11 December 2019
And Jesus said, "Truly, I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the Kingdom of Heaven ahead of you, for John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him. The tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him."
No wonder the pharisees thought Jesus was a danger to the faith as they saw it. The journey to the cross is underway and nothing is the neat path we would expect.
Her name was Melissa. She was four and lived with her mother in a motorcamp and with a very erratic lifestyle... Occasionally when her grandmother was looking after her she came to Sunday school. She had friends at daycare who came and had pestered her nana to bring her as only these children who are moved from home to home can do. I came across her one day after everyone had left, she was sitting waiting for whoever was collecting her. She wasnít sure of whom that would be and noone I rang from the Sunday school knew who she was. She had just turned up. Eventually her nana came and we made contact.
Melissa became part of the church and dragged her nana to church with her. She noticed that we prayed before the meals at church and she asked "Please, teach me the God words." She then taught them to others she meets around the motor camp she lived in with her mother.. . In fact, her mother said that Melissa can no longer bite into a sandwich without making everyone around her, tax collectors and prostitutes, sinners, drug dealers, the poor, say the God words with her.
Godís power was here, in an ordinary Presbyterian church, in a little girl making her own way.
Eventually, Melissa and her nana were baptised and her mother started to put her life together although it would probably always be fragile. Melissa grew into a fine young woman, certainly there were difficulties but I last met her when I was on a plane to Wellington. She was looking radient competant and happy, her husband was looking after their child and she was going to a conference on child care in Wellington with a group of others.
Jesus has just entered into Jerusalem, he seeks out the temple, the place of the chosen, and the religious, and he sees that they've lost their power/authority. They're so busy attending to their their own rituals, their own internal rhythms, that they are oblivious to the world around them.
Jesus was offering the Pharisees the way but it didnít fit their rigid interpretation of what was right and holy,
They didnít want to know. They observed the children, the Melissas in the temple, praising Jesus for turning towards the poor and the ill, and they became angry. "Do you hear what they're saying? They're calling you the Son of God?" These children had found their power and they knew the identity of Jesus as the Son of God.
And Jesus said, "Yes, but have you never read, 'Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise for yourself?'" There were many Melissaís in Jesus' time.
They questioned Jesus authority after all if he is right then a whole lot more people were acceptable to God and their business was doing the gatekeeping for God.
Jesus tells a story. A story on the road to the cross and it pushed them further into plotting his destruction.
A man had two sons. He went to the first and said, "Son, go to work in the vineyard today." And the son answered, "I won't." But later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same, and he answered, "I go, Sir!" but he didn't go. Which of the two did the will of the Father? And they said, "The first!" And then Jesus said, "Truly, I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the Kingdom of God ahead of you, for John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe. And the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed in Him. And even after you saw it, you did not change your mind and believe him."
Which Son do we identify with? Maybe both? Jesus didnít answer that is for us to ponder.
Where do we find our power, where do we focus our identity and our mission.
Is our identity in our own righteousness, our own rituals, our own right worship, our own history, our own routines and rhythms, or is our identity, found in christ, and focused on this world for which Christ died and on going into that world with the message of God's love, especially for Those the world regards as absolutely nothing .
Let me tell you a story about identity and mission.
I discovered in the city churches their power doesnít lie in being the place with a great past or a good reputation for wahtever the passing fashion is. It lies in being a place where you can go when there's no where else to go.
When you have the words that say welcome to any including the poor and the homeless, they do come. Lucy came. She was loud, exuberant and claimed us as her church. She lived with her husband Jon in the Greyís avenue flats Ė a place that was always very interesting to visit.
There were times when she pushed our understanding of what we mean when we say that all God's children are welcome And some of the social graces had been rubbed raw from years of trying to survive in an inhospitable world..
On christmas Eve Lucy and Jon gathered up the street people and came late, filing into the front row. This group was the only group of people Iíve ever seen a Presbyterian church who cheerfully sat in the front row.
Jon knew everything that happened in the city in the night hours as he went around recycling bottles and other refundable goodies from the bins.
One day if I am to be truthful, my heart sank when they were waiting for me after a demanding day. Would I come and take a blessing service for them in a shopping centre. they were starting a recycling shop for the unemployed and doing it themselves to help people have something to do and they wanted a blessing Ė proper one for the opening at the end of that week .
And this is my confession to you. I was the first son in the parable. I didn't want to go.. But by the grace of God, I became the second son. By the end of the week their enthusiasm was contagious. I was to robe, yes it was where Radio Pacific had its studios looking down on the square. . Something strange and wonderful began to happen as walked along the pavement toward the shop, full of all Jonís treasures gathered from the bins of the city.
People started to group, we walked through the shop and the details were pointed out to me. We have the bread said Lucy, bread I said? For the communion? We blessed the shop then went into the courtyard, seats had been brought out and a table waited. Mothers and their children, addicts, prostitutes, the mentally ill, those who came to the temple after Jesus cleansed it, gathered, this was their church their place here in the street. Patrons at nearby cafes looked in surprise and the Radio station people peered out the windows.
We saNG all things bright and beautiful, , and we passed the bread and wine and the sparrows hopped around picking up the crumbs. Jesus had entered the Central city like that entry of Jesus into Jerusalem which is the context of our story for today.
I looked at Lucy . loud, brash, never missing an opportunity to scrounge but knowing exactly what God words were about, they were helping the unemployed.
Jesus said to them, "Truly, I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the Kingdom of God ahead of you for they believed in Him."
There could be no more fertile soil for church growth, spiritually understood, than this shopping court and its waiting children of God. Jon passed the bread to a woman standing just outside the main group.. She just clutched her bread and called those further way over to the table.
Children, find your power. As I left after the following cup of tea in the shop, I caught a glimpse of the kingdom among us and unseen.
It is always that, in the way of the Gospel and in the following of Jesus, we are pulled in directions that we would rather not go. We are pulled from our comfort zones. And we are reminded that we are no different than children of God like Lucy and john and Melissa.
That all of us wait for wholeness and healing, salvation and that this has come in the One who entered Jerusalem and cleansed the places of our religion and replaced our righteousness with the cross and the empty tomb and a relentless compassion. Amen.
Will you pray with me? As you pray, please think with me about those out-of-the-way places in our neighborhood, in our lives, in this congregation, where those who are overlooked need so much the witness of our faith and of the church.
With thanks to Bishop Stephen Bouman ELCA for the format.
Rev. Margaret Anne Low
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