On Sundays here at Intown, we've been looking at the parables of Jesus that Luke records in chapter 15 of his gospel. In these stories, we see that Jesus was far more likely to be found partying with notorious sinners than hanging out with the religious elite.
Isn't it curious that the opposite is often true for the modern church? American churches are far more likely to be comprised of the kind of people that Jesus chastised for their religious dogmatism and exclusion while the people he partied with generally don't show up anymore.
Frank Zappa said, “My best advice to anyone who wants to raise a happy, mentally healthy child is: Keep him or her as far away from a church as you can.”
People in the modern, secularized-west don’t think we have a good story to tell; they’re not looking for our help in their search for truth and meaning. In the last 50 years or so, the church as an institution has gone from being a valued part of the social fabric, and the pastor a respected civic leader, to both being seen as novelties if not outright adversaries of the common good.
All the while we keep "doing church" as usual, trying to keep the 99 safe and comfortable, while the 1 isn't interested in the least. (See Luke 15 for the "99 and the 1" language.)
Sociologists tell us that modern secular people haven't given up on their search for meaning, or finding something more ultimate than themselves. There is in fact a considerable interest in spirituality even in a place like Portland. But in general, the religions of the Old World have lost their appeal. For the most part, religious people are thought of as contributing to rather than helping to solve society's biggest problems while churches are often viewed as communities of anxiety, surveillance, and conformity.
Unfortunately, this impression isn't entirely wrong.
Scary language about God used to draw a crowd, but our present-day friends and neighbors aren't interested in a God who "holds us over the pit of hell like someone holds a loathsome insect" (see your high school literature book for Jonathan Edwards' famous sermon). However, I’ve yet to meet someone who HATES the idea of a God of extravagant grace...a God whose very nature is love and who rejoices over the inclusion and embrace of the lost, the last, and the least.
They haven’t rejected this God because for the most part, they’ve never heard of him.
How could they? This isn’t the God that most of the American church believes in. This idea of God has been hiding in plain sight, carefully concealed inside our bibles! Maybe instead of seeking to be "relevant" (whatever that means!), or trying to have better goods and services than the church down the street, we should just start reading our Bibles again - this time with a little more self-awareness and self-criticism.
In the "Parables of Lostness" in Luke 15, Jesus sets a rhetorical trap for the religious elite who believed they knew God better than everyone else. But, maybe Luke wrote these stories down not so that we could frown upon how obstinate and self-righteous those darn Pharisees were, but so that we could see in them our own likeness. Maybe we're meant to step into the trap Jesus set for religious people in his day and that his words are still vital enough to question OUR practices and prejudices, OUR boundaries and exclusivity, and to challenge everything that we've built on top of the simple gospel message.
Our friends and neighbors and loved ones - the 1’s in our lives, they’re not on the move from a Prodigal God, from Jesus who makes camp with outsiders and "sinners", but from a church beholden to the safety and the happiness of the 99.
But Jesus tells us that God doesn't make his home among the religiously comfortable and self-assured, but among coins of little value, with sheep who don’t really care for the sheep-pen, and with disobedient children.
Jesus came eating and drinking and partying with sinners, and the religious establishment grumbled. They muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
If only people in our day would accuse the church of welcoming sinners and eating with them! If only our friends and neighbors in the city of Portland, and maybe even a few uptight-Christians would accuse Intown of this!
If you're a Christian in Portland, maybe you should swing by so that Jesus can step on your toes like he does ours. (That's the best marketing pitch we could come up with! I hope you like it.) And, if you're not a Christian, you should swing by as well. Maybe there's something here worth looking into, something that's been hiding in plain sight.