Thursday, September 13, 2007

Pentecost 16; Septemeber 16, 2007

September 16, 2007

Luke 15:1-10

“Mom, is God a grown-up or a parent?” Writing in the Catholic Digest, Kathleen Chesto admits being confused by her 5-year-old’s question. “Mom, is God a grown-up or a parent?”

“I’m not sure what you mean,” she said, “What’s the difference between a grown-up and a parent?”

“Well,” the child went on, “Grown-ups love you when you’re good and parents love you anyway.”

It’s a good question, isn’t it? Is God a grown-up or a parent? Does God love you only when you’re good? Or does God love you anyway, that is, anyway you are?

In many ways, that’s what our Gospel lesson is about today. What is the nature of God’s love? Is it really complete and total and unconditional? Really?

And if it is, what does that mean for us? Do we have to love everybody too? Or are there some people we are allowed to dislike because God doesn’t like them either?

In today’s Gospel lesson, we find the Pharisees and the Scribes are definitely the Grown-ups. They have done a fine job of figuring out all the dos and don’ts of good and bad behavior.

And, they have, like Santa Claus, made up a list of who’s been naughty and nice, they’ve checked it twice, and they have separated themselves from the bad people, the “tax collectors and sinners.”

In our Gospel lesson, the problem starts when Jesus acts more like a parent than a grown-up; that is, even though he knows that the people with whom he is
“fixin’ to party” are not acceptable, nice and good people; he’s fixin’ to party with them anyway.

And this upsets the Grown-up Pharisees and Scribes because they thought He was on their side.

They thought he was one of them. They thought because he knew so much Bible and talked about giving your all for the Kingdom of God and was an obviously good man, well he must be a Pharisee or Scribe or someone acceptable to Pharisees and Scribes and . . .

. . .well, they just couldn’t figure this behavior out. What was he doing eating with THOSE people? Doesn’t he know WHO they are, and WHAT they’ve been doing?
It is an unfortunate part of basic human nature that we try to figure out who’s in and who’s out; who’s hot and who’s not; who’s cool and who’s a fool.

It starts in elementary school and, unfortunately, continues in some form for the rest of our lives. We separate ourselves out into Working Class and White Collar, Rednecks and Yankees, townies and country folk, Red States and Blue States, the Religious Right and Secular Humanists, Good people and Bad People.

It is when this separationism works its way into our religion that it is especially heinous. Not only do we decide whom we like and whom we dislike, who’s in and who’s out; we turn into Grown-ups and judge the behavior of others and love them only when they’re good and then put the blessing and curse of God upon OUR choices and prejudices, for we know that God is a Grown-up too and will, of course, endorse our decision.

This is what the Pharisees and Scribes did. Not only did they decide that these people were violating THE rules of Good behavior; they had further decided that God had rejected the Bad People and would have nothing further to do with them, and SO, all Good People should unite in rejecting and shunning them as well.
Therefore, when they saw Jesus’ eating and drinking; partying, with these “tax collectors and sinners,” they were appalled and seriously questioned his Good Person credentials.

Jesus, as was typical of him, responded to their distress by telling them stories, stories about who’s in and who’s out, and about how God feels and acts toward those who are out.

The two stories have what we might call “God Figures,” people who, according to Jesus, act like God. One is a shepherd, the other is a woman. These are interesting choices for Jesus to make, because both shepherds and women were out as far as Pharisees and Scribes were concerned.

Because of their nomadic, outdoor lifestyle, shepherds were unable to keep most of the purity laws. They slept, bathed, ate, lived outdoors.

And women were always a problem for strict Pharisees; they preferred to neither see them not speak to them anymore than was absolutely necessary.

Jesus’ stories about the 99 and the 1 sheep and the woman and her lost coin have two simple points;

First: Just as a shepherd values his lost sheep enough to spare no effort in looking for it, just so, God values all people enough to spare no effort in looking for them. God values us the way the woman values her piece of money and will spare no effort in getting us back.

These are incarnational stories, stories about God in Christ coming into the world to seek out and find God’s lost creation. Jesus is the Shepherd seeking out those not in the fold, Jesus is the woman, sweeping through the house, looking high and low for a valuable possession.

Second: In telling about the parties given by the Shepherd to celebrate finding the lost sheep and the woman to celebrate finding her coin., Jesus is chiding the Pharisees and Scribes over their grouchiness about Jesus spending time with the “tax collectors and sinners.”

Look, he says, God is real happy these people are interested in Spiritual Things. These people are thinking about coming back to Church. That is cause for celebration. Instead of being excited they came in for a bath, you sourpusses would rather sit around and complain about the smell.
The question for us today is; are we Grown-ups or Parents? Do we only love people when they’re good, or do we love them anyway, including anyway they are?

Do we make lists of ins and outs, goods and bads, acceptables and unacceptables?

Or do we, like Christ the Good shepherd, the Good wife, go into the world looking for those whom God has placed in our care, which is everyone.

The Rev. Dr. Tex Sample taught for many years at the Methodist seminary in Kansas City. He tells of driving home one day and be delayed for over an hour. Ahead of him, on the bridge across the Missouri River, he could see Red lights and Blue lights flashing. Finally trafficked moved and he got home.

On the news that night he learned what had happened.A man had climbed out of the bridge, preparing to jump, to end his life, he was as lost as you can get.

The police arrived and an officer in a harness attached to a bungee cord climbed down to attempt talking the jumper out of it. They talked a bit when suddenly the man leapt off the bridge. The policeman jumped after him, catching him in mid-air, wrapping his arms and legs around him.

On the news you could see it all. And, as the policeman jumped you could hear him shout.

I’ll hold on to you until HELL freezes over!

They plummeted on the bungee cord to the top of the water and then they came back up. When they were pulled onto the bridge the policeman had such a tight grip, it took three men to pry him loose from the jumper.

What is the Gospel for us today?

Is God a Grown-up or a Parent? Does God love us only when we’re good, or does God love us anyway?

God has clearly been revealed as a loving parent who never ever stops loving us.

Christ left the safety of Heaven and leapt into the World to seek and save us.

Christ has grabbed our soul and promised to hold on to us until the fires of Hell go out. “Lo, I am with you always.” Jesus said.

And Christ calls us to bring others into the tight grip of God’s love, a love which will take any of us, any way we are and transform us into the people God made us to be.

Amen and Amen.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Pentecost 15: September 9, 2007

This is Youth Sunday at Friedens, so the "utes" are doing almost everything in the service. My role is mostly to be the "magic fingers" for the Eucharist, and to make brief comments after their dramatic rendition of "The Little Red Hen," which is the sermon this week. I think it a great and hilarious choice, but the Youth Director is afraid that the more literal minded among the congregation won't get it, so it's my job to point out the connections and to stall for time while the girls change from their "chicken suits" into their free-flowing dresses for the Liturgical Dance accompanying the Creed. (We ain't nothing if we ain't "happening" here in Gibsonville! We got everything they got in the big cities like Greeensboro and Burlington, by gosh!) So here goes:

It is tempting when reading the Old Testament lesson from Deuteronomy (30:15-20) to conclude that God is setting before the people a stark, legalistic choice, like the bully on the playground who says, "Play by my rules, or I'll beat you up." Way too many religious leaders have used that technique down through the years. "Choose to follow my rules, my ethics, my commands, or you will burn in Hell!"

That version fails to recognize the Law, the Commandments of God, as a gift, a teaching, a help to God's beloved people. The Commandments were given to us to help us chart our way through life. Is it possible that God's word of promise here is better understood as, "Look, I have shown you the way. This is how one must live to successfully make it through life. If you do not follow this way, the consequences for you, and for others, could be very serious, very dire, could maybe even lead to death?"

In that light, The Lord's call to "choose life!" is a call to take seriously the need to follow a strong ethical path through life. To "choose life!" is to choose to be a part of a community that cares about and respects one another and looks out for one another, for that is what the commandments call us to do and be.

In the story of the Little Red Hen, all the other animals refused to follow the rules for being a part of a family, a community. They refused to participate in the things that make a community safe and productive for all involved. They refused to help; but they all wanted to reap the benefits of the work done by the Little Red Hen.

IN the Gospel Lesson (Luke 14:25-33), Jesus again talks about what it means to be a full participant in a loving community. His words about sacrifice, giving up family and counting the cost, and taking up the cross, are meant to bring home to his listeners and to us, the seriousness of becoming a part of the Kingdom of God, the Community of Christ.

Lutheran Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer died at the hands of the Nazis at the end of WWII. One of his most important books was titled, "The Cost of Discipleship." In it, he pointed out that too many of us live Christian lives of Cheap Grace. We accept salvation without being willing to take up our own cross of service and sacrifice. We are like the animals who want to eat the bread, but don't want to help bring in the crop.

In the original story, The Little Red Hen ate her bread alone. But our youth showed that they are good little Lutherans and have learned their theology well. In their story, the animals repent and the Hen shares her bread. This is how God is. God does forgive us our cold hearts and idle hands.

But we are called to respond to God's free (notice I said FREE, not Cheap) God's free Grace with lives of gratitude and discipleship. Taking up the Cross and following wherever Our Lord leads. Amen and amen.