16 September 2007

Sermon for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost: "Lost?"

Let us pray: Let the words of our mouths and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

I was twelve or so when I was granted a window to see how the lost affect those who are searching for them. I am my mother’s son in many ways. Today that’s a blessing, but when I was fourteen, not so much. There’s nothing to make a mother regret having children than an oldest son who is stubborn, full of himself, quick-tempered and sarcastic – just like Mom. Those weren’t the easiest years for either of us, or for the rest of our family.

One summer afternoon Mom and I had one of our loudest go-arounds to date. I no longer remember hat the subject was, but I’m sure that Mom was wrong, I was right and nothing on earth or in heaven could have moved me to say otherwise. It ended with me running out of the house in tears of righteous anger: this is SO unfair!, I thought, how much longer do I have to live under this roof?

I was a champion tree-climber back then, and as I ran out of the house without my mother’s permission to leave, I decided that an hour or two calming down in the branches of my favorite tree would do just the trick. So I ran into our shelterbelt and made a beeline for the tree I had in mind. I’d climbed it many times that summer, so it was an easy matter of a jump up to the lowest branch, a swing higher and then I was climbing along the highest branch that would hold my weight.

I didn’t know that my Mom had drafted reinforcements until I saw my Dad storming out of the house toward me. My Dad is not a particularly imposing man, but at that moment he looked absolutely terrifying – I had never seen him so angry. He stomped right toward me, then stopped right underneath the branch holding me and hollered my name. He waited, looked around, hollered again, even louder. In the branches above him, I held my breath: he really didn’t know where I was, and if I could just stay still there was a chance I’d avoid the anger I saw in his face.

Dad hollered my name one more time, as loud as I’ve ever heard him yell, and then the most peculiar thing happened. After he hollered my name the third time, he held his breath, listening for me. When nothing happened, I heard him give a deep, painful sigh. His shoulders slumped, his back stooped, and his head bowed. I watched my Dad, who to this point had been the absolute power in my life, turn around, defeated, and begin to trudge back to the house. I heard his boots scrape up the back steps, heard the creak of the springs on the old screen door and his slow steps across the back porch into the house. I had won.

I don’t remember what caused the argument that day. I don’t remember what happened later: I obviously came down out of the tree, and I’m sure there were consequences, but they have faded over the years. What I remember was that moment, watching my Dad search for me, first in anger, then in pain. I remember being very confused at that moment, in the grip of powerful emotions that I’d never known before. I had escaped the wrath of both of my parents. But no victory in my life has ever felt so hollow, so meaningless. In that moment, I was lost to them, and even though their anger was great, even though their anger was justified, the moment my Dad realized I was beyond his care he change from an angry father into a worried Daddy. I could see the worry and pain in his body as he trudged back to the house. I was the cause of that pain, I realized, and that was somehow far worse than whatever argument I’d just had with my mother.

It’s way too easy to look at Jesus’ parables and think they are about doing the right thing. It’s way too easy to look at the parables in today’s reading from Luke and decide that the answer, of course, is “Don’t get lost.” It’s way too easy to think that these parables are about “them,” “The Lost,” who don’t have the sense to be part of our community here – and so we have to go out and hunt them down like the pheasants some of you will be chasing pretty soon. But what if it isn’t that easy? What if these parables don’t provide easy answers about daily living? What if the parables aren’t about us at all? What if the parables are, in fact, about God? What does that mean for us? Who do we become in the story? Who is lost, and who is losing out?

Watching my Dad that fateful day over twenty years ago, I remember being very frightened. I wasn’t frightened by his anger: that I’d seen before. What frightened me was the vulnerability I saw in him that afternoon. I’d never realized that my actions could hurt my parents so badly. To that point, my parents had been two unchangeable, immovable pillars around which my life was ordered; now, watching Dad’s shoulders slump in defeat, I realized they weren’t nearly as impervious as I’d thought. Then another thought occurred to me: I had wounded them deeply, and even though Dad had been looking for me in anger, he walked away in fear and pain.

Is this how God reacts when God is searching for one who is lost? Can it be that God, the Creator, the One whose Name is I Am Who I Am, can be hurt, deeply wounded by the actions of the children God loves? I think so. I think the parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin isn’t about sheep and coins at all: the parables are about the One who searches, the Shepherd who combs the valleys, the Woman who turns the house upside down. I think these parables are about God’s nature, and I think Jesus wanted us to see that if God searches, if God cares enough to pursue us so relentlessly, then God cares enough to be deeply wounded while we are lost, vulnerable to hurt and anger and all kinds of emotional turmoil until those who are lost are found again.

The reading from Exodus shows us this vulnerable, passionate side of God. While Moses was on the mountain with God, the people grew impatient and created an idol they could worship. The absurdity of the situation is easily missed: Israel created a god they could worship rather than worshiping the God who created Israel. The golden calf wasn’t a threat to God’s power. The Egyptians weren’t a threat to God’s power. In the whole story of the rescue of Israel from slavery in Egypt, there was never a moment where God’s power was actually threatened or God’s position as redeemer of Israel was in doubt. God was in control the whole time. But God, the invulnerable, eternal, all-powerful Creator, grew angry when the chosen people went looking for a better deal. This God, whose power and might are limitless, was hurt when 400,000 Israelites melted down their gold and made a meaningless statue for themselves. At the end of the commandments, God tells Moses, “I am a jealous God.” No kidding? Our everlasting God is a passionate, vulnerable God, who can be hurt as deeply as any one of us and whose temper can flare as quickly as the most fiery tempers we possess.

When Israel chose the golden calf over the Living God, God was hurt, and hurt deeply; God even threatens to destroy them and use Moses to create a new nation, an argument which I’m sure occurred to my parents on those days when I was really trying their patience. But here’s the other aspect of God’s vulnerability revealed in Exodus today: God listens. God can be reminded of God’s previous promises. God’s mind can be changed. This encounter with Moses has nothing to do with the people bowing down in front of the calf in the valley below the mountain: they messed up, and big time. This encounter with Moses is about God: it shows us that God is deeply concerned for us, passionate about our well-being, even angry when we go astray.

If Jesus, then, is also revealing God’s nature to the Pharisees and scribes, then the question of who is lost becomes rather unimportant. The sheep for whom the shepherd searches has no name: it is simply a member of the flock entrusted to the shepherd’s care. The coin for which the woman searches is of no particular importance: it is simply one of the many entrusted to the woman’s care. The point of the parable is not figuring out who is lost and who is found: the point of the parable is the One who searches, and what it means to have a One like that searching for us.

Notice, if you will, the way the parables are crafted. The Pharisees are grumbling because Jesus eats with those considered unclean, impure, unworthy of joining the holy and righteous. The assumption would be that these sinners and tax collectors are the “lost” of whom Jesus speaks. Yet Jesus never says this at all. Jesus never identifies the sinners in his parables here: he simply says that God is one who seeks out sinners to restore them to the company of the saints. If the point was saving those sinful tax collectors and sinners, why was Jesus so pointedly vague about who was lost and who was found? Are the “lost” so easily identified? Are we so arrogant that we automatically assume that we’ve never been lost, and that the point of the parable is teaching we righteous ninety-nine how to graciously receive the “lost?” I don’t think Jesus lets us off so easily. I don’t think we can be so confident in our assumptions. I certainly don’t think that I’m done being lost in this world, and I’m even more convinced that God will continue to search for me when I go astray.

Finally, notice if you will the end result of the parables. The Seeker calls everyone to celebrate, but only when the lost and found have been made one again. It isn’t enough for the lost just to be found: the found must join in the celebration before all is said and done. Next week we’ll read a parable where the lost return but the celebration is incomplete because one of the ‘found’ refuses to join in. This passionate, loving God who searches for us is hurt when we run away, yes: but God is also grieved when we refuse to celebrate the return of one who has gone astray. Forgiveness, reconciliation, rejoicing: these are the steps our seeking, searching God would have us take – and if we are sometimes the ones who are lost, wouldn’t we prefer to receive such a welcome when we ourselves return?

Wherever one of God’s children is lost, the company of saints is incomplete. Whether it’s a child who has run away from his parents in fear and anger, or an adult who has run away from the church in fear and anger, there is a searching afoot in God’s creation that will never cease until time itself ceases to be. God is searching for us, calling our names and hurting until we are reunited with the company of saints to which we belong. Shall we listen for that call? Shall we climb down out of our hiding places and join the celebration of those who have been found? Thanks be to God for his relentless searching – and may you be found today. Amen.

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