When I served as a pastor in upstate New York, I became acquainted with an eccentric colleague named Peter. In retirement, Peter was stated pulpit supply for a miniscule Reformed Church in the next county. He wasn’t fond of haircuts---and often swept his shock of greying hair under a tweed beret. I never saw him dressed in anything but knee length knickers, a white shirt, and suspenders. And he was quite a storyteller. Once at lectionary study, he told us that he had in the month prior preached the same text—and indeed the same sermon—in the same church three weeks in a row before someone dared to approach him with some concerns about his mental health. Peter said: “The poor guy approached this 80-year-old preacher and said: “Peter, do you know you have preached the same sermon for the past several weeks?’ to which I responded: “And I’ll stop preaching it when you start living it!”
Some things are worth repeating. This morning’s gospel text is one that has likely been repeated often to us since the days of our childhood. Of course, there’s risk in that because familiarity can breed contempt—or at least indifference---but this is a message that bears repeating—and living-- as we consider our lives and ministry.
And just to keep the theme of repeating things going, I would like to tell a story that the preachers among us this morning have probably told many times. I might have searched for something more original, but this story is just too good not to tell.
It’s a story told by Baptist preacher and Eastern University sociologist Tony Campolo about an experience he had when visiting Honolulu, Hawaii on the speaker’s circuit. The time difference between his native Pennsylvania and Hawaii messed with Tony’s sleeping schedule. So--it’s 3 a.m. The night is dark, the streets are silent, the world is asleep, but Tony is awake and his stomach is growling. He climbs out of bed and prowls the streets looking for a place to get some bacon and eggs for an early breakfast. Everything is closed except for a grungy dive in an alley. Tony goes in and sits down at the counter. The guy behind the counter comes over and grunts: “Whad’ya want?”
Tony’s appetite dissipates a bit. Eyeing some donuts under a plastic cover he says: “I’ll have a donut and some black coffee.” As he sits there munching and sipping at 3:30 a.m. the door flings open and in walk eight or nine provocative, loud prostitutes just finished with their night’s work. They plop down at the counter and Tony finds himself uncomfortably surrounded by this group of smoking, swearing hookers. He gulps his coffee, planning to make a quick getaway. Then the woman next to him says to her friend: “You know what? Tomorrow’s my birthday. I’m gonna be 39.” To which her friend nastily replies: “So whatta ya want from me? A birthday party? You want me to get you a cake and sing Happy Birthday to you?”
The first woman says: “Aw come on, why do ya hafta be so mean? I’m just sayin’ it’s my birthday. I don’t want anything from you. I mean, why should I have a birthday party? I’ve never had a birthday party in my whole life. Why should I have one now?”
When Tony heard that, he made a decision. He waited until the group of women left and then he approached Harry, the guy behind the counter. “Do they come in here every night?”
“Yeah,” he answered.
“The one right next to me, she comes in every night?
“Yeah. That’s Agnes. She’s here every night. She’s been coming here for years. Why do you want to know?”
Because she just said that tomorrow is her birthday. What do you think? Do you think we could maybe throw a little birthday party for her right here in the diner? A smile crept Harry’s chubby cheeks. “That’s great. I like it.”
So at 2:30 the next morning, Tony is back. He has crepe paper and other decorations and a sign made from big pieces of cardboard that says: “Happy Birthday, Agnes!” They decorate the diner from one end to the other. Harry’s gotten word about the party out on the streets, and by 3:15 it seems like every prostitute in Honolulu has gathered.
At 3:30 on the dot, the door swings open and in walks Agnes and her friends. Tony has everybody ready. They all shout: “Happy Birthday, Agnes!” Agnes is absolutely flabbergasted. Her mouth falls open, and her knees start to buckle. When the birthday cake with all of the candles is carried out from the kitchen, she totally loses it. She’s sobbing—and Harry, who’s not used to seeing prostitutes cry, gruffly mumbles: “Blow out the candles, Agnes. Cut the cake.”
She pulls herself together and blows them out. Everyone cheers and yells: “Now, cut the cake, Agnes, cut the cake!” But Agnes looks down at the cake and without taking her eyes off of it, slowly and softly says: “Look, Harry, if it’s all right with you…I mean, if I don’t…I mean, what I want to ask is, is it ok if I keep the cake for a little while? Is it alright if we don’t eat it right away?
Harry doesn’t know what to say. “Sure, if that’s what you want to do, keep the cake. Take it home if you want.”
“Oh, could I?” she asks. Looking at Tony she says: “I live just down the street a couple of doors and I want to take it home. I will be right back, I promise.”
She gets up off her stool, picks up the cake and carries it in front of her like it was the Holy Grail. Everybody watches in stunned silence and when the door closes behind her, nobody seems to know what to do. So Tony climbs up on a chair and says: “What do you say we pray together?”
There, in that greasy spoon, with a congregation of Honolulu prostitutes, church broke out. Tony prayed for Agnes, for her life, her health, and her salvation. He prayed that her life would be changed and that God would be good to her.
When he finished the prayer, Harry leaned over and with a trace of hostility in his voice, he said: “Hey, you never told me that you were a preacher. What kind of church do you belong to anyway?”
In one of those moments when just the right words came, Tony answered him quietly: “I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning.”
Harry mocked him. No you don’t. There ain’t no church like that. If there was, I’d join it. Yep, I’d join a church like that.”
Wouldn’t we all?
“There ain’t no church like that!” It’s quite an indictment. In fact, it provides a whole new lens through which to read this morning’s gospel text. In Luke 15, God is depicted as a woman who sweeps the house clean, expending great effort, in search of that which is precious to her and God is pictured as a shepherd who leaves the sheep already gathered secure in the fold while risking everything to search for the one precious sheep which has become lost. If this is THE KIND OF GOD WE CLAIM TO LOVE SERVE, how can Harry can rightfully proclaim that there are no churches that throw birthday parties for prostitutes in the middle of the night…or at least very few? Shouldn’t there be more examples of such ministry?
When we read this familiar text, it’s easy for us to identify someone like Agnes as “lost.” She’s the spitting image of what we conjure up when Jesus describes a sinner in need of redeeming. But it might just be that the lines between who’s lost and who’s found blur a bit when we take a close and honest look at our lives. Maybe it is we—in the church—and dare I say in positions of leadership in the church—who have become lost. Maybe we need God to get out her broom in search of us or to seek us like a shepherd who looks high and low for lost sheep.
I am told that sheep nibble themselves lost. They don’t willfully leave the fold and run to the far country. They simply keep their heads down---nibble a little bit here and a little bit there—and soon, find themselves far from where their shepherd intends them to be.
That’s happens to us in the church, too, doesn’t it? It’s not that we run from God’s intent or willfully go our own way. At least, not most of the time. But we frequently lose sight of the bigger picture. We get caught up in the mundane, and nibble ourselves lost.
It happens when we prioritize institutional maintenance rather than giving ourselves away in mission and ministry.
And when we build fortress-like multi-million dollar buildings and forget to take the time to build relationships with our neighbors.
It happens when we concentrate on obeying every jot and tittle in the Book of Discipline while turning our backs on whole categories of people, denying them the grace we have been called to offer. We nibble ourselves lost when we label more than we love.
We are lost when our narrow definitions of morality cause us to withhold ministry from those in the margins of society and prevent us from being channels of God’s grace.
We are lost when we tackle our “to-do” lists and meet all institutional expectations but lose our passion for the world God desires to save. And when we settle for “good enough” when we have been promised that we will do even greater things than Jesus did by the power of the Holy Spirit.
In one appointment, I told Tony’s story about Agnes hoping to stir some emotion, to kindle some passion, to motivate some risk-taking outreaching ministry. Well, I stirred emotion and passion alright. Three people called the SPRC about the fact that I said the word prostitute during worship in the sanctuary. Brian McLaren would describe this as “an adventure in missing the point.” But it happens to us often, doesn’t it? We major in the minors and forget about the majors. We nibble ourselves lost.
As we hear the familiar story of God as a thorough housekeeper or a determined shepherd, we are invited to consider the ways we, as God’s church, are the lost. Rather than identifying with the sweeping woman or the risk-taking shepherd, who seek and enfold those who are lost, we are like the sheep who have nibbled ourselves lost. We spend our time filling out paperwork, climbing vocational ladders, paying the bills and our apportionments, and making a nice, respectable church where no one would dare speak words like “prostitute” or “lesbian” or” or “prisoner” when we gather-- let alone minister to people inadequately represented by such terms. We talk poor when we have an abundance of resources provided by God for our ministry. Yes, we sometimes lose sight of what it’s all about. Jesus showed us again and again. It’s about risk-taking ministry. Going out on a limb. Being uncomfortable for the sake of the mission. Building relationships and even hanging out with those we are quick to label as “sinners” and “outcasts.” It’s about extending grace to all of the unlikely recipients. No one needs to clean up their act or become what we expect to receive grace. Grace is unmerited. It’s undeserved. Grace shows up in unlikely places, among unlikely people.
The table is spread before us this morning. And, as always, it offers a word of grace to us. We have seen ourselves in this morning’s reading. We are lost. But there is GOOD NEWS as always! Jesus walked our neighborhood. He entered our grungy diners. He threw parties and made the most unlikely people the guests of honor. His passion is for the least, the last and the lost. He offers grace to those who have nibbled their way lost.
A funny thing happens when we come to this table and receive this grace. We are found. We are transformed. No longer lost---we find ourselves nestled near the heart of God. And once we know that kind of love, once our hearts beat in sync with God’s heart, we cannot help but share God’s love with others in creative, innovative, imaginative ways. It won’t be enough for us to sit in our holy spaces and wait for people who have cleaned up their lives to come join us. We’ll be handed a broom and called to sweep. We’ll be compelled to leave the safe, comfortable confines of our sanctuaries, offices and conference centers to prowl the streets in the middle of the night and throughout the day to search for lost sheep who do not know that they would be welcome among us. We’ll be freed for imaginative ministry in the name of Jesus and for the sake of those he came to save. Like Agnes. And her friends.
And the Harrys of this world will be less likely to say: “There ain’t no church like that!” because we will become THAT church.
THANKS BE TO GOD!
* This sermon was given by Rev. Jill Sanders, Field Outreach Minister in the East Central District of the Iowa Annual Conference. Rev. Sanders gave the sermon this past fall at the Conference Center weekly Wednesday devotional worship service.