August 2010 Sermons:
If you had just one year left to live, and money were no object, how would you spend your money and your time? One day a high school senior came home and told her mother, "Today, our teacher asked us what we would do if we had five million dollars and one year left. Kaitlin said that she would hire Steven Spielberg to make a movie with her in the leading part. Matthew said he would pay to have an Olympic-sized pool built in his back yard. Eric said he would design an indoor theater where he could screen new movies. Madison said she would call people on her Smartphone, talk all night every night, and never worry about the phone bill. What would you do, Mom?"
Her mother thought for a moment, and then answered. "I would spend more time with you and the rest of the family. I would take an early morning walk and watch the sunrise. I would visit all my friends and relatives who live far away. And I would spend an hour or two a day in prayer with God." When the mother finished, the girl spoke up and said, "But, Mom, you haven't said how you would spend the money!" And her mother replied, "As far as I am concerned, the problem is not how to spend five million dollars. The problem is how to spend the year."
Don’t you wish the rich farmer in our Gospel reading had one tenth of the wisdom of that teenage girl’s mother? She is rich toward God. I just read a parable to you about the danger of greed. The main character in Jesus’ story has gone down in history as “The Rich Fool.” He thinks his biggest problem is a lack of storage space for all his grain. His wealth is his security, or so he thinks. Little does he know, but he is about to die.
Luke’s original Greek words in this passage are different from most English translations. The version I read just now from your pew Bible says, “This very night, your life is being demanded of you.” Luke’s rendering in Greek for the same verse is, “This very night, your possessions will require your soul from you.”
This farmer in the parable may be a fool, but he’s not a bad man. Let’s not make him worse than he is. He hasn’t done anything illegal. He’s worked hard and is spectacularly successful. Doesn’t his story make you sad? As I wrote this sermon, I felt depressed about this rich fool and his wasted life. Do you notice how he talks only to himself? He never thinks of giving grain to hungry families. The rich fool violates the two greatest commandments—to love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself.
The Hebrew Bible condemns greed. Every Jew was expected to share what he or she had. Chapter nineteen of Leviticus instructs the Hebrews to be inefficient farmers---that is, to leave a large portion of the grain harvest lying out on the edge of the field. The practice of going back out to scavenge in the leftover grain is called gleaning. Poor people depended on gleaning then, just like the homeless in center city depend on dumpster diving. In the book of Ruth, Ruth and her mother-in-law, Naomi, survive by gleaning. Boaz, the rich landowner, intentionally leaves grain for them in his field. What if Boaz had decided to store his extra grain in a barn instead? Ruth and Naomi would have starved.
Our culture thrives on the profit motive. We’ve been conditioned to value hard work, and to save our money. When it comes to our bank accounts and stock portfolios, we never seem to have enough. If society evaluates people in terms of what they have earned and saved, how are we to live? Jesus never says that being rich is a bad thing. It’s the rich man’s greed that makes him poor before God.
John Wesley was the founder of the Methodist church. He had a good attitude about money. When he started his ministry in England in the eighteenth century, his income was thirty pounds a year. Wesley decided that he could pay his basic living costs with twenty-eight pounds, and that he would give the remaining two pounds away. Over the years John Wesley's income grew. He became a well-known evangelist, and people flocked to hear him preach. But even when he made sixty pounds a year, he continued to live on just twenty-eight pounds a year, and gave all the rest of the money away.
Wesley’s generosity would be unusual today. We tend to hang onto our savings and our stuff. Personal organizing consultants get paid two hundred dollars an hour to help people organize their clutter. Storage facilities are popping up every place you look.
What about garage and yard sales? Aren’t they a way to be rich before God? They’re good community events. They give us a chance to recycle our stuff. We have to have yard sales when we move or when we settle an estate. But people get hooked on bargain-seeking, and that can be a form of greed. I have a friend in New Jersey who drives to a handful of yard sales every Saturday, even though she isn’t an antique dealer. Her sewing machine tables and wicker love seats will be of no further use to her some day. After she dies, her survivors will need to have a huge garage sale!
Jesus’ rich farmer commissions new barns for his bumper crop of grain. But it never occurs to him to store up treasure in heaven. If only he had decided to donate some of the grain to the needy, he might have made the world a little more like God’s kingdom during his lifetime. In fact, he might have robbed death of its power to rob him.
How can we be rich before God? Knowing that we are God’s beloved children changes the way we spend our time. It changes the way we use our money. It changes the way we think about stuff. When we remember that everything belongs to God, it becomes a pleasure to return what we have to God, for mission and for ministry.
As we share the Sacrament of Holy Communion this morning, think about how rich we are, compared to most of the people in the world. God has given us everything we have and everything we are – especially His son’s life on the cross, so that we may be His children forever!
Let us pray. Teach us, Lord, the gentle discipline of letting go. Our fingers grasp things tightly. We are afraid to lose them, but they are only things. They are created for you, and we can enjoy them for a time but we must pass them on to others. May that act of passing our stuff on, begin for us, here and now. May we never again seek to merely store that which you have meant to be enjoyed. In Jesus’ name, AMEN
Max Zerwick and Mary Grosvenor, A Grammatical Analysis of the Greek New Testament (Rome: Istituto Biblico, 1996), 230.
John H. Walton and others, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament (Downers Grove, IL:Intervarsity Press, 2000), 278.
William Barclay, The Gospel of Luke (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1975), 164.
A minister friend of mine has a favorite April Fool joke. The best joke you can play, she says, is to send your victim a note that says "Gotcha!" You haven’t actually done anything tricky to her, but your message makes her think that you have! She’ll wonder what joke you’ve already played on her. She’ll walk around all day, waiting for the other shoe to fall. At the end of the day, you’ll say, “April Fool!”
Today’s gospel reading seems a lot like that joke. On the one hand, it begins with Jesus saying, "Do not be afraid, little flock." It seems as though His disciples have been worrying about the wrong things. They may be running around the way we do, occupying themselves with unimportant details. He warns them to stay alert and keep their lamps "trimmed and burning," because a thief may come in the night. Jesus says not to be afraid, but this is disturbing! We worry about the wrong things, too. What are we being asked to prepare for? The Last Judgment? Our own deaths? Is this scripture lesson a note from Jesus that says, "Gotcha!"? What’s the good news here?
If you were here last week, you’ll remember that today’s story comes after Jesus’ parable about the rich man who builds new barns for surplus grain. He figures that now he’s set for the rest of his life. But then, he dies suddenly. If you’re following along in your pew Bible, you’ll see that today’s lesson also comes right after the "consider the lilies of the field" passage that appears both in Luke and Matthew. In these passages about the lilies, Jesus has just told His disciples not to worry about the future, because God will provide for them.
Luke adds a phrase that Matthew does not include: “It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Jesus is on His way to Jerusalem and His crucifixion. His disciples are taking on huge responsibility—and receiving a wonderful gift at the same time. Jesus is teaching them how to prepare, and how not to prepare, for this gift.
How can we prepare? Jesus might tell us to relax about worldly success, because it means nothing to Him or to God if we never make the Fortune Magazine list of highest-paid Americans. He might tell us not to feel bad if we look our age, or if we have a car that no one would want to steal. Physical beauty and expensive cars matter to some of us, because in our culture, youthful looks and status symbols are glorified. We shouldn’t think that by working harder and harder to succeed, or by saving more and more money, we can add a single hour to our lives. Those things are trivial.
Jesus would challenge us to examine the way we live. In last week’s parable, He warned us not to get too attached to our possessions. Today, we hear one of my favorite proverbs from the Bible. Where your treasure is, there’s where your heart is. This saying has both a negative and a positive meaning: Wherever your treasure is – in savings accounts, in real estate, or in support of causes you believe in –your heart can be found. To these ancient people, the heart was the spiritual center of the body. What do you treasure most? If you spend four thousand dollars on a designer handbag, or if you order an eleven-thousand-dollar wedding cake, like Chelsea Clinton had at her wedding, your decision says something about where your heart is, too.
What about that short parable at the end of today’s reading: the one about the homeowner? Jesus is warning us that our final judgment can come upon us at any time. We say this in the Apostle’s Creed—that He will come to judge the quick and the dead! But when? Have you ever taken a day off for a repair to your house, and had the misfortune of not seeing the repair truck in your driveway until five p.m.---even though you stayed home all day waiting, and were dressed by 8 a.m.? If the truck had come early in the morning, you could have had the day to yourself. An experience like that, reminds us who’s really in charge, and it’s not us. And not the repair men, either. It’s God who’s in control!
We don’t like to think about death, but it’s coming for all of us. God in Christ stands at the end of history. God in Christ stands at the end of the life of every individual Christian. That’s all we know, and all we need to know.
It does help to know things ahead of time. If the owner of the house, in this parable, had known what time the thief would come, he could have protected his home. If we were to know the day, and time, and circumstances, of our own death, we could manage our lives down to the minute. We might backslide for awhile and try to catch up later. But God can’t be pinned down like that. God works in God’s time.
Jesus says not to worry in the same way the rest of the world worries, but to try to live Godly lives, as best we can. Living the Christian life is liberating. It frees us from our need to control things that don’t matter. John Calvin, in the Geneva Catechism, writes, “We are not to come before any other judge than Jesus, who is our advocate. He has taken our cause in hand to defend us.”
Jesus calls us to walk a thin line. On the one hand, we feel more secure if we have our future worked out. Remember those Americans during the Cold War who built bomb shelters and filled them with bottled water? On the other hand, we hear Jesus telling listeners to give away everything they own to the poor. These are the extremes of greed and generosity. If we live as Christians, our choices will probably fall between them.
Let’s say I’m trying to make an ethical decision. I have to ask myself, "If Christ were to return tomorrow, or next week, and I would have to answer for my life decisions, would I feel okay about having done that today?" And I might also ask myself, "If Christ doesn’t return in my lifetime, will I feel satisfied that I did that when I had a choice?" Most of the time, that’s all we need to ask ourselves, and the answer will be the same either way. We get into trouble when we don’t ask faith questions at all.
To "be prepared" is to bring God into our decisions. If we remember to bring God into the equation, we’re likely to do the right thing. The right question to ask is not, "What would Jesus do?" but rather, "What does Jesus want me to do?" Being prepared means being ready to hold up your life for God to gaze at. Scary, isn’t it? What would we want to hide, if Christ were to return and see us? Are we ready to correct bad habits—like telling white lies, and like not fastening our seat belts? Do you have habits that you hope Christ will see? What about the small services we wouldn’t mind Christ seeing us perform? I’m talking about reading bedtime stories to your grandchildren, or taking your spouse’s car for inspection, or bringing ravioli for the Food Bank. How can we invite God into our everyday lives? By practicing acts of kindness.
If we can think of ourselves bringing order out of chaos, as God did when the world was created, ordinary household chores can seem almost holy. Martin Luther changed his baby’s diapers. Luther told everyone this was a sacred task that glorified God!
Won’t we be well-prepared for Jesus’ second coming if we imagine Him in the passenger seat whenever we drive, or across the counter in McDonald’s, or sitting beside us at work?
Jesus will serve us, Himself, at the heavenly banquet. Isn’t that a beautiful image? Having served God faithfully, we will be served by Him. Life on earth isn’t all there is. So let’s prepare by living out our faith in service to others! As we do our part, we need to trust that God will send others to help. We don’t know what’s ahead, but we do know that God is there.
Let us pray. Gracious God, thank you for seeking us out. Thank you for calling us into account, and for challenging us with strong words to be a people of justice. Thank you for assuring us that we don’t need to be afraid, for it is your good pleasure to give us the Kingdom. In courage and hope, prepare our hearts for the unexpected hour of your coming. We pray in the name of Christ, the pathway to heaven. AMEN
Madeline S. Miller and J. Lane Miller, Harper’s Bible Dictionary (New York: Harper and Row, 1973), 248.
John Calvin, “The Geneva Catechism,” Question #87, quoted in Shirley S. Guthrie, Jr. Christian Doctrine. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1994), 365.
An angel of the Lord had sent Philip to the middle of nowhere, and he couldn’t figure out why! Is this really where God wants me to be? Philip asked himself. He was alone on a deserted road, and the sun was beating down on his back.
Philip had been a Deacon in the early church---one of seven people who had ministered to the poor and the sick in Jerusalem. He HAD BEEN a Deacon, that is---until the persecution of Christians began. Then, Philip had been forced to leave the city to escape arrest. Soldiers had been going door to door all over Jerusalem, searching every house for Christians. Followers of Jesus had left town or gone into hiding. Some had even been dragged off to jail. Philip was one of the lucky ones. He had gotten an early warning to flee the city.
At first, Philip had headed northwards, to Samaria. No one else from the church had wanted to go there. Jews and Christians hated the Samaritans. Philip had stepped out of his comfort zone to follow God’s call to these people because he had been taught to believe they were inferior human beings. As the result of his courage and gifts for ministry, Philip had broken through the Samaritans’ hostility and his own fear. He had been able to convert hundreds of them to Christianity. Philip was ready to try a second evangelistic mission.
But now, Philip found himself on a road just north of the city of Gaza. In those days, there were only two roads between Jerusalem and Gaza. There was a well-traveled road that went south along the coast of the Mediterranean. The other road was an almost-deserted trail that eventually led to Egypt. People avoided that road, if they could. An angel of the Lord had given Philip his traveling orders. The angel had commanded him to take the wilderness road. Philip obeyed the call of the Holy Spirit, having no idea why. He stood in the heat of the day, waiting for something to happen. What could God possibly want him to do?, Philip wondered.
Philip saw dust being kicked up on the horizon. After a while, he could see that a chariot was headed his way. As it got closer, the angel of the Lord commanded, “Go up and join this chariot!” Philip started jogging along the desert road.
As Philip caught up to the chariot, he heard a voice, reading out loud in Hebrew. Someone inside the chariot was reading the book of Isaiah, from the Hebrew Bible. The Old Testament was the only Bible the first Christians had. The New Testament didn’t exist yet. Paul hadn’t written his letters to churches, and the gospels were still stories people told. Philip was beginning to see that his being in this particular place, at this particular time, was no accident.
Philip yelled to the traveler inside the chariot, "Hey, do you understand what you’re reading?" And a man inside the chariot answered, "Of course not. How can I understand unless someone helps me? And where can I find someone to teach me the Bible, out here in the middle of nowhere?" And at that moment, Philip prayed, "OK, God, now I understand. You called me here, so I could teach this man the Bible and share the good news of Jesus Christ." And that’s exactly what Philip did.
Philip figured out that this was no ordinary traveler. Only a person of great wealth and prestige would have a chariot. In fact, the traveler was the Ethiopian Queen’s chancellor of the exchequer, on his way home from Jerusalem. He was reading an illuminated scroll of the prophet Isaiah—an item of great value.
This Ethiopian was a “God-Fearer.” “God-Fearer” was the name the Jews used for people who were not Jewish, but who believed in the God of Israel. In those days, there were more and more people in the Graeco-Roman world who were tired of worshipping multiple gods. Those people felt disgusted by the loose morals of the Romans and the Athenians. They were attracted to Judaism because they liked the idea of worshiping one God and they wanted to obey the Ten Commandments. This traveler seemed to be one of those “God-Fearers.”
Philip told the Ethiopian the story of Christ’s death and resurrection. Then he explained that Jesus was the suffering servant in the passage he’d been reading from Isaiah. This is what the Ethiopian wanted to hear! And when the traveler understood what Christ had done, and could do, for people like him, he insisted on being baptized. The men found an oasis close by, and Philip baptized the traveler. I’m sure the fact that they found water in that remote desert was no accident! And so, the Ethiopian was the first African to become a Christian. He went his way, rejoicing! To the Greeks, Ethiopia was the remotest country in the world. And so, Philip had obeyed Jesus’ command to prophecy to the ends of the earth.
There are times when we wonder, "Why am I here? Is this really where I ought to be?" Philip was a man of deep faith and great courage. His story can help you understand why YOU are here. Whether we’re in a desert wilderness, or in a hostile city—no matter where we are, God will reveal His purpose for our being there. We have to listen with our ears and with our hearts. There were several reasons why Philip was such an effective evangelist. He was open to differences in people, and was willing to meet others where they were. For example, Philip noticed, right away, that the traveler was reading the Bible. It seemed as though the Ethiopian had discovered the scriptures on his trip to Jerusalem. Now, as it seemed, he was ready to discover the God of the scriptures! And Philip picked up on that. Philip didn’t overload this man with facts about Jesus’ life. He didn’t teach him creeds or doctrines. He answered only the questions that the Ethiopian asked. He met this traveler where he was—in every sense.
Occasionally we may find ourselves standing in the wilderness feeling confused. It may not be an accident that we’re there. God may be leading us to somebody who needs our help. It’s not likely that you or I will bump into an Ethiopian traveler on a deserted road. But no matter where we are, no matter who we meet, God has a plan for us. We have to keep our minds open, and put aside our own agendas, when this happens. In our everyday lives, people show us their spiritual needs in subtle ways. We can figure out what they need, if we stop and listen, thoughtfully and prayerfully. Even if we don’t agree with that person’s ideas, we can express our own beliefs in such a way that the listener won’t be turned off. Being with a person—really with them—is hard. It was Philip’s gifts for listening and teaching that opened the Ethiopian’s heart to Christ.
Just in case you ever have a chance to share your own experience of faith, it would be a good idea to think about it beforehand. How would you answer, if someone asked you why you had become a Christian? What difference has your faith made? Put it into words, and when the time is right, you can share it with someone who wants to hear your story.
You will go to places, and participate in conversations, where no pastor will ever be invited to go. If you take your faith with you to those places, God will create opportunities for evangelism that you can’t imagine. And all God will ask of you, in return, is to be willing to witness to your faith. It’s people like you who will change the world.
Let us pray. Almighty God, your Son Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life. Give us grace to love one another, and to follow His commandments. No matter where we are, help us to see that you have a purpose that you want to accomplish through us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
William Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976), 68.
Thomas G. Long, “Pastoral Perspective on Acts 8:26-40,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary,” Year B Vol. 2 ed. David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008), 454.
David E. Leininger, Lectionary Tales for the Pulpit (Lima, OH:CSS, 2008), 141.
Barbara Lundblad, sermon, “See, Here is Water!” on http://www.goodpreacher.com
F. Scott Spencer, The Pastor’s Bible Study, Volume 5 (Nashville: Abingdon, 2008), 28. See also Jesus’ prophecy in Acts 1:8.
It’s not that Jesus goes out of His way to create controversy. But His sermons are so downright radical! How dare Jesus tell this congregation that their leaders are disobeying one of the Ten Commandments? He’s talking about the rule of the Sabbath. And that’s every bit as sacred a law, to these people, as “Thou shalt not kill.”
It’s hard for us to understand why Sabbath-keeping was a volatile issue for Jesus and His fellow Jews. Many of us aren’t sure how to keep the Sabbath, or even what it means. It seems like Hackman’s is the only store closed on Sundays. Sporting events for kids are held on Sundays, and stores in Lehigh Valley Mall are open into the evening hours today. People schedule birthday parties and baby showers on Sunday mornings. But the Jews of the first century had to stop what they were doing to worship at the synagogue all day on the Sabbath. No work was allowed. By the time of Christ, there were one thousand, five hundred and twenty-one things Jews weren’t allowed to do on the Sabbath! Even healing was forbidden. Doctors and nurses and veterinarians know that healing is work! Taking a walk longer than half a mile wasn’t allowed, either.
In the gospel story for today, Jesus and the synagogue leader go head to head on the issue of Sabbath-keeping. Why was the Sabbath law so strictly enforced? After suffering persecution for nearly a thousand years, the Jews who had survived, knew the importance of keeping the Laws of Moses. The Ten Commandments united them as a people. Sticking together had become even more crucial for the Jews during the Roman occupation of Palestine. They thought of themselves as one nation under God—literally!
We know something about how important national pride can be. Defying the Sabbath, for the Pharisees, was like sewing an American flag to the seat of your pants. Remember when people did that in the sixties? Breaking the Sabbath, for a religious Jew, was much worse than disrespecting a national flag.
This is a miracle story. Miracle stories are supposed to be nice, not controversial. How can healing be bad? But this particular one sparks a controversy in the synagogue. The Pharisees are fed up with Jesus stirring up trouble. Religious leaders expect problems when He comes to do pulpit supply. They have started following Him everywhere, and they never miss an opportunity to challenge Him. We can assume Jesus isn’t going to be invited back to this particular synagogue! As it happens, Jesus is on His last journey to Jerusalem. He knows the fate that is waiting for Him there, and so do we.
Today’s story focuses on a woman. Women were invisible in temple worship. This woman, in particular, can’t stand up straight because of a spinal disorder. Today her problem would probably be diagnosed as scoliosis. She doesn’t cry out for Jesus to help her. This woman is beyond that point now. She has lost hope of ever seeing anything but the ground in front of her. Not only has an evil spirit crippled her. Satan has also robbed her of faith in herself and in God. She is so bent-over, she can’t see the face of Jesus, without twisting her body like a pretzel. And yet, she has come to hear Jesus preach. So she must have SOME hope.
Rabbis weren’t supposed to look at women in the congregation or draw attention to them. Jesus does both—even as He concentrates on preaching. His powers are awesome. He can focus on this bent-over woman—even though He can’t see her face. Jesus interrupts His speech to walk over and say to her: “Woman, you are set free from your ailment!” At the moment He touches her, she stands up straight.
Have you ever been instantly, and painlessly, healed? If you’re nearsighted, what about the day when you got your first glasses? I was nine years old when I was first able to see billboards and scoreboards and all the people around me, without squinting at all. My first pair of eyeglasses opened up a new world for me!
Now, imagine yourself as this woman. You’ve been disabled for half your lifetime. No one wants to look directly at you, and you can’t look directly at them! No one talks to you. Because of Jesus’s love, you can stand up straight and you can walk in an upright position. In fact, you can look people in the eye. You are free!
And the people cheer. Luke writes, “they were delighted with all the wonderful things (Jesus) was doing.” But Jesus, Himself, isn’t home free. Not by a long shot! Enter the rabbi in charge. He thunders to the congregation, “There are six days for work. So, come and be healed on THOSE days, not on the Sabbath!” It’s interesting that this man doesn’t speak directly to Jesus. He is so angry—maybe so ASHAMED--he can’t look Jesus in the face.
Let’s play Devil’s Advocate. Look at this miracle story from the synagogue leader’s point of view. To their credit, all the Pharisees took God’s commandment, “Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy” seriously—in a slavishly literal way. Jesus is no fool. He’s broken the law on purpose. And, on top of that, He’s just called another rabbi a “hypocrite”! Those of us who have participated in office politics, might say that Jesus has been “grandstanding.” The synagogue leader has dared to contradict Him in the middle of a worship service.
This man is doing his job. Religious leaders have to take responsibility for interpreting rules. An officer of any organization knows how often members want rules to be bent, or even broken. I remember, as a parent, asking for exceptions to school rules pretty often. Scheduling of parent teacher conferences was an issue for me. I was one of a handful of full-time working mothers. Schools didn’t consider the needs of two-paycheck families then. If I hadn’t worked near the school, I would have had to turn myself into a pretzel to attend parent-teacher conferences during the day when they were scheduled.
If you are an officer in an organization, your perspective is different from that of a member. Because you represent a group of people and their interests, you make decisions for those people. There’s a difference between being consistent in enforcing rules and allowing for exceptional cases. Teachers and librarians understand this. A child who throws up in a classroom shouldn’t have to wait to have it cleaned up because the custodian refuses to end his lunch break. A family whose home is burned down, shouldn’t have to replace the library books that had been in that living room.
And yet, leaders need to be sensitive to the reasons for religious traditions. Rules can be unjust--even cruel-- in some circumstances. In my last church, a mother of two boys, both of them allergic to grape juice, asked that little cups of water be prepared for them and served in the trays, so the boys could take communion. I consulted Presbytery officials and the Session, and we voted to serve the boys water instead of grape juice. Water is sacramental in the Bible. Jesus changed water into wine. We will use water to baptize David James, Jr. today. After two years, someone challenged the Session’s decision, and we ended up having a controversy about the interpretation of the Book of Order. I’m sorry to say that these boys can no longer take communion with that Presbyterian congregation, with water instead of grape juice, because the Session overruled its original vote. Rules can be cruel sometimes, and leaders aren’t always free to break them.
The point I’m making is that this synagogue leader isn’t just being mean. He’s got a tough decision to make. He’s been chosen to represent the congregation. He can’t suddenly change the law. But Jesus represents God’s love. He has the full authority of God His Father. He knows He can change anything, anytime.
The dispute between the synagogue leader and Jesus isn’t about the Sabbath. Not really! The point Jesus makes is that love trumps rules. But the reasons we let the laws of Moses be broken, should be urgent ones. Supporting life and health—they count as urgent reasons! Remember that Luke, who wrote this gospel, is a doctor.
Our culture encourages us to ignore the Sabbath rule. Too often, we keep right on working all day Sunday. “Pharoah” is alive and well in our lives, but God didn’t create us to be slaves! Sunday—or whatever day we choose to rest from our labors—is a time to love. If someone invites us to a baby shower on a Sunday morning, we miss church. That’s a tough call for a Christian. But I think Jesus might say it’s “ok” if we love that baby and its parents!
God rested on the Sabbath, and we should rest, too! Being with people we love heals our own wounds, and it heals theirs, too. That’s how we survive the other six days of the week. Give yourself a break today. It’s the Sabbath Day. Enjoy, and share, God’s love.
In most of the miracle stories we know, sick people call to Jesus. They reach out to touch Him. They cry, “Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me!” The Sabbath’s different. On the Sabbath, Jesus looks for us!
Dale Lindsay Morgan, Jubilee: Luke’s Gospel for the Poor (Louisville: Horizons Bible Studies, Presbyterian Church USA, 2008), 57.
Joy Davidman, Smoke on the Mountain (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1954), 53.
“Straightened Out,” Sermon on Luke 13:10-17, by Mary Harris Todd, Memorial Presbyterian Church, as published on www.goodpreacher.com, August 22, 2010.
The story of the wedding at Cana, in Chapter two of the Gospel of John.
THE CONSTITUTION OF THE PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH U.S.A., (W3.3611), Part I, The Book of Order, The Directory For Worship.
Luke 14: 1, 7-14
Do the pictures in your photo albums show your family eating a lot? Seems like every photo of my family shows us at a dinner table or a picnic table! We have pictures of potato salad and deviled eggs from every decade of the last century. It looks like we haven’t ever done anything but eat!
Our eating habits say a lot about how we live. It’s a fast food world now. We grab breakfast coffee and a bagel on the run at drive-in windows. But we still take time to eat dinner with our families on special days, like Thanksgiving. We catch up on each other’s lives as we sit around the table. We share secrets. We teach our children table manners. We tell the stories that bind us together. When we gather at the communion table each month, as the family of God, we reconnect in a sacred way—the Lord’s Supper is a family reunion with Jesus and our loved ones.
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus seems to eat a lot. He breaks bread at banquets, nineteen times in twenty-four chapters. Don’t get the impression that Jesus was social climber—He wasn’t at all. Historians believe Jesus and His followers were probably beggars. Jesus taught His disciples how to beg for food. These very special travelers depended on strangers for hospitality, just like everyone else did in those days.
Getting three square meals a day was tough for travelers in Jesus’ time. We can choose from many restaurants when we’re en route. But there were almost no places to “eat out” then. Jesus couldn’t usually plan where He and His disciples would eat dinner. In ancient Palestine, you had to beg for food and shelter. If a group of travelers couldn’t afford to eat together at the local inn, they were dependent on the kindness of strangers.
In this story, Jesus is breaking bread with the leaders of the local synagogue. He doesn’t know these Pharisees at all. They must have been curious to hear Him preach! Each dinner invitation gave Jesus a chance to teach. Whenever He shared a meal, He taught His followers something about Himself and something about them. Think of how many food stories Jesus turns into teaching moments in the Bible. What about the changing of water into wine at the Cana wedding, or the miracle of the loaves and the fishes, or the story of Mary and Martha, and most importantly, the Last Supper?
Religious leaders of the ancient Middle East weren’t like Jesus. They didn’t use social occasions to teach. They used them for another purpose-- to get ahead! We do “power lunches” today for the same reasons. Status was important to everybody in Palestine except for Jesus. And banquets were everybody’s big chance to move up in the social world. In Jesus’ day, the tables were closer to the floor than they are today. Guests would recline at couches around the table. The honored guest would be closest to the host. Everybody wanted to sit nearest the middle of the table, for that reason. The place you sat at a banquet, in Jesus’ day, indicated how powerful you were. A guest who had taken a seat of honor might be asked to move down so the bigger V.I.P.— the one who had arrived late!-- could be seated near the host. Talk about embarrassing!
In today’s story from Luke, Jesus is invited to a Sabbath dinner at a Pharisee’s home. As Jesus sits down to eat, He notices that other guests, all of them Pharisees, are jockeying for places of honor at the table. The hosts are keeping a pretty good eye on Jesus tonight. They’re smiling and listening politely as He begins to preach. But they wonder—is this traveling rabbi really one of us? Will He observe the Sabbath law? Or is he a revolutionary who wants to challenge us? Sure enough, Jesus tells them how they can become better hosts. This seems rude to us, but his remarks are right on the money. It’s human nature to associate with people who can do something to help us get ahead. When I was starting out on pastoral visits, a Presbyterian pastor gave me this advice, “If you have to do shut-in visits, visit the most prominent people, and make sure everyone knows that you did it!” Jesus would have been shocked at this kind of remark from a minister.
Who would be our least likely dinner guests? The immigrant without a green card, the gas station attendant from Saudi Arabia, the homeless woman with her entire life stuffed into a shopping bag, and the person just released from prison. Would these be the folks Jesus would honor? Aren’t they like the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind of His own day? Of course. But do we know any people like this?
Why is this story in the Bible? Why does Jesus bother with social etiquette? This is much more than Emily Post. Jesus is helping the dinner guests to live Godly lives. He’s commenting on the ways people jockey for position in the eyes of God. In Jesus’ day, one’s piety was judged by the people one hung around with. In this story, Jesus sees the Pharisees competing for the best seats near the Host, in the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus says: If the guests take the lowest position they can take at the table, chances are the Host will ask them to move up. On the other hand, if they seat themselves in a place of honor, they might be asked to move down to a less honored place. “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” The competition between these status seekers is very foolish, in Jesus’ eyes. Our status in heaven isn’t up to us. God is the host, and we’re the guests! It’s up to God.
The people of Jesus’ time wanted to know, “What gives my life meaning?” We want to know, too! The Pharisees would have answered that question this way: “Our lives have meaning because of our covenant with God. We are the chosen people. When we keep God’s law, God is pleased with us.”
Jesus has a different take on the meaning of life. He teaches us that God has a special relationship with all of creation—not just with a few folks who obey the Mosaic law to the letter. We are all God’s family, He said. We stay in that family, not only by loving one another.
The good news—the revolutionary message that shocked the guests at that banquet-- is that Jesus loves all people: snobs and scavengers, socialites and beggars. For the poor, Jesus has a deep love. He feeds the hungry, to the point of giving His life. He calls us, His church, to show hospitality to one another, in the same way He received us. Whenever we open our hearts to people who need us, Jesus comes to dinner.
Let us pray. LORD JESUS, YOU HAVE GIVEN US THE GIFT OF YOUR LOVE AND YOUR SALVATION. HELP US TO REMEMBER OUR GREAT INDEBTEDNESS TO YOU. HELP US TO GIVE TO OTHERS, AND TO ASK FOR SUPPORT WHEN WE NEED IT. HELP US TO GIVE WHEN WE ARE ASKED, AS GRACIOUSLY AS YOU HAVE GIVEN IT TO US. AMEN
William H. Willimon, “When Jesus Comes to Dinner,” Pulpit Resource, July-August-September 2007, 42.
John 2:1-11; Mark 8:1; Luke 10:38-42; and Luke 22:14-20.
Fritz Rienecker, A Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976),183.
“Luke 14:1, 7-14,” Janet Weathers, New Proclamation, Year C ed. Marshall D. Johnson (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), 180.
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