Friday of Lent 5
Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry in order somehow to make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them. For if their rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead? If the dough offered as firstfruits is holy, so is the whole lump, and if the root is holy, so are the branches.
But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree, do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you. Then you will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off. And even they, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again. For if you were cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, the natural branches, be grafted back into their own olive tree.
John, Player, Coach, and Flawed Searcher
John was not a churchgoer. He was one of those men, who are so important and vital in the lives of many, and yet have a hard time walking in the doors of God’s house. In what Flannery O’Connor called “the Christ-haunted South,” lines are drawn early between saints and sinners, between the brethren and the backsliders. Once you get pigeon-holed into one of those categories, it’s awfully difficult to see things differently.
My father’s paternal grandfather was a lay Baptist preacher, who died of “creeping palsy” at the age of 54. My father never knew him, but he saw the man’s influence upon his own father, four uncles, one aunt, and his widowed grandma. One uncle was a drunk. One was a practical joker. One was going places. The other was a striver after holiness. His aunt was love personified. His grandma struggled to make it and finally remarried later. Within just one household that lost a father and husband young, there was no monolithic path. My Grandpa Sam committed suicide.
John was an all-state football player, who went on to play both ways at Georgia Tech, where they drink their whiskey clear. He loved to coach at both the high school and college levels. He turned his teams into families, and he loved to teach the game. When we were planning John’s funeral, his family described John this way: “He was loyal, passionate, dynamic, larger than life, a good storyteller and good listener, a hero to his family, and a very simple man. But at times he was also difficult, sarcastic, intimidating, ignoring what was good for him, and becoming his own worst enemy.” Nevertheless, he treasured being a grandfather, was volunteer of the year at his grandson’s school, and regularly delivered Meals on Wheels. In short, John was a much-loved, flawed man, who was a searcher his whole life, and wanted to find his way back home to God.
If you want to be a person of integrity, and John did, you don’t ever want others to think you’re a hypocrite. I think of the time my Dad’s Baptist preacher was having some work done in the kitchen. The carpenter showed up and went to work while no one was in the room. Suddenly, the pastor’s wife rushed in and said, “You didn’t look in that cabinet over there. Did you?” The carpenter said, “Yes, ma’am. That’s one of the ones that needs fixing.” She said, “Well, then, I guess you saw my husband’s cold medicine.” The carpenter admitted he had seen that bottle of whiskey.
When you’re from such a culture, and that was common in most southern towns well into the 1980s, it’s hard to imagine that’s not what it means to belong to a church. A Dallas vice cop that was married to a parishioner in my first congregation told me he couldn’t be a regular churchgoer, because he had busted too many small town preachers for soliciting prostitutes. We had a talk about bad cops and bad preachers after that.
John was a searcher, one of those men with what Augustine described as a God-shaped hole in the soul. Because of sin, we all have that empty place that only God can fill. Some of us spend a whole lot of years trying to fill it with something else before we find it was God we always needed.
One of our most important responsibilities as children of God is to be honest, especially with men like John, that we are all empty-handed sinners in need of God’s grace and mercy in Jesus Christ. If they think there’s a bouncer at the door of God’s house, it’s not likely they will ever show up.
Dear Father, thank you for John and all the men who struggle on their way home to you. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Put thirty-eight pennies, nickels, or dimes in a bowl or box today to help to provide food for the local food bank to share with the poor.
Pastor Samuel D. Zumwalt, STS
St Matthew's Evangelical Lutheran Church
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Text Edition: 2016. Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.