Sinners In The Hands Of A Loving God

Isaiah 56.6-8

And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep the Sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant – these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.

 

“Jews will not replace us! Jews will not replace us! Jews will not replace us!”

So shouted the throngs of white people in Charlottesville last weekend. They carried tiki torches burning in the night, they marched in formation, and they shouted for all to hear what they really felt.

Their anti-Semitic slogan could have gone any number of ways. While carrying around Nazi flags and weapons of violence, while defending white superiority and aggression, they could’ve shouted “Blacks will not replace us!” or “Homosexuals will not replace us” or “The Handicapped will not replace us!”

All of those groups were targeted by the Nazi regime more than half-a-century ago for being “inferior” or a threat to their dominance. The angry and assailing white people in Charlottesville could have picked any number people to shout about, but they picked the Jews. They were there to protest the removal of a Confederate Civil War General’s statue, many of them claimed to be there to protect their white Christianity, and yet they announced for everyone to hear, “Jews will not replace us!”

White Supremacists March with Torches in Charlottesville

People reject other people for all sorts of reasons. White supremacists reject those who represent everything antithetical to their values. Hardline Democrats often reject neo-Conservative values (and vice-versa). Some even reject people for the sport team they root for.

But in the realm of the church, in Christianity, to reject Jews, or any other marginalized group, is simply unchristian. For in God’s vision of the holy mountain, Christians are the gentiles who are gathered to join the Jews. We are the outcasts, the foreigners, the outsiders grafted into God’s great communion. To reject the outcast is to reject ourselves.

There are a great number of Christian churches in the world today with a wide array of views and theologies. In the US, the number of Christian denominations increases every year while the number of actual Christians is falling. And though the church is so varied and different, there is one thing that might unite all churches: the desire to appear as welcoming and inclusive as possible.

All you need to do is check a church website or a bulletin and you can find descriptions of the church that all say something like: we are an open, friendly, inclusive, and welcoming congregation.

In our denomination, we say we have open hearts, open minds, open doors.

Inclusivity is quite the buzzword in the church these days. Rather than appearing at all judgmental, we want people to know that we accept all people. Rather than seeming prejudiced, we want everyone to know they are welcome. Rather than looking at people based on their outward appearance, we want the world to know that we care more about the content of one’s character.

But the truth is there are a great number of people who have been ignored, if not rejected, by congregations claiming to be inclusive. Including our own.

Much like the droves of people protesting in Charlottesville last weekend, we reject others for all sorts of reasons. Non-Christians often assume, thanks to the way the church is talked about in the greater world, that Christians are homophobic, or racist, or elitist, and now anti-Semitic. And you know what, some Christians are. And we should be ashamed for the horrible rhetoric of our past, we should repent for what we have done even if we weren’t there, because whenever the church has rejected “the other” we are forgetting the truth that we were once the rejected outsiders welcomed by God.

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There’s an old story that preachers love to tell about being inclusive and it goes like this: A church was in the middle of a worship service one Sunday morning, the preacher was up in the pulpit, and from where he stood everyone in the pews looked perfect. They were all wearing their Sunday best, the children were all quiet and well-behaved, and no one had fallen asleep. But while the preacher was preaching, a young man entered the back of the church as if he had just come off the street. He smelled up to high heaven, and the congregation quickly moved from focusing on God’s Word to wondering if one of the ushers was going to usher him out.

But the young homeless man walked down the center aisle and took a seat on the floor right in front of the pulpit. The congregation sat stunned while the oldest usher made his way down to the front and instead of berating the young man, he slowly made his way to the floor and sat next to him.

The preacher, witnessing all of this, said to the church, “You all can forget everything I say today, but don’t ever forget what you just saw happen here at the front.”

It’s a nice story right? We can all imagine ourselves in a church setting like that. It even makes us all warm and fuzzy to think about witnessing a holy moment in front of a pulpit.

But the problem with a story like that one is the fact that it makes the church out to be the kind of people who do all the accepting, instead of giving thanks to God for being the One who accepts us in the first place.

It results in us worshipping ourselves instead of worshiping God.

The prophet Isaiah had a tall order. The Israelites were returning from captivity in Babylon to a confused place they’d never even seen. The Word from God came to those who were returning, to those who were too poor to have been exiled in the first place, and to the foreigners who found themselves in a politically unstable part of the world. All of them were unsure of their future when Isaiah offered them a vision of a place where all of them have a place.

It is radical and unnerving Word to those of us with modern sensibilities, whether we’d like to admit it or not, but in God’s kingdom… everyone has a place, including us.

Prior to the return from the exile, membership in God’s community was largely based on being born into the right family, but the vision of who God invites to the holy mountain has nothing to do with genetics, or cultural customs, or skin-pigmentation, or even sexual orientation, but rather on behavior – keep the Sabbath, obey the covenant.

Who we are as Christians is not about what we look like or whom we spend our time with. It’s about loving God and loving our neighbors. God doesn’t even care what church we go to, though Cokesbury is the best one around, God simply hopes for us to live our lives in such a way that we honor and protect every person created by God.

This text, this proclamation from the prophet is good news to the outcasts – to those on the margins of life. It is good news to those who are belittled for their identity, for the people who are not welcomed in many churches on a Sunday morning, and for those who are shamed by the media.

But it is also good news for us, because we are outcasts as well. We are gentiles who have been graciously grafted into God’s vision of a mountain where all are invited to a house of prayer for all people. The good news of this text is that we, not just the people who aren’t here yet, but we are invited to this place even though we don’t deserve it.

And there’s the challenge with being an inclusive church; being inclusive puts all of the power in our hands. But God is the one who invites people to the mountain; God is the one gathering them, not us… because if it were left up to us, we would fail.

Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered. Being inclusive of all peoples means the people on the margins, the ones who suffer at the hands of those in power. But it also means the people in power, the people who thirst for power, the people who are violent for the sake of power.

What happened in Charlottesville last week was terrible, and what makes it even more terrible is the fact that what happened there also happens here in small ways every day.

The practice of racism and bigotry is incompatible with Christian teaching.

To gather together with torches and chants of “The Jews will not replace us!” is incompatible with Christian teaching.

Using tactics of violence and oppression to assert white superiority is incompatible with Christian teaching.

If you turned on the news at all this week and saw what happened in Charlottesville you caught a glimpse of evil. White men and women shooting pepper spray into the faces of black men and women is sinful and shameful. A white man driving a car into a crowd to indiscriminately hurt and main and kill is contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ. An armed militia marching to intimidate and threaten others does not make sense in the kingdom of God.

And it’s much more than what happened in that sleepy little down. The high rate of incarceration that is so heavily skewed toward black bodies is antithetical to the gospel. The muttering of racial slurs and religious discrimination that happens here in our community is offensive and wrong. The assumption that white is right and black is bad, in whatever way, shape, and form it manifests itself, is incompatible with Christian teaching.

From the riots in Charlottesville, to the backyard barbeque racism of Woodbridge, we are a fallen people in need of grace.

And this is why the vision of God’s holy mountain is so important today in particular. Because it is far too easy to talk about loving and including others, it is way too easy to condemn a group of people for the way they treat others, when the very people we are meant to love and include are not just the people on the margins, but also the people responsible for the riots and the racism.

If the vision of the holy mountain and the house of prayer were left to us to achieve, it would never happen. Our judgments and our fear of the other would prevent us from ever bringing that vision to fruition. We, like the Israelites coming home from captivity, or the ones who were left behind, or the foreigners witnessing it all from the outside, can scarcely imagine what it would look like to have everyone gathered together by God.

Only God could make that vision a reality. Only the Lord has the power and the freedom to gather all to the holy mountain. For our God is in the business of making the impossible possible. Our God makes a way where there is no way. Our God sees us not for the sins of our past but for the potential of our future. God sees the people responsible for the riots as sinners who are not outside the realm of mercy. God sees the racist tendencies of our culture and begins transforming perspectives through little seeds of faith that germinate in ways we can scarcely imagine. And God sees us as the sinners we are; God knows how judgmental we can be in our heart of hearts and beckons us to turn back.

God’s vision of the holy mountain, of the house of prayer, is for all: the oppressed and the oppressor, the powerful and the powerless, the rioters and the peacemakers. Only a God who would give his only Son to change the world could prepare a place where all are welcomed. Only a God of impossible possibility could invite people like us into the fold. Only a God of mercy could open the house of prayer for all people. Amen.

Love The Sinner, Hate The Sin

Matthew 7.1-5

Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to you neighbor, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of our neighbor’s eye.

 

We announced this sermon series a couple months back, and ever since then a number of you have expressed your excitement about the possibility of confronting these Christianisms. Whether you were in the middle of suffering and someone said, “God won’t give you more than you can handle” or a friend tried to explain how your struggles were given to you by the Lord because “everything happens for a reason” or any number of situations, these dumb things that Christians say are things all of us have heard.

However, some of you have also expressed your concern about today’s statement, the last one in the series, “love the sinner, hate the sin.”

It sounds so right doesn’t it? What could possibly be wrong with it?

We can all agree that Christians say a lot of dumb things, but this is a good thing to say, right?

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In my experience, when people say “love the sinner, hate the sin” they are usually referring to homosexuality. For many, it is a kind and Christian way to say, “I love my gay friends, but I hate that they’re gay.” In this post-truth, post-liberal, post-whatever period, it is a way for some of us to cover our true feelings while appearing congenial toward those whom we disagree with about sexuality.

Though recently, when I’ve heard people say it they are now using it with regard to the realm of politics. It is amazing how quickly the Christian cover-all for conversations about homosexuality has shifted to conversations about who, or who isn’t, running the country. “Well, I know she voted for that traitor Hillary Clinton, but I love her anyway.” Or “Donald Trump is ruining our country, but I love him anyway.” “I love my brother, but he can be a bleeding liberal.” “I love my sister, but she’s so conservative she’s off the political spectrum.”

Love the sinner, hate the sin.

It sounds good, but it’s pretty hard to hate another’s sin, without harming the sinner.

What is sin? We don’t talk about it anymore. Pastors like me would rather talk about God’s loving nature, than God’s judgment. We would rather tell people like you to love your neighbors, than to tell you to tell your neighbor they’re sinners. We would rather skip over the hard and strange passages about condemnation than truly proclaim that God’s scripture is still speaking to us today.

But for a long time, and I mean a LONG time, sin was THE thing that pastors talked about; sinners in the hands of an angry God, fire and brim stone, and repent or burn forever.

We’re afraid of sin. And not sin as a behavior; we’re afraid to talk about it because it makes us, and our congregations, uncomfortable. I hear again and again that people don’t want to leave church feeling miserable about their lives and their behavior, so preachers like me water down the gospel and we avoid even mentioning sin.

In fact, I had a professor in seminary who taught us to preach ten sermons about grace for every one sermon about sin. We preachers, and you Christians, can’t handle the topic of sin like we once could.

But what is it?

In both Hebrew and Greek the words for sin basically means “to wander from the path” or “to miss the mark.” Sin is any action, thought, or behavior that divides us from God. Sin can be any choice, or lack of choice, that results in failing to do something we know we should.

And here’s the thing: We all do it. All of us sin. From the guy standing before you in a white robe, to the decades long Sunday School teacher, to the child drawing on his bulletin, to the person in the pew across the aisle, to you. We are all sinners.

We think, say, and do things we should not. And we fail to think, say, and do things we should.

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Love the sinner. Of course we are supposed to love the sinner. Jesus did it all the time. Most of his ministry was about loving sinners. The problem is that Jesus does not call his disciples to love sinners, but to love our neighbors.

This is an important difference. The difference being the starting point. If we say we are going to love sinners, we will view other people more like sinners and less like neighbors. It automatically puts us into a place of judgment where we are the righteous, and they are not.

Loving sinners also furthers the problematic identity problem where by we understand and identify others by their mistakes. We label people by their sins. Regardless of when the sin occurred, and even regardless of frequency, we still call people things like cheaters, adulterers, and liars.

Or, to put it another way: Instead of seeing our neighbors as our neighbors, we judge them and identify them by which political candidate’s name was on a sign in their front yard.

A while back one of my friends was starting a new job fresh out of college. He was understandably nervous when he entered the office building for the first time and made his way to a cubicle near the corner of the room. He quietly unloaded his boxes of pertinent materials onto his desk and set up pictures of his family and friends while other employees walked idly by.

There were signs that someone had used the cubicle before him: an accidental scratch across the desk, a piece of discarded paper in the trashcan, and finger smudges on the computer monitor. But other than that, the cubicle was empty.

He worked his first full day under the weight of focus, though a few people came by to introduce themselves. And when it was time to go home he packed his bag and opened the top drawer to grab his pen when he noticed a post-it note near the back. Without thinking much about it, he grabbed it and read three big words: DO NOT TRUST. And underneath those words were the names of five people from the office.

Can you imagine? No matter how hard he tried to forget the note, no matter how hard he tried to trust the people in spite of what he read, his entire perspective had been reshaped by those three words.

The same happens when we view others as sinners first, and neighbors second. We should always try to love them, but we can love them even more if we see them first as our brothers and sisters and less as sinners in our midst.

Jesus says, “Why do you look for the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” We’re good at seeing the sin in others. That’s what Facebook is for! So we can vent about the sinners in our midst and all the problems they’re causing for the rest of us!

Jesus used this expression because he knew that the disciples would struggle with the tendency to judge others. So instead of loving the sinner, perhaps it’s better to say “I am a sinner, and I ‘m trying love my neighbor.”

But we still have to face the end, “hate the sin.”

Jesus spent a lot of time with sinners: drunks, prostitutes, thieves, murderers, traitors, and countless others who sinned against the Lord. Jesus routinely gathered with them to do what we will do in a few minutes, he broke bread with them. Jesus gave him the most precious gift he had to offer, his time. And then he told them to follow him.

But Jesus never, not even once, said to any of them, “I love you, but I hate your sin.”

Jesus, instead, offered forgiveness.

He encountered all kinds of people who were defined by their choices, and he saw them for who they were in spite of their sins. His love was such that it knew no bounds. It was enough.

            But we are not like Jesus. We fail to love the other as brother and the stranger as sister. We have logs in our eyes and say things like, “love the sinner, hate the sin.”

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There was a man who died, and upon his death he arrived at the pearly gates in heaven. He looked all around and soaked up the sights of the fluffy clouds and he was so excited to see people just on the other side of the gate that he had missed for so long. He wanted to run straight to them but there was a line leading up to St. Peter. So the man got in line and waited patiently for his turn.

He knew it wasn’t the right thing to do, but as he got closer he couldn’t help eavesdropping on the conversations between St. Peter and the soon to be residents of heaven. “Oh you did so much for that soup kitchen!” “You’re the one who read scripture out loud in church every week, very good, very good.” And so on. But when the man’s turn came, St. Peter looked down in the Book of Life and then said, “Yeah you were a believer, but you skipped the ‘not being a jerk about it’ part.”

Saying, and living by, “love the sinner, hate the sin” makes us jerks. It means the log in our eye is so large that we are unable from seeing others as brothers and sisters. It means that our own sinfulness blinds us from truly loving.

There is sin in this world. People will make the wrong choice, they will choose evil. We will make sinful decisions; we will avoid doing the things we know we should do. But instead of rallying together and focusing on all the sins and problems of other people, instead of flocking to the Internet and like-minded dinner parties to declare the sins of the other, we all need to take a good hard look in the mirror. We need to recognize the log in our own eyes before we dare point out the speck in another.

Because Jesus, looks right into our hearts and says “I love you, log and all.”

God in Christ knows the prejudices we’re ashamed of, God knows the golden calves we worship instead of Him, God sees our self-righteousness and indignation and says, “I love you, log and all.”

God sees the emails we craft out of anger but are too afraid to send, God knows the ways we lie to our spouses and our children, God witnesses the depth of our depravity and says, “I love you, log and all.”

God was there with us in the voting booth, God hears the sighs we utter in response to someone on the other side of the political aisle, God knows how we really feel and says, “I love you, log and all.”

“Love the sinner, hate the sin.” We say it. We read it. We might even live by it. But we should just stop with the word “love.”

Love.

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Not Hallmark love. Not Valentine’s Day love. But love like Jesus. That might be good enough. Because loving like Jesus does not mean turning away from the sinners in our midst. It means walking up to a crowd of people who are about to do something terrible and saying, “Who among you is without sin? Let him cast the first stone!”

It means encountering the beauty of the Lord and responding with the truest words we can ever say: “Have mercy on me Lord, a sinner.”

It means being humble enough to seek out those whom we have wronged and asking for their forgiveness.

It means caring for those on the margins regardless of the decisions they’ve made or the sins they’ve committed.

It means reaching out to the people who we disagree with most not to change their mind, but to offer them the same thing Jesus offer us, time.

So the next time we say “love the sinner, hate the sin.” Let’s just stop with love. Amen.

Sinners, Outcasts, and the Poor

John 4.3-10

But he had to go back through Samaria. So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritan.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you the living water.”

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If you want to know about Jesus, this is the story to read. We can read about his remarkable birth in a manger in Bethlehem, we can read about him feeding the multitudes by the sea, we can even read about him turning water into wine, but this little episode by the well is quintessential Jesus.

At the time, Jews avoided Samaritans. If they had to travel from the northern area of Galilee to the southern area of Jerusalem, most Jews would go hours or days out of their way to avoid passing through the region of Samaria that separated the two. Like Apartheid in South Africa or segregation in the United States, the people were separated in all things. This kind of negative and polarized relationship between the groups of people had gone on for centuries to the point where, even though they had many things in common, they believed the divide was irreparable.

And yet Jesus shows up in this Samaritan city, and under the heat of the sun at noon, he goes to the well to rest. While resting, a Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said, “Give me a drink.”

In this simple moment, a lot is going on. To begin, the unnamed woman coming to the well at the hottest part of the day is strange. Most women would have gone to the well early in the morning when it was still cool outside. The well was the area for local gossip and fellowship; it was a site for the community. And she came to the well all alone. We learn later in the scripture that she had gone from one man to another, and was now living with a man who was not her husband. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to picture why she was separated from the other Samaritan woman, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to picture how lonely she must have felt, and it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to picture what the people in the village would have called her: “sinner.”

The woman could not believe that this Jewish man was speaking to her, a Samaritan woman. And Jesus responds by saying, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you the living water.

Jesus loves sinners. Here in this little story by the well we confront Jesus’ love for the marginalized, and his belief in the inherent worth of all people. When we imagine the depth of her thirst for acceptance, and the relief of the living water offered to her without cost, it compels us to ask: Do we see all people as children of God? Or do we see them as society sees them – sinners, outcasts, and poor?

Water bucket being raised from a well

There is a church in Virginia that is located right across the street from a major university. For years they have explored numerous ways to get “the young people to come to church” but they have continued to decline. They thought that by offering lectures on the importance of abstinence, or the effects of excessive drinking, or how to be political and faithful, droves of the coming generations would fill the pews on Sunday mornings.

Next to the church is a row of college housing that becomes loud and filled with debauchery on the weekends. Even though the church parking lot has numerous signs saying: “Church Parking Only” certain members were known for driving by on Saturday evenings with the explicit purpose of calling the tow company to have the party goers’ cars removed.

On one particular Friday evening, while one of the committees was meeting in the social hall, a loud and sinful party was happening right across the parking lot. The members, though tasked with discussing something like the new color for the parlor, focused their time and effort on how to fix the problem next door. They finally decided to march across the parking lot and demand that the college students stop their partying and remove their cars from the parking lot.

As they knocked and knocked on the doors the sound of their knuckles disappeared into the thundering boom of the bass and they decided they had had enough and they called the police.

With satisfied smiles across their faces, the committee stood proudly in the parking lot while tow trucks removed the vehicles, and while the police escorted those who were too young to be legally drinking in handcuffs to their cruisers.

And they still wonder why no young people attend church.

Notice: in the episode with Jesus by the well he does not say to the woman, “I know you’re a sinner, and you need to be punished for your sins.” He does not call the religious authorities for her transgressions against the law. And he does not stand by with a smug look on his face when he confronts her sinful past. Instead he says, “I can offer you living water.”

There is another church in Virginia that is located right across the street from another major university. Like the first church they struggled to get the college age population to attend their church, they struggled with the sinful behavior that was happening so close, and they wondered how they could be Jesus for these young people. One night, after a steady stream of weeks when empty beers cans were found every Sunday morning on the lawn, the pastor and a group of leaders gathered in the church to pray for the community and prayerfully discern how to move forward. They contemplated calling the police, they weighed the outcome of going over to the house and knocking on the door, but an older woman suggested that they go to the Greek life council and ask how they could help.

When the president of one of the fraternities heard their question, he laughed in response and said jokingly, “If you want to help us… we could use some food and a place to hang out in the middle of the night after a party.” Without missing a beat the same older woman from the church said, “Okay. What time?”

The following weekend, a group of faithful volunteers arrived at the church at midnight and fired up their grills. They cooked hot dogs and hamburgers, set up bean bags in the social hall, and placed signs on the lawn welcoming any college student in, regardless of inebriation, for free food. The first night only a handful of students bravely entered with puzzled looks on their faces in regard to a church that was not condemning them for their behavior, but was just trying to offer food and fellowship. But over the following weeks, more and more people arrived in the social hall every weekend thankful for the love they were experiencing.

And the strangest thing started to happen. On Sundays, when church members arrived for worship, the lawn was free of empty beers can, and though some members came in with bags under their eyes, they were thrilled to discover that many of the students who had sat on the bean bags with hamburgers in their hands the night before were sitting in the pews next to them on Sunday morning.

Who are the Samaritans to us? Our church is not located next to a large university where partying behavior can be experienced through empty beer cans on our front lawn, but there are plenty of people that we want to avoid or ignore. Many of us find that the longer we’re Christian, the more likely it is that all our friends are Christians too. Following Jesus however, means building relationships with people outside the church. We, like Jesus, are called to encounter the Samaritans and show them the love of Christ, whether they ever come to church or not.

Samaritans, therefore, are the people we ignore or avoid. That neighbor who insists on letting his dog use our lawn as a toilet; that coworker who incessantly complains about everything wrong with the business without doing anything about it; that in-law who tells us how to raise our family; that homeless man who sits on the corner of the street asking for money; that college student who plays the music in his car way too loud; that woman who has gone from man to man without finding love.

Where can we find them? We don’t have a well on the front lawn of our church, and frankly it is nearly impossible to discover our Samaritans at church. They, like the college students with churches right across the street, will not come to us; we have to go to them. We can find them in the communal spaces of life: our workplaces, our neighbors, our families. Remember that Jesus did not wait in Galilee for the Samaritans to come to him; he left the comfort and convention of the day and went to meet them where they were.

How can we give them living water? We don’t have to bring a bottle of water to everyone that exists outside of the church to share with them the love of Jesus, but’s that’s not necessarily a bad place to start. That one church found that by offering food and fellowship to their local community of college students they were offering the living water that is the love of Jesus. When we host our community cook-outs on our front lawn we are offering living water to the community through bouncy houses and free food. But finding the Samaritans in our lives, and offering them living water should be a regular occurrence and not just a once a year activity.

We give Samaritans living water by loving them no matter what. Instead of wagging our fingers in judgment against their sins or strange ways, we open our ears and listen to their struggles. Instead of looking down on others and trying to fix their problems, we share with them the crazy truth that we are broken just like them. Instead of ignoring people and leaving them to their own devices, we find them where they are and offer them the living water.

This great and powerful story is a reminder, now and always, that people who are nobodies to us are usually somebodies in the eyes of Jesus. The people we ignore are often the ones Jesus would seek out. The people we would deem sinners are the ones Jesus would spend time with.

We often think of God and Church in these big and sweeping images. We read about God’s overpowering magnificence and we experience God’s presence in majestic churches like this one. So we ask: Can a little thing like a cup of cool water, like a cheeseburger in the middle of the night, like an invitation to worship, offered in love, be the beginning of a salvation journey? The answer is yes; and we will never know what the living water can transform until we meet the Samaritan where they are and offer it in the first place. Amen.

Reality Check – Sermon on Psalm 4

Psalm 4

Answer me when I call, O God of my right! You gave me room when I was in distress. Be gracious to me, and hear my prayer. How long, you people, shall my honor suffer shame? How long will you love vain words, and seek after lies? But know that the Lord has set apart the faithful for himself; the Lord hears when I call to him. When you are disturbed, do not sin; ponder it on your beds, and be silent. Offer right sacrifices, and put your trust in the Lord. There are many who say, “O that we might see some good! Let the light of your face shine on us, O Lord!” You have put gladness in my heart more than when their grain and wine abound. I will both lie down and sleep in peace; for you alone, O Lord, make me lie down in safety.

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He was resting in the bed when I entered the room. Like many people suffering from a terminal illness, the living room had been reimagined as a bedroom with medical equipment spread throughout the space. The older man’s son stood next to me, trying not to cry while he watched his dad sleeping in the bed. The son gently nudged his father to wake up and introduced me as the young seminary intern. He then left us alone.

After his son left the room, the older man sat up from his bed with a smile that left me feeling disoriented. I could see his physical discomfort, but there was a sense of joy and peace that emanated from his whole person to anyone around. Unsure how to begin our conversation, I just sat there trying to come up with something, when he interrupted my thoughts by saying, “Taylor, this cancer has been the best thing that ever happened to me.

Rev. Willie Mac Tribble was dying of a brain tumor. He had spent the majority of his life serving as a United Methodist Pastor in the North Georgia Conference. He had pastored 10 different churches during his 40-year career, but now he was stuck in his living room talking to a young seminarian about his life and ministry. Though simple movements sent lightning bolts of pain throughout his body, and he was nearing the end of his life, he claimed that his suffering had been a blessing.

Psalm 4 is often overlooked in the life of faithfulness, but it conveys the depth of what it means to rely on the Lord and have the right perspective. Upon first inspection we might label it as an evening psalm, something to be prayed before our heads hit the pillows: I will both lie down and sleep in peace; for you alone, O Lord, make me lie down in safety. It sounds like a prayer that we hope the leaders of our community would utter up to God recognizing they have endured shame for the betterment of the people. It is selfless, hopeful, and faithful. 

Yet, this psalm is not just for a particular set of people with a specific set of problems, but it is a psalm for all of us, worthy to be prayed throughout our lives.

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Psalm 4 begins by addressing the Lord:

God, when I start praying, please listen and answer me. I know that you are the Lord of my life, and you are with me in all things, but I need you presence now.

In the past you provided for me when I was in need. You placed words on my tongue when I was speaking, you sent the right people into my life when I was lonely, and you provided food from the earth when I was hungry. So Lord, be gracious yet again and listen to me as I pray.

The psalmist then moves to address the people who no longer trust God:

How long will all you people fall short of you potential? Why do you continue to love words that puff up, that make you sound better than you are, that inflate your ego and self-perception? How long will you believe all the lies that surround you? Why are you so transfixed by the rumors and drama? Remember this: the Lord has set us apart to be a holy people who pursue holiness. The Lord listens when we call to him. 

When life is full of disappointment and regret, when you feel like nothing is going your way and the floor is crumbling underneath, when you experience loneliness and fear, do not sin. Instead of venting and taking out your frustrations on other people, ponder your circumstances and be silent. Give up the things that are tearing you down, and put your trust in the Lord. 

Too many people only believe and keep faith when everything is going right in their lives. They only praise the Lord when they are successful, and the minute something becomes derailed they blame the Lord first before looking at themselves. Too many prayers are based upon: “Lord, if you do this for me, I will turn my life around, or I’ll start going to church.”

We are at the peak of our faithfulness when we recognize the gladness the Lord has placed in our hearts more than when all the material things of life abounded. We do well to recognize the Lord’s blessing in all things and trust that God is with us. Because it is only with a deep trust and confidence in the Lord that we can sleep in peace, for the Lord is the one who brings us comfort in our rest.

Why are all of us here this morning? I count it as nothing short of a miracle that God continues to gather people together every week for worship. But the fact that people choose to spend their time doing something like this will always surprise me. With all the competing narratives in our world, we decided to come here to participate in an ancient practice of letting the Lord reorient our lives.

Why are we here? Perhaps the best answer to that question is this: we want to hear something true. All of us are constantly bombarded by the facts of the life, and the subsequent denial of those facts. We wake up feeling sore and then we watch a commercial about a cream that can make all of our pain go away. We struggle through relationship after relationship and then we get invited to an online dating service that promises to find us a companion for life. We wrestle with children who neglect to pay attention at home and school, and a friend tells us about the magic pill that will calm our children, and make them into who they are supposed to be.

And then we come to church and we hear the truth. We learn about our sinfulness and how we need to be better. But through the church there are no cheap fixes, there’s no pill or simple prayer that can turn everything around. Discovering our sinfulness and seeking holiness requires a lifetime of work.

Yet, here we are. I have to believe that even though the life of discipleship is remarkably difficult, we are here because we believe it is worth it. We are here because we hear the words of Psalm 4 and we know that it is speaking something new and truthful into our very lives on this very day.

Church, at its best, is the arena of reality checks. Whether we want to admit it or not, this is the time when we face the truth: The unrighteous often flourish, and the faithful are usually ridiculed and ignored. In fact, godliness tends to make suffering inevitable. Psalm 4 speaks to the deep truth of what it means to follow Christ: if we really act like the Christians we claim to be, we will be persecuted for our discipleship.

So here is the deep reality check of Psalm 4: True happiness and faithfulness is often found in the least likely of places. We imagine that the wealthy and powerful are joyful but what they have cannot make them happy and sleep in peace. It never ceases to amaze me, but I regularly discover happiness in places I would never imagine: hospitals and funerals. The people who are in the midst of pain and suffering are somehow renewing their own lives. They are the ones who are proving that they can face life’s harshness and still stand fast. There is an inner glow in the heart of a disciple who can show such faith in the midst of something so tragic.

Taylor” he said, “this cancer has been the best thing that ever happened to me. For the first time in years people have been anxious to come visit with me. For decades I served as a pastor and was surrounded by people, but since I retired I have never been so lonely in my life. Yet now, my sons and daughter, who used to just call once in awhile, have been driving to see me on a regular basis. I’ve had old confirmands and church members from past seek me out since my diagnosis. Friends from long ago have reached out through letters, phone calls, and even visits. I am ashamed that, for the first time in my life, I am thankful for living at all.

Mac’s faith was not grounded in simple and straightforward theological claims, but was instead rekindled by the recognition of how blessed his life really was. It is so sad that it often takes a profound loss or an unwavering diagnosis to make us appreciate what we have, but for Mac it made all the difference. He recognized the true gladness in his heart, even in the midst of suffering, because God’s love was being poured down upon him during the final days of his life. He could only claim his cancer as the best thing to happen, because he understood that death is not the end, and that God will take care of us when we die.

This room is full of sinners and maybe that’s exactly why we are here. While the world tells us to forget our mistakes and press forward, the church calls us to look upon our short-comings and repent. While we seek to find fulfillment in relationships and passions, the church challenges us to remember that only the Lord can provide wholeness. While we strive to ignore that annoying co-worker, and push off our children’s problems onto someone else, the church tells us to love one another and take responsibility.

This is one of the only places left that actually challenges us with the truth. 

I stand at the front door every Sunday and I see all the sinners gather for worship. I see the broken relationships, the arguments between friends, the bad blood that continues to boil over, the resentments and frustrations, the prejudices and failures. And we stand and sit, we praise and pray, and then the chief sinner of us all gets to stand at the front and talk about what God is still doing in our lives.

My friends, we can’t wait for something bad to happen before we begin to appreciate what we have. If we base our happiness around material success, then we will never feel truly fulfilled. If Psalm 4 is speaking something to us today, it’s to start giving thanks for what we have, and seeking out those whom God has placed in our lives.

But if we’re not at that point, then we can at least begin with prayer. Maybe like the psalmist we can commune with the Lord before we go to sleep, or perhaps we can go to God the moment we awake in the morning. It does not matter how we pray, but that we pray in the first place because prayer leads to trust, a trust in the Lord that even when we die, it will not be the end. Amen.

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Sinners and Saints – Sermon on Psalm 34.1-8

Psalm 34.1-8

I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth. My soul makes its boast in the Lord; let the humble hear and be glad. O magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together. I sought the Lord, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears. Look to him, and be radiant; so your faces shall never be ashamed. This poor soul cried, and was heard by the Lord, and was saved from every trouble. The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and delivers them. O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those to take refuge in him.

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Tomorrow will be my 6th funeral. Betty Lancaster, Georgeanna Driver, Brandy Garletts, Russ Wisely, Dick Markley, and now Chris Harris. I can remember the way my heart raced when I got the phone calls when each of them passed, I can still see their families in tears during the funeral, and I can still remember the sensation of the dirt in my hand when I dropped it on the caskets at the cemeteries. Without a doubt, preaching and presiding over funerals is one of the greatest privileges, and most difficult challenges, that I have as a pastor.

I am invited into one of the most sensitive aspects of a family’s life when I find out that someone has died. Those moments in the car on my way to a home or hospital, are filled with prayerful silence as I ask God to use me as a vessel of his grace and peace with a family who is in the midst of grief. You never know what to say, because there is nothing to say. You sit and listen, you provide the loving comfort of presence, and you pray for everyone you can think of.

Today is All Saints’; a day for us to remember those who have gone on to glory over the last year from our church, and from all of our families and friends. It is a hallowed time where we reflect on the ways that our friends and families shaped us into who we are today. It is that precious day when we give thanks to God for putting them in our lives, and then welcoming them back into his eternal arms. All Saints’, like funerals, is a time for us to speak truths about the lives of those close to us, with the hope of the promised resurrection.

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No matter what, funerals are always difficult. Funerals are a remarkably sensitive time for families and you have to be very careful about what you say, and how you say it. Yet even with the fear and trembling that comes with proclaiming someone’s life and death, I do look forward to sharing stories that help to reveal the character of the person’s life that we are remembering.

For instance:

The first time I met Brandy Garletts was early in my time here at the church. She was older and had been moved to a rehabilitation center when I went to visit her. I spent way too much time worrying about what I would say to this stranger for the first time, what her impression of me would be, and how could I speak words of hope in her situation. When I made my way to the facility, after finally finding her room, she motioned for me to sit across from her to lean in closer. Before I could even open my mouth to begin speaking all the prepared thoughts that I had, Brandy asked me a question that I was completely unprepared for: “Are you a registered voter?

There I was sitting across from an incredibly sweet woman, someone that many people from our church have admired and looked up to, prepared to talk about God, faith, and grace, and she wanted to find out if I was a democrat or a republican.

Brandy was a fiercely strong woman and fought for what she believed in. Asking me about my political ideology was indicative of the life she lived; always looking for new opportunities to make the world better for others.

Or I could tell you about a story that Russ Wisely shared with me in my office: “Many years ago,” he began, “we had another young pastor. Fletcher Swink had just graduated from Duke Divinity School and was sent to Staunton for his first appointment, just like you. In the beginning everything was great. Fletcher provided strong leadership, the church was growing, and we started to build the property that we are now sitting in. However, one day, Fletcher called me because he had a problem and had no idea what to do. He had performed a wedding for a young couple in Staunton, his very first, and only after signing the marriage certificate did he realize that he had not filled out the proper paperwork to legally marry people in the state of Virginia. He was at a loss for what to do, so I told him to come with me to the courthouse; I knew the judge and figured we might be able to work something out. When we brought the matter to the judge he looked at me and he asked ‘Russ, what do you think we can do?’ and I told him that we could sign the paperwork and just change the date to have happened before the wedding, to which he replied, ‘sounds like a good idea to me.

I sat there in my office stunned. Here was this older man telling me a story about how he had manipulated the legal system just to cover for a young pastor who had made a mistake. Was he telling me this story to make sure that I didn’t make any mistakes? Was he trying to scare me about the responsibilities of leading the church? I sat there in my chair, unsure of how the story would conclude. Russ then looked at me right in the eyes to finish, “That happened nearly 60 years ago. I helped Fletcher because it was important. I want you to know, young man, that I am here to help you as well. If you need anything I want you to call me.” And with that he stood up and prepared to leave my office. Only then did I realize that I never said a word. 

Russ Wisley sacrificed for others and was willing to work behind the scenes to make things happen. Whether here at church or in the community, Russ would help anyone he could, because he believed in the importance of supporting others.

What has struck me most about the lives we have celebrated over the last year, the people who we are remembering today, is that they understood the words from Psalm 34; their lives were a reflection of God’s goodness and they lived as saints for others to follow.

I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth.” Saints are those who can speak and live in such a way as to point to the Lord in all that they do. They give thanks to the Lord their God for the blessings they have received and give back to others from their abundance. Saints recognize the presence of God and do whatever they can to share that experience with others because they know how life-giving it can be.

O magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together.” Saints do what they can to benefit the greater community and not just their own lives. They are not content with having a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” but see the great gift that the community of faith can be. They worship together to praise the Lord of hosts, and exalt his name. At church they sing from the depth of their being, and greet others in Christian love. At home they pray fervently for their lives, for their friends and family, for their enemies, and for their church. They strive to magnify the Lord in all that they do so that others can know how life-giving it can be.

I sought the Lord, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears.” Saints understand that God has continued to seek them out throughout the years, and take the time to respond to God’s great calling. Instead of remaining complacent with their faith journeys, they seek out the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob with the knowledge that in doing so, the Lord will answer. Instead of just hoping for good things to happen because they live good lives, they take leaps of faith to encounter the living God who will deliver them from fear. Saints believe that going to the Lord reorients all expectations and priorities and they encourage others to go to the Lord because they know how life-giving it can be.

Look to him, and be radiant; so your faces shall never be ashamed. This poor soul cried, and was heard by the Lord, and was saved from every trouble.” Saints know that life is not always easy, and that there will be times of suffering. To follow the commands of God, to live by the beatitudes, implies a willingness to see the world turned upside down where the first will be last and the last will be first. They do not let their sufferings get the best of them, but instead they remember that suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint. They encourage others to not give in to the suffering in their lives but to firmly place their hope in Jesus Christ because they know how life-giving it can be.

Our saints have lived lives worthy of emulation. The more I learned about their discipleship as I prepared for their funerals, the more I wanted to live like them. I was struck over and over again by how deeply rooted they were in their faith, and how much they worked to live like Jesus. However, that’s not to say that our saints have been perfect; even Jesus’ family tree is filled with broken and battered branches.

On All Saint’s Sunday, we remember the saints, and let us be sure to remember all of them. Not just the wonderful and psalm-like moments from their lives, but the bruised and blemished moments as well. Not just the saints from our church family that have died, but all the saints who have witnessed to God’s love for us.

Who do you think of when you hear the word “saint”? Do you picture Mother Teresa, Augustine, or John Wesley? Do you think about people who lived perfectly pure lives? Or do you think about the people in your life who have simply encouraged you in your faith?

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Those who we remember today were both sinners and saints. There were times that they fell short of God’s expectations, there were times that they did not practice what they preached. There were moments that they neglected to praise and and magnify the Lord. But God has a crafty way of turning sinners into saints.

God almighty, maker of heaven and earth, has done, and will continue to do, some incredible things through the sinners in our midst. You might remember those that have died for all the negative, bad, and embarrassing things that they did, but God saw them in their sinfulness and saw potential. God has used our saints to change our lives for the better by shaping us into the disciples we are today.

The pulpit is a wonderful vantage point. From where I stand I can look out on the gathered body of Christ and take in the view in one fell swoop:

When I look out from here I see a church full of sinners. I see the brokenness that many of you have shared with me, but have refused to share with anyone else. I see the fights, frustrations, and failures that haunt so many of you on a regular basis. I look out and see the doubts that cloud your faith, the temptations that draw you away from God, and the selfishness that drives you away from one another.

But at the same time, when I look out from here I see a church full of saints. I see the body of Christ praising the Lord through prayer and song. I see the humble souls that are thankful for the blessing of life. I see the love, life, and vitality that invigorates so many of you toward wholeness. I look out and see the radiant faces that shine with God’s glory. I see a church that is full of people willing and excited to work for God’s kingdom.

So, like the psalmist says, let us come to the God’s table; see and taste how the Lord is good. Remember all of those who have gone before us to a table such as this, to take refuge in the Lord.

Let us also give thanks to the Lord for putting the saints we remember into our lives. For helping to shape and mold them out of their sinfulness and into saintliness. For their desire to share the Good News with us so that we might know what grace is really all about.

And let us hope and pray that God would continue to give us the strength to be saints for others in spite of our sinfulness. So that one day, God willing, the church will get together to worship the Lord and give thanks for us after we die.

Amen.

This Is NOT Appropriate For Church – Sermon on Joshua 2.1-14

Joshua 2.1-14

Then Joshua son of Nun sent two men secretly from Shittim as spies, saying, “Go, view the land, especially Jericho.” So they went, and entered the house of a prostitute whose name was Rahab, and spent the night there. The king of Jericho was told, “Some Israelites have come here tonight to search out the land.” Then the king of Jericho sent orders to Rahab, “Bring out the men who have come to you, who entered your house, for they have come only to search out the whole land.” But the woman took the two men and hid them. Then she said, “True, the men came to me, but I did not know where they came from. And when it was time to close the gate at dark, the men went out. Where the men went I do not know. Pursue them quickly, for you can overtake them.” She had, however, brought them up to the roof and hidden them with the stalks of flax that she had laid out on the roof. So the men pursued them on the way to the Jordan as far as the fords. As soon as the pursuers had gone out, the gate was shut. Before they went to sleep, she came up to them on the roof and said to the men: “I know that the Lord has given you the land, and that dread of you has fallen on us and that all the inhabitants of the land melt in fear before you. For we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites that were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and Og, whom you utterly destroyed. As soon as we heard it, our hearts melted, and there was no courage left in any of us because of you. The Lord your God is indeed God in heaven above and on earth below. Now then, since I have dealt kindly with you, swear to me by the Lord that you in turn will deal kindly with my family. Give me a good sign of faith that you will spare my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and all who belong to them, and deliver our lives from death.” The men said to her, “Our life for yours! If you do not tell this business of ours, then we will deal kindly and faithfully with you when the Lord gives us the land.”

Today we begin our Sermon Series on Women of Faith. Last Advent I asked all of you to submit questions or topics for preaching that you have always wanted to hear about from the pulpit. I received so many questions and comments that I was unable to address all of them during our January series on Questions, so I decided to save this particular series for later. It was incredible for me to discover how many of you wanted to hear about the women from scripture. I remember one card said, “I hear there are these great women from the Bible, but no one ever preaches on them.” So, here we are, may God bless our time together as we explore dynamic and feminine faith.

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Sometimes we read stories from the bible that are not appropriate for church. A few weeks ago we did just that as we remembered Elisha and the she-bears, and Isaiah getting naked for three years. Every once and a while we come across that passage that is so daring and vulgar that we would rather ignore it, and most of all, we would not read it aloud in church.

Rahab the harlot. A woman of ill-repute. From the Red Light district becomes the savior for a few spies.

Why in the world would God use her to save his people? Rahab the harlot? I mean I would understand if God chose Rahab the UMW president, or Rahab the Sunday School teacher, but Rahab the prostitute? This is not appropriate for church.

Moses has died. He led his people to the brink of the Promised Land, and handed over God’s people to Joshua. Joshua in turn takes care of the nomadic nation and sends spies ahead of them to survey the land and, in particular, Jericho.

Two men, hand-picked by their leader, sneak their way into the city, and as it sometimes happens to young men close to the edge of death, they arrive at Rahab’s place in the bad part of town.

The king catches wind that some spies had entered the city and he sent his own men to capture them. When the foot-soldiers arrive at Rahab’s place, she listens to their questions, and she lies! Perhaps as only women of the night can do, she peaked from behind the door, offered that dynamite smile, and said with confidence, “Sure, there were two Jewish guys here earlier, but they paid for everything, and went on their way. I’m sure if you start after them right now, you’ll be able to catch them.

While the king’s men traveled down the road, sure their bounty was just ahead of them, Rahab returned to the roof where she had hidden the Hebrews. She explains that she had heard of the mighty acts of their God, how they were delivered from Egypt, and defeated their enemies. In return for saving their lives, she asks for them to repay the favor when they return to Jericho to destroy the city.

I can imagine what some of you are thinking right now: Seriously Taylor? You told us you were going to preach on women of faith and this is who you picked for us? Rahab? She’s a conniving and lying harlot! 

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However, the Old and New Testaments are filled with saintly characters who have both enviable and regrettable characteristics. Noah gets drunk and passes out naked after landing the Ark, King David lusts after Bathsheba and plots to have her husband killed, Peter denies Christ three times after his arrest. What becomes important, what sets them apart, is that God wants them to do something holy, not that they were holy to begin with.

Rahab, full of faith, heard about how the Lord delivered his people, and Rahab believes and embraces God as supreme. Her declaration and acts of salvation towards the spies are more than actions and words; she is worshipping the Almighty. Even with her scandalous background, something not appropriate for church, Rahab experienced the greatest wonder of all – God’s limitless love and power to use and save the least likely of people. 

After church last week Lindsey and I left Staunton and we traveled to Alexandria to be with my family. Not only were we planning to enjoy the Labor Day holiday, but we were going to surprise one of my grandmothers for her 81st birthday.

I love my grandmother tremendously. Ever since I was a child she has referred to me as “precious lamb of Jesus Christ,” she has been there for every major moment of my life, and still shouts out with great joy every time I call her or visit her.

On Monday evening, after surprising her, we sat around my parents’ dining room table to enjoy a home cooked meal and celebrate my Gran. One of the more wonderful qualities that I inherited from her is the ability to ask questions that lead to conversation. I began with: “I want everyone to go around the table and share a story about Gran that brings you joy or made you laugh.

My mother told the story about how when she was a child, my grandmother would dress up like a waitress, sit my mother and her friends down at the table, and would take their order for lunch. The options were obviously limited, but it made the girls feel special, and I can just imagine them giggling as my grandmother scribbled away the orders for Grilled Cheese sandwiches.

I told the story about how my grandmother was always trying to teach us something new. When I was quite young, she used to require my sisters and I to learn a new word from the dictionary whenever we stayed the night at her house. The only word I can remember learning was “Taxidermy.” But not only were we required to learn a new word, but we had to use it in a sentence when our parents returned! I can only imagine the kind of sentence I came up with when I was 8 years old with the word taxidermy in it!

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But my favorite story is the one that Lindsey told. Gran had come over for dinner one night while we were all together, and when the evening came to a close she could not find her keys anywhere. We searched all over that house; taking off the couch cushions, crawling on the carpets while sweeping our hands, we even emptied out the trashcan just in case. But as it would happen, the keys were nowhere to be found. I eventually drove her home in my own car and used the spare key to let her into her house, with the hope of finding her car key sometime soon. Thirty minutes later my grandmother called. “I was just getting ready for bed,” she said, “and wouldn’t you know it, but I found my keys in my bosom!

Some things are not appropriate for church.

While I sat there listening to the hilarious stories from my grandmother’s life I was struck with the sensation of awe and love. My grandmother has embodied, for me, a life of faith and dedication, one that I try to emulate daily. But I also realized, that I know nothing negative about her. In my experience, coupled with all the stories I have heard, everything about her life is positive. Yet I know that she could not have lived a perfect life. That, like me, she has sinned, she has fallen short of God’s glory, she has made mistakes, she has regrets.

Everyone has something from their past that they are not proud of. What I believe Rahab, and my grandmother, have to teach us this morning is that we are not defined by the mistakes and shortcomings and judgements from the past.

By the time the New Testament was written, Rahab is remembered among the ancestors of Jesus (Matthew 1.5), regarded as an example of living faith (Hebrews 11.31), and justified by her works (James 2.25). By the time I was born my Grandmother had become the sweet woman full of life and laughter that I have always experienced. Whatever they did in the past matters little to the Lord. He did not judge them for their lives, but called them to respond to the grace poured out on their lives.

Can you imagine how strong Rahab’s belief and faith must have been? To sell her body the way she did, to be powerless and insignificant, and then she grabbed hold of her own destiny and lived faithfully. Two strangers had appeared that night, just like everyone else that walked through her doors, but her fear and faith propelled her into hiding them. She saw an opportunity to change her life, to save the lives of her family, and she did so.

Rahab, thinking of all that she had heard about the Lord, lied to the king’s men and came to terms with the spies. She refused to let her status and place in life limit her power for saving others. She was convinced that the city would fall at the hands of the Hebrews, but she was not simply motivated by fear; she was profoundly impressed with the news and strength of the God of Israel. “The Lord your God is indeed God in heaven above and on earth below.”

Her profession might not be appropriate for church, but her faithfulness is something we can all admire.

If you take a moment to look around the sanctuary, what do you see? Do you see perfect couples sitting shoulder to shoulder, hand in hand? Do you see loving families with children all sitting neatly in their pews? Do you see men and women who are full of faith and grace, capable of love and mercy? Do you see grandparents who adore their grandchildren?

I see a church full of Rahabs. I see people sitting in the pews with pasts they would prefer to remain hidden and untouched. I see families that are broken and full of disappointment. I see careers that have floundered, former decisions that have derailed lives, and regrets about choices that changed everything.

The beauty of the church is that it is full of Rahabs, people like you and me, that have been brought together to be the body of Christ for the world. The immense wonder and joy of the church is that in spite of our dark pasts we have been called to a brilliant present. That like Rahab we can become saintly by responding to the tasks and call that God places on our lives.

If we kept out everything that was not appropriate for church, then we would have an empty building. All of us, with our brokenness and disappointments, with our sins and temptations, have moments from our lives that are not appropriate for this place. However, that is precisely why we are here.

God’s sees us, knows us, calls us by name, and recognizes our potential in spite of our faults. God looks on all the Rahabs of the world, people like us, and beckons us to the Table, to the feast that we do not deserve simply because he loves us.

Look around at one another my friends, do not cast the first stone in judgement, do not sit high and look down on your brothers and sisters in faith. Instead, rejoice; give thanks to the Lord of heaven and earth who loves you, the God who calls on harlots to be helpers, sinners to be saints, and Christians to act like Christ.

Amen.