Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | September 12, 2010

2010.09.12 “Ever Searching God” Luke 15: 1 – 10

Central United Methodist Church

“Ever Searching God”

Luke 15: 1 – 10

Pastor David L. Haley

September 12th, 2010

“By this time a lot of men and women of doubtful reputation were hanging around Jesus, listening intently. The Pharisees and religion scholars were not pleased, not at all pleased. They growled, “He takes in sinners and eats meals with them, treating them like old friends.” Their grumbling triggered this story.

            “Suppose one of you had a hundred sheep and lost one. Wouldn’t you leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the lost one until you found it? When found, you can be sure you would put it across your shoulders, rejoicing, and when you got home call in your friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Celebrate with me! I’ve found my lost sheep!’ Count on it — there’s more joy in heaven over one sinner’s rescued life than over ninety-nine good people in no need of rescue.

         “Or imagine a woman who has ten coins and loses one. Won’t she light a lamp and scour the house, looking in every nook and cranny until she finds it? And when she finds it you can be sure she’ll call her friends and neighbors: ‘Celebrate with me! I found my lost coin!’ Count on it — that’s the kind of party God’s angels throw every time one lost soul turns to God.” – Luke 15: 4 – 10, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson

      Who doesn’t remember what was happening nine years ago today? The country woke up in a state of shock, anxious to turn on our televisions, if we’d ever turned them off, after the most devastating attack on our homeland since Pearl Harbor. 

      Both World Trade Towers were collapsed into mountains of rubble. The Pentagon was smoldering. There was a crash site in Pennsylvania of another airliner whose target was likely the Capitol or White House, thwarted by onboard heroes, at the cost of their own lives. 

      Meanwhile, at Ground Zero, search and rescue crews continued to do what they done throughout the night, which was look for survivors.

      There are many stories, including those not even known, but one of my favorites is the one told by Oliver Stone in his movie, World Trade Center. Alive, but seriously injured and pinned in the rubble were Port Authority Police Officers John McLoughlin and William J. Jimeno. They struggled to stay alive, in hope that somebody would come looking for them. 

      Enter former Marine, Staff Sgt. Dave Karnes, who left his job in Connecticut as an accountant, went to church and prayed, got his freshly starched Marine cammies out of his closet, and drove to Ground Zero. There, he ran into another Marine – Jason Thomas – not white as in Stone’s movie, but African-American – because his story was not known until after the movie was finished. 

Thomas and Staff Sgt. Karnes presented a plan for a search and rescue of the area and tried to enlist other soldiers on site to help. When they were told the mission was too dangerous, they went by themselves. Said Thomas, “We’re going to start the search and rescue with or without you, because someone needs us.”

Carrying little more than flashlights and a Kabar, the Marine knife, they climbed the mountain of debris, calling out “United States Marines! Is anyone down there?” 

It was dark before they heard a reply. They crawled deep into the rubble to find McLoughlin and Jimeno, injured, but who are alive today, because someone refused to give up searching for those who were lost.

You might not know it, but this story is a modern, real life version of three stories Jesus tells in today’s Gospel. They are stories not about firefighters or Marines, but of a shepherd who has lost a sheep, a woman who has lost a coin, and (perhaps the most famous of the three, which we did not read today) – of a father who has lost a son. All three found what they sought, because they refused to give up. All three throw parties to celebrate that which was lost, but now is found.

      Eugene Peterson has called Jesus’ parables – stories such as these – narrative time bombs. What that means is, after hearing them, the more you think about them, the more the story shifts, and the more it reveals.

        For example, having heard this story, we may think we know what it’s about: those who are lost. You know, as the old Gospel song by Ira Sankey goes, “There were ninety-and-nine who safely lay/ in the shelter of the fold/ but one was out on the hill far away/ far off from the gates of gold.”  “Poor sinners (sniff) – out there – (sniff) not even knowing they’re lost.”

      I don’t believe Jesus meant it in the old fundamentalist sense many of us grew up with, as “lost and on their way to hell,” but rather as those who have strayed from God. We all know people who are lost, in the sense that they are living lives that are spiritually, relationally, and even physically destructive. But we also know people who have plenty of money and dress in expensive clothes who think they have it together, who are also lost. There are many ways to get lost in this life, and some of the most deadly ways are some of most religiously and socially acceptable. Let face it, almost every one of us has had times in our lives where we have lost our way. I hope, if you’re sitting here today, it’s can be the start toward finding your way back.

      But, the more you think about it, maybe it’s not about those poor “lost” souls out there at all. After all, look at the people to whom Jesus told it: the Pharisees and scribes, the religious leaders, who liked what he had to say, but just didn’t like the people he was hanging out with: fishermen, tax payers, harlots, etc. They grumbled, “He takes in sinners and eats meals with them, treating them like old friends.” It was their grumbling that triggered these stories.

      So if Jesus was spending all his time with such people, and they were grumbling about it, who’s really lost here? Maybe the point of the story is not about those who are lost, but religious people who were lost and didn’t even know it. Not only did they not care for the people Jesus was hanging out with, they weren’t willing to reach out to them, not even to eat with them, and certainly weren’t about to throw or even join the party not that the “lost” were back.

        So the more you think about this narrative timebomb, the more you discover it explodes in our lap. Because the Pharisees were our kind of people: religious people, the ones who care about faith and obedience, and discipline and morality and duty. But not so much about the people not here, the people out there?

      All across America today, churches are dying – sometimes because the neighborhood has changed or the small town has died for lack of jobs – but more often because we’re stuck in our churches, and haven’t figured out how to get out there, to hang out with the younger generations, with men, with people of color, with the new immigrants in the neighborhood, the people missing from most churches.

      Maybe, as United Methodist Communications is asking us, maybe it’s time to “Re-Think Church.” “What if church were a verb?’, they provocatively ask? What if instead only going to church, we go instead to Starbucks or to restaurant or to a bar or to a park – wherever people are – and start a conversation, like Jesus did.  (Just make sure it’s clear you’re not hitting on them or seeking a drug deal or anything – OK, maybe not the parks.)  Say something, like so tell me about yourself. Maybe we’d become less like the Pharisees, and more like Jesus.

      I’m convinced the reason some churches die is because the longer we attend, the more we narrow our activities to church, the more we narrow our friends to church friends, and the day comes, when we have no friends other than church friends, and there’s nobody left to invite.  What I’m asking you to do, is get out there and make friends with non-church people.

        But, then again, the more you think about it, maybe the point of Jesus’ story is not about the “lost,” or religious people like us, maybe the real point of the story is about God.

Think about it.  When Jesus says “which one of you . . .” and then tells his moving story about the shepherd who had ninety-nine sheep but lost one, we take it at face-value. But really, think about it: if you had a hundred sheep and lost one, would you leave the ninety-nine out there in the wilderness – at risk – to search for one stray? No, you’d cut your losses and move on. At least, that’s what a smart shepherd with an M.B.A. would do.

      Or consider the second story. If you had ten coins and lost one, you’d search, sure, searching until you find it.  But once you find it, would you really call your friends and throw a party?  Because if you throw a party, you’ve got to serve food. So, you’re going to search all night for your silver coin and then spend twice it’s worth celebrating finding it? Who would do this? Nobody with any sense.

      But that’s the point, you see. When it comes to God’s children – God’s lost, confused, hurting children – God has no sense.  God is willing to risk everything to find even one of them (one of us!) and having found them – God’s willing to spare no price to celebrate. As David Lose, at Working Preaching says, “There’s only one kind of word for this behavior – desperate. That’s right. God is desperate for us, desperate to find us, desperate to redeem us, desperate to draw us back into God’s abiding, abundant love.”

      There’s a saying about parenthood that’s painfully true: a parent is only as happy as his/her least happy child. Could it be that God is like this too? (David Lose)

      Which is why we – as only some of God’s children – should continue to seek those not here. We have to be like God, in this respect, that we are constantly seeking, constantly searching; constantly willing to do whatever it takes.

      As I told the Church Council this summer, I’m willing to do whatever it takes (short of burning Qurans, anybody’s holy book, or any books, for that matter): I’ll preach with a robe, or in jeans and t-shirts; I’ll try projection, I’ll use media, including a better bulletin, a better newsletter, weekly emails, a better website. I’m even willing to use social media, Facebook and Twitter, even if I have to get my daughter to teach me how. I’m willing to offer Holy Communion every Sunday, if it means, among other things, that those who come to our service who do not speak English, will find something they understand, a place at God’s Table. I’m willing to get outside the church to work with Marines and firemen and police and all the people they work with. If anybody wants to grumble about the people I’m eating with, that’s OK, I’ll be in good company.

      I apologize if you sometimes find this annoying. Obviously, they did in Jesus’ day, and some – including me – still will now.  Indeed, the challenge is, to reach those not yet here, without alienating those of you who are already here. Church consultant Gil Rendle once compared it to “Building a new jail, using the bricks from the old jail, without losing any of the inmates in the process.” As this story makes clear, even Jesus had a hard time doing it. In fact, it was what got him crucified. Nobody ever said it was easy.

Finally, maybe the point of these stories is about the lost, or the “saved,” maybe not even about God. Maybe Jesus’ point was that – like the Pharisees – sometimes we get so involved in our religiosity, we forget how incredibly, unbelievably joyful it is to be sought, to be found, and to be loved. Just ask Port Authority Officers McLoughlin and Jimeno.

Maybe the point of this parable is that what we are primarily called to do is rejoice: for my being found, for your being found, and for the wonderful word that God is still desperately searching, sweeping, looking for God’s lost and beloved children and won’t quit until we’re found. Every last one.

[I want to acknowledge my debt for some of the ideas in this sermon to David Lose, who holds the Marbury E. Anderson Biblical Preaching Chair at Luther Seminary, in St. Paul, Minnesota, from his commentary on this text at Working Preacher (www.workingpreacher.org), “Desperate,” 9/05/2010.]

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