Friday, September 19, 2014

Dancing With the Cows

September 14, 2014
Texts: Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35

            Groucho Marx – what a comedian.  I could dance with you till the cows come home.  On second thought, I’d rather dance with the cows and you’ll come home.  In that same film, Duck Soup (1933), Groucho Marx’s character, Rufus T. Firefly is greeted by Margaret Dumont.  “As chairwoman of the reception committee, I welcome you with open arms.”  Is that so, how late do you stay open? (
            All this stuff about Groucho Marx and about cows is a rather strange way to welcome you all today.  Cow Sunday – Celebration of Welcome – are we making comparisons between you all and cows who return home after a summer in the Scottish highlands?  The Scripture reading from Romans does not exactly help us out.  “Welcome those who are weak in faith.”  Sort of a backhanded welcome – on second thought I’d rather dance with the cows ‘till you come home.
            As followers of Jesus, though, we should be no strangers to strangeness.  Some of the stories Jesus tells have a certain strangeness to them.  Today’s story is no exception.  If we have been around the church awhile, we have probably heard the story before.  It follows Jesus telling Peter that he is to forgive seventy-seven times.  Some translations read seventy time seven.  If you are keeping track, you probably missed the point.  Then Jesus tells the story.  A king is owed ten thousand talents.  The one who owes him the money is more than a household slave, probably more like a sub-ruler.  The amount of money in the story is absurdly high.  The annual salary of Herod the Great was nine hundred talents.  The man begs the king for patience, and the king grants his release and forgives his debt.  The man is given a new lease on life.  He has a new found freedom.  And what does he do with it?  Someone owes him money -  one hundred denarii, a denarius was the typical day’s wage for a laborer.  How does the newly freed man use his freedom?  He has the person who owes him money thrown into the debtor’s prison.  In the end, his own debt is reinstated.  Following the story, Matthew has Jesus utter these words, “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
            Forgive from the heart, or else!  Holy cow!  Nothing like a good threat to lighten the mood, or warm the heart, or say welcome.  Except there is deep irony here.  To be sure part of the point of the parable is that our decisions have consequences.  We can use our freedom badly, use it to fall into habits of behavior that enslave us.  We can divert the flow of grace, and that often comes back to bite us.
            But wait, isn’t there something in this story about the kingdom of God, and how it gets going with an unbelievable act of grace?  Does that just suddenly end?  I don’t think so.  We can mess up as recipients of God’s grace, but I don’t think that the grace just goes away.  How late do you stay open, God?  All day and all night.  Till the cows come home.
            At its heart, this is meant to be a story about grace, about forgiveness, about welcome – about God’s grace, God’s forgiveness, God’s welcome and about how that should change us, should make us more welcoming people, should help us as we try and create a more welcoming community.  And we are trying to create a welcoming community.  You are welcome here.  You are welcome here whether this is the first or hundredth time you’ve been here.  The very first line of our mission statement as a church is “to welcome all people.”  Every week in our bulletin, we print a statement that says: “FUMC is an inclusive, Christ-centered community of faith, meeting people where they are in their spiritual journey.”  When we baptize, we pledge to surround the one baptized with “a community of love and forgiveness.”
            Wherever you are in the journey of life, no matter how much baggage you may carry, you are welcome in the name of the God of open arms.  No matter who you are, you are welcome here in the Spirit of Jesus.  “Welcome the weak in faith” – that’s all of us sometimes.  Spiritual growth is possible and is important, but it is not often a straight road.  I appreciate how Eugene Peterson renders the first part of Romans 14 in The Message.  “Welcome with open arms fellow believers who don’t see things the way you do….  They have their own history to deal with.  Treat them gently.”  Don’t we all have some history to deal with?  Our pledge to each other is that we will surround each other with a community of love and forgiveness.  We will treat each other gently.
            To be sure, “forgiveness” is complex and messy, and is the topic for other sermons and conversations.  Certainly one part of the biblical idea of “forgiveness” is the idea of welcome.
            So let me ask you a question.  Can you welcome yourself?  Maybe part of forgiveness is self-welcome.  Maybe you’ve been that pretty awful slave sometime in your life, badly misusing your freedom.  When someone has given you grace, you’ve turned around and been graceless.  We all have our histories to deal with, but in the name of Jesus Christ, we will surround you with a community of love and forgiveness, because that’s what God does.  Can you welcome yourself?
            And I thought a little bit about the word “welcome” this week.  It comes from older words that mean being pleased at having a guest.  Have I told you how pleased I am that we are together today?  But I also hear in the word a place where we come to be well – welcome.  I think we want this to be such a place.
            Patricia Adams Farmer is an ordained minister, teacher and writer.  She has a lovely book entitled Embracing a Beautiful God.  In one of the short essays that makes up that book Farmer write about her Aunt Mary Belle, who is the family genealogist.
            After having supper with Aunt Mary Belle, my sister, Lexy, e-mails me with the revelation: “Did you know we have family members by the name of Looney?  Does it surprise you?”  “It figures… certainly does explain some things,” I e-mailed back, smiling.  “But I suppose it could be worse.”  And it is.  She continues: “Mary Belle got all the birth and death certificates in her genealogy research, and one of the Looney’s deaths was listed as ‘eaten by a hog!”
            Reflecting on this e-mail exchange with her sister, Patricia Farmer goes on to write: With regard to our personal pasts, it’s the same.  We need to know and embrace every part of ourselves – Looneys, hogs and all - with compassion (and humor).  In this way we open the door to new ways of seeing ourselves and the world….  In this honest way, we offer to God our whole selves, which God then embraces, transforms, and opens up for new future paths of joy.  In familiar language, it’s all about forgiveness, healing, wholeness, and wisdom gained. (62-63)
            Welcome.  We are and want to be a place that welcomes all people.  Welcome.  We are and want to be an inclusive, Christ-centered community of faith, meeting people where they are in their spiritual journey.  Welcome.  We are and want to be a place where all are surrounded by a community of love and forgiveness.
            There is this other lovely vision of this kind of community that we are and want to be.  It is found in part of a poem entitled “Out of Cana” by Sister Maura Eichner.
Eat bread.  Drink wine.  Try to sing the song
of Christ.  Live life.  If you can dance, dance.
Everywhere grace awaits.  Desire to love to love.

            Welcome.  This is good news – good news to be heard, celebrated, taken in.  the good news is that God’s arms are always open late, and open early, open till the cows come home.  This is good news, which deserves to be danced to, even dancing with the cows.  You are welcome, by God, by others, in the name of Jesus.  You are welcome.  Welcome others.  Welcome yourself.   This is good news, to which we might say, in the theme of the day “Cowabunga.”  And amen.

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