June 2010 Sermons:
This gospel story seems to leap off the front page of a newspaper. For us to get this much detail in a Bible story is pretty unusual. Right away, Luke tells us who, what, why, where, when and how. You will recognize these as the six W’s of journalism!
Jesus and His disciples walk through the gate of a small town. They see a funeral procession coming from the cemetery. The body in the open casket is a young man’s. This man had been the only son of a widow. His mother has already suffered the loss of her husband. Now, she has lost her son, too.
First-century Jewish women had to rely on their sons to take care of them as they grew older. A widow with no sons would find herself in desperate straits. Widows had no economic or social security. They couldn’t work for a living. They had no insurance benefits or property rights.
This now-childless widow has nothing to live on. That’s why, in first-century society, widows were supposed to get special treatment under the Jewish law. The Torah stated that you weren’t supposed to take advantage of widows, for when they cried out, God would surely hear them. And yet, unscrupulous people DID cheat widows, in the same way some poor elderly folks are taken advantage of by greedy caregivers and relatives today.
This widow’s loss is terrible. Of course she cries. She’s in for some hard times. Naturally, Jesus stops to help her! Luke says He’s moved with compassion. I took my Greek Bible out and looked up the actual word used to describe Jesus’ “compassion.” It is the word splangchnon. The meaning of the term, splangchnon, is turbulence in one’s innermost self. To feel the kind of compassion that Jesus felt for the widow, is feel an intense churning in your gut or your belly. Have you ever felt your stomach turning over when you heard shocking news about the illness or death of a loved one? Well that’s the feeling Jesus experiences. Remember, He doesn’t even know this woman, and yet He feels her loss like she’s His sister or mother.
He tells the widow not to weep! What a surprising thing for a stranger to say, when He meets a bereaved person. But it does get the crowd’s attention—and the woman’s attention, too. There are hundreds of people watching them. Remember, there has been a crowd following Jesus from Galilee. Now there’s another crowd of mourners watching Him at the funeral. It was customary, in those days, for all the people in a small town to drop everything they were doing, to join a funeral procession.
Jesus touches the man’s coffin, and says: "Young man, I say to you--- rise." And the young man does rise! He’s alive! Even death moves aside, when Jesus speaks. Everyone is amazed. “A great prophet has risen among us,” the crowd murmurs.
Jesus is in the early part of His ministry. This is His first experience in raising someone from the dead. Think of how embarrassing a moment this might have been for Him, had the young man not risen! But we know Jesus is not like you and me. In the gospels, He performs two more revivals of dead persons-—the thirteen-year-old daughter of Jairus, and His dear friend, Lazarus.
Compassion, more than power, more than wisdom, more than knowledge, is what makes Jesus holy. What does this story teach us? None of us are miracle workers—even the healers among us. But God can use us to make miracles.
We may not be able to raise the dead, but we can be compassionate. We are God’s family. When we act as God’s arms and legs and hands and heart, miracles may happen! We can't earn the grace that heals others. We can't work for it. We can't plead for it. It just comes to us, and sometimes we are blessed to be able to pass it on.
The raising of the widow’s son doesn't happen because his mother is faithful to God. She doesn’t pray. She never asks Jesus for help. Jesus doesn’t bring the young man back to life because He had been good. Jesus doesn’t care if this woman is faithful, or whether the son will be thankful. Jesus raises the man because He has compassion. God’s grace is a free gift.
We can show God’s grace. There are opportunities for us to do this, every day. Many people are so ill or so confused that they can’t ask God for help. They may be lost in depression or fear. They may not know how to pray. We can help them to know the love of Jesus Christ.
Six years ago I worked as a chaplain in the brain trauma unit of a hospital in northern New Jersey. I prayed with, and for, all the patients in the unit. I wasn’t always sure my prayers were doing any good, but I grew to love these people over the three months I worked there. There was one sad, sweet young man who had fallen off his bicycle when he hadn’t been wearing a helmet. Leroy had fractured his skull in several places. His head was misshapen from his injuries. He could only chatter at people with unrelated words. No one ever understood what Leroy was saying. I prayed with him every day, and he mumbled pleasantly in words I couldn’t figure out. One day, after I said the Lord’s Prayer to him, I decided to ask him a question that might help him remember his past life. I said, “Leroy, what would you do if you had a million dollars?”
His answer was not an incoherent mumble. It made perfect sense. It was the first complete sentence Leroy had said since being admitted to the hospital. He said to me, “I’d buy a swimming pool for my family and a red BMW and a big house.” Something in my question prompted a small miracle in that man’s brain, and he got better, fast. From then on, everyone at the hospital had regular conversations with Leroy.
We can perform small miracles, to pass on God’s grace. When Jesus inspires you to feel compassion for another person, you have a choice. You can walk right on by. Or, you can show Christ’s love. The choice is yours. The choice is always yours.
DEAR LORD, we thank you for the many blessings you have allowed us to experience in our lives. We praise you for your power unto life and for your compassion and mercy. We pray for those who are hopeless, those who have lost loved ones, and those who are struggling to get along because they have lost their means of support. Use us to offer hope, we pray, O God, just as you have offered hope to us. Amen
“Luke 7:11-17,” M. Eugene Boring and Fred B. Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004), 204.
Wally Fletcher, “Pastoral Implications of Luke 7:11-17,” Lectionary Homiletics, June-July 2007, 18.
Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1993), 207.
John, Chapter 11.
A small congregation organized a membership drive. The purpose was to invite new people to come to their church. Volunteers signed up to visit homes throughout the area. Linda and Karen volunteered to ring doorbells together. They were given a map, and were told to go down to Summit Drive and turn right. But Linda and Karen weren’t good at following directions. So they went down to Summit Drive and turned left, and found themselves in the middle of the low-income housing projects.
Later that afternoon, the volunteers returned to the church to report on how they had done. When Linda and Karen got back, they sadly reported that they had found only one person interested in coming to church, a woman named Marleen. Marleen lived with her children in an apartment in the projects. Linda and Karen reported that although Marleen had never belonged to a church before, she wanted to visit their worship service. The membership chair was annoyed with himself for making the mistake of letting Linda and Karen go together. They had gone to the wrong neighborhood. This didn’t sound good, not good at all.
When Sunday came, Linda and Karen proudly greeted Marleen and her children at the door of their church. After worship, Marleen said that she enjoyed it so much, that she wanted to join the Bible Study group. So Linda and Karen said that they would pick her up and bring her to the meeting with them.
Marleen appeared at the church for Bible study, holding the Bible that Linda and Karen had bought for her. That particular day the class was discussing the fourth chapter of Luke. That’s the story about Jesus’ temptation by the devil in the wilderness. The pastor who led the group asked them a question: "Has your faith in Jesus Christ helped you to resist temptation?"
One woman told about a situation in the supermarket checkout line the day before. She had ended up with a loaf of bread in her grocery bag that she hadn’t paid for. The woman said, "At first I thought, why should I pay for this? It’s not my mistake. But then I thought, No, I'm a Christian. So I went back and paid for the bread." The pastor smiled at her and thanked her for her story.
Then Marleen spoke up. She said, "A couple of years ago I was into cocaine. You know what that's like. It makes you crazy. Well, anyway, my boyfriend and I robbed a gas station one night—got two hundred dollars out of it. So my boyfriend said to me then, ‘Hey, let's hold up the Seven-Eleven down the block.’ But something inside of me said, ‘No. I held up a gas station with you, but I won’t rob a convenience store too.’ Well, he beat the heck out of me, but I still said ‘No.’ And you know what? That was the first time I had ever said ‘No’ to anyone. It made me feel like I was somebody."
After Marleen spoke, the pastor was quiet for a minute. Then he managed to say, "Well, um, you resisted temptation, all right. It's time for our closing prayer. Let us pray."
Afterwards, one of the older women spoke to the pastor and said, "You know what? I can't wait to call people and invite them to come to our Bible study. The classes have been so boring until today. But I can get a good crowd for this."
We should be able to draw a crowd when we tell the message of the gospels. The stories of Jesus are for everyone. But too often we “write off” people like Marleen. We reject people who don’t fit in. That is what Simon, the Pharisee, does in today’s gospel story. He’s the host of the banquet Jesus attends. Jesus says to him, "Simon, I have something to say to you. Do you see this woman?" Simon is thinking: Of course, I see her. Everyone in town knows what that woman is like. If you, Jesus, are a man of God, then you should see what kind of person she is.
But that is the point of this story. Jesus does see what kind of person this woman is. Sinful women like this aren’t supposed to touch holy men. She has quite a nerve, this uninvited guest! She walks right in during dinner and pours out her love for Jesus with costly ointment and tears, kneeling at His feet.
Did you notice that this woman has no name, and that she never speaks? She’s worse than nobody to Simon and his friends. The only place she feels welcome is on the street. Too often, congregations write people like this woman, and like Marleen, off. And yet, Jesus doesn’t tell this outcast to go away.
When I was a librarian, I liked the library best in the early morning, before the doors opened. I loved standing between the shelves of books—such perfect order, such quietness. Just me and the wisdom of the ages! I used to think about how nice it would be if people never came in to look for books. The shelves would stay in order. There would be no telephone calls. Nobody would pull the fire alarm switch by mistake. I could sit at my desk and read best-sellers for hours. How selfish and stingy of me!
Wouldn’t it be easier to run a hospital if sick people were never admitted? There’d be no emergencies to treat, and no surgeries to perform. The medical staff could chat with volunteers in the gift shop all day. How much easier for us to be good Presbyterians if churches didn’t allow sinners! But that isn’t what a church is about. Or a library. Or a hospital, either. Hospitals are for sick people. Libraries are for readers. And churches are for sinners.
The gospel of Luke, more than any other book in the Bible, honors social outcasts among the people of God. Because we aren’t social outcasts we forget that we sin too. Too often we think to ourselves, "I’m fine, but I sure hope that Jesus can straighten them out." That’s what Simon the Pharisee thinks. He’s pleased with himself. He’s invited powerful people to the banquet, picking the ones who will bring the most honor to his name. Jesus is the latest celebrity in town, so all the civic and religious leaders want to meet Him. So Simon invites Jesus, too. And yet, Simon doesn’t even bother to have a servant wash the feet of his guests. Are you surprised that Simon criticizes the woman with the alabaster jar, for touching Jesus? Simon keeps his distance, while the party crasher shows hospitality. Jesus sees the irony in this, and so do we. Simon doesn’t appreciate God’s love, even when it’s sitting right in his home.
Jesus can read Simon’s mind. He tells the Pharisee a parable about two men who owe money to the same creditor. One owes about two years’ worth of wages, and the other, two months’ wages. The creditor cancels their debts, and this generous gift frees both men. Jesus asks Simon which debtor will love the creditor more. When His host answers, you can almost hear his sigh of resignation, as he says to Jesus: “I suppose it’s the one for whom the creditor has cancelled the greater debt.” In Jesus’ time, forgiveness for a debtor was a gift of freedom. If you couldn’t repay a debt to someone, you literally became a slave to that person for the rest of your life.
By now, it’s clear to everyone at the party that the respectable Simon has also sinned, in Jesus’ eyes. Jesus doesn’t speak to the party-crashing woman until after He has told the parable. Jesus repeats every loving thing she’s just done for Him. Then He says, “Your faith has saved you. Your sins are forgiven.” He tells her to go in peace.
The Greek word for save can also mean rescue, deliver, keep safe, preserve, and make well. The woman takes Jesus’ words to heart. Her life is saved, and she is grateful! We don’t know if Simon gets the point of Jesus’ parable and figures out how to be saved.
We are free to love one another and live in peace. God doesn’t expect perfection from us. Churches are in the forgiveness business. That’s why forgiveness is part of our worship. We say a prayer of confession every Sunday. Following that, there’s an assurance of pardon. Sometimes people ask me why we say them. They tell me, “I don’t do those things we say in the prayer of confession.” I answer that a congregation is a community. We’re responsible for each other, and somebody among us has done those things.
This week, open your heart to the gift of freedom in Christ. As you lie awake at night, thinking of all the things in your past that you’d like to change, remember what Jesus told the woman with the alabaster jar—“You are forgiven! Go in peace.” Get a good night’s sleep every night. And every day, give thanks!
Let us pray.
God of grace, grant us courage to examine our own sins and our need for your forgiveness. Empower us to welcome all people to worship you with us. Lead us by your Spirit, we pray, to serve all people in need. Teach us to share with any who are suffering in body or spirit, that they may sense your loving presence in our care. We pray in Jesus’ name, AMEN
Luke 7:40 and 44.
Sharon H Ringe, Luke (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1995), 110.
Louise Lawson Johnson, endnotes for Dale Lindsay Morgan, Jubilee! Luke’s Gospel for the Poor (Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing, 2008), 29.
It’s a tradition at high school and college graduations. When the ceremony is almost over, a student takes off his or her graduation cap and throws it in the air. You know what happens next! The entire senior class stands up and throws their caps into the air. Suddenly there are hundreds of black caps with tassels, flying around the graduates’ heads.
At our daughter’s high school graduation a few years back, the seniors put a new twist on this custom. Instead of throwing their graduation caps, the senior class bounced three giant beach balls above their heads all through the ceremony. The principal seemed annoyed, and the valedictorian frowned. The graduates, and the audience, loved it.
Freedom! That’s what those seniors were celebrating. Freedom is the most powerful theme at graduations. Not achievement, and not even hope for the future. Graduation, to a senior, represents plain old freedom! Freedom from school rules, freedom from homework. Freedom to spend your time the way you want.
In today’s New Testament lesson, the Apostle Paul celebrates freedom. He calls it “deliverance to the captives.” Paul talks about the religious laws of the Torah that had been their disciplinarian for two thousand years. “Disciplinarian.” That’s the word Paul uses, translated from Greek. Christians need not be slaves to Jewish law, now, Paul writes. We’ve been set free by God’s gift of Christ.
In Greek, the word Paul uses for “disciplinarian” is paidagagos. Does that word sound familiar? Our English language has the word, “pedagogue.” We think of a pedagogue as a teacher. Paul isn’t writing about a teacher when he mentions a “pedagogue.” In Ancient Greece, a pedagogue was a slave, and an older man. He supervised a young, upper-class boy’s education. Only boys got an education. Only the most trustworthy slaves got to be pedagogues. These slaves couldn’t teach reading, writing or arithmetic because they weren’t educated themselves. Instead, they were babysitters and bodyguards--something like Secret Service men for the President’s children today. Their job was to keep these wealthy young kids out of trouble.
When Greek boys came of age, at fourteen years old, they didn’t have to have pedagogues anymore. Imagine how those boys must have wanted to throw their graduation caps into the air! Their freedom was surely as exciting as getting a learner’s permit is for a sixteen-year-old boy or girl today. And no doubt it was just as frightening for his parents!
Paul writes that our faith in Christ makes us grown-ups in the eyes of God. Baptism and belief in the Lord are all we need. The law of Moses had helped believers stay on the straight and narrow in Old Testament days, but it was temporary—something like putting training wheels on a two-wheel bicycle today. Or hiring pedagogues for Greek boys.
What’s more, according to Paul, no Christian is better than any other Christian—Jew, Greek, slave, free, male or female. Everyone who is baptized is equal. This was a radical statement for Paul, who had been raised as a Pharisee, to make. He had probably said the Jewish morning-prayer all his life. You’ve heard about the prayer that all Hebrew men had to say. Here’s how the first line goes: Thank you, God, that thou hast not made me a slave, a Gentile, or a woman.”
So, why is Paul writing to the Galatian church at this particular time? Someone has told him about a problem in the congregation and it’s making him angry. Somebody has been preaching to Galatian Christians that the only way to be saved is through “super-obedience.” Not only do you have to obey each of the laws of Moses, but you have to obey every recorded saying of Jesus, too—according to this false teaching.
Mature Christians need not depend on religious laws for salvation, Paul writes. He isn’t saying laws are bad. Law is the foundation for living, he writes. And yet, there is a difference between respect for moral law and legalism. The traditional moral law has been our jailer, Paul says. But when Christ gave His life for us, we Christians got our freedom from slavish obedience to the Torah.
Are there times in your life when you feel overwhelmed by all that people expect of you? Does a voice from your past echo in your head—something like a Greek pedagogue? Our library director had that kind of influence on me. He was from the old school of management. He believed that a library branch would “rage out of control” on Fridays, if its manager took Friday afternoon off. He really seemed think he might find the circulation staff dancing in the stacks. Or worse! He was my boss more than thirty years ago, but until my retirement, I never took Friday afternoons off, out of fear that my branch would “rage out of control.”
Some people picture God as the great enforcer of the law. The Jews of Moses’ time believed in God as their “Chief of Police.” They struggled to obey all His commandments — more than just the ten we know from Mount Sinai. The most ancient Hebrews lived according to the book of Leviticus — an incredibly detailed book of laws. The Levitical Code condemned people for eating pork, wearing clothing made of two kinds of material, cross-breeding cattle and planting two kinds of seed in the same field. These laws bound the Jews together as a people. But the Levitical Code has outgrown its usefulness for modern Christians, Paul argues.
Our faith today is quite different from that of the Galatian Christians. Many of us grew up singing Sunday School songs like, “Praise Him, Praise Him, All Ye Little Children, God is Love.” The stained glass window behind me shows the Jesus we know and love.
That’s the message of Paul’s letter in a nutshell. God is love, and Jesus loves us. It’s not radical for us, but it was for the Galatians. We need not fear the wrath of God if we disobey a dietary law or touch someone who unclean. We inherit the promises of Christ, just because we believe in God’s free grace.
Trivial rules don’t help us to get right with God. It’s our faith in Christ that makes us good Christians. Working every single Friday afternoon, just to obey my boss and keep the branch from raging out of control, didn’t make me a better library manager. It just made me mad.
We are the heirs to the promise God made to Abraham, according to Paul. The Galatian Christians were, and we are, God’s family. Even if we go swimming less than an hour after we eat lunch, and even if we step on cracks in the sidewalk, and even if we take Friday afternoons off, and even if we disobey the other old wives’ tales. We can throw our beach balls, and our graduation caps, into the air! We are free in Christ. Thanks be to God.
DEAR LORD, we know we are your children, but our lifestyle makes it difficult for us to be what you have created us to be. We know your laws can show us right from wrong, but they cannot help us do the right. Grant us spiritual maturity, Lord. Help us to enjoy the freedom of being your children. Increase our faith that we may become a part of your family and enjoy our inheritance. Grant us the joy of new life that comes with Christ’s liberation, for we pray in his name. Amen.
M. Eugene Boring and Fred B. Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004), 586.
Footnotes by Richard B. Hays, in Wayne Meeks, ed. The Harper Collins Study Bible. (San Francisco: Harper, 1993), 2187.
William Barclay, The Letters to the Galatians and the Ephesians (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1976), 32.
Eugene Bay, A Sower Went Out (Bryn Mawr, PA: Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church, 2004), 218.
A Sunday School song based on I John 8.
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
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