No Telling What God Could Do

In the wake of the recent resolution (GA-1327 Becoming a People of Welcome and Grace to All) at the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), we're going to offer over the next few days some of the sermons preached by Disciples ministers who are attempting to confront the difficult conversations that will inevitably ensue.
You didn't burn the beer.jpg

No Telling What God Could Do

(Luke 10:38-42)

Last week, some of you may recall, was the parable of the Good Samaritan.  And it’s important to recall that the parable of the Good Samaritan was a response to the questions: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” and “Who is my neighbor?”  

The lawyer, who approached Jesus to ask those questions, demonstrated his knowledge of the content of the life of discipleship.  He got the words right: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.”  

Jesus told him that he got that part right, and that he ought to begin to live that knowledge out.

The point, I think—at least on a very basic level—that Jesus was trying to make was that it’s possible to know the right stuff without ever having to go to the inconvenience of actually living it.  

But the church isn’t principally concerned with having us know more about Jesus; what we care about is helping us to look more like Jesus.  Discipleship means getting in the game and getting our hands dirty, not just knowing the rules.

It’s not enough to know the right thing, following Jesus actually means doing the right thing.

I want to suggest to you that the story of the Good Samaritan and today’s story about Mary and Martha are placed back to back on purpose.  

Why do I say that?  Well, what’s the story of Mary and Martha about?

Pretty simple, really.  Jesus goes to Mary and Martha’s house.  While Martha’s in making the congealed salad and deviled eggs, sister Mary’s in the billiard room with the boys.  

Apparently, she’s forgotten her place—which is where?  In the kitchen.  “She’s supposed to be in here peeling potatoes, not in there chewing the fat.”  At least that’s Martha’s position.  And, if you listened to the story of the Good Samaritan last week, you can hardly blame her, can you?  

You’ve gotta walk the walk, right Jesus?  It’s no good just talking about it.  You’ve got to get in there and get your hands dirty, right Jesus?  It’s not enough to know it, you’ve got to live it.  

You can understand how Martha’s a little confused.  Didn’t we just go over this?  She’s just living out the truth of the previous story Luke told.  “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?  Tell her to quit passing by on the other side of the road, and get in here and help me.”

Wasn’t that what we said Jesus was pushing for?  No more sitting around talking about it.  No more sitting around studying it.  It’s time to get in the game.  We want to see the fur flying.  We’ve had enough of this egghead stuff.  Let’s get to work.  Isn’t that what Jesus was saying?  

It doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you’re in there doing something.  We don’t need any more navel-gazing.  Let’s get busy.  Good Samaritan.  Lazy lawyer.  Right Jesus?  Tell her to get her to get her body in here and start sprinkling paprika on the deviled eggs.  Talking ain’t gonna get the banana pudding made.

And what does Jesus say?

“Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.  Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

What?  What is that all about?  I thought you just said, get busy.  Get in the game.  Quit thinking about it, and start living it.  What’s Luke doing—besides offering paradoxes, which only give navel-gazing clergy-types something else to help them avoid doing real work?

Well, let’s look at Mary and Martha for a minute.  Jesus seems to be contradicting his wisdom from the Good Samaritan, doesn’t he?  

If the point of the exchange with the lawyer that led to the telling of the Good Samaritan was—it’s not enough to know about the life of discipleship, you’ve got to live it—then the point of Luke’s telling of the story of Mary and Martha is that it’s not enough to do good works, you have to spend time reflecting on the good.  

Jesus as much as says this to Martha, doesn’t he?  Relax a little.  Take it easy.  Don’t work so hard.  The most important thing to do is think.

Is that what he’s trying to say—that thinking is more important than doing?  Well . . . sort of, but not exactly.  

What exactly does that mean?  

It means that doing is not nearly as important as knowing why and on whose behalf we’re doing it.  And you can only know that after you’ve sat at the master’s feet.

Why?  Because we often confuse busyness for faithfulness.  If it’s not enough to know the life of discipleship without practicing it; it’s not enough to do good works without knowing why or the one for whom you’re doing them—because if you don’t know why you’re doing what you’re doing, it’s not always possible to tell if work is good or not.  

Remember, following Jesus and the things he asks from us are more often than not counter-intuitive, crazy sounding—loving our enemies, doing good to those who persecute us, going after one lamb while the other 99 sneak off to Atlantic City.  

Discipleship isn’t just common-sense niceness—it’s radically subversive dependence on God to meet the needs everyone else tells us we ought to be meeting on our own.  In this story, once again, Jesus is telling us to do something that’s a tough sell in our busy world.  He tells Martha, “Don’t just do something.  Stand there.”

How do we know that’s what this story’s driving at?  

Look at the context.  Where does this story take place?  In Martha’s house?  

So what?  What difference does that make?

The very fact that you could ask that question locates you at a certain point in history.  Our modern, liberated views about women haven’t been held by all people in all places.  

Most of history has understood women as nothing short of the head chef and nanny, something to do on a Saturday night when the poker game’s been canceled.  Typical understandings of women throughout history have called for female exclusion when it comes to business or education.

Parenthetically, the church, as often as not, has contributed to this hidebound view of women as the “weaker sex.”  We must confess our sins—that we’ve often been the problem and not the solution.  The church certainly has much about which it must repent with respect to its treatment of women.

But here in our Gospel, Jesus went to a woman’s house, and he was teaching a woman.  

Now, that might not sound like a big deal to you—and frankly, I’m glad we’ve moved beyond some of that diminished view of women.  But because we live in liberated times, we aren’t nearly as shocked by this story as we ought to be.  Jesus crossed some pretty profound sociological lines to go to the home of a woman, and teach another woman.

Do you see?  

But what does that have to do with what you said about it’s not enough to do without knowing why and who you’re doing it for?  Now I’m confused.

Let me see if I can bring this home.  What Jesus does in taking this radical step of meeting with and teaching women is to highlight the fact that what’s important in the service of Christ—is Christ.  


Because we’re always prone to thinking that what we need is to do something, anything.  We’ve often acted as though the success or failure of the work of God rises or falls with us—so we’d better get busy.  

Enough sitting around, thinking, praying.  We need to get in the game and do something.  Otherwise things might fall apart.  We’ve convinced ourselves that we need to find the right program, the right youth leader, the right minister—then we can insure our success.  Who’s going to hold things together, if we don’t?

But what Jesus points out to us in our frantic efforts to secure our own future is that he doesn’t require much in the way of personnel to get the work of the kingdom done.  He doesn’t need movers and shakers to accomplish his purposes.  He can use folks that the rest of the world would never consider to do his bidding: a Samaritan, and a couple of women.  

Why?  Because it’s about him—not us.

What about this church?  What about DBCC?

What’s at issue here is not our abilities, our competence.  What’s at issue here is whether we seek to discern God’s will together, and then to do it.  

Our prayer isn’t, “God, make us bigger or more successful,” or “God, give us some more young families and help us to look the way we think we ought to look.”  

Our prayer is, “God, give us the strength to be faithful, and the courage to allow you to do with us what you will.”

Because God, in the final analysis, is responsible for what we’ll eventually look like.  We’re responsible for trying to discern where God is moving in the world, and then working our tails off to be there—with full minds and dirty hands.

We never know where the train’s going.  We’re just praying to be on it when it leaves the station.

This past week, for example—due in part to the vision of this congregation in the Highlands as the first sponsors of the resolution we passed at General Assembly—our denomination has spoken publicly about the need for the church to welcome and affirm all people, regardless of race, gender, age, nationality, ethnicity, physical or mental ability, political or theological perspective, sexual orientation or gender identity.

Because of your work and a lot of other people’s, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) now calls on the church to become a people of welcome and grace to all.

Listening to God, struggling to understand God’s will and then to be faithful to it, and a handful of people on the corner of Douglass Blvd. and Bardstown Road have helped to make history and change the world.

Here’s the thing: the juxtaposition of these two stories in our Gospel for this morning forces us to see that doing and reflecting are indispensable to discipleship.  It’s not enough to think without doing, or to do without thinking.  


Because the real juice behind it all is God—not us.  

But God we’re afraid.  We’ve worked long and hard—us and the generations that came before us—and we don’t know where this is heading.  We’re worried about what will become of us.  We’re afraid that one day we’ll wake up and we won’t recognize the church we’ve known and loved.

God whispers gently to us, “I know.  I know of your service, your dedication.  I hold you and your work close to my heart.  But there are even more people out there I want to hold close to my heart, and calling them to come home will require perhaps some different work than what you’ve done before.  But don’t worry, my family is held together by my love—and not by anybody’s work (no matter how good).”

Trusting God to make of us what God wills may not be a formula for success the way we’re trained to think of success.  But, then, God’s always doing crazy things.

None of this should surprise us, though.  We serve a God who, as Martin Luther said, can ride the lame horse and shoot the crooked bow.

We serve a God who thought nailing a guy to a tree would turn out to be a good idea.  

And if God can pull a miracle out of that particular hat, there’s no telling what God could do with us.



"The Broken Mirror"

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="640" caption="JESUS MAFA. The Pharisee and the Publican, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. retrieved September 29, 2011."][/caption] (sermon delivered 10/2/11; originally posted to Isa 61)

Jesus told this parable to certain people who had convinced themselves that they were righteous and who looked on everyone else with disgust.  “Two people went up to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  The Pharisee stood and prayed about himself with these words, ‘God, I thank you that I’m not like everyone else—crooks, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week. I give a tenth of everything I receive.’  But the tax collector stood at a distance.  He wouldn’t even lift his eyes to look toward heaven.  Rather, he struck his chest and said, ‘God, show mercy to me, a sinner.’  I tell you, this person went down to his home justified rather than the Pharisee.  All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who make themselves low will be lifted up" (Luke 18:9-14, CEB).

We’ve all heard the parables before of tax collectors and Pharisees.  Again and again, Jesus is saying things that the Pharisees don’t like.  The Pharisees are enraged and storm off in their funny hats and long robes.  We can close our eyes and see them, these stuffy old men with long white beards and beady eyes, frothing at the mouth.  They argue and condemn.  They bicker and judge.  For those of us who saw Mel Gibson’s movie years ago about the gory last day of Jesus, the Pharisees don’t exactly warm your heart.  They are portrayed as ruthless and evil.  After all, they plot against the very Son of God.

Not very flattering, is it?  Who in their right mind would want to be a Pharisee?

And then we got the tax collector.  Oh, poor tax collector, shunned by society.  Little Zaccheus up in a tree, called down by Jesus.  Nobody likes the tax collectors.  But Jesus does.  Jesus eats with them and preaches to them and tells them that God has a place in the Kingdom for them too.  The last shall be first and the first shall be last.  And since we hear again and again how cruel society places the poor ole tax collector last, then we know that if we could only be like the tax collector, if only we could get rid of our shame and take the hand of Christ we could walk hand in hand in the lovely Kingdom of God, forever and ever.

I mean, you get the impression that the tax collector can’t be that bad.  A rough character maybe, but after all, the disciple Matthew, was a tax collector, right?  So it can’t be that bad.

I have a question:  Who has ever seen a real live Pharisee or tax collector?  I don’t mean someone who we call a Pharisee or a tax collector, I mean a real live one?  I know I haven’t.  The answer is no one, because they haven’t existed for hundreds of years.  In fact, there hasn’t been a Pharisee for almost 2000 years.

You see, when Jesus was telling the parable in Luke 18, everyone in ancient Judea knew what he was talking about when he said “Pharisee” and “tax collector.”  Today, nobody knows who he’s talking about, not really.  We only have these stereotyped impressions of who these characters were.  And what we take away is the bottom line, “okay, I get it, Pharisees are bad, they killed Jesus, tax collectors are misunderstood diamonds in the rough, who Jesus hangs around with.  Got it.  Tax collectors are not so bad, Pharisees are really bad.”

Let me tell you a little bit about the Pharisees.  The Pharisees were very good people.  They were very faithful people.  The Pharisees kept the Law, which means they didn’t murder, or steal or defraud.  They gave 10% of all their earnings to the Temple.  They observed the Sabbath and helped people maintain order.  They dedicated their entire lives to the worship of God.  Who else has that kind of dedication?  Now, none of them were perfect, of course, but for 1st Century Palestine, the Pharisees were the good guys.  They may have understood the Law different than Jesus understands the Law, but to vilify them doesn’t score us any points.  They were good, ethical, faithful, religious people.  Society would have been far more peaceful if there were more people living like Pharisees than like tax collectors.  I assure you that.  I don’t care what Mel Gibson says.

And on the flip side, the tax collector was the worst of the worst.  They were the most ruthless kind of cheat and criminal.  In the ancient Roman Empire, each province and territory owed a certain debt of taxes to Rome.  Now instead of Roman soldiers coming to collect the money from each house, they contracted out the work.  So an individual from a town would agree to pay the amount that that town owed, and then it was up to him, the tax collector, to go get the money from the people.  And the Roman Empire didn’t care what means he used to get the money, and the Roman Empire didn’t care how much the tax collector actually collected, so long as they got their due.  Everything extra that he got, he kept for himself.  So instead of growing food or raising livestock or producing a good that contributed to a community in order to make a living, the tax collector supported himself by taking, by extorting, from society.  They took advantage of the weak, who could not defend themselves.  It was literally like the mob.  The tax collectors were the bad guys.

Are you all with me?

I tell you, I think we need to hear this parable fresh.  We need new characters, so that we get a better idea of what the heck Jesus is talking about.

If we were to tell this same parable today, I think a better person suited for the role of the tax collector would maybe be the drug dealer.  Not just any old drug dealer, but the arrogant, aggressive drug dealer that hangs outside our kids’ high school.  The one who doesn’t just sell drugs to our children, but cuts it with poisons to increase it’s volume and make more money, all at the expense of someone else’s health or life.  Not so glamorous.

And today’s Pharisee is the young woman who goes to youth group and church camp, stays abstinent until marriage, never uses drugs, takes a great job teaching our children inside the building that the drug dealer is standing outside of, a job that doesn’t pay her what she’s worth, but she does it anyway.  She takes her family to church on the weekends, gives the first 10% of her earnings, not of what’s left over, but 10% right off the top to the church.  She feeds the homeless at Christmas and forgoes extravagant vacations to Disney so she can pay for her kids’ education, instilling them with good, Christian values.  If Jesus were telling us this parable today, he would be telling the story of a person that we would all call a saint.

Why?  Why would he do that?

Well, it’s because Jesus preached the Kingdom of God.  Jesus preached the boundless love of God and the extravagant grace that is available to those in the Kingdom.

And here’s the deal.   The Kingdom flips everything upside down.

What Jesus is not saying is that it is better to be a tax collector than a Pharisee.  It is not better to be a drug dealer than a schoolteacher and mother.  If people walked away from Jesus thinking that they all needed to quit their jobs and become ruthless thugs who extort money from the weak, he would slap his forehead in frustration.

What Jesus is saying is that God’s grace and love is so incredible, that even a drug dealer who looks to God and says, “save me, God.  Save me because I am broken and hopeless and I can’t take even another step on my own.  Save me,” even that broken, sinful person will be justified.  And at the same time, the power of narcissistic pride is so great -so be warned- that it can keep even a saintly schoolteacher from recognizing and accepting that grace.  The Pharisee is not a bad guy.  But it is so tempting and so easy to look in the mirror and see how great our deeds are and say to God, “you have to save me.  Anything less is unfair.  You can’t bless this scoundrel who abuses your people and not bless me with all that I have done.  God, you owe me.” You see, those are the competitive, survival-of-the-fittest rules of the empire, the salvation to the pious rules of the Temple.  Those are not the values of the Kingdom.  The only way that grace works is to accept it completely as grace.  It appears before us like the invisible Kingdom of God already all around us.  Anything less, and it vanishes.

I wonder what this Kingdom message of Jesus tells us today about who our neighbor is?

Let’s think about that.

Suppose we have the story of a man like our tax collector.  Say we have a drug dealer who comes to the altar and falls to his knees and says, “save me, God.  I am unworthy and hopeless and broken.  I have done many rotten things that I can never take back and I can’t walk another step on my own.  Save me.”  What will happen to this man?  Well, I think he will be transformed.  I think that by looking past the mirror, by looking past the distorted reflection of himself, towards the great holiness of God, he will for once see how great and merciful God really is and in so doing, he will see who he really is.  I mean who he really is.  Not that made up character of thoughts, feelings and deeds, good or bad.  You see, we are not the things we’ve thought, felt, believed or done.  Who we are -in our essence- are the very children of God, created good in none other than God’s likeness.  We must look past the distorted reflection of ourselves to see the image of God within us.

And this man, our old tax collector, will clean up his act and straighten out his life and make amends for the wrongs that he’s done and start to contribute.  He’ll start to help people and become a role model and mentor for other misguided folks.  He may do a lot of good.  One day, he may look in the mirror and see no resemblance whatsoever of the old scoundrel he used to be.

And…  And one day, after some time, he may look in the mirror, and like what he sees.  He might think to himself, “not bad.”  And he might even start taking credit for that good life that God has given to him.  He will slowly stop seeing what God has transformed him from, and only see what God has transformed him to.  You all know what I’m getting at?  And not realizing it, he starts taking credit for that too.  And without even knowing it, he’ll start ending his prayers with “…because you owe me.”  And so long as he keeps looking in the mirror at himself, he’ll be blind to see that he has become like the Pharisee.  Some of us are like that.  We recognized that we were tax collectors and cleaned up our act and we hear parables like this and we say, “not me.  Doesn’t apply to me.  Thank God I’m not like these other people.”

The problem of thinking of the Pharisee as a villain is that we are never going to think that we could be like the Pharisee, and we’re not going to see it when it actually happens.

You see, none of us can see ourselves or each other, unless we look to God.  Our mirrors are broken.  God is the lens through which we look to see things as they are.

So again, what does this parable tell us about who our neighbors are?

Well, I think it tells you that we’ll never know, so long as we stare into the broken mirror.  We must allow God to open our eyes when we give ourselves to God in Christ.  And when we see the world through God’s eyes, we will see the image of God in everyone else.

It’s easy for us to draw lines around ourselves and say who’s in and who’s out.  I can easily draw lines in a congregation with one question about politics.  I can do it with college basketball, I could just say red or blue?  (No one outside of Louisville, Kentucky knows what I'm talking about.)  And immediately, we draw a line around those who follow the right team and those fools who follow the other.  It’s easy for us to do.  We look at ourselves and draw the lines around that and anyone who looks like me, believes what I believe, and does what I do is in and everyone else is out.

But that’s not where Jesus draws the lines.  His lines are so encompassing that it includes the tax collectors and the Pharisees.  He’s including the drug dealer and the schoolteacher.  That’s nuts!  But if we could just see the Kingdom like Jesus describes, we’d see that’s it’s not nuts, it’s called Amazing Grace.  And we can only see this Kingdom of God when we stop looking in our distorted, funhouse mirrors, where’s it me against you and us against them, and start looking to God in Heaven.  God will open our eyes.  And when that happens, we’ll look into the eyes of the lost and broken, we’ll look into the eyes of thieves and thugs and we’ll say, “that’s me!  That’s not just a person like me, or a person like what I used to be like, that’s me, today, now!  Me looking back at me!” And we see that we are all the children of God.  We’ll have a chance to draw new lines, lines that include our lost brothers and sisters.

So instead of me telling you who your neighbor is, let me invite you to look past the mirror towards God, to see who you really are.  Because when your eyes are opened to that, when you catch a glimpse of the goodness and love that God put into you, I assure you, you’ll see it everywhere you look.