Today is the one day out of the year that the church focuses on our understanding of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Almost sounds like we Christians have three gods, doesn’t it! But no. There is only one God. Not three. A one personed God in three persons. Kind of difficult to fully understand, I know. This understanding of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit is, as I am sure you know, the Trinity.
But I am setting aside our annual focus on the Trinity today. And I chose a different Gospel reading for our focus than the one appointed for today. It’s a reading that should be familiar. It’s the parable of the lost sheep – and the shepherd who leaves 99 sheep to look for the one that is lost. It’s also the parable about the woman who loses one of her ten coins. And she sweeps her house until she finds it. What we learn from this is that God searches. God searches diligently for his lost children until he brings them home.
But what we often overlook is the last line. It’s the line that says, “There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” Sound like a party to me! The angels of God party. And you know what? So should we. What I want you to hear today – one more time – is that church should be a fun place to be. A place where Christians feel free to party and have a good time together – while we worship and serve God together. A place where your pastor can be unrestrained to tell corny jokes from time to time. Yes? One of the things I want you to remember before I leave – is that the Kingdom of God is a party!
Now I have told many stories that I got from sociologist and author Tony Campolo over the years. But the one I am about to tell, well, this one has been my favorite by far. It’s been more than twenty years since I last told it. It’s from Campolo’s book “The Kingdom of God is A Party.” And I stole – I mean – I borrowed that title for this sermon. Listen!
“If you live on the East Coast and travel to Hawaii, you know that there is a time difference that makes three O’clock in the morning feel like it’s nine. If you know of what I speak, you will understand when I tell you that whenever I go out to our fiftieth state I find myself wide awake long before dawn. Not only do I find myself up and ready to go while almost everybody else is still asleep, but I find that I want breakfast when almost everything on the island is still closed. With this background you should understand why at 3:30 in the morning I was wandering up and down the streets of Honolulu looking for a place to get something to eat.
Up a side street I found a little place that was still open. I went in, took a seat on one of the stools at the counter, and waited to be served. This was one of those sleazy places that deserves the name greasy spoon. It was the only place I could find.
The guy behind the counter came over and asked, “What d’ya want?”
I told him I wanted a cup of coffee and a donut.
He poured a cup of coffee, wiped his grimy hand on his smudged apron, and then he grabbed a donut off the shelf behind him. I’m a realist. I know that in the back room of that restaurant, donuts are probably dropped on the floor and kicked around, but I really would have appreciated it if he had used a pair of tongs and placed the donut on some wax paper.
As I sat there munching on my donut and sipping my coffee at 3:30 in the morning, the door of the diner suddenly swung open and, to my discomfort, in marched eight or nine provocative and boisterous prostitutes.
It was a small place, and they sat on either side of me. Their talk was loud and crude. I felt completely out of place and was just about to make my getaway when I overheard the woman sitting beside me say, “Tomorrow’s my birthday. I’m going to be 39.”
Her “friend” responded in a nasty tone. “So what do you want from me? A birthday party? What do you want? Ya want me to get you a cake and sing “happy birthday?”
“Come on!” said the woman sitting next to me. “Why do you have to be so mean? I was just telling you, that’s all. Why do you have to put me down? I was just telling you it was my birthday. I don’t want anything from you. I mean, why should you give me a birthday party? I’ve never had a birthday party in my whole life. Why should I have one now?”
When I heard that I made a decision. Is at and waited until the women had left. Then I called over the guy behind the counter and I asked him, “Do they come in her every night?”
“Yeah!” he answered.
“The one right next to me, does she come here every night?”
“Yeah!” he said. “That’s Agnes. Yeah, she comes in every night. Why d’ya wanta know?”
“Because I heard her say that tomorrow is her birthday,” I told him. What do you say you and I throw a birthday party for her – right here – tomorrow night?”
A smile slowly crossed his chubby cheeks and he answered, “That’s great! I like it! That’s a great idea!”
“Look,” I told him, “If it’s OK with you, I’ll get back here tomorrow morning about 2:30 and decorate the place. I’ll even get a birthday cake!’
“No way,” said Harry. (That was his name.) “The birthday cake’s my thing. I’ll make the cake.”
At 2:30 the next morning, I was back at the diner. With crepe paper and a sign that read “Happy Birthday, Agnes!” I decorated the diner from one end to the other.
The woman who did the cooking must have gotten the word out on the street, because by 3:15 every prostitute in Honolulu was in the place. It was wall-to-wall prostitutes….and me!
At 3:30, the diner door swung open, and in walked Agnes and her friend. When they came in, we all screamed “Happy birthday!”
Never have I seen a person so flabbergasted…so stunned…so shaken. We sang happy birthday to her. As we came to the end, her eyes moistened. Then, when the cake with all the candles on it was carried out, she lost it and just openly cried.
Harry gruffly mumbled, “Blow out the candles Agnes”! If you don’t, I’m gonna have to.” After an endless few seconds, he did. He handed her a knife and told her, “Cut the cake Agnes. Yo, Agnes, we all want some cake.”
Agnes looked down at the cake. Then without taking her eyes off it, she slowly and softly said, “Look Harry, is it all right with you if I…if I…keep the cake a little while? “Sure,” said harry. “Take it home if you like.”
“Can I?” she asked. Then looking at me she said, “I live just down the street a couple of doors. I’ll take the cake home and be right back. Honest!”
As she left, a stunned silence filled the room. Not knowing what else to do, I broke the silence by saying, “What do you say we pray?”
In looking back it seems like an odd thing to do. But I prayed. I prayed for Agnes. I prayed for her salvation. I prayed that her life would be changed and that God would be good to her.
When I finished, Harry, with a trace of hostility in his voice said, “Hey! You never told me you were a preacher. What kind of church do you belong to?”
In one of those moments when just the right words came, I answered, “I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for whores at 3:30 in the morning/”
Harry waited a moment, and then almost sneered as he answered, “No you don’t. There’s no church like that. If there was, I’d join it. I’d join a church like that.”
Wouldn’t we all? Wouldn’t we all like to join a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning?
Listen! That’s exactly the kind of church that Jesus came to create. Too often we get hung up on being too prim and proper. I mean, just read the Gospels. Pay attention to the number of times Jesus partied with prostitutes, tax collectors, and sinner. These outcasts – these lepers of society, if you will – found in Jesus someone who would eat and drink with them, and they took to him with excitement.
I firmly believe that church ought to be fun – and that the Kingdom of God – is a party. And I hope and trust and pray that the party will continue long after I have left. And hey! I don’t know about you – but let me tell you – I’m still having fun here at this place that we call church. Still having fun after all these years. And in the next two weeks, there’s still so much we have to celebrate.
Hearts that have been touched. Lives that have been changed. Sinners –that’s you and me – saved by God’s grace. For whom the angels rejoice and throw a party.
So today – Jesus invites us to the party. To the table. To the table where there is room for everyone. No matter who you are. No matter what you’ve done. No matter where you’ve been. And if you’re prone to wander – no matter how long you’ve been away.
There is room for you here. Here – where the Kingdom of God is a party!