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Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Exodus 32:7-14
Psalm 51:1-11
1 Timothy 1:12-17
Luke 15:1-10

So hello there, all of you, and welcome back to church on this Welcome Back Sunday! Today all of you lost sheep have come back into the fold, and you lost coins have been swept out from the corners, and we are getting to celebrate! The barbecue today is for you, an expression of our joy at coming back together as a full parish family. We’ve been longing to have everyone really and fully here together. This year is going to be all party, all the time.

Today’s a party, purely for the joy of starting another year together. We haven’t gotten to do as many of those over the last few years, but potlucks and barbecues are part of St Michael’s history, and they seem like a great thing to restart. The kids begin Sunday School next week, and the youth their youth groups, and youth choirs are underway – all of those with feasting and pizza and all good things as well. The adult choir started rehearsing last Wednesday and they had food together to celebrate; we threw a party for the Saturday Kitchen volunteers yesterday and fed them too. The vestry is starting their monthly meetings with food; adult small groups will start soon and I bet many of them will have food as well. St Michael’s loves to eat together, and not getting to do that in Covid has been rough. So, just like our gospel passage today tells us, rejoice with us, and let’s eat!

The parties are good. But I have to admit, this gospel passage has always bothered the practical side of me. Jesus tells two parables, jokingly called the parable of the Bad Shepherd and the parable of the Poor Housekeeper. In the first one, there they are, 99 sheep grazing out in the wilderness, and the shepherd notices that one is missing. Completely abandoning the 99 to the wolves, off he goes to find the one stupid sheep that wandered away, and then when he returns, instead of checking on the 99, he throws a party with his friends and neighbors. What about those 99 sheep? They may be only 23 sheep by the time he stumbles back to the field after this party! What is this shepherd thinking?

And then there’s a woman who loses one of her coins, who finally decides to clean her house to find it – and then when she finds it, she spends it and most of the rest of the coins on throwing a party for her friends and neighbors, and now by the end of it, she has, what, four coins left? These people are utterly impractical. I’m with the scribes and the Pharisees, grumbling.

And Jesus seems to be saying this is the way God works. Totally messy, apparently. Reckless, impractical mercy. No way to run a business.

It’s easy to grumble with the Pharisees, because when it comes down to it, God’s ways don’t make a lot of sense to us. If we ran the circus, I’m sure it would all be tidier. There would be no suffering or difficulties, because all problems would be fixed before they hurt. There would be no uncertainty about God’s presence, because God would telegraph every move with a helpful neon sign. There would be no wandering off after the dissident sheep, because the 99 of us are better off without them anyway. Useful metrics would be applied to important decisions; maximizing yield for the majority would carry the day. All the edges smoothed off, and everything easy and convenient. Churches would be full of the bright and beautiful, and the whole system would make perfect sense.

Of course, human beings have manufactured such utopias many times over the course of history, and somehow it’s never worked. People aren’t robots, and inevitably someone ends up oppressing someone else, and suffering increases instead of disappearing, and someone claims to speak for God who isn’t God, and it all falls apart. But all the same, it’d be nice if God could do it this way.

And yet over and over we see this recklessness on God’s part. There’s an inconvenience built into the very system. A willful disregard for just desserts. Quiet slowness instead of quick turnarounds. A taste for small potatoes instead of mass quantity. And a whole lot more parties than seem justified.

See, maybe the church is modeled on God’s ways after all!

It is hard for us to live with that, though. We all like to be part of something that looks good and successful, and we can get off track trying to make our church seem that way too. If I had a dollar for every person who has earnestly told me that only when we have refurbished bathrooms will we really get new people joining, I’d be rich. Yes, our restrooms are sub-par, and we’re all looking forward to the new improved ones once our renovations are done. But will we put that on our banners outside to draw people in? Hardly.

What makes a good and faithful church can sometimes make it frustrating to be part of. Things can get shabby and cluttered because we’re all busy doing other things besides organizing and sorting. Every storage area we have here is overfilled with things some people think are junk and other people know are important.

Decisions can take too long to make because we’re all trying to come to consensus, and we need to wait till so and so is back from vacation. How long did it take to finally vote on the renovations plan? The vestry needed time to really be sure we were ready.

Agreements can be slow to sign off on because we hang them up trying to get the language right. We were down to and then over the wire in signing a contract with our general contractor because we wanted to be sure we included a stipulation about hiring Black workers, one of our reparations goals.

And so on. None of this is convenient. None of it makes us look like a posh, well-oiled machine. But all of it is because we’re trying to do the right thing, and we’re trying to do it the right way.

We’re living with noise and dust in our renovations now because we know it comes with the work of making our buildings more accessible and welcoming. And likewise, we live with slow, hiccupy processes in our community because we know it comes with the work of learning how to do things God’s way and not our own. Bit by bit, we absorb the teachings:

  • That it’s better to have mercy than live in judgment – everyone is carrying something, and there are reasons people wander off or act out instead of staying in line with the rest of the flock.
  • That sometimes it’s better to hold to a principle than give it up for the way the world usually works – you can disagree kindly and firmly and still stay in conversation while you work out the details.
  • And that it’s worth having a celebration even if you’ve only got one or two there and not the whole 99.

And even if we manage this in our church life, can we do it in our own lives? Can we allow the apartment to be messy and still invite people over for hospitality? Can we allow our kids unstructured time on a Saturday even if it means saying no to the test prep tutoring? Can we stay in contact with the old high school friend whose politics went so far afield from ours? And so on and so on, in decisions big and small. How might it be to opt for the ways and priorities of God – kindness, mercy, forgiveness, compassion, time enough to slow down and practice all of those together? Even when the world around us calls it shabby, or slow, or unfashionable. Even when it doesn’t play well on Twitter, or in our latest video on BeReal.

The witness of scripture is that God’s mercy is infinite, full of not just second chances, but 72nd chances. That’s not as true in the world we live in. And when we live God’s way, we might just find ourselves less well tolerated in the flow of society around us – to everyone else, we might look inefficient, awkward, out of fashion. But honestly, maybe we were that way already, and that’s what drew us to church in the first place, that we didn’t quite fit in everywhere else. Or maybe that’s actually how everyone feels. Because the system we’ve designed in our world these days doesn’t lead to human flourishing. There’s plenty of data now to prove that point. Everyone needs more mercy than we’re allowing one another. Everyone requires extra grace to get by.

So maybe we are all lost sheep and lost coins collecting here together – out of step with the 99 others. Then again, maybe the 99 others should come along too. Because we’re here at a party, a party that’s meant to include everyone, a wedding banquet for the whole world. A party that is all about God’s love, and God’s mercy, and God’s infinite hope for us. Because we’re found, and God is delighted to find us. And the joy of the angels can be ours as well. Amen.

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