Sunday, February 17, 2013

Jesus Had Bad Manners (Luke 7:36-43; 15:1-2)

One of the Pharisees invited Jesus to eat with him.  After he entered the Pharisee’s home, he took his place at the table.
Meanwhile, a woman from the city, a sinner, discovered that Jesus was dining in the Pharisee’s house.  She brought perfumed oil in a vase made of alabaster.  Standing behind him at his feet and crying, she began to wipe his face with her tears.  She wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and poured the oil on them.  When the Pharisee who had invited Jesus saw what was happening, he said to himself, If this man were a prophet, he would know what kind of woman is touching him.  He would know that she is a sinner.
Jesus replied, “Simon, I have something to say to you.”
“Teacher, speak,” he said.
“A certain lender had two debtors.  One owed enough money to pay five hundred people for a day’s work.  The other owed enough for fifty.  When they couldn’t pay, the lender forgave the debs of them both.  Which of them will love him more?”
Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the largest debt canceled.”
Jesus said, “You have judged correctly.”

All the tax collectors and sinners were gathering around Jesus to listen to him.  The Pharisees and legal experts were grumbling, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

They say there are three things you’re not supposed to talk about in polite company: religion, politics, and sex.  Next time you’re having a fancy dinner party and want to keep the conversation polite, remember not to invite Jesus, because if Jesus shows up, he’s likely to talk about all three.  If you’re concerned about keeping things polite, Jesus is the last person you want there.
Today we are concluding a message series called, “Surprising Things They Never Told You About Jesus.”  Over the last five weeks, we’ve looked at episodes in Jesus’ life that often get overlooked in how good church folk like us typically understand and experience Jesus.  The picture we often portray of Jesus is kinda boring, and the goal of this series is to open up an understanding of Jesus that is both more faithful to Scripture, and infinitely more interesting, in the hopes that all of us will be renewed in our desire to get to know Jesus better.
The first week we learned this surprising thing about Jesus: Jesus could party.  In contrast to the dour and serious demeanor of so many Christians, Jesus actually invites us to a joy-filled, abundant, never-ending party in his presence, and is himself the life of the party.
Then we learned that Jesus got ticked off.  In particular, he gets ticked off when people of faith insist on imposing laws on other people, but are unable or unwilling to first love those people.  What pleases Jesus is when relationship precedes rule-following.
Then we learned that Jesus destroyed buildings.  Whereas our human tendency is to build a sacred structure for God and come to revere what we have built rather than the God for whom we built it, Jesus reminds us that the truest temple of God is the human heart, and invites us to give the greatest of our attention to what’s going on in here.
Last week’s surprising thing was that Jesus taught teenagers.  We looked at his call of his first followers, and realized that they were young, and at least a few of them were teenagers.  We took this understanding as a call for each of us, regardless of our age, to have young hearts - hearts that are open and flexible, hearts that are both able to hear to hear the call of Jesus, and willing to follow it.
Today we learn that Jesus had bad manners - probably not what you wanted to hear if you already think polite society is going to hell in a handbasket, but there are times where following polite social norms are a barrier to faith, and thus a real and present danger to our souls.
Imagine, if you will, that you have received an invitation to dinner.  It’s being hosted by a respected and wealthy person in town and you know that invitations have only gone out to folks on the A-list, and you got an invitation!  Doesn’t it feel good to be one of the important people?
The evening of the dinner comes, and you put on your tuxedo or cocktail dress and drive over to the wealthy side of town.  An army of valets is waiting to park your car, and you enter the ornate front doors of the home, where just inside a man confirms your identity with those listed on the guest list, and invites you to enter, and says, “Welcome!  Have a good time.”
This is the scene for a dinner party Jesus was invited to in the 7th chapter of Luke.  A Pharisee named Simon - a person of some prestige and influence in his city - is throwing a dinner party.  Jesus is invited, as are all of Simon’s social circle, people of prominence and good-standing, for a pleasant and polite evening.
The party is interrupted when “a woman of the city” bursts in.  “Woman of the city” is a rather polite way of saying that this was a woman with a reputation.  She was no stranger to the invited guests, indeed, she was no stranger to practically anybody, and she was unwelcome in this polite company.  She doesn’t belong here, she is the wrong kind of person, she is a sinner.
But then, it gets even worse.  Shocking, even.  She falls at the feet of Jesus and sobs so uncontrollably that her tears are streaking through the dust on his calloused feet, and she realizes the mess she’s making and wipes his feet dry with the closest thing she can think of - her own hair.
This dinner party is social catastrophe.  This woman - this sinful woman - knows how out-of-place she is.  She knows her place is out there with the rest of the trash, not in here with good, respectable folks like us.   One of these things is not like the other; everyone knows that this woman - this sinful woman - doesn’t belong here; everyone, except Jesus.
Jesus doesn’t seem to know that he’s supposed to be embarrassed by such intimate contact with this woman.  He doesn’t seem to know that his reputation is threatened.  Any proper man of good social standing would have been horrified and angry, but Jesus just lets her touch him, which causes his host to think, “This guy is a fraud.  If he were really the prophet he claims to be, he would know who this woman is who is touching him, and what a big sinner she is.”
But maybe Jesus isn’t as clueless as the polite and well-mannered dinner guests want to believe.  Jesus tells a story to make plain that he does indeed know what sort of woman she is, and more than that, Jesus knows more about his host and the other guests than they realized.  Ouch.
“A certain lender had two debtors.  One owed enough money to pay five hundred people for a day’s work.  The other owed enough for fifty.  When they couldn’t pay, the lender forgave the debs of them both.  Which of them will love him more?”
Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the largest debt canceled.”
Jesus said, “You have judged correctly.”
It is tempting to paint Simon, the host, and the other guests as so heavenly-bound they’re no earthly good.  I think that goes too far.  Simon is much like many genuine religious people we meet today who have perhaps grown up in church, never lived all that wild or crazy, and were, for the most part, good people. 
Unlike this sinful woman, his life has never hit rock bottom.  He knows nothing of the pain and desperation that forced this woman into such a disreputable line of work.  His spirit has never been so parched that he felt the need to drink deeply at the well of divine grace.  He’s not a bad guy - it’s just that is faith is kinda shallow.  He’s annoyed because this woman has ruined his party and if she hangs around too long, his reputation will be dragged as low as hers.
Simon has worked his entire life to build a good name and reputation for himself, and in one instant, this sinful woman is threatening everything he holds dear.  He sees her not as a child of God, but as a threat to his own goodness, and he hates that she rudely thrust herself into his perfect and predictable world.  He is so anxious to do right and to be right and to look good that he fails to see how his own desire for goodness gets in the way.  He is blind to the fact that he too is a sinner forgiven and healed by grace, and yet she is the one who drinks most deeply from the well of grace, and she is the one whose spirit is quenched and whose sin is forgiven.
Meanwhile the host and the invited guests remain parched, the foolish pride of their own hearts standing between them and the genuine, healing, life-giving touch of Jesus they so desperately need.
They are so worried about their own reputation, they miss seeing the transforming work of God in the human heart even when it happens right before their eyes.  We don’t want to do that!  We don’t want to be so worried about our own reputation that we miss seeing the kingdom of God breaking forth in our midst.  It was right there!  It was happening in his home, and he missed it!  How tragic is that??  We look around at the world and we’re horrified by what we see and we yell out, “God, where are you???” and we miss what God is doing right in front of us.
Simon missed it.  His guests missed it.  But the sinful woman, she who is an outcast among outcasts, sees Jesus for who he is, and in him she sees the kingdom of God right here and now.
How about us?  The challenge for us is to respond like this woman - with great love and gratitude.  We first have to recognize how much Christ has done for us - not for other people, not for anyone else, but each of us has got to recognize how much Christ has done for us.  And then, when other people show up in the places where Jesus is - especially those who look different or have a reputation or are the “wrong kind of people” or are just the sort of people we are uncomfortable around, that’s our cue to get excited and say, “Oh Jesus!  What are you up to today?”
The good and godly people around Jesus grumbled, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them,” and you can almost hear Jesus respond, “Yes, I do - what of it?”  Thank God Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with them; it means Jesus can even welcome a sinner like me.
Friends, God welcomes sinners like us; we joyfully welcome others.  May we be found weeping at the feet of Jesus and inviting others to do the same.  God’s grace has been given to us - thank God!   May we be a community who is constantly experiencing and extending God’s grace.
I am grateful and surprised to learn that Jesus had such bad manners, that he couldn’t care less about cultural norms and social protocol.  What gets Jesus excited are transformed lives.  I am grateful that Jesus busted into my life when it wasn’t convenient or polite or proper or on my timetable.  Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with them; that’s not something to grumble about, it’s something to be grateful for.  I’d much rather be grateful to be a sinner welcomed by Jesus than a self-righteous person whose whole life has been an adventure in missing the point.
Surprise someone this week with your bad manners.  Willingly cross polite social boundaries, so that all people will come to know the saving grace and forgiveness of Jesus.  Live out our call to be a community of forgiven and forgiving sinners.
It’ll be the end of polite society as we know it, and a sign that the kingdom of God is among us.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Jesus Taught Teenagers (John 1:35-51)

The next day John was standing again with two of his disciples.  When he saw Jesus walking along he said, “Look!  The Lamb of God!”  The two disciples heard what he said, and they followed Jesus.
When Jesus turned and saw them following, he asked, “What are you looking for?”
They said, “Rabbi (which is translated Teacher), where are you staying?”
He replied, “Come and see.”  So they went and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day.  it was about four o’clock in the afternoon.
One of the two disciples who heard what John said and followed Jesus was Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter.  He first found his own brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Christ).  He led him to Jesus.
Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon, son of John.  You will be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).
The next day Jesus wanted to go into Galilee, and he found Philip.  Jesus said to him, Follow me.”  Philip was from Bethsaida, the hometown of Andrew and Peter.
Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law and the Prophets: Jesus, Joseph’s son, from Nazareth.”
Nathanael responded, “Can anything from Nazareth be good?”
Philip said, “Come and see.”
Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said about him, “Here is a genuine Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”
“Nathanael said, “How do you know me?”
Jesus answered, “Before Philip called you, I saw you under the fig tree.”
Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are God’s Son.  You are the king of Israel."
Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree?  You will see greater things than these!  I assure you that you will see heaven open and God’s angels going up to heaven and down to earth on the Human One!”
Think back to your childhood.  What did you want to be when you grew up?

My dad’s dream was to play center in the NBA.  He says this dream was dashed as he grew up and realized that his arms were too short for that to ever happen.

From a young age, my mom figured I was going to be a preacher, a lawyer, a salesman, or a politician.  Her reasoning was that it was all pretty much the same interchangeable skill set, simply with different products for each.

What about the disciples of Jesus?  What did they want to be when they grew up?  Did they want to grow up to change the world in some way?  Do you think they had any clue that they wouldn’t have to wait until they were all grown up to have that chance?

Today’s message is part of a series called “Surprising Things They Never Told You About Jesus.”  We are looking at episodes in his life that often get missed in the ways we understand Jesus.

Friends, the goal of this series is to help all of us get to know Jesus a little better, even if what we find out makes us a little uncomfortable or challenges what we think we know about him.  The first surprising thing we learned about Jesus was that Jesus could party.  Jesus graciously invites us to a joyful, endless party, and is himself the life of the party.

The next surprising thing we learned about Jesus was that Jesus got ticked off.  Jesus gets ticked off when we are more concerned with making rules than relationships, anytime anyone presumes to speak on God’s behalf, but is devoid of God’s love in what they say.

Last Sunday, while I was in the Holy Land and worshiping in a very different way on and around the Sea of Galilee, Rev. Brad Farrington surprised you by sharing that Jesus destroyed buildings.  Jesus showed that the presence of God is not contained in a place but dwells within each of us, and it’s his desire that we mature into a faith that is less concerned with preserving sacred structures than with the growth of God’s grace and love in our hearts.

Today’s surprising thing is as much about the first disciples of Jesus as it is about Jesus himself.  Among his first 12 disciples, his closest followers, were teenagers.  This is perhaps surprising because the disciples of Jesus are often portrayed as bearded, gray, old men.  Who would have thought that at least a few of them were scruffy, pimply teenagers?  Yet, if you read your Bible closely, and know a little bit about Jewish customs and the historical reality of the time, it’s not much of a stretch, at all.

Our Scripture reading today is John’s account of the call of Jesus’ first disciples.  At this point, Jesus is about 30 years old, and he is gathering a group of students who will spend the next three years with him - living, laughing, and learning together.  These students will walk so closely with Jesus that they grow to become like him and continue his message long after he is gone.

At the time of Jesus, around the age of 5, most boys were sent to school to learn the Hebrew Scriptures.  Around the age of 12, they would apply to a rabbi to be one of his disciples - to learn his way and follow it as closely as they could.  Many would apply for this advanced study, but only a few would be chosen - the brightest and best, an elite few who showed the greatest promise and potential.  The majority of the boys were not chosen, and they would become an apprentice learning a trade.

A typical apprenticeship lasted 6-8 years, meaning they were not a full-fledged, certified, practicioner of their trade until age 18 or 20.  During that time, they may choose to continue their Scripture studies and keep applying to become the students of a rabbi.  Most likely, you’d still be turned down, but you could always apply next year.

I get this image in my mind of the movie, Rudy, where it is Rudy Reuttiger’s lifelong dream to play football at Notre Dame.  The odds are against him - he doesn’t have the grades to qualify for admission, and even if he did, he doesn’t have the money to pay for tuition, let alone the skill or stature to get on the football squad.  He enrolls in a nearby junior college and takes a job to work his way through.  Each semester, he applies to Notre Dame, and despite several rejections, just keeps applying, never losing sight of his dream.

I wonder if the disciples of Jesus had held similar dreams through their adolescent years.  While they were apprentices learning a trade, if they still held dreams of becoming students of a great rabbi, and maybe, one day, becoming great and respected rabbis, themselves.

Surely, they knew the odds were against them.  Yes, a very small handful of hopeful students would still be chosen so late in the game, but it was pretty well understood that if you hadn’t been selected by the time you were 20, it just wasn’t going to happen.  As the 12 we now know as the disciples of Jesus grew into their late teens and early 20s, I wonder if they had given up any hope of becoming the student of any teacher.  I wonder if they had the slightest inkling that the greatest teacher of all would soon walk into their lives, call them by name, and change them forever.

In all honesty, the Scriptures tell us very little about the disciples before they met Jesus.  In fact, for about half of the disciples we only know their names and little other information.  So, how do we know their ages?

Take a look at the clues.  We know that Peter was over the age of 20, because men over the age of 20 were required to pay the temple tax, and from a story in Matthew 17, Peter is required to pay it (Matthew 17:24-27).  Matthew, likewise, was of adult age.  We know that his profession before following Jesus was as a Roman tax collector, meaning he had a great deal of responsibility that would only be trusted to an adult.

So, at least two of the original followers of Jesus were adults.  But, at least another two were teenagers, and for this, we turn to another story where Jesus was calling some disciples along the shores of the Sea of Galilee, in Mark 1:19-20: “After going a little farther, he [Jesus] saw James and John, Zebedee’s sons, in their boat repairing the fishing nets.  At that very moment he called them.  They followed him, leaving their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired workers.”

James and John are still working for dear old Dad.  They aren’t old enough, experienced enough, to be running their own business.  Even the chore they are doing when Jesus walks by, repairing nets, indicates that they are still apprentices, as the time and skill of the hired workers would be too valuable to be spent on so menial and tedious a task.  They’re teenagers!

Throughout the ministry of Jesus, we find all of his disciples one-upping each other; bragging all sorts of outrageous claims about themselves; wavering between extreme fits of headstrong confidence and fearful second-guessing; and selective hearing that so often completely misses the point of what Jesus was trying to get across, and I don’t know about you, but all of that certainly reminds me of myself as a teenager.

And so, all of that is taken together and it becomes pretty easy to see the disciples of Jesus for who they were - teenagers and young men, not the sharpest crayons in the box, not the likely candidates for Jesus to choose, and yet when he walked the shore and called them to be his followers, he was saying, “I believe in you; I believe you can become like me.”

Jesus called teenagers and young adults to follow him.  That’s just amazing. During his earthly ministry, Jesus invested the majority of his time and energy into nurturing the faith of youth and young adults.  Seeing the young as Jesus does opens us to the reality that God has something in store for them, not at some distant point well down the road, but right here and now.

So many of the great movements within the Christian faith have been youth movements, even our own Methodist tradition.  Methodism began when a group of young men, John and Charles Wesley among them, began to meet regularly for prayer, study, and accountability.  They just wanted to follow Jesus.

Last Sunday you met Rev. Brad Farrington, who continues that great tradition of Methodist campus ministry at Appalachian State.  The students in his ministry are just trying to follow Jesus.  My wife leads the Methodist College Fellowship for the students of Davidson College, and those students are just trying to following Jesus.

Friends, none of them set out to change the world.  Yet, as I have seen through those college students, as we have seen through the first Methodists on the campus of Oxford University, and as we have seen in the lives of the first disciples of Jesus, when youthful hearts follow Jesus, watch out! 

Jesus went after youthful hearts because that’s where he was most likely to have the greatest influence.  And keep in mind here, when we talk about “youthful hearts,” we’re not necessarily talking about age.  I have known plenty of old people with youthful hearts, and I’ve known plenty of young people with old hearts.  A youthful heart is one that is open and flexible, whereas an old heart is hard and brittle.  A youthful heart is so much more fertile ground for God to work with, because with an old heart, you have to come in with a jackhammer to break up the concrete around it and then get a wheelbarrow to cart the broken pieces away, and only then can God start to work with what’s there.  Jesus wants us to have youthful hearts – hearts that are open and willing to follow the call of Jesus to go where he leads – doesn’t that sound better than hearts that are so hard and brittle that they are unable and unwilling to follow the voice of Jesus in each new generation?

The voice of Jesus continues to call – it calls you and me – and I only hope and pray that our hearts are young enough – flexible and open enough – to hear his voice and follow him wholeheartedly.  May the heart of every single person here today, whether a child, or a teen, or a young adult or a middle-aged adult or an older adult – may every heart here be a young heart.  May every heart be open enough to respond to the call of Jesus today.

Friends, we have the joyful responsibility to nurture the faith of children, and teens, and young adults.  We get to sow the faith and help young hearts hear the voice of Jesus when he walks the shore and calls their name.  We are called to see them as Jesus does - not simply as “youth,” but as “disciples.”

So, what do you want to be when you grow up?  More importantly, what does Jesus want you to be?  Jesus says “Come, follow me.”  You don’t have to wait until you grow up to do that.  You just need a young heart.