Sunday, September 12, 2010

Pentecost 16-C sermon: Forgiveness, Reconciliation, Redemption

Lectionary: Exodus 32:7-14; Psalm 51:1-11; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10

On Labor Day at our Shepherd’s Table cookout, I noticed that one of our “regulars” was sitting by himself in a chair near the window. I asked if he’d had something to eat. “No,” he said. “I ate before I came.” “Why did you come then?” I asked. “To save sinners” he said, “Some of them don’t believe and I invite them to my church where they can be saved.” From previous conversations with this young man I can tell you that he practices a form of Christianity that focuses on fear, sin, and condemnation and he passes out little cartoon booklets that illustrate this fear-based approach.

“They’re already saved,” I said. “Jesus did that by his cross and resurrection. You can’t save them and neither can your church.” Then putting on my most pastor-like voice I said, “This is my church, and we don’t build the kingdom that way around here. We trust God to finally bring about the plan of salvation. In the meantime, we offer food and friendship in the name of Christ. I can see the passion you have for Jesus, and you’re always welcome to come here and eat, but while you’re here, I must insist that you let these people eat in peace.”

Two days later, the young man returned for lunch at the Shepherd’s Table. Again, he sat alone. No one will sit with him because he harangues them. I got a plate of food and sat with him, welcoming him back.

I noticed the booklets in his shirt pocket and asked him to see them. The first thing I read in both booklets was about sin and the threat of eternal punishment. “Where is the good news in these?” I asked him. He answered with the phrases he’d been taught to say – even though they had nothing to do with what I was asking.

Finally, I asked the young man this question: “Why did Jesus come?” I ask you the same thing now. Why DID Jesus come? What was his ultimate purpose? Was it to threaten us into good behavior? Was it to coerce us into believing? Why did Jesus come? If your answer doesn’t include news that is GOOD, keep thinking while we look at our lessons for today.

Our Gospel reading today is from the 15th chapter of Luke, which consists entirely of three parables: the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Prodigal or Lost Son. All of these parables speak to us about redemption in terms of the recovery and reconciliation of that which had been lost. Our Gospel reading today offers us the first two of these parables, the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin, for our reflection.

The story of the shepherd who leaves the 99 to find the lone lost sheep is a familiar, beloved story. Seeing ourselves as the sheep and Jesus as our Good Shepherd, this parable makes us feel like we matter, and we like that feeling. We like believing that if we were the one who wandered off and got lost, our Good Shepherd would leave everyone and everything else behind in order to find us, then carry us home, rejoicing. While understanding the parable in this way makes us feel good, and loved, and valued… it misses the point of Jesus’ teaching. This parable isn’t about us – it’s about God whose nature it is to seek and save the lost. It’s about God who rejoices each time there is reconciliation.

Still, there’s benefit in looking at the sheep. Sometimes our similarity with them is uncomfortably on target – which is why these parables are so effective. Sheep live in community, but much of the time their attention is focused on themselves – on finding and consuming that which will satisfy their hunger. So with their eyes looking down at the grass around their feet, they move on from place to place - wherever the grass seems greener or more plentiful. Most of the time, the sheep doesn’t know it’s gotten lost until it finishes eating, looks up, and discovers that no one else is around. At that point, the sheep will cry out – looking for a response from the flock or the shepherd. If there is no response, the lonesome sheep may panic and make dumb or dangerous choices. Or it may freeze, unable to make any decision at all, eventually dying of starvation right where it stands.

Notice in the parable that only one sheep in the flock knows it‘s lost, even though there are 99 other sheep who, as the text says, are in the wilderness (a Biblical term for lost). Being part of a large crowd of sheep in the same place, doing the same thing, gives the flock a sense of security. But it’s a false sense of security – they simply haven’t noticed their vulnerability.

In the second parable Jesus talks about God’s redeeming work in terms of a woman recovering a lost coin. That by itself would have shocked the already disturbed Pharisees who were listening. Not only was this rabbi welcoming and eating with tax collectors and sinners, now he’s comparing God’s work to woman’s work! But as juicy as that is, it isn’t the point of this parable.

In today’s language, the woman in this parable might be searching for a winning lottery ticket. That’s why when she finds it, she calls to her friends and neighbors saying, Rejoice with me for I have found the [winning lottery ticket] I had lost.

An interesting thing about this parable is that the story about the lost coin doesn’t conjure up the kind of beautiful pastoral images the parable of the lost sheep does (i.e., where the sheep is draped over the shoulders of its loving shepherd). As theologian/author Rev. Robert Farrar Capon says, most people don’t feel sorry for the coin which has been lost… and that’s the point.

The parable isn’t about the coin – or about us. It’s about God whose nature is to search diligently and work hard, sparing no expense, to find that which had been lost.

At the end of both parables Jesus says that heaven rejoices over one sinner who repents…, one person who recognizes that he is lost and calls out to God for rescue; one person who turns her attention away from satisfying her own hunger and looks to God and God’s way instead. We act perversely, as God tells Moses in Exodus, when we rely on ourselves instead of on God. We turn away from what is right and good when things other than God - like money, or status, or relationships, or power, or drugs – are what bring us satisfaction and fulfillment, get us moving and define our purpose.

Yet God uses even our sinfulness to redeem. As St. Paul says: … I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost [sinner], Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life.

We who are followers of Christ are not a body of perfectly behaving, sinless persons. We are a collection of fully human, imperfect people, who forgive others as we have been forgiven and who welcome the least, the lost, and the excluded to the banquet table, just as Jesus did.

We aren’t called to save anyone – just to witness what we know… that the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ isn’t about sin – it’s about forgiveness of sin. It isn’t about punishment – it’s about reconciliation. It isn’t about condemnation – it’s about redemption.

That’s why it’s so important for us to worship together regularly. We need to hear again and again what’s good about the Good News of our salvation in Jesus Christ. We need to hear it in Scripture, taste it in Holy Communion, and see it, say it, (and in some churches smell it) in our liturgy. We need to praise and celebrate together with people who care enough to help us see when we have lost our way, people who will remind us to rely on God instead of ourselves.

When we gather together for worship, we stop our lives for a just a moment and remember why Jesus came – what his ultimate purpose was – then we strengthen ourselves to be partners with him in that redeeming work. That’s how we build the kingdom of God around here.

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