Following Jesus: All Are Welcome

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,[a] 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.’ 10 Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”  (Luke 15:1-10 NRSV)

When the congregation pulled into the church parking lot to meet the new minister and worship with him, they immediately noticed a change.  The sign in front of the church had the usual times for Sunday school and worship.  Added below that in large letters was the statement, “All Are Welcome.”

The congregation would spend the next thirteen years learning from this preacher what the word “All” meant.

There are so many outcasts in this set of parables that it boggles the mind.

First we have the tax collectors, those who have sold themselves to the Romans in order to collect taxes from their fellow Jews.  Then we have sinners.  They are religiously careless, staying home on the Sabbath to catch up on their sleep.  Both of these groups stand outside the Jewish culture and are considered unclean.  The religious leaders understood them as “unholy” and “godless.”

Jesus eats with them, meeting them where they are.  He breaks religious and cultural laws, hoping to bring them back into the fold.

Next we have the religious elite.  They are so easy to vilify, aren’t they?  We see them as judgemental and legalistic.  They protect us from slippery slopes.  At times, they are us.

Of course, the real surprise is the parables.  God is seen as a vulgar, sidelined shepherd.  God is portrayed as a woman.

A shepherd leaves 99 sheep, stopping at nothing to find the one missing animal.  He scours the underbrush, scrapes his shins, sprains an ankle, stubs a toe.  He falls, gets back up and continues the search.

This one lost lamb is as important as the other 99.  His “sin” is that he wandered from one tuft of grass to another, and he lost track of where he was. Sound familiar?

Now he cowers under a bush afraid of being heard by the animals that would have him for their dinner.  He sees the feet of the shepherd walk towards him, kneel down and lift the branch of the bush.  The look of joy on the shepherd’s face brings the lamb to his feet and into the shepherd’s arms.

The other 99 sheep stand in the open field, raising eyebrows at each other.  “That lamb is dead meat.”  Literally.

“That shepherd has lost his mind.”

And then he returns to the fold with the lamb wrapped around his neck.  It’s time for a party.

God scours the world looking for you and me and legalists and wanderers.  God doesn’t give up.

How about that woman?  She has ten coins.  A sizable savings for sure.  One coin goes missing.  She starts in one corner of her home, searching high and low for that coin.  She sneezes when a dust ball lands on her face, cleans out the corner kitchen cabinet that’s long overdue, finds her favorite earrings under a side table.  But, no coin.

On go the lights and out come the flash lights.  She stoves a finger, and burns herself on the stove.  At last, she sees it glistening in the light.  She picks it up, puts it with the other nine and calls in her friends and neighbors.  It’s time for a celebration!

The crowd who follows Jesus is astounded.  This God that Jesus speaks of is an inclusive God.  Could it be that God loves even me?

There was a time when the Hebrews lived in the wilderness, being molded and shaped into God’s Chosen.  They had to have boundaries to live by.  They needed to be protected.  The sick had to live outside the community in order to protect the others from a contagious disease.  Once they were healed, they could return.

If you didn’t follow they rules, there were consequences.  Live within God’s law and you lived well.  Live outside the law and you would be asked to leave, in one way or another.  The law was important and had to be followed.  It protected the community.  The problem is, they often forgot the reason for the law.  That God is love and God provided the law out of love.  God didn’t want anyone of his children to be sidelined.  He wanted them back in the fold.  All too often, we leave the other on the outside far too long.

The religious leaders had to follow the law; it was their job.  I believe some of them saw a bigger picture and those are the ones who became friends of Jesus.  Others hung onto the law for dear life.  It was their security.  Anyone not following the rules had to be put out.  They were unholy and un-redeemable.

These are the lost who Jesus spent time with:  tax collectors, sinners, religious leaders, shepherds, women, naysayers.  He ate with them.  Taught them.  Offered them healing.  Most of all, he offered them a place in the fold, back in the arms of a loving God.

Where have you seen evidence of the lost being found?  When have you been the lost?  How and where did God find you?  What makes us lost?

Recently, I found myself in an area of town where the homeless hang out.  One young woman had a full shopping cart and a dog.  I love animals and before I knew it, I was talking to her dog.  I told her how beautiful she was and what a nice dog she was.  I told her to continue taking care of her “mama.”  Then I looked over at the woman and her eyes gleamed, her smile was radiant.  And in a split second, I thought I saw Jesus in her eyes.

For a moment, she wasn’t a homeless victim, but a child of God.  She wasn’t a vagrant that I should be wary of, but a fellow human being.  I’d like to think that in that moment of finding this young woman, God found me. Again.

The good news is God seeks out the lost in order to bring them back into the fold with God.  God seeks out those who strayed, those who aren’t like us.  God disturbs our sense of propriety.  Sometimes we’re the lost, having strayed into privilege or threats to our sense of security.

We resist good news because we’ve worked hard and we’ve earned our place at the table.  It’s not fair when God finds a lost soul.  We allow jealousy in, feeling as we’ve been displaced, our power diminished.  Yet, Christ finds us at the table where ALL are welcome.  There’s plenty of room.  It’s a table of grace and transformation.

The minister who began his ministry with the words, “All Are Welcome,” continued for 13 years with a congregation who learned to accept those that didn’t look quite like them:  a bi-racial couple and a gay musician found a welcome home even among people who didn’t understand them.

It took a sincere effort and honest reflection to reach out a hand and say, “welcome.”  Those in the congregation who set aside their biases, discovered that the wife of the bi-racial couple had breast cancer.  And a voice of an angel.  She sang her way into their hearts; they laughed when she cracked wise about her illness; they literally held her husband in their arms during worship while he cried out his lament at her death.

The gay musician was brought into earnest conversation.  They learned what his life was like.  And though some still felt his homosexuality was a sin, they loved him as beloved child of God.

It’s easy to see the lost in others, but not ourselves.  It’s easy to welcome all people until someone walks in who isn’t like us.  Getting to know them can take a lot of hard work.  Trying to find common ground requires prayer and patience.

Yet, if we want to approach the table and take the body and blood of Christ; if we want to call ourselves a disciple of Christ; then it seems to me that we  have to look to Jesus’ life and teachings and actions and ask:

What is Christ calling me to do and to be?

All glory and honor be to God.


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