Saints and Sinners gathered at the table

At Third Church, November 3rd was music appreciation Sunday (extra music in worship and cake after church) and communion Sunday and we were remembering in prayer the members who had died in the last year (sort of an all saints kind of thing). Instead of the typical sermon, I broke up my words and scripture readings between music and called each section a meditation. The first meditation was really the children’s sermon that the senior pastor did, but I did tie the children’s sermon into what I was doing for the rest of the meditations. Anyway, I’m sharing it here not because it was particularly wonderful exegesis but the idea of communal sin (some would call it an unhealthy system) and the restoration of community after a specific event where the communal sin is evident is something I’ve been thinking about. I feel like I was able to point out how groups of people decide that someone among them is the worst sinner but I’m not sure I got restoration worked out. I think I would have liked to develop ideas for restoration in this world and not just in the next. I don’t have many answers, so I’m hoping some of my readers will be willing to share their thoughts too. Anyway, please share your comments below. Thanks!

Scripture Reading: Luke 19:1-10
19 He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

Children’s sermon was after this reading and was done by the other pastor so I don’t have a copy of what he said, but he covered the basics of the story as we have heard that Jesus ate with Zacchaeus (a sinner) and it all worked out great.

Scripture: John 8:1-11

while Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 10 Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11 She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”

Meditation: Forgiveness and Justice for all

I’ve always thought this was a strange story.  How does one person commit adultery?  Doesn’t that sin also involve another person?  And how does a large group catch her in the act? 

The only other instance of one person committing adultery I can think of is when Hester Prynne is found pregnant and doesn’t name the father.  No one caught her in the act.  She was in American waiting for her husband to arrive on the next ship.  Her husband was assumed lost at sea because he never arrived in Boston. Hester gave birth to a baby girl she named Pearl that clearly could not have been the dead man’s daughter.  Hester is forced to wear a red-letter A on her clothing and she alone bears the wait of the town’s scorn. 

But this woman standing before Jesus doesn’t have the mark of an adulteress; the scarlet letter is not emblazoned on her chest but in the eyes of all who look upon her.  They probably heard rumors about her and continued to gossip and gather clues and they followed the pattern of her days.  They made it their work to know her sin.  And they waited for the right moment to bring the biggest sinner in town to Jesus to see what he would do.  And according to “A Game for Good Christians” blog, what Jesus is writing in the sand is what type of jerk each person is.  And maybe, for the first time in a long time, those gathered around the woman saw their own sin before them.  They had become so focused on her sin, so sure she was ‘the’ sinner in town; so sure, that if they could just see her punished they would feel better, that they could not see their own sins anymore.  Jesus writes their sins in the sand or maybe he is just doodling, but either way, that moment of silent reflection makes them realize that none of them can cast a stone.  And when they are gone, the only one who could throw a stone at her chooses not to.  Jesus stands, and he says in his sarcastic Jesus voice “where did everyone go?”  Like he didn’t know! (Jesus is so funny).  And, I imagine Jesus with his up-to-something-smile, dusts the sand off of his hands and with his sandal wipes away all of what he wrote on the ground. 

Jesus forgives her.  But more importantly he has led those who were tormenting her to forgive her too, even if it was out of their own realization that they are all sinners.  What he did for her was take away the scarlet letter.  She is no longer the town scape goat, she is no longer the one they will watch and wait to punish.  She is free from the bonds of her sin, she is free to live differently. 

And Jesus did the same for Zacchaeus.  You see, Zacchaeus wasn’t in the tree because he was short.  Zacchaeus was in the tree because no one would offer him space, no one said, come, stand in front of me so you can see, no one said, here stand on this box, you should see Jesus too.  Because everyone in town had already decided that Zacchaeus was ‘the’ sinner.  They had already decided his sins were the worst and excluded him from community.  Jesus goes to Zacchaeus’ house for dinner because no one else would.  Jesus treats Zacchaeus like a beloved child of God.  And in doing so shows all of us that we are never beyond God’s love and forgiveness. 

You see, sometimes it is hard to break away from sin and sometimes it is hard to let go of the label that is put upon you by your family system.  If we are being called worthless sinner, that is all we can imagine being, but Jesus calls us beloved saints; he brushes away our sin like the dust from his hands.  He liberates us from our sin and restores us to righteousness.  Jesus forgives and shows us that sin does not have to destroy our community but that true justice restores us to our proper place at the table of the family of God. 

Scripture: Galatians 3:27-28

in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 27 As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

Meditation:  Water and Blood

In his letter to Galatians, Paul says that we are all children of God because we believe that we are.  And in that time and tradition, Baptism was the sign of faith.  Baptism, the simple act of symbolically washing away sin, of uniting with Christ, as easy for us as a few drops of water on the head of a newborn, is a sign of our belief.  For Paul, this statement means that believers do not have to undergo circumcision, or even have the correct anatomy for circumcision to begin with, in order to be one in Christ.  There is nothing a person has to be or has to do in order to be a child of God.  I think if we really pressed on Paul, it is not even about the ritual of water, it is about faith.  No one is excluded from the table of the family of God. 

Today, as we gather around this table we are untied with all who believe in Christ, with all of the saints and sinners who have gone before us, and with all of the saints and sinners we will not meet in this life time.  We are united with all believers in every time and place.  Christ welcomes all of us.  As we prepare to celebrate this meal, let us take a moment to remember who is here with us.  There is a short tax collector at this table and a woman singled out for a partnered crime.  And with them are all of those who shunned and scorned them to hide their own sins.  At the table are all of us who have clenched rocks in our fists and finally decided to drop them instead hurling more injury and injustice into the world.  Around this table are holy people who were imperfect and made mistakes and yet found in Christ freedom from sin and death and went on to do God’s work in the world.  At this table we are surrounded by our enemies and our loved ones.  And as we look into the face of each child of God, we realize that the things that divided us on this earthly world do not matter, there are no barriers between us, there are no harsh words or hatefulness, but only love and unity among the children of God.  This meal is a foretaste of the coming kingdom of God, where true justice restores us to one another, and where love unites us. 

Benediction: Saints of God, go out into the world offering forgiveness and love with generous hearts.  Remember that we are all one in Christ and seek unity with your brothers and sisters.  Seek out the meek and marginalized and lift them up with joy and work to restore them to their rightful place as children of the living God.  And in all you do, go with the blessing of God.  Amen. 

So, that was the message, below I’ve put pieces of the liturgy from that worship service:

Call to worship Psalm 32:1-7
L:  Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.

P: Happy are those to whom the LORD imputes no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.

L: While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long.

P: For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.

L:  Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,” and you forgave the guilt of my sin. Selah

P: Therefore, let all who are faithful offer prayer to you; at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters shall not reach them.

L:  You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with glad cries of deliverance.

Prayer of Confession (BCW p. 386):

Eternal God, in every age you have raised up men and women to live and die in faith.  We confess that we are indifferent to your will. You call us to proclaim your name, but we are silent.  You call us to do what is just, but we remain idle.  You call us to live faithfully, but we are afraid.  In your mercy, forgive us.  Give us courage to follow in your way, that joined with those from ages past, who have served you with faith, hope, and love, we may inherit the kingdom you promised in Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Prayer of the day and lord’s prayer (based on BCW p.386):

Surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, we pray for the fulfillment of God’s promise.  Strengthen us to run the race that is set before us, laying aside the heavy burdens of sin and death and following the pioneer and perfecter of our faith: Jesus Christ, our crucified and risen Lord.  He taught us, when we pray together to say, Our father…

Prayer of Dedication/prayer after the offering (BCW p. 390):

We give thanks, O Lord, for all your saints and servants who have lived justly, loved mercy, and walked humbly with their God.  For all the high and holy ones, who have done wonders and been shining lights in the world, we give you thanks.  For all the meek and lowly ones, who have earnestly sought you in darkness, held fast to their faith in times of trial, and done good as they have had opportunity, we give you thanks.  Especially we give thanks for those whom we have loved, who, by their patient obedience and self-denial, steadfast hope and helpfulness in trouble, have shown the same mind that was in Christ Jesus.  As they have comforted and upheld our souls, grant us grace to follow in their steps, and at last to share with them in the inheritance of the saints in light; through Jesus Christ our Savoir.  Amen.

Hymns for the service: #364 I Sing a Song of the Saints of God and #526 For All the Saints

Benediction: Saints of God, go out into the world offering forgiveness and love with generous hearts.  Remember that we are all one in Christ and seek unity with your brothers and sisters.  Seek out the meek and marginalized and lift them up with joy and work to restore them to their rightful place as children of the living God.  And in all you do, go with the blessing of God.  Amen. 

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