Years ago a group of us from the church were heading to the Corner Bar for a meeting. I felt somewhat self-conscious about appearances: So this is the church that does its business in a bar! What would people think? But as we approached the building a group of folks from our sister church on Bostwick Lake were laughing as they were leaving the establishment. They had clearly hashed out congregational issues in our local tavern. Inside Father Tom was holding court around a large table with some of his parishioners. Whatever sense I had of impropriety quickly disappeared as we colleagues greeted each other warmly and settled in to do our ecclesial business.
As I read the story from Luke 15 I picture Jesus sitting in the Corner Bar with a slew of folks who were more hungry for his teaching than for a chili dog! It’s a ragtag crew who are on the bottom rung of the social ladder. In this chapter of Luke we have the religious bigwigs watching in on what Jesus is doing. This time He is offering radical hospitality, welcoming those who NEVER get the honor of meeting traveling celebrities, let alone sitting at table with Him as honored guests. They are delighted but the scribes and Pharisees are appalled. Their reaction to this table fellowship is to grumble. Why would the great and powerful Jesus seek out these losers? They sensed that they were being replaced! Anyone who knew how to run a campaign understood that they were the folks to invite to a banquet. But Jesus sat at the local pub eating guacamole and chicken wings with the least and the lost.
A beautiful message from this scene is that we are lost to someone who is actively seeking us out.
Many times those in power don’t want the peasants in their fiefdom to find redemption. There’s a certain social order that has been in place for ages: folks of varied economic strata sit atop each other in a community and those on the bottom know to stay there. The high and mighty need to be needed and offering the lowly a chance to climb out of poverty, sin, and dependency throws off this order. In verse one it states that the tax collectors and sinners were “hearing” Jesus. This implies an element of repentance and conversion to a new and more holy way of life. This was threatening to the leaders for whom the status quo was advantageous. Luke is the advocate for social justice and in this part of his Gospel the parables are about a radical hospitality that seeks to forgive and restore.
Sometimes we step in to save people from their plight. But we don’t really want to socialize with them. We like it when they still rely on us and love it when they thank us. Our “saving”, particularly in the Church, can stem from judgmental attitudes expressed as pity. Jesus saves them by teaching them of a new way of life and sits at table with them. Eating a meal with someone requires trust. It necessitates an effort at two-way conversation. To welcome someone offers intimacy whereas saving a soul can preserve a distance between us. Do we seek to save or welcome the lost among us?
When have you searched for something—like turned the house upside down—and found it? I remember when we were getting ready to go on a long-awaited summer vacation. We had about $600 in cash set aside in an envelope that was going to help fund our road trip. I couldn’t find it. I looked everywhere. We were leaving on a Thursday and it was Tuesday night. I couldn’t think of another place that I hadn’t already examined. On Tuesday night we take our trash can down the driveway to be picked up first thing Wednesday morning. I took my son out with me to the garage and said we needed to comb through the trash before putting it on the curb. I didn’t dare assume that it wasn’t in there, thus sending our vacation money to a landfill. He was less than enthused about the task but we dug together. This is when we had four children at home and our trash bin was full each week. So we went through plastic bags of garbage, napkins, stinky cat food cans and yucky things you forget are in your trash until you have to dig through it! About four kitchen trash bags down, layered with other cast off pieces of mail, I found the envelope. It had goop on the outside of it but inside were the clean bills ready to fund our time away. I grabbed on to my startled son and held the envelope out before him. I’m not sure he had fully appreciated the loss until he saw hundred dollar bills emerge from a trashed envelope. He still remembers that moment we shared when the lost was found, our seeking paid off, and we threw a joyful party in the humble setting of our garage! When have you searched diligently for something of great value and found it?
In these two parables we are reminded that we are the lost items: the coin that held the value of a day’s wage or the sheep, 1% of the shepherd’s flock? It might appear that we play a passive role in this story, hiding out in a dusty corner unable to change our own destiny. But there is something required of the lost: they have to be willing to be found. Like the four crewmen trapped in the enormous capsized ship this past week off the coast of Georgia, we have to be tapping on the metal sides of our confined quarters so that the rescuers are given a hint of where to find us.
Scott Bader-Saye writes, “What is it to ‘lose faith’ but to lose the conviction that one has been found, to begin to wonder whether one is sought at all—whether there is in fact a shepherd or a peasant woman tracking us down? To those whose lost object is faith itself, these parables whisper that losing faith—that is, becoming like the tax collector and sinner rather than the Pharisee and scribe—is to have wandered into the place where one can be found.” (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 4, edited by David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, page 72)
Early in my ministry I knew a pastor who had five sons: four were ordained pastors and the fifth was homeless. He struggled with mental illness and never wished to receive medical care for his condition. His family sought him out to take him to doctor appointments, even to put him in an institution where he would be well cared for. He didn’t want this. His life on the street and sleeping in shelters on cold nights was acceptable to him. When his father died he wandered into the funeral because word had somehow reached him, arriving late and leaving early. Afterwards he drifted back to the places where he felt he belonged. His mother lived a long life and died still broken-hearted that she could not rescue this son who he never saw himself as lost.
To lose our faith is to wander into a place where we can finally be found. When we are certain of ourselves and have pat answers to all our theological questions, we are more lost than the tax collectors and sinners. Our sin is that we have forgotten that we all are lost and that someone is actively seeking us out. The Scribes and Pharisees were the religious insiders and they had no concept that they, as they stood on the periphery of the crowd casting aspersions on Jesus’ ministry, needed to repent in order to be found. Who are the outcasts in our world? Do we take time out of our busy schedules to assist them knowing that there may not be a word of thanks and that their plight may not improve significantly? When did your investment in someone outside your usual circle of friends turn out to be pivotal to your life’s path? There’s a bumper sticker that says, “MY RESCUE DOG RESCUED ME.” When have you reached out a helping hand to a stranger and discovered that you were the one in need of saving?
Penny Nixon shared a story in her reflection on this text: “Religious insiders can still be easily threatened in the sharing of a meal. Many churches put conditions on the Communion table. In fact, in one church people wearing rainbow sashes, indicating their solidarity with LGBT people, were refused Communion. A person who was offered Communion took his wafer and began to break it into pieces to share it with those who had been denied and deemed unworthy. The church officials, the religious insiders, called the police. How do we react when our nearness is threatened?” (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 4 edited by David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, page 71)
What attitudes and secret prejudices need to be swept out of the dark and dusty corners of our hearts? Sometimes we surprise ourselves when we react to a situation and realize that our self-righteousness has blinded us to the needs of others. We have compromised their humanity in order to hang on to our narrow world view. Do we confess when this happens—because, if we’re honest, it happens to all of us at some point or another? Or do we push it back out of view, unexamined, justified, defended?
Is there a time you were found when you hadn’t realized that you were lost? Did the disciples know they were lost before Jesus showed up on their turf and said, “Follow Me”? Was it only after the divorce that you realized how defeated you were, how your self-worth was in tatters and you had lost sight of your identity? Was it only after you started the new job, one that used your gifts and affirmed your talents, that you were able to recognize that the workplace from which you were fired was toxic? You had hung on to a position that had sapped your strength and left you questioning your worth. When were you found when you had no idea that you were lost?
The next parable in this part of Luke’s Gospel is that of the prodigal son. He parties till the cows come home, until the cash runs out and the job he has to take is grueling. The absence of the family he rejected weighs upon his heart. The pivotal moment for him is described in this way: “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger.” (Luke 15:17)
Is there a moment when you “came to yourself”, repenting of your sin and scanning the horizon for a Father who was exhausted, searching for you?
These lost-and-found stories end with rejoicing. There is a party that is thrown for the community members to join in on the celebration that the object so earnestly pursued was found. How would you shape a rejoicing party? Who does it include? It’s interesting that God is portrayed as a woman in the parable of the lost coin. There is no other parable that presents the image of a woman for God. Remember the furor over the imagery used for God in the book, The Shack? God was portrayed as a jubilant dark-skinned woman cooking up comfort food in an aromatic kitchen. The Holy Spirit was depicted as a wisp of an Asian woman who appeared and disappeared at will, a sort of Holy Tinkerbell. The picture painted of Jesus was akin to a mountain man wearing Eddie Bauer flannel while chopping down trees in a Montana forest. Jesus is all-inclusive in these parables, making a man the savior in one parable and a woman the protagonist in the other. The male and female qualities of God are celebrated in this chapter of Luke’s Gospel that points the lost toward the Finder.
There are those with narrow boundaries who don’t wish to be challenged. Living in a world with safe parameters offers a sense of familiarity and “rightness” to which we cling. The Pharisees didn’t want redemption for the folks they determined beneath them on the social ladder. There was no joy among the religious celebrities watching the joyful interaction of lowly folks sitting with Jesus at the Corner Bar table next to theirs. They ground their teeth and the chili dogs churned in their stomachs as they agreed with one another, “We don’t party with folks like that!”
The good news/bad news of these parables is that Christ’s party will happen whether we like it or not! We can choose joy—or grumble—at this act of radical hospitality. The choice is ours. But the party is happening! Among us. Now. And we are invited! Amen.