This is a story that ends with a cliffhanger.
The story goes like this.
Once upon a time.
Once upon a time, Jesus came to Portland.
The whole city was really excited. Somehow, impossibly, Jesus was not on the news or on Twitter or NPR. But everybody had a story about bumping into him.
One person said that they had seen Jesus down on the Eastbank Esplanade, and that Jesus looked like he was thinking pretty hard about kicking his leg over the railing and walking across the water to the other side. Someone else talked with Jesus as they rode the tram up to OHSU. On the ride up Jesus told them that, back in his day, if you and your friends wanted to get to the top of a mountain, you had to climb it yourself. And still another person bumped into Jesus at Powell’s Books. You’ll never, they whispered, believe what Jesus was reading.
Everybody had a tale about meeting Jesus. Everyone, that is, except for one person, a person whose name I have changed to Stanley. Stanley was leading a good life. He lived in a good house, had good friends, attended a good church, drove his good car to his good job. Stanley was a good person.
Stanley wasn’t sure what it meant that so many people had met Jesus but he had not. He was getting kind of worried. And so he got pretty excited when word reached him that Jesus was at the park right near his house.
Stanley stopped everything. He turned off the kettle, he put the cat outside, he told Alexa to shut off the radio. And he got up and he went. Down the street, past the coffee shop, and the pub, and the other coffee shop, and the other pub, down into the wild green.
And there Jesus was.
Jesus was standing on a little hill, the toes of his bare feet digging into the grass. His blue track suit shining in the sun.
A crowd was gathered around. Stanley joined them. He stood beside someone he knew, a friend, another good person. And he listened.
Jesus’ stories might’ve been even stranger and more confusing and more beautiful in person.
Who knows how long Stanley and the others stood there? Time passed that day the way that it did sometimes when Stanley was a child, when an afternoon of play would come so close to perfection that he could scarcely believe that the sun was setting and the voices of home were calling to him.
Jesus’ storytelling ended in the very same way as those afternoons did all those years ago, not with Jesus saying,
but with Jesus saying,
Stanley was hungry too. He started looking around for a food cart. Maybe he could take Jesus out for dinner?
But Jesus didn’t go anywhere and nor did anyone else. It looked like they had done this before. Somebody in crowd had a little food. And someone else had a little more. And together, Stanley was amazed to see, there was plenty. Down went the picnic blankets and down went the food and down sat the people and Stanley was just about join them.
When he noticed who all was there.
A minute ago, when everyone was standing, Stanley could only see the handful of people near him. But now, with Stanley still on his feet and just about everyone else sitting down, the faces became clear.
The friend whom he stood beside a minute ago is not the only one whom Stanley knew at this picnic. He know no fewer than half of the people here. Maybe more.
Here was Stanley’s relative, the one whom it was so much work to be around, so that Stanley spent every Thanksgiving and Christmas working hard to avoid the laundry list of subjects that lay like landmines between the two of them. Here was his neighbour from a few houses down, whose bumper stickers and lawn signs feel like bee stings or bombs into Stanley’s world. Here was the one whom Stanley had not seen in some time, maybe months, maybe years. At their last parting there was anger and accusation and damage that Stanley was not sure could ever be forgiven.
There were still others.
And so Stanley pushed his way through the people and across the picnic blankets and over to Jesus.
Stanley whispered. But it was the kind of whisper that is loud enough to turn heads.
Jesus! I’m not sure if you know who all is here.
And Stanley told him the history of the people who were sitting around him, that these were the kind of people who were here at the picnic.
To which Jesus replied:
I know! Isn’t it amazing that they are all here?
But the expression on Stanley’s face made it clear that he did not think that this was amazing at all. At least not amazing in a good way. Jesus saw Stanley’s brow furrow, saw his face start to redden. And so Jesus said:
Do you do much sheep herding?
Stanley was about to reply but Jesus just kept on talking.
You know when you have a hundred sheep? And one goes missing? Well, what do you do then? You leave the ninety-nine by themselves out in the desert and go find the one. Right?
But Stanley was not sure that this was right at all. In fact, it sounded kind of irresponsible to leave ninety-nine sheep with no one looking after them where they might get lost or eaten by wolves. But again, before he could reply, Jesus said:
So you leave the ninety-nine and you find the one. You pick up your sheep, you carry it home. And what you do say to everyone?
Rejoice me with!
And Jesus looked around at those seated on the picnic blanket and he beamed.
But Stanley still looked confused. And so Jesus said:
Okay, I’ve got another one. Have you ever lost a coin in a couch? You know how you drop everything and you tear apart that couch, until you are standing in a pile of cushions and couch lint and mummified raisins, the coin in your hand? You know how you text all your friends then? What do you text to them?
Rejoice with me!
A moment of silence passed, Stanley staring at Jesus, Jesus staring back at him with the biggest smile on his face that you can imagine.
Meeting Jesus was may more disappointing that Stanley had expected.
At last, Stanley spoke:
Okay, I get it,
These people on the blankets, with everything that they have done, everything that they are responsible for, all of the hurt that they have caused. They are like the lost sheep, they are like the cost coin. And we’re all supposed to rejoice that they are here.
Yay. I guess.
Another moment of silence passed. And then Jesus says:
Oh, no, Stanley. They aren’t the lost sheep or the lost coin.
And we’ve found you.
Jesus looked around at everyone on the blanket and he said:
Rejoice with me!
And there was a great cheer.
And this is the cliffhanger at the end of the story. There is space on the picnic blanket for Stanley, there is abundant food for him to eat, there is a party hosted by Jesus.
Does Stanley choose to sit down?