“Kick-Off Sunday 2022”

Luke 15:1-10
September 11, 2022

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?  When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices.  And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’  Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. “Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it?  When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’  Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

Good morning, and welcome.  Welcome on this Kick-Off Sunday!   Do you feel welcome here?  How DO you feel?  Are you comfortable?  Are you feeling at home?  Many people are still only gradually getting out of their COVID hibernation.  Even those who have crept back gradually find it comforting to return to their usual, familiar pews.  Many are surrounded by familiar faces.  

But what about people who are a bit newer to our congregation?  Not all the faces are familiar.  As we’ve all been gradually emerging from the difficulties of the last couple of years, even people who’ve been attending this church for many years may still be asking “Where do I fit in?”

As we begin a new program year at our church, whether you’re a long-time member or a newbie, I’d like to ask each of you to take a moment to think about why you’re here today.  What are the reasons that you came to church this morning?

How many of you are here because this is where you always go on Sunday morning – in person or on-line?  Are you here to worship God?  How many of you are here because you feel like you ought to be here?  Because your spouse wanted you to attend?   Because you want to give thanks?   Who’s here for the sake of their kids?  Who’s here in worship for an ESCAPE from their kids?   Are you here to pray?  Are you here because it’s the time you connect with your friends?  Are you here because you think God wants you to be here?  

Is there anyone who’s here because they’re feeling lost?

There are many reasons, and many ways, that we enter a church.  Maybe we enter as long-time members.  Maybe we’re inquisitive journeyers just checking things out.  Perhaps we enter as newcomers trying to get a sense of this congregation.  Or we come as spiritual wanderers seeking a home.

No matter how we approach our entrance into a church, I suspect all people come with some expectations.  We come with some assumptions about what “The Church” is.  What does it mean to you to be a “church-goer”?  When you hear that someone is a member of a certain church, what comes to your mind?  Charitable givers?  High standards?  Self-righteousness?  Do-gooders?  People who KNOW what they believe and want to TELL you what they believe? 

What’s your perception of being a church-goer?   Are you here because it’s where “good people” gather?   Is church where people come to grow their faith so that they can better live out God’s will?  But then, in order to be a good church member, don’t you have to be pure of heart, dedicated, ready to serve?   How many of you have ever felt intimidated by the church?   How many of you have ever felt unworthy?

The following quote is attributed to a middle-aged man reflecting on his faith:  “When I first became a Christian at age 22, I thought church was only for perfect people.  Or at least people who could act perfectly on Sunday mornings.  I didn’t understand that the purpose of the church is to give a hand to the sick, not pat the healthy on the back.”

Our scripture reading this morning begins by describing the setting for Jesus’ teaching.  “Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.  And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’”  

Jesus is surrounded by those who were considered sinners, unworthy, the “bad people.”  Not only is he talking with them, he’s actually been EATING with them.  The Pharisees and scribes – those considered the “good people” – are chastising him.

This is just one of several occasions in the Gospels when Jesus ate at the same table with “sinners,” and was similarly criticized.  In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus responds to his critics by saying “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.”  

Many people automatically connect the church with goodness.  The church is a revered institution, which upholds noble values, and is populated with upright individuals.  But that’s not the whole picture; because the church is a place of healing for those who are lost, for those who are broken. 

Who do we consider sinners?  Who do we label as “bad”?  Most likely we don’t use that word…we’re politely inclined to label “them” as “problem” people.  At worst, we call them losers.

Our society does name its losers.  Perhaps subtly, but our culture does label those who are unacceptable.  In Jesus’ time it was tax collectors.  In our time it’s tax evaders. Or welfare recipients.  Or unwed mothers or those seeking abortions.  Losers are anyone who places an undue burden on the rest of society.  Undocumented immigrants.  These are just some of the people who Jesus would be eating meals with today.

Eating meals with sinners was unacceptable.  But eating meals with sinners was what Jesus did, repeatedly.  In our Gospel reading today, Jesus responded to the Pharisees and scribes with a parable.  He talked about a lost sheep and a lost coin, both of which were sought after with intensity.  The sheep who were safely at home, the sheep who were comfortable, were not Jesus’ priority.  He was looking for those who were lost.  Jesus shared his parables with sinners and tax collectors; he shared his meals with them as well – the losers. 

If we follow Jesus’ teachings, then the church’s task is to do the same.  To share a meal with the losers.  To take sides with the underdogs.  To welcome the lost and lonely.  To open the space for those who don’t fit in.  To heal those who are broken. The church’s task is to take sides with those who are sinners.

In the early years of my ministry, I served as a chaplain at MCI Framingham.  I met a lot of women who had committed atrocious crimes – serious drug trafficking, armed robbery, and many who had murdered others, often their abusive boyfriends or husbands.  These women were sinners; they weren’t considered “good people.”  But from what I learned, they WERE “good people.” THEY JUST GOT LOST.  In many ways I could identify with them.  I’ve made some bad mistakes over the years.  I’ve done some awful things to people I love.  My mistakes may not have landed me in prison, but I’m definitely a sinner.  When I listened to the stories of those women prisoners’ lives, my reaction was repeatedly, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”

And that’s much of the reason that I’m here, in this church, where I am – where we all are – welcomed for who we are, sins and warts and all.  I’m privileged to be among people who share their sorrows and troubles and struggles.  I’m privileged to feel joy at being part of a community where we recognize our common, sinful humanity;  where we acknowledge our often insufficient faith;  a family where we admit our mutual faults and frailties.  We’re part of a family of imperfect people, and so we’re able to reach out in love to ALL, with compassion and understanding.

Who needs the message of God’s love and redemption more than those who are lost?  Who needs to be embraced by God’s forgiveness and healing more than the broken?  Christ didn’t die to save only “nice people,” or those who are just a “little bad.”  Christ came to offer repentance to all who ask. Christ came to forgive all those who have sinned.  It’s the completely lost sheep, the totally disappeared coin, that sets the searcher on an all-out recovery mission.  

God searches for the lost, finds them, welcomes them, and shares a meal with them. We’re called to do the same.

And it’s then that we’ll hear Jesus’ words: “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost,” and “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.”  “Rejoice!” Jesus says, “For there is joy in the presence of the angels of God.”  May we all be found, that God may rejoice!   Amen.