September 11, 2022 Sanctuary Worship, Sermon, "Whom Are We Missing?"
September 11, 2022 Sanctuary Worship, Sermon, "Whom Are We Missing?"
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Scripture: Luke 15:1-10
A New York Times travel article on pubs in Oxford, England, commented that “a good pub is a readymade party, a home away from home, a club anyone can join.”1 It is easy to imagine Jesus sitting in such a pub, eating and drinking with “anyone,” to the disdain of the pure and proper. Once again Jesus is eating and drinking with “tax collectors and sinners” while the “Pharisees and the scribes” are grumbling about the company he is keeping. They are offended primarily because the tax collectors and sinners are “hearing” Jesus. “Hearing” for Luke is a sign of repentance and conversion which the Pharisees believe is not possible for “sinners” or “those people” as we might hear in today’s world. The tax collectors are very likely Gentiles and their presence makes the meal unclean. That is what made Jesus so irritating and offensive to so many people: he invited everyone to come into the community.
Has the world changed all that much? Unfortunately, is not there almost always an “us” and a “them?” Some are in, and others are out; some are lost while others are found.
I remember in high school there were so many cliques and labels it could make your head spin. Divisions and groups could be determined from the clothes a person wore to their hair style. Sometimes it was defined by their afterschool club or activity, where they worshipped or where they lived in town.
Many movie plots involve those who are accepted and others who are the outsiders. Even in the humorous and poignant 1995 movie, “Babe”, the animals on Hoggett Farm all had preconceived views about one another: the sheep were convinced that dogs were stupid, the dogs believed the same about the sheep, and nothing persuaded them otherwise. “The way things are is the way things are” the animal characters said to one another.
Today the lines are often drawn along political views and ideologies. In our scripture passage, the Pharisees and scribes were adept at drawing boundaries or putting up walls and quick to identify who were included and who were excluded. But Jesus tells parables that fling the door wide open. He doesn’t just crack the door ajar, closely monitoring who enters; he knocks it down! Jesus offers radical hospitality and that is how we as Christians are expected to respond.
In this passage, the Greek word for “welcome” is PROSDECHOMAI from the root DECHOMAI, which literally can mean to bring into one’s arms. This is not a formal polite word of welcome exchanged between two diplomats at the door of the embassy, but an embrace, like what one would expect when a close friend or family member arrives at your home. A warm and loving embrace is described in the passage immediately following today’s scripture passage as well, when the father welcomes his prodigal son back home, and is moved to such joy he must kill the fatted calf and welcome friends and neighbors alike to a celebratory feast.2
What does this say for us as a congregation when someone not known to us walks through the doors of this church? Everyone: strangers and friends alike, need to be warmly welcomed and made to feel at home. Do they need directions to the bathrooms, the nursery, a classroom, Fellowship Hall, or the Sanctuary? Throwing our arms around whoever enters may be a bit uncomfortable for most people, but how can we let them know we are happy to see them and pleased they are worshipping with us this morning? Is there information we can provide about our programs or classes? With fellowship time opening again, how about inviting them to join you for more conversation over a cup of coffee or a cookie? How would you want to be treated if you walked into a church that was new to you? Would you return to a church where no one spoke with you during your visit?
The Pharisees are complaining about who Jesus welcomes, who he has gathered around him, and they respond with judgment. Would your response change depending on what the person looked like or what the person wore? Who makes us uncomfortable or fearful? Is there anyone we judge? What if the person wore tattered clothes and was pushing a shopping cart loaded with their possessions? What kind of welcome do you imagine Jesus would offer?
This is Disability Awareness Sunday for the Presbyterian Church. Were you aware that disability is the largest minority group in our country? If we look at race and equity as justice issues, we must also address disability as one vital piece in being a welcoming and open congregation. Most of us will at one time or another fall into the category of being at least temporarily disabled, as John did when he broke his leg. Handicapped accessible bathrooms is only the beginning of the issue. Where else might people be unable to access?
As you begin to think about renovations to the sanctuary, what other areas prohibit people from participating? Currently liturgists need to be able to manage the stairs to reach the lectern, or the pastor to climb to the pulpit. However, the handheld mike could be used by someone in a wheelchair. Those who would like to share their love of singing must be able to ascend challenging stairs to the balcony. In very old churches, sometimes there are spaces which can’t be made accessible. If not, are there other accommodations that can be made?
Being sensitive to others with our language extends a feeling of welcome and inclusion. Many have expressed that using the phrase “Please stand’ or “Please stand as you are able” highlights a separation from people whose bodies function differently. People who use wheelchairs to support mobility have requested worship leaders use the phrase “You may rise in Body or Spirit” in bulletins when the congregation is asked to stand. We have made that change in our bulletins. It is important that when we become aware that our language is exclusionary, and we correct it, we give a more inviting message.
When discussing the subject of disability, it is common for judgmental comments and biases to emerge. In my first year of college, I read a book by Hasidic philosopher Martin Buber. He contends that we spend much of our lives in what he referred to as “I-It” relationships, that is, relationships in which we place people and things in categories that predetermine and constrain how we engage them. Buber suggests we can enter into an “I-Thou” relationship. In these relationships we abandon categories and presuppositions so that we don’t engage the person as “a certain kind of person”. We are able to be totally present to one another. In our vulnerability we come to know the other’s strengths, weaknesses, insights, and perspectives which may be very different from our own.
In the interaction, there may be disagreement, but the I-Thou relationship requires a faith that admits there might emerge something of the holy, something of God.
I have learned and experienced profound encounters from some individuals who have intellectual/developmental disabilities. One young man with Autism squeals with delight when we sing one of his favorite hymns in church. He also loves to circle round and round the sanctuary after or before services because it is his most favorite place in the world to be. His joy is palpable. A small girl with Downs Syndrome prayed aloud with me while I said a blessing for her. We both felt the Spirit’s presence.
Our daughter Sarah is an ordained Presbyterian minister and chaplain at Stone Belt, an agency which supports individuals with intellectual/developmental and other disabilities. She often works with people whose own families don’t think they are able to experience God or the holy.
One woman, Maria, was telling Sarah about how she believes in God and how she grew up going to church but hasn’t gone in a while. She wanted Sarah to help facilitate her return to a church and to worship. Maria is able to communicate verbally but uses only 2-3 words at a time, carefully choosing her words and taking long pauses between her words.
Talking with her takes patience and time. She lives in a group home where they sat at her kitchen table. Sarah inquired, “How do you experience God most in your life?” A staff member quickly piped in suggesting that she may need to rephrase the question. Sarah remained silent and waited. Eventually Maria responded, “My brother.” Sarah asked her to explain.
After long pauses, Maria eventually explained that like many parents who have children with disabilities, her parents stopped taking care of her when she was young. Her older brother fed her, cared for her, raised her, and now he is still the only family member that comes to see her. He spends every holiday, birthday, and one day a week with her. When Sarah asked the question, “How do you experience God?” and her answer was “my brother” Sarah understood. This was hardly an isolated incident for Sarah. She hears profound insight and wisdom on a regular basis from her clients who continue to teach and to share their many gifts with the community. If we only have eyes to see and ears to hear.
It can also be helpful to think about Christ’s healing and wholeness as going beyond our bodies. Christ’s healing helps us to be more inclusive, whole, and healed communities. Christ’s wholeness includes the miracle of wheelchairs, walkers, assistive technology, ramps, hearing loops, sign language, and other tools for inclusion. Unfortunately, often the people in the Bible who have physical disabilities are portrayed as in need of healing, even some who have emotional or mental illness. But these folk are never portrayed by Jesus as “less than” or outside of God’s grace. If anything, they are those towards whom Jesus shows great mercy, and calls blessed. We need to remember that disability and differing abilities are a part of the amazing diversity of how God created each of us.
Returning to the Scripture passage and in response to the Pharisees’ grumbling, Jesus tells these two familiar parables: the lost sheep and the lost coin.
In the first parable, Jesus describes God’s nature as being like a wealthy shepherd, who has 100 sheep whom he dearly loves. When he realizes that one is missing, his love for that one cherished sheep is so strong, the shepherd does not count the cost but leaves the 99 and sets off to search for the one who had wandered off and was lost. The shepherd searches for the sheep until it is found, lifting it to his shoulders, and celebrating with friends and neighbors as he returns to his home.
The second story, though not quite as familiar, describes God’s nature as that of a poor woman who loses one of her few precious coins. She lights her lamp, carefully sweeps the floor, and searches diligently until her coin is discovered. She also rejoices with friends and neighbors that what was lost is now found.
In both parables, what was once lost is found or returned to their home and there is celebration and rejoicing.
Think of what is most precious in your life and what it would be like to lose it, whether through carelessness, or intent, or theft. Something on which you place extreme value goes missing. You would be devastated. Not that you couldn’t continue; you would. People adapt – but life is incomplete. Part of the whole is missing.
Jesus understands that those on the fringe of the community are integral to what the community in all its fullness should be. Until they return, the community is incomplete. Whom are we missing? Then the celebration can begin. Amen.
1) Henry Shukman, “A Pub Crawl through the Centuries,” New York Times, April 13, online: www:travel.nytimes.com
2) Hoezee, Scott, “Sermon Commentary: Luke 15”. 09.15.19.