Being with sinners.

Homily 582 – 37 APE
Holy Transfiguration Orthodox Church, Ames, Iowa
February 18, 2024
Epistle – (285-ctr) 1 Timothy 4:9-15
Gospel – (94) Luke 19:1-10

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God.

Why do we have a problem with sinners?

When Jesus goes to the house of Zacchaeus, a chief tax collector, that is one of the criticisms leveled at Christ – and reading the text closely, they were talking behind Jesus’s back to the disciples – the criticism that Jesus was staying with a sinner.

With the benefit of 2,000 years of hindsight, as well as the words of our Lord elsewhere, we know that being with and serving sinners is why Christ came.  He washed the feet of the disciples, then said that our role is to do the same to others.

But do we really believe that?  Sometimes the behavior of some would have me questioning that proposition.  The story is told of the man, probably homeless and hungry, that came into Church, late, dirty, smelly.

The people looked at him, some turned away in disgust, others acted like he wasn’t there at all.  A few told him to shush, after he had a coughing fit.  He got the message and left.

There was a bar around the corner.  He walked in, was greeted by the bartender, a couple of people smiled and asked how he was doing.  He ordered a drink, and in his shaky hands, dropped it and broke the glass.

The bartender smiled, and told him not to worry, and poured him another drink no charge.  The waitress came by several times asking if he needed anything.

Which of the two places showed love?

I’m thankful that we don’t do that here.  But some of our brothers and sisters do.  We hear them tell people that because of their sin, they aren’t welcome in Church.  I guess the self-appointed guardians of our temples have decided that they aren’t worthy.

They don’t have to be homeless.  They don’t have to live on the street.  Maybe they love people who share their biological sex.  Maybe they use drugs or other mood altering substances.  Maybe they are workers in those industries and places that aren’t discussed in polite company.  Maybe they don’t understand why the gender they have isn’t the gender they are comfortable with.  Maybe they escaped persecution, or escaped poverty, looking for a new start to take care of their family.

The Church, on the whole – and I mean those who call themselves Christian, including some Orthodox Christians – the Church dismisses these folks.  Says they are unclean, unrepentant.

And that would be correct.  They are.  But then again, we all are.  We are all unclean.  We are all unrepentant.  Maybe our sins aren’t as visible as theirs.  Maybe their cry for help, and for love, and for understanding is masked by their demands for rights and recognition.

When you have been thrown out of churches, thrown out of families, and find yourselves truly alone, willing to do almost anything to fit in somewhere, even when fitting in means living what we call euphemistically an “alternative lifestyle.”

Jesus had no problem with sinners.  He knows all of us, and our sins and our imperfections, and He loves us anyway.  He loves us in spite of us.  In spite of our unwillingness to repent – to change our ways.

In many ways Jesus was significantly more tolerant with the sinners than with the disciples and certainly with the people in the Temple.  His favorite term for the Pharisees was “hypocrite.”

Will Jesus say that about us?

As we think about this, recall that very few of us, I include myself in this, very few of us venture outside these walls and seek to find these lost souls where they live.  And when the Holy Spirit draws them to Church, we let them know they aren’t loved here either.

Now again, that hasn’t been our experience here at Holy Transfiguration.  We have had people with a variety of desperate situations in our midst, and I’ve been so thankful that we have by and large tried to help, and make them feel welcomed if not comfortable.  I can think of several that many of us thought were, frankly, mentally ill who stayed and fellow-shipped with us for quite a while.

I’m so thankful for that.  Truly thankful.  But I’m not sure it is enough.  We may not behave that way, but our neighbors and friends who call themselves Christians are giving us a reputation.  Like it or not, we are lumped in with those calling for exclusion.

Online, where anonymity provides cover, we agree with those who want to exclude people from our presence until they repent – until they change.  Or, maybe worse, we are silent, and in our silence provide our amen to maintaining the purity of the Temple.

Some of you are aware that I used to work as an administrator in mental health facilities.  One of the primary differences between a mental health facility and a medical hospital is that in a mental health facility some, perhaps most, will tell you they are fine and have no need to be healed.

The first part of treatment involves getting the patient to recognize their condition.  A condition that will result in most cases in their being ostracized from society.  Maybe from family.

When we say that the Church is a hospital for sinners, we need to adopt the approach of the mental health workers.  First, we will demonstrate that we care, and we will demonstrate that you need help.  Then, we will demonstrate our own healing process, and show the patient how they too can begin being healed.

The world will not tell them they are in need of treatment, of healing.  The world won’t tell them to get thyself to Church to be healed.  That has to come from us.

That’s what Jesus did.  Jesus hung out with sinners.  And we should be like Jesus.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God.