I had been a pastor about four years when the Spirit gave me the crazy notion to preach about how Jesus was the friend of tax collectors and sinners. This was my text:
“Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them’.” (Luke 15:1-2 NRS).
I started the sermon by asking people to call out the most despicable type of human being on the planet. Like popcorn around the sanctuary, I could hear people saying things like “child molesters,” “rapists,” “murderers,” “terrorists.” My first clue that the sermon was going to go really bad should have been when someone called out “democrats.” But everyone laughed nervously and I started to go on.
But before I could go on, someone called out “homosexuals.” This old man wore black round George Burns style glasses with even thicker rims. His hipster fashion taste was a strange choice, especially for the Deep South. Once he had asked me to find him childcare for his grandchildren from a first marriage since his new wife didn’t deserve to be burdened with them when it was his weekend to see them. To him, as his pastor, I was not only a concierge service, but I was to preach what he wanted other people to hear. He had made sure right off the bat that I knew that homosexuality was wrong. So that morning, not terribly surprised, I let his words hit the floor like a brick.
Next I asked my congregation to picture Jesus standing at the church doors, welcoming that person and then heading over to their house after church for lunch.
In the scripture for that day, Jesus befriended tax collectors and they were the most despicable people alive in the mind of the first century Pharisee. Tax collectors were wealthy Jews who worked for the Roman invaders of Jerusalem. They took their fellow Jew’s money, took some off the top for themselves, and then gave the rest to those occupying Jewish land. The Pharisees hated tax collectors.
For the religious Pharisees, it was socially acceptable to spit on tax collectors in the streets or to call them dogs to their faces. Not just acceptable, it was considered a holy thing to do! Refusing to do business with them was not only acceptable, it was mandatory. Yet, my scripture for that day said that Jesus hung out with them. He welcomed them . . . to his teaching sessions, to dinner, and most certainly to his father’s carpentry business.
My congregant had a wrong image of God. He, like the Pharisees, didn’t want a messiah who hung out with anyone that didn’t fit his cultural norm – who didn’t follow his interpretation of right and wrong. I had had the riot act read to me when a young white single mom had brought the black father of her child to the church picnic. This congregant was religious, but knew nothing about Jesus.
You see, Jesus is love. Jesus’s love invites even despicable people in and makes room for them at the table (Given that – think of what he does with people who just make us uncomfortable). But God’s love is not just for the outcast. God’s love is also for the Pharisees and other miss-the-mark religious people. Don’t miss the irony of this — God’s love frees the religious of religion – a religion that follows a list of rules instead of Jesus.
The sanctuary of my church had been packed full that morning. There were no parking spaces left in the parking lot. People had pulled their cars onto a nearby field. The pews were crammed with people. As I stood in the back to shake hands, most said things like, “I feel relieved that I can love people without judging them.” I even got a “Best sermon I have ever heard.” But when the George Burns congregant got to the door, he would not shake my hand. He said, “I will never come back here as long as you are the pastor.” A promise he didn’t keep, by the way. After all, who was going to keep me in line if he didn’t come back?
Never once can I remember Jesus or his followers saying a word about religious freedom – and they were persecuted for their beliefs. The fact of the matter is that Jesus’s “Religious Freedom Law” is quite different from ours. It frees the religious from religion – not the religious from being with people they are uncomfortable with.