What’s He Doing?!

Sermon preached September 12, 2010

Text: Luke 15:1-10

Note: The printed text of the sermon will always be different from the preached text. Sometimes those differences are relatively small and sometimes more significant. I did not share the final story in preaching this sermon for no other reason than concern for time.

Kathy Myers of Niles, MI, age 41, has no health insurance. She has also been suffering from an increasingly painful shoulder injury, but because she has not health insurance she is continually turned away from emergency rooms because her injury is not life-threatening. She decided to take matters into her own hand. She shot herself in the shoulder hoping that the wound would be serious enough for ER treatment. She missed major arteries and bones and was sent home again. Sad, but you do wonder, what was she doing?
August 2004, St. Louis, MO: Police were summoned to an upscale office building on a report of a man roaming the halls with a gun, and on arrival, officers found some workers hiding under desks and in closets and others having fled the building. Police concluded that two lawyers, Gary Burger and Mark Cantor, were once again playing their game in the hallways, stalking each other with BB guns and occasionally firing. Most workers did not know that the men were playing, but one did because she had been shot in the finger and shoulder after walking into a previous battle. Police said that they would file gun charges, and one officer said the men would be tried “as adults.” What were these guys doing?
Labor Day in San Francisco, a man was arrested after he had been climbing near the top of a skyscraper in downtown. The building was 58 stories high. The man wondered what all the fuss was about. “I’m just trying to raise cancer awareness. I am not a terrorist. I am not trying to commit suicide.” What was this guy doing?
First century in Roman-controlled Palestine. A wandering religious teacher is seen by the religious authorities cavorting with some strange folks – tax collectors, sinners, the impure, the suspect. They can hardly believe it. “This, this… what’s he doing?! He welcomes sinners and eats with them.
The story probably seems a little overblown to us. Why get your tunic in a bunch just because of who someone chooses to eat with. I was at the State Fair last Monday. There were people eating all over the place, and who could tell who you were eating with? But Jesus eating practices were significant in his culture. They were central to his mission. Jesus was concerned that people were fed, to be sure. Meals often celebrated healings. Meals were often occasions for teaching, as this one will turn out to be. So we have a lot of stories about Jesus eating. But beyond sustenance, and celebration and teaching, meals at that time were about social inclusion. To eat with somebody was a deeply symbolic act. (Borg, Jesus, 157ff) Some of the religious leader of Jesus time were very careful about whom they ate with, concerned for their purity before God. Jesus leaves them almost speechless by his wild disregard for their concerns. He eats with those who had not been included, with the social outcasts, with the marginalized. He not only eats with them, he does so with joy and laughter. To justify his actions he tells wonderful and humorous stories – stories about frantic searches for a lost coin, of shepherd wandering away from 99 sheep to find one. No shepherd in his right mind would really do that. And who after turning your house upside down to find something you’ve misplaced really calls all the neighbors to tell them – “you know that coin I lost, well, I found it, let’s have a party!” The frequency of such stories in the gospels should tell us that there is something vitally important here for Christian faith and life. There is. We call it hospitality.
For Christians hospitality is not an industry concerned with meals and lodging while you travel. For Christians hospitality is not simply being nice to guests. Hospitality runs deep in our tradition. Welcoming is part and parcel of who we are as followers of Jesus.
An early Christian traveler recounts an experience of monastic hospitality in Egypt. As we drew near to that place and they realized that foreign brethren were arriving, they poured out of their cells like a swarm of bees and ran to meet us with delight and alacrity, many of them carrying containers of water and of bread…. When they had welcomed us, first of all they led us with psalms into the church and washed our feet and one by one they dried them with the linen cloth they were girded with, as if to wash away the fatigue of the journey. What can I say that would do justice to their humanity, their courtesy, and their love? (Diana Butler Bass, A People’s History of Christianity, 64)
Hospitality. Welcome. These should be the hallmarks of the church, the community formed around Jesus and the stories of Jesus. That churches often fail to measure up is deeply sad. We should be places of astonishing welcome, sometimes leaving people stammering for words.
What might that mean for us? It means being intentional about being warm and welcoming to any who come our way – on Sunday, but also on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. It means saying “hello” to the person you don’t know. It means offering coffee, or directions with warmth and a smile. Such acts are actions we can never be too good at.
But Christian welcome and hospitality go beyond that. If we are deeply welcoming, we will not just welcome people into our church just as it is. We will welcome people into a full participation which welcomes their ideas, and that can mean change. True Christian hospitality is an invitation to others, to any and all others to join us on the journey of faith, a journey that involves growth and change and mutual transformation in love. Mother Teresa once said, “The biggest disease today is not leprosy or tuberculosis but rather the feeling of not belonging” (in Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance, 11) People yearn to be connected and the church should be a place where people find that sense of belonging. If you are here today, whether for the first or the five hundred and first time, know that you belong. Welcome in the name of Jesus Christ. Welcome in joy.
That sense of hospitality is so pervasive in Jesus and Christian faith that it spills over into other areas of our life. It is not only about the kind of community we are, it is also about how we deal with our selves, our inner lives. To know we are loved by God and accepted by Jesus means that we can offer hospitality to ourselves. Psychologist Carl Rogers once wrote, “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” (in Brach, Radical Acceptance, 24) The person I am most impatient with in my life is me. When I’ve disappointed myself I can either spiral down by beating myself up, leaving little energy for reflection and positive change, or I can say, “o.k. It’s not what you wanted. You haven’t quite finished with that issue in your life. How do we move forward.” That usually serves me better. Change begins with hospitality towards oneself.
And hospitality extends beyond the church community and the self. It is meant to extend to the world. We who name the name of Jesus should be among the best people in the world at seeing the humanity of all others, even those who are different. What I have found so deeply troubling about Pastor Terry Jones and his Dove World Outreach Center in Gainsville, Florida and their plans to burn copies of the Quran was that it was such an act of hostility, reflecting nothing of Christian hospitality. Unfortunately it is not without precedent in the history of Christianity, but it is without precedent in the spirit of Jesus.
Jesus openness to others, his astounding hospitality, left some around him almost speechless, barely able to say, “What’s he doing?!” What Jesus did, he is still doing – reaching out with joy and laugher and love – trying to reach out through us to a humanity looking for acceptance and belonging. Awhile back a travel article in The New York Times about pubs in Oxford commented, “a good pub is a ready made party, a home away from home, a club anyone can join.” The church is meant to be such a place.
A seminary professor and pastor tells the following story (M Craig Barnes, Christian Century on-line): I was sitting at a bar. My wife and I were meeting for dinner after a hard day at work. She’d had demanding clients; I’d just wrapped up a difficult committee meeting at church. I noticed a disheveled and unshaven man in his early fifties a few barstools down from me. Something about him seemed uninviting. He was watching the baseball game on the bar’s flat screen while smoking a cigar that was now a smoldering butt. Soon an attractive 40-something woman arrived in a crisp little black dress and perched on the stool next to him. She seemed nervous.
“Ah, there you are,” he said without looking at her.
“Sorry I’m a little late,” she offered. “I had to wait for the babysitter.” He said nothing.
“You look nice,” she lied.
He raised his eyebrows and smiled faintly. The silence hung between them until the bartender came by to ask the woman if she would like a drink.
The bartender said, “Mr. Smith, would you like a fresh cigar?” He responded, “No, Bob. I don’t want to offend my date.”
The date interjected, “Oh, that’s OK. My late husband used to smoke cigars. I still have the humidor I bought for him in St. Bart’s. He just loved it when we went anywhere he could buy Cubans.”
Her date barked back, “Cubans are overrated. Only guys who know nothing about cigars keep talking about Cubans.”
She smiled painfully and adjusted a bra strap. “Well, it’s not important,” she whispered as she took a sip of her cosmopolitan.
For the next 30 minutes the painful liturgy unfolded as if Woody Allen had written it. She kept trying to make herself appealing to him in desperate, fumbling ways, and he kept acting as if he were beyond finding appeal in anything. She asked questions about his work, to which he gave short evasive replies. She tried commenting on the baseball game, to which he gave a grunt or two.
Maybe Mother Teresa was right. Our biggest disease is lack of connection – not belonging.
What Jesus did, he is still doing – reaching out to the beleaguered, the battered, those longing to belong, to have their humanity recognized – reaching out to you and me – reaching out with joy and laughter and love. We join him. Amen.