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Bountiful Joy

Len Carrell

September 15, 2013
Luke 15:1-10

09-15-2013 Sermon God who has gathered us in, the lost and the lonely, the broken and the breaking, the tired and the aching. All those who long for nourishment found at God’s joyful feast. God has gathered us in.

I bring you greetings from Austin Seminary on this Theological Education Sunday, where we celebrate and acknowledge the unique relationship our two communities have shared over many years. It has been my personal privilege to serve along side you in your ministry of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Two years ago when my wife Tanisha and I, and our daughter Caitlin, arrived in Austin we attended our first rally Sunday here at UPC. We have felt at home here ever since. I want to thank you for your love and support, and for continuing to nurture us as members of the family of Jesus Christ.

Let us pray.

Articulate God, escort these ancient words of wisdom, well traveled among your saints, to find us here today. Amen.

Some of you may know that before I came to seminary, I was an actor in NYC. When I was in school, many of my actor friends and I would debate endlessly about our favorite American playwrights. You know the ones, Eugene O’Neal, Tennessee Williams, William Inge and Beth Henley. I would always feel my Texas pride creeping in when we would do this, and I would stun everyone by offering up my favorite “Texas” playwright, Horton Foote. Mr. Foote was one of the greatest gifts to the American Theater, and he was born not too far from here in Wharton, TX, which has a population of no more than eight or nine thousand. Horton Foote was the quintessential small town storyteller. I would often say my friends, he is the only playwright I’ve ever read that can compel my heart so deeply, and yet the characters never leave the front porch.

One of my favorite stories by Mr. Foote is his play called The Trip to Bountiful. This past summer, I got to see this deceptively simple story, performed on Broadway by an all African-American cast. In this little story, set in the 1940’s, we meet Ms. Carrie Watts, an elderly woman whose health and heart are deteriorating. We see that she is feeling “trapped” living in a cramped apartment in the “big city” of Houston, TX with her son, Ludie, and her overbearing daughter-in-law, Jessie Mae. It’s been 20 years since Mrs. Watts has been able to get back to the place of her childhood memories, the fictitious town of Bountiful, Texas. She wants to get back and visit, even just one last time, to that place she still refers to as “home.”

As I read this parable of the woman and the lost coin I kept going back to this story. There is something interesting about the similarities between Mrs. Watts and the woman in Jesus’ parable. They both share, as many of us do, this common experience of grieving a loss. Of having a desperate desire to recover that, which is lost. There’s also this tread of returning home, an idea that Jesus’ parable is obviously pointing to, as it is placed just before the Father who welcomes the prodigal home. But, this thread is also at the very heart of Mrs. Watts’ journey back to Bountiful. So there is a balance of these emotions of feeling lost, and longing to return home, that I find encompassed in this character. A character, I wonder if Horton Foote wrote after pondering these “parables of joy.”

It easy for us to hear this text, and immediately jump to the obvious conclusion, that we only represent the lost objects needing to be recovered. What is jarring, however, is to hear the text and feel uncertain as to who exactly the question is intended for. Jesus begins this parable with a question intentionally directed to the Pharisee’s and the scribes grumbling over in the corner. They are the ones who designate the clean or unclean, who is considered  “in” and who is “out.” They are the ones who determine how the moral laws have been broken, and who is to be named a “sinner.” What must have been frustrating for the Pharisee’s, is that Jesus isn’t questioning their authority in these matters, no, he’s just inviting them to share in his acts of compassion. They are quite literally grumbling at Jesus, because Jesus seems to be reversing everything. “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Jesus’ radical table fellowship conflicts the Pharisees, and convicts us, to see that God’s emphasis is “on the joy of the recovery, not on the need for repentance.”[1] What stirs us as we read these parables is that the question is being asked of us. And if we risk reading this text and feeling only like the lost ones, then in doing so, I believe it leaves us missing the invitation that is being offered us here today. Usually, we are the ones who want mercy for ourselves, and justice for others, but in this parable we are being invited to celebrate with God because God has been merciful to all of us equally, even though we fail sometimes to accept everyone into our fellowship. Jesus serves as host to a table full of “sinners,” a table that begins with God’s mercy and moves us to bountiful joy.

Jesus’ parables are sometimes obscure, hard to understand, needing special interpretation. Many times we hear Jesus say before his parables, “the kingdom of God is like this…” and then he goes into these densely layered stories. So in order for us to find a clearer understanding of how God and God’s reign is revealed to us in these parables, I invite us to go back to Bountiful.

There is a moment at the end of the play when Mrs. Watts has finally made it to her childhood home. She is sitting on the porch with her son, and she has this almost childish expression on her face. She begins to remember the house the way it used to be, all full of life and love and joy. Almost refusing to see it as it is now, as this dilapidated shell of what it once was. Her son, Ludie, gets frustrated by all of this and says, “Mama I want to stop remembering. It doesn’t do any good remembering.” She grabs her son’s hand and comforts him, and then she looks long, out across what used to be her father’s land, and she says to him, “Remember how my Papa always had that field over there planted in cotton?” and her son replies, “Yes, Mama.” “You see,” she says, “its all woods now. But I expect someday people will come and cut down the trees and plant the cotton, and maybe even wear out the land again, and then their children will sell it and move to the cities, and trees will come up again.” Her son replies, “I expect so, Mama.” The distant look in her eyes seems to take a breath, and she turns to him and says, “And we’re a part of all that. We left it, but we can never lose what it’s given us.”[2]

The woman and her lost coin teaches us that God will never lose us, that we are never alone with God. God is the one who pursues us endlessly and tirelessly; God is the one who lights the lamp, sweeps the house, and searches carefully until every last one of us are found. Yet, Mrs. Watts and her trip to Bountiful, also reveals to us something about God. That we may very well be a part of all this, if we only choose to accept Christ’s invitation to participate in God’s merciful acts of joy.

God’s merciful acts of joy, begins when we realize that we are vulnerable to one another, and that we must sometimes move outside of our own comfort zone in order to be wounded healers for each other. God’s merciful acts of joy are celebrated here every Tuesday morning at Uplift, and in the Micah 6 food distribution every Thursday and Saturday. God’s merciful acts of joy are indeed felt everyday when we choose to forgive ourselves, forgive each other, and truly believe that we can never lose what has already been given us.

We participate in God’s bountiful joy when we realize that the coming reign of God is already here on earth. That it is not something up there and hidden from us, nor is it placed in some distant future, but it is taking place right here and right now, and beckoning us to the table. A table, we hope will still be occupied by our enemies, the sinners and the tax collectors, but it is a table we trust is transforming us each into the friends and neighbors we long to be. In a few minutes we will all be invited to rejoice with God in God’s bountiful mercy and extravagant grace. Let us listen for our host, the risen Christ, when he says, rejoice with me, for this is the joyful feast of the people of God. Thanks be to God.

      [1] Leander E. Keck, The New Interpreter’s Bible: Luke – John (volume 9) (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), page 298. This paragraph was inspired by this reading.

      [2] Horton Foote, The Trip to Bountiful, rev. ed. (New York: Dramatists Play Service, Inc., 2007).