Sunday, September 11, 2016

You say that like it's a bad thing.

 Luke 15:1-10   (NRSV)

15 Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

3 So he told them this parable: 4 “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? 5 When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 7 Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

8 “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? 9 When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ 10 Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”


Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”  And Jesus was all, “You say that like its a bad thing!  Here are a couple of stories for you to ponder.”  And he told them the stories that we know so very well.  If you look up at the stained glass window to my right you will see one of those stories illustrated . . . Jesus returning to the flock with a sheep slung over his shoulder.  

One sheep - a ewe, perhaps, who could be counted on for one or two lambs every year, and wool every season, and meat at the end of her useful life.  City folks might not get this story perfectly, but this is a farming community - y’all know what I’m talking about!   One lost sheep is something you can just shrug your shoulders over, you know?  No, you leave the rest of the flock together and go looking for that one.  The flock will be safe. They’re all together, they’re probably in a sheltered place and maybe there’s a dog to keep watch over them in your absence.   But that one, alone and frightened, that is the one Jesus is seeking.

The other story is nearly as popular as the story of the lost sheep - a woman and a coin.  This story has inspired nearly as much art, and even the song we heard the choir perform for us this morning.  I had to go to Google and Wikipedia to figure out just what the woman had lost, though.  When I first heard this story as a child, I thought maybe the coin was a silver dollar, and even though a silver dollar was a lot of money to me as a child, and even though dollars went a lot further then than now, still, it was a dollar. I didn’t understand the significance.  But when you realize that 10 silver coins at that time were about two months wages, losing one of those coins is a seriously big deal.  Which of us could lose a little over a week’s pay and NOT go looking for it in every nook and cranny of the house?  We’re talking the car payment here, or the rent, or groceries for the month.   And when the lost is found, there is much rejoicing.   

There was a fundraising idea going around on Facebook last week, sort of a backwards auction.  People are invited to give however much money they like not to hear a particular hymn for an entire year!  Say you are sick to death of “Siyahamba.”   Just write a check, and the worship leaders will delete it from their repertoire for the entire year!  Of course, we all laughed and said, “Oh we should totally do this!”   Not.  Maybe?  Anyway . . .that led to a discussion about favorite hymns. Because I know how tired one can get of hearing and singing the same six hymns over and over,  I am very careful not to ask for my very favorite hymn more often than maybe once a year.  I am so careful that no one really knows what it is.  Mind you, there are quite a few hymns that I really love.  Holy Wisdom.  Be Thou My Vision.  Joyful, Joyful.  Anything sung to the tune “Finlandia.”  But my favorite hymn, the one closest to my heart, is Amazing Grace.  When I first got clean and sober and started to learn about a loving, forgiving God who wants only the best for me and for all God’s children, I was so amazed at what God had done for me that I couldn’t stop singing that song.  It said everything I was feeling.  I was lost, but now I’m found.  God’s grace brought me through many dangers, toils and snares - but I hadn’t known it.  I had been blind, but now I could see that it was God acting in my life.    I was the coin, the sheep, the prodigal child, and God had welcomed me home, celebrated when I returned, embraced me and assured me I was loved.  And because of who I was, it’s important to me that I spend time with people like me, people who might not yet understand God’s loving care and forgiveness.  I spend time with them, and do my best to preach without words.  Or as that other popular Facebook meme says, I tell them I‘m Christian and then try not to act like a jerk.  

No where does the Bible tell us we have to spend all our time around Good Christian Folks.  A lot of churches say that, but Jesus didn’t.  I even had someone tell me that if I listened to any music other than what is played on the Christian radio station, I wasn’t really Christian.  He totally freaked out when he found out I was studying non-Christian religions at Chapman!  Mind you, I love spending time with my church family.   I love CWF circle meetings and hanging out with the Young Adults and running into any of you at Save Mart.  I love the retreats and assemblies and reunions.  I don’t love committee meetings  . . .  But I don’t know many people who do love committee meetings.    It is quite clear that the self proclaimed good church folks of his time, the Pharisees and Sadducees and Scribes, were seriously bent out of shape that he spent so much time with people who were not good church folks, people who were significantly sinful, so much so that they weren’t allowed to participate in Temple worship.  They weren’t even allowed to sit down and eat with devout, Law following folks.   

A word about the Pharisees.   Please understand that not all of the Pharisees, Sadducees and Scribes were “bad guys” or in opposition to Jesus.  In fact, there were two schools of thought among the Pharisees.  One school taught and believed that the letter of the Law was the important thing, and must be followed rigidly.  The other school taught and believed that the important thing was the intent of the Law, pretty much exactly what Jesus was teaching.  So not all of them were coming to hear Jesus and argue with him.  Not all of them thought he was blasphemous.  Some totally agreed with him.  But the noisy ones got all the attention.  This is important to remember.  It’s why the Sanhedrin was called to judge him in the middle of the night, so only those in opposition to Jesus’ message would be present because they had been forewarned that this was coming.  

Likewise, there is sometimes a misunderstanding about the way the word “righteous” is used.  We may have been taught to hear it as “self-righteous.”  But when Jesus said, “I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.” what he was saying is that those who were already doing God’s will in the world, the ordinary good people who did what God desired, didn’t need to hear his message - they were already doing what they were supposed to do. Jesus didn’t come to save the ones who were already living rightly.  He was after the ones who had strayed…not just the prostitutes and tax collectors, but also those who had strayed too far in the other direction, the super-vigilant hyper-religious folks who forgot what the Law was intended to do.  Jesus didn’t hang around with the good, ordinary folks who went to hear the rabbis teach and tithed and helped the poor and did what they could to do God’s will in the world.  They were that flock of sheep, safe in the enclosure.  They didn’t need him.  Jesus went out looking for the lost sheep.  He hung out where he was needed.  

Jesus performed miracles for non-believers, like the Syro-Phoenician woman whose daughter was so ill, and even for the oppressor of his people, the Roman Centurion whose servant was dying.  His only concern was to show the love of God in every way he could to every person he could.  It’s what we are called to do.  And while I know it’s more comfortable to spend time with people like ourselves, people who share our beliefs and standards, that’s not what Jesus called us to do.  Jesus never told his followers to stay and just hang out with each other.  No, Jesus kept sending his folks out among the sinners and Gentiles and Samaritans and Romans.  They were, we are, his flock, but we are also shepherds, and we’re supposed to go find those lost sheep.  We are seekers after the lost, not merely welcomers standing ready if the lost happen to find their way here.  So when Janice drives to Oregon with a car full of dogs to be saved, and Alan goes to visit Jeremy in prison, and Pat makes friends with ladies who come into Twice is Nice, and Jennifer hands out food at the SMART Center, they are carrying the word of God to someone who needs to hear it.  Just by doing what they are doing, without saying anything.  And if by your example, your love, your care, your refusal to judge, your welcoming of every person who enters your life even for a minute, one person is brought to understand anything at all about God’s love, it is as if you have found that coin, or rescued that sheep.   

This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”  Yeah.  That’s kind of the point.  Jesus welcomes all into his presence.  He goes out looking for the lost, the frightened, the lonely, the searching, the angry, the unloved and unlovable …. and invites them to come dine, to share in the love of God.   Let us go and do likewise.

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