Sunday, September 11, 2022

14 Pentecost, 2022-C: Coming home to God

Lectionary: Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28; Psalm 14; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10 

Happy homecoming!  I give thanks that ours is a happy church to come home to – it’s one of Emmanuel’s most attractive qualities. 

It isn’t just that there is happiness here, which there is even in these COVID-affected times, but that there is a constant desire for and intention toward the happiness of the people in this church home on so many levels.

We rejoice to have among us those for whom Emmanuel is the home they come back to visit each year. We welcome you home.

We also rejoice over and welcome those siblings who have been or would be scorned, judged, or excluded from other church homes. We open our doors and our hearts to you.

At Emmanuel, we know that we are all sinners saved by the grace of God, which is what Jesus is teaching in these parables today.

Luke begins by telling us that tax collectors and other sinners were coming to hear Jesus speak. The very presence of these ungodly people caused the godly people around them to complain. Responding to their grumbling Jesus tells three parables. We hear two of them today. We’ll hear the third one next Sunday.

In these parables, Jesus reframes relationship and returns it to the proper order asserting that relationship begins with God and is made available by God to everyone.

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

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 - and  he would!

And while understanding the parable in this way makes us feel good, and loved, and valued, this parable isn’t about us – it’s about God whose nature it is to seek and save the lost, which here means out of relationship. This story is about God who rejoices each time anyone is reconciled back into relationship.

Sometimes our similarity with sheep 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 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 cries 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, which is Bible-speak for “lost”. Being part of a large crowd of sheep in the same place, doing the same thing, gives the flock a false sense of security.

This story, as sweet and comforting as it is for us, would have been shocking to Jesus’ listeners. You see, in Jesus’ time, shepherds were despised, “scorned as dishonest …” (New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary (NIB), CD-Rom, Vol. IX, 65), unclean – ritually and actually – there were no showers out in those fields you know, so they stank.

The Scribes and Pharisees would have been appalled and angered by this parable. God is NOT a shepherd.

So… Jesus pushes it even farther casting God as (gasp) a woman! O.M.G!

An interesting thing about the story of the lost coin is that it doesn’t conjure up the kind of beautiful pastoral images the parable of the lost sheep does. As theologian 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 us. It’s about God whose nature is to search diligently and work hard to find what had been lost.

At the end of each parable, Jesus says that all of heaven rejoices over one sinner who repents… one person who recognizes that she is lost and calls out to God for rescue; one person who turns his attention away from satisfying his own hunger and looks to God and God’s way instead.

Our relationship with God is THE relationship from which comes all our other relationships. God is our home.

God is the source of our happiness, and it is God’s Spirit that motivates us to grow our family, to expand our church boundaries to include and include, and include – even the blasphemer, the tax collector, and the sinner because God, whose love is beyond our comprehension, uses even our sinfulness to redeem. As St. Paul says, he was the foremost sinner who persecuted and killed Jesus’ followers, yet he received mercy, thereby revealing Christ’s “utmost patience” for all.

We who are followers of Jesus 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.

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

We repent when we let go of all that hinders our relationship with God and prevents God’s love from growing in and through us. We repent when we open ourselves to receive the Love that chases after us, lifts us up, and carries us safely home.

That’s why coming home to our church matters. It’s where we learn and practice loving God, one another, and ourselves. At Emmanuel, we celebrate God’s amazing love for us and we do it among people who care enough to help us see when we have lost our way; people who will reach out and remind us to come back into relationship - to come home – and then rejoice when we do.  Happy homeoming. Amen.

Sunday, September 4, 2022

13 Pentecost, 2022-C: We're in good hands

Lectionary: Jeremiah 18:1-11; Psalm 139:1-5,13-17; Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-33 

En el nombre del Dios: creador, redentor, y santificador. Amen.

C. S. Lewis once said, “It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.” 

Change is part of life. Granted, some changes are better than others and it can be hard to know which changes are good for us and which are not – but that’s where faith comes in.

For God’s people, there is nothing to fear in change. We’re in good hands as we heard in our Old Testament reading where The LORD says to Jeremiah: Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words. So, Jeremiah goes where God directs him, and there as he watches the potter reforming a pot that has spoiled on the wheel. Jeremiah hears the voice of God say: Can I not do with you…just as this potter has done? Just like clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.

Telling the people through the prophet Jeremiah (twice, to be sure we hear it) that God’s plan is not fixed, God says: I will change my mind. God’s mind changes in response to the changes that happen in the world around us and in response to us and our choices.

That’s amazing, isn’t it?

On the downside, this means that we can never fully figure out God’s plan - it’s a moving target. We can never be absolutely sure that we know what to do to get it all right - but we aren’t called to be right. We’re called to be faithful.

On the plus side, this opens to us an amazing truth: that what we do and how we live matters and affects the plan of God…or is that a downside? Not if we are like clay in the hands of our Potter - clay that is malleable on the wheel where it is formed and re-formed into a vessel of the Potter’s design.

If you have ever worked with clay, you know that you have to pound the clay and knead water into it (it’s quite a workout!), or else the clay is dry, rigid, and unusable. By the same token, if we choose to be rigid about anything in our church life, we have chosen to make ourselves unworkable by the Master Potter, who honors our choices, even when they are regrettable.

Thankfully, God is always faithful to us, redeems our mistakes, and comforts us when the outcomes we set into motion hurt us. That is God’s covenant with us – to be our God, our Potter. Our covenant with God is to be God’s people – the clay that is formed and reformed in God’s hands according to God’s living plan of love for the world.

This metaphor of the Potter and the clay illustrates how intimately and actively God is with us. It also clarifies the trust we must have in the Potter, especially during the pounding and the kneading.

God has a plan of love for us and for the whole world. If we trust that, and if we trust God, who knit us together in our mother’s wombs and whose hand is laid upon us, we must be willing to let go of everything else – everything else - which is what Jesus is teaching in today’s gospel from Luke.

Speaking to a large, enthusiastic crowd of followers, Rabbi Jesus says: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” You can almost hear the hearts of the people drop with a thud. Is God asking us to hate our family?

We’ll get to that. First, we need to hear the rest of this hard teaching.

Jesus goes on to say that we must bear our cross – the symbol of the death of all that matters to us - even our own lives - and follow him. But the hardest thing Jesus says today may be this: “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions."

There are many things we possess, are attached to, and place before God’s call to us: our families, our reputation, our independence. We can be attached to our secrets, our self-image, our way of doing certain church ministries… even our ideas about God.

Jesus says that to be a disciple we must give up all of these and trust in God alone. We must shift our priority of loyalty (which is how the word ‘hate’ translates) to God before everything and everyone else – including ourselves.

We do not come first. They do not come first. God and God’s will for all of us come first – and we must trust God completely when we are called to choose. Only then can we be Jesus’ disciples.

Once upon a time, I was sitting in quiet prayer and study when my rectory doorbell rang. My dogs went crazy doing their protective, dog-thing: lots of noise and running around. I answered the door confident that whoever was there had heard the ruckus and knew I had 4-legged protection if I needed it.

On the other side of the door stood a large African-American man in a uniform with a name tag. He introduced himself and launched into his spiel about a risk-free plan for controlling the cost of monthly gas payments. I interrupted his presentation and informed him that this was a rectory belonging to the church not me, and anyway, it didn’t use gas as a utility.

He looked over at the church then back at me and said, “Oh. OK. Are you the pastor’s wife or something?” I smiled and said, “I’m the pastor.”

I never know how news like that will go over, so I waited and watched while he decided how he felt about it. After a moment, he asked, “What is your mission?”

When I looked at him kind of blankly he said, “What do you stand for? What do you believe in? I mean, are you followers of Jesus Christ who said ‘I am the Way and the Truth and the Life?’”

He’d obviously never met an Episcopalian before! 

Finishing the quote he started, I said: Jesus said, "I am the Way and the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14: 6) Jesus also said, “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me. And I will raise that person up on the last day.” (John 6:44).

It pays to know a few Bible verses.

We shared a short conversation on what we believe as Christians, quoting the Bible often and faithfully. Though we were obviously speaking from VERY different denominational perspectives, we were truly and wonderfully grounded in and united by the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ.

As we shook hands and said goodbye the man began to pray. His prayer covered me with holy love, and I received it gratefully. When he finished praying, we embraced. We were no longer strangers, but members of one family – Christ’s family – having been reconciled by the sharing of the Gospel.

This encounter made very real for me the opening of St. Paul’s letter to Philemon which says, When I
remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus. How proud Paul would have been of this disciple at my door.

I was blessed by my encounter with this man. It was an experience of oneness with God and another human being that broke down all divisions, all earthly barriers, and inspired me with hope. I made a mental note always to try to be open to the surprises of love God may send.

We are continually being formed and re-formed by God into disciples. As we grow and change at Emmanuel according to God’s plan for us, I pray we will be asking ourselves the same questions this man asked me: What is our mission? What do we stand for? What do we believe in? Are we followers of Jesus Christ?

I pray also that God will help us maintain our malleability so that we can be molded and fashioned into the kind of disciples who can be sent to create moments where oneness with God and another human being can be known and experienced, where we can inspire others with the hope that is the truth of the Gospel.

Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts… Amen.