Community Church of Durham
A Meditation on Luke 15
Now all the tax-collectors and ne’er-do-wells were all crowding round to listen to Jesus and aching to break bread at his table. And the Pharisees and the scribes complained about this, saying, ‘How can this be? This holy man welcomes deviants and criminals and eats with them at his table.’
So Jesus told them this parable: ‘Which one of who with a hundred sheep, if you’ve lost one, would fail to leave the ninety-nine in the desert, and then go after the missing one till you’ve found it? And you’ve found it at last, would you not joyfully take it on your shoulders and then, when you got home, call together your friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, I have found my sheep that was lost!’ In the same way, I tell you, there will be more rejoicing, more feasting, more dancing in heaven, over one lost spirit who find their way home, than over ninety-nine righteous ones who never got lost.’
Or again, what woman with ten drachmas would not, if she lost one of the coins, light a lamp and sweep out the house, and then search diligently until she found it? And then, when she’d found it, she’d call together every friend and neighbor she could find, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, I have found the coin I had lost!’ In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing and feasting and dancing among the angels of God when one lost spirit comes home.’
So I don’t think that the Pharisees are especially cruel, or that they wish any ill-will upon those crowding around Jesus, to break bread with Jesus. The Pharisees get a particularly bad rap in the church down through the centuries. But I don’t think they’re nasty in that way. I think they’re God-fearing folk. And I think they like their religious life with some order, some decency, some decorum. They’re not especially cruel.
But I do think they’re surprised; I do think they’re shocked by what Jesus is doing at this particular table. I do think they’re unnerved by the broken hearts and anxious spirits and wild eyes, and all the hurt at the table that night. The mixing up of Gentiles and Jews. The communion of grief and joy. The laughter of prostitutes, the weeping of activists, the grateful sighs of hungry human beings, fed at last, filled up together. And wine, wine flowing freely among them all!
It turns out that abundance has a way of unnerving certain folks. Even offending and scaring them. It turns out that Jesus’ idea of a good time isn’t law and order, and it’s not necessarily even decency. It’s communion. It’s forgiveness. It’s amazing grace.
“How can this be?” That’s their question, right (?), the Pharisees’ question. And that’s the question we want our friends and neighbors to be asking, as we break bread together, at this table. God’s table. Jesus’ table. “How can this be?” As abundance flips the script on scarcity. As rich and poor are fed together. As skeptics and true believers forgive one another. As Trump’s troops find love and nourishment, right here, among the radical left. At God’s table. At Jesus’ table. “How can this be?” That’s the question we want everyone to be asking.
You know, at the heart of our tradition, at the heart of Christianity itself, is our conviction, our experience of God in us, of God embodied among us, of incarnation. That’s the fancy theological word for it. Incarnation. When we feed one another, without hesitation. When we love one another, without calculation. When we open our eyes and hearts to the hopes and heartbreak of our neighbors. Incarnation. God’s word made flesh. “How can this be?”
And the thing is, the thing Jesus discovers over and over again in the Gospels, is that incarnation is radically unsettling to the keepers of morality, to the powers that be, to the high priests of decency and culture. At least, the kind of incarnation that moves in Jesus’ heart, in his bones, in his hopes. The kind of incarnation that dismantles walls and barriers. The kind of incarnation that insists on communion and celebration, abundance and plenty.
Everywhere he goes, it seems, Jesus is making good trouble at God’s table. Good trouble at God’s table. John Lewis would have liked that! Black folks and white folks, getting real about racism and taking the system down. At God’s table. Sisters and brothers, and non-binary siblings and non-conforming siblings, all of us getting honest about patriarchy and violence, and building something better in our time. At God’s table. Adversaries, antagonist, even enemies laying down their swords and spears, and studying war no more. At God’s table. Everywhere he goes, Jesus is making good trouble at God’s table. And so should we, my friends. If Christianity has legs. If it’s got a future. And so should we.
Now let’s face it. We have all been that one wandering sheep. We have all been that bleeding, broken heart. We have all been that lost, lost spirit. Can I get a Durham “Amen” on that? I imagine one or two of us, or ten or twenty of us, are feeling that way just now, right here, at this table, in this circle today. Because there are a thousand and one ways to get good and lost. Because there are a thousand and one ways to wander off the “appropriate” maps we’ve inherited along the way. And to be human is, let’s face it, to get lost sometimes. Maybe even really, fantastically, shockingly lost. C’mon. I’m not the only one, right?
And if you’re there right now, if that’s you right now, the first thing you need to know is you’re not alone. We know. Right? We know. What it is to wake up in the morning with a broken heart. What it is to wonder what in the world you’re here for. What it is to be so lost, so scared, you can’t imagine finding your way home, or anywhere like home. If that’s you, you’re not alone.
And the second thing you need to know is that this is your table. This is your place. This bread is your bread. This cup is your cup. You are welcome here, just as you are. You are precious and beautiful, just as you are. You are implicated in the incarnation, just as you are. This is your table. This is your bread. This is your cup. All of it!
You see, Jesus doesn’t gather that wild crowd at his table to preach at them. And he doesn’t open his doors and his heart to them, so that he can just impress and intimidate the hell out of them with his own brilliance. That’s not it. That’s not Jesus. And that’s not what happens at his table. Jesus says, Come, eat with me! Jesus says, Come, dream with me! Jesus says, Come, sing and dance and move and groove with me. Incarnation is a community made whole by love!
So let’s not miss the theme here, in all three of Jesus’ parables in the fifteenth chapter of Luke. The one who seeks and seeks, the one who keeps seeking until finding the lost, the one who loves and loves and loves until the lost spirit is found—that one, that God, is a party-throwing God! Right? That God is a party-throwing God! That God calls the neighbors from all over town. That God empties the account to prepare the sweetest and tastiest feast. That God is a party-throwing God!
That’s Jesus’ version, anyway. So maybe our churches should be like that. Maybe our churches should be weekly celebrations of the lost and found, weekly sacraments of joy and reunion, weekly festivals of holy chutzpah and divine passion! Because our God is a party-throwing God! Right?
Now, sometimes, sometimes, parties get disorderly. And sometimes parties have surprises mixed in. And sometimes parties seem even a little indecent and weird, and you can’t tell anymore who’s in and who’s out, and who’s righteous and who’s not, and who’s queer and who’s straight, and who’s rich and who’s poor. And Jesus says, Exactly! Exactly! Because we are one family. Because we are one church. Because we are one people together. No hierarchies at this table. No castes or classes at this table. Just a party-throwing God and a whole lot of good trouble. (If we’re doing it right!)
What happens at God’s table—or what Jesus insists might happen at God’s table—turns the tables on our human tendencies to divide and conquer. Again. What happens at God’s table turns the tables on our human tendencies to divide and conquer. Those Pharisees aren’t terrible people—but they’re accustomed to tables that divide the good from the bad, the clean from the sullied, the righteous from the wretched. They’re accustomed to tables where the credentialed get fed, and the rules get followed to a “T”, and blessing and privilege accrues to the blessed and the privileged. Make sense?
They may not be awful people, but those kinds of tables keep racism and classism in place, and those kinds of tables keep misogyny and patriarchy in place, and those kinds of tables perpetuate poverty, and injustice, and (let’s face it) sin. In place.
But Jesus has a different table in mind—not a barrier to communion, but a barrier-breaker; not a monument to privilege, but an invitation to forgiveness and reconciliation and the deepest, sweetest justice possible. On earth as in heaven. At his table, we tell the honest-to-God stories of our honest-to-God lives. At his table, we confess the brokenness and disunity that breaks us. At Jesus’ table, we offer one another the kind of peace that overwhelms cruelty and judgment, the kind of love that overcomes violence and bigotry, the kind of nourishment that fortifies the soul of our people. And that my friends, that is the bread of life.
So here’s what I want to offer, about the communion we’ll share in just a few minutes. We respond to the invitation—not because we’re in and others are out. We step toward the table—not because we’ve figured anything out or our souls shine any brighter than any other souls. We break bread at this table—because we need that peace that overwhelms cruelty, and we find it here. We break bread at this table—because we need that love that overcomes violence, and we find it here. We break bread at this table—because we believe that God is embodied in our love for one another, embodied in our desire to feed one another, embodied in our craving for forgiveness and grace. Incarnation, right? We believe in God’s good trouble. And we find it here.
So when you’re taking that last step or two, before you reach the basket of bread, before you reach the friend, the disciple offering that bread to you—the bread of life, the body of Christ—keep this in mind. You are God’s good trouble now. We are God’s good trouble now. There is, in that little bit of bread, in that little, gluten-free wafer, enough love, enough grace, enough courage to bless the whole world. From Cameroon to Cape Town. From Dover to Exeter. From the Great Bay to the Great Salt Lake. So take it from that friend before you. Look her in the eye, and thank her for it. And then eat. The bread of life. That’s who you are now.
And I imagine you’ll hear someone, somewhere say something like: “How can this be?”
Amen and Ashe.