Matt. 11:16-19, 25-30

A sermon delivered at Westminster

July 3,2011

       Cold, baked beans from the can.  The taste was too sweet and the meal very unsatisfying.  That was the meal I had the evening I ran away from my family.  I was    eight, and fed up with my younger brother.  I  simply ran away next door, to the old log cabin on our neighbor’s property (they were out of town.)  I had my sleeping bag, pillow, notebook, pen and my favorite books.  I was actually quite thrilled to be striking out on my own.

      I left behind a note explaining to my parents that I was angry at my brother.  But worse, I was mad because they tolerated his behavior.  In my view, it seemed that no matter how outrageously he behaved, they would always forgive him!  I didn’t feel that they loved him more than they did me.  I was just fed up with their– mercy!

So, there I was, in the quiet of the cabin.  I managed to open the can with my pocket knife can opener.  As I pried the lid back, dipping my spoon into the congealed beans, I could hear my parents calling me.  Though I felt twinges of guilt, I wasn’t answering them.  I heard their call, but I chose not to respond.

We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we wailed, and you did not mourn.’

Unresponsive.  Not heeding the call.  Resisting mercy.  Turning away.  These are very familiar Biblical themes!

Last week many children from Westminster participated in VBS.  The Biblical stories they heard had a similar theme, over and over: the father forgives, despite the anger of the older brother; the landowner pays the same wage to all the field workers, no matter how little they had worked; the master who forgave big debts and small. These parables show us:   We have a God who first and foremost, loves and forgives.  The trouble with us is, we often have a hard time accepting that, for ourselves and for others.

It’s not an Old Testament versus New Testament problem, either.  One of the phrases most repeated in the Old Testament to describe God is “steadfast love.”  The message has been there from the beginning:  God is in love with God’s people!   But this message has been corrupted by people and tradition into worldview of rewards and punishments, righteous and unrighteous, deserving and undeserving.  Perhaps this is just a natural human tendency.  Really, why is it so hard to accept that God loves?

We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we wailed, and you did not mourn.’

If we see God as hostile, indifferent or “judge”, then our focus goes to self-preservation.  But if we see God as supportive and nourishing, then another response becomes possible:  trust.

A friend of mine, Greg Bell, lives by what he calls “reverse paranoia”:  that is, everyone is out there to help you!  He said that when he chooses to see reality and others in that way, he often finds that people really are helpful and kind.  And, he in turn, shows that same kindness to others.

Here’s the thing:  if we respond to God’s mercy; if we turn toward God’s forgiveness, we are then more able to extend that forgiveness and mercy to others.   We often live our lives as if reality (God) is not gracious.  And very often, we treat ourselves and others with harshness when we perceive that someone is not “following the rules” or living to the conventions of our society.

An Episcopal friend shared this story with me:   A Jew, a Catholic and an Episcopalian were standing at the gates of Hell.  Satan came out, and looked them over.   “Why are you here?” he asked the Jew. “I ate pork,” the Jew admitted.
“Okay, come on in,” replied Satan. Then he turned to the Catholic.  “What are you doing here?” Satan asked the Catholic. “I ate meat on Friday long before His Holiness said it was okay,” the Catholic answered. “Well, then, come in,” Satan said.  Then he looked at the Episcopalian. “Why on earth are you down here?”  Satan asked. The Episcopalian hung his head in shame as he answered:  “I used the wrong fork.”

Feasting and “correct” behavior.  There  is a deep-seated and powerful connection between food and religious practices.  Sometimes the breaking of the “rules” can be a huge problem.  That was echoed in part of the passage for this morning:

                ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we wailed, and you did not mourn.’

Scholar Marcus Borg wrote:  “Whenever we say that God’s love depends upon having met requirements of any kind, we have abandoned grace as the dominant image of reality, no matter how much the language of grace may remain.”

Both the images of  wedding dancing, and wake-mourning would have made the hearers of this passage think about feasts.   Sharing a meal in first-century Palestine showed acceptance of one’s table companions.  Jesus showed acceptance of “sinners”  (Zaccheus, tax collector, example).  His acceptance of them would have been perceived as a claim that they were accepted by God. Jesus was showing that God is like this:  gracious and compassionate, embracing even the outcasts.

“You didn’t dance; you didn’t mourn.”  Over and over again, in the scripture God is inviting us to join in, to receive forgiveness and mercy, to celebrate life, and to love as God loves.

The Gospel invites us to feasting that shifts our attention away from what we have to offer and toward what God has to offer.  God spreads an expansive table where all can feed on an abundance of mercy and grace. . . In the face of the worlds’ constant messages of exclusion, division, resignation, and unwelcome, we proclaim the good news, inviting others to the welcome feast, testifying to the good news of God’s welcome to all.

Everything we do, every conversation we have, every task we pursue, every meal we cook, God’s saving work is in it all.  God’s saving (salving) fills our congregational lives, too:  in Sunday worship and youth lock-ins, in committee meetings and mission trips, in mowing the lawn and tending the nursery. . . God’s welcoming work is going on outside the walls of the church.  God’s saving is bigger than us, bigger than our church and bigger than our denomination.  Salvation can not be contained!  God’s welcoming is happening all the time.  It is a welcome feast.

About six years ago, my brother Lance (yes, the same one who was so annoying when we were growing up), was serving in the U.S. Army in Afghanistan.  He is a lawyer and was helping to set up a legal system.  He told me that he was very much aware of the divisions between him and the people of Afghanistan.  His position and uniform, the boundaries of the Green Zone, the language barriers, the huge cultural differences—all of these things were huge obstacles to experiencing connection with the people.  But at one point, he was invited to a man’s home in an outlying village.  Lance accepted, with some trepidation.  He had been given so many warnings about safety.  Even about not eating fruit, because of the unsanitary water that may have washed the fruit, that could make him sick.

But, Lance chose to visit the man, and to eat the grapes he had offered.  Lance said that the man was extremely happy that he had come to visit, and was sharing a meal with him.  The welcome to the table was incredible.  The family lavished Lance with food that was probably more than they had for themselves for a couple of weeks.  Lance said, somehow, he felt that because he was receiving this welcome, the man seemed even happier about it than Lance.  They feasted, and trust was built.

Amy Oden wrote:  God’s welcome happens whether we are faithful or not.  God’s welcome comes from unexpected people and places in our lives.  God’s welcome even comes amid scarcity, and it is persistent.  “In every moment and in every molecule, God is welcoming us deeper into the divine life.”

What would your life be like if you lived as though you truly believed in the graciousness of God?  What would the church look like if –before anything else–we extended God’s gracious welcome, especially to those who would be prone to judgment?  What would our world be like, then?

Here’s a poem, by   Sister Helen Kelley

Choose Life

Only that and always /And at whatever risk.

To let life leak out,/  To let it wear away by

The mere passage of time, to withhold

Giving it and spreading it

Is to choose nothing.

Choose life.


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