April 21, 2019



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2543 US Highway 21 South

PO Box 1866
Sparta, North Carolina 28675

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Luke 15: 1-10 / 19C                      September 11, 2016

The Rev. Stephanie E. Parker

Startle us, O God, with your truth: open our minds to your word. Open our spirits to your presence. Open our hearts to your love, revealed and lived out by Jesus Christ our Lord. And in this time together, renew our trust, determination, and courage to follow Jesus into the hard places and to live lives of joyful faith. Amen.

What does it mean to share in the joy of God? Can we even imagine being swept up into something so grand? It is a daunting prospect to release our fears and soar into the freedom and love contained in the heart of God.  Sometimes it feels safer to remain sensible and earthbound with our minds and feet planted firmly on familiar ground.

 To enter the heart and mind of God represents a great risk---we may find ourselves in a strange new frame of mind where everything we thought we knew is shown to be false and we have to discover a whole new way to be in the world.  That’s what happened to Paul, he tries to describe it in this mornings Epistle.  As a religious zealot he thought he knew God’s will. 

It was clear to Paul, then called Saul, that to protect the true faith, he should persecute and kill those who followed Christ.  No wonder he was struck blind and knocked to the ground the day he realized this was not God’s will at all, but that he, Paul was going to become one of Jesus’ most faithful followers. 

And I imagine it was quite a blow to those who had known and loved and followed Jesus—some of these whose friends Paul had helped to kill.  We know from Scripture that he held the cloaks of his fellow persecutors as Stephen was mercilessly stoned to death for preaching about Jesus. 

I can only imagine the confusion, anger and pain of these early Christians at seeing this “man of violence” as Paul describes himself, rise to such prominence in the early Church. 

I wonder how these early Christians got beyond it---- surely only with God’s help and by practicing the very forgiveness that God gave Paul.  The very kind of forgiveness Jesus taught as the very core of how we can follow him.

But now Paul knew what it was like to find himself, without merit, at the center of God’s mercy and he lived the rest of his life trying to share the wonder of this revelation with the world. 

In Timothy we hear a bit of his wonder at what it means to be touched by such amazing grace.  Paul lived the very essence of what Jesus is teaching us in this mornings parables---so strong is God’s love for the lost—even one as lost as Paul, that God will stop at nothing to find them and restore them. 

As Fred Cradock says, “so great is God’s joy at finding the lost that it cannot be contained.  One person alone cannot adequately celebrate it; there must be a party to which others are invited.”[1]

These parables illustrate lavish, disproportionate, seemingly irrational behavior.[2]  Now I think we can all agree that humankind is well acquainted with disproportionate, seemingly irrational behavior, but this is not the usual language that we use to describe God!

Today Jesus teaches us that God’s love for humanity is utterly extravagant even wasteful.

Jesus responds to the Religious Leaders grumbling about the kind of people Jesus hangs out with in these little stories about a lost sheep and a lost coin.  He calls us out of the limited context of our own understanding into the infinite context of God’s crazy love for us---all of us---not just those whom society deems respectable.  

Jesus’ point is found in the final line of both stories: He says, “I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance."

A more modern way to phrase Jesus’ words would be, “I tell you, God will have more joy over one broken, wretched and suffering soul that is made whole than over 99 people who already know God amazing grace.” 

Jesus is saying that the sinners with whom he has been eating with are precious to God. They were lost in lives of abuse and degradation, and now they healing and becoming whole, and God rejoices in their recovery.  How much more, then, should we love those struggling on the margins of life?

In these parables Jesus seeks to reveal to us the true nature of God.  The mercy and forgiveness he extends to the lost tells us who God is, what God wants, and how God works. 

Humans can do horrible unspeakable things in God’s name just as Paul did.  It is often hard to convince people that God is love because many lay their own shaming, violent behavior, or hatred at God’s feet.

As Richard Rohr says in his reflection this morning, “…behind every mistaken understanding of reality there is always a mistaken understanding of God.

He says, “If you draw close to someone who is in a violent or fearful state, you will likely discover that his or her operative image of God (usually largely unconscious) is inadequate, distorted, or even toxic.”

But Jesus is telling us again today that is not who God is.  He says, God is like a shepherd that foolishly risks his livelihood to rescue one single lost sheep.  It is God who is like a woman madly turning her house inside out to find a single lost coin. 

These are stories that illustrate God’s boundless joy and love for all whom God has created and that joy is never so great as when one who is lost has been found.

This point is most eloquently expressed in a third parable that we did not hear today, but which follows these as the crescendo of God’s delight in finding the lost. It is the famous parable of the Prodigal Son or more appropriately, the parable of the Loving Father. 

The wayward son breaks his father’s heart when he leaves home and squanders his inheritance.  When the son becomes destitute he decides to come home, hoping his father will give him employment as a hired servant.

But the father is so overjoyed at his boys return that he runs out to greet him and before the son can even utter his apology, the father has already embraced him and the son’s shame and guilt is lost as he is swept up in his father’s exuberant embrace. 

He puts a ring on his son’s finger, clothes him in the finest clothes, and throws a huge party to celebrate his return. "Get the fatted calf and kill it," he cries, "and let us eat and celebrate; for this child of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!"

What wondrous love is this?  What a revelation and a revolution to know that God’s love for us is not dependent upon our own worthiness or how low we can belly crawl when we realize we have gone astray. 

God has no time for our guilt and shame because God is busy planning the party that celebrates our return.  And Jesus does not tell us that God’s extravagant love for the lost is meant to be at the expense of the 99—he simply wants us to learn to rejoice WITH God that the abundant love we already share with God has been multiplied.  

But, we must be warned.  Letting a love so great as this into our lives will change us forever and it will turn our lives upside down.  Like Paul, once our eyes are opened we will become foolish for Christ’s sake. 

We’ll make decisions and do things that will make no sense to the world we live in.  We’ll forgive our enemies—-in this state of grace we will remember the anniversary of 9/11 by resolving to love the world more and keep our hearts and minds open to diversity---we will not let the memory of fear teach us to hate people who are not like us.

With this kind of God inspired love we will gather around this table with all sorts of and kinds of people and we won’t rest until the whole creation gets their own invitation to the party. 

To many people such behavior looks like madness.  It looks extravagant, wasteful, and irrational---But this kind of irrational God driven hunger for showering mercy is at the very heart of what it means celebrate and share God’s unconditional love for all.  Amen.

[1] Fred Craddock, “Luke” in Interpretation Bible Commentary for Preaching and Teaching.

[2] D.T Briedenthal