We were scrambling up the metal fire escape to our second story fourth-grade classroom. The bell marking the end of recess had rung, and we had stretched the unspoken grace period beyond its acceptable limits.
As I reached the top, I heard the voices of children on the playground. We had been the last of our classmates to abandon the monkey bars and the swing set and the seesaw. The place should have been empty and silent. So I turned to look in the direction of what Maurice Sendak would call a rumpus.
There were children I had never seen running and laughing and climbing and swinging. Then I spotted a familiar face.
“Hey, there’s Tony! Who are all those kids? Why is he down there?”
The boy just behind me said, “Those are the retards!”
I had no idea what a retard was. And it would be years before I found this condescending way of referring to other people so offensive. But my classmate’s tone made it clear that, for him, being a retard made you an outsider. You were somehow less than the rest of us. And our exclusion of and our contempt for you were completely justified.
I said nothing. But the sight of Tony drew me back to our first meeting.
My mother walked me into the first day of class at Louisville Academy. Well, she walked me into my first day. She had somehow gotten the first day of school wrong. Classes had been underway for a week.
All the children were seated at their tables and the teacher was mid-sentence when my mom and I walked through the door. We were one week and half an hour late, to be exact. Every head in the room turned and gawked at me.
My mom bid me goodbye and left me with the teacher standing in the front of the room. I looked up at Mrs. Culpepper. To my abject horror she looked exactly like the Wicked Witch of the West from the Judy Garland version of “The Wizard of Oz.” I broke into silent, heaving sobs.
A boy walked from the back of the room. He stood next to me and put his around my shoulder.
“I’m Tony,” he said. “I’ll be your friend. You can come sit next to me.”
And he led me back to his table.
The following year Tony and I sat in adjacent rows in Mrs. Farmer’s second grade class. My desk was two or three spaces behind and to the left of his.
During a spelling test, I noticed that Tony’s spelling book was open on the bookshelf beneath the seat of his desk. He had slid a page of the book into the aisle so that he could look down at it during the test.
Apparently, Mrs. Farmer noticed Tony’s furtive glances at the book. She abruptly grabbed Tony’s hand and said, “Come with me.”
She returned some minutes later without Tony. He never returned to the class. And I didn’t see him again until I stood on that fire escape that day in fourth grade. And to my abiding regret, I hadn’t given him a second thought until that day, either.
Despite my terror on the first day of class, I had eventually settled in. I had made different friends. Like the rest of the class, I rarely played with Tony. He was already an outsider. I had become an insider.
I couldn’t have said it this way at the time, but I was living into a basic truth of this fallen world. Everybody wants to be an insider. And you can only be an insider if there are outsiders.
There are all sorts of outsiders. Race, economic class, sexual orientation, country of origin. We use these and other common differences to distance us from them, to grant privilege and to impose disadvantage, to mark others as neighbor or threat.
This is not what God had in mind. Each of us is a child of God. We are all God’s favorite. And when God gathers us for the great heavenly banquet, our Maker is not interested in a mad scramble for the best seats or the biggest helping of the choicest dishes.
God sent Jesus to set things right. Jesus explains his mission by saying that the first will be last and the last will be first. No more insiders. No more outsiders. Just children of God at play with children of God. Just children of God in a wild and holy rumpus.
We’re not there yet. And one of the sad realities of Church in this century is that we have at times fallen into being comfortable insiders all too forgetful of the outsiders in our neighborhood.
Jesus famously sent seventy disciples out into the world two by two to be the good news in the streets and the shops and the houses all around them. Jesus has no intention of staying cooped up in church buildings. The entire world is his playground. And he claims everyone in the world as his playmate.
Sometimes we forget that the comfort, inspiration, and solace of our worship are intended to sustain us in our mission to the surrounding neighborhood. But tonight, as we mark the beginning of a new era of ministry at St. James, I urge you to remember.
You are the seventy. Jesus is sending you into the neighborhood. Your calling is greater than inviting a few people to join you in the pews. Your calling is to join the wild rumpus of this world in the name of Christ. To dismantle the barriers of inside and outside, wherever your find them and whatever form they have taken.
You have been sent here by Jesus himself. At this time and in this place. There is a holy rumpus going on all around you. It’s time to play.