Sunday, September 15, 2013


“This man welcomes sinners and eats meals with them.”
The this man is Jesus.  The people criticizing him are Pharisees and Scribes.  They were devoted to living their lives by an exacting code of religious laws relating morality and ritual purity.  Just as with the American tax code, there was just too much in these laws for the average person to know and understand.  That is where Scribes came in.  It was their job to know the codes and to them the Pharisees often turned for advice and guidance.  The sinners they are complaining about basically are folks who didn’t understand the law, couldn’t understand it, or didn’t follow it to with the fidelity of Pharisees and Scribes. 
Beyond the way they were separated from average folks by their religious practices, Pharisees and Scribes were well-educated, well-off, and moved in the upper echelon of society’s social circles.  These differences were centuries old and at some point became codified by the dogma and teaching of the Temple and synagogue.  As differences became more and more pronounced commonalities were lost.  That Jesus could associate with this other group mystified and annoyed the religious elite.  That a person so obviously blessed by God welcomed them into his company brought great joy to the ‘sinners.’
We humans have an affinity for people who are like us.  It has always been this way and probably always will.  The challenge is for various individuals and groups to maintain enough connection that each can see in the other a shared humanity and a common dignity.  The danger is that diverse people and groups become so separated that one or both cannot begin to fathom the other having any redeeming value.  When the Pharisees and Scribes murmur that Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with them it is evident that they have crossed over into that dangerous territory.
It is not at all hard to do.  It becomes easier and easier to push the other away; to distance ourselves from those who differ from us.  It takes great effort and no small amount of determination to bridge that divide.
Several years ago I read a book by Richard Lischer called Open Secrets: A Spiritual Journey through a Country Church.  It is Lischer’s account of his first call as a pastor to a small, rural Lutheran church in central Illinois.  The book details how his expectations of ordained ministry differed from reality and it highlights the culture shock he experienced by entering into a farming community that was “as tightly sealed as a jar of home-canned pickles.”  Here is Lischer’s description of a time early after his arrival when a group of men from the parish point out on a map where various members live:
As Lenard gave me the rundown on each of our households, he confirmed a suspicion that had been growing in me…: Approximately 75 percent of my members bore the same last name, Semanns.
“That would be Milford’s place.  Him and Clara moved there when his father quit farming.  You want to see a man plow a straight furrow, you watch old Ben.”  Lenard and Gus exchanged knowing looks.  Then they shared the same look with Ben Jordon and Ronnie Semanns, who passed it between them like a secrete handshake.  “You want to see the crookedest furrow in the county, then I believe you’d have to visit Martin’s place in the spring.”  The four laughed uproariously…
[I said] “You know Semanns is the right name for farmers, isn’t it… you know, since it means ‘seed’ in Latin.”  The four look at me without expression.
The young pastor and parishioners could be more different from each other, but not by much.  Lischer grew in a large, affluent suburb, attended a cathedral-size parish, went to college, graduated from seminary, and earned a Ph.D.  He was an articulate intellectual who had traveled the world.  Many in the small church had never left the county in which they were born.  They were plain-speaking people of the earth who were good with their hands.  The relationship between new pastor and parish had many of the same dynamics present in what separated the Pharisees and Scribes from the ‘sinners.’
To help those elitists break through their blindness Jesus tells a parable of a shepherd who goes out to look for a lost sheep.  The implication is that he is God’s shepherd and the ‘sinners’ are the lost sheep.  It is interesting that Jesus chose to tell a story about shepherd.  While this image is used often in the Old Testament as a metaphor either for God or for religious leaders, by Jesus’ day shepherding as an occupation had acquired a less than flattering reputation.  Shepherds were viewed by most as being “shiftless, thieving, trespassing hirelings.”  Shepherds were lumped in with such low-life characters as camel drivers, sailors, gamblers, and tax collectors. 
Through his parable Jesus is forcing the religious leaders to consider the dignity and humanity of a person they would normally dismiss out of hand.  If he were telling the story today, say, to a banker, Jesus might talk about an auto mechanic and to an auto mechanic he might talk about a banker.  Jesus challenged the Pharisees and Scribes and he challenges us to open our eyes to see in the other the image of God, the child of God’s own heart.  It is much easier to see that in people who are like us, but much more rewarding to find it those who are not.
Richard Lischer’s experience comes back to me often as I read the poetry of R.S. Thomas.  You may recall I mentioned he was an Anglican priest who passed away in the year 2000.  He carried out most of his ministry in a small town in the Welsh countryside.  Many of his poems describe the ways he is different culturally from his parishioners.  Thomas struggles to find the commonalities, but as he finds them they make his way into his poetry.  Here one of his works titled Affinity:
Consider this man in the field beneath,
Gaitered with mud, lost in his own breath,

Without joy, without sorrow,

Without children, without wife,

Stumbling insensitively from furrow to furrow,

A vague somnambulist; but hold your tears,

For his name also is written in the Book of Life.

Ransack your brainbox, pull out the drawers
That rot in your heart’s dust, and what have you to give

To enrich his spirit or the way he lives?
From the standpoint of education or caste or creed

Is there anything to show that your essential need

Is less than his, who has the world for church,

And stands bare-headed in the woods’ wide porch

Morning and evening to hear God’s choir

Scatter their praises?  Don’t be taken in

By stinking garments or an aimless grin;

He also is human, and the same small star,

That lights you homeward, has inflamed his mind

With the old hunger, born of his kind.
Over the three years that Richard Lischer served his initial appointment he discovered an affinity with all those Semanns family members and finding bonds across the divide enriched his life, his faith, and his ministry in countless ways.  He writes this about the last Sunday he was with them:
When I was a boy and later a seminarian, I would have sworn that each person makes the race [of faith] alone, like a long-distance runner who has separated from the pack and runs at his own pace.  Religion was the most refined form of privacy available to me.
But now, as I looked out upon this cloud of upturned faces… I was embraced by a wholeness I never before experienced.  It seemed to me that I was looking at the church as God sees it, not as a series of individual quirks and opinions, but as a single heart of love and sorrow.
For the first few weeks when I started to volunteer at our Food Pantry I had a difficult time being comfortable in the presence of the rabble that constitute our clients.  They were just so different from me and from the people whose company I keep.  I marveled at how the others – especially Nancy Bangley and Nancy Meakin – were able to be open and available to each person.  Gradually, little by little, I loosened up. 
One evening I was helping a gentleman who looked to be a little order than me.  He had dots of white paint all over his skin and cloths.  “Have you been painting today?”  I asked him.  “Yes,” he said, “I have been fixing up my elderly neighbor’s porch because she can’t do it and can’t afford to pay to do it.  So I am helping her out.”  Until that moment I am ashamed to say it did not occur to me that a person coming to our Food Pantry might actually be doing something to help someone else, but in an instance I gained a sense of affinity with this one gentleman.  He was kind and generous, as I try to be.  He enjoyed working with his hands, as I do.  And, apparently, like me, he has trouble keeping paint on a brush and off himself.  That one encounter opened for me a door and on the other side of the door I began to see the humanity and dignity of the clients we serve.  It is a moment of grace for which I am deeply grateful.
No ifs, ands, or buts about it, we who try to follow Jesus as our Lord must follow his example of crossing whatever may divide us from those who differ from us – be it culture or caste – in order to find in each other what God sees in all of us – a child of God’s own heart.  As I said, it wonderful when we find this in people who are like us, but even more rewarding when we find it in those who are not.