Is This Seat Taken?

Posted on 16 Sep 2019

“Is this seat taken?”

What are those moments in life that make us feel deeply connected to one another?

Those moments where you feel your life is so intertwined with others that the unity is palpable. Those moments when grace and joy are freely shared without giving a second thought.

When I see high schoolers sitting on the porch in Montreat, authentically sharing their lives with one another, you feel that deep connection.

When you take the bus on extra laps around the parking lot so that middle schoolers can finish belting out “Don’t Stop Believing,” you feel the joy that rises when lives are connected and celebrating together.

I’ve felt it when we sing “This land is your land, this land is my land” with the girls at the Global Village Project here. We feel this heartwarming togetherness when we meet strangers who share friends in common, when people from all parts of your life gather for a wedding, an ordination (or even a funeral).

I imagine we have all had at least one moment where we felt deeply connected to another. I wonder what word was said or step was taken that led to those connections?

And then there are moments in life that keep us apart. First it is only a few steps, but over time those moments of disconnection or division increase our distance and association with the other until we can no longer see or hear each other clearly.  

The prophet Jeremiah brings a word of judgment and anger from God, to a people who are indifferent to God and to neighbor (as Todd phrased it last week). I imagine little decisions here and there have turned into a way of life disconnected from God’s vision for their relationships. The people are in denial that they have played a role in the damage done.

Here now the word of God through the prophet Jeremiah, 4:11-12, 22-28

This text seems harsh, but God wants the people to turn from their selfish and sinful ways, back to a way of life that honors our relationship with God and our neighbors.  Do notice though that God promises not to make a “full end.” God is not giving up on the people and will not let them be fully destroyed. Yet, God holds the people accountable. Later on, another prophet, Micah, would remind them that what God wanted of them was not fancy offerings or a shiny list of material goods, but to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God.

The beauty and challenge of scripture is that we do take it seriously. So, we can’t just throw out one scripture that is hard. We don’t interpret each scripture on its own though. We look at the context of the passage and its part in the entirety of Scripture. Sometimes scripture convicts us, other times it comforts and encourages, but in all readings of Scripture we read in light of God’s love made known to us in Jesus Christ.  

So let’s turn to Jesus. Today I’ll be reading from the Gospel of Luke 15:1-11.

What strikes me most about these parables in Luke is not the good news that the lost will be found. What strikes me most is this: the mix of people involved in this story.

Jesus- the young teacher and Savior of the world

The sinners and the despised tax collectors gathered to listen

The Pharisees and Scribes on the fringes grumbling.

A shepherd and a poor woman embodying the merciful God.

We might expect Jesus to break the norms of his day to invite sinners and outcasts to eat with him. But do we expect that he would leave a seat open for his toughest critics? Do we expect that he would leave space for those in the crowd who thought they didn’t need God’s life-changing mercy at all?

As humans we like clear-cut lines between the “good” and the “bad” and we tend to make judgments on who we think is worthy of welcome and celebration. We grumble when someone gets something they didn’t “deserve.” Knowing this, Jesus tells stories to reshape our ideas of what it means to live out God’s love and mercy. Jesus crosses lines of economics, ethnicity, gender, and power to be in community with the diversity of God’s people. In doing so, he embodies God’s mercy that leaves a seat open for everyone at the table.

As one scholar writes, Jesus shows us that “Discipleship consists not in separation (as was practiced by the Pharisees) but in association.”[1] It’s one thing to preach about God’s mercy but it’s another thing to embody it in WHO we create connections with.

There’s a SCENE IN THE MOVIE FORREST GUMP[2] where young Forrest is going to get on the school bus for the first time. The character Forrest in the movie has braces on his legs that make his gait wobbly and he doesn’t really talk like the other kids. When the bus door opens, the driver says:

“Are you comin’ along?”

Forrest says “momma said not to be takin’ rides from strangers”

“This is the bus to school,”she says.

He thinks about it….

“I’m Forrest, Forrest Gump”

“I’m Dorothy Harris,” the driver says.

“Well now we ain’t strangers any more,” Forest says.

As Forrest walks on the bus and walks down the aisle, student after student says, “seat’s taken” … “you can’t sit here.”

Then Jenny- who would become Forest’s best friend tells him, “You can sit here if you want”

 

Jenny’s gesture seems so simple, but its courageous and rare.

Jenn’s one step created a connection that turned into a lifelong friendship.

Our reality more often looks like: a seat saved for someone else or being annoyed when someone sits in “our seat” or simply being too afraid to extend the invitation to someone we don’t know.

Jesus’ vision seems as magical and make-believe as a unicorn. He casts a vision where the powerful and the marginalized all sit together in the kingdom of God and CELEBRATE the gift of God’s mercy that they share.

If we look at our schools, communities and churches today- we may see polarizing divides between the preppy and the musical, the homeless and the affluent, the traditional and the modern, the black and the white, the popular and the unnoticed, the citizens and the immigrants. We wonder, will we stay apart or could steps lead us together?

To engage in this mission of Christ is risky. It can be uncomfortable and even demand that we sacrifice something in order to fully celebrate God’s gift of mercy with everyone.

In the summer of 1964, thousands of college students from all over the US came to Mississippi to engage in what would be known as Freedom Summer.[3] They worked with Civil Rights groups on voter registration and freedom schools in the black MS communities. It was a violent and turbulent summer. Both the students who came to MS and the local black communities took steps toward one another that put them at risk for job loss, violence and even death in order to live in community together and work for civil rights. Though the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act did emerge out of this summer, polarization and racism in America persists long after Freedom Summer. There is still much work to be done in creating Beloved Communities here and now, where all people can share and celebrate justice and mercy together.[4]

Y’all, the seats at God’s table are taken, but not out of exclusion, out of inclusion. And there is room for the celebration to grow!

Jesus’s parables teach us that living and celebrating God’s mercy is a challenging and intentional effort that takes a community banding together, acknowledging the positions of power and pain that we carry and committing to take steps toward one another with love and humility.

With the Spirit as our guide and God’s mercy as our foundation, we can maintain hope that Christ’s example of mercy and love is possible. I pray that our community of faith will take steps to forge new and deeper connections in this church and in our surrounding neighborhoods.  

May our steps be a response of gratitude to the gift of mercy God has offered each of us. 

As we swim in this stream together we will affirm our faith in song.

Take the ribbon you were given on your way into worship

If you didn’t get one, hold your hand up and an usher will bring you one.

I would like for you to tie your ribbon with the person on your left and your right until all the ribbons across your row, even across the aisles are tied together. You may need to scoot down your pew or even across the aisle to do so. If you have the mobility, please move closer to those who are not as able to move seats.

When you’ve tired your ribbons together you can join me in the song as you feel led.

Friends these ribbons are a reminder of the unique gifts, power and pain in each of us that we acknowledge when we take steps towards one another. As we seek out connections with one another, may God’s mercy be shared and celebrated among us.

“Swimming to the Other Side” by Pat Humphries

We are living neath the Great Big Dipper
We are washed by the very same rain
We are swimming in the stream together some in power and some in pain
We can worship this ground we walk on cherishing the beings that we live beside
Loving spirits will lives forever we’re all swimming to the other side

I am alone and I am searching
hungering for answers in my time
I am balanced at the brink of wisdom
I’m impatient to receive a sign
I move forward with my senses open
Imperfection it be my crime
In humility I will listen
We’re all swimming to the other side

On this journey through thoughts and feeling
Finding intuition, my head my heart
I am gathering the tools together
I’m preparing to do my part
All of those who have come before me band together and be my guide
Loving lessons that I will follow

We’re all swimming to the other side

When we get there we’ll discover all of the gifts we were given to share
Have been with us since life’s beginning and we never noticed they were there
We can balance at the brink of wisdom
Never recognizing we’ve arrived
Loving spirits will live forever

We’re all swimming to the other side

We are living neath the Great Big Dipper
We are washed by the very same rain
We are swimming in the stream together some in power and some in pain
We can worship this ground we walk on cherishing the beings that we live beside
Loving spirits will live forever we’re all swimming to the other side
Loving spirits will live forever we’re all swimming to the other side

 

 

Rev. Allysen Schaaf
Associate Pastor for Youth & Their Families

 

[1] Keck, Leander. The New Interpreters Bible (NIB): Vol IX. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995.

 

[2] Groom, Winston, Eric Roth. Forrest Gump. DVD. Directed by Robert Zemeckis. Hollywood: Paramount, 1994.

[3] Marsh, Charles. Gods Long Summer: Stories of Faith and Civil Rights. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008.

 

[4] Marsh, Charles. The Beloved Community. New York: Basic Books, 2005.