One of my first jobs after college was working as a counselor at a shelter for runaways and homeless kids in Minneapolis. It was shift work and it didn’t pay well, but what our compensation package lacked in salary it made up for with camaraderie. My coworkers were street savvy and hilarious. They had hearts that pumped love like oil rigs. We leaned hard on each other as we held a space open for kids to talk about what drove them to leave home and what they’d encountered on the streets.
I had a great boss there. He’d worked the front line and got promoted up to manager of the shelter. I remember sitting in his office and sobbing the day after I found out that one of the girls I’d been working with had been abused in the shelter after lights out on one of my shifts. My sense of failure was crushing, and he knew better than to try and talk me out of it. Instead he listened to me cry and had the good sense to say as little as possible. I had a lot of respect for that guy, even after I found out that he was an alcoholic and was drinking on the job most days. He got fired for that, I think, or put on leave. Just another sinner.
There was a lot of addiction floating around my early workplaces. I don’t know if our line of work caused it, or attracted it. The supervisor at my next job was a recovering gambling addict. He talked pretty openly about it. He’d lost lots of money – not just his own, but his family’s as well. And, man, how this guy loved his family. He had his baby girl’s name tattooed on his arm and he talked about her all the time. He’d married his high school sweetheart and it was clear that she was the love of his life. He’d hurt both of these people with his gambling problem, but he was taking it one day at a time. Just another sinner.
I know a lot of sinners. I know a man who’s just an amazing father, but cheats on his wife. I know a pastor who’s had an impressive career as a preacher, but has also driven scores of people out of the church she serves who didn’t back her decisions. I know an artist who makes beautiful work, and is consumed with jealousy over the success that others enjoy. Everywhere you look, there’s another sinner.
I’m a big ol’ sinner. You know me well enough to know it’s true. I work hard and I’m clever, but I can also be condescending, even hypocritical. I’m not always patient. I could go on, but I’m afraid you’ll fill in anything I leave out.
You’re a bunch of sinners too. I’m not going to name your sins for you. I think you know them better than I do. But you’re also a really glorious group of people. You’re funny, talented, generous, smart, inquisitive and dedicated. I would totally date you. We could go for long walks on the beach together. Or we could just go to church, which is obviously where people like us hang out. Sinners, I mean.
When I first read the scriptures for this morning, I was a little horrified. “Oh no, it’s Homecoming Sunday, and the scriptures just keep going on and on about sins, and the sinning sinners that commit them! Nobody wants to come back to church after any kind of summer hiatus for that…”
Then I started thinking a little bigger. Those of you who’ve been traveling the world this summer, or having babies, or avoiding the heat – this is old hat for you. You know that sometimes we talk about sin, and sometimes we talk about grace. Sometimes we talk about justice and other times we talk about hospitality. And after a while, we begin to realize that these are related topics, and that they all apply to all of us.
But what about the folks who have been gone longer than just a few weeks out of this summer? What about the people who may be coming back to church for the first time since childhood? What about the ones who may never have come before at all? Why would we want to talk about sin? Who wants to hear about that?
I thought about this new batch of Lutheran Volunteer Corps volunteers, and the intentionally simple lives they will be leading this year, and the places they will be serving – places like the Chicago Jobs Council or the AIDS Foundation of Chicago. These people are saints, not sinners! But over the course of this coming year, they will see how sin creeps into institutions and policies. They will serve people living in poverty, people living on the margins, people others feel comfortable calling sinners as a way of writing them off and moving on with the sorts of business that should occupy decent people.
But who are the decent people? And who can be written off? And, even if we ourselves are decent people, what responsibility do we have for confronting and transforming the cultures and societies that keep unjust institutions and policies in place?
And how do I deal with the thought that often nags me, the thought that I could be doing more. Or that I could be trying harder. How do I even dare to pull myself up into this pulpit, where do I find the gall to preach, when I know what is in my heart? How can you come to church when you know all that you have thought, and felt, and said and done?
The apostle Paul writes, “the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the foremost.”
Oh my God. It turns out this place is full of sinners! Not just some of us, but all of us. Even the LVC volunteers! This house of worship is a house for sinners. This homecoming is a welcome home for sinners. These new members that we are about to receive are all sinners!
What a relief!
As we return from summer, or from years away from church, or from the private exiles of our lives – here is the good news: this place exists for you, just as you are. No entrance exam. No purity tests. No minimum thresholds. No discrimination. Whatever doubts, regrets or sorrows haunt you; whatever wounds fester in your skin or in your soul; whatever horrible patterns bind you – here, you are home and this is your homecoming.
Welcome to this community of sinners (who are some of my favorite people). We are very glad you joined us this morning, and we think you’ll fit right in. We follow a teacher who made a habit of welcoming sinners, even eating with them, and so we hope you’ll stay for supper.