Who are we…to exclude?

(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on October 20, 2013)

What if…

…what if all of this stuff we’ve looked at over the last four weeks is true?

What if our value is not in what we do or how we look or what others think of us or how well we keep ourselves in line with a “standard” of behavior? What if our value could not be erased even when we fail to meet others’ standards or meet with others’ approval? What if it is really true that all of us have value that cannot be taken away, because our Creator God says each one is fearfully and wonderfully made?

What if all that is true?

When we look at ourselves, the only conclusion is joy and peace.

The cutting words that come from others or from ourselves lose their bite. The cold shoulder, being ignored, never being recognized for what we do-it does not define us. The wounds given by others as we have been taken advantage of, objectified, dismissed…the wounds are not fatal, because they cannot get deep enough to cut the never-ending stream of God’s love.

If all this is true–and I believe it with everything in me!–if all this is true, it revolutionizes how we see ourselves. It gives us courage to stand in the face of things that would crush us before. It gives something better than self-esteem; it gives us identity, as heirs with Christ of all the good and beautiful things in all of creation!

And..or maybe, “but”…if this unshakeable gift is true for me, than it is true for you. It is true for everyone.

If all of this stuff is true, it has some crazy, radical, scary, imprudent implications for how you and I ought to treat others. It leads to the play on words for the title of today’s message: “Who are we….to exclude?”

This is scary because I care–we care!–about standards. We care about doing things right. We care about God’s holiness. We care about God’s reputation. We care about obedience, and the bible, and what we believe. We care about people, and we all believe there are actions which help the people we love to live better, and actions that will hurt the people we love.

If I can’t exclude people…will the wrong message get across? Will my truth get shouted down? Will my loved one be deceived?

If I can’t exclude people…can I say what I believe? Can I say what I think? Will people think I support everything and stand for nothing?

If all this stuff from the last four weeks is true, I must re-think how I treat others. I will have to learn to trust Christ’s work instead of my standards and systems to keep the people I care about from harm and wrong choices.

I have a little working theory.

My theory is that this issue is actually more polarizing than worship style or theology in the church today. This issue–whether truth and standards and purity need to be proclaimed and defended, or whether we are to infect the world relationally with the love of Jesus Christ–this issue, this orientation is what I believe divides us more than anything else.

On one side are people who will say, “I don’t care what they believe or that they sing stuff that drives me crazy-I know they accept and love me and that is what really matters.”

On the other side are people who will say, “I don’t care that they sing stuff that drives me crazy or sometimes do things that offend others-I know they stand for what’s right and that is what really matters.”

This divide, this either/or was a struggle when Jesus walked the earth, and it’s been a struggle ever since. One side thinks the other is rigid and cares about doctrine more than people. One side thinks the other is so soft and accepting that they can’t stand for anything.

My own position tries to walk a middle ground.

But there’s no sense denying what you’ve already figured out if you’ve been around me for awhile-if I’m gonna fall, if I’m going to err, I’m going to do it on one side of the fence. And I choose that side because of the example I see in Jesus. Because of what I read in the bible. Because of how I have truly been transformed, and how I have seen others transformed.

I care deeply about obedience and right living and even “holiness”, if you want to use that biblical word. And because I care so deeply about it, I think the way to get there is to follow the example of Jesus and radically knock down our barriers and walls and scornful looks and see if the greatest commandment really can make a difference–the commandment to love God and love neighbor.

If I’m gonna make a mistake, I’m going to try and make it on the side of loving and accepting a person, rather than excluding for the sake of truth.

If all this stuff is true, who are we…to exclude…to exclude someone whom God created and Christ loves?

I make this claim knowing full well it is a scary proposition, a risky gamble.

Last week in Luke 7, Simon knew it was risky and called Jesus on it. “If this man were a prophet, he’d know the evil woman who is touching him, this sinner”…and he would separate from her like we do. Simon simply says clearly what the whole Jewish practice seemed to be based on. When something is good, like your good china, you set it apart for good stuff; you separate it from anything that can contaminate.

Don’t touch anything unclean, or you become unclean: nothing dead, nothing forbidden, no outsiders, not the sick, definitely not “sinners”. In this holiness model you aim for purity by drawing boundaries and separating yourself from anything tainted or potentially hazardous.

Don’t let that woman touch you. Don’t be with those people, they are a bad influence. You achieve value and are “clean” by how separate you can keep yourself.

Jesus tainted himself all the time.

He let the woman touch him. And that wasn’t a one time thing, it was a way of life that began when he started his public ministry and ended when he was sent to the cross as a rule breaker and bad influence.

Listen to Matthew 9, verses 9-13.

From the start, Jesus broke the rules. Tax collectors were cheats and traitors and didn’t deserve to be disciples, but he called one to follow him. And then Jesus “reclined at the table” with everybody that is risky and dirty and dangerous. This isn’t politely nibbling on a sandwich offered; this is intimate table fellowship that shows acceptance and unity.

“Why does he do that?” the Pharisees ask.

Not just to make them mad. Not cause Jesus doesn’t have standards. Not to pander to the “low” ones in society.

I believe this is the gospel. This is the good news. This is the new, radical, scary breaking in of God’s hesed love, God’s merciful love, God’s unending love, God’s unstoppable love that knows no boundaries or borders.

This is the heart-and the Pharisees and Jesus both know what is at stake. Jesus quotes Hosea 6:6 to show the Pharisees and us that he’s not ignorant of the past, he’s not ignoring God’s past revelation. Jesus is living out its radical implications.

A couple of chapters later we realize that Jesus did this so much that it ruined his reputation with the reputable ones in town. In Matthew 11, Jesus realizes they didn’t like John the Baptist because he was too strict and sort of weird. And then in Matthew 11:19, Jesus shows he knows what they were saying about him.

Notice the accusations and how they become personal attacks. In just two chapters, we’ve moved from “Why does he eat with those people?” to accusing Jesus himself of being a glutton and a drunkard.

The Pharisees believe that accepting others and entering a relationship with people who think and act differently must therefore lead to YOU becoming a glutton and drunkard. If you’re around it, if you tolerate it, you will become it.

And very often, that is true! I get scared of that too! 

I watch how people influence each other, and it’s not always for good. I see people who start believing and acting one way, and change when they are around others. Sometimes it’s true that when you are around people, you will become who they are.

But the only way I can read the bible, the only conclusion that I can draw is that Jesus thought there could be a different way. Jesus thought that by living his life in obedience to God, he could throw the acceptance arms wide open, and be with anyone…and that his acceptance and love would bring transformation, would be like the doctor healing someone who was sick.

It’s such a scary way of living that the early church fought about it too.

In Acts 15, they had to decide if they were going to make all Christians obey the Jewish law. This was about more than just culture or  about what religion Christianity is. Do we need the law to restrain us and transform us, or is Jesus enough? With the help of the Holy Spirit, they decided Jesus was enough.

But the fight went on. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul gets all fired up and tells about how he confronted Peter-PETER, the rock on whom Christ built the church!-for his behavior. Paul thinks this is incredibly essential. Listen to Galatians 2: 11-16.

Sometimes I think Paul is arrogant and cocky and prickly and rude.

But he’s got a point here. He’s grabbed ahold of something essential.

Peter, a good Jew, ignored the “good Jew” laws at first in Antioch, following Jesus’ example and eating and laughing and loving everyone. But then when the “good Jews” came for a visit, Peter changed. He started separating. He started pulling back from the acceptance and embrace to make sure he stood for what was right.

The problem is more than just the hypocrisy. The problem is more than just what rules we are following. Paul is dead on right. The essential piece here is, what gives us our identity as a Christ follower? Doing the right and pure things, and keeping from being tainted by the bad stuff? Or accepting the love of Jesus and showing it to everyone?

We “have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified.”

If this is how it works for me, than that’s how it works for everyone.

And when I act like Peter-when I pull back, and don’t accept, and worry what others think or what the “right” standard is-when I act like Peter, I am working against the very definition of what Jesus says and what the bible says is the heart of our faith.

I don’t have time today to pull out all of the different places these ideas appear in the bible. But all those places are the reasons I try to follow the scary road of acceptance.

I remember a time early in my relationship with Elaine when I worked up enough courage to confess something to her that I was deeply ashamed of. And she looked at me, and she said with compassion, “I know.”

She had known. It took all the courage I could muster to risk telling her, risk rejection, risk judgment…and she had already known.

The fact that she had already known and still accepted me was one of the most transforming experiences of my life.

So many times I had been told the truth, confronted, challenged, held accountable. But her knowing AND loving AND accepting was what fueled true transformation. Knowing I was accepted, I wanted to be different. I wanted to live well.

This is the power of the good news of God. It’s the sick who need the doctor. That means me, when I recognize the way I do stupid stuff that hurts me and the people I love, things that make our loving God sad.

There’s a book that I first heard about from Elizabeth Sherwood, and that Elaine is reading now. It’s called “The Cure”. When I told Elaine what I was thinking for today, she had me read a section of the book. These authors express so well what I’m trying to get at today:

The real trick is to allow the desires of the new heart to come out…We need others to show us God beautifully, without condemnation, disgust, and unsatisfied demands. We long to obey Him. It makes our souls sing. We’ve just been goaded so long, we’ve learned to shield ourselves from religion.

Trusting the power of acceptance rather than standards to bring transformation and obedience…I believe that is the path Jesus modeled and calls you and me to.

Who are we….to exclude?

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