Sunday, September 15, 2013

Pentecost 17-C, 2013: All of heaven rejoices

Lectionary: Exodus 32:7-14; Psalm 51:1-11; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10
Preacher: The Very Rev Dr Valori Mulvey Sherer, Rector

En el nombre del Dios: Padre, Hijo, y Espiritu Santo. Amen.

One of my favorite friends in the communion of saints is Julian of Norwich. In her book, “Revelations of Love,” Julian describes a series of visions she has of Jesus. Her visions are exciting, surprising, joyful, dreadful, comforting, and challenging. Julian rejoices in the attention she, a humble sinner, was being paid by the Lord, saying, “For I wanted to thank our Lord, who is so reverent, so holy and apart, for being so homely (familiar) with a sinful creature.” (Revelation of Love, Julian of Norwich, 8.)

One commentator on Julian’s visions says, “Julian’s meditations do not pretend to take away the pain of today’s world, but they can inspire believers to rise up in the midst of the struggle and fix their eyes on God. They promote the virtues of self-acceptance and neighborly love and show how these qualities help [us] discover the face of God. This ability to recognize God in all things is crucial for [us] who are so prone to discouragement because [we] keep forgetting [we] are loved.” (Brendan Doyle, Meditations with Julian of Norwich, 8.)

It’s true. We often forget how powerfully and intimately God loves us and what that means for us and for the world. This, I believe, is what Jesus is teaching us in today’s gospel from Luke.

Luke begins by telling us that tax collectors and other sinners were coming to hear Jesus speak. That by itself is a bit shocking. Why would known sinners risk going to hear this itinerant rabbi?

The very presence of these ungodly people caused the godly people around them to complain: “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” In response to their grumbling, Jesus tells three parables (Note: we hear only two of these parables today. We’ll hear the third one next Sunday).

The first parable is the iconic story of the shepherd who leaves the whole flock to seek and recover a single lost sheep. The image of that found sheep wrapped around the Good Shepherd’s shoulders being carried safely home is a tender, comforting image for us.

But it wasn’t for those first listeners. They were shocked because in Jesus’ time, shepherds were despised. They “were scorned as dishonest people who grazed their flocks on other [people’s] lands.” (New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary (NIB), CD-Rom, Vol. IX, 65) They were unclean – ritually and actually – there were no showers out in those fields you know, so they stank.

The Scribes and Pharisees were scandalized and angered by this parable. God is NOT a shepherd.

Then Jesus goes on and tells the second parable. Can you see where this is going? In case they weren’t angry enough about Jesus casting God as a shepherd, now he’s casting God as (gasp) a woman! (O.M.G!)

Julian of Norwich was, no doubt, inspired by these parables. Jesus’ use of these “homely” images of God brought God “down to earth” as the saying goes. In fact, Jesus’ own life had the same purpose, didn’t it – to make God reachable, touchable, intimately present, so that we, who are sinners, could draw near and be reconciled?

But the Pharisees of Jesus’ time - and ours – wouldn’t want everyone reconciled. It’s unthinkable to them that certain kinds of sinners might be welcomed into heaven.

Now I’m not claiming to solve centuries of theological argument over universalism in this sermon. All I’m doing is pointing to the parables of Jesus in today’s gospel.

In these parables Jesus reveals that it is God who desires reconciliation with the lost. It is God who goes out in search of the lost; God who goes to great, sacrificial lengths to reclaim the lost – and God, by the way, who defines the lost.

The God Jesus reveals in these parables gets dirty and scratched up because He will chase after a single lost sheep. The God Jesus reveals finds no task too menial or undignified in Her search for a single lost treasure – which is another truth this parable reveals: we are God’s treasure.

Think about what for a minute… we are a treasure to God. God treasures each and every one of us.

How many of us truly feel like that? How many of us remember that the same is true for that person or group we choose to hate? They too are a treasure to God and we must approach them as such. To do otherwise is to sin – to separate ourselves from the love of God.

Some people challenge our Christian virtue, no doubt! Paul, when he was still Saul, comes to mind. But they are a gift to us because they enable us to make a choice to humble ourselves and build our love until it looks more like the love of God.

Many of you know that I had another son once. I didn’t give birth to him, but he was my son in my heart all the same. His name was Justin and he is with God now.

Justin had a rough life. His father committed suicide when he was a little boy and his mother suffered from her own demons.

I met Justin when he was in high school. He and his family went to the church I served in Cadillac, and he was in my younger son’s class. Justin had loving grandparents and extended family, but what he didn’t have was parents, so he sought to create parent-like relationships, as he understood those, with a few of us.

Steve and I were Justin’s college parents. I helped Justin apply for college, get financial aid, buy his books. I bought his dorm supplies and moved him in at the same time I was moving my own boys into their dorm rooms. Justin would come home with our boys for the holidays – they all even came here our first Christmas in Shelby.

But there was a problem: Justin didn’t know how to be a son. He didn’t know that as a son he could make demands on us as parents. He saw our boys doing it – we even talked about it. But he just couldn’t do it. He didn’t feel worthy and he certainly didn’t trust love enough to risk it.

No amount of assurance could convince Justin that our love for him had nothing to do with what he did. We loved him. End of story.

Justin knew he was a sinner, but his definition of that differed greatly from mine, so we talked about it - a lot. Justin looked at his behaviors and judged himself for the dark feelings that lingered in his heart from his childhood. He believed he must have been bad since so many bad things had happened to him, and he concluded that his severe juvenile diabetes was a punishment from God.

When I looked at Justin, I saw a gifted, beautiful, young man who needed to repent of his concept of a vengeful, punitive God and open himself to the God of love Jesus is describing in today’s gospel. I saw a young soul who needed to repent of his hateful feelings about himself and see how lovely he truly was.

In the end, Justin couldn’t believe that he was a treasure to us or to God – and he took his own life. The consolation I have is that I believe now he knows. I believe that Justin is reconciled with God and finally knows how much we love him, miss him, and long for our joyful reconciliation one day. I believe Justin now understands the truth that we are all sinners and we are all treasures, beloved of God, in whom all love begins and ends.

As Christians we believe that the fullness of God is revealed to us in Jesus, the Christ. If we have ears to hear Jesus’ revelation of God in today’s gospel, we must repent of whatever concept of God we learned and cling instead to the words of our Savior. To do otherwise is to be a stiff-necked people who worship an idol: a God of our own creation.

When Jesus says, “…I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents" he means it - but he isn’t talking about our behavior. He’s talking about our hearts. Our behavior is simply the manifestation of what’s going on in our hearts.

If we love God, we will live humbly, nurturing and using every gift God has given us for the glory of God and the welfare of God’s people. If we love others, as we have been commanded to do, we will live in peace and forgiveness. If we love ourselves, as we are also commanded to do, we will care for the bodies God crafted so marvelously for us to use.

We repent when we let go all that hinders God’s love from growing in and through us beyond what we can think or imagination. We repent when let ourselves receive the Love that chases after us, lifts us up, and carries us safely home.

And when we repent all of heaven rejoices!

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