Tuesday, August 14, 2007

A Posting First

Well, here's the first sermon I'll have ever poster here. Like I mentioned in the last post, it's the first one I've written in a long time. I'm not sure yet how I feel about it. But here it is anyway.

Exodus 32:7-14; Luke 15:1-10

"Losing It"

If anybody knew about being lost, it was the Hebrews. Theyd been wandering for close to 40 years, better than the average life expectancy in those days. They'd lost their homes, their jobs, their security, and probably most of their sanity too. Some wanted to go back into slavery,
they were so unhappy. They were so lost and turned around that they forgot who their God was. God, who had shown them mercy upon mercy, was getting fed up. Only after Moses begs,
does God relent and agree not to smite them into dust.
The Hebrews were wandering, somewhat aimlessly, with only the vague notion of a promised land in the future. They were worried about food and water, even though God had come through on both accounts. They were tired and dusty, scared and uncomfortable.

They were probably pretty crazy. They'd had it comparably good in Egypt. Food, housing, security. Sure, they were slaves, but this desert wandering was much worse. I'd be losing my mind too. It must have seemed so sensible at the time, to make that golden calf. Aaron, Moses' brother and spokesperson, was the one who suggested it. These people, who were already used to being led around like a herd of sheep, were merely following the leader once again. Perhaps the heat was getting to them all. Perhaps they just needed something tangible to latch on to. They had no land, few belongings. It's almost understandable. Almost.

Even though we can only imagine how tired God must have been of the Hebrews' sniveling and whining, and constant screwing up. God gives in to Moses' pleas for mercy. But only after Moses has reminded God of the promises made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

This is not the first or last time that God will want to rain down wrath on these idiots, nor the first or last time that Moses will intercede on their behalf. In fact, at the end of this chapter of Exodus, God sends a plague down on the people for making and worshipping that calf.
It doesn�t destroy them, but it lets them know God's serious.

Time after time, the Hebrews would fall back to the easy ways of worshipping idols and breaking commandments. And they're always really sorry about it, especially after they get yelled at and sometimes even punished, at least, they're sorry right up until the next time.

Let's face it, our God is not an easy God to follow. And indeed, worldly concerns often obscure the view of the path laid for us. It's easy to get distracted by flashy gods, promises of a better this or that, and instant gratification. No matter if that god is a golden calf or a silver dollar,
the draw is unmistakable. It's easy to get lost when there are so many detours and exits along the route.

I doubt that, in the end, God have truly wiped out those screw-ups, the Hebrews, even if Moses hadn't intervened. Not after all the work it took to get them where they were. Not after the promises God had already made to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses. I think it's more like a parent wanting nothing more than to smack the living daylights out of a smart-mouthed kid,
but knowing deep down it would serve no purpose toward changing the attitude of the child.
God had put a lot into these people and would search for them each time they became lost,
each and every exasperating time.

In the parables that we heard out of Luke today, its not people who are lost, it's a sheep and a coin. Even so, they are a stand-in for the people of God who have wandered off or fallen in the cracks. You may think to yourself in the next few minutes that there is quite a difference
between people and sheep or coins, and you would be right, but it's not the sheep or the coin
that Jesus is most interested in having people understand. It's the one searching for them.
Keep that in mind.

The intention of parables is to be able for the listeners to relate to the characters and situations.
Most of the people around Jesus would have immediately resonated with these parables. The people attracted to his teachings were usually common folk. Folk who herded sheep, farmed, and made subsistence livings.

Jesus thrust his listeners right into the middle of the parable when he asks them, "Which of you, having a hundred sheep... ?" He brings them into the story, makes them sympathetic to the characters of the shepherd and the woman, people who were generally less than desirable people to hang around with, but the very people who Jesus would invite to eat with him.
Jesus knows this. He's using these people specifically because of that, and to demonstrate to the scribes and Pharisees just who God is really most concerned about. That's right, Jesus is likening God to a lowly shepherd and a mere woman. The religious authorities must have been appalled.

So, Jesus tells them, when the shepherd realizes that he is one sheep shy, he leaves the other 99 sheep all alone and goes looking for the one that is lost. Surely the crowd Jesus is talking to
all look at each other about now with wide eyes, thinking, is this shepherd crazy? Is he nuts?
He must be losing it! Leaving all those other sheep perhaps to the mercy of wolves, just to find that one?!

But the shepherd is diligent in his search. He knows that the other 99 are safe in their fold,
but this one is gone, lost, perhaps hurt and hungry. He imagines all sorts of terrors as he searches. Is it caught in some brambles and can't get free? Could it have tripped in a hole and broken its leg? Could it have been attacked and eaten by a wolf? Each scenario is worse than the last. But finally, finally he hears her bleats. He can't see her at first; it seems she has slipped into a steep gulley and can't climb out. Finally, he catches sight of her wooly ears over the top of the ravine. It's not deep, just difficult. He leans over the edge and gently pulls her to safety with his crook. He is so happy to see her, he even gives her a hug. He knows she is probably tired from her ordeal and so her drapes her over his broad, strong shoulders and carries her home to the waiting 99, who are, of course, oblivious at best. But then, then the party begins. All for one sheep. And it was just an ordinary sheep, not a particularly special sheep, not really his favorite.
It wasn't as if this guy had won the sheep lottery. He had 99 others just like it, so he wasn't hurting for sheep. This guy had definitely lost his mind.

If theres one thing I've learned, it's that God just keeps on doing crazy things like that. Jesus made it quite clear throughout his ministry that the people who were considered the very least, the very lowest, were the ones who were sought out, the ones who were invited to his table first. This absolutely outraged the scribes and Pharisees who, first of all, would never even consider being near people of lower status, much less share food with them, and second, just couldn't wrap their minds around the idea that these people were first in the eyes of God, ahead of themselves. They saw this as absolute proof that Jesus was a phony. No son of God would sit with the unclean and dishonor the Sabbath. But these men, they knew the law down to the letter. They knew it inside and out. They never strayed, never wavered, never got lost.
Why then, were they not to be first in the sight of God?

While Jesus speaks his parables for all to learn from, he is aiming these particularly at the scribes and Pharisees who have been hounding him recently. When he makes the statement that "there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance," he's taking a little jab at those self-righteous religious authorities. They make it a point to follow the law down to the letter, and to make sure that others know it. But the spirit of the law was, well, lost on them.

To drive it home, Jesus repeats the theme in the parable of the woman who loses a coin in her home. She lights a lamp, using precious oil, and sweeps the whole house looking for that coin.
When she finds it, she has a celebration with all her neighbors in attendance. After burning the oil and offering hospitality to her guests, it probably ended up costing her almost as much as that coin was worth in the first place. She, too, had clearly lost her senses! Why on earth would you hold a party for a lost coin?

Maybe it would help to see things a little differently: Suppose one of you took a hundred junior high kids to King's Dominion--and one of them gets lost. What would you do? You would leave the other 99 alone on the water slide and go looking for the one who was lost--even if this was the same kid who wandered off at McDonald's when you stopped for lunch, even if this was the same kid who got your bus pulled over by the state police because she'd been throwing paper airplanes out the window at passing motorists. You go looking for this child until you find her--alone and scared--and you are so happy that you both start to cry. You swoop her up and you carry her on your shoulders back to the waterslide. Then you call everybody together and say, "I'm so happy I found the one who was lost! Let's celebrate! Let's all go get ice cream, my treat!"
That's pretty much the message Jesus was trying to convey to the Pharisees: Of course you go and search for the lost one! Except instead of kids, for whom everybody has a soft spot, especially when they're lost and afraid, Jesus talked about sheep and coins, and the ones who searched for them weren't "good people." It was a toothless shepherd looking for the lamb and it was a woman looking for the coin and everybody knew that women and shepherds were only a step or two above animals anyway. And when you think about it, what fool would leave ninety-nine healthy sheep alone to fend for themselves on the hillside (where wolves might be hiding) while he goes looking for only one?

Well, call God a fool, but there you have it. Jesus makes it pretty clear from his ending words,
that God is the shepherd figure seeking the lost sheep and the woman who is looking for her coin. When we are the lost ones that sounds like pretty good news. But when we're among the 99--which is probably where you and I spend most of our time grazing--well, then, it may not sound like such good news. How do we feel when God leaves us alone to go off in search of and to bring back one who was lost, one of whom we may not readily approve? How do we feel when God has left us sitting at the church house and has gone down to the projects? Could we then share heaven's joy when a lost one is found?

Sure, it's certainly harder when we're the ones waiting while God is out searching. But the nice thing about parables is that there is hardly ever just one way to look at them. We can easily slip into the role of the shepherd or the woman. We become the seekers, the ones searching for the lost.

Sure, it's a little different when people are lost, as opposed to sheep and coins. Sheep and coins aren't really all that good at finding their own ways home again. Of course, we aren't always
so good at that either, come to think of it. That's why we come here each week, to remind ourselves that God is with us, searching for us when we are lost,celebrating when we are found.

Everyone gets lost from time to time. We wander away, distracted by some new interest, some fleeting fancy. There's a word for that; we call it sin. And as Presbyterians, we believe that folks sin fairly often. That's why we insist on having confession as part of our worship. Isn't it nice to know that each time you are lost and find your way back home, back to this sanctuary, back with the flock, so to speak, that there is a celestial shindig going on just for you?! It's really rather awe inspiring to me. And while God is having that heavenly bash, we get to see just a glimpse of it each week, here, together. When we worship, we witness God's amazing mercy
in the songs we sing, in the words we hear and speak. It is a celebration of coming together as a community, as a complete body.

I also think it really ticks off some of the people who are very cautious to not get off the beaten path. The ones who spend their days carefully following the map and checking the compass so they don't stray off course. They might even have an alternate route planned out in case of road construction. That would have been the scribes and Pharisees to a 'T.' You might even know a few of those people yourself. Some might call them self-righteous. They are often the ones heard muttering to themselves, "Look at those wastrels; what were they thinking wandering off like that? It's their own fault they were lost. Why waste time and energy searching for them? And now look, there's going to be a party in their honor! What nonsense! They should never have gone off in the first place!" The truly good news is that God is not like that! God will search for us every time we wander off and celebrate just as heartily at every return.

We tend to forget that we should be celebrating too. But all too often we hear, and perhaps think to ourselves, "Why should I help so-and-so? He got himself into that mess. He can get himself out." The problem with that, I think, is that when someone is lost, they usually don't know which way to go to get un-lost. That is why God is searching so diligently for them. We have to remind ourselves, and perhaps also each other that God has searched and celebrated for us all,
many times over. Rather than being envious of the one whose turn it is for a party, why not join in, throw some confetti, have some cake.

Getting lost, I think, is truly a part of our journey. If we never got lost, how could God hold a party when we were found? And I'm pretty sure God likes a good party. We can even learn things from being lost, like not to take that same path a second time, or how scary it can be
to be separated from our familiar surroundings, and how wonderful it is to return home to a God who celebrates our arrival. Being lost can be awful. It can drive you crazy enough to lose your mind, but grace is even crazier. Because no matter how careful we are to follow the directions,
even the most careful of Christians will step off the path, whether it's to smell the roses,
or avoid the mud puddle. It will happen. But next time you're losing it, remember that God is always looking for us, seeking us out, waiting with the balloons and streamers for our return.

No comments: