If I had my way, there would always be an extra seat at the table, an extra setting, a space for one more person. Have you ever seen that episode of that t.v. show where the kid goes to sit at the popular table, only to be told that there’s no room or the last seat is being save for someone else? Or perhaps the times that a person is permitted to finally sit at the popular table, only to be made fun of so that they would run away, with tears streaming down their face? To be the person on the receiving end of that feels like being an outcast, a reject, a failure, a loner … take your pick. To be on the receiving end of that from Christianity is even worse because all churches represent God, and if a church is glad to see you go, then God must not be all that interested in loving you.
The Southern Baptist Church has been in a decline for the ninth straight year in a row. Not as many people are signing up for what they’re selling, fewer are being born into it, a great many are fleeing from it – hurt and wounded by what they’ve been through. I’ve mentioned before that one church leader celebrated that the false believers were being separated – like chaff from wheat, like dross being removed from silver. I and people like me represent a ‘lesser’ kind of believer, a ‘failure’ of true faith and brotherly love. The church is better off without the ‘dead-weight’ that we represent. When we leave the denomination, or the faith altogether, Christianity should be celebrating our absence as we are no loss at all – or so I’ve just been told.
We’re like the one sheep that Jesus let wander away and perish in the wilderness so that he could focus on teaching the ninety-nine faithful sheep who stayed by his side. Oh wait, Jesus wasn’t like that. But there was the anecdote of Jesus being a pruner, cutting off the dead branches so that the living ones could thrive. You’ll notice that no matter which metaphor is used, the ones who are struggling always come out as the ‘worse’ of the two. We’re the pottery designed to be destroyed (Romans 9), the seed thrown on the path (Matthew 13), the weeds sown in the good field of wheat (Matthew 13), the bad fish caught with the good (Matthew 13). We exist to be eaten, gathered and burned, thrown out, so that the good seed can thrive and bear fruit three times over, and the good fish and wheat can be gathered and kept safe.
There was this one guy, the leader of his country. He calculated: “If we were to add up all the landlords, rich peasants, counterrevolutionaries, bad elements and rightists, their number would reach thirty million… Of our total population of six hundred million people, these thirty million are only one out of twenty. So what is there to be afraid of? … We have so many people. We can afford to lose a few. What difference does it make?” – Mao Zedong. His policies lead to the deaths of somewhere between 40-70 million of his own people.
Some Christians seem to share the same attitude – we have so many true believers, what does it matter if we lose a few people here and there? We have 99 committed followers, what difference does it make if we lose one out of a hundred? Jesus was the pruner, what does it it matter if he cuts off five here and ten there if it means strengthening ten there or twenty here? If it all comes down to a numbers game – let’s think it through.
If Jesus died to save the whole world, that includes the weeds, bad fish, and bad pennies. Jesus’ teaching was never for us to be the good wheat that segregates itself from the bad wheat, the good fish that separates itself from the bad fish, the good seed that stays away from the bad seed – that’s not our part of the parables. Jesus said that the farmer threw the seed everywhere – he didn’t put it were it was most likely to thrive only and ignore the places where it was least likely to thrive. Jesus said that the fisherman didn’t cast their nets only where the good fish were and avoided casting the nets on the wrong side of the boat where the bad fish were. It seems to me like Jesus is saying that God isn’t afraid to go to extremes, to be excessive in his efforts to reach people because there really is no way to know where you’ll find the good and where you’ll find the bad. That means that God gets it that he can’t afford to act as if it’s okay to lose even one because that one could very well be a good person. The Southern Baptists have lost hundreds of people every year in a row for nine years – is it possible that each and everyone of them are bad fish, bad seed, weeds – who are destined for destruction? That not even one of them is a good fish or a good seed or wheat? Now who’s playing God here – to be the judge of their hearts?
When the church acts like it’s better off without me, it’s as if my seat at the table doesn’t exist. I don’t belong with them and they don’t want me to be there. If I had my way, there would always be a seat open so I can invite someone to join in, there would always be room at God’s table for one more, to include anyone and everyone who comes to eat and drink.
“Come, all you who are thirsty,
come to the waters;
and you who have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without cost.
Why spend money on what is not bread,
and your labor on what does not satisfy?
Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,
and you will delight in the richest of fare. – Isaiah 55:1-2