I've Got Friends in Low Places

A Sermon by
Dr. John Frederick Fiedler
First United Methodist Church, Dallas, Texas
September 29, 2002.

Matthew 21:23-32


I don't get it. I've been studying this text all week long and I still do not get it. Why would Jesus say, "Truly I tell you the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you"? Who was his campaign manager? What sort of strategy does that represent that he would say such a thing to the authorities. Any chance of reconciliation…any chance of advancing his agenda…any chance of his getting a plank on the platform seem to have gone away when he makes a statement like that. It was highly offensive. They say that William Jennings Bryan in 1896 was more of a political evangelist than he was a politician. He was representing the populous vote…the common farmer…and was preaching against what he called 'The Cross of Gold' that the common farmer was being crucified upon because of the gold standard. He wanted more available money.

So in running for President, what did he do as the Democratic nominee? He got on the train and went all over America to small towns everywhere speaking to small crowds of farmers asking for their votes while his opponent, William McKinley, stayed in his home in Ohio. Literally, he stayed in his home…he didn't campaign at all. He just got on the telephone and made appeals for money. Now they say this was the first modern election because with all of his whistle stops and all of his talking and all the exhaustion that William Jennings Bryan brought upon himself, he lost the election handily. He was a really good evangelist. He was not a good politician. Maybe that what's going on here with Jesus. Jesus doesn't seem to understand how you go about influencing the powers that be.

This past week I made some promo spots at Channel 8. You write the text in advance and you send the written out promo spots on a diskette and they put it on their teleprompter. So you go in the studio and you stand in front of the camera. They have somebody look over your hair and your tie and you try to look natural as they start rolling the teleprompter text and you read as you're looking into the camera. In this case, I was promoting the Channel 8 broadcast of our worship service. But I was thinking later about what it would look like if Jesus had Zaccheus go down and give an endorsement spot for him as a tax collector? That is the sort of crazy strategy that Jesus came up with here. Can't you imagine Zaccheus, kind of short in stature and very nervous with perspiration all over his face? They would have to stop and dab his brow. He'd have to go over the text again...his eyes darting back and forth. Finally, he would get up and make an endorsement talk that people should vote for Jesus as Messiah. He could tell them that he was their tax collector after all. That would invoke a warm feeling in their hearts. He could go ahead and tell them that because of Jesus he had refunded the money he'd gouged from them and was no longer going to steal from them in order to line his own pockets. And in the end he could say, "And remember, I endorse Jesus for Messiah. Vote for Jesus, the man from Nazareth".
How many votes do you think that would engender? Wouldn't it be much more likely that one of the authorities at the temple would get a hold of some of the footage of Jesus consorting with Zaccheus or of Jesus overturning the tables at the temple or some of the sound bytes of Jesus walking out and saying, "Well, who is my mother? Who is my family anyway?" Then the candidate saying, "Who stands for family values around here?" Jesus of Nazareth? Bad for Jerusalem. Jesus of Nazareth consorts with tax collectors and harlots. You can do a lot of damage taking the Sermon on the Mount out of context and putting together a promotional piece as …a political ad.

Let's face it:…Jesus of Nazareth was a lousy politician. He just happened to be a great Messiah! He wasn't looking for anyone's votes. He knew where the power was. He knew it didn't lie with the common people. He knew about Jerusalem society. There was an upper class that had all the power, all the wealth, all the political ties. There was a professional class, a very small middle class and everybody else in this oligarchy was poor and without power. The tax collectors and the harlots, these were the people who gravitated toward Him, who listened to his message. The others who were in power realized that this was a dangerous man. Jesus had dangerous ideas. He had come to confront the status quo and they had no interest in changing. And why would they? Politics is about answering the question, "Who gets the goodies". And most of the goodies were coming their way. So they had very little interest in being receptive to the message of this Jesus of Nazareth.

But Jesus didn't need their vote because he didn't need their authority. He wasn't running for office. His authority was derived from God. He was on a mission. He didn't need anybody's permissions to tell him, "Now you can go ahead and do what God sent you to do." He was doing it and he knew that time was very precious. Only two days ago He had had the triumphant entry into the city. Then he'd gone into the temple and overturned the tables. He'd upset the entire apple cart. He knew the conspiracy was at work…the die was cast…his fate was sealed. In four days he would be crucified. Jesus had nothing else to loose and was willing to take the consequences of this bold statement to the authorities. The reason he was so threatening was that Jesus didn't recognize the existing barriers between different tribes. Jesus would speak to Gentiles. Jesus would speak to Samaritans. Jesus didn't recognize the existing barriers between men and women. Jesus would go and speak to a woman and ascribe authority t o her. He would allow her to come and anoint Him.

Again, Jesus didn't seem to recognize there were strict laws forbidding doing anything on the Sabbath. He said, "This is a good thing, let's go ahead and do it anyway". He didn't have a problem setting aside the rules and the regulations of the law. Instead, he called people to a new covenant. This was very unsettling to the powers. It's not that they weren't religious. It was that they were extremely religious. Here was an individual who was talking about grace. Here was an individual who was talking about people being equal. Here was an individual talking about inviting people to come to the vineyards of the Lord and work for the coming of the Kingdom of God. As a result, he was met with a great deal of hostility. Those ideas were met with a great deal of hostility back then. And guess what? …those ideas meet with a great deal of hostility even today. Let's be honest…they do. The idea that everyone's equal. The idea that we left aristocracy behind in Europe or tribal superiority behind in other continents and came to this country (USA). The great hope…the great opportunity was that we truly would try to engender an egalitarian society. What's the first thing that we've done? We immediately went and about and set aside distinctions and tried to cater to our own individual, sinful need to feel superior to other people.

The great thing about it in this country is, we get an entire menu of different characteristics by which we can do it: We're the young generation. You're the old generation. We're old money. You're new money. We're new money…you have no money at all. We're one color…you're another color. We're one culture…you're another culture. We're male…you're female. All the differences that tend to polarize us and give people the temptation to somehow think that they're better than somebody else. Jesus never bought into that.

Jesus never believed in better people. Jesus just believed in a better way. And that's what He invites us to do…even today. He invites us to be a part of the workers in the fields of the Lord and be about bringing in the harvest. The invitation is before us this morning. For those of you who are members of the church…those of you who are baptized Christians, those promises have already been made. You have promised that you would report for duty and be at work approximating God's kingdom. The questions in our case is, have we made good on our promise or are we like the people who said yes, I will be there…like the son who said yes dad, I will be there in the fields but never showed up? Other people may have made unfortunate choices in their lives but as they are confronted with the gospel, they choose Christ later on. And guess what, they are welcomed right where they are. They're accepted just as they are.

That's the radical message of the gospel. The visible word. It's not enough to talk a good game. You've got to be there and embody the Word. We leave this place on Sunday morning and go out into a hurtful, complex and hurting world and you have the opportunity to make the difference…to be the visible Word. But that involves risk…it involves caring…it involves taking the initiative and we're not wired that way are we? "I will like you, love you, compliment you after you like, love and compliment me first because I'm just a little insecure and I just don't want to venture out there." "I'm afraid of rejection." Jesus wasn't afraid of rejection. He knew it was there. He was confident of rejection and crucifixion. He went ahead and loved people anyway and took the consequences.

We talk about the Aldersgate experience in London…it was on Aldersgate Street. Here in Texas, we have a Wesleyan San Saba experience in which Madame M.L. Bolino, who was the most successful Madame of the most thriving brothel in San Antonio in 1895, was walking San Saba Street when she heard a street preaching. The words seemed to find their way into her heart…this woman who employed so many young women and put them to work making unfortunate choices. She went back to her three story Victorian home and made an announcement. "This house will be transformed into a rescue mission for young women." Later that became a ministry for what they called unwed mothers and now is the San Antonio United Methodist Mission Home. It is very active in helping young babies to find loving parents. All this because this woman answered God's invitation for her to report to the fields of the Lord.

John Wesley had a marvelous ability to rise above the barriers that separated people and invite them to come together. Samuel Boswell used to say about him, "I hate talking to that John Wesley. That dog will enchant you with his conversation and then break off to go visit some old woman." Wesley was like that. He could hob-nob with some of the brightest minds in London society and turn right around and go to the foundry and spend time with some of the poorest of the poor on the streets of London. He recognized no barriers… even when he had an opportunity to shame a wealthy young woman who was quite enamored with his preaching. One of his lay preachers brought the father and this young woman into Wesley's office. The lay preacher, knowing Wesley's contempt for finery and jewelry, couldn't resist reaching out and grabbing this young woman's hand and holding it up with all these rings and jewelry dazzling with gold and saying to the founder of Methodism, "Brother Wesley, how think you this as a Methodist hand?" The young woman knew John Wesley and what he stood for and the plainness he advocated and she just cringed waiting for his reprimand. Wesley looked at her hand with all the jewelry and said, "It is a beautiful hand." That evening she presented herself at the worship service at the alter rail to become a Christian.

Wesley fell in love with a woman by the name of Grace Murray. I knew about Sophie Hopke, but this was later in his life back in London. She was a sailor's widow. She was a maidservant who led a Methodist society meeting. It had over a hundred people in attendance. She was very bright. But John's brother, Charles, took him aside and said, "John, she's a maidservant? It would embarrass me and my wife for you to bring her into the family!" In response to that, John Wesley went ahead and proposed anyway. She accepted. But Charles intervened and took her aside, saying, "You're not right for my brother. Besides, there is another Methodist preacher who proposed to you before and you're driving him crazy. It will drive him mad if you spurn his proposal." So she married him instead.

Wesley said he had a dream. He said he had a dream that he went to the gates of Hell and he said to Satan, "Are there Presbyterians present?" And Satan said yes. "Are there Baptists present here?" And the answer was yes. With trembling and fear, Wesley asked, "Are there Methodists present here?" And the answer was yes. And then Wesley went to the gates of Heaven and he asked, "Are there Presbyterians, Baptists and Methodists present here?" And the answer was, "No. There are only Christians that reside herein." Jesus was all about transcending barriers. One of my favorite novels that was mandatory reading in high school was A Separate Piece by John Knowles. I like the part where the first person narrator confronts Phineas who is the character that bounds with enthusiasm and love and radiant caring for everyone.

"Phinny", my voice broke but I went on, "Phineas, you wouldn't be in the war…even if nothing had happened to your leg." A look of amazement fell over him. "It scared me, but I knew what I had said was important and right and my voice found that full tone that voices have when they are expressing something long felt, long understood and release at last. "Phiney, you'd get someplace at the front and there would be a lull in the fighting and the next thing anyone knew you'd be over with the Germans or the Japanese asking if they'd like to field a baseball team against our side. You'd be sitting in one of their command posts teaching them English. Yes, you'd get confused and borrow one of their uniforms and you'd lend them one of yours. Sure, that's what would happen. You'd get things so scrambled up that nobody would know whom to fight anymore. You'd make a mess…a terrible mess, Phiney, out of the war."

And you see, that's was Jesus did. In confronting the status quo, he made a mess out of everything…out of all barriers. Nobody knew whom to fight any longer. That was his great crime and the reason he had to be punished with death. He recognized no barriers…rich or poor, old or young, male or female, this tribe or that tribe, this ethnicity or that ethnicity, this color or that color…it made no difference to Jesus. The only thing He cared about was that you would report for duty in the fields of the Lord. Jesus had friends in low places. They didn't have power. They didn't have political ties. All they had was the opportunity to choose Him and the kingdom of God. They had that choice back then and you have that choice today.
Dr. John Frederick Fiedler

(This sermon comes from the First United Methodist Church of Downtown Dallas website and we are grateful to them).

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