A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor , Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark. on September 12, 2010.
Psalm 14:1-7; Luke 15:1-10
Janet and I had just “reported for duty” in Bristol, Virginia where I was to work as the associate pastor at First Baptist Church. It was early June, 1974. Emily was a year old and we were all excited to begin this new adventure in our lives. As soon as we got into town, I put in a call to Bill Tuck, senior pastor of the church, to let him know we had arrived. It was then I learned that his daughter Catherine, who was, as I recall, eight years old, had fallen out of a tree that afternoon and severely broken her arm at the elbow. I had just gotten into town and my very first ministerial act was to put in a hospital visit. Talk about hitting the ground running!
When I inquired at the information desk for Catherine’s room number, the hospital receptionist asked if I was a family member. “No,” I replied (probably rather proudly), “I am the associate pastor at First Baptist Church;” to which she replied skeptically, “You don’t look like a preacher.” My immediate response (probably with just as much pride as before) was, “Thank you.”
I took pride in the fact that I was not typical in my appearance. I didn’t want to look like a preacher, nor in the characteristic and what I considered to be pious way, act like one. I had heard of some clergy types who cut their grass and took a bath in a coat and tie (surely an exaggeration), and I wanted to distance myself from them as far as I possibly could.
“You don’t look like a preacher.” “Thank you.”
During my seminary years, the Doctor of Ministry degree program was developed, and every summer the campus was swarmed by pastors who had come back to school so they could, we thought skeptically, be called “Doctor.” We “regular” students could spot them a mile away because they all dressed the same. As Dave Barry, the former Miami Herald columnist used to say, “I did not make this up.” It was almost as if they had gotten together and decided on a uniform. They wore knit shirts with those little penguin logos on them, seersucker slacks with white belts and white shoes. Oh, and they carried their textbooks and notebooks in briefcases. Regular seminary students never carried briefcases.
And boy, did we make fun of them; behind their backs, of course. There was one thing for sure... when we graduated and entered the full-time ministry, we weren’t going to dress and act like these old guys. No sirree, you’d have to look pretty far and deep to figure out what we did for a living, because looking and acting like clergy wasn’t cool.
“You don’t look like a preacher.” “Thank you.”
But now, admittedly, I do. Age has something to do with it, I suppose; the gray hair and all that. And when you’ve done something for as many years as I have, you settle into a certain level of behavior that... well, I guess it just comes across as preacherish. And I too have one of those Doctor of Ministry degrees, though I didn’t wear a white belt and white shoes when I went to school to attain it. Fortunately, that was a short-lived fashion statement.
I don’t wear my collar backwards, but I’ve noticed that the older I get the more I just naturally look the part. I’ve considered ways I could change the style of my hair, and sometimes even the way I dress, so I would appear to be less clergyish. But I can’t deny it. I’m a pastor. Most folk, at least the discerning kind, can pick me out from a distance.
It all started on the Harpeth Hills Golf Course in Nashville, Tennessee, back around 1980. I was playing with my friend Richard Smith, then the pastor of the Glendale Baptist Church. The play slowed down and the groups began backing up. That was when three other people joined us. One was as rough as a cob. His language was rough, his mannerisms the same.
We were on the eighteenth tee, waiting for the fairway to clear when he spied me holding my driver. “Is that a Kenneth Smith golf club you’ve got in your hands?” he asked me. Actually, he didn’t ask me as much as he demanded it of me. And before I really had a chance to respond, he came over, grabbed it out of my hand and started looking at it. Then he looked at me, with his eyes wondering why someone like me would be using such an expensive golf club. “Well, golf’s my only vice,” I said, “so I’ve invested a bit in my equipment.”
He looked at me glaringly and said, “Are you a preacher?” “Well, yes. But how did you know?” “Well, fellow (except he didn’t say ‘well’) if golf’s your only vice, preaching’s all you can do!”
From then on, I’ve been stuck in the personae, and now I fully admit it before you and all the hosts of heaven. I am a religious insider, expected to fulfill the role. Even by those who know me outside this congregation, I am known as Reverend Hyde. I often quip that I’m not that reverent, but it doesn’t do any good. I am a professional religious person. Maybe even the type of religious person who took umbrage at the way Jesus accepted the wrong kind of people.
You see, there are certain rules of conduct to which one must adhere if the job is going to be done correctly, and one of those rules is making sure you rub elbows only with the right kind of people and avoid having any contact with those whose way of life runs counter to what you know or believe is permissible behavior.
A minister was once asked the key to his long and honorable career. His response was that he had worked hard, prepared good sermons, did not count the money, and didn’t hug the women. In looking back over the years of my ministry, I’ve concluded that three out of four ain’t bad!
But you know what, you’re religious insiders too. Though you may not look the part, the chances are very good that just by your presence here today you are revealing your desire to fulfill some kind of religious compunction inside you. To at least some degree, you want to affirm the life that God has designed for you through following Jesus. And in the course of doing that, there is a need on your part to stay inside the lines and abide by the rules.
For example, do a quick inventory of the people you’ve hung around with just in the last week or so. How many of them are sinful? Oh, I know we are all sinners. Just a sinner saved by grace, as the popular song goes. But I mean those who are obviously on the “other side” of respectability. My guess is that, unless you are a trial lawyer like Melanie Martin, you’ve managed to keep your distance from folk like that.
I occasionally see a couple of my friends talking together, and I’ll jokingly say to them, “Now whose reputation is being damaged the most by this conversation?” But there are some folk you just can’t afford to be near. Am I not right? Otherwise, your reputation would be damaged... beyond repair. We’ve got to be careful, dress the part, act the part. We’re religious insiders. we’ve got to be careful.
Well, Jesus obviously wasn’t... careful, that is. I once told a man that there were at least two requirements for doing what I do: be careful about the company I keep and make sure my reputation stays clean. Yet, Jesus didn’t bother with either of those. Luke tells us that just at the point when Jesus starts making difficult requirements of those who would follow him, “...all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.” Why do you think these kind of folk were coming to Jesus particularly at this point in his ministry? What was it about Jesus that attracted such sinful people? Why were they so fascinated by the way he treated them? Could it be because no other holy person, no religious insider, had ever bothered?
Tax collectors may not be our favorite people, especially if we’ve been audited by the Internal Revenue Service, but we no longer put them in the category of those we hate. Not like they did in Jesus’ day. So if we were to be telling this story for the first time today, what kind of sinful people would be attracted to Jesus? Those shunned by respectable society, shut out of churches that will not tolerate their lifestyle, who do not follow the rules.
Like the person I read about who participated in a church’s communion service. It was made clear in the service that certain criteria had been established before you could receive the bread and the cup. Knowing this, and being aware of the presence of some who fell outside the lines of respectability, one person who was offered communion took his wafer and began to break it into pieces to share with others who were considered unworthy to participate. Church officials called the police.1
These two parables Jesus told, the ones about the lost sheep and the lost coin – and then followed up by the story of the lost son – oddly enough, were not directed at the sinful people who were so attracted to Jesus. No, instead, Jesus gives his attention to the religious insiders who were so upset that these kind of folk have come to be near the Nazarene. You see, when these sinners came to be with Jesus, he returned the favor, obviously enjoying their company. “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them,” is the official complaint on the part of the religious leaders.
And in telling these stories, Jesus is telling them that this is the way God does things too. In fact, that’s the way it is in the kingdom... the kingdom of heaven that rejoices when sinners come to repentance and faith, when those who are on the outside accept the invitation to come in; to come into God’s house.
I had a conversation Wednesday afternoon with Shari Coote, who used to be the pastor over at the Disciples church. She is now chair of the board of the Interfaith Hospitality Network. “Interfaith,” as we tend to call it, has fallen on hard times and has had to take a break from the action and re-group. So Shari came to me to solicit our church’s help. In case you don’t know, Interfaith is the ministry in which our church, in partnership with about twenty other congregations, houses homeless families once a quarter here in our facilities. We feed them and assist them as best we can, with the ultimate goal of helping them find work, if they don’t have it, and get re-established in homes. We’ve been doing this for several years, and it’s proven to be a difficult blessing to us as well as to those we have served.
Shari and I were exchanging stories about some of the folk we have seen come and go through the program, and I was reminded of something that was once said to me. One of the former program directors was talking with Jim Miller, who at the time was an associate at Second Presbyterian and is now, in his retirement, the interim pastor at First Prez downtown. She, the director, was complaining about the poor behavior of a couple of the program participants when Jim reminded her to keep a proper perspective in mind. “These people are not in this program,” he said to her, “because they have made good choices in their lives. They’re in the program largely because they’ve gotten into a pattern of making bad choices.”
Jesus finds himself surrounded by people who know nothing but bad choices. Yes, they are sinful people, people we would probably ignore, or from whom we would choose to keep our distance. Why? Because we’ve created a box for ourselves, a box within which we choose to operate and live. This box is defined by the rules we have adopted, whether those rules come from this book (the Bible) or from a cultural code that has been handed down to us by our elders. And we know that when we slip outside the box we find ourselves in danger of being like “the others,” sinful people, the kind of folk who were so attracted to Jesus.
I remind you: they were not attracted to Jesus because of their desire to be good. That would be a good choice. They were attracted to him because he accepted them, accepted them regardless of their bad choices. “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” And do you know why Jesus did that? Because he refused to live inside a box.
We – you and I – work hard to be like the ninety-nine sheep and the nine coins that never got lost. Yet, there are those out there who capitalize on being like the lost coin and the lost sheep. We call them sinful people. And it’s our job to go out there and find them. It will mean we have to get outside our box. But according to Jesus, if we do that, we will stand a good chance of hearing the angels rejoicing. And that will indeed put us in good company.
Lord, give us the courage to think of and live for others, whether they are sinful or not. They are your children, and our brothers and sisters. So give us the courage to love them and accept them as Jesus did. In his name we pray, Amen.
1G. Penny Nixon, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 4, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010), p. 71.