There is the “in crowd” and the “not-so-in crowd.” Most people want to be part of the in-crowd, or at least be part of a group. That circle can, however, be difficult to crack. In almost every community, from schools to churches, there are cliques; that is, tight little groups that do their best to limit access to power. Not all of these groups have secret codes or handshakes, but if you’re on the outside you usually know it. When the invitation to the party goes out, and your name isn’t on it, you know you’re not part of the in crowd. Yes, when things happen at school, the workplace, or at church, and you’re not in the loop, you quickly realize that you’re not part of the in-crowd.
It’s difficult to break down these walls, but it can happen, but not without a struggle. Several years ago a movie came out called Hairspray. It starred John Travolta as Edna Turnblad, the obese mother of an overweight but determined daughter named Tracy. Edna watched as her very talented daughter got excluded from achieving her dream of dancing on the Corny Collins Show – a kind of local American Bandstand. Although she was a good dancer, Tracy didn’t fit the image of a dancer, and so the “powers that be” tried to keep her out. Only a slip of fate let her inside the circle, but even then her detractors were merciless. Fortunately her determination and spunk make her a hit and she broke down the walls for others.
There is much to appreciate about this movie, which calls into question our stereotypes and our prejudices, but one of the most important points of this movie is that it affirms the principle that everyone, no matter what they look like or where they’ve come from, has value. Edna, Tracy, Tracy’s somewhat oblivious father Wilbur, and her friend, Seaweed, a young African American dancer, are just as valuable as Velma Von Tussle, a former Miss Baltimore who is now the station manager, or her daughter Amber, who also has all the physical attributes that society values in a star. Societal rules may exclude, but in this version of the story, no one is left behind!
1. No One’s Left Behind.
Now, it’s no fun being left behind or left standing on the outside looking in. This is especially true when you have a stigma attached, a stigma or stain that you can’t get rid of no matter how hard you try. It’s a scarlet letter that marks you as undesirable.
Jesus knew what it meant to be an outsider. He was a Galilean and he was fatherless. He was poor and he hung around with the wrong crowd. The better sort of folk didn’t appreciate his work with the other undesirables, because who you hang around with is indicative of your character. If you spend your time with the riffraff, then you must be riffraff yourself. Image, as everyone knows, means everything.
Jesus, of course, understands the world differently. Like Tracy he wasn’t afraid to identify with the lost and the ostracized, because he was committed to bringing them back inside the circle. And if the shepherd was going to do that, it meant leaving the circle and going where the lost sheep had gone. In fact, Jesus was willing to leave the ninety-nine behind to find the one that was lost. And if someone had been misplaced, like the woman’s coin, he would do whatever necessary to find them.
The message of Jesus and the message of Paul is one of reconciliation – of bringing people together with God and with one another. Jesus believed in second chances and third chances and . . . . Well you know!
The religious establishment, however, didn’t appreciate Jesus’ ministry, and they let him know about it. They grumbled about his work with sinners and tax collectors – the ones they had decided weren’t worth reclaiming.
In the course of three parables, two of which we’ve heard this morning – the third one being the parable of the Prodigal, which is quite well known – Jesus celebrates God’s dedication to bringing everyone into relationship, while leaving no one behind.
One parable concerns a lamb that wanders off and the shepherd that risks everything to find that one lamb. The other parable describes a woman who has ten coins, but loses one coin, which she finds to be so valuable that she frantically searches for it, turning the house upside-down to find it. It’s just a coin, but to her it’s invaluable.
Each of these parables – even the parable of the prodigal – ends with a party to celebrate the return of that which was lost. Indeed, in the parable of the coin, the woman is so excited about finding it that she spends most of the other coins to throw a party to celebrate finding the one that was lost. It may make no sense, but it describes the joy that God has when we who are lost are found.
2. The Seeking God
I don’t know about you, but I find these two parables a bit odd and yet quite enlightening. For instance, why would you risk the 99 to find one lost sheep? You could easily lose a lot more, because you’re not attending to the needs of those already inside the circle. And, why would you get in a tizzy about one little coin and then spend much more than what was lost to throw a party? That doesn’t seem prudent.
So, just what is Jesus getting at? I think Jesus is doing a bit of theology here. In telling these two parables he’s defining God’s identity, and therefore defining his own ministry. In each of these two stories, God is the primary actor. God is the shepherd who risks the 99 in order not to leave anyone behind. God is the woman who isn’t concerned about her own dignity as she frantically looks for the coin and then throws a party when she finds it. God is both committed to finding those who are lost, and willing to be extravagant in sharing the blessings of God’s reign. That’s why there’s a party in each of the stories. If these are important theological statements about God’s nature and character, it would be good for us to stop for a moment and think about how we understand God. There may be only one God, but there are many different views and pictures of God, even among Christians. Some of these views of God are represented by the religious leaders in this story.
There are those Christians who focus on who is in and who is not, and they enjoy drawing the line for God, describing in detail the ways in which God chooses who gets in and who gets left out. The kingdom of God, for them, is an exclusive club, and they take great joy in knowing that they’re on the inside. For others, God is a tribal God, a God of nation and race, a God who blesses some groups of people and curses others. It’s always nice to know that God blesses your country at the expense of the others. It’s a very comforting feeling to know you’ve made it! And if you’re not chosen – well that’s just too bad – maybe there’s a nice spot reserved for you in hell, both here and in the afterlife. Very often this God is described in terms of judgment and wrath, a God who guards his honor very closely, and who might even enjoy inflicting pain on those who disobey.
That’s not the God who is revealed in these parables. It’s also not the God revealed to us in the life and ministry of Jesus. I believe in a big tent, and I believe that we each have the freedom to discern who God is, but that doesn’t mean that all visions of God are equal? Those visions that take joy in the idea that God excludes and punishes don’t fit with the God who takes risks to bring back into the fold those who have strayed, and who doesn’t worry about honor and dignity when throwing a big party when a valued coin is found. This is a God who pursues us and engages us with grace and love. There may need to be some refining in the process of restoring, but I also believe that God is determined to make sure that no one is left behind.
3. The Partying God
There’s one more thing we need to remember – this God we worship likes to party. God likes to party whenever anyone is restored to fellowship. God doesn’t just attend the party, God is the host of the party. Cost is of no account!
This means that whenever we come together as God’s people, we come to celebrate God’s ministry of reconciliation. We do this each Sunday as we come to the Lord’s Table. And when we come to the table the things that divide us are left behind. As Paul reminds us in Galatians – in Christ there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female. Ethnicity, economic status, and gender are not bars to joining in the festivities. You can’t crash the party, because everyone has already been invited to attend.
In just a few minutes we will gather at the Table of the Lord. When we gather at the table we remember the cross of Jesus and the death that occurred on that cross. In this act of remembrance we both mourn an act of inhumanity that was directed toward the sign of God’s gracious love. But we also gather to give thanks and celebrate God’s continuing presence with us through the risen Christ. But, as we gather at the table to celebrate with Christ the continuing presence of God in our lives, the God we meet at the Table, we must keep front and center in our minds that this is not a two-person celebration. It’s not just me and Jesus. It’s the community as a whole that gathers together to celebrate the grand feast of the kingdom.
So, let’s eat, and drink, and then dance!!
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
September 12, 2010
16th Sunday after Pentecost