Monday, September 18, 2017

September 10, 2017 I Love the Church Because...It Provides Me With A Foundation



This week we continue the series of messages titled I Love the Church Because…  This week’s message is I Love the Church Because…It Provides Me With A Foundation.  Listen to how one person completed the statement I Love the Church Because…

As a girl, my mother sang in a quartet with women from the Wesleyan Church. I went to their church often. And I was often dragged, I mean got to go along when they sang at other places. By the time I was 10, I had been in Baptist, Methodist, Wesleyan, Church of God, Assembly, Pentecostal, Nazarene – basically any protestant church that allowed musical instruments! That included African American congregations. I had seen people speak in tongues, be slain in the spirit, cry at the altar, dance and sing, share their testimonies and heard many, many different messages. The one thing that I loved the most were the testimonies – both the formal ones given from the pulpit and the ones in conversation and songs. And as an adult, that hasn't changed. I have known many people with whom I disagree about doctrine, scripture, etc. But still – when I hear them speak from their hearts about their experiences with God as they have known him, I feel unity with them. Those stories and experiences they've shared have given me insight into myself and my relationship with God.

When I read that story, I thought about that combination of experiences and the way in which they helped to form a foundation to that person’s faith, and foundation is what we are talking about today.  Our Scripture text for the day comes from a familiar portion of the Sermon On the Mount, Matthew 7:24-29, where Jesus speaks about the importance of providing a foundation of faith to our lives –

24 “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.
25 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock.
26 But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand.
27 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”
28 When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching,
29 because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.

We need a spiritual foundation in life.

From the time we are young we are taught about certain elements that make for a solid foundation in life – a good education, a good career, buying a home, investing and saving for the future, raising a family, etc.  These are all good pieces of advice, there is no doubt about that reality, but they are only a part of what provides a good foundation in life, because life is more than work, career, and possessions.  Jesus, in fact, says in Luke 12:15 that we must remember a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.  A good, solid foundation to life is far more than just a good education, a career, buying a house, and all those matters we are taught to do.  They are important, and add much to life, but we are more than creatures of flesh and blood; we are spiritual beings as well.

Life is also, according to the teachings of Jesus, about matters of the spirit.  Many of the teachings of Jesus are centered upon the idea that we are not just physical beings but spiritual beings as well, and he often reminds us of the importance of maintaining a healthy spiritual life. This truth was confirmed early in the ministry of Jesus when, after his baptism, he was led into the desert where he was tempted.  Matthew tells us, in 4:3-4, that the tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”  Jesus answered, “It is written:  ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”  The particular temptation that was leveled at Jesus is the same that is presented to us, and that is to ignore – or forget – the reality that we are spiritual beings and we must give attention to our spiritual needs.  Jesus confirmed this again in Matthew 6:19-20, where he says, do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.  But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.

It is so easy, in the rush of life, the physical part of life, the making a living, the operating a taxi service for our kids and grandkids, the taking care of a home, the participation in community responsibilities; all those things that fill our lives with so much activity – that we can forget or overlook the truth we must also care for the spiritual component of ourselves.  In this overscheduled, overbooked, frantic world in which we live, I fear that we can very easily starve ourselves spiritually.
It is also often overlooked, I believe, that the ills of the world are mostly spiritual in nature.  Whether it is war, economic issues, climate and environmental issues, racism – or just about any other issue – at their roots we find questions and concerns of a spiritual nature, which means that the political and economic and social approaches to solving major problems will never fully confront those problems in a way that can bring true, lasting and transformative answers until the spiritual component of those issues are recognized.  For instance, we pour into landfills the leftover residue of our consumer and disposal culture and that is a spiritual issue about the way we treat God’s creation; our entertainment glorifies violence, which makes the use and abuse of humanity into little more than the means of entertainment; and while government and social policies are important in guiding how we interact as people, it takes confronting the spiritual issues at the root to effect the deep change that our world needs.

Spiritual practices build a strong foundation to our lives.

Have you ever wished you could travel back in time and speak to your younger self?  I would love to be able to travel back in time to speak to my 20, my 25, or 30-year-old self.  I don’t know if that younger self would listen, and that younger self might be a bit alarmed at the amount of gray hair I have, but I would love to go back and offer some advice to my younger self.  Some if it might be advice to study harder and be a more serious student and to be more responsible about life in general, to which my younger self would probably reply, dude, what have you done with me?  You’re scaring me!  I might also offer advice such as this – right now you don’t know what the names Google and Starbucks and Amazon mean as business names, but trust me, when they come on the market, buy every bit of their stock that you can!

But I would also remind my younger self of this important truth – the patterns and practices that you follow when you are young are the patterns and practices that you will follow for the rest of your life, so choose those patterns and practices wisely and nurture them, because many times we don’t even see the patterns and practices we are establishing.  Our relationship to money is established at a young age.  Our relationship to church is established at a young age.  Our basic way of relating to people is established at a young age.  Our relationship to work is established at a young age.

Spiritual practices are among the best ways to build a strong foundation to our spiritual lives.  Spiritual practices are things such as prayer, Bible study, fasting, and meditating.  I’ve not always been as consistent as I should with some spiritual practices, but one that has always been a consistent practice to me is attending church.  Now, I know what you are thinking.  You might be thinking well isn’t that kind of obvious Dave?  You are a minister, after all.  Going to church is what ministers do, and telling people they ought to go to church is what they also do.  And you would be correct in saying that.  But church has always been a central part of my life, and I am very grateful that it has been, that it is, and that it always will be.  Church has not always been easy, as we all know it can sometimes be a bit adventurous and a bit contentious.  But so can everything else!  In fact, tell me what isn’t challenging at times.  Even the beautiful, precious, wonderful things of life can be challenging.  Isn’t family life challenging at time?  Does that take away from its beauty?  Of course not!  Is it challenging to be a parent?  Of course it is, but do the challenges detract from its beauty and wonder?  Of course not!  Is marriage challenging at times?  Of course it is, but do those challenges take away from its value and beauty?  Of course not!  In fact, I would argue that the challenges and adventures that come in life, in family, in marriage – in all the important parts of life – actually serve to enrich those facets of life.

But, to speak to my younger self again, I would tell myself that it’s hard to rebuild a foundation once the house is already constructed.  You can remodel the inside of a house, you can redo the outside, you can change the landscaping, but it is near impossible to change the foundation, so make sure the proper foundation is built while you are young.

The answer to the ills of our world are found in God’s Spirit.

I think there are several fallacies that our culture seeks to ingrain in our minds.  I don’t know how conscious that effort is, as culture is not some monolithic beast that makes those choices in a conscious way, but there are fallacies presented to us nonetheless, such as the idea that science and technology will be our savior.  They will not.  Science and technology have offered some very helpful changes and advances to us, but there is a great irony in both, as they aggravate many of the problems we now face, such as climate change.  The technology that many believe will save our environment is precisely the tool we have used to damage our environment.  I read an article this weekend that spoke to that point.  The article was about a survey conducted of Nobel laureates, who were asked what they considered to be the most pressing issued confronting humanity.  Near the top of the list was this concern – the unintended consequences of technology.  I am not a Luddite; I enjoy using technology, but I am not blind to its problems, one of which is the effect that technology has had on our environment.  The question of our environment, which I believe is one of the most fundamental questions and issues of our time – and of all human history – is really a spiritual issue, because it speaks to the reality that we must change how we live.  Buying a few organic vegetables is not going to make the kind of difference that needs to be made.  The difference that needs to be made will only come when we confront our rampant consumerism and excessive use and abuse of resources.  In our scientific, materialistic world (and I mean materialistic in the sense of only seeing the material nature of life, while failing to recognize the spiritual aspect of life) I become ever more skeptical about humanity’s ability to deal with spiritual questions as we push further and further into our infatuation with technology and science as the be all and end all to everything.  Nevertheless, I hold out hope that humanity will heed the words of Jesus to turn more fully to matters of the Spirit, and thus find the needed answers.

Another fallacy is that we always have time.  It’s very easy to believe we always have time, for instance, to make right a relationship, or always have time to take care of our spiritual lives.  But we do not always have time.  I don’t say that to be discouraging or depressing, but to remind us all of the importance of taking care of matters that need to be confronted.

Another fallacy is that the goal of life is success and accumulation.  It is not.  We are taught, from a young age, to work hard in order to be successful, but we seldom pause to ask what is the definition of success?  Is success attaining a particular income level?  Is it living in a particular neighborhood?  Is it having a corner office?  If we do not define success, we will most likely spend a good deal of life trying to achieve someone else’s definition of success.

Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale is someone who lives according to God’s Spirit.  He was kicking himself the morning after Hurricane Harvey made landfall for closing his furniture stores while some people could still shop.  But then he changed his perspective as his faith, he said, moved him to help.  My faith defines me. It’s who I am, he said. How am I going to let my people drown? It’s as simple as that. I’m not going to let my people drown.  McIngvale dispatched Gallery Furniture trucks to pick up victims. He opened his stores as emergency shelters, offering food, mattresses and clean restrooms to hundreds of evacuees and Texas Army National Guard troops.  He turned his stores into collection sites for disaster relief items, posted a “Pray for Texas” video on his Facebook page that received nearly 3.9 million views, and garnered heartfelt thanks and lifelong customers.  Dave Gibbs, an elder of Grace Crossing Church in Conroe, Texas, north of Houston, said McIngvale’s response to Harvey was just a day in the life of Mattress Mack — nothing out of the ordinary.  McIngvale’s stores prominently display inspirational messages such as You can preach a better sermon with your life than with your lips and What you are is God’s gift to you, what you make of yourself is your gift to God.  A framed article behind the counter where he greets customers has the headline To pray, to preach, to bless.  That’s the motto, he explains, of the Dominican Order priests and nuns who taught him at Bishop Lynch High School in Dallas, where his family moved after he was born in Mississippi.

That’s what a good foundation will do.  Remember, a good foundation in life is not always what we think it is.  As important as it is to have a good education and a good job, life is much more than education and work.  We are spiritual beings, and must tend to matters of the Spirit.


Tuesday, September 05, 2017

September 3, 2017 I Love the Church Because...It Made A Difference In My Life



This week we continue the series of messages titled I Love the Church Because…  This week’s message is I Love the Church Because…It Made A Difference In My Life.

The Scripture text for the week is from Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi.  In thinking about Scripture passages this week I turned to Paul.  Paul is a fascinating figure, and one of the Biblical characters I most wish I could travel back in time to meet.  Paul was capable of such lofty, beautiful rhetoric (I Corinthians 13 being the great example) but could also write very deep theology.  I decided upon a passage from Philippians because it is so personal.  Over the years, I have often turned to this New Testament book because of its positive tone and because Paul gets more personal in this letter than any of his others.  Paul is in desperate circumstances as he writes this letter, but not in a desperate mood.  He is a prisoner of the Roman Empire, awaiting his trial before the Emperor.  As a Roman citizen, Paul had exercised his right to appeal a sentence handed down against him, and it was his right to appeal all the way to the Emperor if he chose to do so.  Knowing as he most likely did that appealing to the Emperor could lead to his execution, Paul nonetheless insisted on being taken to Rome.  The true goal of Paul, however, was not to appeal his case, but to get to Rome to preach the gospel, and to have the opportunity to preach to the Emperor himself.  In fact, before sending him off to Rome, King Agrippa mentioned that Paul would most likely have been set free if he had not appealed his case (Acts 26:30-32 – 30 The king rose, and with him the governor and Bernice and those sitting with them. 31 After they left the room, they began saying to one another, “This man is not doing anything that deserves death or imprisonment.” 32 Agrippa said to Festus, “This man could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar.”) but Paul wanted to get to Rome to advance the cause of the gospel.

Paul was granted his opportunity to go before the Emperor, and he did lose his life as a result.  Reading through the book of Philippians, however, it is impossible to detect even the slightest hint of fear or regret in the words of Paul.  I greatly admire the courage and conviction that Paul demonstrated, as well as his absolute devotion to his calling. As he writes, he mentions Timothy and Epaphroditus, both of whom were very special to him.  Paul wrote at least two letters to Timothy – both of which are in the New Testament – and spoke also about Epaphroditus.  It is obvious that both men were important to Paul, and that both had made a difference in his life.  Paul even says of Timothy, in verse 20, that he has no one else like him.  Obviously, Timothy made a difference to Paul, especially as Paul was nearing the end of his life.  As he was imprisoned, wondering about the churches with which he had worked, Paul was obviously grateful to have both Timothy and Epaphroditus to continue his work with those churches.

     It is impossible to estimate the number of lives that Paul impacted through the many churches with which he worked.  Paul founded numerous churches – and worked with many others – throughout his ministry and certainly influenced countless lives.  I like to think that, upon his entrance into eternity, Paul became aware of the difference his life had made, just as we all will one day become aware of the lives we have impacted.

Follow along with me as I read from Philippians 2:19-30 –

19 I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, that I also may be cheered when I receive news about you.
20 I have no one else like him, who will show genuine concern for your welfare.
21 For everyone looks out for their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ.
22 But you know that Timothy has proved himself, because as a son with his father he has served with me in the work of the gospel. 23 I hope, therefore, to send him as soon as I see how things go with me.
24 And I am confident in the Lord that I myself will come soon.
25 But I think it is necessary to send back to you Epaphroditus, my brother, co-worker and fellow soldier, who is also your messenger, whom you sent to take care of my needs.
26 For he longs for all of you and is distressed because you heard he was ill.
27 Indeed he was ill, and almost died. But God had mercy on him, and not on him only but also on me, to spare me sorrow upon sorrow.
28 Therefore I am all the more eager to send him, so that when you see him again you may be glad and I may have less anxiety.
29 So then, welcome him in the Lord with great joy, and honor people like him,
30 because he almost died for the work of Christ. He risked his life to make up for the help you yourselves could not give me.

Churches do many great things for many people.  Churches respond to disasters such as Hurricane Henry, they feed people, they provide medical care; there are countless ways in which churches reach people.  As much as churches minister to groups of people, those groups of people are comprised of individuals, which we can never forget.  Churches work best when they make a difference to people, and I hope and pray that all of us have a story of the way in which this church – or another church – has made a difference.

Of the numerous ways in which churches make a difference to people, I have chosen three of them this morning, because I think they are among the most important ways that the church makes a difference to people.

I Love the Church Because…the Church Made A Difference In My Time of Questioning.

Much is made these days of the group known as the nones (that’s nones, not nuns).  The nones are often described as a group of people who have turned away from faith, but that is not true.  For the most part they have not left faith.  Most of them continue to have faith, but it is a faith that is no longer tied to any church or institutional expression.  Among the reasons why many of them are no longer affiliated with a church, I believe, is because they were not given room to express their doubts and to ask questions.  Therer are people who have a lot of questions, and in too many instances received judgment and condescension instead of patient and accepting listeners when they asked their questions.  Faith is sometimes presented as a “package,” that is, it is a complete system of beliefs, Scriptural interpretations, and practices that must be accepted in total.  If just one element of that “package” is dismissed, disagreed with, or set aside then the entire “package” seems then not to be valid.  Faith was sometimes presented to me in this manner when I was younger.  I recall trusted individuals saying that if “just one part is not true then none of it is true.”  That is such a tragic way to present faith, because when an individual – usually someone with some questions – decides they cannot accept just one portion of the “package” that is presented to them, they simply set aside the totality of faith.

When I began seminary I thought I had all the answers.  It mattered not that I had no idea what the questions were – I simply had the answers.  I assumed most of my time in seminary would be spent learning the languages of the Bible, the history of Scripture, the history of the church, etc.  I did not anticipate that a great deal of seminary would be spent defending my faith.  It’s not that anyone was trying to undermine my faith, but my professors were very much committed to what Peter wrote – Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have (I Peter 3:15).  My professors believed I ought to know not only what I believed, but why.  It was not always easy defending my faith and giving my reasons for my beliefs, but it was very good for me.  I learned not to accept something without thinking about it and understanding how to defend it.  I continue to be grateful for my professors, who helped me to ask questions, and also helped me to find answers to them, all the while building and strengthening my faith.

Asking questions is not harmful to faith.  To the contrary, asking questions is how we learn!  Imagine sitting in a math class and never asking a question when you don’t understand a problem – how will you learn (although I did not understand enough of math to even know how to ask a question)?  To question is not to doubt, but to learn.  The Scriptures themselves are not afraid to ask questions.  Read through the psalms and you will find a lot of questions.  Even Jesus (Matthew 27:46), on the cross, repeated the psalmist (Psalm 22:1) when he said, my God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?

We should never, ever discourage people from asking questions or expressing doubts.  When they do so, they are working to stretch their faith and to come to a great understanding of God and his ways of working.

I Love the Church Because…the Church Made A Difference In My Time of Need.

I have been following the news about Lakewood Church in Houston – Joel Osteen’s church – and the criticism they received because of being slow to open their building as a shelter.  I’m not a critic of Joel Osteen; I like him.  Now, I need to add that I’m not at all a fan of the prosperity gospel and I don’t at all agree with Joel Osteen when it comes to turning the gospel into a means of financial gain, but when it comes down to it, we’re all proponents of the prosperity gospel to some extent, because we’re all looking to get something from God.  We might not be out to get the amount of blessing that Joel Osteen has received, but we still hope to get something, don’t we?  We want health for our families, a nice home, a decent car, a well-paying car, and health-car, and we would like God to provide them, and we will ask him to do so.  I’m not sure how that is any different from what Joel Osteen is presenting.  It might not be to the same degree, but it’s the same principle.

Should Lakewood Church have opened their doors earlier to provide shelter?  If they could have done so, yes, they certainly should have.  But the news story about their failure to do so overlooks the fact that scores of churches and scores of church members were already in action, reaching out to the people affected by the hurricane.  Other churches were open, and other churches were very busy providing aid and assistance.  In fact, churches are always among the first responders in disasters.  When Katrina was bearing down on New Orleans and the surrounding area, and people were fleeing to safety, church groups were heading into that area, literally into the eye of the storm.  Eight months after Hurricane Katrina I was in Waveland, Mississippi helping with rebuilding efforts.  A church from Mobile, Alabama was in Waveland and had been organizing relief efforts since from the days just after the hurricane.  The church had been working toward the building of a new sanctuary and had over one million dollars for the project, all of which they gave away to the people of Waveland, as they helped them to rebuild their homes, businesses, and churches.

The first ministry of the early church was feeding people in Jerusalem.  That is why, in fact, the office of deacon was created.  Deacons were appointed to oversee the feeding of people (Acts 6:1-7).  Paul, on his journeys, was receiving a collection to help others in need.  Making a difference in times of need is what churches do.  It’s not news that churches spring into action when disaster strikes and when need is present; it’s only news when they don’t, because everyone understands it is part of the mission and purpose of the church to make a difference in times of need.  In verse 30 Paul writes of Epaphroditus, He risked his life to make up for the help you yourselves could not give me.  Epaphroditus was doing what the church and church people have done since the beginning – making a difference.

Here is how one person responded to the statement I Love the Church Because… as they wrote of how the church made a difference in their time of need –

I love my church for so many reasons.  I already loved my church before tragedy struck our family.  This is when I found out how truly special and loving my church was to us.   The Elders of the church came to our house in the middle of the night to comfort us.  Our minister & church family was at our house 24/7 for almost 2 weeks to see us through the nightmare.  The church cooked for us, cleaned, watched my child and did whatever needed to be done.  There are no words to describe the heartfelt thanks I have for each and every one of you.  God was present in all of you and you walked by our side for years to come. I will always be grateful for my church family and the love extended to us.
That is reaching someone in their time of need.

I Love the Church Because…the Church Made A Difference In My Time of Loss.

Here is how one person described what the church meant in their time of loss –

When I lost a family member we had to travel out of town, back to my hometown for the funeral.  The funeral was in my home church, and when I walked in the sanctuary the first people I saw were from our church here in Kentucky.  It took a few moments for me to realize they had driven the long distance to my hometown for the funeral.  I was so touched that they would take the time to drive such a distance and come to the funeral.  As I sat in the sanctuary I was so moved by the presence of people who had meant so much to my life.  I was surrounded by people who had played such an important part in my faith.  They were not only my friends and neighbors; they had been my Sunday School teachers and VBS leaders and church camp counselors.  I often think about that day, and of how much it meant to me that others would come and be with my family in our time of loss.

Paul wrote this about Epaphroditus –

26 For he longs for all of you and is distressed because you heard he was ill.
27 Indeed he was ill, and almost died. But God had mercy on him, and not on him only but also on me, to spare me sorrow upon sorrow.
28 Therefore I am all the more eager to send him, so that when you see him again you may be glad and I may have less anxiety.

Paul and his friends and associates were blessed that their friend Epaphroditus survived his serious illness.  The idea that they could lose their friend was an overwhelming thought to them, and his survival was something they wanted to celebrate!  Paul said he was spared sorrow upon sorrow, and he wanted his friends to see their friend whom they thought had died.  Imagine their joy to see someone they thought was gone, but was alive!

Death is a part of life, and it is the most challenging moment we face in life, when we lose someone we love, or when we face our own mortality.  Now, I’m not trying to be depressing this morning, but it is something we all face, and in our culture we seem to be less prepared to deal with the reality of death.  In fact, we are even beginning to lose the language of death, as we increasingly use synonyms such passing, passed, loss, and other words.

I stood in a cemetery a few days ago, officiating at a graveside service, and as I stood on the hill at the top of the cemetery, I looked around and saw many stones with names I not only knew, but I had officiated at their services.  The hardest thing I do as a minister is funerals.  It is hard to think that you are called upon to summarize someone’s life in a few minutes.  I worry about saying the right words and I worry about saying the wrong words.  I hope to bring hope, comfort, and peace to the family.  This is where faith becomes so important.  I am grateful for the difference that faith makes in this life, but I am very grateful for the difference that faith makes when it comes to eternal life.  I want to know there is something beyond this world, I want to know that when my time in this life comes to an end there is something else, and I want to know I will be able to find reunion with those who have gone on before.

James writes that what is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes (James 4:14).  I don’t think that is intended to be discouraging, as it might be read, but as a reminder of how fleeting life is.  Do we want meaning to our fleeting days?  Do we want to know there is more to life than simply making a living or getting what we can for ourselves?  I cannot imagine facing the final moments in life without the benefit of faith.  Revelation 21:4 reminds us that He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.  I love the image of God wiping away the tears of mourning, and I love the promise that there will be no more death, because this is where the church has made the most difference!


Monday, August 28, 2017

August 27, 2017 I Love the Church Because...I Am Accepted



This week we continue the series of messages titled I Love the Church Because…  This week’s message is I Love the Church Because…I Am Accepted.  I want to begin as I did last week with, what someone wrote to complete the phrase, I Love the Church Because…

I love the church because I belong.  From the time I was a young child my own family has made me feel like an outsider.  Like I had to be a certain way, talented enough, a “proper” lady.  I never felt “good” enough for them.  But with Christ, in His church, I am enough.  I belong.  He blesses me with the right talents to have and cherish my husband and children.  He blessed me with a new family that needs me as I am.  He blessed me with my church family to love and support me.  I belong!

Our Scripture text for this morning tells of an encounter Jesus had with a Pharisee named Simon.  Simon invited Jesus to his home, for dinner, and Luke’s gospel tells us of what happened in 7:36-47 –

36 When one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table.
37 A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume.
38 As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them.
39 When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.”
40 Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.” “Tell me, teacher,” he said.
41 “Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty.
42 Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?”
43 Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.”
“You have judged correctly,” Jesus said.
44 Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair.
45 You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet.
46 You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet.
47 Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.”

I have two simple points to share with you this morning, the first of which is –

1.  People will search out – and find – somewhere they can be accepted.

Listen to the first three verses of today’s Scripture text again, and see if you notice something unusual about this scene –

36 When one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table.
37 A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume.
38 As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them.

Did you notice what is odd about that passage?  Jesus was a guest in the home of Simon, the Pharisee; he was supposed to be there.  The woman in this story simply shows up at Simon’s house, comes into his house, stood behind Jesus weeping, wet his feet with his tears, then wiped his feet with her tears, kissed his feet, and then poured perfume on his feet.  Let me ask you this question – when was the last time you had a dinner party where something like that happened?  And if you did, what in the world would you think?  What would you do?

Imagine the awkwardness of that moment!  Imagine how people must have begun to stare at this woman and to mutter about her shocking behavior!  I can’t imagine what in interesting moment that must have been.  But here’s what we need to know – people will do most anything to find acceptance.  People will travel almost any distance, they will do almost anything, they will go almost anywhere, they will allow themselves to be embarrassed and they will embarrass others, all because they are desperate to find acceptance.

This woman did not come to see Simon, the Pharisee.  Actually, I’m rather amazed she managed to get into his house!  I’m amazed Simon didn’t have her removed!  Simon was a religious figure in his community.  He seemed to be well known and most likely a person of some means.  He probably invited other leading members of his community.  He probably invited people of means.  Jesus was coming to his home for dinner!  Simon was going to invited anyone who was anybody, because he wanted to make an impression.  But this woman had not been invited, and she was not coming into Simon’s home because she felt accepted by him; in fact, she came in spite of the fact that Simon had not invited her and had not welcomed her into his home. Simon, one of the most religious members of the community, whose responsibility it was to be hospitable, refused to offer her welcome.  Very clearly, his message was, you are not welcome here!  But that’s okay, because she was there because of Jesus, and Jesus made her feel accepted.

There are few forces as powerful in life as the desire to belong and to be accepted, and there are few forces as devastating as rejection.  The desire to be accepted is one of the primary reasons why people are drawn to church.  People come for many reasons, and one of those reasons is certainly to be part of a community, to be part of what we so often refer to as our “family.”  Indeed, for many people, the church becomes a surrogate family.  But a lack of acceptance can be why people leave a church or the church, and let’s be honest, churches have not always been welcoming to all people.  There are modern-day Simons, sitting in church pews, standing in church foyers, and sitting in Sunday School classrooms who are as unwelcoming and as judgmental as was Simon.

I asked a classmate back in my high school days why he got involved with what we called the “heads,” who were the drug users.  In my school we had the “heads” and the “reds.”  “Reds” was short for “redneck,” which in my school meant someone who didn’t use drugs.  For a while some of us got together for an annual “reds” against the “heads” football game, until we finally didn’t have enough “reds” to field a team.  I asked my classmate why he became one of the “heads,” which led him into a lot of drug use, which caused him a lot of difficulties and problems.  His answer?  They were the group that accepted him.

At church camp, again this year, I was struck by how many times in the course of the week I heard those students talk about the fact that they loved church camp so much because they could be themselves there and they were accepted simply for who they are.  Some of those students are popular and admired by their classmates and their peers, and yet they still crave acceptance.  When I was a student minister, back in the 80s, I often played my students a song called I’m Accepted, by a band named DeGarmo and Key, the lyrics of which are simple, yet powerful –

I may not be rich
Don't wear fashion clothes
Don't live in a mansion
Don't have much that shows
Never won a contest in popularity
Don't have much to offer
But Jesus loves me
I'm accepted, accepted
I'm accepted by the One who matters most

Never set a record in sports agility
Never was magnetic in personality
That don't really matter
I'll do the best I can
'Cause there's a God above me
Who loves me like I am
I'm accepted, accepted
I'm accepted by the One who matters most

If you think you're a loser
When you fail it seems at everything you do
Just remember there's a Savior
And you are worth enough
He gave His life for you
I'm accepted, accepted
I'm accepted by the One who matters most

The powerful desire for acceptance is what drives young people to do many things, but it's not just young people.  People of all ages need to know they are accepted, and for the church, acceptance is one of our bedrock principles and callings.

2.  We are accepted.

Listen again to the rest of the Scripture text –

39 When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.”
40 Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.” “Tell me, teacher,” he said.
41 “Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty.
42 Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?”
43 Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.”
“You have judged correctly,” Jesus said.
44 Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair.
45 You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet.
46 You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet.
47 Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.”

I find that exchange to be interesting on several levels.  One is that it sounds like it was spoken in tenderness.  Jesus says, Simon, I have something to tell you, to which Simon responds, tell me, teacher.  It doesn’t sound to me as though Jesus was scolding Simon, although his words surely very stinging to Simon.  I think Jesus had a great deal of affection for Simon, but Jesus also had a measure of disappointment because of Simon’s rejection of this woman.

Obviously, this was not the first encounter Jesus had with a Pharisee; Jesus had many encounters with Pharisees.  The Pharisees are often portrayed as the “bad guys” of the gospels, and there is certainly plenty of evidence that they lived up to the long-held stereotype that they were possessed of much self-righteousness and hypocrisy.  Not all Pharisees, however, fit that description.  Some, like Nicodemus, are portrayed in a more positive light.  Nicodemus, in his encounter with Jesus in the third chapter of John’s gospel, is genuinely interested in what Jesus had to say and also recognized him as being sent by God (Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God.  For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him – John 3:2).  Nicodemus also gave a defense of Jesus before the Sanhedrin (John 7:50-51) and helped with his body after the crucifixion (John 19:39-42).

The tragedy of the Pharisees is that their original purpose was very well-intended and much needed, but eventually went far off track.  The Pharisees came into being during the time we call the intertestamental period, that is, the time after the end of the Old Testament era and before the dawn of the New Testament era.  In that time period the religious life of God’s people had grown stale and was in need of revival.  The Pharisees began as a movement to bring about revival by emphasizing personal holiness, study of the Scriptures, and a close adherence to the Law of Moses.  That was all well and good, but after some time their efforts at reform and their desire to increase holiness devolved into legalism, which is always a danger to movements of personal piety.  Such movements can quickly become more about following religious rules, while in the process forgetting the intent behind those rules.

It’s easy to find ourselves in the position of Simon.  Simon was blind to the fact that he was unaccepting of this woman, and we too, have our share of blind spots.  Perhaps we’ve been in church all of our lives and have been in all the positions churches have to offer.  We’ve served faithfully and the church has always been able to count on us to do whatever was needed.  Now mind you, I’m not diminishing that at all, but we must be careful lest we fall into the same trap as Simon, and that is thinking we are more righteous than others, because we’re not.  Our lives might be a bit more together and we might have less dysfunction and we might not bother our neighbors or any such thing, but that doesn’t mean we are more righteous, and it should certainly never lead us to believe, as Simon did, that some people who wander into our midst our of lesser value, worth, equality, or dignity. 

It is a sad testimony when any group of religious people – such as Simon – pride themselves on who they exclude rather than on whom they include.  This attitude has, sadly, been well represented among religious people over the centuries, as too many continue to construct walls of exclusion rather than building bridges of inclusion.  Jesus reminded Simon of his lack of hospitality, as he did nothing to make Jesus feel welcome, which is ironic, as hospitality was an important hallmark of the religious life of the time.  This serves as a powerful warning for us today – one can keep all the “official religious rules” of the day and yet be a long way from the core tenants of the faith.

Too many churches have fancied themselves as the gatekeepers for God, believing they are the ones who control access to God and are the one who get to determine who can be associated with God. Isn’t that nuts!  Sometimes, I like to think of the church as being like the Island of Misfit Toys.  Do you know what I’m talking about?  The Island of Misfit Toys is in the cartoon Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.  I like to think of the church that way because there ought to be some place where people can go and they can belong.  It doesn’t matter who you are, or what you have, or what you don’t have, whether or not you’re rich or poor, and regardless of much of a misfit you might be – in the church, you belong!

Charles Spurgeon, the famed English preacher of the 19th century, said that we are accepted in the Beloved.  We are accepted by God, but Spurgeon saw that acceptance as being necessarily extended to others as well, and not just reserved for those within the church.  Spurgeon was opposed to slavery, because he believed that all people were accepted by God, and because of that view he lost many of his admirers and supporters in this country.  His sermons, once best-sellers, dropped to almost nothing, and he received threatening correspondence.  What a sad testimony to the closed hearts and minds of people!

I want to close this morning with another one of the statements I was given to complete the phrase I love the church because….  It also speaks to the desire for – and discovery of – acceptance.  Acceptance was the primary theme in the responses I received, which was not surprising to me.
I love the church because I feel accepted as a believer.  I have a place to study the Bible.  I have a place to go to when I feel judged as a believer.  I have a place to truly call home.

Amen to that!