David A. Davis
September 11, 2022
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The Sullivan County Fair in north central Pennsylvania has become something of a Labor Day tradition in our family. Last weekend we were there with our granddaughter Franny. Together with her parents we were looking forward to 16 mos. old Franny seeing the animals in the 4-H barn. There were some wee little pigs about her size. Some bigger pigs. And a few really big pigs. There was a goat or two and of course several lambs. There were a lot of cows. Cows are always bigger than you think. I held Franny in my arms and watched a young woman give her award-winning cow a bath. She was using some soap or shampoo or something so while we weren’t close enough to know, I figure at least for a few minutes the cow even smelled clean. But as for the pigs and the goats and the lambs, let just say no one was giving them a bath.
The picture must have hung in a Sunday School classroom of my youth. I can see it somewhere through the dust and cobwebs of my imagination. Jesus. with just a hint of a smile, with a complexion more like mine than someone from Palestine, carrying the lamb on his shoulders. The lamb is cute, cuddly, clean. Much cleaner than those blue ribbon lambs at the fair who have been so lovingly cared for by a 14 year old named Karissa. It is the picture of Jesus, the good shepherd, bearing the one sheep that was lost. Of course, in addition to the portrayal of Jesus himself as euro-american, the other trouble with the picture is that a lost sheep would be dirty, panicked, scared, maybe even injured. Rather than being cuddled like a kitten, the lamb would be bound and held so as not to run again in fear. As someone has said, in such wilderness, a lost sheep was more often a dead sheep.
I wonder if there are any pictures of Jesus as the caretaker of the house with a broom in one hand and lamp in other. Jesus standing just outside a house, face all smudged, stains around the knees, holding up that coin for all to see. No reference to a bad sheep or a bad penny. Just lost. Lost, followed by a diligent, determined search. Then a gathering of friends and neighbors to celebrate that what was lost was now found. Rejoicing. Rejoicing, Always rejoicing the lost being found. Rejoicing in the wilderness. Rejoicing in the house. Rejoicing in the field. Rejoicing within the gates of heaven. Everyone rejoicing except among those listening to Jesus. Except among the most intended audience. All that rejoicing. Except for those who had been grumbling. Those who grumbled and said “this fellow welcomes sinners and eats with…..them”. I can’t imagine the grumblers were convinced by the coin or the sheep. The grumbling must not have stopped. Those who were grumbling about the diligent, determined searching grace of God. Yeah, there was a whole lot grumbling in the house and it couldn’t have stopped. It couldn’t have stopped because the grumbling has never stopped. The grumbling never stops.
The grumbling is all through the gospel of Luke. In the 5th chapter, Levi the tax collector turned disciple gave a great banquet for Jesus in his house. The Pharisees and the scribes complained to the other disciples. “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners” (5:30) Later when comparing himself to John the Baptist, Jesus quotes what some had been saying about John’s own choice of company. “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” (7:34). When Jesus called Zacchaeus out of that tree, when he not only had dinner with that chief tax collector but also breathed salvation on his house that day, Luke records that “all who saw it began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner!’” (19:7). You cannot listen to the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son that follows without pondering all the grumbling. “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with….them.”
More often than not when Jesus stopped to break bread and share a cup, more often than not when Jesus stops at someone’s house or stops along the way to make someone whole, more often than not, when Jesus welcomes, someone is grumbling. More often than not there’s all this grumbling. Welcoming – Grumbling. The two themes. The two actions in Luke. The welcome of Jesus and the grumbling of the crowds. It is sort of a literary cause and effect in Luke. Welcoming leads to grumbling. The welcoming so inherent, so core, so foundational to the life and teaching of Jesus, the welcoming so at the very heart of the very gospel of Jesus Christ causes, illicits, brings out grumbling. And from the earliest days of the church until now, the grumbling at grace never stops. “Be hospitable to one another with complaining.” (I Peter 4:9) Be welcoming without grumbling. Yet, the grumbling never stops. The gospel never changes and grumbling never stops.
Just when the boundary lines have been drawn between the righteous and the unrighteous, just when some have found certainty as to who is in and who is out, just as it is becoming clear who are the saints and who are the sinners, just when the sheep are on one side and the goats are on the other, just about the time when the gathered community had convinced themselves to block out any who would somehow lower the quotient of faithfulness, just when preachers and teachers and leaders have convinced themselves that they are in a position to define, chart, and distribute the steadfast love of God, just when the arrogant assurance and self-righteousness confidence on any and every side of the aisle has filled the house to the brim, just about the time when the church looks a lot less like the body of Christ and a lot more like some kind of political action committee Jesus goes and sits down a table with a whole host of sinners. And as the grumbling reaches a level that threatens to drown out the very message and essence of the gospel, Jesus stands to tell a parable about one lost sheep and one lost coin.
One sheep. One coin. One taste of the welcoming grace of God. A welcoming grace that can transform a community’s false and arrogant pride. One encounter with the gospel’s core of grace, forgiveness, and welcome can leaven a community’s ability to welcome sinners and can break down a community’s lust for self-righteousness. One. The one soul who finds themselves stiff and sore from wandering in the world’s wilderness. The one child of God who finds themselves bounced around and tossed heads and tails by the powers and principalities. On lost is found. One finds eternal light amid the dark despair. One leans on strength divine amid the endless struggle for peace. One finds the love of God washing over them afresh as if for the very first time. One claims resurrection hope amid the painful reality of death.
The healing, life-giving, grace celebrating, welcoming community of God people called out from the world’s grumbling and called to be the church, the Body of Christ. The body of Christ wholly dependent on the mighty power of God and the experience of that one. The body of Christ dependent upon the gift of the Holy Spirit and that one taste of God’s grace. An environment dependent upon the blessed Sovereignty of God and that one witness to the abundance of God’s mercy, the diligent, determined searching of Christ, and the unrelenting, never-ending welcome that is so inherent, so core, so foundational, so fundamental, and at the very heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The body of Christ infused with a hospitality and inclusion that is dependent not just on Jesus but on each of you. One sheep. One coin. The searching grace of God. Friends and neighbors called together. Community redefined. And the rejoicing stretches from the wilderness to the house to the sanctuary and to the very heart of God.
And still, and yet, the grumbling never stops. You and I know that the grumbling never stops. A careful listener this morning may have caught that I have not referred to the grumblers anywhere in this sermon as “the scribes and the Pharisees”. Only the crowds. “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus” Lukes writes. “And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying ‘this fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” The intentional reference to the grumbling crowds is for a few different reasons. There had to be those in and near the house who didn’t bear the title Pharisee or scribe that were grumbling about Jesus and his embrace of sinners. Besides, Shane Berg taught me a long time ago that the tradition has been too hard on the scribes and Pharisees. The gospel narratives and the life of Jesus ought not be reduced to stereotypes and type casting. A preaching, teaching, commentary approach that washes the gospel free of one’s own conviction and self-reflection, one’s own sin. And most of all, to limit the grumbling at grace to the Pharisees and the scribes makes it all the easier now to point the finger at someone else’s grumbling. If there is anything that can be said about life in the church writ large these last few years, there’s more than enough grumbling to go around in each and every corner. And Jesus stands up and tells the one about the sheep and the one about the coin.
Yes the grumbling never stops. But Jesus never will either. His diligent, determined searching. His unrelenting, never-ending welcome that is so inherent, so core, so foundational, so fundamental, to his witness, his teaching, his gospel. It never, every stops. So when you find yourself so tired of the grumbling, when you find yourself grumbling and wanting people to get off your lawn in this walk of faith, when all the grumbling is just too much, just take breath, wait, pray “Come Lord Jesus” and wait for the one about the lost sheep and one about the lost coin.