The Joy of Belonging

       There is an admiration that I hold for my parents as an adult, one of the many ways in which I admired their parenting was their ability to navigate not one, but two, curious children’s questions. I may have been shy kid in public, but I never failed to ask my folks whatever question came to mind. When I would have trouble going to sleep, my parents would read and sing songs and rub my head, but when sleep still evaded my little body, they would weariedly say, “Maybe try counting sheep?” I admire this for a lot of      reasons, but their patience, at least in my memory, never failed, especially when I would inevitably respond, “But what kind of sheep are they?” Before I could count sheep to fall asleep, I needed to know, what color they were, were they real sheep or cartoon sheep or stuffed sheep? I needed to know if they had bells on, and did they jump over a fence, or were they just walking by? God bless my folks and their patience; I don’t even remember them ever answering, but that’s probably because I would usually fall asleep asking questions about the sheep I was supposed to be counting.

       My curiosity was prominent as a kid, but so was my need to visualize; I wanted to know the texture of the sheep’s wool and if their hooves are muddy. I needed to know what season it was and if there was a sound of bugs lingering in the air around them. When I hear the story of the lost sheep from our gospel lesson, I find myself asking similar questions. I’m curious about how old the shepherd is in Jesus’ tale was. I wonder if his eyes are as weary as my parents were after a long day at work when he goes off to find the lost sheep. I wonder if, when Jesus paints this picture, if he imagines the sheep to be heavy with wool or recently sheered. I wonder if Jesus acted it out when he told the Pharisees the part about the shepherd hoisting the lost sheep on his shoulders before he returned to celebrate with his friends.

       My curiosity here doesn’t stop with the parable of the lost sheep, either. Jesus sat at the table with tax collectors and sinners as the Pharisees protested around him, and I wonder if as he told the story of the lost coin, did he pitch his voice for effect as the woman exclaimed? And I wonder if he squealed with joy to as he conveyed the depth of utter delight that the woman had in finding her lost coin. I wonder if the sinners at the table felt in on the joke and the silliness of Jesus’ parables. I wonder if Christ laughed at the end of these parables about being lost and being found by God, overcome with the joy of the angels in heaven.

       Like most folk who have spent the whole of their lives in churches, I tend to think I know these stories of Jesus. But when I let my mind wander and get curious about the details, it opens up space for new layers of meaning and understanding. For so much of my life, these have been stories about God, represented here by two of the lowest status people in Jesus’ time: a field worker and a woman. These stories tell us that God will risk everything to go search for the lost like the shepherd did and who will search as unceasingly as the woman with her coin. But as these stories rolled around my mind and space began to open up around the details just a bit, I began to see that more important than the nature of the wandering, lost sheep or the accidentally discarded coin, was the absolute and undeniable joy. There is joy when the shepherd finds the sheep and proudly carries it home, there is joy when the woman finally finds the coin and invites her friends to celebrate with her, and there is an abundant sense of joy in heaven when we turn back toward God. More joy in heaven than we can imagine. These are not just stories about being lost, they are not even stories primarily about being lost, they are stories about being surprised by the joy of belonging.

Unfortunately, I have always heard these stories as if Jesus was primarily focused on the lostness; I always heard these stories about fear and concern, and eventually relief from that the fact that what once was lost now is found. I’ve always heard these stories with a heavy moral weight – don’t dare be one of the lost, be one of the 99, but this misses the point of the parables entirely. Jesus is literally sitting at table with sinners; he is not worried about the moral weight why one might get lost. Because the truth is we can wander away ourselves, following selfish desires, or we can be dragged down by the weight of a society that discards us like a lost coin, but what is more important than all of that to Jesus is the overwhelming and convicting reality of the joy of belonging.

       The criticism to which these parables are a response comes from the Jewish sect of the Pharisees. As a kid, I learned to remember one of the main characteristics of Pharisees in a goofy song that said, “Pharisees – that’s not fair, you see!” The criticism to which Christ is responding is that it’s not fair for the Messiah to sit with sinners. They ask is it fair to share table fellowship and belonging and joy with those who fall outside the lines of ‘acceptable company’? Christ’s parables are often a sort of trap; they lure you in, only to turn the metaphor on its head to shake you loose from your presumptions. When I hear these stories about the lost sheep and the lost coin, I can see myself in the shepherd and the woman, and I can see myself in the friends who come to celebrate with them, and very often I see myself in the wandering sheep or the discarded coin, but I also must admit that I see myself in the critical Pharisees as well.

       It is tempting to set boundaries around God’s grace; to try to block off a section of humanity that might from Christ’s table, but what we hear today is that the joy of belonging can flow to everyone, and it is not our job to arbitrate who gets to sit where. Our only job is to fall into the joyful rush around all of heaven when anyone – when any of us – get to experience the unbridled joy of belonging in God’s grace.

       I don’t know where you fall today. Maybe you see yourself in our gospel text as a sinner sitting at the table, passing the Christ the bread, or maybe you see yourself as the weary shepherd or the frenzied woman, looking for the belonging you have misplaced. Maybe you are wandering, separated from your flock, aimless and directionless and worried about where you are going. Maybe you are struggling to live into a broader Christianity than which you might typically be comfortable.

I don’t know where you fall today, and maybe that joy in heaven is easy to hear and believe, but I know that for a lot of us, there are constant messages around us that joy is just out of reach and belonging is not really for us no matter sinner, sheep, or Pharisee. The thing is, though, is that the kingdom of heaven is not fair, you see. A deep and unfailing sense of the joy of belonging will push against every message of scarcity and exclusion that we take in from society, every single one. But what I know to be true on this day, no matter what, is that there is no greater gift, on heaven or on earth, than the joy of belonging.

A sermon delivered on September 11, 2022 to the people of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, KY on Luke 15:1-10 for Proper 19C.

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