by Rev. Joe ConnollyClick here to listen to this sermon on Vimeo.
“Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to the teaching of Jesus. And the Pharisees and the religious scholars were grumbling and saying, ‘This person welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” — Luke 15:2.
There are those who would accuse me of being a political junkie. But I don’t agree with that label since most so called political junkies are ideologically driven. I am more interested in what might be called the ‘horse race’ aspects of politics rather than the ideological battles.
By ‘horse race’ I mean I am fascinated by statistical analysis. I want to know based on underlying, ongoing trends, ‘who voted for whom?’ For me the questions ‘who did the winners influence’ and ‘who did the losers fail to influence’ are more interesting and tell more about our society than the ideological clashes of the body politic.
You see, in the long run I don’t think ideological battles mean much. Why? Whichever ideological side wins today, you can bet the other side will win at some point down the road. Even if it’s not tomorrow, the other side will eventually win.
All one needs to do is examine the history of the American political scene over time to realize the truth of that. And by history, I mean our full history.
If our entire 237 years as a unified country are examined carefully, a fairly sound argument can be made that our politics swing like a pendulum from liberal to conservative, from left to right and back about every fifty years. To be clear: those swings do not happen exactly every fifty years but it’s close enough to be astonishing.
Well, I’m telling you all this because I recently read a book with the title This Town, by Mark Leibovich, a New York Times reporter.  And what is ‘this town?’ ‘This town’ is the phrase insiders— powerful insiders— use to refer to Washington, D.C.
To a certain extent the book exposes the false liberal/conservative public posturing presented by insiders— members of the media and politicians alike. Off camera they see each other at weddings, funerals and parties. They are friendly with each other, dine with one another and visit each other’s homes on the social circuit.
Perhaps the deeper point made by the book is a lot of money is made and gets spread around among those on the inside and not too much attention is paid to ideology. They make money together and lot of attention is paid by everyone just to making money, not ideology.
In telling that story the book tries to convey a tone of controlled outrage. Controlled outrage— like when a member of Congress says they are shocked, just shocked to find out (for instance) that the National Security Agency has been tracking phone calls. Well, the National Security Agency, the NSA has been tracking phone calls since 1979.
So, one wonders why a member of Congress might be shocked by that. It’s been going on for 37 years. And most members voted to approve of it over and over again by re-authorizing the 1979 law which created the process. (Slight pause.)
Par of my point here is this is a given: in any society there are insiders and there are outsiders. Go into a High School and you will be clued you into that. If you observe the students as they sit munching their lunch in the cafeteria you can spot the students who are thought of as… cool and spot the students who are thought of as… uncool.
Further, to continue that High School analogy, students who are thought of as cool in a science lab may not be the ones who are thought of as cool in music class, may not be the ones who are thought of as cool on athletic practice fields. My point is a multitude of different inside and outside structures entwine our lives.
Additionally, there is, I think, a part of each of us that wants to be cool in places in we will never get a chance to be cool. Yes, I really did want to be a broadcaster for a major league baseball team. Yes, that would have been really, really cool.
No, I will never be that kind of cool. I think it’s that wanting to be cool in places it will never happen is something with which most of us struggle. (Slight pause.)
And these words are from Luke: “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to the teaching of Jesus. And the Pharisees and the religious scholars were grumbling and saying, ‘This person welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” (Slight pause.)
One of the things we tend to miss with the Fifteenth Chapter of Luke is that the whole chapter can been seen as a lesson about one thing. Who is on the inside and who is on the outside does not matter in the Dominion of God.
Jesus accepts the tax collectors and other sinners. The Pharisees and the religious scholars, appalled by this, effectively say, ‘these people are unclean, are they not?!’ To me, this reaction feels like the controlled outrage of the politicians I addressed earlier.
And that reaction is hard to swallow because the real accusation being leveled is this: these people are not members of our tribe. These people do not do things the way our tribe does things. Put another way, the Pharisees and the religious scholars are simply saying these people are not cool— or at least they are not our kind of cool.
And what happens then? Jesus immediately overturns the accusation of the Pharisees and the religious scholars. How? Jesus includes the Pharisees and the religious scholars by engaging them and offering them these parables. (Slight pause.)
The truth of the matter is cool and uncool, outsiders and insiders are created categories. And we create them. We create them because our tendency— and I’d be the first to admit it’s a very human tendency— is to break any group up into… tribes.
To be clear, I don’t think Jesus is saying we will ever get rid of tribes. What Jesus is saying is this: in the Dominion of God tribes do not count for anything— anything. (Slight pause.)
Well, that points to the obvious, does it not? Why are there so many churches. Isn’t the fact that all we Christians have broken up into tribes theologically detestable? Why yes it is. (Slight pause.)
I need to tell you about something else. One of the things I try to do with my reading time, aside from reading current books like This Town, is I occasionally read a classic work and sometimes even a classic work in the field of religion and church. A book I am currently reading is Visible Saints: The History of a Puritan Idea, published in 1963.
In these several sentences the author Edmund Morgan both paraphrases and directly quotes John Calvin. (Quote:) “Calvin maintained that the visible church must be ‘composed of good and bad men mingled together’ and the failure to correct faults was no cause for withdrawal. The ministry of the Word and the administration of the sacraments ‘have too much influence in preserving the unity of the church to admit to its being destroyed by a few impious men.’”  (Slight pause.)
I’ll bet you didn’t think Calvin could be that liberal. But Calvin probably understood being on the inside and being on the outside.
What we don’t get is that in his era Calvin was on the outside. So, is this admission about inclusion by Calvin simply a theological stance or was it something he came to from experience— the experience of being excluded? I don’t know.
I do think the bottom line is this: a sound theology says in the eyes of God the externals do not matter. God does not create categories. We do. God does not decide who is cool. We do.
So, do you want to be cool in the eyes of God? Don’t split your neighbors into categories. Just love your neighbor. All of them. Now that’s cool. Amen.
United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, New York
ENDPIECE— It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Congregational Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “There is a reason one of the great slogans of the Protestant Revolution is ‘we are justified by grace.’ However, the surprise is so many Protestants, starting with the Puritans I might add are willing to excommunicate anyone whose behavior doesn’t please them. They don’t like what they do? They excommunicate them. They, thereby, ignore grace for the sake of having a pure, spotless group. If we insist on a pure spotless group, then we insist that the stability of the covenant relies on works. Personally, I do not think insisting on purity and, thereby, denying the efficacy of the Grace of, of Mercy of God, is a good idea.”
BENEDICTION: O God, you have bound us together in a common life. Help us, in the midst of our striving for justice and truth, to confront one another in love, and to work together with mutual patience, acceptance and respect. Send us out, sure in Your grace and Your peace with surpasses understanding, to live faithfully. And may we love God so much, that we love nothing else too much. May we be so in awe of God, that we are in awe of no one else and nothing else. Amen.