Tuesday, June 26, 2007

"Cultural Keys to Luke (Part 2):
Reset the Scene in Gerasenes"

“Reset the Scene in Gerasenes” (Luke 8:26-39) is Part 2 in my “Cultural Keys to Luke” sermon series.

In the Gospels, there are many cultural clues that help explain the significance of events, conversations, and Jesus’ actions. However, because we live 2000 years later in a very different culture, we don’t always catch all of the cultural information. We know our culture, so that without explanation we can mention the World Series and most people know we’re talking about baseball. In that same way, the people in the Gospels are doing things and saying things that mean a lot, but there is no explanation for us. Using the work of many scholars, I am attempting to uncover some of those cultural keys to unlock more of the meaning of the text for us in this 3-part sermon series.

Other sources include:

Luke (NICNT) by Joel B. Green (© 1997 Eerdmans)

Luke 1:1-9:50 by Art Just (Concordia © 1996)

Finding the Lost: Cultural Keys to Luke 15 by Kenneth E. Bailey (Concordia © 1992)

Luke (IVP NT Series) by Darrell L. Bock (IVP, © 1994)


The biggest challenge to updating this narrative from Luke came not in finding the comparisons. Rather, I had a wealth of material to explore. Instead, the problem was that it could have quickly become just a list—the Sea of Galilee is like Lake Michigan, pigs are like rathorses, etc. My first draft lacked much dramatic power, because every paragraph was just an explanation.

I do not know how I came upon the “You Are There” style, although I have always enjoyed hearing/seeing the old CBS programs (You Are There). Once I settled into the role of asking the hearers to imagine themselves in the scene and discovering that scene’s power, the flow and structure came easier. However, another major revision happened soon after this, because I originally spoke in the first person plural, “We are the disciples.” However, remembering how the old CBS program and the old radio show, Suspense, worked with the second person singular, it seemed that “You step off the boat” would be more inviting to the hearers’ imaginations as they step into the shoes of the disciples.

"Cultural Keys to Luke (Part 1):
The Hostess"

“The Hostess” (Luke 7:36-50) is Part 1 in my “Cultural Keys to Luke” sermon series.

In the Gospels, there are many cultural clues that help explain the significance of events, conversations, and Jesus’ actions. However, because we live 2000 years later in a very different culture, we don’t always catch all of the cultural information. We know our culture, so that without explanation we can mention the World Series and most people know we’re talking about baseball. In that same way, the people in the Gospels are doing things and saying things that mean a lot, but there is no explanation for us. Using the work of many scholars, I am attempting to uncover some of those cultural keys to unlock more of the meaning of the text for us in this 3-part sermon series.

For this series and handout, I rely heavily upon Kenneth E. Bailey’s Through Peasant Eyes (© 1980 Eerdmans). Bailey, as a theologian, explores the Gospel of Luke, while also using his extensive experience from living in the Middle East to unpack the cultural background hidden to us.

Other sources include:

Luke 1:1-9:50 by Art Just (Concordia © 1996)

Finding the Lost: Cultural Keys to Luke 15 by Kenneth E. Bailey (Concordia © 1992)

Luke (IVP NT Series) by Darrell L. Bock (IVP, © 1994)

How to Preach a Parable: Designs for Narrative Sermons by Eugene L. Lowry (Abingdon © 1989)

Homiletical Helps, H. Armin Moellering, Concordia Journal, Vol. 24, No. 2, April 1998


This same text led to one of my first, nearly entirely narrative sermons (“Jake & His Guilt,” July 1, 2001). Twice it has inspired a narrative structure, because Jesus uses a story (parable) in order to cause Simon the Pharisee to judge his own actions. The appointed Old Testament text for this week, 2 Samuel 11:26—12:10,13-14, works in the same way. Nathan the prophet uses a story to cause David to pronounce his own judgment on his sin with Bathsheba.

Both the Luke and 2 Samuel texts show the power of narrative—the ability to capture our imagination, lower our defenses, and learn something in a powerful way. I could only hope and pray that writing a narrative sermon based on Luke 7:36-50 could achieve some of that same power.

A narrative structure—when most fully formed—allows very little (if any) room for direct discourse or didactic speech. “The Hostess” concludes with quasi-didactic speech, stepping out of the narrative just enough to invite the hearers to apply the sermon to themselves. However, the power of the narrative should come from the hearers choosing to identify with a character or characters.

In this case, perhaps a hurting person would more readily identify with the woman who has been restored by Jesus. Others who come to see their own self-righteousness exposed by the actions of Simon will be led to repent and also be restored. Still others may identify with how Jesus deftly applies Law and Gospel—seeing how we fail to be so deft and seeking the same Gospel to forgive this sin.

Why No Parable in the Retelling

My narrative obviously mimics the setting and scene at Simon’s house, but the traveling preacher in my story does not offer a parable in order to teach Mr. Simon. I originally attempted to rewrite the parable with the same sort of cultural equivalence as I had done with the main narrative. However, it proved lengthy and distracting to add another level of comparison.

Another reason I left out the parable in the retelling is because after studying the cultural information to elucidate the narrative, I found that the main story acts as a parable itself. By this I do not mean that I think the event did not really occur; Jesus really had dinner at a Pharisee’s house while his feet were washed by a sinful woman.

What I mean is that the main narrative needs just as much (if not more) explanation for us today. Jesus told the parable of two debtors as a generalized, fictional, attention-grabbing story to reveal truths about God. Yet, he did this within a situation where everyone understand what was happening (Simon wasn’t showing courtesies to Jesus; the sinful woman was showing those courtesies; the Pharisees found the actions of Jesus and the woman offensive).

Because we don’t actually understand the situation in Simon’s house, we’re not necessarily ready for the parable. The main narrative itself can be described by Art Just’s definition of a parable: “…simple but mysterious stories that must be heard with a “hearing mixed with faith” (Hebrews 4:2). The kingdom is so contrary to human expectations and human wisdom that it is in and of itself a mystery. The meaning of the parables, which compare the mysterious things of God to the mysteries of this world, will be hidden from those whose eyes and ears are closed. They do not understand because they have rejected the gift of God in Jesus (347).” The narratives in Gospel, like Luke 7:36-50, can be contrary to what we expect, mysterious to us in their meaning, and understood only through the guidance of the Holy Spirit.


The narrative of “The Hostess” was structured to follow the flow of Luke’s narrative, and yet, I needed to add dimensions to the storytelling—such as character motivation—that would have been foreign to Luke’s world. The challenge I set before myself, though, was to create a seemingly plausible story set in the contemporary world that matched up as best as possible.

I realize that not all scholars agree that the woman is a prostitute. Luke simply refers to her as a sinner. While I didn’t mean to make a conclusive statement by this sermon, it was best for the story/sermon to clearly identify the woman’s sin—and thereby show her ostracization from mainstream society.

One of the dangers in crafting this sermon was avoiding any crass or overly sexual tones in describing the woman’s action while at the same time developing the very real tension present in the text. In its cultural context, the woman’s actions toward Jesus had a very sexual tone, if understood incorrectly. Those kind of assumptions are what make the actions of Jesus so remarkable. I partly tried to use innuendo as much as possible which meant communicating the details to the adults without being too explicit for the children. Our local context also made me more comfortable leaving in these parts of the story, because our summer attendance by families with children really drops. If this had been the Sunday School year, I may have hesitated more. (This could be another discussion about how to preach from the Bible’s use of adult material (lust, sex, drunkenness, etc.) as metaphors for our spiritual life. While I defend the choices I made, I did get a lot of questions about a sermon I preached updating the “Israel as prostitute” metaphor by using the movie, Traffic, in a sermon titled, “Traveling into Dangerous Territory to Deliver You.”

Other comparisons simply developed out of trying to find a contemporary setting where a prostitute might show up somewhat expectedly and identifying a set of today’s (American) courtesies offered to a guest.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Luke 8:26-39 -
Cultural Keys to Luke (Part 2):
Reset the Scene in Gerasenes

Cultural Keys to Luke (Part 2) Handout
You can view the research and background information that goes into this sermon by clicking here.

Commentary on the creation of this sermon can be found by clicking here.

4th Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 7)
(Year C, - Lutheran Service Book Readings)
Thursday, June 21, and Sunday, June 24, 2007

Imagine the scene from our Gospel reading:
Jesus comes. Casts out a demon. Proves He’s God.

Hmm, lacks much drama when you imagine it that way, although I’m afraid that as a consequence of hearing these Gospel stories over and over again that we think of Jesus doing miracles like Jesus going to the grocery store. It was just something He had on the to-do list that day. Jesus goes. Buys some milk. Goes home. Jesus comes. Casts out a demon. Proves He’s God. We hear about these miracles so often that they lose their power, their punch, their ability to make us gasp in shock and wonder.

If we acted out this scene like we imagine it, we’d fail drama class. Our stage production would not last beyond opening night. In our heads, in our imaginations, in our understanding of Scripture, we often fail drama class and our productions based on God’s Word don’t go much beyond the first reading. So we need to reset the scene. There’s nothing ho-hum about this scene.

Reset the scene: You’re the disciples seeing Jesus in a dangerously wonderful light, seeing Him as someone you might begin to fear—if His Spirit of love wasn’t drawing you toward Him. You want to flee, because the things you’re seeing are just too much to bear. But there’s Jesus holding your hand, giving you a calm that can only be from God Himself.

You’re the disciples experiencing all of these things for the first time. You’re not dulled, so used to having Jesus doing incredible things. You’re just beginning to glimpse the power of Jesus—a power that is so dramatic that you often wonder if this is a movie or real life.

You’re the disciples in awe of Jesus who has a mission to save the world. You’re not dulled, so used to having a church on every corner, living in a society where everyone at least has heard of Jesus. You’re seeing a radical mission that goes beyond any picture of God’s salvation than you have ever been taught.

Reset the scene so that you’re fully immersed in the world of the disciples, so that you can imagine the power and mission of Jesus, so that you can be fully aware of how that power and mission impacts your life. Don’t fail that drama class in your mind; don’t let your imagination’s production end with a whimper. This is a bigger-than-life drama; this was a real event; this is a reality for your life. This is a scene that provoked awe, wonder, fear, surprise, shock, and rejoicing 2000 years ago, and now this can be a scene that provokes awe, wonder, fear, surprise, shock, and rejoicing in you.

You begin by stepping off the boat onto the far shore, the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, as if we have just crossed Lake Michigan landing on the shores of Wisconsin. Granted Lake Michigan is about 350 times as big as the Sea of Galilee, but like Lake Michigan, the Sea of Galilee was the central body of water in the world of Jesus and the disciples. It’s where they fished for a living; it’s where they traveled to go long distances. You have just crossed the most major body of water in your world.

You live in Michigan and rarely—if at all—travel to Wisconsin. While you’ve signed up to be a disciple, a follower of Jesus, you’re not entirely sure why you’ve traveled to Wisconsin. You see, even more than the difference between Michigan and Wisconsin, the disciples were leaving Galilee, their home country, to go into an area that was perhaps mainly Gentile, non-Jewish, like a foreign territory to them. It’s not just leaving Michigan to go to Wisconsin as a matter of routine; it’s leaving Michigan when you’ve never left your home state. It’s leaving Michigan, crossing the lake, and finding yourself in a landscape that seems similar but where the people, language, customs, and religions are completely different.

As a disciple, you’d much rather withdraw from this country; this doesn’t seem like the place to be, but Jesus is fiercely dedicated to His mission. He came across the lake for a reason. You sense that His heart can’t be distracted by your fears. As much as you want to withdraw, He presses forward.

That’s a key dimension to resetting the scene: the tension between the disciples wanting to withdraw while Jesus is pressing forward. In our failing drama class productions, we think of the disciples as basically just along for the ride, offering some half-hearted objections, but essentially cooperative passengers on the mission bus of Jesus. Instead, though, to deliver the drama on the stage of your imagination, to sense the true force behind this reading from the Gospel of Luke, a force for our lives today, reset the scene with the disciples desperately wanting to withdraw while Jesus continues to step further and further into foreign territories and situations.

It actually turns out that Jesus has made this whole trip just for one man, to heal one man, to make one disciple, to bring one person into the Kingdom of God. That’s like being a dentist in Ludington, Michigan, traveling across on the carferry just to fill one cavity, and then return home. Jesus is going to great lengths to save His people, and you’re only beginning to sense what He is doing.

On top of the normal anxiety with crossing into this strange land, this wasn’t any routine boat trip; you are landing after surviving a terrible storm that had threatened to drown all of you. You saw Jesus still that storm. You’re not just calmly stepping off the boat glad that the overnight journey is over; you’re stepping onto dry land, overjoyed to be alive, still in shock that you survived, still not believing that you saw Jesus, your Teacher, calm the storm simply with His words.

It’s that kind of joy and amazement that surrounds you already like a fog when you step off the boat onto the shores of Wisconsin. So there you are with Jesus near Gerasenes—in the fog of shock and facing an unknown country.

Jesus and the disciples were in Gerasenes, but today we’re not exactly sure where that is; it’s called different names in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark. It could’ve been an entire, county-sized area stretching from far inland and all the way to the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Perhaps, though, it was generally around 5 to 6 miles from the shore, so that in comparison if we landed on the shores of Lake Michigan south of Manitowoc, we might walk west until reaching Soaring Eagle Dairy Farm in Newton. Soaring Eagle is about that same distance inland, 5-6 miles from the shore, and was the site of Breakfast on the Farm two weeks ago. There’s another reason for comparing the location of Gerasenes to the location of Soaring Eagle Dairy that we’ll talk about a little later.

For now, realize you’ve left the boat behind, you’ve walked west for 5-6 miles even deeper into this Gentile, non-Jewish territory. Reset the scene in Gerasenes.

Meanwhile, you just heard the report that an escaped man from a mental institution is on the loose. Here you’re on a church trip following your Teacher on a mission, and you get this disturbing all points bulletin type of news: “Escaped Insane Man! Lock your doors. Stay inside. Avoid the area around County Road FF in Newton near Soaring Eagle Dairy Farm.”

Of course, thinking of the safety of the group, your first instinct is to get everyone back to the boat. “Jesus, the mission is over. Didn’t you hear what they’re saying? There’s a dangerous man on the loose. We shouldn’t be here.” You overhear what the townspeople are saying about this escaped man: he’s possessed by demons, he cries out at night, he cuts himself with rocks, he lives in that haunted pet cemetery nearby—the one everyone tries to avoid as they’re working the fields or going down the road. He’s been committed to jails, mental institutions, and hospitals, but he always manages to escape, break down all the barriers. This isn’t a character to mess with. “Jesus, we’ve got to get out of here.”

Are you resetting the scene? Are you finding that fear, that overwhelming desire to withdraw, to run away?

Good, because just when you think you’ve made your case for leaving, you see the demon-possessed man. And if you haven’t reset the scene, you’ll be stuck imagining that this was old hat for the disciples. Reset the scene in Gerasenes, because you can’t possibly realize the power and mission of Jesus if you forget that the disciples were in no way used to demon-possessed men who come running out of tombs raging like mad men and confronting their Teacher. If you’re going to really see the power of this event, you’ve got to remember that the disciples would have been as shocked and scared as you would be if you came face-to-face with someone matching the description of an all points bulletin.

While you as a disciple may have stepped off the boat in a fog of shock, you are now fully in the grips of fear—deep in foreign country, 5-6 miles from your boat, and confronting a wild man that no one has been able to tame. Sure, you’ve seen Jesus do some miracles—even calming the storm—but no one would have expected that the miracles could just keep coming. Miracles are just that—miracles, momentary intrusions against the laws of how the world works. Miracles are rare, so who is to say that the disciples were confident that there’d be another miracle to save them from this raving lunatic?

That’s the drama of the moment when the demon—through the man—addressed Jesus, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, don’t torture me!”

Tell me that you wouldn’t have been shaking in your boots or worse. That’s why what happens next is that much more incredible, because the disciples would have been face-to-face with such deep fear, such an awful sense of dread. . .and then Jesus commanded the evil spirits to come out of the man.

Jesus is in control.

You’re still shaking uncontrollably. You still can’t see how this thing is going to end. You’re still wishing you were back in the boat safely headed towards Michigan, towards Galilee, far from this strange, foreign, obviously evil territory.

But Jesus is in control.

Could it be that by remembering what it meant for the disciples to be with Jesus on that day when He healed the demon-possessed man, could it be that by remembering what it was really like for them to watch Jesus have power and control over evil spirits, could it be that you have a better understanding of what it means for you to have Jesus stand by your side as you face your worst fears? You are His disciple, trusting in Him for salvation, but you still shake in your boots, loosing all confidence because of what you see around you, and yet, Jesus is in control.

You’re still ready to withdraw, run away, get back to the boat, but you also believe that Jesus is in control. You trust that He puts His Spirit in you to hold you together even while you’re falling apart in fear. You’re trying to withdraw while He presses forward, keeping you with Him. That’s the experience of faith—running away in place because Jesus is grabbing you by the shirttail, holding you, supporting you, showing you that He is in control over your worst fears.

Reset the scene in Gerasenes: The demons beg Jesus to let them go into the herd of pigs. According to the Old Testament laws, pigs are unclean, forbidden for Jews to eat, and therefore, you should avoid all pigs. Contact with pigs would make you unclean, unable to approach the Lord in worship. If the events leading up to now weren’t enough to make you think more than twice about following Jesus, hanging out in pig country surely adds to the stress. Perhaps it is a nice distraction just to think about following the ceremonial laws instead of demons, but then being so close to that huge herd of pigs makes you say, “Jesus, we’re not supposed to be here. This is pig country; we’re from the pig dry counties of Galilee.”

I was trying to come up with an equivalent for us today to what it meant to be so opposed, so horrified by being in pig country. The best I could do is with a made up animal: the rathorse, a combination of a rat and horse. Rats are dirty, vile, disgusting, and we think they’re unfit for eating. Yet, other cultures in other countries eat rats. Same with the pigs. The Jews wouldn’t dare think of pigs as pork chops, ham, or bacon, but the disciples were now in “Pork: The Other White Meat” country which was enough to make their stomachs turn—like us thinking about eating a rat.

Yet, there’s a possibility that the herdsmen were actually Jews, raising pigs against their religion because it was a lucrative business. The non-Jews in the country would’ve paid well for the pigs, so despite the laws of the Old Testament, the herdsmen were raising the pigs to sell to people who did eat them. In a similar way, most states in the U.S. forbid selling horsemeat for human consumption inside the U.S., but there are at least three slaughter houses in the U.S. that kill horses and sell the meat to Europe and other countries where horsemeat is a delicacy. Despite it being against the law to sell horsemeat here, these slaughter houses sell the meat to people who do eat horses.

Reset the scene in Gerasenes. You are standing with Jesus surrouded by pigs—rathorses—animals that are vile, dirty, and forbidden for us to eat, raised by these disgusting herdsmen so they can make some good money.

This brings us back to Soaring Eagle Dairy Farm, and no, they don’t raise rathorses. Someone who had been to Breakfast on the Farm told me how big that farm operation seemed. Soaring Eagle has 925 cows, which is huge compared to the family farms of old, but reset the scene in Gerasenes. You are surrounded by 2000 rathorses (Mark 5:13). Twice the size of Soaring Eagle Dairy Farm. Pigs, pigs, pigs. Far from the pig dry counties of Galilee, this is a pig-full county.

There’s not time to explore this now, but just remember that when the pigs stampede to drown in the lake, they run those 5-6 miles. They run from Soaring Eagle Dairy Farm all the way to Lake Michigan. This event surely made an impact on the whole area, because a lot of people would be wondering why 2000 pigs just ran past! The news about Jesus was going to get out.

And now you are incredibly aware of Jesus and His mission. You aren’t just stepping into a little bit of foreign country; Jesus has taken you fully inside a different world. You aren’t walking on the border of your culture; Jesus has taken you all the way into another culture. Jesus isn’t just coming close to breaking taboos; Jesus is breaking taboos. . .as you watch. He is willing to be among 2000 pigs, because He is focused on saving this one man, exorcising the demons from this one man, bringing one man to faith in the true God. He is surrounded by a herd of 2000 rathorses, but that won’t prevent Him from saving that man’s soul.

Have you reset the scene now? Do you see Jesus in that dangerously wonderful light? Do you sense how in your soul you want to withdraw, run away from Jesus, but He presses forward to stay by you? Do you sense how you want to withdraw from His mission, but He presses forward and brings you with Him? Jesus is in control, has this incredible power that He uses against the power of the devil, and He brings that power in order to save you. No matter what kind of rathorse hole you imagine your life to be like, Jesus has come to save you.

You’re the reason for His radical mission, more radical than what we normally imagine for drama class. This is a bigger-than-life drama; this is a real event in your life. This reality provokes awe, wonder, fear, surprise, shock, and rejoicing in you. That’s the drama you need to put on the stage of your imagination. Reset the scene in Gerasenes. See Jesus in that dangerously wonderful light having gone to great lengths to save you.

Cultural Keys to Luke (Part 2) Handout
You can view the research and background information that goes into this sermon by clicking here.

Commentary on the creation of this sermon can be found by clicking here.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Psalm 106:4-12 - “Traveling into Dangerous Territory to Deliver You”

5th Sunday in Lent (Year B, Revised Readings)
Saturday, April 5, and Sunday, April 6, 2003

Psalm 106 declares, “God saved His people for His Name’s sake.” God had placed His Name on the people of Israel, and in order to uphold the reputation of His Name, God goes to deliver His people.

God saves you for His Name’s sake. God has placed His Name on you through your baptism, and in order to uphold the reputation of His Name, God sent Jesus Christ to deliver you from sin and death. God’s Name is on you; you are His child; He cannot abandon His child. God will travel into dangerous territory to deliver you, to save you, to redeem you.

See what God has done for you through a story.

A father travels into dangerous territory to save his daughter. He saves her for his name’s sake. She had his name, and he wouldn’t abandon his own child. He saved her from the hand of the foe; from the hand of the enemy he redeemed her. This is the story of that father and daughter.

It is one of the storylines from the movie, Traffic, a 2001 Academy Award winning film. This story of a father going to great lengths to save his daughter gives us an idea of what Psalm 106 is talking about when it talks about God putting His Name on us, becoming our kinsman, the one with the responsibility to redeem us, to save us. This storyline from the movie Traffic exemplifies what God has done. However, this movie is not for the weak of heart or the weak of faith. It is rated R for good reasons. Traffic is a gritty look at drug culture, drug dealing, and the drug war. But in that grit lies the story of a father and daughter. He saves her from the hand of the foe much like God has saved you from sin and death, saved you from being forever separated from His love.

The father is Robert, played by Michael Douglas. Robert is a successful, wealthy man, living an ideal life in an exclusive suburb in Ohio. Robert is also a close personal friend of the President of the United States. The President appoints Robert to be the new national drug czar, the leader in the war on drugs.

Meanwhile, Robert’s daughter, Caroline, played by Erika Christensen, is a high school student at an exclusive private school. Caroline and her friends like to party in their parents’ big mansions, drinking, dabbling in different kinds of drugs. Caroline’s friend introduces her to freebasting cocaine.

The drug czar’s daughter now has a habit of shooting up. God the Father’s chosen people of Israel had a habit of following idols and other gods. God the Father’s adopted children, you and me, have a habit of sinning against Him, going against His ways. We have sinned even as our fathers did; we have done wrong and acted wickedly. We are Caroline. We might not be doing drugs, but this story from the movie Traffic can be an allegory, a symbolic story of what is happening to us spiritually. The screenwriter didn’t intend this, but spiritually, we are like Caroline—dabbling with things that go against God’s will, seeking false gods, starting sinful habits that lead us away from God.

Another one of Caroline’s friends overdoses one night. In a panic, she and her friends take this boy to the emergency room, dump him in front of the doors, and drive away. It isn’t long before Caroline’s parents discover that she was involved. They figure she’s had enough of a scare; they figure she won’t touch drugs again.

Robert comes home one night. He goes upstairs, sees the light on in Caroline’s bedroom, and then hears some strange sounds from the bathroom. He tries to open the door; it is locked. Robert demands that Caroline open the door. Finally, she does, stumbling out, obviously in a stupor. Robert searches the bathroom until he finds drugs and drug paraphenalia. Robert is angry and disappointed all at the same time. He is disgusted and worried. And all Caroline can do is curse him and roll her eyes in ecstacy from the drugs.

Caroline is sent to a rehab center, but after doing very well, after trying to get clean and sober, she escapes, she runs away. And we are Caroline. We come before God, we admit our sins, we learn about God’s ways, but then we turn around and sin again. We have a habit we cannot break. We are addicted to sin. We continue to disappoint and anger our God and Father. We forget God and His blessings; we forget what God has done for us. We escape from the spiritual rehab found in Christ; we head back onto the streets looking to score.

Caroline sneaks into her parents’ home and steals jewelry and other things that she can pawn for drugs. She heads into the city and goes to her dealer. She has sex with her dealer to pay for more drugs. Caroline is lost in dangerous territory. Caroline is lost, and Robert, her father, goes to find her. He travels into dangerous territory to save his daughter.

The drug czar in his luxury car travels the streets of the inner city, the ghetto, the war zone. Robert, the national drug czar, travels through the drug world looking day and night for his daughter. Robert looks for his daughter who has gone against him, who is doing the drugs he is working against.

Robert goes to great lengths to find and save his daughter. Robert goes to her dealer. He demands that the dealer tell him where his daughter is. The dealer pulls a pistol and points it at Robert’s head. The dealer will not help him find Caroline.

Undaunted, Robert continues to search, until he finds Caroline in a seedy hotel, locked in a room with a man, prostituting herself for drug money. Robert breaks down the door, tells the man to get lost, and then goes to his daughter. His daughter naked on the bed. His daughter still high on drugs. His daughter who has seen so much evil in such a short time. His daughter who still can’t realize what she’s done or what’s happening. His daughter who says from her drugged state, “Hi, Daddy,” and smiles.

Robert breaks down in tears. He has found his daughter, but he also seen her in the worst position imaginable. Robert cries tears of joy, because he has saved his daughter. Robert cries tears of anguish, because his daughter has been violated, drugged, abused, broken, lost. And yet, Robert has now saved her from the hand of the foe. He could not abandon his child; she has his name. He has redeemed her from the hand of the enemy.

Today God the Father cries tears over you. God cries tears of joy, because He has saved you, His child. He has broken down the door of sin and death, He has thrown out Satan, He has found you in dangerous territory, He has saved you.

God cries tears of anguish, because He knows where you’ve been. He knows that spiritually you’ve been violated, drugged, abused, broken, lost. God never wanted to see you go down such a path. He didn’t want you to get lost in the sins of this world. He didn’t want you to be misled by false gods, idols, false religions, false hopes. He didn’t want you to wander off and be abused by the evil spirits of this world.

God cries tears of anguish, because He knows that truthfully you’ve seen your share of things that you should’ve never seen. You’ve had trouble with addictions. You’ve been in terrible fights of words and fists. You’ve suffered wars and rumors of wars. You’ve seen mangled car wrecks, fires, and violence. You’ve done things you’re not proud of. God cries tears of anguish over you, because this isn’t what a father wants for his child, this isn’t what God the Father wants for His people, His special creation.

And yet, God has now saved you from the hand of the enemy. He could not abandon His child; you have His Name. He has redeemed you from the hand of the enemy. Just as Robert faced the drug dealer with a pistol to his head, so Jesus faced death on a cross. Just as Robert broke down the door to save Caroline, so Jesus broke down the door of hell to proclaim that He was victorious, He would take His children home, He would rescue His people from sin and death.

Jesus has traveled into dangerous territory to save you. It is a gritty tale, admitting where we’ve been. We’ve hated; we’ve lied, cheated, stole. We committed adultery. We lusted. We cursed God. We trusted in false gods. We condemned others and took pride in ourselves. We got drunk and high. We talked behind each other’s backs. We said hateful things. Our lives are a gritty tale. The specifics may be all different, but we’re not that different from Caroline. The story from the movie Traffic can be an allegory for our lives. Caroline symbolizes our sins.

Jesus has traveled into dangerous territory to save you. It is a gruesome tale, showing what Jesus did in order to save us. It is not for the weak of heart or weak of faith. They pounded nails into the flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ. They nailed Him to a cross. They propped Him up on the cross, letting all of His weight hang from those nails in His flesh. Robert didn’t have to go that far to save Caroline, but Robert shows hints of the love of God, the love that brings Him to go to great lengths to save His people. The story from the movie Traffic can be an allegory. Robert symbolizes what God is willing to do to save His children.

So when you are locked up in a room of sin, when you are trapped by your sinful desires, remember that God travels through dangerous territory to save you. He has not abandoned you. Even when you feel that you are hopeless, that you are beyond help, remember that Jesus came, died on a bloody cross, and broke down the door of hell. Nothing will keep Him away from saving you, rescuing you, delivering you from the hands of the enemy.

When you are locked up in a room of sin, when you realize that you have run away from God, then cry out with Psalm 106 and know that God indeed answers this prayer:

Remember me, O Lord, when You show favor to Your people,
Come to my aid when You save them.

Call out to God. Recall what He has done. You are Caroline, and He is Robert. He will come and find you in the worst trouble imaginable. He will take you; He will save you. You are His child; you can’t make Him stop loving you.

Remember what God has done in Jesus Christ. Call out to Him, and believe His promises and sing His praise. God has saved you from sin and death. God has given you the promise of eternal life. This is the story of a father and his child; this is your story; this is your reality. God will not abandon you; you are His namesake; you are His child. Believe this promise and sing His praise. Amen.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Luke 7:36-50 -
“Cultural Keys to Luke (Part 1):
The Hostess”

Cultural Keys to Luke (Part 1) Handout
You can view the research and background information that goes into this sermon by clicking here.

Commentary on the creation of this sermon can be found by clicking here.

3rd Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 6)
(Year C - Lutheran Service Book Readings)
Thursday, June 14, and Sunday, June 17, 2007

Some of you will be offended by this story. On some level, this story will offend all of us. But it is a story, a parable, that reveals our God’s great love—a love which can be so offensive to our righteous sensibilities.

There’s this traveling preacher. He’s built quite a following around the world, and he’s spoken in town the last couple of days. People have been talking about this man long before he arrived in town, and after the impression he’s made locally, well, it’s clear that people will be talking about him for quite awhile longer.

Now in this same town there’s this group of pastors, church leaders, and interested laypeople who regularly get together to discuss all things theological. They’re not the kind of Bible study group that would be happy meeting at the local greasy spoon diner. Instead, they have rather expensive tastes and enjoy a little pampering, so they meet in a classy hotel downtown.

This group of pastors, church leaders, and interested laypeople—let’s call them the Theology Club—they’re led by a man named Mr. Simon. Mr. Simon has overheard some short bits of the traveling preacher’s teachings in the city, and even more, Mr. Simon has been paying attention to the buzz that the traveling preacher has created in the religious circles. Sensing that he can’t simply dismiss the traveling preacher as a fad, Mr. Simon asks the traveler to have dinner with the Theology Club in their usual room at the hotel.

While the preacher seems hardly the type that belongs in upscale hotels, he doesn’t turn down the invitation. The traveling preacher has found success and built a following because he finds the most unlikely places to preach. He preaches in the streets—as many prophets have done, and of course, he preaches in houses of worship. But he also preaches in the run-down neighborhoods, the back alleys, family gatherings, county parks, and even coffee houses popular with the alternative scene. So the traveler goes to meet the Theology Club for dinner perhaps seeing it as just one more varied location where he can speak God’s Truth.

When the preacher arrives at the hotel, no one from the Theology Club greets him at the front door or in the lobby. Not knowing where the group meets for dinner, the preacher asks at the front desk, but the Theology Club hasn’t left word for him there. Instead, the traveler has to ask a number of staff—stopping bellboys, waiters, and janitors as they pass; he asks quite a few of them before finding one who knows which meeting room holds the group the preacher describes.

When he finally finds the room and enters, no one rises to welcome him. No one offers to take his coat. No one sees that he’s still holding his suitcase. He’s left wondering if they really meant for him to be there, and more pressing, he wonders if the group would be providing him a room at the hotel, a place where he could change clothes, relax a bit, sleep that night.

No one introduces him to the group. He finds that he’s having to introduce himself to each person—although he can only do this when they take breaks from their conversations.

By all appearances, the group has already had the first course of their meal—not waiting until the preacher got there. (He came as soon as he could after his late afternoon speaking engagement. Seeing they’ve already eaten is a clue that no one in the room actually heard him speak that day.) No one offers to get him a salad or a beverage. In fact, there’s not even a place set for him at the table.

Mr. Simon kind of gestures to a chair in the corner as if to say, “Pull up a chair,” but Mr. Simon makes no move to make room for the preacher and his chair. Instead, awkwardly, the preacher pulls the chair up to a corner of the table and then shyly flags down a waiter to ask for some silverware, a water glass, and perhaps a dinner plate when it is served. The waiter—unclear what to do with this uncounted for guest—goes to the head of the table and whispers into Mr. Simon’s ear. Mr. Simon glances down the table at the preacher, frowns a bit, and then shrugs to the waiter, apparently saying, “I suppose if he wants a dinner you can bring him one,” but his body language clearly is saying that he didn’t really want to add another meal to the tab.

It’s a most embarrassing treatment, really—designed, it seems, to make the traveling preacher feel rejected. It’s like he’s been invited to dinner only so that this group of religious leaders could snub him. By neglecting to show him any courtesies, they’ve made their attitude very clear: the traveling preacher might be gathering a following, but these religious leaders are in no way supportive of him, his message, or his presence.

So there is our traveling preacher, a world-renowned speaker: he sits on the corner of the table, not included in conversation, waiting for a dinner begrudgingly approved by the host. The preacher is still wearing his coat, although he’s glanced around the room for an appropriate place to hang it. He’s got his suitcase near him, so he tries to remove his coat without much notice, lays the coat on top of the suitcase, and pushes the suitcase up against the wall out of the way as best he can.

That’s when a soft hand reaches out and takes the suitcase from the traveling preacher. He looks up to see a beautiful woman, dressed in a very classy yet flashy fashion, and perhaps wearing a bit too much makeup to make up for the fact that she’s older than she wants to appear. This woman seems to immediately sense that this traveler has not been shown any common courtesies of a guest, and with confidence and boldness, this woman becomes the hostess.

Truth is, the woman is a lady of the evening, a working girl. She’s from the local “escort service,” serving clients in this fancy hotel downtown. She gets paid well, but she gives away too much of herself. She’s hoping for a Pretty Woman moment where suddenly a rich man will see her for who she really is, whisk her away from her dead end life, and make her respectable again—but that only happens to Julia Roberts in the movie. There’s been no Richard Gere for her reality.

Yet, she was in the crowd that afternoon to hear this traveling preacher speak. He is no Richard Gere; he wouldn’t save her like that. No. This preacher teaches something much greater than her Pretty Woman dream. He speaks about a God who knows who she really is—but still loves her. This God could whisk her away from her dead end life—whisk her away to eternal life. This God would make her respectable again—forgiving all of her sins, making her clean and holy in His sight. This woman had heard the traveling preacher, and as soon as she got word that he was in her hotel meeting with the Theology Club, she went immediately to their dinner. She is filled with a love and joy that can’t be expressed with words. Instead, she had made a decision that afternoon that her life as an escort was over, she would dedicate herself to serving the Lord, and she also meant to serve the Lord’s messenger: the traveling preacher.

She hands the preacher’s suitcase to a bellboy passing by in the hallway, gives him a rather large tip, and instructs him to get the preacher a room. “In fact,” she says, “give him my suite. Make sure my suite is completely cleaned, scrubbed, and free from any sign that I was ever in there.”

The bellboy raises his eyebrows. Partly he’s shocked because this woman’s been in the hotel for years, living and working out of that same suite. Partly he’s a bit confused on whether she’s propositioning the preacher which seems very wrong to the bellboy. And partly the bellboy’s just overwhelmed by the task she’s giving him: “Free from any sign that I was ever in there.” This is not going to be a quick housecleaning job—making her suite no longer look like the room of a hotel prostitute. Sensing the bellboy’s shock and reluctance to fulfill her request, she hands him another large bill and says, “I don’t need that suite anymore, but I will pay for the room so the preacher can stay there.”

The bellboy leaves with the preacher’s suitcase, flagging down fellow staff on his way through the hall, clearly concerned that he’s going to need a lot of extra help to make the suite ready.

With this, the woman turns her attention back to the preacher himself. The preacher has been on his feet all day, all week, and now here no one had offered him a real chance to rest his feet. His feet are blistered, bruised, worn, and cracked. She guides him back to his chair, although she pulls it out a bit, giving him more space to relax his body. She puts his feet up on another chair.

She’s always carried a small bag with her, a little larger than a purse that has some essentials in it—in case she is called to another guest room. From her bag, she pulls a bottle of massage oil. It’s expensive, luxurious massage oil, and she doesn’t keep a drop. She pours it on his feet, lavishly covering his feet with the sweet, relaxing oil. She rubs his feet, working against the pains, bruises, and sores of a traveler.

Now no one is surprised to see the woman in the room. The Theology Club prides itself on the fact that there’s always a little group of followers that crowd around them, standing around the walls, trying to glean some wisdom from their deeply theological conversations. They all know this woman; they know she worked the hotel; they know what she did. They thought of her like any other staff that came through the room—she is below them, fooling herself into thinking that she would ever qualify to truly be part of the club or even know what they were talking about. They don’t even look at her, although you have to wonder whether some of them don’t look at her for fear that the others might catch on that they had secretly utilized her services on occasion.

As the woman massages the preacher’s feet, many of the men in the room get the wrong idea about her intentions. However, the woman isn’t making any sexual advances on the traveling preacher—perhaps that is even a surprise to the woman herself. Instead, she simply saw a man who hadn’t been invited to use the hotel spa. The Theology Club men glow with rosy complexions, the scent of massage oil on their bodies, as they had just hours prior taken advantage of the hotel’s spa for some special treatment of their own. The host, Mr. Simon, gave no thought to offering such a gift to this tired traveling preacher, so this woman became the hostess. She offers him comfort for his sore feet, a gracious courtesy offered to a man who offers a message from God that is gracious on a much, much larger scale. It is the very least she can do.

As she massages the preacher’s feet, ignoring the stares of the Theology Club, she finds that she is crying. Not just a few tears, but a sudden flow of tears so strong and constant that the warm drops are mixing with the massage oil on the preacher’s feet. She is overwhelmed by knowing that the preacher has offered her the only hope she has ever really needed: to be redeemed, to be freed, to be lifted out of the filth of her life.

You know how if and when you get to meet a hero of yours, especially if that person happens to be famous and removed from you, all that you can seem to manage to say is a lame sentiment like “thank you for everything” or “you’ve meant so much to me.” Well, this woman has tears pouring from her eyes, because she’s getting to go beyond some lame platitude. She’s actually returning thanks, doing something for this preacher, doing something to truly show her love, joy, thankfulness, and praise.

She takes off her outer shawl, the shawl that she always wore around the hotel lobby since it covered her skimpy dress. She begins wiping the preacher’s feet with the shawl, drying them and rubbing in the remaining oil and tears.

Again, the men in the room shuffle uncomfortably in their seats, clearing their throats indignantly, turning away in disgust, but they don’t understand that what looks like an immodest action is simply the woman’s devotion to the man who had spoken God’s truth to her. Never before had removing her shawl meant anything but a come-on, a solicitation, a following through on a business transaction, but that is the farthest thing from her mind now. She simply takes the closest thing at hand in order to dry the preacher’s feet. She is only thinking about being the preacher’s servant, a servant to the Lord.

Looking at Mr. Simon’s face, it wouldn’t take too much to guess what he’s thinking, although the traveling preacher’s God-given intuition helps him to know exactly what Mr. Simon is thinking: “If this man was really a preacher sent from the Lord, he would know who is massaging his feet and what kind of woman she is—a filthy prostitute.”

Once the preacher senses this, it is a wonder that he stays there at all. Having received such a rude welcome from the Theology Club, which really wasn’t a welcome at all, some people might leave—find a way to excuse themselves rather than be subject to such rudeness. Other people may just expect that a preacher who has a heart for the Lord would simply humble himself, show love rather than anger, and swallow this bitter pill—even going as far as rejecting the woman’s foot massage so that he wouldn’t offend his host. The traveling preacher in our story, though, does what most of us wouldn’t dare do: directly confronts the rude behavior of his host: “Mr. Simon, I have something to tell you.”

Mr. Simon says, “Yes, teacher, what is it?” Perhaps the preacher doesn’t see it, although you can hear it in Mr. Simon’s voice, that as he says “teacher” he rolls his eyes, producing quite a few smirks around the Theology Club.

The preacher has his eyes and attention back on the woman at his feet—even while still speaking to Mr. Simon: “Do you see this woman? I entered your meeting room, your Theology Club, and you gave me no rest for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her shawl. You gave me no welcome or courtesy, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to make me feel welcome. You did not offer me time in the hotel spa, but she has massaged my feet with her expensive oil. I tell you, this woman knows her many sins are forgiven, so she showed great love. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.”

Still looking at the woman, the traveling preacher says, “Your sins are forgiven.”

The Theology Club begins to mutter loudly, “Who does this guy think he is forgiving the sins of this woman, this filthy piece of trash?”

That’s about all of the story that I know. It seems the Theology Club fails to see the true message of the Gospel.

Maybe in the end Mr. Simon thinks: “I am just as much a sinner as this woman.” Maybe he realizes that he can’t be forgiven if he never admits his sinfulness, but whether or not Mr. Simon is thinking this, the preacher seems much more concerned about the woman and what she’s thinking. You can tell by the way he repeats his words of comfort to the woman, saying again, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” The preacher hopes to see the woman restored to the community of faith.

Maybe the woman long ago was kicked out of a congregation led by one of the Theology Club pastors. The traveling preacher is encouraging the Theology Club and that church to restore this woman, to see her as a forgiven sinner welcomed back into God’s family.

That’s really the heart of the preacher’s message, the heart of the Gospel: restoring sinners. That’s the beauty of this offensive story—there’s restoration for sinners through the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

“Your sins are forgiven; go in peace.”

And even if the Theology Club and their churches never restore the woman, the traveling preacher is giving her permission to ignore them. If they won’t see her as a forgiven child of God, they are wrong. The traveling preacher still sends the woman in peace. She can still see herself as whole, redeemed, clean, holy, and fully a member of the Kingdom of God.

If that’s offensive, then I choose to be offensive.

Cultural Keys to Luke (Part 1) Handout
You can view the research and background information that goes into this sermon by clicking here.

Commentary on the creation of this sermon can be found by clicking here.