"A Doctrine That Doesn’t Like Walls”

Galatians 2:15-21

Luke 7:36-50

9, June 2013
Rev. William J. Kemp

Doctrines play an important role in Christian life.  They define who we are and what we are about as Christians.  However, they often viewed as the bane of Christian life.   One reason is that they become more like fences designed to keep some people in and keep others out.   
A man once stood on the railing of a bridge ready to jump.  A passerby called out to him:
Friend, don't jump.  I must. I am all alone.  No one cares.
Do you believe in God?  Yes, I do.  So do I!
Are you a Christian?  Yes! So am I!
Catholic or Protestant?  Protestant.  So am I!
What denomination?  Lutheran. So am I!
Which Synod?  Dakota.  Oh, friend, so am I!
North or South Dakota Synod?  North.  So am I!
Rite of 1876 or 1885?  Rite of 1885.  So am I!
German speaking or Scandinavian?  German.  So am I!
Hussite or Muellerite?  Muellerite.  So am I!
Brother, God has sent me to save you.  You are not alone.  Take my hand.
(Reaches toward the jumper)
Are you a follower of Jacob Mueller or Franz Mueller?
Jacob Mueller.  What?  Jacob Mueller!
(The rescuer gives him a push.)
Jump, you heretic!

It gets almost that bad at times when we define the boundaries of the church so tightly and then have the audacity to believe that the boundaries of the church determine the boundaries of God’s love.  Some would say "fences make good neighbors."  Personally, I prefer Robert Frost's sentiment, "something there is that doesn't love a wall!"

Justification by grace is the doctrine we meet today.  It is anything but exclusionary!  It created a revolution in the life of Martin Luther and it began the reformation of the church in the 16th century.  "For it is by God's grace that you have been saved through faith.  It is not the result of your own efforts, but God's gift, so that no one can boast about it."

It was important for Luther and continues to be important as it addresses those who are burdened by guilt and perpetually frustrated in their efforts to make themselves acceptable to God.  For the apostle Paul, the particular concern was for the Gentiles.  His calling was to preach Christ in a pluralistic and divided world.

The letter to the Galatians speaks to the issue of those who wanted to use religion to build walls to jump over in order to be Christian.  Gentiles would first be required to become Jews.  Not so, says Paul.  The essence of the Gospel is that God loves us not because of who we are but because of who God is.  We are not justified (that is, righteous or acceptable to God) because we have done or believed the right things.  We are justified by Christ's death and resurrection.  

For Paul, there's no middle ground.  Either we are deserving of God's love or we are not.  If we think we are, then we've missed the point of the Gospel.  Indeed, "if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing."

Just how that doctrine plays out becomes obvious in the story from Luke’s gospel.  One day Jesus was invited for dinner at the home of Simon the Pharisee.  While there, a woman from the city, who was a sinner, came in and with a jar of ointment and extended to Jesus the normal hospitality Simon either ignored or forgot:  foot washing, anointing, and a kiss.

It’s often assumed that the woman was a prostitute, though at least one commentator says that is useless speculation.  Maybe so, but read between the lines and come to your own conclusions.  In any event, she was of a "different kind" than Simon and the other guests.  She was clearly out of place.  

Why would she risk humiliation by placing herself in such a situation?  She didn't stumble into the dinner party by accident.  She came fully prepared for her act of devotion. She must have encountered Jesus before.  She must have been touched in a very personal way by his grace.  I wonder what Jesus said to her.  

Perhaps she had an experience similar to what Mary Ann Bird writes about in The Whisper Test.

I grew up knowing I was different, and I hated it.  I was born with a cleft palate, and when I started school, my classmates made it clear to me how I looked to others:  a little girl with a misshapen lip, crooked nose, lopsided teeth, and garbled speech.

When schoolmates asked, "What happened to your lip?"  I'd tell them I'd fallen and cut it on a piece of glass.  Somehow it seemed more acceptable to have suffered an accident than to have been born different. I was convinced that no one outside my family could love me.

There was, however, a teacher in the second grade whom we all adored--Mrs. Leonard by name.  She was short, round, happy--a sparkling lady.

Annually we had a hearing test ... Mrs. Leonard gave the test to everyone in the class, and finally it was my turn.  I knew from past years that as we stood against the door and covered one ear, the teacher sitting at her desk would whisper something, and we would have to repeat it back--things like "The sky is blue" or "Do you have new shoes?"  I waited there for those words that God must have put into her mouth, those seven words that changed my life.  Mrs. Leonard said, in her whisper, "I wish you were my little girl."
Could the woman, from the city, who was a sinner, of whatever ilk, have heard Jesus whisper into her ear during some earlier encounter, "Remember, you are God's daughter?"  Of course, that, too, is only speculation, but I hope it's not useless.  It must have been something like that.  What else could have transformed her life?  To hear and believe that you are accepted and loved, not because you are perfect, but because you are you, that is to know the grace of God.  

Jesus reacts to Simon's contempt towards the woman by telling a parable with an obvious conclusion. The one who has the greater debt forgiven will be the one who loves much more.  The outpouring of the woman's devotion is proof that she knew just how great her forgiveness was. "Your faith has saved you; go in peace," Jesus told her.

Fred Craddock raises a haunting issue in his commentary on Luke.  

The word of Jesus "Go in peace" adds considerable pathos to the event.  Where does one go when told by Christ "Go in peace"?  The price of the woman's way of life in the city has been removal from the very institutions that carried the resources to restore her.  The one place where she is welcome is the street, among people like herself.  What she needs is a community of forgiven and forgiving sinners.  The story screams the need for a church, not just any church but one that says, "You are welcome here."

Tony Compolo is Professor Emeritus of Sociology at Eastern University near Philadelphia and an unabashed evangelical Baptist.  My favorite Compolo story tells of a time when he travelled to Honolulu for a speaking engagement.   He settled into his hotel hoping for a good night's sleep so he would be refreshed for the next day's meeting, but his flight was very long and he had a bad case of jet lag.  Three o-clock in the morning felt like nine o-clock the previous evening to him. Awake and hungry, he found himself in a "greasy spoon" café in the wee hours of the morning, Hawaii time.  As he bit into his sandwich, eight or nine ladies of the evening walked in.  They had just finished for the night. Their talk was loud and crude, and it was difficult to avoid listening in. He heard one tell the others it was her birthday the following day. "What do you want from me? A birthday cake?" was the sarcastic reply. "Why be so mean?" she replied, "I was just telling you. I don’t expect anything. I’ve never had a birthday party. I’m not expecting to have one now." When Tony heard this he made a decision.

When the women left, he went over to the café owner, a guy called Harry. "Do they always come in here?" "Yes," said Harry. "Including the one who sat next to me?" "Yes, that’s Agnes. Why do you want to know?" "Because I heard her say it’s her birthday tomorrow and I thought we might throw her a party." Pause. Then Harry smiled. "That’d be a great idea."

By half past two the next morning, Tony had brought decorations and Harry had baked a cake. Word had got out and it seemed as if every prostitute in Honolulu was in the café – plus Tony Campolo, a preacher. When Agnes entered with her friends, she was flabbergasted. Her mouth fell open and her knees wobbled. As she sat on a stool, everyone sang "Happy Birthday". "Blow out the candles," people shouted, but in the end Harry had to do it for her. Then he handed her a knife. "Cut the cake, Agnes, so we can all have some." She looked at the cake. Then slowly said, "Is it alright … would you mind … if I wait a little longer … if we didn’t eat it straight away?" "Sure. It’s okay," said Harry. "Take it home if you want"’ "Can I?" she said, "Can I take it home now? I’ll be back in a few minutes." And with that she left, carrying her precious cake out the café.
There was a stunned silence. So Tony said, "What do you say we pray?" And they did.  He led a group of prostitutes in prayer at 3:30 in the morning. When they were done, Harry said, "Hey! You never told me you were some kind of preacher. What kind of church do you belong to?" Tony, obviously prompted by the Holy Spirit, found the wits to say, "I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning." Harry waited for a moment. Then he kind of sneered, "No you don’t. There’s no church like that. If there was, I’d join it. I’d join a church like that."
Would you join a church like that?  Would I?  I don't know. We church people can seem pretty uppity at times.  Sometimes we come across more like Michael Jeffries, the CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch.  He believes only certain people should wear his company's clothes.  "We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends," Jeffries said. "Are we exclusionary? Absolutely!  In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids. We go after the cool kids."

Susan Sullivan, professor of Sociology at the College of the Holy Cross, recently reported on a survey showing that mothers in poverty tend to assume that they would not be welcomed at church. "The women felt unwanted ... and ... largely felt that they didn't have a 'church lifestyle.'  They would say, 'I swear' or 'I smoke' or 'I sin.'   About a third of the women ... felt stigmatized by churches.  Some mentioned not having nice clothes.  Some were ashamed of being on welfare, even though no one would know."

Anthony DeMello, writes:

I was a neurotic for years.  I was anxious and depressed and selfish.  Everyone kept telling me to change.

I resented them, and I agreed with them, and I wanted to change, but simply couldn't, no matter how hard I tried.

What hurt the most was that, like the others, my best friend kept insisting that I change.  So I felt powerless and trapped.

Then, one day, he said to me, "Don't change.  I love you just as you are."

The words were music to my ears:  "Don't change.  Don't change.  Don't change ... I love you as you are."

I relaxed.  I came alive.  And suddenly I changed!

Now I know that I couldn't really change until I found someone who would love me whether I changed or not.

We don't have to search for someone who loves like that.  We have been found by the One who does. Christ is our peace.  He not only does not like walls, he breaks them down: walls between the cool and the not-so-cool, the ugly and the beautiful, the righteous and unrighteous, the rich and poor, male and female, and on and on it goes, ad infinitum.    

Not only does he break down walls, he redefines beauty and what it means to be cool.  "See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are."