Sunday, September 11, 2016

Sermon: Street Parties & Country Club Problems

Luke 15:1-10
Street Parties & Country Club Problems
James Sledge                                                                                       September 11, 2016

I don’t know how common it is now, but at one time, big steeple churches often included  a country club membership as one of the perks for their senior pastor. I suppose they reasoned that because many of them were country club sorts, they wanted their pastor to be able to join with them.
I’m not a golfer, and so I’ve not spent that much time around country clubs other than the occasional wedding reception. The closest I’ve ever come to a country club membership was joining local pools back when our girls were younger. And I don’t remember much about that process because my wife handled all that.
The pools we belonged to weren’t anything exclusive, but you still had to be a member. There was some sort of application process and once you joined you had to pay the annual dues to maintain your membership.
My guess is that joining a country club involves a similar, if a bit more selective, sort of process. There is an expectation that members will meet certain standards, and so you may have to be sponsored by an existing member, provide references, talk with a selection committee, and so on. How much you get vetted depends on how exclusive the club is.
Church congregations sometimes get compared to country clubs, for obvious reasons. You can become members, and once you do there is some expectation that you give financially, pay annual dues as it were. Some congregations feel exclusive, even if there is no formal vetting process for prospective members. And like real country clubs, many congregations once had rules against minorities joining or women serving in leadership roles.
Typically, church congregations use informal, often unintentional standards to maintain whatever level of exclusivity they expect. And so congregations can usually be labeled by income levels, race, education, and more. Such things may not have been conscious choices initially, but over time, they become standards that are enforced to some degree.

Many years ago, the church I served was discussing ways to reach to the neighborhood around us. A lot of apartments had sprung up near us – some low income housing – with residents who didn’t look like our typical, suburban, white member. One idea that had created a fair amount of excitement among church leaders was the possibility of starting a second service that would be more contemporary, not use classical music, have a band instead of a choir, that sort of thing.
One evening we had a town hall type meeting to talk about this idea with the congregation. After an elder had given a presentation, a long-time, beloved and revered member stood up. “Are there other congregations doing these sort of services?” he asked. Someone said there were, and I assumed he would then ask about how successful such outreach efforts were. He said, “Well couldn’t those people in the apartments just go there?”
I don’t know that I’ve ever heard a more blunt and honest statement about membership standards and boundaries. The way we did church, the sort of liturgy and music we used, the way we dressed, and more tended to attract a certain sort and keep away others. And this member liked it that way.
There’s a country club problem in our gospel reading today, although it’s not about styles of worship or race or income levels. Because the Pharisees so often play the role of villain in gospel stories, it can be too easy to dismiss them as hypocrites. But you have to give them credit. Their ideas about exclusivity weren’t about worship or ritual. That was something the priestly folks worried about, and Pharisees had little use for the priests.
The Pharisees were all about obeying the Law, the rules God had laid out in Scripture. Faith for them was not just about going to worship. It was about meticulously following God’s rules. Who would argue against that?
Jesus himself speaks often about the need to follow the Law, yet he turns out to be a terrible country club member. And it doesn’t much matter to him whether your country club is about money, style, race, and coming from the right sort of family, or if your club is about being an upstanding rule-keeper and morality champion. Jesus keeps inviting people that your club doesn’t want.
The Pharisees, whose own teachings often sound a good deal like those of Jesus, call him on his unwillingness to maintain the country club boundaries. Jesus responds with several parables, those we heard today and the parable of the prodigal, the gospel for next Sunday. The first parable is deeply beloved by many Christians. There are paintings of Jesus carrying a lamb on his shoulders, and it is reassuring to think that should we get ourselves lost, Jesus will drop everything and come looking for us. But if we are the lamb Jesus so tenderly carries, just where is he taking us?
Both parables, the lost sheep and the lost coin, end with a party. And it doesn’t sound like a country club sort of event. It’s not exclusive but more of a street party. Friends and neighbors get invited. I don’t want to make too much of that, but unless you live on the golf course, county club parties aren’t usually friends and neighbors. But street parties tend to be a bit more open.
With street parties you send out a group email, put up signs in the neighborhood, post something on Facebook or the neighborhood website. With street parties, there isn’t really a guest list. It’s just whoever shows up. That usually means people you’re friends with and some you don’t really care for. It even includes that really creepy neighbor nobody likes.
In fact, about the only way to get excluded from a street party is to decide you’re not going. Maybe you’re out of town that weekend. Maybe you just don’t like street parties. Maybe you think the neighborhood has gone downhill, and you’d rather not associate with the sort of folks who’ve moved in. Regardless of the reason, if the party turns about to be the event of the century, it’s nobody’s fault but your own that you missed it.
That’s actually part of the point Jesus is making to the Pharisees who criticize him for hanging out with decidedly non-country club sorts. Not only have they misunderstood how God’s love longs to draw in everyone, but they’re likely to miss the party because they don’t want to hang out with those who are invited. The third parable Jesus tells these Pharisees, the story of the Prodigal Son, makes this clear. It ends with the good, elder brother standing outside the party as his dad pleads with him to join in.
This idea of God’s new day, God’s Kingdom, as a party with a very un-country club-like guest list shows up a good deal in the gospels. And in our denomination’s constitution, where it lists the six “Great Ends (or purposes) of the Church,” the last one says, “the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world.”[1] That suggests to me that when we show up for worship here, it ought to feel, at least a little bit, like a street party.
Regardless, Jesus is planning a really big one, and all of you, everyone everywhere, are invited.

[1] The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA) Part II, Book of Order, 2015-2017, (Louisville: The Office of the General Assembly, 2015), F-1.0304

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