God Searches – a sermon

Yesterday’s sermon can be heard on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read it here.


It’s the most wonderful time of the year!  No, I’m not talking about Christmas, even though Hobby Lobby has been selling Christmas trees for more than a month now.  I’m not even talking about Pumpkin Spice Latte season.  Those things are like diabetes in a cup.  No, I’m excited because it is Parable Season!  As we wrap up the long Season after Pentecost, seven out of ten Sundays will feature at least one parable from Jesus.  This week, we are gifted with two: the Parable of the Lost Sheep and the Parable of the Lost Coin.  Certainly, these are two of my favorites.

Titles like those make Parables so easy to digest.  We already know what they are about before we even read them.  Of course, these parables weren’t told into a vacuum.  As much as preachers would like to make them universal fables, able to tell us how to live our lives 2,000 years after they were told, this is rarely, if ever, possible.  Jesus’ parables are always told in the context of a particular group of people for a very particular reason.  Our two parables today are told to a hodge-podge group that included Pharisees, tax collectors, scribes, and sinners.  Tax collectors and sinners, Luke tells us, were particularly drawn to Jesus.  His message of repentance and forgiveness must have struck a chord with these two traditionally ostracized groups.  They came from far and wide to listen to what he had to say.

Jesus’ popularity with sinners and tax collectors made him very unpopular with the Pharisees and the scribes whose life work it was to help the righteous live according to the Law.  Sinners and tax collectors were considered incorrigible.  It wasn’t worth the breath to try to convince them to follow the rules.  The teachers of the Law had long-since given up hope.  Rather than just roll their eyes at the naïve Rabbi from the boondocks who was trying to convert the heathens and ignore what Jesus was up to, the Pharisees and scribes began to grumble.  They grumbled that Jesus welcomed sinners and tax collectors.  Worse than that, he ate with them.  He received them into his life.  He risked being contaminated by their sinful ickiness.  He touched them, hugged them, and cared for them.  The content of their grumbling tells us that Jesus was in the habit of this sort of behavior.  He routinely risked his own purity in order to receive into himself all sorts of people.

Truth be told, if the Pharisees had simply grumbled about these things, we might not have this story.  The real problem is that they did more than grumble. The word that Luke uses here is the same word used to describe the murmuring of the Israelite’s in the wilderness.  Throughout the Bible, it is clear that grumbling and murmuring are near the top of the list of things one should never do: it often ends very poorly for those who decide to try it out.  Remember that time, after God had saved the Israelites from bondage in Egypt, when they murmured against God because they didn’t have enough water or enough food or even the right kind of food.  They murmured and they complained all the way to the point of building a golden calf to worship instead of the God they were so accustomed to complaining about.  As we heard this morning, they were a well-reasoned argument from Moses away from being utterly destroyed by God’s red hot wrath.

It is important that Luke uses this particular word to describe the complaints of the Pharisees and scribes.  In Hebrew, the same word that is translated as “murmur” also means “to lodge” or “to abide.”  Murmuring sets up a dwelling place of discontentment in your heart.  It pushes out hope and joy and peace, and replaces it with resentment, frustration, and dis-ease.  When murmuring sets up residence in your heart, there is no longer room for God, and when there is no longer room for God, you are lost.  The Pharisees and the scribes in our story today were lost, and it is to these lost religious leaders – full of righteousness murmuring, yet unable to make room for God – Jesus tells a series of three parables about lostness, two of which we hear today.

“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?”  I told this parable to our prEYC on Wednesday, and we decided that actually none of us would do that.  Why would you risk leaving ninety-nine sheep to be eaten by wolves to track down one that was already as good as dead?  That just doesn’t make any sense, but that’s what God does.  He relentlessly pursues that one lost sheep until he finds it.  Whether that lost sheep is a notoriously sinful person or a murmur-infected religious leader, God searches and searches and searches until he finds each and every lost soul, and each time he finds one, the celebration in heaven is like no party we have ever seen before.

“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it?”  That seems reasonable Jesus.  Sure, when I lose something of value, I’ll dig around until I find it, absolutely.  “When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying ‘Rejoice with me for I have found the coin that I have lost.’”  Well, no, Jesus, I probably wouldn’t do that.  I doubt that having found my silver coin, I would then spend it and several more to throw a party over finding it.  That’s just foolishness.  It would be crazy to be so lavish, but this is exactly how God acts toward all of us who are lost.

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look how happy she is

God loves us like crazy.  He loves us with reckless abandon, and because of that deep and abiding love, God would risk everything to find a single lost soul.  In sending his Son to share our human nature and to live and die as one of us, God did risk everything, and the best part of this whole crazy story is that he risked it all to find you.  These parables aren’t stories about a God who desires to save all of us in some grand cosmic scheme.  They aren’t about a search for two coins or ten sheep or billions of people; these are stories about risking everything to find only one thing.  God left ninety-nine righteous sheep at risk to find one solitary lost soul.  God pulled out his lantern, got down on all fours, and risked what might be hiding under the couch to find you in your lostness, and he’ll do it again and again and again.  Every time you find yourself lost, know that God is already looking to find you, and when he does, there will be a party in heaven like you would not believe.  I can’t wait to one day see what that party is like on Sunday mornings, when millions of Christians are in church, confessing their sins, and turning toward God anew.  That party must be absolutely ridiculous!

The Pharisees, even as they lived faithful lives were completely lost.  They had forgotten that at the heart of God’s covenant with Abraham was the promise to bless all the people of the earth.  From the very beginning, it has been God’s deepest desire to restore to right relationship every lost soul, every sinner, every tax collector, every murmuring Pharisee.  From the very beginning, it has been God’s deepest desire to find you.  No matter where you got lost, God is searching with love and concern, and when he finds you, there will be joy in heaven.  “Rejoice with me,” God says, “for I have found my beloved who was lost.”  Amen.

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Noticing a Theme

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Image from Liturgy Memes on Facebook

During the interminable season after Pentecost (the big green portion on the left of the picture above), the Revised Common Lectionary allows congregations to choose between two Old Testament tracks.  The first is the so-called “semi-continuous” lesson, which pulls lessons that are a “semi-continuous” telling of an Old Testament story.  The second track is “thematic” in that the lesson has something to do with some other lesson.  The trick is often finding what theme the RCL powers-that-be had in mind.

At Saint Paul’s, we’ve been using the Track Two lessons this summer.  The choice was made, for the most part, because unless one is going to preach the OT for an extended period of time, the “semi-continuous” lessons can raise a lot of questions that never really get answered for people sitting in the pews.  This Sunday, the obvious theme between the Exodus lesson and both New Testament lessons (1 Timothy and Luke) is sinfulness.  Jesus is accused of hanging out with sinners and tax collectors.  Paul gives Timothy a saying that is true and worthy of full acceptance – Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners.  The Hebrews whom God has saved from bondage in Egypt have sinned egregiously by making and worshiping a golden calf.  It is a rare Episcopal priest who will preach about sin, but if there ever were a Sunday to do it, Proper 19C is it.

Not that I want to avoid preaching sin, but as I’ve read over the lessons for Sunday throughout the week, I couldn’t help but notice that there is another, more subtle connection between lessons in Exodus and Luke: humor.  These stories are two of the most ridiculous scenes in all of Scripture.  The Exodus lesson is a snark battle between God and Moses.  I hope your lectors will highlight the sarcasm.

The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it…”

But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, `It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’?”

Meanwhile, Luke sets up the Lost Parables through a hyperbolic scene of his own.

All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”  So he told them this parable…

Picture that scene for a moment.  As I see it, Jesus is in a room having dinner with all the tax collectors and sinners in a given town, while the Pharisees stand outside, peering through the doors and windows, grumbling among themselves.  Jesus, looking up from his plate of mutton, clears his throat, and begins to tell this immense crowd these wild stories about a shepherd who puts 99% of his sheep at risk to find one that was lost and a woman who spends a huge sum of money throwing a party over finding a single lost coin.

These stories are a helpful reminder that the Bible is not a drab history book for us to study for an exam.  It is the story of God’s relationship with humanity, in all our faults and foibles.  It is full of poetry, of myth, of humor, and most importantly, it is full of love: God’s unimaginable love for everything God has created.

What makes a sinner?

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One of the key stops on the Romans’ Road to salvation is Romans 3:23.  Stop me if you’ve heard it from an evangelical friend of yours.  “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  Or, perhaps you haven’t walked that path before; maybe you’ve spent your whole life in Mainline Protestantism.  If that’s the case, then you are likely familiar with the idea of corporate confession.  In the Episcopal Church, on most Sunday mornings, it sounds something like, “Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone…”  Thanks in large part of the Protestant Reofrmation, modern American Christianity seems fairly comfortable with the idea that we are all fallen, sinful people.

This is a very healthy way of understanding our place in God’s plan of salvation, but it can prove very unhelpful when the calendar rolls over to Proper 19 in Year C and the word “sinner” takes a prominent roll in both New Testament lessons.  It wasn’t until I started reading my usual commentaries on this week’s lesson in preparation for preaching that  realized that when Paul talks about Jesus coming to save sinners and the Pharisees grumble about his welcoming and, worse yet, eating with sinners, they don’t mean sinners in the universal sense.  Instead, there is a very particular meaning for that word.  This was something of a theme in the commentaries I read last night, but I’ll randomly choose Greg Carey of Lancaster Theological Seminary’s explanation.

Congregations may stumble over the term sinner, especially if they are well educated in Christian doctrine. “Aren’t we all sinners?” some may protest. Not in Luke’s world. In Luke’s world, some people so habitually transgress the ways of God that they are sinners in need of repentance. Others do not. We must take our passage on its own terms: Jesus distinguishes between sinners who repent and “the righteous who have no need of repentance” (15:7). We may struggle with that distinction, but it is critical for engaging this passage on its own terms. Here lies the cutting edge of the passage: Jesus embraces the very people the rest of religious society rejects.

Jesus isn’t hanging out with folks who curse occasionally or honk their horn at slow old people in traffic.  Jesus is hanging out with the prostitutes, the drug addicts, thieves, and gangsters.  To put into a modern context, the optics of Jesus’ dinner guests would be like dining with Kim Jong-un, Anthony Weiner, and Bernie Madoff.  Not that it wouldn’t make for interesting dinner conversation, but polite society would frown upon having these men in one’s company.

The crux of the issue for the religious powers-that-be isn’t what Jesus is saying, but to whom he is saying it.  If God was offering even those notoriously sinful and unclean persons forgiveness, then the cultic system they have so carefully created no longer works.  If Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners, then the world is going to get turned upside down.  Sure, there is the side benefit of Jesus saving us run-of-the-mill sinners as well, but when Jesus is sharing the Good News with the least worthy of it, that can be hard to swallow.

More than Welcome

The Pharisees and scribes are mad as heck and they aren’t going to take it anymore.  For years now, they’ve watched as Jesus drew crowds numbering in the thousands to hear him speak.  They paid attention as he entered the homes of all sorts of people for dinner.  They noticed the types of folks who had close access to Jesus, and they couldn’t wrap their minds around just how these people could be welcomed by Jesus.  In the NRSV, their reaction is “grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them,'” but it seems as though there is something even more sinister going on.

The Greek words that gets translated as “welcomes” is probably better translated with an older word, “receives.”  Whereas welcome carries with it images of the multi-billion dollar hospitality industry, with its fake plants and even faker smiles, the idea of receiving someone seems to carry a deeper meaning.  There was a time, not too long ago, when receiving lines were still a part of the social norm in this country.  Now mostly relegated to State Dinners, the receiving line is a chance not just to allow someone access to your home, but to invite them into a relationship.

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President Ford and Queen Elizabeth receive guests at the White House

Jesus received sinners and tax collectors.  He gave them access to himself.  He touched them, hugged them, shared meals with them, and cared for them.  The verb tense tells us that Jesus was in the habit of this sort of behavior.  He risked his own purity in order to receive into himself all sort of people; including you and me.

One of the big topics in the Church today is the ministry of hospitality.  My friend Mary Parmer has almost singlehandedly brought this to the fore through Invite, Welcome, Connect.  You should totally check it out, but I can’t help but wonder if we are selling ourselves short by settling to be a welcoming congregation, when, to follow the example of Jesus would be as a receiving church.  Welcoming a stranger doesn’t run the same level of risk of being changed by them as does receiving one.  Are we willing to be changed?  Will we risk contamination, open our doors, and receive into our lives the sort of people that Jesus spent time with?  Can we move past the gloss of welcome into the depth of reception?