14 Pentecost C
September 11, 2022
I wish I could have a tranquil faith. I wish I could never stray from the safe path. I wish I could always jump in the right direction. Alas, that’s not me – never has been. When it comes to following Jesus, I’m a lot like the lamb in this video.
Some of that travail is years in the past. But it’s no less painful or powerful. So, when God reached out in Jesus to find me and bring me back, I thought it was a joke. When I heard the voice of God telling me to go to seminary, I was sure God had the wrong number. When the Holy Spirit blessed me with a call into ministry, I was positive that someone would figure out pretty quickly just how much of an imposter I was in this God and grace business.
Yet, the joke was on me.
That’s why I connect so personally to our gospel reading. Jesus will eat with anyone. Prior to Luke 15, Jesus has eaten with Pharisees at least three times. These meals erupt in controversy, but that doesn’t mean the meals were failures. That’s just what happens when you get some teachers together to debate the finer points of the Torah.
Jesus will eat with anyone, regardless of theological, social, or political inclination. That’s worth noting in a time when we tend to gather more and more only with people who look, think, talk, and behave like us. Then, as now, eating with anyone and everyone is a countercultural activity.
Jesus also accepts dinner invitations from the “wrong” kinds of people. He parties with the poor and the rich, the reviled and the respectable. It’s not bad enough that he sits down at the table with the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. He’s having a good old time with traitors and collaborators, with those who play fast and loose with their religion and probably fast and loose with a lot of other rules as well.
Why does Jesus welcome sinners and eat with them? Maybe it’s because, as Billy Joel noted, “the sinners are much more fun.” But I think it’s also because when there’s a chance to throw someone a lifeline, Jesus is going to do it. If Jesus finds someone who’s lost, Jesus is going to move heaven and earth to find them.
That message saves lives. I was privileged to be part of a congregational prison ministry called the FEAST. Part of that ministry was and is a Sunday meal together including inmates from the community corrections center, members of the congregation, and other volunteers, family, and friends.
I remember a FEAST partner (we call our inmate friends “partners” in that ministry) who was sure there was a catch to all of this. Nobody in their right mind would do this for free, he thought. “What do you people really want from me?” he asked. “We’d like to know how you want your burger cooked,” one of the volunteers replied.
We hoped our time together might change all of us for the better. But that wasn’t a condition for being together. Over time, my friend began to soften a bit. He was less defensive and paranoid. His shoulders relaxed. He even smiled a few times. After a few months, he came to me with a broad grin. “I’ve figured it out,” he told me. “I know what you people want.”
“Well, tell me,” I said, “what is it that ‘we people’ want?” He laughed as he spoke. “You don’t want anything. You just give yourselves and your time and your love for free. It’s the craziest thing I’ve ever seen. I didn’t think such a thing was possible. But do you know what really gets me?” he asked. “No,” I said, “I have no idea. Tell me.”
“All of a sudden, for the first time in my life, I don’t want anything either. Because,” he took a deep breath, “I know that God wants to give me everything.”
If I hadn’t been there myself, I wouldn’t have believed it. Yet, nearly twenty years later, that conversation rings in my mind as clearly as the Sunday we had it. It didn’t work that way every time. Some never got over their suspicion. Some took what they could get and left. But many more had precisely the same experience. After a lifetime of judgment and punishment, grace changed their hearts and their lives.
The story may sound like a cheesy exercise in self-congratulation. I apologize if that’s what you get. What I know is that those of us who appeared to be on the “giving” end of the deal were (and are) the ones who benefitted the most. I’m not sure I’ve ever had a greater privilege than to watch week in and week out as living, breathing human beings were transformed by the power of God’s grace in Christ. That grace was embodied in meals, friendship, acceptance, and love.
I still get chills when I remember this experience.
Why does Jesus welcome sinners and eat with them? The sinners are more fun. I suspect there really is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over the ninety-nine righteous who need no repentance. The challenge to the ninety-nine is to accept the joy when such a transformation happens.
This works out different ways in different settings. But the challenge of the Good News is there for all of us. In the last few weeks, Jesus has made it clear that he offers real freedom to those who fully follow him. When we receive and accept that invitation, can we take joy in offering that freedom to others?
If we reflect the image and likeness of God in our lives and conduct, we Jesus followers won’t be satisfied while any sheep and coins are still lost. Part of our calling is to understand that we are incomplete, that we are lost as long as we settle for flocks made up only of people like us.
God won’t settle for a partial victory. God is not content with finding most of the family, but not all. If we are thinking practically, we know that the sheep-owner should have settled for the ninety-nine lambs who stayed home. If we are thinking practically, we know that the woman should not have turned her house upside down for a coin that either would turn up on its own or could be replaced.
But today we meet the impractical God. Today we meet the God who will not stop looking until all have been found, reclaimed, returned, and restored. When God finds us in Jesus, will we join the search for the others? God wants all of us, and God wants us all. Let’s pray…