As our Gospel reading for this morning opens, Jesus is having a party.
You may not think of it that way at first, but just look at it: Jesus is at table with a diverse group of people. Jesus is making the people feel welcome, he is reaching out to help them feel at home; he is opening up the hospitable space where they can feel and know and experience for themselves the goodness of God. Jesus is creating a convivial moment – and that sounds pretty much like a party to me. So as our Gospel today opens, Jesus is having a party, to symbolize and signify the good gift of God.
But as is often the case, this party also has its party-poopers. There are some Pharisees present, and they take objection to the convivial atmosphere Jesus is creating. “This fellow welcomes sinners,” they say, “and eats with them.” And it’s true: among the people who are gathering at Jesus’ party there are many tax collectors and prostitutes and people who can’t afford the proper sacrifices and people who don’t measure up to the Pharisees’ standard of righteousness. And the Pharisees are having a hard time with that. To them, it seems like Jesus is taking these people’s sins entirely too lightly. To them, it seems like Jesus is making repentance altogether too easy.
And the Pharisees have a point. Sin is serious business, and we don’t do anyone any favors by pretending that it’s not. Just look at our first reading today, from the Book of Exodus.
In this story, the people of Israel are camped at the foot of Mt Sinai. They have come there directly from their deliverance at the Red Sea, and Moses, their leader, has gone up the mountain to receive the covenant from God. But now it’s been forty days since Moses went up there, and the people are beginning to wonder if Moses is going to come back; they’re worrying that maybe Moses has abandoned them and maybe all his talk of following God has had them barking up the wrong tree.
So the people do what they think will bring them security and safety and power: they gang up on Aaron and convince him to make them an idol, a statue, a figurehead for God, a physical object that they can see and touch and control and make them believe they have God in a box. But of course you can’t put God in a box, you can’t localize God and pin God down and pretend that God is a power you can command and coerce and control. God is bigger than that. And because the people refuse to acknowledge that, because they think they can put God in a box, that means they rebel against God, that means they try to shape God to their will rather than shaping their will to God – they refuse to let God be God, but instead they pretend that God is just a projection of their own desires and their own fears and their own ambitions and their own needs.
That refusal to let God be God is the most fundamental kind of sin. And God’s response to that sin is very serious: because the people have rejected God, God is also ready to reject the people: God says to Moses “Get out of my way, because I am going to destroy this people, I’m going to flatten them, I’m going to burn them to a crisp.” “I’ll wipe the slate clean of this sinful people,” God says to Moses, “and I will start again with you.” In the end, it is only Moses’ impassioned repentance for the people that brings to the fore God’s mercy to let the people try again. In this whole story, sin and repentance are treated with the utmost seriousness, they are literally life-and-death matters, they are things that cannot be taken lightly.
So the Pharisees have a point when they complain to Jesus that sin and repentance and forgiveness cannot be taken lightly, that they are not things that can be treated in a party atmosphere. The Pharisees have a point – but the Pharisees have also missed a point. They’ve missed the whole point of the Golden Calf story – and that point is that God does forgive. Even as grievous as the people’s sin is, when Moses, when little puny mortal human Moses stands up to God, and reminds God to be merciful and just and compassionate and loving, then God is swayed by Moses, God is persuaded by Moses, Moses’ compassion for the people is taken up into God’s compassion for the people. When you take it all together, the point of the story is that compassion and forgiveness are stronger than sin and anger, and that as serious as sin is, the joy of forgiveness is even greater.
And that is the point Jesus tries to make the Pharisees see when he tells his parables. A shepherd, Jesus says, throws a party when he finds his lost sheep, and calls all his friends to come and rejoice with him. A woman, Jesus says, throws a party when she finds her lost coin, and calls all her neighbors to come and rejoice with her. Heaven itself, Jesus says, throws a party when a lost soul repents and returns and is found once more – and if God throws a party for redemption, Jesus says to the Pharisees, then who are we to refuse to join the joy? Who are we to refuse to let God be God?
So Jesus throws a party for repentant sinners, to move their hearts by opening up to them an experience of the joy God feels when they repent and return. And that party that began with Jesus has continued through all the centuries and comes down to us today. We here today are continuing that same celebration that began when Jesus gathered sinners around himself so that they could come to know in him the living image of God’s own love. And we celebrate today, we gather this party here today, for the very same reason: to share the joy of heaven that sinners have repented, that the rebellious have returned, that we lost have been found.
And this party is not just for us. For awhile now we at Trinity have been talking about going missional, going local, taking our living of the Gospel out of the church building and out into the neighborhood. And that movement out can look like a whole lot of things; but one of the things it can look like is a party – like this party in the Gospel reading. One of the ways we can create space to open up the experience of the joy of redemption is by creating occasions of community joy with our community members. There are a lot of people out there for whom the words “Jesus” and “joy” just don’t go together in their experience. All they know about Christians is hellfire and brimstone and condemnation and infighting. Why would they ever want to come to a church if that’s all they think it is? Even with windows like ours, we’re not likely to get them in here.
But we know this is a place of celebration and joy and acceptance. And if those are the things we want to share with people, then those are the things we can take out into the neighborhood and share. I heard a story not long ago about a member of another church who quite frankly just got tired of all their attempts to invite the neighbors to church and nobody came. So he invited a bunch of neighbors to his home instead. He let his neighbors know there was going to be chili in his backyard, and anybody could come. And he got quite a turnout. And he very deliberately didn’t say anything about his church: this was just a gathering for the well-being and fun of being neighbors. But the neighbors knew he belonged to that church over there, they could see it over his backyard fence – and much to his surprise it was the neighbors who started talking with him about life and death and goodness and meaning and Jesus. And before he knew it, he was sharing the Gospel right there, over the chili. These neighbors who never wanted to come to church before ended up enjoying their redemption party. Seriously, it was a scene right out of today’s Gospel.
And that is the kind of scene we can create, too. Not just bringing people into church, but bringing the peace and justice and love and communion we know in church out into the lives of people. Maybe we’ll do that over chili. Or over burgers and hot dogs at a parish picnic – look around at the picnic after the service: I guarantee you will see people who have not come for church but have come for the food – what does our welcome of them say about how we open up the space to celebrate redemption with our neighbors? What kind of open spaces for celebrating the goodness of God can you imagine yourself creating? On a day when we remember the 15th anniversary of terror attacks against our nation, what alternative to terror, what witness to joy, can we bring to our neighborhoods?
Jesus gathered his neighbors for a redemption party. We gather at this Eucharistic Table for a redemption party. And may God send us out to share this redemptive joy with everyone we can reach. Amen.