Monday, September 12, 2016

The Lost Sheep (9.11.16)

Exodus 32:7-14
Psalm 51:1-11
1 Timothy 1:12-17

There are two ways of reading this passage in Luke.  Today we see Jesus gathering all the tax collectors and sinners around him and they are listening to the Gospel.  The Pharisees are grumbling. 

Jesus tells the parable of the sheep that was lost, and the ninety-nine who are found.  And then the parable of the woman who loses a coin.

One way to read this passage is to focus on the sin, the sinner and the act of repentance.  Jesus favors the sinner who repents.

The passage says that God and the angels rejoice over the one who repents, so a reading that focuses on the individual’s repentance might be what many hearers need.  But I think that here, right now, this is not generally what we need.  Individual sin is a sore subject.  Guilt about what bad things we’ve done.  Soul searching to find the ways that we have hurt one another, preaching about this, looking for our failures, our weaknesses, our brokenness.  What a bummer.  As one parishioner said to me recently—nobody wants to come on a Sunday morning to focus on sin.  Or even focusing on repentance—changing our ways, committing ourselves to living more faithfully by changing our bad behavior.  Focusing on our individual behavior seems like a kind of dead end for us as a community.  Some of us have very little obviously “bad behavior” to repent.  The ways in which we are not living the Gospel are hidden, known only to us.   And I think a reading which focuses on individual sin and repentance suggests a very individual spirituality—our relationship with God become about our individual faith, our individual call to discipleship and God’s blessings on us as individuals. 

If God is focused on my faith, my sin, my repentance, and my call to discipleship as an individual—then why do I need Church?  I need to go home and pray and work on myself to get right with God. 

But I think that this is too narrow a way of reading this passage.  Jesus is not teaching the tax collectors and sinners that they should feel guilty and go off by themselves and change their ways.   Jesus is sitting down with the sinners and sharing a meal.  He is welcoming them.  Jesus is all about bringing them into community.    Jesus is teaching a different way of addressing sin—instead of feeling bad and going off to be alone, Jesus is teaching that God’s way is to be in community, to be reconciled to God is to be included, welcomed and a part of God’s family.  Instead of isolating the sinner, Jesus includes them. 

And this is what the Pharisees don’t get.  They are grumbling because they think that those who don’t follow the letter of law should be punished.  They don’t get it, that God’s work is not about punishing and separating—God’s work is about forgiveness, reconciliation, and love.

We can see this distinction clearly in the parable of the lost sheep.  The shepherd (who we can read as God) leaves the 99 to go out and bring the one sheep who is lost back into the flock.  Instead of saying  “too bad, they haven’t repented, let them go:, God goes searching for the lost one to bring them home, into the family of God.

The parable of the lost coin resonated with me.  I hate losing things.  I remember something I haven’t seen for months and I wonder where I left it.  It bothers me until I locate the lost thing and know that it’s where it belongs.  I’m not fixating on replacing the lost thing—I can’t find my garden shears and my answer is not a quick run to the garden store to buy another pair.  I want to remember where I left them; I want to find the one I lost.  Instead of saying I don’t need that small coin, or,  “It’s a small amount, I could get that money from a friend if I need it”, the woman in the parable rejoices when she finds the coin she lost.  It’s the finding and reconnecting that relieves the woman, not the money itself. 

And this, Jesus tells us, is how it is with God.  God rejoices in the reconciliation, the finding of the one who has strayed.  God is all about building up the collective.  Now surely, God wants the sinner to repent.  But I see that the emphasis is more on the community than on the individual.

Our passage from Paul’s letter to his beloved friend Timothy begins with Paul’s thanksgiving, “I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence.”  Paul is rejoicing that he has been brought into the service of Christ.  Paul’s transformation from being a persecutor of Jesus to being a disciple is about his call to ministry.  Paul’s revelation is that he should preach the Gospel and extend Jesus’s message to the Gentiles.  In our Bible study, we’ve been reading Pamela Eisenberg’s Paul was Not a Christian, and Dr. Eisenberg really shows us how Paul’s new understanding was about extending the community of God.  He broke with the Pharisees (and he had been a Pharisee himself) when he came to understand that God’s message was a message of radical welcome and inclusion, not a message for just a few.  Paul’s repentance, his turn around was all about building the community of God, extending the Kingdom out beyond the closed community of rule-followers.  Eisenberg suggests hat Paul’s repentance was not about having been a Jew, because he remained a Jew.  He was repenting the exclusivity of his prior ways.  He came to understand that Jesus’ message was for all people. 

Going back to the parables—Paul now understands that he is called to go out and find the lost, to bring the sheep into the fold, to reunite the missing coin with the others. 

If we look at the Hebrew Bible lessons, we see that God changes his mind about the sinners.  After his conversation with Moses, he sees that he should not bring down disasters on his people, but he should build them up—even though they have not followed his ways.  God knows that individuals have made mistakes; they have not lived as God hoped, but in conversation with Moses he remembers his promises to build up the community, the people of Israel.  This is the essence of God’s will—not that some should be punished and banished, but that the people should multiply and grow.

And so this brings me to our work.  If we listen in this way to God’s call to repentance as a call to build up the community of God, then what exactly are we supposed to be doing?  Who is the lost sheep that we should be looking for?  Maybe it is me—am I the one who is feeling isolated and disconnected from my family of origin, from my Church, from my neighbors?  Am I afraid of the people I see on the street?  Am I hostile to those who have different views, different faiths, different class, or nationality?  Am I the one who is cut off?  Or maybe I am deeply connected, but I see others around me who are isolated or marginalized. 

Our Kairos team is preparing for work in the women’s prison.  This is the call that Paul heard.  These women may be the lost sheep who Jesus names in the parable.  The Gospel message is about our relationship to these women.  How can we bring them back into the community?  Instead of focusing on their repentance or their sins, let’s instead focus on how we bring them into the flock.  When we commit to supporting their meals, to praying with them, to naming them as beloved children of God, we are doing this powerful work that Jesus is showing to the Pharisees.

Our breakfast with the students at the Alternative High School is in this category.  We have an opportunity to share a meal with teens who have been shut out of traditional school.  They’ve been excluded.  We are called to bring them into the flock, to share with them—not judging their sin, but rejoicing in the ways that might be able to learn and grow and thrive as part of our community.

And here.  Let us look for our members who might be having a hard time connecting right now.  We have members who are aging and can’t get to Church.  We have some who aren’t coming because they are overwhelmed by other commitments.  Or maybe we have some who aren’t coming because they are focused on their own individual problems and they don’t feel like they can give to the community right now.  What if instead of criticizing them for not coming, we welcome them and try to find ways to make this community open and loving.  I am so proud of the ways that we reach out.  We invite people, but we don’t demand, judge or criticize.  If people aren’t coming to church, we know that this may be a time when they need to do other things, but we hope that they will find community either here or somewhere else.  We extend the love of God to them without judgment and invite them to join God’s call to discipleship, to service in whatever ways are right for them now.

It is my prayer today that we might be like shepherd, like Paul, like God after his conversation with Moses—opening up our faithful community and extending the welcome, the invitation, the love to those who are far away—the sinners, the lost, the isolated and alienated, the marginalized and forgotten.  The angels will rejoice when they are brought into the fold.  Amen.

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