This is the text of the sermon from the Wednesday evening Lenten Service:
I loved being in the Navy. I spent 20 years, serving as a Navy Chaplain. It was an honor serving the faithful people in the Navy, and there are many, but I especially liked being in a role where I could share the love God has for God’s people with people who don’t know they were God’s people.
For me, it was the very best place to meet and influence people that were surprised a chaplain would be interested in them. I loved meeting and getting to know the rough edged engineers and the boatswain’s mates who saw themselves as the traditional kind of sailors that were hard working at sea and hard drinking ashore. They saw themselves as far outside the kind of person that any self respecting religious person would want to be around. Mostly they didn’t think God would have anything to do with them either.
My favorites were the guys and gals who would never consider darkening the door of a church. I wanted them to know God loved them already, just as they were. But I couldn’t talk to them about God. Not at first. You see, that WAS the one way Christians did seem to be interested in them…as targets. Mostly they were ignored by religious people–UNTIL someone wanted to evangelize them–until someone wanted them to see how bad they were and how much they needed a spiritual make-over.
So I had to talk to them about them.
I had to talk to them about their jobs, their family, their interests.
I had to get to know them. I found usually I would genuinely like them, once I got to know them. We are not so very different. THEN, once I got to know them, and they began to trust me—as a person and not as a Christian salesman—then they might open up and talk about stuff that really mattered to them. THAT is when life really got interesting. THAT is when they would tell me about their hopes and hurts and fears and failures. That was when they would tell me, usually in not so many words, what they understood about God, and usually it was that God was angry with them or disappointed in them. THAT is when I could tell them they were wrong about God.
THAT is where having a good understanding of the Gospel is so very important. The good news of God’s love for them was a revelation to them. They had only heard the bad news of God’s judgment before. They didn’t know it yet, but their situation was the perfect expression of our scripture passage for this evening.
They are exactly who Jesus was talking about in Matthew 9:9-13:
As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him.
And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he [Jesus] heard this, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” (NRSV)
This is the GOOD NEWS they had never heard.
This is how Brennan Manning wrote about it in The Ragamuffin Gospel on pg 22:
“Here is revelation bright as the evening star: Jesus comes for sinners, for those as outcast as tax collectors and for those caught up in squalid choices and failed dreams. He comes for corporate executives, street people, superstars, farmers, hookers, addicts, IRS agents, AIDS victims, and even used-car salesmen. Jesus not only talks with these people but dines with them—fully aware that His table fellowship with sinners will raise the eyebrows of religious bureaucrats who hold up the robes and insignia of their authority to justify their condemnation of the truth and their rejection of the gospel of grace. This passage should be read, reread, and memorized. Every Christian generation tries to dim the blinding brightness of its meaning because the gospel seems too good to be true. We think salvation belongs to the proper and pious, to those who stand at a safe distance from the back alleys of existence, clucking their judgments at those who have been soiled by life…”
Some of us would like to think of ourselves as the proper and the pious, as the good people, different from THOSE people, but those very attitudes betray us. At that very moment, we are revealed as THOSE people.
Manning continues on Pg 23
“He has invited sinners and not the self-righteous to His table. The Greek verb used here, kalein, has the sense of inviting an honored guest to dinner. In effect, Jesus says the kingdom of His Father is not a subdivision for the self-righteous nor for those who feel they possess the state secret of salvation. The kingdom is not an exclusive, well-trimmed suburb with snobbish rules about who can live there. No, it is for a larger, homelier, less self-conscious caste of people who understand they are sinners because they have experienced the yaw and pitch of moral struggle. These are the sinner-guests invited by Jesus to closeness with Him around the banquet table. It remains a startling story to those who never understand that the men and women who are truly filled with light are those who have gazed deeply into the darkness of their imperfect existence. Perhaps it was after meditating on this passage that Morton Kelsey wrote, “The church is not a museum for saints but a hospital for sinners.” The Good News means we can stop lying to ourselves. The sweet sound of amazing grace saves us from the necessity of self-deception. It keeps us from denying that though Christ was victorious, the battle with lust, greed, and pride still rages within us. As a sinner who has been redeemed, I can acknowledge that I am often unloving, irritable, angry, and resentful with those closest to me. When I go to church I can leave my white hat at home and admit I have failed. God not only loves me as I am, but also knows me as I am. Because of this I don’t need to apply spiritual cosmetics to make myself presentable to Him.”
We truly are loved by God, even when we are self-righteous. Even when we are judgmental. Even when we are quick to criticize. We ARE those people.
Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13 “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-6, NRSV) We are not always patient or kind, but God is. God is patient with each and every one of us.
Jesus said, “Follow me.” He said “Love me, and love your neighbor as yourself.”
This Lent, know that you are loved. This Lent, may God’s love dwell with you richly. This year, I hope you have a different kind of Lent; a ragamuffin Lent.
Please join me in prayer.
Holy God, come into our hearts and increase our faith. Help us to know and really believe how very loved we are. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Manning, Brennan. “A Ragamuffin Gospel” Multnomah Books, Colorado Springs, CO, 1990, 2000, 2005.