Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to [Jesus.]
And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
So he told them this parable:“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
Pastor Marc's sermon on the 14th Sunday after Pentecost (September 15, 2019) on Luke 15:1-10. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below.
We’re already in week 2 of the NFL Football season and I - like many of you - have already declared this year a rebuilding one. I had the privilege last week of watching my beloved Denver Broncos loss and so I’m settling in for a long season. The feeling of being hopeful - but not really - isn’t unfamiliar to the fans of many different teams. Yet my poor expectations for the Broncos does mean I’m going to often see them commit one of my favorite unintentional offensive plays. The play I’m think of typically takes place in the second or third quarter, right when I feel like they’re gaining some momentum. After moving the ball down the field, I let myself believe that they might score some points. Even though I know I should know better, I still let a little smidigin of hope bubble up and I think they might actually turn the game around. The teams line up. The ball is snapped. The quarterback drops back and the defense closes in. Then, either through the skill of the opposing players or some bizarre twist of fate - the quarterback fumbles the ball. But it’s not just any kind of fumble. No, it’s the one where no one, at first, has any idea where the ball went. No one has any clue where the ball is but everyone is desperate to find it. They look this way and that until, at the exact same moment, everyone sees the ball. What once was lost has now been found - and it’s a free-for-all to try and grab it. Sometimes the outcome of such a play is good for us. But most of the time, it’s not. In that moment, our expectations were undone, to be replaced by a reality that we should have trusted as there all along.
Today’s text from the gospel according to Luke begins on Jesus’ field. Pharisees and scribes, the religious authorities and the people who we’d expect to know God well, described Jesus as “welcoming sinners.” And that gives us a sense about what Jesus was doing. The Greek word we translate as “welcome,” also means “hosting.” Jesus wasn’t just inviting people to watch his first century version of a TED talk. He was also hosting meals. Jesus was throwing dinner parties and all sorts of people showed up. Pharisees and scribes came but also tax collectors and sinners. Those who believed they were “right with the Lord” found themselves sitting next to the “wrong” kind of people and were feeling uncomfortable. It’s important to realize that Luke, in this passage, wasn’t using the word “sinners” to mean “everyone” since we all truly live lives that fail to love God and neighbors as much as we focus on ourselves. No, Luke meant sinners - the people, if they sat next to us, we would try to move away from. I’m sure there are many times when we’ve found ourselves shifting, shuffling, and scooting away just like the scribes were. But there might be other times when we, as we sat down at a table, noticed everyone shrinking away from us. The people coming to Jesus’ table included people everyone we might try to separate ourselves from. Because Jesus’ guestlist was big - with the righteous, holy, religious - and even people we wouldn’t want to eat dinner with at all.
So the grumbling at Jesus’ dinner party began and I imagine that made everyone uncomfortable. Jesus could have tried to weave and dance inside that pocket of tension for awhile. But at some point, he had to address it. And so he did - because his ministry involved telling the truth and not letting the uncomfortable thing be left unsaid. He chose to tell this truth in the form of three short stories - three parables - two of which we heard today. Each parable started with something being lost; that lost thing then being found; and each one ended with a gathering of friends and neighbors and a call to celebrate and rejoice. The rejoicing at the end of these parables was more involved that, say, updating your status on Facebook and waiting for the likes and congratulations balloons to roll in. The gathering Jesus described in his stories were always a party - a feast - where the entire community showed up. Jesus, while in the middle of hosting a dinner party, made sure that each of his parables ended with a dinner party of their own. And those parties were filled with neighbors and friends who didn’t grumble over the guest list. Instead, they shouted with joy because what was lost had now been found. That joy was why they were gathered together in the first place. And everyone - all neighbors, friends, and the entire community, were invited to sit together at the same table and eat.
When we start by looking at who’s at the table rather than the reason for the table in the first place, we end up fumbling and losing sight of Jesus. The people Jesus gathered together at his table were not, first and foremost, defined by what they’ve done. He chose to see them as beloved children of God he knew they were. His relationship to us and to the world - starts there. All our “stuff,” our histories and our experiences do not limit his love. That doesn’t mean, however, that Jesus chooses to ignore our sin - those innumerable ways we fail to love God and each other. He is always aware of the many different ways we try to define and control the various guest lists in our communities. He’s watched us shift away from those around us and how we’ve let our feelings of “being uncomfortable” define what we fear. He’s seen the work we’ve done to decide who belongs and who doesn’t in our neighborhoods. Jesus knows all of that sin and yet He doesn’t let our sin limit his interactions with all of us. He chooses to make grace, mercy, and love be at the heart of who he is so that even the people we shrink away from will know that they mean everything to God. In Christ, we are given a host that does not try to restrict who is welcomed at his table. Instead, he always chooses to expand it [which we will see shortly as Abigail, Elizabeth, Oliver, and Will embrace the seat at Jesus’ table that has already been set up for them.] Every time we try to deny a seat to someone at Jesus’ table, he chooses to pick them up, making a turnover out of our sin. Because the center of his relationship to all of us is defined by the meal he serves - a meal where he gives us everything, including his body, his blood, and his blessing. Jesus does not hold back his welcome and we, I believe, are called to do the same. Jesus’ table is not here to only include those people who make us feel comfortable. Jesus’ table also includes those who make us shift about in our seat. Yet all of us are invited to be His guest at His table. And it’s there when we are fed and fully seen. God sees us exactly as we are - including all the times we fail to make a play in the game that is our life. Yet at His table, you are welcomed. And the seat he has for you is one he will never fumble away.
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