“Celebrate with Me”
Isaiah 43:1-4 and Luke 15:1-10
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
But now, says the Lord—
the one who created you, Jacob,
the one who formed you, Israel:
Don’t fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name; you are mine.
2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
when through the rivers, they won’t sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire, you won’t be scorched
and flame won’t burn you.
3 I am the Lord your God,
the holy one of Israel, your savior.
I have given Egypt as your ransom,
Cush and Seba in your place.
4 Because you are precious in my eyes,
you are honored, and I love you.
I give people in your place,
and nations in exchange for your life. (CEB)
All the tax collectors and sinners were gathering around Jesus to listen to him. 2 The Pharisees and legal experts were grumbling, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
3 Jesus told them this parable: 4 “Suppose someone among you had one hundred sheep and lost one of them. Wouldn’t he leave the other ninety-nine in the pasture and search for the lost one until he finds it? 5 And when he finds it, he is thrilled and places it on his shoulders. 6 When he arrives home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Celebrate with me because I’ve found my lost sheep.’7 In the same way, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who changes both heart and life than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need to change their hearts and lives.
8 “Or what woman, if she owns ten silver coins and loses one of them, won’t light a lamp and sweep the house, searching her home carefully until she finds it? 9 When she finds it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Celebrate with me because I’ve found my lost coin.’
10 In the same way, I tell you, joy breaks out in the presence of God’s angels over one sinner who changes both heart and life.” (CEB)
The Pharisees are angry because Jesus eats with sinners. Well, if Jesus didn’t eat with sinners, wouldn’t he always eat alone?
“Sinners” are everywhere Pharisees are—even when only Pharisees are around. And within the Jewish community, they all worship the one who has welcomed back wayward Israel over and over for generations. And with Israel’s every return, God celebrates with a joy that surpasses God’s heart-pierced lament of Israel’s every departure.
And there’s the rub: God celebrates Israel. Even when Israel has not completely reformed and renewed, God celebrates. Thus, says the psalmist, “you are precious in my eyes, you are honored, and I love you.”
God’s celebration can be seen in the continuing goodness and abundance of the Creation. Isaiah, the great prophet of return and renewal, declares this saying, “[Y]ou will go out with celebration, and you will be brought back in peace. Even the mountains and the hills will burst into song before you; all the trees of the field will clap their hands.” (Is. 55:12 CEB) Singing hills and hand-clapping trees—this is the prophet’s memorable image of God initiating and celebrating Israel’s return.
Even with that shared history of departures and returns, the Pharisees divide the community between themselves and those with whom Jesus eats.
Now, this is a potentially uncomfortable question, but is it easier for us to understand the Pharisees’ prejudice against “sinners” than it is for us to understand Jesus’ celebratory welcome of them?
Think about the people whom you distrust, dislike, or otherwise just don’t want to be bothered with. Our lists may be longer than any of us want to admit. And given the depth of the divisions in our culture, many of us have probably granted ourselves immunity from feeling remorse for our prejudices. If you’re above all this, you can take a nap for the next few minutes. Others of us, though, have created hard categories of THEM to fear and to spurn. And when we find people with similar THEMs, we only talk ourselves further into corners of pharisaic self-righteousness. And there we attempt to usurp God’s prerogative of defining holiness and worthiness.
But we’re not God. We just cast blame and deny our own connection to and even responsibility for any sad state of affairs around us. In our corners of self-righteousness, we assume roles of judge, jury, and executioner. And isn’t that what the Pharisees are doing when they complain about Jesus eating with sinners?
While some scripture passages do assign human-like emotions to God, it’s not the nature of God to grumble or whine. God engages in holy lament, which leads to redeeming action. And that is a mark of God’s true nature. The psalmist and Isaiah both know it. And Jesus clearly lives it.
Wendell Berry wrote, and I trust this to be deeply and universally true, “There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places.”
Places don’t desecrate themselves. The desecration of place happens by human action and inaction. We exhaust the soil, decimate the forests, foul the water, poison the air. And if we don’t do it for economic or political gain, then we allow it through lack of gratitude, generosity, and responsibility.
Humankind’s poor record as creation’s stewards also stems from self-serving theology. When Christianity got drafted by empire, it became beholden to violent power. It quit teaching that the creation itself is an expression of the Creator. And that led to generation after generation of mistreatment of the earth. And when human beings desecrate the planet upon which we depend, we desecrate our human neighbors, our animal neighbors, and ourselves. It seems to me that when we try to divorce ourselves from the Creation, we end up, like the Pharisees, obsessed with “sins.” Caught in shallow individualism, we blame each other for the woes that affect us all. That reveals a corollary to Wendell Berry’s statement: There are no unsacred people; only sacred and desecrated people.
Dealing with sinfulness is easier than dealing with sacredness, though. When focusing on sin, everything becomes not only individualistic, but dualistic, as well—us and them, right and wrong, black and white. That’s why we’ve all been fed the easier and more palatable doctrine of “original sin.” The more empowering and demanding burden, though, is to accept and celebrate the innate holiness in Creation—what Matthew Fox calls the “original blessing” of our God-imaged selves.
When we assume fundamental sinfulness, it’s easy to find excuses for mistreating our bodies, minds, and spirits, and those of the people around us. When we recognize the Creation as fundamentally—as originally—sacred, everything changes. For then, all things are, truly, unified in God’s deep and eternal holiness. And to whatever extent we judge, malign, or damage other beloved elements of the Creation, we do that to ourselves and to God, as well. By the same token, when we celebrate and embrace others, we celebrate and proclaim the presence and goodness of God. And according to Jesus’ parables, that is true repentance.
In his commentary on today’s passage, Charles Cousar wrote, “Neither a sheep nor a coin can repent. The issue of the two parables, therefore, is not to call sinners to repentance, but to invite the righteous to join the celebration.”1 Cousar then quotes another commentator who said, “‘Whether one will join the celebration is all-important, because it reveals whether one’s relationships are based on merit or on mercy. Those who find God’s mercy offensive cannot celebrate with the angels when a sinner repents.’”2
In all this, I hear that celebration is an act of repentance that breeds more repentance. To recognize and celebrate the sacred in others, especially in those whom pharisaic judgment labels “sinners,” is to follow Jesus in doing restorative justice. Holy celebration honors the sacred. It also has power to help restore what is sacred in that which has been desecrated by neglect, abuse, or imperial theology.
When we lived in Decatur, GA, we took our then-young children to a Halloween festival at the Methodist church where they attended preschool. The gym was decorated with orange and black streamers. Delighted screams and laughs bounced off the concrete block walls. There were all sorts of games and stations where kids could win candy or little toys. In one corner of all that chaos, a woman sat on the floor playing interactive games with whoever would join her. The woman’s wavy hair was fading from red to gray. She wore a homemade, understated clown suit. And by the grace of God, she didn’t wear clown makeup. She had neither candy nor toys, and when Ben joined the group, the woman did the same thing she did with every other child. She wrapped him in a big hug and told him how beautiful he was and how much she loved him.
A blonde-haired boy in a store-bought superhero costume headed toward the group—until his father turned him away, saying, “Let’s keep going. You can’t win anything there.”
Perhaps no one in that room that night needed a celebratory welcome more than that father. And isn’t that our calling—to take God’s celebration where it’s most needed?
Brothers and sisters, we are beautiful and beloved. And beneath all the chaos, we are saturated with holiness.
May the celebrating love of God be renewed in us. And may it shine through us.
1Charles Cousar, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 4. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. Westminster John Knox Press, 2010. p. 73.