September 15, 2019: How to Keep the Angels Happy
September 15, 2019 Rev. Rhonda Blevins, DMIN
How to Make the Angels Happy
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, 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.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
Let’s take a little poll this morning. Was anyone here an only child growing up? Who here was the first born in your family? How about middle child? Any “babies” here this morning?
Psychologists tell us that birth order shapes personality. The traits go something like this:
The only child:
· Seeks approval
· Center of attention
· Mature for their age
· Feels left out
· People pleaser
· Can be rebellious
· Seeks attention
With some trepidation and fear of vulnerability, I’ll share with you that I’m the last-born—the “baby” of my family of origin. Not only that, but I was the youngest grandchild on my mother’s side AND the only girl. What that meant for me was that I was 42 before I ever got to sit at the grown-up table at family gatherings. (OK, maybe that’s a stretch, but you get my point.) Sometimes this was true literally—it was almost always true metaphorically. Feel free to psychoanalyze me—I’m sure there’s a lot more work I need to do with a therapist around how that has shaped me. J
Birth order may be one reason why the “table” has become a powerful metaphor for me. Who is welcome at the table? Who is not? Having been excluded from the “grown-up” table has likely heightened my sensitivity when I’ve been excluded from other tables—most notably the table of ordained ministry in the denomination in which I was first trained. (I had the wrong body parts.) That particular exclusion is a big part of my story.
What about your story? What tables have you been excluded from? In your family? In your career? In your social circle? Maybe it was as simple as trying out for a team and not making it, not being invited to a party, or not getting into the school you applied for. Maybe you were the last kid to be picked on the playground or you were looked over for a promotion. Perhaps the exclusion you’ve experienced is bigger—systemic—due to race, gender, sexual orientation, or socio-economic status.
Most of us know what it feels like to be excluded. If you’ve ever lost at musical chairs, you know what it feels like to be excluded.
I figure there are two primary responses to feeling excluded—which becomes two types of people: excluders and includers.
Excluders take the pain of being excluded and perpetrate that exclusion onto others. Think about the middle school girl, who after finally “getting in” with the popular crowd, then shuns others in the same way she was once shunned. That middle school behavior in grown-ups takes more sophisticated forms, finding its way into politics and even (unfortunately) into churches. “You’re a woman? Well, you can come worship here, but you can’t preach.” “You’re gay? You can come sit in the pews, but you can’t serve on the board.” Excluder churches. (This isn’t one of those churches.)
Includers, on the other hand, take the pain of being excluded, and turn it into a dogged determination to never perpetuate that pain onto another. Think about the rare middle schooler who seeks out the kid in the lunchroom who always sits alone, and takes a seat beside that kid, making a new friend. That middle-schooler, all grown up, then advocates for the least of these, fighting for those excluded, shunned, kept from opportunity by excluders who wield power.
Excluders and includers: a tale as old as time.
In the Gospel of Luke today we read about Jesus having a run-in with the “in” crowd. Have you ever noticed that the “in” crowd always seems to want to keep people “out?” The “in” crowd in this story includes the Pharisees and scribes who snub their noses at this “Jesus” fellow who eats with “sinners.” (Notice: 1. Jesus is once again eating again in the book of Luke, and 2. the implied “table” that catches this preacher’s attention.) This is a story about Jesus welcoming sinners to the table, and the “in” crowd not liking it one little bit.
Jesus, in typical fashion, uses this criticism as a teachable moment. “What if you lost a sheep. Wouldn’t you go out and look for it? And wouldn’t you rejoice if you found it? Or what if your wife lost a hundred-dollar bill. Don’t you think she’d look all over the house for it? And don’t you think she’d be happy if she found it?”
Later in the Gospel of Luke (19:10) we hear Jesus presenting one of his mission statements, “The Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.”
Jesus was an includer. I want to be like Jesus.
A couple of weeks ago I had the honor of presiding over a memorial service for Mary Ann McLachlan. As I was preparing for the homily, Mary Ann’s husband, Herb, sent me a note written by a nephew. Here’s what he wrote:
“There have been times in my life where I’ve felt alone . . . because of . . . the struggles life dealt me. I’m sure you are well aware, your wife had a gift for knowing how to warmly invite troubled souls back into the fold. That Herb, I loved about MaryAnn.”
Mary Ann was an includer.
There’s a meme that’s made its way around the internet. The words are printed across a picture of a big, long table spread with food and drink, and maybe a hundred people sitting down laughing and talking. Here’s what it says: “When you have more than you need, build a bigger table—not a higher fence.”
I’m not sure who penned that phrase, but it has resonated. It’s been shared millions of times on social media. Perhaps this meme was the inspiration for the book by Pastor John Pavlovitz entitled A Bigger Table: Building Messy, Authentic, and Hopeful Spiritual Community in which he writes:
One of the biggest, most damaging mistakes too many Christians so willingly make is assuming that God is as much of a judgmental jerk as we are. But what if we could make room for difference and space for disagreement in our spiritual communities? What if we could give permission for moral failure and freedom to not be certain, and the chance to gloriously fail without needing those things to become black marks against people or death-penalty offenses? What if we made space for people who are as screwed up as we are?
What if, church? How did Jesus say it? There would be “joy in the presence of the angels of God.”
How do we make the angels happy? Simple. We build a bigger table:
· For saints and sinners
· For male and female
· For rich and poor
· For black and white
· For citizen and immigrant
· For gay and straight
· For republican and democrat
· For you and me
This is a countercultural concept. We must become complete failures at musical chairs. Instead of taking chairs away, we must add chairs to the circle.
Dear ones, if you’ve ever felt excluded, if you’ve ever been told you don’t belong or there’s not room at the table for you, you have a chair right here. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you’ve been, you are welcome at this table.
What matters? How do we make the angels happy? We become a church of includers.
Jesus was an includer. I want to be like Jesus. How about you?