Sermon for Sunday February 21, 2010; Luke 11:37-48, 53-54
During my childhood and teenager years, my favorite seasons were Advent, Christmas and Easter. I loved the joy and excitement of those significant celebrations in the life of the church: the pageantry, the fanfare, the rousing hymns, the food, the friends and family, the gifts and the act of giving, the smiles and hugs, and the inspirational worship services.
Even now as a 34-year-old husband, father, pastor and mature adult, the pageantry of Christmas and Easter and the meaning of those events in Jesus’ life are something I still cherish dearly. However, I’m realizing as I get older that Christmas Day and Easter Sunday (and the seasons that follow) are not my favorite moments in my life as a follower of Christ. I’ve come to appreciate, more and more, with every passing year, the importance and profound significance of Lent.
Compared to Advent, Christmas and Easter, Lent sounds pretty dull. In Advent, we church folks say rather excitedly: “The Christ-child is coming!” At Christmas, we cheerfully proclaim: “A child has been born, a Savior, God-with-us!” And at Easter, we joyfully announce: “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!”
But at Lent, there really isn’t a stirring declaration. Lenten sayings like “Jesus is fasting” or “Jesus is walking toward the cross” sound like the Gospel According to Eeyore. The season of Lent doesn’t exactly scream inspiration and excitement; it’s void of much pageantry, color and cheerfulness. And to make matters worse, most of Lent is spent in the dreary doldrums of mid-winter when the skies take on more of a dullish gray and the cold wind cuts through your soul like a knife.
I think that’s why most of us on occasion, myself included, want to spring right on through Lent and get to the happier celebration of Easter! Lent is simply not a gloriously fun time. Nobody is thrilled about Jesus going to Jerusalem where he’ll be betrayed, arrested, beaten, deserted, and crucified. Nobody wants to hear about how their sins put Jesus on the cross. It’s heartbreaking, guilt-inducing and depressing… But it is no less important or meaningful!
Lent is a season in which we are called to pause, even slow down a bit, to pray and ponder Jesus’ journey toward a non-violent death for crimes he didn’t commit. Lent is a time in which we contemplate within our own hearts our shortcomings in life. Lent is a period of 40 days where we look deep inside ourselves and discern the ways in which we have turned away from God and neighbor; have not built community as God invites us to do; have not followed as Jesus would have us follow; and have not loved as the Spirit inspires us to love.
Lent is also an opportunity for us to reflect, together, on our brokenness and our need for God’s unconditional love—whether it’s being a part of the PHPC Lenten Bible Study and Blog Discussion; attending Anna Brown’s weekly Bible Study on Mark’s Gospel; picking up a Lenten devotional booklet from the table in the “breezeway” for your family and friends; participating in Church school; or gathering here on Sunday morning for worship.
Starting today, the First Sunday of Lent, and continuing through the third Sunday of Lent on March 7, I will preach a sermon series on three powerful moments in the middle of Jesus’ ministry as told by the writer of Luke’s Gospel.
The depiction of Jesus as well as his message in Chapters 11-13 is hard to comprehend. The image of the Messiah in these stories stands in stark contrast to the infant wrapped in bands of cloth and lying peacefully in a manger at the beginning of the gospel; or the risen Lord who suddenly appears to the disciples and says “Peace be with you” at the end of Luke’s book. For the gospel writer, Jesus is also a rebel who stands toe to toe with the religious and government authorities who have turned from God and God’s people.
And it is this rabble rouser Jesus that we need to pay close attention to if we are to understand the meaning of this somber and painful season of Lent for our lives and our faith. Otherwise, we can’t move forward toward the hope that is Easter…So let us begin with this morning’s reading from Luke 11:37-38 and 53-54:
“While he was speaking, a Pharisee invited him to dine with him; so he went in and took his place at the table. 38The Pharisee was amazed to see that he did not first wash before dinner. 39Then the Lord said to him, ‘Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. 40You fools! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? 41So give for alms those things that are within; and see, everything will be clean for you.
42‘But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice and the love of God; it is these you ought to have practiced, without neglecting the others. 43Woe to you Pharisees! For you love to have the seat of honor in the synagogues and to be greeted with respect in the market-places. 44Woe to you! For you are like unmarked graves, and people walk over them without realizing it.’
45 One of the lawyers answered him, ‘Teacher, when you say these things, you insult us too.’ 46And he said, ‘Woe also to you lawyers! For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not lift a finger to ease them. 47Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets whom your ancestors killed. 48So you are witnesses and approve of the deeds of your ancestors; for they killed them, and you build their tombs…
53 When he went outside, the scribes and the Pharisees began to be very hostile towards him and to cross-examine him about many things, 54lying in wait for him, to catch him in something he might say.”
In C.S Lewis’ classic The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, the Pevensie children, upon entering the magical land of Narnia, immediately learn from the Beaver family about the great lion Aslan—the allegorical Christ figure of the tale. One of the children, Susan, asks Mr. and Mrs. Beaver:
“Is he quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”
“That you will, dearie, and no mistake, said Mrs. Beaver, “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either brave than most or else silly.”
“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.
“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
Like Aslan, Jesus is good but he’s not exactly safe in the sense that he is meek and tame. Jesus can be angry and roar loudly when he sees injustices occurring. He doesn’t hesitate for a second to condemn the Pharisees and lawyers for their “false piety, attention to minutia while neglecting more vital matters, desire for praise from others, making the demands of faithfulness a burden to others, rejecting God’s prophets, and possessing the knowledge of God’s teachings but neither using it themselves nor helping others to do so.”
The Pharisees and lawyers deserve the scolding, the “Woe to you!” lecture as I like to call it. And I would imagine that the Pharisee who was surprised Jesus didn’t wash his hands before dinner immediately thought, “Oh great! I just had to gawk at him for grabbing bread with dirty hands. Here we go with one of his “Woe to you speeches…sheesh.”
By the end of Jesus’ just and righteous condemnation, the Pharisees and lawyers are angry themselves…but in a more deceitful way. They bad mouth Jesus after he leaves the house where they were dining. And they devise ways to grill Jesus so that he trips up and says something “inappropriate” or “blasphemous” that the religious leaders can then use to throw Jesus out of town. Of course, the Pharisees eventually scratch that goal and decide to get him arrested and killed instead.
But that’s no surprise to us modern readers. We know the Pharisees and other authorities are corrupt and out to get Jesus. And we’re good church-going Christian Presbyterians (certainly not Pharisees) so what does this text have to do with us? Well, everything actually…
The theologian and scholar R. Alan Culpepper, writing a commentary on this passage, says:
“Two dangers lurk here for modern interpreters. The first is to assume that nothing in these woes is relevant to the contemporary church, and the second is to treat them in such a way that they are understood as Jesus’ condemnation of Judaism or Jewish religious leaders. The woes are included in the Gospel not merely because they explain Jesus’ opposition to the Pharisees and lawyers but as a teaching to the disciples and a warning to those who profess to follow him.”
In short, the woes are meant for good ole Christians like you and me because, as history has shown us time after time, many Christians can be just as hypocritical as the Pharisees and lawyers of Jesus’ day.
A few days ago, the Barna Group, the renowned research organization that examines the intersection of faith and culture, released a study which showed that “church leaders across the nation are more willing to cut spending, let go of staff and reduce giving to missions than they are to make changes related to their buildings.”
Conducted among 1,114 senior and executive pastors during the fourth quarter of 2009, the study found that only 3% of churches were making changes related to their facilities in an effort to adapt to the economy and save money while 21% of churches were reducing spending and 18% made cuts to staff. Another 4% said they reduced their giving to missions or missionaries!
One church leader responded to the study, saying:“These numbers represent a reality that many of us have been aware of for some time. We have placed far too much value on our building and it is hindering our ability to respond appropriately to what God is doing in the midst of the struggling economy.”
Barna Group President David Kennan added: “Anything that goes unquestioned in the Kingdom of God is close to becoming an idol. God could very well be leaving the building and most of us wouldn’t know it because we’re too busy bowing down at the feet of what we’ve managed to build with our own hands.”
As Jesus might say rather harshly, “Woe to you pastors and church leaders who preach about tithing money and neglect justice and the love of God; it is these you should have practiced without neglecting the others. For you love to build fancy seats in your sanctuaries and expand your house of worship to include a Starbucks and a gift shop while ignoring the needs of the poor and oppressed!”
In early January, I read an article about an international adviser with Goldman-Sachs who gave a talk to a congregation on a Sunday morning. Speaking to churchgoers at St. Paul’s Cathedral in New York, Brian Griffeths (whose company is under scrutiny because the CEOs are seemingly pocketing huge profits from the government bailouts) claimed:
“The injunction of Jesus to love others as ourselves is an endorsement of self-interest. We have to tolerate the inequality as a way to achieving greater prosperity and opportunity for all.”
Again, as Jesus, might say, “Woe to you bankers and CEO’s like Goldman-Sachs for you profit off the backs of hard working men and women, and you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not lift a finger to ease them. You claim to know and follow the ways of God but you practice a way that hurts others and pushes them to the margins of society!”
There are a lot of hypocritical Christians in the world who say some outrageous things. Pat Robertson, who said weeks ago that the earthquake in Haiti, was the result of a pact the country made with the devil, is just one of hundreds of thousands of Christians who don’t practice what they preach in their everyday life.
In his 2006 book The Irresistible Revolution, preacher and author Shane Claiborne says the yeast of the Pharisees, which Jesus warns us about in scripture, has spread throughout society, particularly in the political camps of both liberals and conservatives, many of whom are Christians:
“Conservatives stand up and thank God that they are not like the homosexuals, the Muslims, the liberals. The Liberals stand up and thank God that they are not like the war makers, the yuppies, the conservatives. It is a similar self-righteousness, just with different definitions of evildoing. It can paralyze us in judgment and guilt and rob us of life.”
Claiborne expands upon this concept of hypocrisy and self-righteousness among Christians in the 2008 book Becoming The Answer to Our Prayers:
“Many congregations are in love with their mission and vision, and rip one another apart in committee meetings trying to attain it. And many social activists tear each other up and burn themselves out fighting for a better world while forgetting that the seeds of that world are right next to them…Alluding to the Old Testament story where God speaks through a donkey, Rich Mullins used to say, ‘God spoke to Balaam through his ass, and God’s been speaking through asses ever since.’ So if God should choose to use us, we shouldn’t think to highly of ourselves. And we should never assume that God cannot use someone, no matter how ornery or awkward they appear to be.
Woe to any of us who put our own agendas, our own self-righteous beliefs ahead of our calling to selflessly love and give to God and God’s people! For us to say we believe in God’s love but not show it through our actions makes us as hypocritical and falsely pious as a Pharisee.
Now what exactly are some examples of how we at Pleasant Hill act like Pharisees? How might Jesus be condemning each one of us? …Well, you’re nuts if you think I’m going to tell you! …In all seriousness, to give you a list of your shortcomings as if my own piety is not open to criticism would be missing the point of the text.
Culpepper reminds us in his commentary that Jesus’ warnings are “not a club with which to beat the failings out of others but a mirror in which we can see the shortcomings of our own piety.” Instead, I think, we have to view this text as a chance for us to invite Jesus inside our homes and hearts so that he can show us our shortcomings, help us accept our wrongdoing and lead us toward a better and more excellent way of living. That is preferable to the plan of the Pharisees who refuse to acknowledge their shortcomings and see Jesus’ message as a threat to their own power and prestige.
I believe that Jesus, while delivering a tough message, loves the Pharisees and lawyers; he wants them to change their ways for the better. Jesus speaks toughly, but it is tough love that he is speaking. Culpepper suggest that we as modern readers reflect on how the tough love would become beatitudes or blessings if we truly heard Jesus’ condemnations and changed our ways:
“What would the passage look like if it were changed from woes to beatitudes? As a blessing on the righteous Pharisees, it would be read: ‘Blessed are you Pharisees! For you practice justice and the love of God while you pay a tithe on even your smallest sources of income. Blessed are you lawyers! For you ease the burdens on others and help them carry their loads.”
What might the “woes” that Jesus speaks to us look like as beatitudes at Pleasant Hill? How might the church be impacted if we heard the “woes” as blessings which imply we have heard the condemnations and have or are changing our ways?
Maybe it would look and sound something like this:
Blessed are you members of Pleasant Hill! You raised more than $700 for the Meals on Wheels program and collected more than 300 canned goods for the Duluth Co-Op while still meeting stewardship pledges and paying your weekly tithes and offerings!
Blessed are you who gave nearly $1,000 to the Youth Scholarship Fund to help youth go on conferences and mission trips they otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford.
Blessed are you who raised more than $10,000 to help your brothers and sisters in Haiti recover from a disastrous earthquake! Blessed are you who gave enough money to sponsor the needs of two children in Ghana for an entire year!
Blessed are you who not only give of from your sources of income—whether big or small—but also go to Lousiana, Kentucky and Honduras to serve others and to help build homes, lives and relationships with God’s love!
Blessed are you who invite the men of the Clifton Night Shelter, the families of Rainbow Village and Family Promise to stay in your house of worship! Blessed are you who ease their burdens and help them carry their loads!
Blessed are you who accept others into this church family regardless of race, creed, gender and sexual orientation! You who reach out to members who are sick and hurting!
Blessed are you who seek to further the ministry of Christ with energy, intelligence, imagination and love!
Blessed are you who speak the truth in love, who practice forgiveness, who serve selflessly and give abundantly of yourselves to God and others!
Blessed are you who strive to embody God’s love through word and deed! Blessed are you who connect faith to everyday life!
Blessed are you who look closely at your shortcomings and “woes” in this season of Lent.
The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary on the Gospel of Luke by R. Alan Culpepper, 1995
The Irresistible Revolution by Shane Claiborne, 2006
Becoming An Answer To Our Prayers by Shane Claiborne and John Wilson-Hartgrove, 2008
“Hypocrisy of Church Leaders Evident During Economic Downturn says House Church Leader” Christian Newswire, Feb. 16, 2010
Goldman-Sachs International Adviser Brian Griffeths’ statement to the congregation of St. Paul, reported in Relevant Magazine: God and Progressive Culture, and on Bloomberg Newswire, January 2010