I Love To Go A Wondering…

Sermon for September 13th, 2010 (Proper 19, Year C, RCL)
The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield

Last Thursday night there was a gathering of our Godly Play leaders at the Conforti’s house, and to begin the evening Nancy St. John told us a parable– Godly Play style.  Now, if you’ve never experienced a Godly Play story there are a couple of things you need to know:

First, you need to know that Godly Play stories are usually told on the floor, in a circle–often using “props” to enact the story–like pieces of colored felt to represent earth, water, trees or stones; tiny toy-like representations of scriptural scrolls, sacred vessels, crosses and altars; and 2-dimensional wooden figures of the various people and animals that populate the biblical stories.

The second thing you need to know about Godly Play is that the Godly Play circle is a very special, very sacred circle.  Somehow, mysteriously, with the help of the Holy Spirit, Godly Play story-tellers never fail to create an incredibly quiet, reverent, and serene space.  And as you “wonder” together what’s going on in the story– what it might mean, why someone did what they did, or how it might have gone differently–you find yourself speaking almost in whispers—so sacred is this space—it’s as if you’re in church.

And that’s the third thing you need to know about Godly Play.  It is church at it’s best.  It may not look like the space we’re in right now, with all the beautiful accoutrements with which we are blessed.  But it is church.  The sacred circle of Godly Play is a place where God’s people –young and old, depending on the context—-come together to hear God’s word, to experience the wonder, the mystery, and the awe of being in God’s presence, and to worship—or honor—that presence.

So on Thursday night, as we gathered around the Conforti’s living room on chairs, sofas, and pillows on the floor, we formed a sacred circle.  And in that sacred circle, the parable of the Good Samaritan unfolded before our eyes.  A large felt rectangle of earth.  Then a strip of lighter-colored felt, curving diagonally from one corner to the other–the road from Jerusalem to Jericho.  A  piece of black felt shaped like a kidney-bean…a dark place where the unsuspecting traveler would be beaten by two robbers and left for dead.  And then the story itself:  The traveler on the road, the robbers over taking him and leaving him for dead. First the priest and then the Levite walking along the road–each crossing over to avoid being defiled by what might well be a dead body, thinking all the while that they were being obedient to holy scripture.  Then the Samaritan—an enemy of the Jewish people—who stops to care for the poor broken man, tending his wounds, taking him to an inn to rest…even leaving money with the inn-keeper to feed and care for the man after the Samaritan has continued on his way.

And finally the wondering:  Who really treated the man like a neighbor?  Who might be a neighbor to the thieves… or to the Levite… or to the priest?

What does it mean to be a neighbor anyway?

But then instead of putting the story away, Nancy quietly said, “You know, we could do a lot more wondering about this story and we could go even deeper, but I want to just move this one aside for now while I tell you another story.” And with that she began telling us about the Good Shepherd and his sheepfold…about how the Good Shepherd took care of his sheep, knew each by name, and about how they, in turn, recognized his voice.  And as she spoke, the circle of the sheepfold mysteriously disappeared into the background, and a simple table emerged, holding a tiny chalice for wine and a plate for bread. And all around the table were not just sheep, but people from all over the world—of all ages, races and nationalities…all gathered together in a sacred circle around the Lord’s Table.  And in hushed voices we wondered for a few minutes where in the world we might see this sort of gathering…where we might be a part of such a gathering.  We marveled at the inclusiveness of it, and the radical hospitality of the Good Shepherd.

Then sitting in our own little circle, suspended in sacred stillness and holy silence, we waited.

“I’ve been wondering,” Nancy said quietly, drawing an imaginary circle with her arms around both stories spread out before us on the floor, “how these two circles might relate to one another…”

My eyes fell immediately on each of the characters from the Parable of the Good Samaritan, lying on the piece of brown felt, lined up like actors taking their last bow at the end of a play.  I saw the robbers and the one who they had robbed, the unrighteous and the righteous, all of them there in a row.  Blinking, I looked back at the little table with the tiny chalice and paten, surrounded by God’s people.  And  in a shocking moment of absolute clarity today’s gospel rang in my ears, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

I could hardly contain myself, I was so astonished at the grace of this moment. I was even more astonished when I realized that Nancy had chosen to present these two stories together without realizing what this morning’s gospel was to be.  And yet this morning’s gospel provides such a perfect answer to her question about how these two stories might relate to one another!  All we needed to do in our sacred circle that night was to move all of those characters from the Parable of the Good Samaritan off of their dreary square of brown felt and place them in the circle of fellowship with everyone else around the Lord’s Table.  There they would be welcomed with open arms, offered a piece of broken bread, given a small sip of wine.

“This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” The Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling when they said it, outraged even –but little did they know that this is the very heart of the Good News!  No one is ever so lost that God will give up looking for them; no one is ever so far gone that Jesus will stop loving them; no one is ever so broken or sinful that the Lord will refuse them.  “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”  Yes, by God, yes, he does! Even sinners like tax-collectors and prostitutes.  Even sinners like those robbers in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Even sinners like the Priest and the Levite who did nothing to help the poor broken man lying in the road half beaten to death.  “This fellow” even welcomes and eats with Christian extremists who want to burn the Koran and Islamist extremists who  terrorize the West.  He even welcomes and eats with CEOs who lie and traders who defraud.  Why, he even welcomes and eats with that one person in each of our lives who we’ve sworn we’ll never forgive, no matter what. Come to think of it, it really is outrageous– “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them!”

Did you ever notice how easy it is to be outraged by God’s unfailing mercy–as long as we’re comparing ourselves to those who are so obviously worse than we are?  After all, how could God love a vile criminal as much as he loves you or me?   How could Jesus welcome a prostitute to table fellowship the same way he would welcome an observant Jew?  Why would the Good Shepherd risk losing 99 perfectly good sheep for the sake of saving one bad one that wandered off?  It hardly seems fair!

But imagine for just a moment that you’re standing around at the Pearlie Gates hoping to get into the heavenly banquet. Imagine that standing around with you is a great crowd of people. And now imagine that all of a sudden you notice, say– St. Francis, St. Benedict, and Julian of Norwich among that crowd.  Oh and look—there’s Ghandi, Oscar Romero, and Nelson Mandela!  Good grief, everywhere you look now you see  the saints and the sainted!

I don’t know about you, but right about now is when I’m wondering just how big that heavenly banquet table is, and I’m thinking that maybe it’s not such a bad thing after all that, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”  Not such a bad thing at all.  Because when I see myself in relation to the saints and the sainted all around me, I’m not looking so good—and I thank God that Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with them! When I compare myself to the saints and the sainted all around me, I remember how lost I’ve been in my life–how far I’ve wandered from the Good Shepherd–and I am awed that he never gave up on me or crossed the street.

That’s the Good News of today’s gospel:  God never gives up on us, not ever. The Good Shepherd knows each of us by name. He searches for us until he finds us, and he leads us into his sheepfold and feeds us.  Over and over again.

So thanks be to God, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”  Now I “wonder” how we might do the same….Amen.

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