By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Matthew 5:1-12
Tuesday evening as my husband was driving home from teaching at Manchester College, a deer struck the side of our car. I’m glad my husband was driving; he keeps a cooler head than I do. There was minimal damage to the car: a small dent where a hoof likely struck; a broken piece of plastic molding where an antler may have struck; and a couple pretty significant scratches in the paint where antlers or hooves may have dragged across the side doors. I love my little car. It’s a 2015 Honda Fit. Britt and I purchase new vehicles about once every decade. Initially, I stood in the garage and looked at my little car. I was sad; its perfection was gone. It took me a little time to put things into healthier perspective. As already mentioned, had I been driving when the deer was struck, I may not have handled the car as well as my quick-thinking husband did. Aside from needing to address the scratches to prevent vehicle rust, I don’t really need to worry about repairs and their associated costs. Most importantly, no windows were broken out; no kicking hooves or piercing antlers entered the vehicle; my husband was safe and sound. We all know; if you drive a vehicle on the roadway, eventually it will get its share of dings and scratches. That’s how life rolls along. Yet I felt frustrated; life had brought change to my car and it wasn’t change I liked.
As human creatures, we don’t like to have change imposed upon us or our little corner of the world. The only people who really like change are the people who initiate it. The rest of us get drug along kicking and screaming. As human creatures, we become attached to things as they are: our houses, our cars, our relationships, even our physical bodies.
But in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus speaks from atop a mountain to proclaim an alternative way of living that helps us reorient our hearts and minds. Jesus proclaims the good news of the kingdom of God (though in Matthew, he refers to it as the Kingdom of Heaven). And, like an in-depth documentary that explores what life is like in a particular country and culture, Jesus reveals what we can expect it to be like should we choose to live, to dwell, in this kingdom or realm established and governed by God.
Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount begins with what we know as the Beatitudes; pronouncements of blessing. A Beatitude amounted to more than mere words. They are performative speech. The very speaking of the beatitude forged a new reality in place of the old one. Through these beatitudes, Jesus – with the authority of the heavenly Father – speaks these promises of blessing into existence. Jesus is proclaiming a new reality because these beatitudes don’t fit the standards or values of this earthly life or realm. In this world, people strive to secure themselves – to protect or insulate themselves from loss and suffering – by accumulating stuff: money, power, property, influence, control. But, in actuality, those things are ineffective. The market is fickle; one natural disaster can wipe out anyone’s dream home; and if we’ve ridden on the coattails of the person at the top of the food chain… well, their reign can end in any number of ways: resignation, retirement, failure, scandal, a vote of “no confidence,” even an indictment. Some manage to delude themselves longer than others; but, if we have any grasp on reality at all, eventually we will discover through personal experience and observation that there is really no “thing” in this world that is reliable in times of trouble and suffering and loss.
But life is different in that kingdom over which God reigns. Jesus proclaims the good news that life in the kingdom of God reveals that poverty of spirit and sorrow and gentleness and mercy and being peaceable are the way to ultimate and enduring security.
Today is All Saints’ Sunday and we will soon read the names of those saints who have passed on to their eternal reward. They are no longer subject to the fickle and unreliable terms of life in this world. We will celebrate their heavenly status, not with silly extra-biblical portraits of harps and fluffy clouds. Rather, heaven, the kingdom of God, or whatever name we choose to use describes what it means for their lives to now and forever be held firm by the one who governs not by intimidation or oppression; but by our heavenly Father, who assures us that we are at our safest and most secure when we stop striving and rest fully in his grace. In the kingdom of heaven, our Almighty God always has his way and gets his say about everything and that is a beautiful thing because when God gets God’s way, we have nothing to fear and nothing to lose. Being vulnerable before God is the very best and safest position to be in.
You might notice that all of these beatitudes describe states of vulnerability: being in a position of grieving, being in a position of poverty, being gentle toward others; seeking peace not retaliation or retribution. Sociologist and researcher Brene Brown describes the phenomenological reality of our struggle in this world and this life, saying: “The more vulnerable we are, the more afraid we are; the more vulnerable we are.”[i] If we live according to the values of this world, this life, it is a terrible vicious cycle; a cycle of moving erratically between fearful withdrawal and anxious vulnerability; humiliation and aggression. But, if we live within the kingdom of God – if we learn to place our trust fully and completely in the goodness of God, then we are set free from that burdensome cycle. We can embrace vulnerability as an experience of enduring security as we entrust ourselves to the faithful care of God. Life grounded in this world is a frantic scramble to get ahead. Life in the kingdom is one of security because we place our trust not in the obsolete stuff of this world but in God’s enduring providence and faithful care.
Today is All Saints Sunday and, together, we remember and celebrate the lives of those who have passed from death to eternal life. Death is the ultimate experience of vulnerability; eventually we will all succumb to it despite our best efforts to avoid it. But death is not the end when we live within the kingdom of God; when the foundation of our lives are built on those kingdom values that endure: mercy, gentleness, peace; when we have placed our trust in the God whose care for us is reliable and trustworthy and more than sufficient in every circumstance. Today we celebrate that we do not belong to this world and its value system. We belong to the eternal kingdom of God and, in that kingdom, we too are eternal. That is why in our funeral liturgy we affirm this truth for each saint when we pray the prayer of commendation: “Eternal God, you have shared with us the life of Ken and Lillian and Fred and Rosemary and Grace and Letha and Buford and Wendell and Philip. Before he or she was ours, he or she is yours… [So] for their life that in your love will never end, we give you thanks.”[ii]
Friends, when we live from a place of vulnerability and trust in Christ Jesus, we can live with continual peace and security. And what we value most will endure unto eternity.
[ii] The United Methodist Book of Worship; The United Methodist Publishing House; 1992; P. 157
By Pastor Tracey Leslie
When I was five years old I had an experience I have never forgotten and have periodically reflected on throughout my adult years. At age four, my dad began seminary in Dayton, Ohio. My family had moved from Johnstown, Pennsylvania and it was, for my mother, her first time to live away from her hometown and her very close, extended family. It was culture shock. We had moved to a small rural farming community about 40 minutes north of Dayton. The community was Appalachian, settled by folks who had come up the I-75 corridor from Kentucky in search of employment. It was a very closed culture. Now the irony is Johnstown is also Appalachian. But, Johnstown was our Appalachia and Lockington was not. When we arrived on moving day, there were no church members to greet us. We stood all alone in the gravel driveway and my mother and sister cried. Well, they did more than cry; they bawled. So, I cried too because that’s how it works when you’re four; if your mother cries, you cry. The following fall, during kindergarten, one day at recess, I stood on the playground looking up at the Maypole and I wanted to swing on it. I couldn’t reach it; I was too short. But I found another older kid who would lift me up. Since it was such a small community, the schools were K-12 and, as older, bigger kids poured out onto the playground and grabbed hold of that Maypole, we began to swing higher and faster and higher and faster; and my little arms were getting very, very tired. I remember thinking something like this: “If I ask them to stop, they won’t. I’m little and the big kids won’t listen to me. I’ll just let go.” And I did; tumbling to the blacktop; breaking my glasses and hitting my forehead, resulting in a trip to the doctor and six stitches above my left eye. As an adult I often have wondered if that scenario might have played itself out differently if my family experience were different. My mom never felt at home in that culture. She never felt understood or accepted there and, consequently, did not feel well-respected. She did not feel that her voice was heard. At five, I had little capacity for differing and I can only assume I felt my own choices were highly limited because my desires, my fears, my needs would not be heard, understood or respected.
Community that is inclusive and compassionate is of extreme importance. People have little chance of making wise and mature decisions if they are not in a compassionate and inclusive community that demonstrates that their desires, fears and needs are heard, understood and respected.
This morning we are concluding Trinity’s fall stewardship campaign: Building, Growing, Connecting: Living God’s Vision for Trinity. Stewardship is about how we manage or steward those resources God entrusts to us: our time, our talents, our treasure (or money). As Christians we affirm that there are no self-made men or women. All that we have and all that we are comes to us from God as a gift. So we are called to manage those blessings God gives in ways that reflect wise stewardship. Within the context of the church, stewardship involves using the resources God has given to advance or grow our mission and vision. At Trinity, our mission is “to make disciples or Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” Our vision is: “Growing in love and service through relationships with God and community.” So everything we do as a church should be strained through the filter of this question: does this contribute to relational discipleship? Do the decisions we make and the tasks in which we engage foster a sense of relational discipleship? Christianity is not a belief system; it is a relational system. The cross is the icon of our faith. Its vertical line represents what God in Christ did to restore us to right relationship with God. Its horizontal line reminds us that Christ also was incarnate, died and resurrected to restore us to right relationship with one another. Do the things we do as a church build relational connections?
One of the most fundamental ways in which we connect with one another and with God is around the table. As I mentioned in last Sunday’s sermon, tables are the place we cultivate a sense of community, remember our history, tell our stories, give thanks for our blessings, and welcome the stranger into our midst.
And it has been that way since ancient times. The defining event for the Israelites, their exodus from Egypt, is remembered and proclaimed still today at a table: the Passover meal. And the defining event in Christianity, the death and resurrection of Jesus, is remembered and proclaimed still today at a table: Holy Communion. Meals (as we see in scripture) become defining experiences that can convert us and transform us, even disciple us. In the setting of table fellowship both host and guest can encounter God as the true host whose rich grace feeds bodies, minds and spirits.
This morning’s gospel lesson, a meal story, is rather scandalous. To understand it a better, it helps to know a little about its setting. Jesus is invited to dinner at the home of a Pharisee by the name of Simon. Now, today we tend to view Pharisees quite negatively. But, we ought to be careful about that. The Pharisees weren’t bad guys. They were religious leaders and guardians of the faith. They really weren’t much different from many of us in the sanctuary this morning.
Now, Middle Eastern culture – both then and now – has high standards for hospitality. Since Simon has invited Jesus to dine with him, we can only assume this meal will be quite the production. In that culture, homes of the more affluent were constructed with a courtyard open to the street. And just beyond that courtyard, still visible from the street, was the inner dining chamber. And, when a meal was served and honored guests were invited, people from the street could see in and see who the honored dinner guests were. Most of the time, some lesser fare (common food for the common people) was placed in the outer courtyard for some of the poorer folk who might hear about this affair and be passing by. So, while we might view the woman in this gospel story as “crashing the party” because she was not an invited guest, her presence at this Pharisee’s home would not have been unexpected. Well, at least not if she stayed where she belonged – in the outer courtyard among the rest of the "little people." As the story unfolds, however, it becomes painfully clear that this woman does not know her place. She violates social protocol; she transgresses boundaries and enters the inner dining chamber where Simon, the host, is around the table with his honored guests. Now, if you have any visions of this woman crawling around under the table, banish those. For, at this period of time, people didn’t sit to eat. They reclined on their left side with their feet pointed away from the table.
So, this woman enters the inner dining area with an alabaster jar of ointment. Next, this woman – who everyone around town knows to be… well, sinful – begins to put on quite the show. She touches Jesus’ feet, she weeps and her tears fall onto his feet; she wipes them dry with her hair. Then, she kisses Jesus’ feet and she begins to rub them with the ointment in her jar. Now, if the woman didn't have a bad reputation already, this kind of inappropriate behavior would have given her one. In Jesus' culture, men and women who didn’t know one another didn't interact with one another and certainly didn’t touch one another. This woman – likely a stranger – shouldn’t have been touching Jesus at all, let alone in such an intimate way. But, Jesus understands that the woman’s intention is to communicate her love, affection and gratitude.
Meanwhile, Simon – Jesus' host – finds the whole interaction appalling. He interprets this woman's behavior as an insult to his honor. It is an insult that this woman of ill repute is intimately interacting with his dinner guest. More importantly, Simon finds Jesus’ acceptance of this show of affection to be highly suspect. He muses that, if Jesus were truly a prophet – as has been contended – he would know what kind of floozy this woman is and he wouldn’t be letting her touch him. The kind of sinful behavior this woman engages in makes her unclean and, by touching Jesus, she is making him unclean, too. This is quite a revolting display by Simon’s assessment. But [now follow me here], even at the very moment that Simon is thinking that Jesus cannot be a prophet because he clearly doesn’t know this woman’s nature, Jesus proceeds to tell Simon a story that will demonstrate that – not only does Jesus know what this woman is like – Jesus also knows what Simon is like AND the assumptions Simon has been making about what this woman and Jesus are like. It’s really a little humorous. In a culture where people’s honor ranking was monitored as carefully as player stats in the World Series, Jesus – with his sly little story – proceeds to knock Simon down a peg. He reminds Simon that, when Jesus arrived at his house for dinner assuming the invitation was sincere, Simon did not bother to honor Jesus with the traditional forms of hospitality. He didn’t greet Jesus with a kiss – a gesture not simply of affection, but more importantly, a way of demonstrating that someone was your social equal. And, he didn’t bother to have a servant wash Jesus’ feet or anoint his head with oil. In fact, he didn’t even offer Jesus a basin of water to wash his own feet. Jesus points out that Simon’s behavior as a host is beyond deficient. Simon failed to welcome Jesus in a way that showed respect and, in a society where rituals of hospitality are well-known and understood, what was lacking in hospitality was an obvious indication to everyone around the table that Simon didn’t really think all that much of Jesus.
But, even after Jesus has told this story which leaves Simon with egg on his face… even after Jesus has critiqued Simon’s poor hospitality right out loud in front of God and everyone… even after all that, Jesus isn’t through. He concludes his comments to Simon with this evaluation: this woman’s many sins have all been forgiven her and she has shown tremendous, lavish love. After all, a person forgiven much loves a great deal. But a person forgiven little loves very little. Now, Jesus didn't tell Simon that this last critique applied to him. But, you wouldn’t have needed to be a rocket scientist to have figured that out.
Now, there is some ambiguity as to whether or not the woman loved so lavishly because she had been forgiven OR whether she was forgiven because she loved so lavishly. It’s a little like that proverbial question about which came first, the chicken or the egg? But maybe, in this case, it’s not so much linear as it is cyclical. After all, when kindness is shown to me, I tend to respond more kindly to others who, because I have treated them kindly, tend to respond kindly to me. And ultimately, if I perceive God as being generous and gracious, then I will be more aware of the ways in which God demonstrates his generosity and graciousness to me and I’ll also be better able to be generous and gracious toward others.
Let me say that one more time: when we are compassionate and generous toward others, we unleash a cycle of generosity and compassion. And, in fact, that generosity and compassion we extend indiscriminately toward others makes blatantly clear what we really believe and have experienced in our own lives regarding the generosity and compassion of God. That’s why, as I said last Sunday morning, when you fund the ministries of the church what you are really funding is the celebrating and sharing of God’s grace; those things that happen in our lives and in our world that make the grace of God manifest in real and tangible ways, especially toward those whom our broader society has deemed as less than deserving. That’s what happens in this story with Simon. Simon is offended because Jesus, ultimately, extends generosity and compassion toward one who, in his judgment, does not deserve it. Yet, that very indiscriminate grace of Jesus transforms the life of this woman.
So what about you? Do we have a reputation like Jesus? To be a disciple of Jesus means we learn from him how to engage with those whom society might look down on or judge harshly. Anyone can attend worship on Sunday. And there are no heavenly points for getting your name on a church membership roll. The question is one of discipleship and how we live when we walk out those doors and with whom do we seek to share fellowship? Friends; if Trinity is going to grow, there is no question about it. We will need to seek ways to enter into relationships with people who don’t go to church; perhaps people who don’t live the way we do or the way we think we should. But will we take the risk of approaching them, talking to them, inviting them to join us for a cup of coffee, listening to their story without judgment? And are we willing to risk our own comfort and security to give generously to the ministries of this church so that, as a congregation, we can reach out into our community and grow relationships with people who need to experience the indiscriminate grace of God?
Sometimes we look at the world around us and we think, “Wow, people seem to be making a lot of poor choices for themselves.” But we are also living in a world that appears to be running pretty short on compassion. Community – Christian community – that is inclusive and compassionate is of extreme importance. People have little chance of making wise decisions if they are not in a compassionate and inclusive community that demonstrates that their desires, fears and needs are heard, understood and respected. And that’s what Trinity is about: compassionate, relational discipleship. When you fund the ministries of Trinity you are funding the sharing of God’s grace… things that are making the grace of God manifest – real and tangible in people’s lives.
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