Gracefully Found

Gracefully Found

“This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

by the Rev. Todd Bruce, Rector at Trinity Church, Folsom

In this past Sunday's reading from the Gospel according to St. Luke (Luke 15:1-10), Jesus is again dining with the scribes and the Pharisees, the local religious authorities, and they are not in a good mood. They should have known better than to invite Jesus to dinner if they wanted to eat at the appointed hour, without waiting for Jesus to finish speaking to the crowds of uninvited guests who always seemed to show up. We shouldn’t really call them guests, though; no hospitality was shown to them, nor did they, as far as we can tell, expect it. They were, as the Pharisees and scribes say, “tax collectors and sinners,” impure people the righteous should avoid. The hosts of this dinner party must have recognized some of the people in the crowd, the tax collectors, the notorious sinners of the town, the fallen women with their loose hair and looser morals; but most of these people were probably just poor and not worth noticing at all. And they were certainly unwashed. One of the more notable characteristics of the Pharisees and their followers was the ritual washing they did before the Sabbath and before meals, to make themselves pure and acceptable to God. And by engaging this uninvited and unwashed crowd, Jesus has become a threat to the Pharisees and scribes gathered for the meal, a threat to their sense of being pure and their identity as the righteous ones.

Jesus knows what his hosts and fellow guests are thinking. So he tells them these parables we heard, about the shepherd searching for his lost sheep even though he has 99 other ones, and about the woman turning her whole house upside down to find a lost coin. Jesus is challenging their beliefs about what is most pleasing to God. The nature of God, Jesus says, is not to rest contentedly at the table with God’s guests, disapproving of the crowds at the door, but to go out and search for the lost, and rejoice when they are found. God never decides that 99 sheep are enough; God is a jealous God and wants every single one, and God’s heart beats loudest for the ones who are lost. There is more rejoicing in heaven over a single sinner who repents than there is over a million lifetimes of washing before dinner.

Because of the way this lesson is set up, because Jesus is rebuking the religious people of his day, you probably identified with the Pharisees when you heard this lesson. And all the commentaries I read pointed out the hypocrisy of many Christians, and challenged me to preach against your smug self-righteousness; I’m supposed to tell you to love the poor and the people who live different lives than you do, and the people you currently hold in contempt for whatever reason, to love these unwashed crowds and to play nicely with them if they come and sit next to you in church. That’s what I’m supposed to tell you, to rebuke you, the religious people of our day, just like Jesus rebuked the religious people of his day.

But I keep coming back to this line, this grumbling of the Pharisees and scribes, that Jesus is “this fellow [who] welcomes sinners and eats with them.” The more I think about it, the more I realize how perversely arrogant it is that we automatically assume that we are the Pharisees and not the unwashed crowds. Because we are washed, in the waters of baptism, because we are members of the church, inside the house and not part of the crowds outside, maybe that’s why we so quickly identify with the Pharisees. But I want us to consider instead that though we may be the Pharisees sometimes, we are always the sinners welcomed by God, the sinners who God invites to his table. If we could recognize and remember that God seeks us out and loves us, that it is God who invites us into the kingdom because of God’s love and not because of anything we’ve done, the problem of acting like Pharisees would take care of itself. And it is a tragedy that we read this lesson as a moral fable about us instead of as a profound description of the nature of God and God’s relationship to us. The remarkable thing about this lesson is not that Jesus rebukes the Pharisees, but that Jesus proclaims God’s love for the lost, for people who are afraid of God and afraid that they can’t or won’t be loved by God, for people who don’t love God, and even for people who think there is no God to love. And God doesn’t have benign affection for the lost, or sympathy, or merciful consideration, but love; love that doesn’t wait to be found, but goes out and finds us. God doesn’t start loving us once we repent; it’s God’s love that brings us to repentance.

I hadn’t darkened the door of a church in a good ten years or so, and then one Sunday morning when I was in college, I got up and went to church. I picked the Episcopal church in town because it was the best looking building, and I knew that Episcopalians were smart and sophisticated, and I fancied myself both. But when I went that first morning, I wasn’t smart and sophisticated. I was confused and scared, and I wasn’t sure that I believed in God at all. And I knew that if I did believe in God, I was going to be very angry at Him, and I didn’t even want to know what He would think of me. For several months, because I wasn’t baptized, and because I didn’t believe in the doctrine of the Church, because I wasn’t sure if I even believed in God or not, and because I was anxious that people would be able to tell that I wasn’t one of them, that I didn’t know what I was doing and I didn’t belong, because I was embarrassed and afraid and ashamed, I would slip out of church after the offertory and not stay for the communion. And then one Sunday, I didn’t slip out, I stayed, and when the priest lifted the bread and spoke the words of Jesus, “Take, eat, this is my Body which is given for you,” I believed. No, I didn’t automatically believe that virgins have babies, and the resurrection of the body seemed pretty far-fetched, but I believed that even if there is nothing else there, there is love in heaven, and that somehow this Word was made Flesh, and that Jesus has saved a place at the table for me, and everything else would work itself out.

Fourteen years later, not too much has changed. I do believe in the Virgin birth and the resurrection of the body, but there are still days when, like a fool, I say in my heart, there is no God. Some days I wonder if God is more just than merciful, more righteous than gracious, and some days I wonder if God is paying any attention at all. I am still sometimes confused and anxious and afraid. And even though I’m a priest now, and a Pharisee sometimes, I am most often a member of the unworthy and unwashed crowd gathered outside wondering who Jesus is and what he has to say and how it makes a difference in my life. And what I hear is that Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with them; that God is looking for me, even when I am not looking for God; that no matter who I am or what I’ve done, God has loved me since I was in my mother’s womb and will love me long after I have been laid in the grave. I hear that Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with them, and that means me, and recognizing myself, I am finally, gracefully, found.

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