Sunday, September 15, 2013

Sermon: The Jesus Pub

Luke 15:1-10
The Jesus Pub
James Sledge                                                                           September 15, 2013

A few weeks ago, Shawn and I decided to take a little getaway, and so we headed up to Gettysburg. We got there in the afternoon and decided to walk around a bit in the town. By the end of our walk it was past supper time, and so we looked for somewhere to eat, nothing fancy, just a place to eat. We peeked into a few places as we passed by and finally settled on a place right on the square.
It was called the Blue & Gray Bar and Grill, so it obviously catered to tourists. We didn’t want to wait for a table, so we grabbed a couple of seats at the bar which turned out to be populated more by locals. They seemed to be regulars, carrying on a lively conversation with the folks working behind the bar.
I’m not sure if it’s because of alcohol, or simply the nature of bars, but we eventually found ourselves included in the lively conversation. There wasn’t really anything in the way of formal introductions, but somehow we ended up as just a couple more in the fellowship at that end of the bar.
A few years ago the New York Times travel section had a piece on the pubs of Oxford, England. In the intro it said, “A good pub is a ready-made party, a home away from home, a club anyone can join.”[1] I think that applies to a lot of bars, too, and Shawn and I experienced a bit of that “ready-made party, club anyone can join” feel in Gettysburg.
Jesus apparently gives off a very similar vibe, a “ready-made party, club anyone can join” feel that, well, gets the religious folks’ noses bent out of  joint. For some reason, religious people often think unkindly about bars. Sometimes it’s an objection to alcohol, but it’s also a suspicion about people who frequent bars. Bars can have their share of unsavory sorts, and bars tend not to be judgmental places. Most anyone is welcome.
But Jesus is a religious person. Followers call him Rabbi, and he is teaching about how to live as God wants us to live. So what’s with the bar vibe? Why is he hanging out with and embracing these folks who’ve not seen the inside of a church in years? Why is he having a beer and a burger with them like they were his best buddies?

Religion almost always brings out boundary setting tendencies in us humans. We Presbyterians are not as big on it as some, but we still like things “decently and in order.” Technically, you’re supposed to be baptized in order to have a drink and a bite at this table, though we tend to ignore that rule here. And living in an age when style often trumps substance, we Christians have created a lot of style boundaries. Some Christians wouldn’t be caught dead in an establishment that didn’t have an organ and choir singing Bach, while others wouldn’t think of going in a place that didn’t have a band and a screen with video clips. And both groups often look down their noses at the other.
When Jesus hears that, “What in the world is he doing hanging out with them?” complaint, he does what he so often does. He tells some stories, ones that are favorites with a lot of Christians. There are actually three: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son, better known as the parable of the prodigal son. The first two are clearly a pair, but the story of the prodigal is meant to go with them, and it forcefully raises a question implied in the first two, whether we religious sorts will join in the partying that goes on whenever a lost one is found.
Given that these parables are, in part, meant to skewer religious sorts, it might seem odd that they have become such favorites in the church, the very place where religious types tend to hang out. But I suppose that most all of us have felt lost on occasions. At times, some of us may have lost faith, even felt like we lost God, and it is comforting to hear that at precisely such times we become the object of God’s searching. As one writer puts it, “To those whose lost object is faith itself, these parables whisper that losing faith—that is, becoming like the tax collector and sinner rather than the Pharisee and scribe—is to have wandered into the place where one can be found.”[2] Into the Jesus Pub perhaps?
But in those times when Christians act more like religious insiders, when church congregations are more like private clubs than bars or pubs, then Jesus’ parables speak a very different message. God is more concerned with the outsider than the insider. The heavenly party really gets going, the celebration truly kicks off at the divine pub, when the outsiders arrive, when the lost are found, when the estranged return. And in the last of Jesus’ three stories, the parable of the prodigal, the good, dutiful, religious, older brother is standing outside as the party begins, unable or unwilling to join the festivities.
Indeed the party seems at the heart of these parables. When the lost become found a party is required, one that heaven itself can’t wait to join, even if the religious folk aren’t so sure. Scott Bader-Saye writes, “So salvation consists not purely or even primarily in rescue, but in being drawn into the eternal celebration. For the Pharisees (and for every critical, nay-saying voice in the church) the question becomes, ‘Who are you ready to party with?’ If the answer is ‘We don’t party,’ or ‘We don’t party with them,’ then those righteous ones will have ceded to the pub the role of parable of the kingdom.”[3]
I saw something on Facebook the other day that perhaps says it better. We’ve gotten it backwards. We do not bring the lost sheep to God. The lost sheep bring God to us.”
Many have heard the line, “The Church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints," generally attributed to Pauline Phillips, better known as Dear Abby. I don’t know how much time you’ve spent around hospitals, but the waiting area at many, especially the emergency rooms, often contains an interesting cross section of folks. People come because they are hurting and in need. It makes for an eclectic mix not usually seen in worship services, but one you might find in some bars or pubs.
Jesus seems to think that the church should look more like a hospital or a bar, even if that annoys the good, religious folks of his day to no end. Two thousand years later, we in the church still struggle to give off the hospital or pub vibe that Jesus did, but that’s not to say that we aren’t working at it. Welcome Table and Ives House do bring a much a much more varied group, and the expansion of Welcome Table means that’s happening more often. I have great hopes that our expanded youth program will help us to become a place where young people from outside the congregation can connect with God and God’s love. And the development of a second worship service says, “We’d like you to join us, even if your musical tastes and worship style are not exactly the same as ours.
I’m convinced that the Spirit is at work in all this, that a divine calling is moving us to continue becoming the community Jesus wants us to be, a community that is not only open to all but that reaches out to all.
I know that this call has touched the hearts of a core of leaders here, and I hope and pray that it is beginning to touch the hearts of all of us, for I do think it is God’s call. We will know soon enough if most of us have felt this call. Jesus says, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” I’m pretty sure that works both ways, and if large numbers of us are sensing God’s call, it will show up in our giving and in our stewardship responses.
There is something incredibly exciting about hearing a call from God, about discovering you are an integral part of something that God is up to. I know that in my own life, I have never felt more alive than when I have been deeply aware of God’s call in my life. And I have never felt as listless, bored, unfocused, and rudderless as when that is missing. That is why I so hope that you will sense this call, that we will join together as we seek to model more and more the new day Jesus proclaims, the great banquet, that remarkable, heavenly party where people come from east and west, north and south, from every walk of life and every conceivable background, from all the places, groups, biases, and viewpoints that so often divide us, to that eternal, cosmic party that cranks up a little bit more every time one more person is found by God’s love.

[1] Henry Shukman, “A Pub Crawl through the Centuries,” New York Times, April 13, 2008; quoted by Scott Bader-Saye in, Taylor, Barbara Brown; Bartlett, David (2010-04-12). Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C Volume 4 (Kindle Locations 2899-2900). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.
[2] Scott Bader-Saye in, Taylor, Barbara Brown; Bartlett, David (2010-04-12). Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C Volume 4  (Kindle Locations 2702-2703). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.
[3] Ibid. (Kindle Locations 2704-2711).

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