A Charlotte, North Carolina man made an interesting insurance purchase. After having purchased a case of rare, very expensive cigars he insured them against, get this, fire. One month later, having smoked his entire stockpile of fabulous cigars and having yet to make a single premium payment on the policy the man filed a claim against the insurance company. In his claim, the man stated that he had lost the cigars in "a series of small fires." The insurance company refused to pay. They cited the obvious reason that the man had consumed the cigars in a normal fashion. But, the man sued... and won! In delivering his ruling the judge stated that since the man held a policy from the company in which it had warranted that the cigars were insurable and also guaranteed that it would insure the cigars against fire, without defining what it considered to be "unacceptable fire," it was obligated to compensate the insured for his loss. Rather than endure a lengthy and costly appeal process the insurance company accepted the judge's ruling. They paid the man $15,000 for the rare cigars he lost in "the fires." However, the story is not finished. After the man cashed his check the insurance company had him arrested. He was charged with 24 counts of arson! With his own insurance claim and testimony from the previous case being used as evidence against him, the man was convicted of intentionally burning the rare cigars. He was sentenced to 24 consecutive one-year terms. Only in the American Legal System is this possible!
Well, either in America or first century Israel. You think we have people who deal with the minute details of the law; you should read some of the legal codes from the rabbis of the first century. Here is just a sample of their legal code…
The prohibition about tying a knot was much too general, and so it became necessary to state what kinds of knots were prohibited and what kind not. It was accordingly laid down that allowable knots were those that could be untied with one hand . . .Now, remember, this is the world Jesus entered. A world greatly concerned with detail; a world greatly concerned with the letter of the law. How would these two world views interact with one another: Jesus—a heavenly being—the Son of God, and the religious leaders of Judaism, overly concerned with law?
The prohibition regarding writing on the Sabbath was further defined as follows: "He who writes two letters with his right or his left hand, whether of one kind [of letter] or of two kinds, . . . is guilty. He even who should from forgetfulness write two letters is guilty . . . Also he who writes on two walls which form an angle, or on the two tablets of his account-book, so that they can be read together, is guilty."
One Sabbath, Jesus was strolling with his disciples through a field of ripe grain. Hungry, the disciples were pulling off the heads of grain and munching on them. Some Pharisees reported them to Jesus: “Your disciples are breaking the Sabbath rules!”This particular conversation was nothing new for Jesus. He was constantly at war with the religious leaders regarding the Sabbath. Whether healing or eating or helping, Jesus seemed to have lived by a basic principle, there are some things more important than law! Like sick people, hungry people, and dying people.
Jesus said, “Really? Didn’t you ever read what David and his companions did when they were hungry, how they entered the sanctuary and ate fresh bread off the altar, bread that no one but priests were allowed to eat? And didn’t you ever read in God’s Law that priests carrying out their Temple duties break Sabbath rules all the time and it’s not held against them?
“There is far more at stake here than religion. If you had any idea what this Scripture meant—‘I prefer a flexible heart to an inflexible ritual’—you wouldn’t be nitpicking like this. The Son of Man is no lackey to the Sabbath; he’s in charge.”
When Jesus left the field, he entered their meeting place. There was a man there with a crippled hand. They said to Jesus, “Is it legal to heal on the Sabbath?” They were baiting him.
He replied, “Is there a person here who, finding one of your lambs fallen into a ravine, wouldn’t, even though it was a Sabbath, pull it out? Surely kindness to people is as legal as kindness to animals!” Then he said to the man, “Hold out your hand.” He held it out and it was healed. The Pharisees walked out furious, sputtering about how they were going to ruin Jesus. (Matthew 12:1–14)
The Pharisees and others had turned a tool meant to help human beings into another law to be mastered. Something good became something bad. Something life giving became something that drained the life out of people! Sabbath was intended to provide a time of rest and renewal. Something we as humans desperately need! Something, in fact, that we cannot do without! But for some reason we’ve always tried to do without it! God knew that about us and gave us a gift to help us rest! But instead of using that gift for good the religious leaders turned it into one more long part of their legal code. If you kept the Sabbath you were in good standing with God. If you failed at the slightest detail you were cast out of the assembly! In short, they had allowed a blessing from God to become a curse.
You know, there are some folks today who have this same problem. They turn gifts from God into curses. There are some congregations that have turned the Lord’s Supper into a curse. If any change is made to the order, if any change is made in the prayers, if any change is made regarding the furniture, some people revolt. There are some congregations that have turned the worship service into a curse. If a praise team is used, if an instrument is used, if a new order is followed, if we don’t stand up or sit down at the right times, some people revolt. There are even some congregations that have turned baptism into a curse. Instead of focusing on the reasons for baptism, instead of talking about participating in the act of redemption with Christ, instead of concentrating on the beauty of that gift, some have instead chosen to classify it as just another law to be mastered. God has given His church so many beautiful gifts to help us and make us stronger. To bring us closer to Him. And instead of receiving those grace-filled gifts, so many Pharisees stand at a distance and ask:
“Hey, why are you doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?”
You know, at the end of the day, this is a text about grace. God has graciously given us so many beautiful gifts. But instead of graciously receiving them, some folks have turned them into hard, rigid laws.
Let’s be honest…there are some people who have made the church itself a curse! They focus on the laws and boundaries. They spend a lifetime deciding who is in and who is out. I know folks who have been deeply wounded by the “gift” of church. But one of the things I have always loved about this church is that most people in this family have always viewed the church for what it really is: God’s gift. Some of you came here wounded. Some of you ended up here because another congregation told you that you didn’t belong. Some of you have been told that you messed up too much to belong in a place like this. But Glenwood has always understood this fact: without God’s gift of grace, we have no hope. So, this church has always done a wonderful job of extending that grace to others.
Last week was a difficult one for me. If you were here, you heard me get pretty honest about the state of the church in North America. Numbers are declining, people are leaving, and not many new folks are coming to replace them. Last week I suggested to you that the church (as we know it) might be in decline in North America. I agonized over that sermon more than any sermon I believe I have ever preached. I’ve told people before that I feel like my role has always been a juggling act between prophet and pastor. At times I feel like I need to assume the role of a prophet and say difficult things that may be difficult to hear. At other times, I feel like I need to assume the role of a pastor and comfort and encourage you. Last week was ALL prophet. And to be perfectly frank, that is not my strongest voice. So, I went with fear and trepidation into last week. Nevertheless, I said some things that needed to be said. We need to be honest with where we are. I felt a bit of comfort last week knowing that THIS week was coming. This week I get to be a pastor. This week I get to say some encouraging things to this family.
As I concluded last week, I made the statement that just because the church, as we know it, may be in decline in North America, that does not mean God’s Kingdom is in trouble. God’s kingdom is not the same thing as God’s church. God’s Kingdom exists wherever God’s will on earth is as it is in heaven. When relationships are restored in the name of Christ, when an international disaster occurs and people spring into action to help, when a person is trapped in sin and folks rally around him or her and extend the love of God, when someone has been hurt or told they do not belong, and a community of people envelop them in mercy and grace, a community that does that because they were given mercy and grace once too. In those moments, God’s Kingdom reign shows up on earth, and for a brief moment, we see the world as God intended for it to be, on earth as it is in heaven.
In so many ways, this church has helped usher in God’s Kingdom for the past 60+ years. We may be just the people to help bring God’s gift of grace to a world (and church) that desperately needs it! Our world today has many kinds of people (churched, dechurched, unchurched…). The reason I felt compelled to bring the numbers to your attention last week was not to depress you. I brought them here because I think this family has the potential to extend grace in a special way in our community and in our time. I think we have the ability to welcome people who do not think like we think. I think we have the ability to welcome people who do not worship like we worship. I think we have the ability to accept people who have told by others: “You do not belong here.” I think we understand grace better than any group of people I’ve ever had the privilege of calling family. There are some for whom the church has become a curse! But I believe we can help the church be a gift to them.
I think God may have put us here for just such a time as this. I told you last week that I am listening and praying to God. One of the things I am asking God is this: “God, how can the Glenwood family help? God, in many ways your church has fallen…God, how can your people at Glenwood help it to stand up again?” I believe God will answer that prayer. Just as I expressed to you last week that I am sometimes afraid because I don’t know what lies ahead. This week, I can tell you that I am also excited because God does know what is ahead and if we ask God to be a part of what He is doing next…God will answer that prayer.
Before we can begin to appreciate God’s gifts as “gifts” and not “curses,” we must come to understand grace. Jesus came here to paint a picture of a new kind of kingdom. The religious community painted by Jesus’ contemporaries was not a blessing it was a curse. It was a community of boundaries and life-draining rules. Jesus’ picture clashed with their picture. My prayer is that this church will come to look more and more like the picture Jesus painted. May Glenwood become a picture of God’s kingdom in Tyler by fully appreciating the gifts God has graciously given to us…like beautiful worship, and Sabbath rest, and enriching, life-giving community. And may we hold those gifts in such high esteem that we can do nothing less than share them with those around us!