September 12, 2010; Luke 15: 1-10. A sermon preached by Jane McBride.
24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, 9/12/10; Luke 15:1-10
Rev. Jane McBride, First Congregational Church of MN, UCC
24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, 9/12/10; Luke 15:1-10 Rev. Jane McBride, First Congregational Church of MN, UCC
I lose things a lot. And unfortunately, I’m not gifted in the area of looking and seeking. So when I lose something, I wait, and wait a bit longer, for the item to show up again. Things generally come back to me. If a lost item doesn’t show up, I tend to be pretty zen about it. It wasn’t meant to be mine anymore; I can live without it.
Our Gospel text today emphasizes that God does not employ the “lazy Jane” method of searching. 99 healthy, safe sheep out of 100 might seem like a pretty good outcome. After all, chasing the one that is sick or disoriented or under attack means leaving the rest of flock vulnerable to danger in the wilderness. The divine shepherd apparently is not a utilitarian, seeking the greatest good for the greatest number. God does not weigh the costs and benefits before combing the bushes. God does not search the valleys and rocky hillsides under time limits or conditions. God goes after the one who is lost until that one is found. Period.
The parable of the lost coin amplifies this image of God as one who seeks the lost. Though the woman has probably already checked every corner of her house, she persists in looking methodically, even desperately. She lights a lamp in order to see better. She sweeps, hoping her broom will reveal what remains hidden to her eye. Then comes the sudden, counterintuitive turn in this narrative. When the woman finally finds the coin, what does she do? She spends it. She calls her friends and neighbors and says, “rejoice with me!” She shares her found coin generously, even recklessly, on food and drink, joy and celebration.
Jesus tells this story after the Pharisees and Scribes criticize him for “welcoming sinners and eating with them.” This language about sinners needs some translation. In the Judaism of Jesus’ day, people were classified as “sinner” or “righteous”; one or the other. This is very different from, for instance, Luther’s understanding that the church is a community of those who are simultaneously sinner and saint, lost and found. People fell into the category of “sinner” for moral reasons – but also social ones. “Sinners” included the poor and the sick and the disabled, who were unable to keep the rigorous (and expensive) demands of the law.
The Greek implies that Jesus’ welcome of these sinners is an active, diligent seeking. G. Penny Nixon remarks that “saving is about power, whereas welcoming is about intimacy.” (Feasting on the Word.) And what is more intimate than the table fellowship Jesus shares with these lost ones? Jesus does not seek to change people before he will love, accept, or share the joy of God with them. And yet, the text tells us that as the lost ones come near to Jesus, they also ‘listen’ to him. In biblical terms, to listen means to experience a radical change of heart and mind that we might call repentance or conversion. The saving power of Jesus, in other words, is the power of renewed intimacy with God and with the community of God’s people.
Of course Jesus is seeking out the scribes and the Pharisees, too. These parables are his way of scouring the bushes and corners for them, since they are lost in their own way. The power and privilege they wield alienates them from God, from the riches of their own religious tradition, and from the joyous party that Jesus is starting all around them. They are cut off from the one who seeks them because they don’t know they need to be found. They are living what Parker Palmer calls a divided life: a life in which their choices and actions do not match their deepest values.
A contemporary parable comes to mind as I ponder these ancient stories. In 1987, 250 Hasidic Jews from New York City relocated to Postville, Iowa, a rural town made up of predominantly German and Norwegian farmers. These newcomers opened a kosher meat slaughtering house. Over time, immigrants from around the world, many of them Spanish-speaking, came to work at the plant. The town drew lots of media attention, given its intriguing mix of people and the complex dynamics of culture, religion and race. Stephen Bloom’s controversial book about Postville, published in 2000, portrayed the town as place of pain and misunderstanding.
In an article about Postville in 2005, Emily Yoffee mused: “It doesn’t feel that way today. ‘We learned from the book,’ says Cheryl Waters, owner of the Beauty Hut hair salon off the town’s main street …. And the plant has helped turn the town’s moribund economy … Postville’s population grew 55 percent in the 1990s to nearly 2,300— about ten times the rate for the rest of the state. [A manager at the plant] says his people have simply learned to fit in. They invite neighbors to their bar mitzvahs and have grown to appreciate a mowed lawn…‘And we learned the custom of saying ‘hello.’ You do that in New York and people think you’re nuts.’ (National Geographic)
Of course, there is a chilling final chapter to this tale: the immigration raid of May 2008, which devastated the lives of the immigrant workers, drove the plant into bankruptcy, exposed the wrong-doing of its executives, and destroyed the economy and the spirit of the town.
Recent events around immigration law in Arizona, and our stalled national conversation about these issues make it clear that we continue to struggle with the painful questions raised by Postville about how we can love and live with one another in our diversity. This weekend includes the anniversary of September 11, the celebration of the end of Ramadan, and the Jewish holy day of Rosh Hashanah. Amid the conversation swirling around in this moment, how do we interpret the plan to build an Islamic center near ground zero? And what about people like Terry Jones, the pastor who threatened to burn the Quran in response to this project? This guy is like a crazy dream that wakes us breathless in the middle of the night- in a dramatic and exaggerated way, he tells us a truth we do not want to know. He is a caricature of the racism and fear that lives in our hearts and the heart of our society. He is a fun house mirror, reflecting the destructive power that we can unleash even as we imagine we are doing good. The craziness of this world is not all ‘out there”. Some of it is “in here”, in my life, and yours.
The parables of sheep and coin don’t provide easy answers, but they do offer a vision of a community of welcome amid difference. Consider that Jesus portrays God not only as the one seeks the lost, but as one of the lost. God is a shepherd, which in Jesus’ day, was a dirty, low-class occupation. And God is a woman, without social or economic power. It’s true that Jesus reaches out those who are lost, and calls his followers to do the same. But it is also true that Jesus confuses our categories and rearranges our assumptions about who is lost and found, who is at the margins and who is at the center, and what it means to be in either of those places.
I sense a hunger among us to go beyond saying or singing all are welcome to fully and passionately living out that inclusive vision. We are a caring congregation, reaching out with meals and rides. But when there is nothing concrete we can do, no way we can fix the pain, how hard it is to just “be” together in that place without pity, to acknowledge all that we have lost, and to open ourselves to the embrace of the one who seeks us. We want to be a church that welcomes new people, But if we aim to increase in members and money only so that this institution will survive, then we have lost sight of our true purpose. We are here to share the love of God, who seeks each of us in our lostness. This love is a party, and people are naturally drawn to a party. Since God’s party is founded on reckless generosity, we will discover resources aplenty to fund the celebration! And If we hope to be people of compassion and justice, walking the divine path of understanding in these days of wild anger and crazy hate, then we must give ourselves to God the shepherd and God the woman, who teach us that as one commentator puts it: “those on the fringe of the community are integral to what the community in all its fullness should be.” (Helen Montgomery Debvoise, Feasting on the Word.)
As we seek to grow in inclusivity and welcome, may we truly listen to Jesus with receptive hearts and lives, opening ourselves to the radical change of conversion and repentance. May we know and even embrace our own lostness, so that we might receive the God who seeks and finds us. And since we are people restored to intimacy with God and one another, let there be much rejoicing! Amen.