to produce, there was a law forbidding eating the fruit for three years. In the seventh year, the figs could be eaten. The owner of the vineyard is impatient and wants figs immediately. The gardener urges patience. We also need to have patience with ourselves and with others as we seek to lessen the impact sin has in our lives.

 

 

The Song of Faith offers these words of hope:

We sing lament and repentance.
Yet evil does not—cannot—
undermine or overcome the love of God.
God forgives,
and calls all of us to confess our fears and failings
with honesty and humility.
God reconciles,
and calls us to repent the part we have played
in damaging our world, ourselves, and each other.

Finally, in the scripture passage Jesus continues to do what God calls him to do: cast out demons, heal, teach. He knows that his path will take him into Jerusalem and into direct confrontation with the authorities. This confrontation has the distinct possibility of leading to death. Jesus recognizes that even in death, evil does not and cannot overpower God’s love. We need that assurance as well. We need to know that we are never beyond God’s love—regardless of what we’ve done or the mistakes we have made. God always calls us to repent and find new ways of living that are faithful.

In all our lives, may we acknowledge sin in the mistakes we make.

In all our lives, may we seek repentance by behaving differently when confronted with similar situations.

In all our lives, may we know that we are always held in God’s love.

The Woman Washes Jesus’ Feet

In Luke 7:36-50, Jesus has gone to eat with a Pharisee. The Pharisees were very concerned with keeping the purity of themselves and their faith community and they did that by following and interpreting the law given by Moses and that we find in the Torah—the first five books of the Hebrew scriptures. Pharisees rarely ate with people outside their own group. If they did invite someone outside their group to their home, they would ensure that proper washing had taken place and that the guest was wearing a clean garment which they provided.

Jesus arrives for dinner at the home of a Pharisee named Simon. No water or clean clothing is provided but the food is served. Part way through the meal, a woman arrives with expensive perfume. We are told that she is a sinner. We are not told anything about her sin.

When we read scripture we sometimes think of sin as prostitution or adultery. In Jesus’ culture sin simply referred to not keeping the Jewish law. If you were not particular about who you ate with, or the foods you ate, you could be labelled a sinner. In our own culture, it might be helpful to think of sin as brokenness in a relationship. The broken relationship might be with God. It might be with ourselves. It might be with another person. It might be with the earth. Sin is the action that leads to this brokenness. Sin causes hurt and pain. When we say the Lord’s prayer, I use the word sin rather than trespass because sin carries the weight of hurt and pain. To me, trespass means I have walked somewhere I shouldn’t have—a vacant lot for example. There’s really no harm involved and minimal consequences. Sin implies something different—it is word used exclusively to describe the hurt and pain that causes brokenness.

In our culture, we associate doing something wrong with a sense of shame or guilt that we place on ourselves. Our conscience kicks in and we can often (but not always) tell when we have said or done something that causes pain to ourselves or others. Sometimes, these hurts are a blip. Sometimes we can heal the relationships that have been damaged. In Jesus’ culture, the guilt and shame was not internally based and self-directed. The community was the conscience. It was the community that identified when sin had been committed and responded by labeling someone a sinner. Being identified as a sinner excluded people from social gatherings, limited access to the temple or synagogue and made earning an income difficult. There was also an understanding that an illness or something bad happening might be the result of sin. Whether you had done something or not, you could be labelled as sinner. People who were labelled as sinners became isolated from their communities and found themselves in a vicious cycle of poverty and broken relationships.

In the story, a woman who is labelled a sinner arrives to wash Jesus’ feet and anoint him. We don’t know anything about her sin. We don’t know where she came from or her connection with the household that Jesus is visiting. We don’t even know how she knew Jesus was there and that the host had not offered correct hospitality. Simon, the Pharisee, is perhaps grumbling to himself about the woman who has entered, is now touching Jesus and making him unclean. Simon also thinks that Jesus should know better than to associate with sinners. Jesus calls Simon on his behavior. He begins by telling a story about forgiving debts. Two people owe debts—one owes 50 coins, one owes 500 coins. Neither can pay and so the person holding the debts forgives them both. The obvious lesson from this is that the person with the bigger debt will be more grateful to the money lender.

But the story isn’t really about the money lender and these particular debts. Jesus really has something to say about the Pharisee and the woman who is washing his feet. Simon has sinned by not offering correct hospitality—by not washing Jesus’ feet or providing clean garments. Simon, as a Pharisee, should have been particular about these rituals. Simon—who might be a bit obsessed with keeping the law, and avoiding sin—has sinned by not providing hospitality. The woman, that Simon was looking down his nose at, has provided more than the correct hospitality. Even though she was “the sinner,” she was the one who knew how to do what was right. She was the one who knew how to love. That love overflowed from her in how she cared for Jesus.

Sometimes the people that we want to label and keep out of our communities and gatherings are the people who have something to teach us about showing love and hospitality. Sometimes we want to keep out people with mental illness or disabilities, sometimes we want to keep out people who practice a different religion or whose skin is a different colour from our own.

Sometimes, expected behavior doesn’t match the social location that we place people in. We would expect the random people eating pizza to share. They have an abundance and so we should expect more of them. That’s not how this video played out. The person who didn’t have money to buy pizza and who may not eat tomorrow shared his pizza. In the gospel story, we see Simon, the insider fail to provide hospitality and the woman who is “a sinner” welcome Jesus and tends to him. Who is more faithful in this story—Simon, the Pharisee, who talks about the law and purity or “the sinner” who provides hospitality?