February 17, 2019
Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 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 people 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.”
Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.”
“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’ ”
A few Wednesday’s ago, our Faith of Your Own Book Study topic was the images and understandings of Jesus in Scripture, throughout Church History, and a handful of contemporary theologies. It was the majority of my seminary and religious education distilled into one hour long lecture. After I finished, the room responded with various interpretations of “Phew! How many academic credits was that?” The lecture was the results of a sizable amount of student debt, and over eight years of study, and a good sized library of theology, biblical studies, and training in community organizing.
I’m not going to delve into the full depths of our traditions about Jesus this morning, but instead, I want to lift up one image, one interpretation, and one understanding of the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus, the Christ, that I think has particular power and potential for our community.
I’ve understood Jesus in many different ways throughout my life, from the lessons I learned in Sunday School, to sermons I’ve heard from some of the most talented preachers of our generation, to working among people experiencing extreme poverty and homelessness, in a city bustling with folks experiencing extreme wealth and a housing market boom, walking to work by million dollar condos being constructed. When I think about Jesus, films like “Jesus of Montreal,” “The Last Temptation of Christ,” and of course, “Jesus Christ Superstar,” all come to mind as well.
But one of the most helpful lenses for my understanding of who Jesus is to me comes from our reading this morning. We don’t often get to hear the entirety of Luke 15, but it’s probably one of the most radical, and illuminating stories we have about Jesus. We hear the story of the prodigal son all the time, but taken out of its context, we lose a key theological insight into who Jesus is.
The story begins with Jesus getting in trouble for hanging out with some pretty undesirable people. “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them, even tax collectors,” the Pharisees grumble. It can be difficult for us to realize that Jesus is kin with the Pharisees. They have a lot of the same goals, figuring out how to live together faithfully to the Living God, and how to bring about the Beloved Community that God dreams of on earth. It’s possible that Jesus counted himself as a member of their community and movement. The Pharisees get a pretty bad rap, but if we read this text considering that this is an argument going on among people in the same tradition, reading the same texts, with very similar goals, his edge falls off a bit. Jesus is trying to say to his friends and mentors, “you know, I think God’s a little bit of a different calling for us.”
You might have realized by now that I like people, all kinds of people, from politicians to folks experiencing poverty, community organizers to children and the aged. I get my energy for life, ministry, I find my joy, by being with people and hearing their stories. So when I read scripture about Jesus hanging out with folks others don’t think he should be around, I feel right at home in the pages of Scripture.
My friends, from middle school through seminary, were usually folks who were like me; a little bit of misfits. I have always enjoyed being friends with artists, drama nerds, band geeks, folks who are just a little bit outside the mainstream, because I can be all of whom I am. Growing up in Oregon, most of my friends were not part of organized religion in any way, and I kind of liked that. But it took a while for folks to fully trust me, to feel fully comfortable hanging out with a self-professed Christian. I’m pretty conventional, and I represent a tradition that hasn’t always been welcoming of outsiders. Growing up as a church kid, a literal Eagle Scout, a mamma’s boy, I often had to contend with my peers wondering if I thought I was too holy for them. Was I going to try to change how they lived their lives? As folks have gotten to know me, I would hear stories from them about their lives, about their struggles, about their spiritual journey, and as our relationships deepened and I earned trust, something would change.
So you can imagine that going to Seminary was a bit of a shock from the Pacific Northwest. I was around a lot of folks who seemed a little too “Jesus-y” and judgmental. At the end of my first year, one of my hall mates said to me “David, you and I are pretty different, but I’ve realized over this past year that you really love Jesus.” I was at SEMINARY, training to be a pastor, and it took him a year to figure out that I loved Jesus?! Really?
It was even harder when I started looking for a church internship. All seminary students are required to do a field-education placement, like Pastor Amy did here with us, or like Max last summer. And I have to tell you, I wanted to be on the margins, at a place that felt the least like a Church as possible. I wanted to do work that would change the world; I wanted to be in relationship with folks living on the streets, or queer youth, something that was hard and challenging and transformative. But the committee that was responsible for preparing me for ordination in Oregon, they had different ideas. When I described the kind of placement I was looking for, one particularly gruff member of my committee laughed, looked at me, all wild hair and a beard that was not quite as controlled as the one I’m growing now and said “Don’t you want to eat, son? No one is ever going to pay for you to do ministry like that.”
I left my first meeting with my ordination committee with a list of requirements for the kind of church I was to have a placement at. It had to be multi-generational, preferably in the suburbs, and have a population of folks who needed home visits, so that I could practice my pastoral care with the aged. Also, they wanted me to get experience teaching Sunday School, which at the time freaked me out. As a child I had always been something of a little adult, and I was worried I didn’t know how to connect with children. After my meeting with the Committee on Preparation for Ministry, I showed up at the office of field education, and sat down with my adviser, Rev. Lori Neff-LaRue. I told her how mad I was at the committee, and shared my deep sense of call to folks on the margins, and then handed her their list. “This is going to be such a boring placement!” I whined.
And she smiled, with a twinkle of mischief and wisdom in her eyes. Maybe, she suggested, everyone needed Jesus, even folks in the suburbs? And maybe, just maybe, I could be part of transformational ministry in a church just about anywhere, if I kept an eye out for Jesus showing up in the people I met.
But, she did concede, it would need to be the right kind of place. She picked up the phone, and a few hours later I was meeting Pastor Beth Scibienski at the Small World Coffee Shop in downtown Princeton. Beth flowed into the swirl of freshly roasted coffee, a shawl around her shoulders, and a guitar. She had just come from a meeting of interfaith clergy who were planning their annual Thanksgiving service. “You’re studying Islam, right? You can head this up next year.” And then she started sharing with me what was going on at her Church, about the large part of the congregation who were caretakers of spouses and family members with chronic illness, about the folks of differing abilities who felt at home in the congregation, about the youth who went to the most religiously and culturally diverse schools in the nation, with a nationally recognized Mosque working to welcome immigrants and refugees, that was just down the road from the largest statue of Buddha in North America, and a massive complex of a wide range of Hindu shrines all down the street from a smattering of progressive churches. “Plus,” she smiled, patting her guitar case, “we’ve got all these musicians. It’s a lot of fun. But David, I have to warn you, our congregation is absolutely the Church of the Uncool. I’ve heard about the other placements you were dreaming of, and this will be a totally different experience. Can you love people who are uncool? Because I got to be honest, I’ll need you to love my people.”
For so long, I had thought that I wanted to be at a Cool, edgy, hipster church, but hadn’t had words to describe that desire. Beth saw through me, and gave me language to get over myself. “You know David, Jesus is in my folks lives too. If you’ll be with them, you might just run into the Holy at work in their midst.”
The cool church kids I was hanging out with in seminary, the misfits who felt drawn to the margins, we had an idea about how people were supposed to do Church, about where Jesus could be found. If there weren’t the right number of folks with tattoos, or enough folks experiencing homelessness or getting arrested as part of political actions, if there wasn’t a band, or some edgy takes on worship, I realized we would sneer. Why would you want to be with those people?
One of my favorite readings of Luke 15 is that Jesus, God the Creator, and God the Holy Spirit, along with the Community of Faith he was trying to reform, can all be seen represented in these parables. The Eastern Church for millennia have found themselves and the Trinity in these stories, and it can be a little surprising for folks raised in the western church to encounter that interpretation of this text.
Our Eastern Siblings see The Shepherd in the first story as Jesus, going and finding the one lost sheep, and the friends and neighbors can be read as the Creator and the Holy Spirit, who rejoice. And the Church? They’re the 99 sheep, who are hanging out in a pasture somewhere, like, Hey, Jesus, where you at? It’s a reminder that sometimes God is going to be most active beyond our doors.
The woman with the coins? Again, God the Creator is the Woman, lamp is the Holy Spirit, and Jesus as the friend invited to celebrate. The Church? This time they get to be the neighbors who get to come together and celebrate.
But the most beautiful reading the Eastern tradition shares is with the parable of the Man with two sons.
We have heard this story so often, and many of us, we identify as the Prodigal Son. We have this idea that in this story we are the younger brother, that we are sinners, that we don’t do what we’re supposed to, and squander what is entrusted to us. But what I’ve learned about a lot of people, myself included, I’m much more the older brother. I’m trying to get A’s with God, and do the right thing, and I get annoyed, if I’m honest, when God is at work and rejoicing in the lives of others.
For the Eastern Church, the Father in this story is our Mothering God, and his love for his youngest Son, that love is a beautiful metaphor for the Holy Spirit. When the Father runs towards the youngest son, that’s the movement of the Holy Spirit in the world. There is no where the Son can go, that God won’t run to embrace.
The Eastern Church, and some modern western theologians, read this story understanding that Jesus is the Younger Son. They understand the Incarnation of Jesus in this way: The Creator gives Jesus his share of being divine, and let me go be with humanity, fully and unreservedly. And so Jesus comes to earth, to this distant county that is human existence, and living among us, knowing our fears, our temptations, our joys and the beauty of this life, finds himself desolate. Being among us, the powers that be, they turn on Jesus, on God with us, and he is killed by the hatred of our world. And while Jesus is far off, going to the deepest realms of human suffering and indeed fully into the realm of death, God is filled with love and runs to him. There is no where that Jesus can go away from the Holy Spirit, from the Love of the Creator, and so Jesus is raised. And on Easter Morning, God cries out “let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!”
And where is the Church in this story? Well, often, we are understood to be the annoyed older brother. We’re still not sure about how Jesus being at work in the lives and in the midst of people we’re not so sure about. Shouldn’t they have just kept to the straight and narrow, kept their head down, not made so much noise, attracted so much attention? Why are Jesus and the Spirit motivating people to struggle for liberation, to get involved in things outside of the church, in human life? Shouldn’t we just focus on heaven and spiritual things, and let the earth do its own thing? “Listen!” the older sibling, the Church screams, exasperated. “For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes; you killed the fatted calf for him!” Then the Creator says to us, to the Church, “Child, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” ’
And the story ends there. We don’t know if the Older Brother ever joins the celebration. Will the Church join in the rejoicing, or hold our grudge that God is working in the lives of people we’re not so sure about?
Pastor Beth showed me that God was active in the lives of her little church, that they embraced joining the celebration, and it was incredible. I learned people’s stories, and I realized what an annoyed older sibling I had been. I saw that Jesus was going to go to the last places folks expected and invite the Church to celebrate and rejoice at new life breaking out all among us.
Beloved, The Holy One is up to something powerful in our midst. This morning’s rally was powerful; our relationships are deepening in the Woodbourne-McCabe Neighborhood. As we prepare to train in Holy Listening this Lent, learning how to have relational meetings, and launching our first Listening Campaign, we might find ourselves wondering “Why do we want to listen to these folks? Shouldn’t we stick to doing what we’ve been doing?” But there is great rejoicing and celebration to join in, with the Trinity dancing in the midst of folks whose very community holds the keys to discovering new music to move to. Let us join the dance, join the celebration, join the in-breaking and surprising Reign of God that is in our midst.
May it be so. In the name of the one who was, and is, and evermore shall be, Amen.