Thursday, September 15, 2016

The heart of the Seeker and those for whom He searches . . .

     Like you all, I am still settling into this new pattern of our worship. In some ways, it is kind of cool to only have to do half the sermon preparation that I have been doing for the last 10-12 years. By that, of course, I mean that Holly is doing half and I am doing half, not that I am being lazy in my duties! Maybe it’s that reduction in duties, but I have to confess I don’t really feel relaxed when I have a sermon by Monday or Tuesday in the week. I have grown far more accustomed to settling on a sermon later in the week. This week, though, I knew I would be preaching from Luke. Not that I necessarily wanted to. Really, the prideful and lazy me wanted to preach from Jeremiah. Prideful, in the sense that I could show off in the tohu vabohu of the passage; lazy, in the sense that our work in the Genesis Bible study class on Tuesday evenings meant I did not have to do a lot of reading for sermon preparation – it has already been done! The same is true, of course, of Psalm 14. We have studied that one at length on Tuesday mornings at the Psalm Bible study, so I was well prepared for that! But here I was, certain early in the week that we should look at Luke.
     By the way, since I have already given a commercial for two of our Bible studies, I might as well commercialize the whole thing. In your Order of Worship inserts you will see a card asking about a lectionary based Bible study to be offered by Holly. If you are a bit intrigued by my hints of Genesis and the Psalm, maybe you should be in a lectionary Bible study with Holly. That way, you get to skim the surface of all four readings assigned each week! Now, back to our regularly scheduled sermon . . .
     Turn in your orders of worship to Luke. Have you ever noticed how good we are in the Church at drawing boundaries? We have this innate ability to decide who belongs in and who belongs out of the presence of God. Some of us who have belonged to other denominations have had that instinct well-honed and developed in the course of our membership in those denominations, but we Episcopalians are pretty good at it, too. We are in good company. We are much like our brother and sister Jews.
     Luke sets the stage for today’s teaching by showing the blurring of the boundaries. Jesus is teaching, and tax collectors and sinners, as well as Pharisees and scribes, were coming near to listen to Jesus. Tax collectors, of course, were the Benedict Arnold’s of their day. They worked with the Roman occupiers and, more often than not, enriched themselves at the expense of their brother and sister Jews. Tax collectors were, at best, often distrusted and, at worst, often hated. As a nation remembering the fifteenth year since the destruction of the Towers, we probably relate to the Pharisees and Scribes better than we would like to think. How many of us would be happy if Muslims had joined us in our walk with God through Christ during the intervening years? My suspicion is that we feel about as lovingly toward our Muslim brothers and sisters as Jews did toward their tax collectors, but that is another sermon, and Julia is here to tell us about Rooftop Ministries today.
      Anyway, the holy folks are grumbling. “Doesn’t He know who she is?” “Doesn’t He know what that guy does?” “What kind of holy man associates with sinners?” We still do this today. As most of you all know, my work in the fight against human trafficking caused me to meet some . . . interesting people. My former parish was not too concerned that I hung out with prostitutes or foreigners, though other churches and other clergy sometimes fussed at me about the “optics.” They meant well, most of the time. And when they didn’t, I got really excited. It’s pretty cool confirmation when people tell you that you are acting too much like Jesus. But even those who supported me struggled when I started hanging out with the pimps/slavers. A few members of my last parish had some serious heart to hearts with me about whether I was doing the right thing drinking beers with pimps, not praying for the destruction of slavers, or wandering into some . . . not quite the Garden of Eden spots of our midst.
     Perhaps the best example of this parable in modern times happened a couple years ago over in Rome. The Holy Father, as you all know and now come to expect, reminds us that we are supposed to be an inviting people, that we are supposed to mirror the behavior of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. That instruction, naturally, extends to the College of Cardinals and to the bishops. A couple years ago, Francis had reminded or chided, depending on who told the story, his brother bishops that they were supposed to give up their fancy cars and luxurious homes and to serve others as Christ had served them. One bishop, a cardinal actually, was heard to complain by the press that the Holy Father had lost his mind. Francis actually expected them to eat with homeless people! Had he never smelled them? Had he never seen their table manners? Just who did he think he was telling them to eat with “those” people.
     Francis handled the criticism well and used it as a teaching moment for the public while beginning to shape his successor. A reporter noticed construction around St. Peter’s Square. Eventually, it became clear that public showers were being installed in the Square. As God or Francis would have it, the reporter had occasion to be at a press conference with the Holy Father and have the opportunity to ask questions—this guy knows what he is doing, but so does God. The reporter asked why showers were being installed, reportedly at the instruction of the Holy Father. Francis stated that he had seen the interview with his brother bishop discussing the smell of the homeless. His brother bishop was right. Because the homeless had no access to showers, they often smelled badly. He thought it only fair that the homeless should be given places to shower so that when his brother bishops invited them to dinner, they could clean up. That way, the olfactory senses of my brother bishops will not be offended, and the homeless will have no reason to apologize to the host bishop for their condition. Talk about a Jesus-worthy lift up and smack down!
     Jesus, of course, responds to the indignity of the Pharisees and Scribes by telling a couple parables. In one way, these are common parable and we can well understand them, right? A shepherd loses a sheep and leaves the flock in search of the lost one. In economic terms, such an action is kind of crazy. The one sheep represents only 1% of his wealth, his work. Yet he leaves the 99% behind to search high and low for the one. We might like to think he left his flock with others, but Scripture does not tell us he did. Scripture says he left the 99 in the wilderness and went in search of the one. He sure does risk a lot for one sheep. Similarly, the woman loses a coin. In economic terms, the coin is 10% of her wealth. Symbolically, it is worth more. So maybe we can understand her focused searching a bit more. She tears the house apart looking for the lost coin, searching everywhere, in the cushions, under the refrigerator, digging through the trash until she locates it.
      We do this kind of stuff all the time, right? Jesus’ example is from everyday life. Those here on Tuesday can tell you how discombobulated I was without my Prayer Book. How many red ones are laying around here? They all have the same words on the same pages, but I needed mine! And heaven help me when I lose my cross. People give me crosses as presents all the time. There is no particular power in this cross compared to others—the only one of importance has been lost to history; yet, because I value the giver and the testimony it gives, I go nuts if I misplace it or one of my kids “uses” it. How crazy is that?
     My guess is that you have similar little things that you have to have. Keys do not count because, well, we need them to drive our cars and get around. But maybe there are things that, when you lose them, you go nuts searching for them. Anyone here ever walk way more searching for a lost remote than they ever would getting up immediately to change the channel? Ever miss a program while searching for a remote rather than manually changing the channel and watching your program? Caught you, did I?
     Jesus’ teaching, and our own modern illustrations, provides several important lessons. I want to focus on only two this day, as we try to be brief on Outreach Sunday. (1) Jesus’ parables, and our own, teach us much about the heart of God. God is every bit a determined seeker of the lost as we are for those items that make no sense. One of the meta-narratives of Scripture, one of the over-arching themes, is one of a love story. A heavenly Father is rejected by His children. Much of the rest of the book describes the lengths to which He will go to restore them to Himself. It’s true, right? We reject God, and He spends the rest of the time wooing us back into right relationship with Him. He sends people, prophets, kings – many of whom screw up everything, but He never gives up!
     Think of our own personal histories, those of us who remember a time when we rejected Him. There we were, going our own way and doing our own thing. What prompted that repentance in our life? What caused us to turn from our own desires and to seek His wisdom and salvation for our lives? Were you really responding to the cosmic threat of a principal or authority figure blasting you? Or were you wooed? Did people in your life exude a confidence, a hope, a joy in circumstances that made no sense to you? Did people point out how your Father in heaven was answering your needs? My guess is, for most of us with conversion experiences, they are closer to love stories than a response in fear. God seeks after us the way a shepherd seeks after a lost sheep, the way an ANE woman searches for a lost coin, or the way you and I search for a remote. He is enduring and His searching is unending.
     Jesus’ teaching is a wonderful snapshot of the heart of God, just as Jesus’ life is a wonderful family video. When we could not hear others, when we could not hear or outright rejected the message of the prophets, when we found our eyes scaled over and our ears plugged, He came down from heaven! He incarnated in these fleshy bodies. He dwelt with us, healing, curing, casting out demons, and teaching us about the heart of the Father who sent Him. And even then, even when we still did not understand His heart or His intent, He went willingly, obediently to the Cross, that you and I and countless other souls who were lost might be reconciled to His saving embrace. Beautiful, is it not? How deeply does He love us!
     But there is one other side to this little coin of Jesus’ teaching. I have read this passage hundreds of times, probably you have as well. Nowhere in the story does the sheep repent for wondering off; nowhere in the story does the coin apologize for losing its thread and falling. The seeker simply finds the sheep or coin worth searching for. The seeker places the value on the lost item; just as God places the value on us. Yes, the proper response to God’s seeking is eventually repentance, but this story does not go to that point. It simply reminds each one of us that we, and all whom we encounter in this world, are of incredible value to God! In fact, He values us so much that He is willing to die for us!
     A couple weeks ago, when I preached a sermon on the reminder that you and I are fed and strengthened in the sanctuary but then sent out into the camp to minister in His name, bearing crosses, some of you came to me with ideas. More, though, came to me with disqualifications. Father, I am not a good speaker. Father, I am not quick on my feet when it comes to talking about God. Father, I’m just me; God can’t possibly expect me to . . . What can I do in the midst of that work? Too many of us sold Him and ourselves short. God loved each and every one of us so much that He never gave up looking for us until He found us and we found Him. God loved each and every one of us so much that He was willing to pay the cost of our reconciliation to Him. He thought each and every one of us, and all whom we encounter in our daily life and work, worth dying for! In economic terms, it makes no sense. In use of time or energy, it makes no sense. Nevertheless, He sought and sought and sought us, even though it cost Him that horrible Passion and precious death. And our reconciliation to Him was so important that it caused a celebration in heaven! The angels and archangels and all the company of heaven partied when you and when I accepted Him as Lord!
     Brothers and sisters, that voice that tells you that you are not special, that you are a nobody, that you are just ordinary is not His voice! His voice is the one that has been whispering into your ear that you were gloriously made, that He has a purpose for you, that you are His well-beloved son or daughter! And so that we might not pine away listening to the voice of His enemy, He came and dwelt among us and showed us what His love for us was like. And that we might know, know that He has the power to redeem all things in our life, to accomplish His will for us in our lives, He raised His Son Jesus from the dead and promised each and every one of us who found Him finding us a share in that same power, that same glory, that same hope, and that same joy!
     In a few minutes, Julia will speak of incredible evil as the directrix of Rooftop Ministries. Homelessness, or the threat of homelessness, is far more pervasive in Nashville than many of us know. The darkness that she will describe may well seem overwhelming. Our efforts may well seem impotent when measured in economic or other terms. You may hear her words and wonder what difference little old you can make. And yet, our marching orders are, our joyful response to His redeeming work in our lives is to love Him with everything, and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. We serve a Lord who had, at times, nowhere to lay His head as He walked and taught among us, who reminds us that it is among the marginalized, the hopeless, the lost where is to be found. We need only to model obediently His command that we seek in His name. He will take care of the rest. He will find. He will provide. He will empower through the Holy Spirit. And in the end, He will be glorified not only in our lives, but in the world! And we, ordinary you and me who accepted Him as Lord of our lives, we will share in that glory for all eternity! If that's not the complete opposite of ordinary, well, . . . I don't know what is!

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