"Not to Condemn, but to Save"
Category: Sermons
Tags: Sermon - 3/11/2018
John 3:16-17
“Not to Condemn, but to Save”
March 11, 2018
            One of my favorite writers and preachers was a man named Walter Wangerin, who died a few years ago, way too soon.  For awhile he was pastor of Grace Lutheran Church in Evansville, Indiana, a struggling church in a struggling town, but one where the people knew and loved the Lord.  In one of his books, he tells a story about his own struggles.[1] 
            Across from the church lived a woman named Marie who, like most of the neighborhood, fought to make ends meet.  Wangerin felt for her, and also for her young son, but wasn’t quite sure how he could best help her, and she didn’t make it easy on him when she regarded him with a mix of resentment and suspicion.  He later realized that she made her living in the world’s oldest profession.  He began to look askance at her, too.  Then, one night, Wangerin was working late in his study and all the lights were off except the one at his desk, when he heard suspicious sounds outside.  The church had been broken into a couple of times and he got nervous, so he peeked out a window.  He saw Marie filling water jugs at the spigot on the side of the church that was itself having trouble paying its bills.  “Geez!” he wrote,
“the presumption griped me.  She was busy stealing.  She was reaching into the very heart of the building, even to frighten me in the privacy of my study.  I felt very, very vulnerable.
…She’d shut the water off.  When she passed the window, I saw her from the knees down, lugging in each hand two plastic jugs of water, and then I was alone again – and full of anguish.
…I had no idea what to do about Marie’s little theft – or the arrogance of it.  Well, well, well: water isn’t communion ware, after all.  What do you pay for water?  Pennies.  So let it go.  That’s what I said to myself.  Just let it go.  And I thought: if the city has turned off her water, you can bet they’ve turned off her gas and electricity too.  The woman’s without utilities.  And she’s got a kid who needs to drink and wash and use the bathroom.  So calm down and call it charity and let it go.
Yeah, but that kid nagged at my mind.  What was she teaching her child?  That he could take whatever he needed – whatever he wanted, for heaven’s sake.  Any child, I don’t care who or whose it is, deserves better than this poor kid was getting.
And then that’s the next thing that nagged: what is the ethic for supporting a prostitute, even by inaction and non-involvement?  This is a church, after all.  We have a covenant with virtue, after all, a discipline, a duty, a holy purpose, a prophetic presence.  Shouldn’t I talk to the woman?
Precisely at that point all my abstract inquiry skdded against reality.  Talk to the woman?  Why, the woman doesn’t talk!  She stares at you with a moribund stare.  She scorns you with murderous scorn.
… ‘So let it go.’  I said that out loud in the doorway of my study.”
            So far, so good.  But it continued to rankle him.  Then one day, again working late and hearing the tap running, he took action.
“I thrust my face to the window and looked into midnight and squinted to make my eyes adjust.  I saw the figure beneath the street light.  I saw the body bending at our faucet.  Two feet from mine I saw a concentrating face. …who was this drawing water from the bowels of Christendom? One of the prostitute’s johns!”
He saw things getting out of hand, so he ran into the boiler room and shut off the valve. 
I feel okay using this story in a sermon, because so did Wangerin.  It was a situation where it was important to draw the line and to do it in a way that was considerate.He wrote that
“Even so in the end did a cleric and the church prevail, by cunning, not by confrontation, and no one was hurt, and no one’s feelings or reputation was wounded, neither the church’s nor the prostitute’s.  We could coexist on opposite sides of Gum Stree
Most of the people who heard it understood that.  Most.
            At the church door he spoke with Miz Lillian Lander.  “Pastor?”
“Her voice was both soft and civil.  It was the sweetness of it that pierced me.  … ‘You preached today,’ she said, and I thought of our past conversation.  ‘God was in this place,’ she said, keeping my hand in hers.  I almost smiled for pride at the compliment.  But Miz Lil said, ‘He was not smiling.’  Neither was she.  Nor would she let me go.
… ‘Her grandma’s name was Alice Jackson,’ Miz Lil said, staring steadily at me.  ‘Come up from Kentucky and went to school with me, poor Alice did.  She raised her babies, then she had to raise grandbabies too.  She did the best she could by them.  But a body can only do so much.  Pastor,’ said Miz Lil, ‘when you talk about skinny Marie, you think of her grandma.  You think of Alice Jackson by name.  You think to yourself, she died of tiredness – and then you won’t be able to talk except in pity.’”
            Wangerin’s story is a warning to preachers.  It is tempting to thunder against the dark, hoping that lightning will give a moment of clear vision where there is no daylight.  But those bolts do not belong in anyone’s hands but the Lord’s.  What human being would even be certain to aim them at the right target?  Who would not end up sending one straight through their own heart?  But
“God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but that through him, the world might be saved.” [John 3:17]
It is a warning to all Christians, because in good faith and in truth we may want to follow God’s will, and want to see others do the same.   Only, where do we see God’s will if not in Jesus?  It cost Jesus more than we will ever comprehend to follow through on his mission.  It cost far more than any of us could ever give.  We get a glimpse of it when more is asked of us than we are ready for, especially if it is asked of us again and again and again, and we are ready sometimes to “die of tiredness”.  Even if we do, it is not the whole story.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” [John 3:16]
Until then, God grant us all grace to look beyond ourselves and to see people in such a way that we won’t be able to talk except in pity – or to act except in mercy and in love.

[1] Walter Wangerin, Jr., “Miz Lil” in Miz Lil & the Chronicles of Grace (New York: Harper & Row, 1988).  Quotations here occur from pages 44-48.
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