Never Alone

Sometimes we are quick to dismiss people and places based on appearances.

If you have watched The Food Network at all recently, then you’re most likely familiar with the show Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives. Though my cholesterol goes up 500 points just watching it and I wonder how host Guy Fieri gets his hair to stand up so well and can be that enthusiastic about everything, I appreciate the emphasis on finding joy and looking for the best in unexpected places.

Many San Francisco locations have been featured. Colleen and I recently had a chance to visit one in our Richmond District neighborhood. The Tee Off Bar and Grill—just across the street from Lincoln Park Golf Course—does not look like a place one would find great food. The faded sign and kitschy décor would fit in just as well in any small town in Arkansas as cosmopolitan San Francisco. The jukebox blasted classics like Bob Segar’s “Old Time Rock and Roll” and Boston’s “More than a Feeling.” They do have pub standards such as burgers and fries, and not just any hot dog, but a Kobe beef frank. Tee Off goes above and beyond, offering dishes such as lamb shank, curry chicken, and fresh crab linguine. I tried and loved the gourmet macaroni and cheese, with pancetta.

What I truly appreciated about the Tee Off, however, was the people.

Daniel the bartender greeted us, took our order, and told us about his recent trip to Colombia and other travels throughout Central and South America. He endorsed everything we ordered as “awesome,” and he proactively brought us extra plates so we could share the huge portions of food.

Within two minutes of entering, a large man who looked like Mr. Clean in those old commercials approached. He first looked like he might want to hurt me, but it turned out that the man I’ll call Billy was incredibly friendly (and had perhaps enjoyed a couple of beverages). He walked up to shake my hand, looked up at my Giants hat and commended me for wearing it, even though our team isn’t having a winning season. “You gotta believe,” he said. Though I wasn’t trying to eavesdrop, I later overheard Billy tell a fellow patron “How God works in mysterious ways.”

I sometimes wonder if Jesus were going to a restaurant in San Francisco, whether he would be more likely to end up in an elegant dining room in one of the city’s finest restaurants, or an old bar that uses Star Wars bed sheets as table clothes. Would he bother to sit at a table at one of the swankier places near this church, or would he be with Billy, the theologian in residence at the Tee Off Bar? (Yes, I know, pastors spend time thinking about strange things.)

The religious authorities more than 2,000 years ago when Jesus walked on earth weren’t so sure about Christ’s dining habits and circle of acquaintances. Let’s explore today’s Scripture lesson from Luke 15:1-10:

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ So he told them this parable: ‘Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.

‘Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.” Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’

I think it’s safe to say that the Scribes and Pharisees, part of the religious establishment at the time, would probably not have spent time at the Tee Off Bar and Grill. There were strict laws about who was clean and pure, and who wasn’t. The words and actions of Jesus offended them on multiple fronts. The fact that Jesus would eat with tax collectors and sinners presented a problem and made him ritually impure in the religious sense. Tax collectors who skimmed funds from people were clearly impure. “Sinners” was a general category that applied to anyone who seemed to be breaking purity laws—it could have referred to something sexual or financial or a type of meat you ate.

The heroes of Jesus story—heroes positioned as metaphors for God—were also upsetting for the religious leaders. Though shepherds such as David—of David and Goliath—had been prominent in Hebrew Scriptures, the Scribes and Pharisees considered shepherds of their time to be dirty and of a lower class. The story of the lost sheep somehow comparing a shepherd to God was offensive to the audience.

To stir up even more controversy, Jesus had the audacity to tell the story of the lost coin and make a woman the hero. Charles Cousar, Biblical Studies Professor Emeritus of Columbia Seminary, reports that this is the only parable in the New Testament with “a woman as a metaphor or allegory for God.”[1] In a male dominated world, it was a really big deal that Jesus chose these words.

You see, his audience was obsessed with deciding who was in with God, and who was out. People that Jesus chose to associate with and even share a meal, had been told time and time again that they weren’t good enough. They were shunned and told that when it came to faith, their lifestyle left them on the outside.

Have you ever felt that way—alone? Maybe wondering whether that bad thing you did or that whole series of things would keep God from loving you?

While controversial for the religious leaders of the day, this parable would have been a breath of fresh air to those who thought they were on the outside. I find it refreshing today, especially when we consider the key teachings of it.

1) Jesus is doing the seeking. Whether you connect with the story of the lost sheep or lost coin, neither is able to find its self. Even when we feel lost and alone, God is searching for us.

2) Our job is to be open to God’s love. This is the part the Scribes and Pharisees couldn’t understand. They were so focused on the rules and what they could control, that they missed the outpouring of undeserved grace. Sometimes we convince ourselves that we aren’t worthy of love, and we close our hearts and minds. At other times, we have been jaded by church people judging us as though they control God.

3) When we are found, we are called to live in gratitude and as reflections of Christ, but it’s much easier said than done.

Do you know someone who is amazingly optimistic and gracious–that someone who consistently finds something positive about every situation and looks for the best in others? Someone who reminds others that God loves them and they are never alone?

If you haven’t heard of her, I would like to introduce you to 85-year-old Mary Agnes Mullaney, known as “Pink.” Pink passed away recently, and her children authored one of the most poignant and hilarious obituaries in recent memory.

“If you’re about to throw away an old pair of pantyhose, stop,” the tribute begins.

Pink was clearly someone who could see a positive where others could see a negative. In addition to the pantyhose, which she said to save “to tie gutters, child-proof cabinets, tie toilet flappers, or hang Christmas ornaments.” Pink treated creatures of all types with respect.

“If a possum takes up residence in your shed, grab a barbecue brush to coax him out. If he doesn’t leave, brush him for twenty minutes and let him stay. Let a dog (or two or three) share your bed.”

Beyond the animals, I am inspired to hear how Pink interacted with her fellow humans and lived her faith. Here are a few excerpts:

“Never say mean things about anybody; they are ‘poor souls to pray for.’

Go to church with a chicken sandwich in your purse. Cry at the consecration, every time. Give the chicken sandwich to your homeless friend after mass. Go to a nursing home and kiss everyone.

Invite new friends to Thanksgiving dinner. If they are from another country and you have trouble understanding them, learn to ‘listen with an accent.’

Correspond with the imprisoned and have lunch with the cognitively challenged.

Offer rides to people carrying a big load or caught in the rain or summer heat. Believe the hitchhiker you pick up who says he is a landscaper and his name is ‘Peat Moss.’

Help anyone struggling to get their kids into a car or shopping cart or across a parking lot.

Give to every charity that asks. Choose to believe the best about what they do with your money, no matter what your children say they discovered online.

Allow the homeless to keep warm in your car while you are at Mass.

Take magazines you’re already read to your doctors’ office for others to enjoy. Do not tear off the mailing label, ‘Because if someone wants to contact me, that would be nice.’

Those who’ve taken her lessons to heart will continue to ensure that a cold drink will be left for the overheated garbage collector and mail carrier, every baby will be kissed, every nursing home resident will be visited, the hungry will have a sandwich, the guest will have a warm bed and soft nightlight, and the encroaching possum will know the sensation of a barbecue brush upon its back.”

God is never done with you. The Holy Spirit always prays for you. Jesus really, really loves you and never writes you off. You are never alone. Remember that, and remind the world of that through your words and actions. Amen.

[1] Cousar, Charles B. In Feasting on the Word, ed. David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, 71.