Sep. 15, 17th Sunday after Pentecost, Year C

The 17th Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, Proper 19

September 15, 2013

The Reverend Dr. Brent Was

“There is joy in the presence of the Angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

Before we delve in too far, great party here on Thursday!  Even on a hot school night we had a crowd here.  The Choiristers and choir sang beautifully, the pipers piped, and the bishop had a great time.  He is really impressed with what we have going on here.  So am I and so are a lot of you.  So thank you, again, for the warm invitation, for the confidence, and for the signal that we here are on our way to making real the kingdom of God, baby steps maybe, but steps in the right direction none-the-less.

Our gospel for today contains two little parable snippets, the 99% v. 1% of the sheep and the lost coin.  These are parables about two pretty basic theological categories: soteriology and ecclesiology.  Soteriology means… from the Greek sōtēria, “savior”… it is the theme of salvation.  And ecclesiology?  From the Greek ekklēsia, “assembly”… the study of the church and structures of the church.  So basically these little parables are about who is saved and who is not saved; who is in and who is out.

The Pharisees and their allies the scribes were very concerned about who was in the club, who was one of them and who was not; who was saved, really saved and who had the outer darkness, gnashing of teeth and all to look forward to. They were very concerned about who was observant, compliant enough with the prevailing society’s rules to be admitted to the temple in Jerusalem and the local synagogues.  That was a big deal, keys to the kingdom kind of big deal.  If you were excluded from there, from the religious centers of society, you were in effect excluded from the commercial and political sphere’s, too.  This is an immense amount of power, the power to exclude.  And Jesus throughout his ministry is extremely clear that all are welcome in Gods house and more so, the most lost, the most broken are the most rejoiced for when they are found.

Exclusion.  Who is in the fold and who is outside of the fold.  We are facing some pretty deep complications regarding who is in and who is out in our fair city of Eugene right now.  I imagine most of you have been following the whole S.L.E.E.P.S. thing going on over the past year, in particular the past few weeks. S.L.E.E.P.S. is an acronym meaning “Safe Legally Entitled Emergency Places to Sleep,” and it refers to the protest encampments that have been primarily at the Wayne Morse Free Speech plaza, and have now branched out to a few other places.  It continues to resist precise definition, but is basically a street led movement to advocate for safe and legal places for people to sleep in Eugene.  Pretty radical, a place to sleep.  Did you know that if you sat on a park bench downtown with a sleeping bag, a rolled up sleeping bag, you can get a ticket for $200.  Many do.  I know someone who got one right after he had breakfast on a 2nd Sunday a few months ago. If you have bed rolls and pillows in the back seat of your car and a police office determined that you were attempting to sleep in that vehicle you could get a $200 ticket.  Many get those, too.  I know someone who got three in two weeks because they had nowhere legal to park their truck.  That’s why church parking lots are so popular.  If you can’t afford a place to stay, or even park, how can you possibly afford $200 tickets?  It is a pretty clear message, “You are not welcome here, you are excluded.”

We are not going to debate whether people have a right to sleep.  They do, and no even marginally reasonable person will deny that.  It is just so basic.  But there is massive debate about homelessness and what to do about homelessness here in Eugene.  And the debate is ugly, and it is not about the details of the hows and wheres of homeless folks sleeping.  The debate is actually about the very presence of the unhoused in our midst.  Now here is where it starts to get complicated.  And here, as is usually the case when things start to get complicated, Jesus Christ has something to teach us.

As your priest, I spend an hour or so each Sunday afternoon down at Occupy Medical.  So does Tom Dodd, Gay’s husband, the pastor over at United Lutheran.  And we are just there.  A presence, hopefully a non-anxious presence.  Christians, following the lead of Jesus Christ, are called to places of brokenness and suffering, that is where we are supposed to be, that is where God in Christ is most evident, and I have only a couple of other places in my life experienced the brokenness and suffering that I experience each Sunday at the park blocks.  There is a lot of suffering and there is no shortage of outrageous and poor behavior down there, too.  I have been to Grateful Dead shows where the public use of drugs and alcohol was more discrete.  Some of it can be pretty outrageous, but just that, outrageous, and other behavior is quite poor, too, anti-social even.

This is drilling down to the meat of it.  There is a lot of poor behavior downtown.  That is as indisputable as the fact that everyone needs a safe place to sleep.  Who here has felt uncomfortable, intimidated, like you don’t want to bring your kids down there?  Who browses the Free Speech Plaza during Saturday Market and the Farmer’s Market, with the drums and the billows of smoke?  I go down there, but folks are getting to know me downtown so there is a lot of hassle I don’t have to deal with, but as I said, much of the behavior is straight up anti-social.

And there is where the debate so often ends.  I have had more than a few conversations that went something like…“If SLEEPS and the rest of the homeless activists just didn’t alienate… voters, business owners, politicians, neighbors… whomever, if they just made their argument and presence more hearable, less controversial, more acceptable, less offensive or dire or angry or desperate… if they just made themselves more palatable to the rest of us, if they just didn’t make such a scene, they’d get more of what they want.”  I have heard that line of reason so many times and it very well may be true.  Certainly climbing on tables are city council cannot be productive, right?  And I would never begin to make excuses for the types of dangerous and self destructive things that go on on the streets and in the woods and along the river banks of our community.  Dangerous sexuality, predatory sexuality, rampant drug and alcohol abuse, all manners of violence and petty and not so petty crime.  And, and, we, particularly we as Christians, we need to hold in tension the call to change what is wrong and the call to maintain community.  We need to balance the holy clarion call to justice and truth, to doing the right thing especially when it comes to the least of these and the equally holy mandate to live in relationship with God and with neighbor.  We’ve got to love the whole flock AND be fundamentally concerned with the one lost sheep, no matter how inconvenient, distasteful, triggering, baffling or even offensive that 1% so often can be.

When I imagine the Pharisees and scribes tut-tutting over the low company Jesus kept, sinners and the collaborationist tax collectors, I can just imagine them saying, “He’s got some good points, loving God really does demand that we love everyone, but if they just didn’t alienate… the Romans, us, the scribes and Pharisees, the Sanhedrin, the crowd… whomever, if they just made their argument and presence more hear-able, less controversial, more acceptable, less offensive or dire or angry or desperate… if they just made themselves more palatable to the rest of us, if they just didn’t make such a scene, they’d get more of what they want.”

Jesus certainly did not listen.  And what a scene He and his friends made.  A scene as un-understandable to the polite society of his day as the SLEEPS folks’ scenes are to polite society in our day.  I am not in any way equating the substance at hand on the streets of Eugene with the drama of Our Savior’s life, death and resurrection.  I just know that we can’t possibly understand the depths of what is going on the streets of our fair city in that lost 1% (or few percent to be more accurate), most of us can’t understand that any more than the householders and leaders of ancient Palestinian society could understand what Jesus and company were up to.  There entire argument, their entire existence is an affront to society as they are the trailings, the slash, the slag, the misfit toys that can’t and occasionally just won’t get along like the rest of us.  Who are we to judge the behavior of those that we collectively have tried to flush down stream but who won’t go gently into that good night? “There is joy in the presence of the Angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

Who is saved and who is not?  Who is in?  Who is out?  Salvation, that’s God’s business.  Inclusion?  That’s all on us.  AMEN