Parties and Feasts

I didn’t preach this Sunday, so there’s no new sermon today. This is an old one that I preached at Congregational United Church of Christ in Whitewater, Wisconsin, on September 15, 2013, when I was working for Back Bay Mission. The scripture for this sermon is Luke 15:1-10.

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming to him… and the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling.

I know this scene. I imagine that I’ve seen it in some painting or in the pages of an illustrated Bible.

Jesus is in the middle, all white robes and trimmed beard and wavy hair… because Jesus is always in the middle, all white robes and trimmed beard and wavy hair.

There are tax collectors and sinners in robes and rags, because tax collectors and sinners are always in robes and rags. They are the outcast, the marginalized, the disregarded, the unacknowledged, the hated, the despised. And they sit near Jesus, listening with rapt attention as he speaks about the cost of discipleship and the saltiness of salt.

And there in the corner talking amongst themselves are the Pharisees, men of dark robes and long beards and gaunt faces, because the Pharisees are always men of dark robes and long beards and gaunt faces who stand in the corner and talk amongst themselves.

And they are grumbling, saying things like, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

We know this scene. It’s a scene that’s made to seep into our bones and tell us who is good and who is bad. Here is Jesus: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Here are the Pharisees: paying their tithes on mint and dill and cumin, but neglecting justice and mercy and faith. We know whose side we are supposed to be on.

But the picture is wrong. The Pharisees aren’t bad guys.

The Pharisees are concerned with a very basic question: How can the people be Jewish – distinctly Jewish – while living under the constant threat of assimilation? How can the people be Jewish when they are ruled over by Gentiles? How can the people be Jewish when they are surrounded by Greek and Roman culture? How can the people be Jewish when it would be so much easier to abandon that identity and become just another Hellenized people in a backwater province on the edge of the Roman empire?

We know this question. Christians have been asking it for a while: How can we be Christian – distinctly Christian – while living under the constant temptation of secular Western consumer culture? How can we be Christian in a world where religion that sets you apart is a private matter and public religion has no flavor? How can we be Christian when we are surrounded by the lure of privilege and power and prosperity? How can we be Christian when it is so much easier to abandon that identity and become just like everyone else?

And, like many Christians today, the Pharisees settled upon an answer: there are the rules; here are the boundaries; if the people – not just the priests and Levites, but all of the people – keep the rules and stay inside the boundaries, then no one will risk assimilation and they will remain a people.

So, when they see this rather popular man flaunting the rules and crossing the boundaries and inviting other people to do the same, they grumble. Just like a lot of Christians grumble when they see people flaunting the rules and crossing the boundaries: “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

There are grumblers today, of course: modern day Pharisees. There always have been.

I don’t know how you do communion here, but in my church and in the church I grew up in we pass the bread already broken and we pass the cup in little plastic single-serving cups. A lot of churches do this and what people don’t know is that this practice of little communion cups started in the 1890’s because some people were afraid of what it would mean to drink from the same cup as, y’know, one of those people… who might have diptheria or tuberculosis. Not that those diseases had ever been passed by a common cup.

It wasn’t just the physical disease, you see, but the moral disease… the risk of associating with those people.

We see the same thing with those churches that demand the submission of women or advocate so-called reparative therapies for people who are gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgendered. These aren’t about what’s best for the people but about making sure that the people are kept in their places and the wrong sort of people don’t get too close and, if necessary, remaking those people into people just like us. It’s about making sure that rules aren’t broken and boundaries aren’t crossed and this group remains a distinct people.

We even see it when people say that giving money or food or housing to the poor or hungry or homeless will just make them entitled and dependent, that it will rob them of their initiative and work ethic and dignity. As though being homeless isn’t hard enough work. As though not having enough to live on doesn’t rob you of your dignity.

There are a million ways we worry about rules and borders and grumble when we see Jesus: “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

And Jesus replies to this grumbling with three parables.

Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one wouldn’t leave the ninety-nine sheep in the middle of the wilderness where they can all be stolen by thieves – or eaten by wolves – and go after the one sheep that you lost? And when you find that sheep, which one of you wouldn’t call all of your friends and neighbors over for a party?

Or if a woman lost a coin worth slightly less than a day’s wages. Wouldn’t she comb over every inch of the house looking for it and, when she found it, call all of her friends and neighbors over for a party that will probably cost more than the value of the coin in the first place?

Or… Let me tell you about this guy who had two sons. One of the sons went to him and said, “Dad, I’d like to pretend you’re dead and have you give me my share of the inheritance and I’ll go have the life I want to have.” And when that went horribly wrong because the son wasn’t responsible with what he had been given, and he came home begging for mercy just like his mother said he would, that father threw a huge party that, frankly, was kind of insulting to the other son who had stayed on the farm and worked hard and never once had a party thrown for him.

I mean… who among you wouldn’t do the same thing?

The answer, I imagine, is pretty close to ‘all of us’. All of use would not do the same thing.

The sheep is gone. It’s a business loss. It’s a write off. You have to be kidding if you think I’m going to leave the rest of these sheep in danger to go after one. You have to be insane to think I’m going to celebrate finding a lost sheep.

The coin is probably under the couch. I’ll find it next time I vacuum. We will not be having a big expensive party to mark the occasion. Though, in fairness, I’m probably not going to vacuum unless I’m having people over anyway.

The kid can get a job and pay rent like a normal person.

We are not, in general, us white-bread American mainline Protestants, a people of parties and feasts. Perhaps for a birth or a birthday or a marriage or an anniversary. But not for a lost sheep or a lost coin. Possibly not even for a son who tries to return home after leaving us and acting like we don’t matter.

We are not even a people of parties and feasts when it comes to being given our daily bread or forgiven our debts or not being led into temptation or being delivered from evil.

But I think what Jesus might be suggesting to the Pharisees – to the people who grumble and worry about rules and boundaries – is that maybe we could be such a people: a people of parties and feasts.

Maybe when people speak of us they won’t say, “They are the people who pay tithes on mint and dill and cumin,” but, “They are the people who celebrate every sinner who returns to the fold!”

Maybe when people speak of us they won’t say, “They are the people who have a private table,” but, “They are the people who eat and drink with anyone!”

Maybe when people speak of us they won’t say, “They are the people who have different people in different places and demand that we be like them,” but, “They are the people who, no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, celebrate you as a beloved child of God!”

Maybe when people speak of us they won’t say, “They are the people who will offer you food when you’re hungry if you promise to get into a job training program and work to pay back your debt to them,” but, “They are the people of abundance who share everything they have without thought or concern; they will celebrate that you are eating a meal they gave you or moving into a home they built for you!”

Maybe when people speak of us they will say, “They are a people of great joy and abundant life! They are a people of parties and feasts!”
Last night you threw a party, a shrimp boil. And yes, that was a fundraiser for Back Bay Mission and we thank you profusely. What you did last night will house the homeless and feed the hungry and help people get back on their feet (of get on their feet for the first time). What you did last night will strengthen neighborhoods and seek justice and transform lives. And we thank you.

But I’d like to think it was also a celebration.

I’d like to think that we celebrated every house that has been built or rehabbed and, more importantly, every family who has found a home.

I’d like to think that we celebrated every bag of food that has been handed to the poor and to the homeless and, more importantly, every stomach that has been filled.

I’d like to think that celebrated every mission trip that has served in housing rehabilitation and the Micah Day Center and the food pantry and, more importantly, that we celebrated every person who discovered within themselves and their communities the power to change lives for the better.

I’d like to think that we celebrated every life that the Mission has touched and every life that Whitewater Congregational has touched and every life that the United Church of Christ has touched and every life that Christ has touched, which is every life.

I’d like to think that we marked ourselves as a people of feasts and parties who can say to the outcast, the marginalized, the disregarded, the unacknowledged, the hated, the despised, the weary, the broken, the proud, the righteous, the tax collectors, the sinners, the Pharisees, the scribes, the people of this whole wide world: “All you have to do to be part of this people, this community, this church, this love is show up. And we will celebrate one another.”

I’d like to think that we marked ourselves as a people about whom others will say, “They welcome sinners and eat with them.”

Because that would be good news, indeed.

Luke 1:46-55 (for Christmas)

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.

Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.

His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.

He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;

he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.

He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.

Many Beliefs, One Spirit

This sermon was delivered at Church of Peace, United Church of Christ in Rock Island, Illinois on February 26, 2017. The scripture for this sermon is Luke 12:42-53.

“Keep your lamps,” says the old gospel song, “trimmed and burning.”

Jesus has just finished a parable.

“Be like slaves waiting for their master to come home from a wedding banquet,” he said, “ready to open the door and greet him. When he comes home and finds them alert, he’ll have them sit down to eat… and he will serve them. You must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

Keep your lamps trimmed and burning. Be ready, for no one knows the house. If you died tonight, do you know where you would spend eternity?

I grew up in the United Church of Christ and, let’s face it, this isn’t the kind of question we ask. We don’t have tests of faith, we have testimonies of faith. We don’t demand adherence to ancient creeds, we respect them. We don’t have a list of beliefs, we concentrate on caring for the poor and the marginalized and the oppressed and the ignored.

The Christianity I grew up in was focused like a laser on caring for the least of these.

It wasn’t about where we would spend eternity. It was about what we were doing here and now.

So you can imagine my surprise when I got older and went to college and discovered that there were Christians with… a different perspective.
In college, I met Christians who firmly believed that you can divide the world into two groups.

On one side were the people who had accepted Jesus Christ into their hearts as their personal lord and savior… who believed the the Bible is the literal and inerrant word of God… who had very strict views on sexuality… and… and… and.

On the other side was everyone else, doomed to spend an eternity in hell.

And when those Christians met me, they made a judgment. They decided that I was a nominal Christian, a cultural Christian, a ‘fake’ Christian… destined to spend an eternity in hell.

They believed that my lamp was not trimmed and burning. They believed that when the master came home from the wedding banquet, he would find me unready.

And, to be fair, I made a pretty similar judgment about them.

Except, I don’t believe in hell. So my judgment was less consequential.

But I saw people who has tests of faith instead of testimonies of faith, who demanded adherence to ancient creeds but didn’t study them, who had a list of beliefs and ignored the poor and the marginalized and the oppressed and the ignored. And I thought they were nominal Christians, cultural Christians, ‘fake’ Christians.

I believed that their lamps were not trimmed and burning. I believed that when the master came home from the wedding banquet, he would find them unready.

We were two sides of the same coin. If Jesus had told this parable, I can only hope that we would have had the presence of mind to ask the question that Peter asked, the question that begins our reading today: “Is this parable for us, or for everyone?”

Today, we’re continuing our series on unity and diversity. And any time we talk about unity and diversity, this question comes up. Is this for us, or for everyone? Are we the people who need to hear this, or are there others? Is this about me, or is it about them?

In a world made up of many beliefs — religious, spiritual, political, cultural — this is a question that gets asked about diversity a lot: is this about something I need to do, or something they need to do?

And Jesus, as he usually does, has a parable of sorts:

“Who is this manager who the master will put in charge of the other servants to take care of them? It will be good for that manager if, when the master returns, the master finds him doing his work. That manager will be put in charge of all of the master’s possessions.

“But suppose the manager says to himself, ‘My master is taking a long time in coming,’ and he starts abusing the other servants and eating and drinking and getting drunk? The master will show up when the manager least expects it. And the master will cut that manager to pieces.

“The servant who knows the master’s will and does not do it will be beaten with many blows. But the servant who doesn’t know, and does things that deserve a beating, will be beaten lightly.”

It is, admittedly, no ‘blessed are the meek.’

But sit for a moment with the fact that Jesus is talking about a master beating his slaves and then set that aside. Because what Jesus is saying doesn’t depend on the beatings. Jesus is saying something simple: if you know what the right thing is, and you do the wrong thing, the consequences will be severe; if you don’t know what the right this is, and you do the wrong thing, the consequences will be light.

We will be judged according to our knowledge. This is about us. It’s always about us.

You may know that my wife and I watch The People’s Court. On that show, there are a lot of cases about dogs. There are cases where one dog bites another dog, or where a dog bites a person, or where a person injures a dog. Dogs are a major cause of litigation in the television court system.

And one of the points that Judge Marilyn Milian always makes is that we don’t punish dogs for being dogs. When a dog feels threatened and snaps and bites, that’s not the dog’s fault. But the person — the person who shouldn’t have had the dog leashed or muzzled or safely indoors — the person knew better. So the person can be held responsible.

We will be judged according to our knowledge. Or, as Jesus puts it, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”

And that’s dangerous.

You see, it isn’t enough for me to say that my lamp is trimmed and burning. I need to actually keep my lamp trimmed and burning. I need to take a razor and slide the carbon off the wick. I need to snip off the straggly bits of cotton. I need to clean the soot out of the vents and the glass and the gallery. I need to light it. I need to protect it.

I need to care for what has been entrusted to me.

Now, sometimes I need to care for what has been entrusted to you. Some things have been entrusted to all of us. We are all in each other’s care and no one among us has been relieved for the responsibility of caring for the hungry and the thirsty, the stranger and the naked, the sick and the imprisoned.
We are all called to love God. We are all called to love our neighbor. And, sometimes, we need to hold each other accountable.

But…

As long as your lamp is trimmed and burning, I don’t need to critique how you trim the wick. I don’t need to watch you snip off the straggly bits of cotton. I don’t need to tell you how to clean the vents and the glass and gallery.
And I don’t need to tell you what color the glass should be, or what material the gallery should be made from, or how your lamp should be shaped.
As long as your lamp is trimmed and burning — as long as you are loving God, as long as you are loving your neighbor — that’s enough.

It’s a lot. It’s too much. And it’s enough.

There is grace enough for galleries of gold and silver and clay. There is grace enough for glass that is clear or blue or red or rainbow. There is grace enough for cylinders and bulbs and vases and times when the glassblower sneezed.

The light of Christ burns just as bright in every lamp.

There is grace enough for people who have accepted Jesus Christ into their hearts as their personal lord and savior, and for people who don’t understand what that means.

There is grace enough for people who believe that the Bible is the literal and inerrant word of God, and for people who see the Bible as a collection of testimonies written over centuries and standing in need of interpretation and reinterpretation.

There is grace enough for people who want and need rules, and for people who long to be freed from rules.

The light of Christ burns just as bright in every lamp.

Even in this divided time, there is grace enough for republicans and democrats and libertarians and socialists.

Even in this divided time, there is grace enough for blue lives matter and black lives matter.

Even in this divided time, there is grace enough for you… and there is grace enough for me.

The light of Christ burns just as bright in every lamp. The light of Christ burns just as bright in every life. The light of Christ burns just as bright in every act of love… and compassion… and mercy.

And the light of Christ — the fire of the holy spirit — will light the whole world. Hallelujah. Amen.

Luke 24:6-11 (for Easter)

Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.

Luke 19:37-40 (for Palm Sunday)

As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

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