Sunday, September 25, 2011

We Don't get to Choose!

The Lord's table is long, and wide, and there is room for all. Never doubt this, and never forget it.

Exodus 17:1-7

From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the LORD commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the LORD?” But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried out to the LORD, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” The LORD said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the LORD, saying, “Is the LORD among us or not?”

Philippians 2:1-13

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; 13or it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Matthew 21:23-32

When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”

Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

In May of 1998, Stephen Alan Thompson became the seventeenth person executed in the state of Alabama since 1983. There wasn’t any doubt about his crime, there was no outpouring of protest against his going to the electric chair – three people showed up in Linn Park in Birmingham to protest on the night of his execution. Not exactly an international wave of support for the condemned.

He spoke to the family of his victim, saying he hoped that they would at last find some peace. And just before they threw the switch, he raised his hand against the leather restraint and made the International Sign Language symbol for “I love you” – a sign he learned in a prison ministry called “Kairos.”

You see, on Alabama’s Death Row, Steve Thompson had become a Christian.

In our Gospel reading today, Jesus enters the Temple and is confronted by the leaders of the Jewish faith. These are, for all intents and purposes, the guardians of righteousness, the ones who decide what is right and what is wrong for those who wish to worship the one true and living God. They examined the offerings to make sure they were fit for the sacrificial altar, interpreted the Books of the Law of Moses, and were generally the mediators between Yahweh and humankind.

Think of it – here, in the epicenter of the Jewish faith, the Temple, the men who held absolute sway over the spiritual lives of millions of believers were focused on one road-worn, nondescript, homeless rabbi. Amazing, isn’t it?

But people were listening to this rabbi. People were finding healing, hope, and new life in this rabbi, and (I’ve said this before) the one thing a totalitarian ruler can never allow, the one thing that will destroy his kingdom from within, is hope. And the chief priests served at the pleasure of Caesar. A bad day for Caesar meant a very bad day for them.

But it could be that I am being too hard on them, too cynical. After all, if these chief priests and elders took their responsibility seriously, someone like Jesus would have had them worried. He healed on the Sabbath. He ate with prostitutes and tax collectors. He even went into Samarian and Gentile lands to minister to the people there. Every time they turned around, this Jesus fellow was doing something else to stir the people up, and yes, the things he did were good, but he was doing them wrong!

But what does it mean to believe? In whatever context we put it, a pre-Resurrection belief in the one true God, or a post-resurrection faith in Jesus Christ, how do we define “believing?” What constitutes “faith?”

For both the Pharisees and the Sadducees, belief and faith were defined by religious rites, by personal piety, and by adherence not only to the Law of Moses but to specific interpretations of that law. For one to be a true believer, for one to have a valid faith, coming in contact with a Samaritan, a Gentile, or any person who was less pious was dangerous. Merely passing though Samaritan territory made a person unclean.

Yet this appearance of piety was a thin bedsheet which covered evil hearts. In the twenty-third chapter of Matthew, Jesus has nothing at all good to say about the piety of the scribes and the Pharisees: “The scribes and the Pharisees… say things and do not do them. They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger. But they do all their deeds to be noticed by men; for they broaden their phylacteries and lengthen the tassels of their garments. They love the place of honor at banquets and the chief seats in the synagogues, and respectful greetings in the market places, and being called Rabbi by men.

“…Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you shut off the kingdom of heaven from people; for you do not enter in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense you make long prayers; therefore you will receive greater condemnation… Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others. You blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!”

All that work, all that dogged dedication to every area of the Law… and they missed the whole point!

Meanwhile, Jesus is doing amazing things in areas the Pharisees and Sadducees would never dare to go. He had touched lepers, he had gone to the territories of the Samaritans and Gentiles – going so far as to heal, so far as to feed a multitude in the same way he had fed five thousand in Judea, so far as to share the Good News of the Kingdom of God with men and women who would never have been welcome in the Temple!

Small wonder, then, that Jesus would have been the focus of so much of the chief priests’ and temple rulers’ attention. No wonder Nicodemus had come in the night to find out more about him. Jesus did things wrong, and upset the status quo. When they heard he was coming to the Temple, a direct confrontation was inevitable. The chief priests and the elders were the religious authority in the land, and Jesus needed to admit that he had no authority, he needed to be stopped!

But when prostitutes and tax collectors will get into the Kingdom of God ahead of you, your authority doesn’t much matter, does it?

You see, each in their own way, the Sadducees and the Pharisees thought they had the ability to decide who was worthy of acceptance into the faith, and who – because of birth or gender or any number of other factors – would never be worthy. They thought they could decide who would be allowed to believe, to have faith.

But no. They couldn’t make someone believe, and they most certainly could not decide who was not permitted to have faith.

And in reading the Gospels we see, time and again, that it is faith which so often is the key to the miracles of Jesus Christ. In the ninth chapter of the book of Matthew alone, Jesus performs four healings and an exorcism, and in each of the healings, faith – belief – are vital components. Those who brought a paralyzed person to Jesus displayed great faith. The synagogue official believed that Jesus could heal his daughter. The woman with the issue of blood believed that if she touched only so much as the hem of his garment, she would be well, and the two blind men received their sight because they believed! Over in the fifteenth chapter, the Canaanite woman we spoke of awhile back – not likely even a follower of Judaism – saw her daughter healed because of her faith in Christ, and everyone in her region who came to Jesus in need of healing got that healing!

By contrast, we read in Matthew’s thirteenth chapter that Jesus didn’t do many miracles in his home town “because of their unbelief.”

So people who were allowed to have faith did not, and people prohibited from having faith… well, they had faith anyway!

The Pharisees, the Sadducees, the elders and the scribes and the rulers didn’t get to pick who had faith.

And we don’t get to pick who has faith, either. 

When the Apostle Paul says, in our Epistle reading, in humility, to regard others as better than ourselves, to put the interests of others ahead of our own interest, to be of the same mind as Christ, it was with the knowledge that he was speaking to men and women and children for whom Jesus Christ had died. That same Jesus gave his life for each of us here today. This is a fact: we are beloved children of God, chosen and called by God into the citizenship of the Kingdom of Heaven, welcomed into loving relationship with the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Though we are uniquely loved, especially valued, this treasure is not meant to be hoarded, but shared! Shared with everyone, without reservation.

In the New Testament, we meet lepers and prostitutes and tax collectors and pagans and slaves and centurions and eunuchs and people who are crippled and a criminal on a cross who all believe in Jesus Christ, who all enter the Kingdom of God long before the religious elite, the people with the flawless theology and the perfectly crafted doctrine, even notice that a Kingdom of God exists.

And today? Today there are people just like Steve Thompson, who I met at Christmas in 1997 on Death Row at Donaldson Correctional facility, and who I shook hands with one last time in May of 1998, after listening to him preach from the Book of Psalms to his fellow inmates through the food-tray hole in his cell door. Steve was a murderer. But Steve had faith, he believed, he followed Christ.

We don’t get to choose who has faith.

Today there are people like Jay Bakker and Hugh Hollowell and Phil and Stephanie Shepherd and Neil Christopher who share the Gospel in bars and in homeless shelters and with outcasts and misfits, and who see many of these turn to Christ.

We don’t get to choose who has faith.

It is a fact that there is no person you or I have ever met – no person you or I will ever meet – for whom Jesus Christ did not die.

And that Jesus who died, rose again. And that Jesus who rose again will come again. And we don’t get to choose for whom Jesus will come. But we do get to share that joyous good news.

Thanks be to God!


  1. John, I have let the business of my life keep me from reading what you and other good friends have been writing the past couple of months - and that is my loss.

    But others, many others read and hear - so keep going.

    This echoes something that struck a chord in me last Sunday - something that while we know is so often not realized in the grind of daily life - at our desks, in traffic, even with our families...

    "You have never looked into the eyes of someone who did not matter with God"
    -Nick Lillo

    I assume you are on your way to Nashville and a large part of me wants to be there with you all, but it simply cannot be this year. So I am there with you in spirit.

    Be blessed and a blessing...

  2. Beautiful. I've made a poster announcing a Christian group I've started for gays (GLBT actually, but not everyone knows what that means) but my former church refused to put it up. I'm doubting there will be many that do. "We don't believe homosexuality is the best for people" is what they told me. Curious that they have groups for remarried people though. If you'd like to see my poster and my letter to churches go to: