Sunday, September 29, 2019

Did You Listen to the Prophets?

September 29, 2019
St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

Luke 16:19-31

Most of us have it pretty good. We have food to eat, clean water, clothing, shelter, and a loving family. Many of us have much more. I don’t consider myself rich, not in comparison to many of the people in communities I drive through on my bus routes. Yet, I have a three-bedroom home, a decent car, a smartphone, cable TV, and I get to take vacations and travel. I may not feast sumptuously every day, but I don’t go hungry either.

According to the World Bank,[1] over the last 25 years, more than a billion people have lifted themselves out of extreme poverty, and the global poverty rate is now lower than it has ever been. Fewer people are living in extreme poverty around the world, but the decline in poverty rates has slowed. Access to good schools, health care, electricity, safe water, and other critical services remains elusive for many people. In 2015, the number of people living on less than $1.90 a day was 736 million. More people live a life like Lazarus than live in all of the United States, Canada, and Mexico combined.

In this parable, Jesus is once again taking on the Pharisees. Luke sets this parable just after Jesus says “’You cannot serve God and wealth.’ The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him.”[2] The Pharisees are meant to see themselves as the rich man in the parable, and the message is clear: your riches cannot save you.

The story is full of contrasts. There is the world of the haves and the have-nots, the world of the rich and the poor, the world of the comforted and the afflicted. There is the rich man with no name, and a poor man named Lazarus. The rich man is covered in purple and fine linen, while Lazarus is covered in sores. The rich man feasts while the poor man starves.

The divisions between wealth and poverty are mean to evoke a strong reaction. Perhaps Jesus, in his travels, has witnessed this very scene. Struck by the contrast, Jesus exposed through this story that the Pharisees loved their money more than people, their possessions more than the poor, their clothes more than compassion, and their extravagant feasts more than sharing food with the hungry.

The economic divisions of our time are a source of tension too. Income disparity is not new, but it has become much more pronounced in the past 30 years. Those who live in the top income bracket cannot imagine what life is like for those in the bottom half. The rich man in the parable may have never noticed Lazarus before, and now, in agony, still sees him as only a servant. The rich man, still unable to bridge the gap, does not even address Lazarus directly, asking Abraham to send him with water.

In the parable, the reversal comes as both of our characters die. Lazarus is carried away by the angels to be comforted in the bosom of Abraham, while the rich man is buried and receives agony in Hades. A great chasm divides them, just as it did in life, except this time “those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.”[3] And now the moral of the story becomes clear: if you do not cross the chasm between rich and poor in this life, you won’t be able to cross back in the next. You who received the good things in life have received your share. In the next life it is those like Lazarus who will be comforted.

But wait! If you won’t help me, at least help my family. Send Lazarus to warn them! Maybe they will listen and be saved from this torment. And Abraham, perhaps sadly, replies that they have been warned. “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.”[4] You, and all of them, have been given the message. If you heed the message, you’ll find yourselves on the other side of the chasm that cannot be crossed.

It is not too late. Not for us. We can still reach across the divide between rich and poor. When we come to the end and we are asked “Did you listen to the prophets?” we might yet be able to answer Yes! This parable, and many like it, are part of the sustained message of the prophets, that the time to do right is now. The time for justice is now. Jesus came to preach good news to the poor. He spoke out against the inequities of his day with stern warnings for the wealthy and powerful. Will we listen, even if one should rise from the dead?

Perhaps, like me, you don’t see yourself as rich. We long for the scraps from the tables of wealth. But this parable is about us. If we only seek to move up, to enrich ourselves, and to find our comforts, then we may find ourselves on the other side of the chasm. We must also look down. We must notice the homeless poor on our streets. We must see the hungry people longing for a simple, healthy meal. We must notice when Lazarus is laying at our gates. We must act to bring comfort and compassion. We must cross the divides in this life, because it may be too late in the next.  Amen.

[2] Luke 16:13-14. The scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.
[3] Luke 16:26.
[4] Luke 16:29.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Faithful, Dishonest, and Shrewd

September 22, 2019
St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

Luke 16:1-13

What a strange parable. Jesus tells us a story about a crook, a dishonest manager, and in the end seems to recommend the shrewd behavior of the crook. Jesus has used some unsavory characters in parables before – the Prodigal Son who leaves home and spends all of his inheritance, a crooked judge, landowners who exploit their laborers. But here the boss praises the manager for being dishonest. Weird. Even Luke, who wrote this account seems to try several times to explain it away.

Let’s face it, there are a lot of unsavory people in the Bible that seem to be loved by God. Cain, who murdered his brother, is protected by God (Genesis 4:15). Jacob cheated his brother Esau out of his inheritance (Genesis 25:31-34), and yet he was later renamed Israel (Genesis 32:28). David, the King, made sure Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, was killed in battle (2 Samuel 11:15), yet we know David as the ideal king. There are many stories of dishonest people who God loves anyway. Perhaps we get stuck on some of these stories because we don’t think they’re about us.

I think of myself as a good person. When I think about that story in Matthew 25 about the separating of the sheep and the goats, I’m putting myself in the category of sheep every time. I have a mental list, and you might too, where I categorize good people and bad people. Hitler-bad, Mother Teresa-good. Jefferson Davis-bad, Abraham Lincoln-good. There are different degrees of badness and goodness, but always, I am on the good list. Except, I shouldn’t be.

I am not always a good person. I have done and said things that were hurtful to others. I am trying to do better, but I’m not perfect. I am both good and evil, as Martin Luther, the protestant reformer, said, we are at the same time righteous and sinners. I belong on both lists, and maybe the best I can do is try to lean mostly to one side.

Now this dishonest manager knows he’s been caught. He’s probably going to be fired. He’s likely been skimming from the rich man’s profits, adding a little on top of the bills he’s been writing. The manager is not going to turn to digging or begging for a living, but maybe he can find a clever way out. So, he calls in the debtors one-by-one and reduces their bill. Pretty slick. He makes some friends so that when he gets fired, he’ll have somewhere to go. Smart guy. We kind of admire him. He’s bucking the system, and if we look at it, it’s an immoral system to begin with.

The laws that are recorded in Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy – they all renounce charging interest, especially to fellow Jews. But there are ways around the laws, right? We won’t call it interest. I’ll loan you fifty jugs of olive oil, but in the contract I’ll say you owe me one hundred. The boss gets back what is owed, maybe a little more, and I get my cut. It’s the price of doing business. Everyone is doing it, so it can’t be that bad. That’s how the system works.

We expect the parable to have some reversal, some way of setting the system right. We expect a lesson in morality. Then the master commends the dishonest manager, and wait, what just happened? The master knows the manager is a crook, but that’s fine, he’s a shrewd crook. And in that society, just as in ours, good business sometimes means getting away with it. Increasing shareholder value is the primary goal, after all, we’re in this to make money, right?

The thing is, the way in which this dishonest yet shrewd manager handled the situation resulted in a positive outcome. For what might be the first time, the manager put people ahead of profit. His motives may be self-serving, but he makes some friends. The manager turns out to be faithful to what really matters, relationships. In this moment, the manager has been faithful with the dishonest wealth, and begins to build a portfolio of true riches.

Profits are the name of the game in our world today. Corporations downsize to increase profits at the expense of sending workers off to unemployment. Cheaper labor is found overseas. CEO’s who make the stocks go up are celebrated, even when the workers strike for better pay. In this parable, however, we get a glimpse of someone in the middle of the dishonest system make a turn for the better. Even though the crook gets praised, we see that what he’s done is good. People have been helped, relationships have been strengthened, and friends have won out over profits.

We aren’t always good. Sometimes we find ourselves on the bad side of the list. But when we put people first over profits, when we lean toward the good, we are faithful to the idea of a better way, a better world. Every little bit of good counts, and even dishonest people have a part to play in the story told by God.  Amen.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Race Across the Sky

September 15, 2019
St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

Hebrews 11:29-12:2

How many of you remember Usain Bolt from the last Olympic Games? He was amazingly fast. He practically strolled through world records. Watching him run was like watching a superhero.

Superheroes are big right now. There have been not a few films about superheroes in the past few years, with many more in the works. We enjoy watching superheroes. Perhaps it is helpful to imagine that our problems, or the world’s problems, could be solved if only there was one person, one gifted with super-human abilities, who had the courage to take a stand. Perhaps we like to watch because we can imagine being the superhero ourselves, if only for a couple of hours, and it makes us feel powerful.

The Letter to the Hebrews holds up some superheroes of the bible for us to remember. These heroes accomplished amazing feats of strength and courage by faith, by the power of God working within them. The writer lists several, but acknowledges there are so many that there is not enough time to tell about all of them. And that’s just the ones in the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible. Many more heroes and heroines could be added from the New Testament; and from the two-thousand years of the history of the church could be added millions more. What a great cloud of witnesses!

It is good to remember our ancestors, to repeat the stories of heroism from our common history. Yet, we must do more than simply recite the old stories. We need to understand how their lives, and their stories, impact our lives. There is a paraphrase of Hebrews 11:40 by Eugene Peterson that I find helpful in understanding the connections. “God had a better plan for us: that their faith and our faith would come together to make one completed whole, their lives of faith not complete apart from ours” (The Message). The story of their faith is not complete without the story of our faith, and ours is not complete without theirs, because we’re part of the same story.

We are part of The Story capital “S”, the big story that, for the ancients, began with Adam and Eve. For us it began with the Big Bang, or perhaps even long before. It is the story that is still being told. The bible tells some very important parts of that story, but it is not the whole story. And that is why we’ve been known to say “God is still speaking.”

Imagine a relay race. The baton is passed from one runner to the next. But this is not a sprint. This race is much longer, longer even than a marathon. It is like the “Race Across the Sky,” also known as the Leadville Trail 100 Run. That race is one-hundred miles of extreme Colorado Rockies terrain — from elevations of 9,200 to 12,600 feet. Or perhaps the race is more like the Olympic Torch relay, where the fire keeps passing from one to the next over thousands of miles. And like a relay race, other hands have kept the flame before us, and other hands will carry it on after us. And one day we will join that great cloud of witnesses.

The story of the faith of Saint John’s United Church of Christ in Union is like a marathon relay race. The story of the United Church of Christ is like the Trail 100. And the big story of the Christian faith, passed down through the ages, is like the Olympic Torch run. There are others running with us, some who have been running for a long time, and others who have only started to walk. Some cannot walk at all, and yet they participate in the race as well. That is the story of our faith.

In his book, Deep Memory, Exuberant Hope, Walter Brueggemann describes the story of the community of faith in which we share “a past of life-giving miracles, a future of circumstance-denying promise, and a present tense of neighbors in fidelity.” The stories of heroic deeds from the past, the stories of faithful people following the will of God, can inspire us today to be faithful to who we are, to keep on running the race, no matter what is happening around us, no matter how things appear. Our story is, as yet, unwritten, still unfolding, still being told.

Now, if the thought of trying to run 100 miles at 12,000 feet of elevation makes you want to faint, remember this: keep your eyes set on Jesus. Jesus ran this race before us, blazed a new trail, and set guideposts on the way. Jesus continues to run beside us. And Jesus will make sure that you don’t run this race in vain.

It might help to remember that those ancestors of our faith that are mentioned in the Letter to the Hebrews, they were not super-humans. They were human, just as flawed and failure-prone as the rest of us. Moses wasn’t permitted to enter the Promised Land because he had broken faith with God. Rahab’s life was spared, but her home, the city of Jericho, was destroyed. David didn’t get to build the Temple because of that business with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, whom David murdered.

It is encouraging to me to know that even these heroes of old were deeply flawed yet deeply faithful. Maybe there’s a chance for me yet. Maybe I need someone to remind me that it’s not by my own power – let alone super-power – that I endure or accomplish anything, or even live. I am able to do what I can only by the power of God working through me.

We don’t run this race in vain, and we don’t run it alone. We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. We are joined on the journey by family and friends, fellow runners who can encourage us to keep going. And we have Jesus who runs the race with us, just ahead of us, guiding the way.

We are running in the big race, the Story with a capital “S”, and that means that what we do matters. It matters not just to us, but to those who have gone before and are now watching us as we continue the same race. It matters to those who follow us who will need examples of faith to fortify them as they, too, run the course. It matters to those who run alongside us, who fall and need a hand to get back up, and who reach out a hand to us in need. What we do matters because we will have added our own stories to those written long ago. Our faith story is not “apart from” the faith of our parents or our great-great-grandchildren. We’re part of something greater than ourselves, a bigger picture, an ancient story that is still being told.

As we run, we draw ever closer to the coming of God’s reign – the peace, and justice, and healing of God so badly needed in our homes and families and neighborhoods, and in places far away, like Iraq and Egypt, the Sudan, Afghanistan, and Syria. We run a race which is long and hard, but with the knowledge that God will not let go of us when we stumble or fall, knowing that God will guide our feet, in faith we shall not fail to pass on the fire.  Amen.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

What Have I Gotten Myself Into?

September 8, 2019
St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

Luke 14:25-33

In the words of the 34th Psalm, let us pray. I will bless the Lord at all times; the praise of God shall continually be in my mouth. O magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt the name together. O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in God. Amen.

It is a dangerous thing to be a Christian, and sometimes I wonder why we are all so keen to make sure that our children become Christians. Sure, we want them to be kind to others, give of their time and money to those in need, grow close to God. We don’t want them to end up hung on a cross, though. The thing is, following Jesus is a commitment. Being a disciple means that we cannot be shallow or uncommitted believers. Jesus points this out with some pretty strong language in this passage. To become a disciple takes total dedication, and that means careful reflection and decision making. It cannot be done on impulse, because Lord knows that this road may lead to the cross. [1]

I was baptized. I was confirmed by my church. I even went to seminary and got ordained into the ministry. Did I really sit down and estimate the cost? Did I consider what I might have to give up in order to become a disciple of Jesus? What have I gotten myself into?

Alright, alright. Let’s pick apart that first line about hating your family. We can love more than one person at a time. Each of us has enough love to go around for our parents, our brothers and sisters, our children, our girlfriends and boyfriends, our spouses, and even ourselves. But sometimes we get out of balance. A father becomes ill and dependent on his son, who must now sacrifice attention and resources that would ordinarily go to his wife and child. A mother with three children finds her time and energy consumed by the needs of a child with a disability; what belongs to the other two has been nearly used up. Conflicts of loyalty can be heartrending. [2]

It is not only family members who compete for our affection and attention. We love our friends, our school, our church, the flag, the Lord. Usually we can keep our obligations in balance, but sometimes our competing interests come into conflict. Should I go to sleep so I can sing in the church choir in the morning, or should I stay up talking with a friend who lost her dear grandmother to a heart-attack? Should I stand up for my gay friend knowing I’ll probably get bullied too? Jesus wants to prepare us for a life of making hard choices.

Discipleship goes a step further than being a responsible human being. Jesus tells us that we need to take this business seriously. Now, I read something in the Covenant section of the Constitution of St. John’s that tells me people here have thought carefully about living as Christians: “We agree one with another to seek and respond to the Word and the will of God and to walk together in the ways of the Lord, made known and to be known to us.” [3] Responding to the Word and will of God, and doing so together, are important qualities for a Christian community. Standing up for what is right in the face of what is wrong is not easy. It’s a risky thing to do what is right, rather than what is cool. People might laugh at you, or worse, people might get mad at you for pointing out that what they’re doing is wrong. Loving your neighbor, caring more for the well-being of others than for yourself is not the message we receive from our culture. You’re not going to be a star on America’s Got Talent if you’re concerned with those on whom the spotlight never shines.

At the same time, in all its seriousness, discipleship is a process. It takes time to learn to live as a disciple, and there will be both false starts and modest successes, as we grow in our faith and journey into the fullness of that holiness that resides in each of us. [4]

It helps to know that somebody out there knows you, knows what is going on with you, and cares. It helps to know that somebody out there is praying for you. That is what we have the church for, and that is part of the reason we are here together today.

There is a pastor named Kenneth Samuel who wrote that “Our culture is in grave danger of losing the value of shared experiences and shared expressions.” [5] iPods, smart phones, TVs, and PCs that capture our attention and limit our view of the rest of the world keep us constrained within the walls of our self-interested pursuits. The incredible array of choices we have for news and entertainment mean that we lack a common reference. I don’t watch America’s Got Talent, or Game of Thrones, so I have no idea what people are talking about half the time.

Common Core standards in schools have tried to address some of the need for common references and basic knowledge that everyone should have. But for everything that is put in, something is left out. Rev. Samuel suggests that “The lack of comprehensive standards in education means that, as a nation of people, we share very little in terms of common references.” He goes on to name some of those references: the experiences of Huckleberry Finn along the Mississippi River, or the hypocrisy revealed in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, the abolitionist epic of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin or the dimensions of African American life described by James Baldwin in Go Tell It on the Mountain. “Our sense of shared values,” he says, “is in serious jeopardy.”

He goes on to say that “Much of our technology has been used to build a global network of isolated individuals.” He makes some suggestions of how to counter this trend toward isolation. Why not take off the headphones and just spend a few days talking and listening to the special people in our lives?  Or how about buying copies of the same book for a group of friends and planning to read and discuss it together?  Why not watch the same movie with your family followed by dinner at the same table while you engage in shared discussion?  Or… maybe we could all go to church together and share a common experience with God.

There is something special going on here today. There are people young and old gathered together in this place to connect with one another the old-fashioned way – face to face. Every Sunday, when you other people here in church, you know that they are not working at their jobs, they are not playing soccer, they are not sleeping in – they took the time and have done the work to be here, because they care about the church and they care about their faith. It is our job to make sure that each of us looks for and points out the light of Christ shining in each other, to help one another discover the strength, the goodness, and the hope we have, and the power that God has to breathe life into all we do.

Together we nurture the intimate relationship we have with God in Christ and discover that obedience to God is not blind or easy. It is a process in which we grow in our ability to ask the tough questions about life and living, not only of God but also of ourselves. [6] Part of our work here at St. John’s is to develop critical thinking and learning skills, so that blind faith and half-hearted discipleship are replaced with the power to repair broken lives, restore broken families, and revitalize broken communities.

We can’t spoon-feed a lukewarm faith to each other. If we really want to be Christians, we must stoke the fires of the Holy Spirit, prepare for the road to Calvary, and walk together as we take up the cause of God’s Kingdom of justice and peace. We cannot do it alone, but as a united church, as the one body of Christ, there is a chance that we can make a real difference in the world.

There is one last thought I want to leave with you. It is September, and Wednesday is the anniversary of 9/11. I want you to remember that there are hijackers out there, though I’m not talking about the kind that crash airplanes. There are people out there who want to hijack the truth and replace it with fear and lies. There are people out there who want to hijack your faith, and cause you to hate your neighbor, to suspect people who are different from you, to treat others with anger, hatred, and violence. But true discipleship means making the hard choices no matter the cost. True discipleship means trusting God, even when everything is going wrong. True discipleship means loving our neighbor, even if they are an enemy. True discipleship means that wherever we go, we are walking with the Lord.

God bless you. Amen.

[1] Emilie M. Townes, Theological Perspective on Luke 14:25-33 in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 4, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, General Editors (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), p. 44.
[2] Ronald P. Byars, Homiletical Perspective on Luke 14:25-33 in Feasting, p. 45.
[3] Section 4: Covenant in Saint John’s United Church of Christ, Union IL, Constitution (Revised 2/18/2018).
[4] Townes, p. 46.
[6] Townes, p. 48.

Sunday, September 1, 2019


September 1, 2019
St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

Psalm 81; Luke 14:1, 7-14

Do you have a good reputation? Are you a kind person, a hard worker, a good friend? Are you important? Do people recognize you? Are they glad you’ve come?

We all like to be valued, to be important to someone. We want to have a good reputation, and we go to great lengths to maintain our image. And how do we measure that image? We compare ourselves to others, of course. We receive our sense of worth from other human beings. We do and say things that we hope will cause others to think well of us. We follow the rules of the group we find ourselves in, the unspoken rules of how we show that we are part of the gang. We imitate the people we aspire to be, those who are more successful, more beautiful, more rich or strong or powerful that we are.

In our core we all have a deep need to be recognized, to be liked by others, and how we act is motivated by that need to obtain recognition. We need someone to tell us: I noticed you, and I like what you are doing. Nice job. Good sermon, pastor. That’s my girl! What up, homie? If the group likes something, or someone, we do too. If they make jokes, we laugh.

The issue which Jesus raises with his listeners is, who do we want to recognize us, to notice and appreciate us, to tell us “I like you”? I can depend on my peers, in which case my reputation, my efforts to fit in will be a reflection of them. I will do everything I can to remain well-thought-of by them, welcoming those whom they welcome and excluding those whom they exclude, so as not to run the risk of becoming excluded myself. This is the game we play to keep our social life going, but what we don’t realize is how much of our identity depends on this difficult game of keeping our reputation. Who I am is deeply dependent on those I associate with: my social circles, my friends, the others who maintain my reputation. Who I am is controlled by how others see me, and that can be dangerous.

Jesus visits the home of a leader of the Pharisees. The Pharisees were important, they had a good reputation. A sabbath meal must be conducted with proper decorum, respect, and appropriate seating arrangements. Jesus observes how the places of honor, the seats closest to the host, are taken by those with the best reputation. There is a bit of arrogance at play here as the guests choose their places.

The reputation of Jesus was not so good. He was known for breaking the rules. He dismissed the rules of purity and cleanliness that were part of keeping a good reputation. He did work on the sabbath, as we heard in the reading last week, and had been seen touching sick and unclean people. He and his disciples had a reputation for eating with dirty hands. And perhaps the quickest way to offend the proper order of things was to eat with unclean people, with known sinners, and tax collectors! The Pharisees, guarding their reputations, were watching him.

Jesus watches them back, as the guests chose the places of honor. He sees a teachable moment, an opportunity to give some advice on honor and humility:
When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, “Give this person your place,” and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, “Friend, move up higher”; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. (Luke 14:8-10)[1]
Wise advice, they might have thought. This Jesus isn’t so bad. He knows how embarrassing it can be to be put in your place. Better to have someone else show respect to you and invite you to sit in the place of honor. Then people will see how humble and exalted you are! This Jesus can play by the rules.

Of course, Jesus doesn’t stop there. “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 14:11). Wise advice that shows he sees right through the game they are playing. It is the game we all play, the game of reputation management, the game of trying to look good before others, often at someone else’s expense. Jesus didn’t come to play the game, however. Jesus came to change the game, and here comes the lesson.
When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous. (Luke 14:12-14)
Not only are you playing the game wrong, looking for places of honor at the banquet, but you’re playing the wrong game. It’s not about who is the most important, the most respected, who has the best reputation. It’s about who gets to eat in the first place.

This is the Jesus we know, the one who doesn’t care about the reputation others give him. The Pharisees must have been horrified. Those unclean, impure, sick and weak and ugly people – who could eat with them? That would destroy my reputation! I can’t be seen with those people.

Jesus exposes the game for what it is. The game of looking good, of building a reputation, this is a human power game. In games of power and prestige, some people rise and some don’t. Some people are part of the in-group and some are left out. Jesus shows us that when we celebrate only the well-though-of some people are left out, and those people matter too.

There is another way to define who I am. I can receive my reputation, my identity, from God. I don’t come from the best family. I don’t have the most money, the finest clothes, or the most impressive group of friends. But I am part of God’s family, I am created in God’s image, and I am more than who other people think I am. If I build my reputation on my relationship with God, then I am much less concerned with the reputation which people give me, and I become free to associate with those who have no reputation. I am free to share a table with people who are hungry, who are homeless, who are trying to not give in to that urge to have just one more drink, one more fix. My reputation with God won’t suffer from loving the tax collectors and sinners, the prisoners, the sick, or the outcast.

Jesus had a bad reputation when he came to that meal with the Pharisee. Born in a stable, perceived as a troublemaker, as an outlaw, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners, Jesus was known to do and say things that were troubling, upsetting, even treasonous. He would be executed as a criminal hung on the cross. But his resurrection is the testimony that only our reputation with God really matters. God loves even those with a bad reputation, forgives all who repent, and claims each of us as God’s own. God graciously forgives us and adopts us as children in the one Holy family, a family which seeks to embrace all of God’s creatures.

We are offered a reputation based on our relationship with Christ, who was raised from his place with the lowest of the low on the cross, raised from the dead, and exalted as the Son of God. We have a reputation which allows us share the table the least of our brothers and sisters, the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. Blessed by God’s promise of grace, we are invited to move up higher together.

[1] The scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.