Summary: Taken from the parable of the Good Shepherd who leaves the 99 to retrieve the one lost sheep, this sermon focuses on how grace is welcoming... hence, A welcoming grace. The sheep was retrieved, then welcomed home.
A Welcoming Grace
Five words appear all across America. We print them on books, newsletters, church bulletins, and thousands of search signs. They are the de facto mission statement for an entire denomination. “The Episcopal Church welcomes you.”
We insist that welcoming arms await all who walk through our red doors. Most of the time we do a good job living into our mission.
But, it leaves me with a question: “What does it mean to be a welcoming faith community?" Hold that thought, and we'll come back to it.
Jesus understood welcoming people. The Gospel lesson said that he “welcomed sinners and even ate with them.” The Pharisees couldn’t stand a man who claimed to be holy befriending people so “sinful.”
As a response, Jesus told two parables. He mentioned a sheep that wandered away from the fold. The shepherd walked away from the 99 other sheep to find the missing one. That seems a bit… irresponsible… to me.
Most good businessmen would call this a bad decision. A couple of my friends would say, "No need to worry about one sheep. We accounted for minor product failure, so we have room in the quarterly budget to find a replacement sheep.”
Second, Jesus told a parable about a woman who lost a coin. She seems irresponsible too. She lost 1/10 of her life savings because of carelessness and lack of attention.
The shepherd found the lost sheep, and he welcomed it back into the sheepfold. The woman found the coin of great value, and she welcomed it back into her purse. And Jesus… Jesus welcomes you.
There’s a “Welcoming Grace” in this passage. We see that:
A Welcoming Grace is about others
The Pharisees couldn't stand how Jesus acted. They thought he was spiritually irresponsible, foolish, negligent, and even careless. They expected him to be the typical 1st-century prophet and preach liberation from Roman occupation. They expected him to lead a military rebellion. He had dinner with sinners instead.
Not everyone who does God’s work fits the mold.
Instead, he ate, laughed, and drank wine with sinners. He preached that love, not lead to the heart of God. That was not a sermon the Pharisees wanted to hear.
So Jesus was a radical prophet with the reputation of welcoming sinners. When someone mentioned Jesus, the response was… “Oh, him, yeah, we’ve heard to him. He’s that man from Nazareth who welcomes sinners to the dinner table.”
For Jesus, welcoming people was the message of love and acceptance. Did he agree with them? No. Did he welcome them anyway? Yes. He was the compassionate shepherd who left the other sheep to find the one who lost their way.
Jesus knew welcoming grace wasn’t about how people perceived him, but it was about inviting others into God’s kingdom. That’s why he went to dinner with sinners.
I heard a funny story about a country pastor who preached this passage. He told his congregation that having the preacher over was hospitality. So, they needed to invite him over for dinner more often. Then he concluded his admonition by informing them that he wanted to be like Jesus and dine with sinners.
Welcoming grace is about others, not ourselves, and our comfort levels.
A Welcoming Grace is open arms.
Hospitality is a lost art. Jesus practiced what I’ve coined, spiritual hospitality. Jesus did not “tolerate” sinners; he invited them to be comfortable at the table.
That invitation, the open arms of grace, bothered the Pharisees so much that they gossiped. They thought his welcome was too wide, and his grace was too generous.
I wish churches were immune from Pharisees. The word Pharisee means "separate." They wanted to be separate. I visited a church once, and they showed me the regular place where visitors sat. In contrast, Jesus wanted to be with the people who needed welcoming grace and spiritual hospitality.
Some churches embrace welcoming grace. Others miss Jesus entirely. Allow me to share a true story that I witnessed first-hand when I lived in California.
San Francisco has a large homeless population. Many of the disenfranchised are combat veterans. These people found shelter from the night among the alcoves that surrounded a beautiful downtown cathedral.
These lost sheep irritated the parishioners since they expected their church to be immune from those people. So, they put signs all over the cathedral campus that read, “No Trespassing.”
At night the homeless continued to take sanctuary under the covered sidewalks. The church couldn't have that, so they devised a way to rid themselves permanently from the lost coins.
They spent thousands of dollars on an elaborate overhead sprinkler system for all the alcoves and covered sidewalks. Every 30 mins Gallons of water poured over the men and women, soaking them and their belongings.
They sent a clear message: “You’re not welcome here. Jesus does not dine with the likes of you.”