September 12, 2010
Cloverdale Church of the Brethren
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3So he told them this parable: 4“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? 5When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6And 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.’ 7Just 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. 8“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? 9When 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.’ 10Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
In BVS circles, we’re pretty fond of saying that doing a year of Brethren Volunteer Service will RUIN YOUR LIFE. I don’t know, did anyone here this morning do BVS (or CPS, before BVS existed)? Y’all might know what I’m talking about. Maybe your lives got ruined, too.
It’s a pretty rough thing to say, and kind of a rough job to have, to be in the business of ruining lives. But it’s undeniable that this is what we do. We lure people in, convince them to leave their homes and their families, give up whatever money they have and become poor, and force them to spend time with people that they don’t know, don’t like, and maybe - probably - are even a little bit scared of. Why in the world would anyone want to do this?
Well, we do it, BVSers do it, and the Church of the Brethren does it, because we sincerely believe that ruining our lives this way is exactly what Jesus told us to do. So, we try. It doesn’t always work, it isn’t always fun, and it certainly isn’t comfortable or easy. But Jesus promises us that this is the way toward life in his Kingdom, that this is the way we are transformed and participate in the transformation of our world. And he also promises us a giant party.
In the text for today, Jesus is trying to teach the people around him that they need to ruin their lives in order to live them fully. But the people just aren’t quite getting it. Jesus has been on the road for a while - he’s headed from Samaria to Jerusalem, and the way Luke tells the story, there’s a group of people around every bend in the road just waiting for Jesus to come and teach them, or eat with them, or answer their questions about the Kingdom that he keeps talking about.
One group that’s especially concerned with him are the Pharisees - these are the good and faithful people of the synagogue, the ones concerned with keeping the laws and making sure that their villages are safe places for their families, for their communities. The Pharisees aren’t bad guys. If we lifted these stories out of their context and plopped them down here, today, the Pharisees would probably be cast as the deacons of the church, or even those families who never miss a Sunday at church, who hang out with church people every night of the week, who take extra care to represent their faith and their church well in public. In other words, the Pharisees today would probably be a lot like...us.
So, Jesus has been hanging out with the Pharisees for a few days, eating in their homes and answering their questions, and trying to calm their fears. Because they’re pretty afraid of a lot of the things Jesus is saying. He’s asking them to ruin their lives, and they are just NOT comfortable with that. When he ate in their homes, he got sort of uppity and suggested that people were sitting in the wrong places - the most revered people got to sit at the head of the table, always, but Jesus had the nerve - as a GUEST! - to tell them that they should sit at the lowest place instead, and wait to be invited up. Then, when he was teaching in the streets, he told the people of the town that in order to be good Jews, they had to LEAVE their FAMILIES and ABANDON all their PROPERTY! Imagine that. Good Jews didn’t abandon their families or their responsibilities! They didn’t give up all that they had worked hard for - they respected their elders and took good care of the property that had been handed down to them! This Jesus character was getting seriously troublesome.
And so, when they found him passing up more dinner invites from the rich and powerful and IMPORTANT people in town, they wondered where he’d gone. When they found out that he’d been eating with SINNERS, outcasts, riff-raff, unmentionables, I imagine the Pharisees were honestly confounded. This was just not the way their world worked. If you were lucky enough to be a guest in the homes of the religious leaders, you certainly didn’t need to make your way back down to the slums in town, put yourself in danger of losing both your head and your reputation. Eating with sinners, man, this guy had some serious issues. They’d invited him in, given him access to everything anyone could have wanted: power, prestige, good friends, security. But that wasn’t enough, apparently. This guy had to keep on stirring up trouble.
So, as the sinners and the tax collectors - those annoying creatures from the bottom of the social ladder, the ones no one wanted anything to do with, the ones people refused to look at when they passed on the street - when THESE people started hanging around Jesus, the Pharisees stopped being confused and started getting angry.
“Look,” they said, “this man EATS with SINNERS!” What they meant was not that Jesus was hanging out with people who had committed some bad act. They weren’t saying that these people were people who had made mistakes or even people who were known felons. What they were saying was, Jesus is hanging out with people who ARE NOT WORTHY, who aren’t REAL JEWS, who are riff-raff, who don’t even deserve recognition from a normal citizen, much less this guy who’s gained so much fame here. What they were saying was, WE are BETTER than THEM. WE deserve JESUS, certainly, but THEY do not. WE’RE the ones who’ve been faithful, who’ve lived good lives, who have been in synagogue and obeyed the rules and focused on our families and protected our land. We are the responsible ones! We should be the ones that Jesus has come to save.
But that is not what Jesus says. When the Pharisees confront him, complaining that he left their tables to eat with these unworthy people, Jesus tells these stories of being lost and being found. When a man loses one of his 100 sheep, he goes and searches for it. When a woman loses one of her ten silver coins, she goes looking for it. They don’t sit comfortably with the ones they know they have, they go off in search of the one they have lost. And, he says, when they find what has been lost, they call everyone to come and rejoice with them, to come and join in the party. Like most of Jesus’ parables, this one doesn’t really make immediate sense. Can you imagine being one of those Pharisees, getting so upset and so angry and so disappointed with Jesus and hearing him offer THIS in explanation? It would have struck me dumb, I think. Actually, it does strike me dumb, I know.
I don’t think that Jesus was just brushing off the Pharisees. I don’t think that he was telling them that it was only the sinners who were worthy of him, or that he would never ever come eat at their tables again. I don’t think Jesus was choosing one of these groups over the other. He did, after all, accept their dinner invitations, spend hours eating and talking with them, acknowledging their intelligence and their faithfulness to the synagogue. He even patiently heard their disappointment and gave them answers to their complaints. But what Jesus did do was refuse to hang out ONLY with the people in power, with the people whose dinner spread would be the fanciest, with the people whose ways and culture and customs he knew and understood. Instead, Jesus insisted on going out into the city and eating with the people who were lost to society, who no one paid any attention to. Instead of accepting that he could live comfortably with the Pharisees, revered for his goodness as savior and perpetually full from their banquets, he went over to the other side of town.
And, moreover, Jesus said that the other side of town was where the party was going to be. In verse 7, he assures the Pharisees - and us - that “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” In a new translation, the Common English Bible, this idea gets put this way: “joy breaks out in the presence of God’s angels over one sinner who changes both heart and life.” JOY BREAKS OUT!
Jesus isn’t telling the Pharisees that they’re not welcome in the Kingdom, he’s not telling them that he won’t ever eat with them again. He’s just giving them directions to the party. “Look,” he says, “y’all are fine. You’re good and responsible and your food is tasty. But the real party is over on the other side of town, where sheep and money are getting found and celebrated, where people are changing their hearts and their lives. Come on over and REJOICE with us!”
But this is hard for the Pharisees, and it is hard for us. We don’t exactly know how to rejoice with those who rejoice - we’re often too stuck on our own misfortunes or jealousy, and we’re often too full or distracted to notice when something needs to be celebrated. We have a LOT of sheep, and a LOT of silver coins and so when we find one more, even if it was ours to begin with, we don’t know how to properly celebrate its return. But for the sinners, the poor, the ones whose supply of food and sheep and money is pretty sparse to begin with, celebration is the natural response to the lost being found.
The problem, for many of us, is that we are too much like the Pharisees, caught up in how things SHOULD be, intent on being GOOD and RESPONSIBLE, insistent that everyone follow the rules just so...too much like the Pharisees to recognize that we are actually much more like the sinners that Jesus was eating with. On top of that, we don’t actually have a lot of contact with the people across town. Shane Claiborne, author and activist and prophet, once did an informal survey of “people who said they were "strong followers of Jesus." Over 80 percent agreed with the statement, "Jesus spent much time with the poor." Yet only 1 percent said that they themselves spent time with the poor. We believe we are following the God of the poor — yet we never truly encounter the poor. “
I have to tell you that encountering the poor, purposefully taking myself over to the other side of town is hard for me. I’ve worked in prisons and with refugees, served in soup kitchens and in hospitals full of broken people, but it isn’t something I’m able to do well - it’s uncomfortable and scary and I don’t like getting out of my comfort zone. But at the same time, when I’m in these places I can begin to see - just the faintest glimmer - of what Jesus was trying to say.
A couple of weeks ago, I was reveling in the beauty and awesomeness of this place that I get to live. I hiked up to gorgeous waterfalls, ate unbelievably delicious southern cooking, stumbled across some amazing bluegrass music being played right in my neighborhood, and generally felt really, really gratified that this was the place that I got to call home. What a blessing to live amongst such rich beauty, such plenty. I was feeling really privileged, really satisfied that I had lived my life in such a way as to be able to come back to this place and enjoy all its benefits.
At the end of that week, while I was still flying high from all the things I’d been lucky enough to do and see and eat over the last few days, there was a knock at my back door. I live in Salem, next door to a church, and people don’t often come knocking at my door. I answered the knock, and the woman standing there breathed out a cloud of alcoholic sighs and told me she was looking for someone to pray with. She’d knocked at the door of the church next door, but whoever had answered the door had told her that she couldn’t pray there, that she needed to go away. A friend and I had just made some lunch, so we invited the woman in to share some. As we ate and talked, I learned that the woman’s name was Linda. She’d come from Bluefield, West Virginia, where her trailer had recently burned down. Without any family there, she’d managed to find her way to Roanoke, where her husband had been hospitalized in the VA for several long months. She had no money, no food, no family, no place to stay, and - in her drunken state - no idea where in the world she was. As my friend and I drove Linda back across town to the shelter where she’d been staying, I told Linda that I was actually kind of a pastor, and that we could pray if we wanted. “Naw, I know you can’t be a pastor,” she exclaimed in her heavy West Virginia accent, “you’re a woman! And you’re wearin’ shorts! Besides, I need an altar to pray. I gotta find an altar. And a preacher.” I assured Linda that women really COULD be pastors, and that God hears prayers whether you’re in front of an altar or sitting on the curb, but I’m not sure she believed me on either count.
We dropped Linda off at RAM House, where she called a friend and found a bed for the night. None of her problems were solved. She still had no money, no home, and no idea where to go from where she was. This story doesn’t have a good ending to it. I don’t know what happened to Linda, where she is or what she’s doing. But I do know that when she showed up, drunk, homeless, and very, very lost, I was powerfully reminded of how lost I am, too. Despite all the beauty and comfort and at-home-ness I’d felt privileged enough to experience here in this place, despite the certainty that this was where I belonged, that this was where I was supposed to be, Linda reminded me that I was not actually hanging out where the party was going on. I had been sitting back, comfortably enjoying the people and places and foods that I knew and loved; expecting everything to be okay, but completely ignoring the fact that right across town - no, right outside my back door - people were lost and hurting and broken. People were getting doors - church doors - slammed in their faces when all they wanted to do was pray, to admit their lost-ness and ask to be found. I’d been ignoring so much of the brokenness around me that I was, in a way, just as lost as Linda.
Of course, that’s the real, hard truth that we only recognize when we do encounter people who are honest about it: in the end, we are all lost. We are all outcasts, longing to be included; we are all sinners in need of redemption for our hearts and for our lives; we are all lost and need desperately to be found.
And this realization - if we act on it, if we head across town and hang out with Jesus and the other lost people - it ruins our lives. We can’t go back to comfort and security and rule-following, because we know what it is to be honest about our lost-ness and join in the great celebration of our found-ness. Earlier in Luke, Jesus declares “all who want to save their lives will lose them, but all who lose their lives because of me will save them.”
Lose your life in order to save it; ruin your life in order to live it fully. It doesn’t make any sense at all. It goes against what we’ve been taught, maybe even against what we’ve been teaching. But that’s how Jesus works. He gets up from the Pharisees’ table, the table of sense and logic and custom, and walks across town to find the lost ones, the honest ones, the ones who get to celebrate and be a part of the joy that breaks out when the lost are found, when hearts and lives are transformed.
I don’t know about you, but I want very much to have the courage and the honesty to get up and follow Jesus out the door.
May the God who promises to find all that are lost grant us the guts and the imagination to do just that.