Today is an interesting day for Hickory Neck.  Unofficially, this is our Kickoff Sunday.  Sunday School starts up today, the Nursery reopens for the first time since the pandemic began, we are blessing bags for those who want a good start to the school year (or maybe a good post-summer start for work), our Choral Scholars are back from summer break, and our festive Community Picnic is this afternoon.  And some of us are making our way back to church after summer adventures – or even after a long hiatus caused by the pandemic.  All of this is an occasion for great joy.  But amid all this scheduled and experienced celebration is a shadow.  We cannot look at today’s date without thinking of what September 11 will always mean to our country.  We have been mourning this week the loss of the long reign of a faithful, graceful, exemplary, though like us all, flawed, Queen.  And we are ever in the shadow of political divisions, racism, and violence. 

But scripture tells us today that joy is always a bit countercultural.  We are told right at the beginning of today’s Gospel, as Jesus is at table fellowship with both insiders and outsiders, tax collectors and Pharisees, sinners and scribes – certainly an occasion for inclusive joy – there is grumbling.  Despite Jesus’ invitation into joy, there is tension about who is in and who is out, and what proper faithful living should be like.  As I have read and reread this text, I have wondered where we find ourselves:  from whose perspective are we to read this text?  Are we tax collectors and sinners who have been welcomed to the table?  Are we faithful followers who are grumbling and stingy with God’s grace?  Are we sheep owners and coin holders who have lost things entrusted to us?  Are we sheep or coins who are left alone so that another one can be saved?  Are we lost in our faith journey?

As many of you may know, Hickory Neck finds itself in an interesting time and place too.  Unlike some churches, we found the pandemic to be an incredible time of growth.  I remember seeing and meeting many new faces during the last two and a half years.  Initially I was concerned about our newcomers because they were meeting Hickory Neck at this strange in-between time.  I could not introduce them to someone who had been here for many years because many of those members were staying home out of fear for their health and safety.   They could not see the fullness of our programming, our ministries, or even our welcoming coffee hours.  And yet, slowly but surely, despite the absence of those things, our newcomers ceased to be newcomers and became beloved members of our church.  Meanwhile, after about a year or two, many of our long-timers began to return to in-person gatherings and suddenly realized the room was full of people they did not know.  We were two communities of people, both fully the body of Hickory Neck, and yet, we were not yet one body. 

What has slowly been revealed is how astounding this new reality is.  Despite a long physical absence, and despite not being able to see the “stuff” of our community, somehow, the core values of Hickory Neck remained and allowed all of us to blossom into this new thing.  Hickory Neck has always been a place of our four core values:  of Hospitality, of Nurture, of Evangelism, and of Creativity.  That core identity has attracted a new community of the faithful, has sustained a continuing community of the faithful, and continues to reach our online community of the faithful, showing us that no matter what the world is throwing at us, Hickory Neck’s life, ministry, and witness is so compelling that we are thriving and responding to the movement of the Holy Spirit.  And if that is not cause for joy, I don’t know what is!

Now I know these two parables talk about repentance of sinners.  And we can talk about our need for repentance another time.  Even scholars confess that sheep and coins are incapable of repentance.[i]  But what Professor Charles Cousar reminds us is these parables are not meant “to call sinners to repentance, but to invite the righteous to join the celebration.”[ii]  I know there is a lot weighing us down in the world, things we mourn happening to us and things for which we have cause for repentance.  But today, I invite you into joy.  Joy for all the goodness that is in your life right now – however big or small.  Joy for all the surprising blessings we have experienced in the last two and half years.  Joy in the life and vitality of this Church that we call home.  The words from Jesus are clear today, “Rejoice with me!” – today, tomorrow, and for all the days to come!  Amen.

[i] Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus:  The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi (New York:  Harper Collins, 2014), 36.

[ii] Charles B. Cousar, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 4 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 73.