A Sermon from the North Yarmouth Congregational Church
A sermon offered by the Rev. Nancy J. White in the public worship of the First Congregational Church of North Yarmouth, UCC of North Yarmouth, Maine on the 7th Sunday of Easter Worship, May 8, 2016. Principal reading Luke 15:1-10
Today’s reading is a familiar one, or at the least the first part, the story of the lost sheep. Jesus, the masterful story teller is telling all those around him that the shepherd, a metaphor for God, will of course go seeking one lost sheep out of 100, leaving 99 to take care of themselves while searching for the one that is lost. When found the shepherd carries the lost one home and throws a party inviting all to celebrate that what was lost has been found. The second part of the reading today is not quite as familiar – the story of a woman as metaphor for God. This story is a rare peek in the Gospels, of God in the image of a woman. There are images of God as female throughout the Bible: an eagle caring for her young, a mother hen, a woman giving birth, a woman in labor, a mother bear. And of course we know from last week’s reading of the creation story that humans were created in the image of God, male and female they were created.
This second story depicts a woman sweeping her house until she finds one lost coin out of ten. Just like in the story of the lost sheep, the woman is single minded in her quest for finding the lost and does a spring cleaning of her house until she finds the one coin that has been lost. And then she also throws a party inviting all her friends rejoicing when she has found the one lost coin.
We have often heard this story in the context of the one lost sheep/or coin repenting and of course God wants that but there is another part of this story that is somehow overlooked. Each of these stories reflects the welcoming of one lost into an established and apparently happy and content community. Presumably, the ’99 sheep’ who believe they don’t need to repent, include the Pharisees and the scribes who grumbled about how Jesus welcomed sinners to his dinner table. The Pharisees and scribes were the leaders of the church in Jesus’ day. They were not happy that Jesus welcomed sinners into their midst. And while coins are inanimate objects, this story also reflects the welcoming of one lost into an established and apparently happy and content community.
God welcomes all. Over and over again we hear of Jesus not just healing the sick, not just eating with tax collectors, not dismissing women and children as unimportant but welcoming them into his family, into his community, inviting them to join him, to walk by his side, to share a meal with him. He invited them to stay with him, to journey with him. It wasn’t just a quick, ‘done a good deed and move on’ sort of thing. It was a ‘now you are part of my family’ thing and Jesus invites them to participate in all that being a family member means – there for every celebration, for every milestone, for every meal, for every party, for every part of family life.
Over and over again, Jesus is telling us that all people are loved and welcomed by God, regardless of their station in life, regardless of their wholeness or brokenness, regardless of their cleanliness, regardless of their neediness or what they do or don’t have to offer the faith community. I know for me, it is easy to say those words but I really have to examine my actions to see if they reflect my words. Are we people of extravagant welcome, celebrating with a party when a new lost one joins us? It is not an easy question to think about or answer. As I write this, I’m not sure I know the answer to this question, because if I am honest, I’m not sure when I have done this myself.
Do we, as a church family, as one of God’s communities of faith, do we welcome people with that kind of extravagant welcome? What does it mean to offer this kind of welcome? I have been involved in two churches who offered extravagant welcome to refugees from countries in Africa and Cambodia and Brazil. They opened their fellowship to these people whose first language was not English, whose music preferences were not in the hymnal, who had a much more relaxed notion of worship where one could wander in and out, whose children did not sit quietly with their parents in the pews, who would worship for at least 2 hours and always on Christmas day – their culture and traditions were very different from anything previously experienced by these mostly white churches. They welcomed them, they shared in their music and traditions – for some it was a beautiful experience but others could not accept it – both churches lost long-time members because of it.
Where do we find ourselves in this? As I said before, it is easy to say that we welcome all people but are we willing to joyfully accept that their presence will change us? Instead of expecting them to become like us, will we joyfully become even a little like them? Or will we grumble because God invites people different from ourselves to be part of our community.
I am sure that it is a question we need to ask and consider prayerfully. And ultimately, I believe God will help us extend that welcome not just for the sake of the lost, but for our own sakes as well.
God welcomes all, strangers and friends.
God’s love is strong and it never ends.