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Coming Near

A sermon preached September 11, 2016
The Rev. John Ohmer, Rector
The Falls Church Episcopal

The Old Testament Lesson: The LORD said to Moses, "Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, `These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!'" The LORD said to Moses, "I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation."

But Moses implored the LORD his God, and said, "O LORD, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, `It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth'? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, `I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.'" And the LORD changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people. (Exodus 32:7-14)

The Gospel: All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them."
So he told them this parable: "Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, `Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.' Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

"Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, `Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.' Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents." (Luke 15:1-10) 


The stories that Jesus tells in the Gospel today -- one about a shepherd seeking out a lost sheep, another about a woman seeking out a lost coin – are both told as examples, or metaphors, for the way God seeks us out.

And both stories are told in response to grumbling, grumbling criticism that Jesus receives from religious insiders who witness, and object to, the radical hospitality that Jesus offers.

And so it is very interesting, and telling, that at the beginning of the story, we hear the little phrase, “coming near.” The religious authorities objected to the fact that tax collectors and sinners were “coming near.”1

Here are people at the periphery of that culture and time “coming near” to Jesus. I suppose the religious authorities would have been fine if those people – those who were at the periphery – were to have stayed at the periphery.

What offends them is the way they come near, and enter the inner circle.

About ten years ago, The Episcopal Church in general, and this particular church specifically, went through a huge “inner circle” power struggle, a power struggle that centered around two issues:

1)  whether or not being openly gay should disqualify you from being becoming a priest or bishop, and
2)  whether or not being female (whether straight or gay) should disqualify you from becoming a bishop

(with The Episcopal Church saying “no, being openly gay or female should not disqualify you.”)

As some of you who are relatively new here may not know, but as many of you do know, and as some of you experienced firsthand, this particular church literally split over it these power struggles, with the vast majority of the congregation here voting in 2006 to leave the Episcopal Church but attempt to keep these buildings, and a small minority choosing to stay in The Episcopal Church and help retain ownership of these Episcopal Church properties, a legal fight not settled until March of 2014 -- and we’ve been rebuilding here since.

Because these struggles had legal implications, and because they were, at one level, about sexuality and gender, you may have heard these struggles being referred to as a legal battle, or a theological struggle, or even a “disagreement over Biblical authority.”

But the reason I refer to it as a power struggle is this:

Arguably there have been closeted gay clergy and bishops as long as there have been clergy and bishops.

And The Episcopal Church has been ordaining women to the priesthood since the mid to late 1970’s, and there have been women bishops in the Episcopal Church since 1989. That is 1989 .

So why was it that in 2003-2006 things came a head? Because that’s when we, as a denomination, agreed to allow a diocese to elect an openly gay man into the House of Bishops, and that’s when we elected a woman as our Presiding, or head Bishop.

At one level, supposedly, those controversies are about sexuality, or gender, and the way we ought to interpret scripture, but at a deeper level, those controversies, like the controversy in today’s Gospel are about power.

They are about the inner circle and the periphery:
And who gets to decide who is in the inner circle and who has to stay on the periphery.

And I mean this to be descriptive, not critical, because I know as well as anyone that when we point a finger at someone, we have three fingers pointing right back at us. And so let me be clear: the dynamic I’m describing here – the tendency to be exclusionary, to resist others coming into our power circle – is a human tendency, not a conservative tendency or a liberal tendency. It’s human nature.

And it goes way back. And it kicks up deep stuff.

At least for me it does: I call it the “middle school lunch tray cool kid table phenomenon.” Maybe it’s just me – let me know afterwards if I’m striking a nerve here, if I’m onto something with you as well – but to this day, I’m at a conference or a meeting, and I have to go down the line with my lunch or dinner tray, and then find a place at a table to eat at, and other people are already seated, I instantly regress to an insecure middle schooler.

Look: I probably come across as a confident, relatively successful guy, but all it takes is for one of the cool kids -- or what I perceive as one of the cool kids -- to “um, this seat is taken” [scoot over, block the place from being taken] and every insecurity that I’ve ever had – and even some that I haven’t had – comes crashing over me like a tsunami…I start wondering if I should have come to the conference in the first place…I hurriedly start looking outdoors for a picnic table away from everyone where I can sit alone and pretend to be checking important emails…

You may think I’m exaggerating (or maybe for you I’m just scratching the surface!) -- but here’s the thing: that is how so many people feel about approaching God. Or becoming actively involved in a church:That when it comes to the possibility of having conversational intimacy with God, or getting connected, really connected, to your church, you’re not included…
you’re too late, or too early…
that all the seats are taken…
so you might as well isolate, and act busy.

But “all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to Jesus.”

Because here’s Jesus: [at table, open arms, motioning, says, “here, sit down.”]

There’s a place for you, set aside for you to listen to God in daily prayer. Come near.

There’s a place for you to become connected and actively involved in this faith community and make a lasting difference in the world: come to the Fellowship Hall after the service and see which table, which ministry you are drawn to. Come near.

But you know, it’s even better than that – with God it’s even better than being welcomed to a place at the table. God actively seeks a connection with you.

Returning to the parables Jesus tells, keep in mind that the farmer goes after, pursues the one who is lost, the woman “searches carefully” for the lost coin.

It’s as if we’re still in the cafeteria line, trying to decide between fresh fruit or French fries, and the One Whom You Most Want to Sit With is suddenly standing next to you, saying, “hey, do you have anyone to sit with? I was hoping we could sit together and catch up.”

When you are welcomed, that’s one thing. And it is nice. But when you are sought out? It’s more than having your ego needs met: there’s a deep psychological and spiritual need being addressed: that you were lovingly created. That no matter how far you feel you have strayed from God’s fold,
Not matter how lost you think you are,

God is a God who searches, and searches, and seeks you, and invites you, and invites you and invites you.

THAT is the point, or at least the power of these parables: God is a God who searches out…this Gospel is about the long, loving reach of God.

Created in the image of that God, THAT is the kind of people you and I are called to be, and THAT is the kind of faith community we are called to be:

A people and a place of not only welcome…but invitation…
A place where all can come near,
A place where power re-defined and
inside and periphery are turned inside out and upside down,
A place where Gods’ love and God’s people,
By God’s Love,
welcome, and not only welcome but invite, and not only invite but search and find, so everyone knows God’s loving embrace.


1.   I owe this insight to G. Penny Nixon, Feasting on the Word, pg. 71.  (updated)

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