Monday, September 12, 2016

Sermon for 11 September 2016 "In which God turns the car around on the highway to find us."

Sermon for Sunday 11 September 2016

Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem

"In which God turns the car around on the highway to find us"

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

In these days when Google Maps and Waze have become ubiquitous (except in the West Bank, of course) the experience of being truly lost has become rare. Here in the Old City, which covers only one square kilometer, one wrong turn can lead you into a neighborhood you don’t recognize, down a road with endless twists and turns, surrounded by buildings and doorways that all pretty much look the same...but sooner or later, you find your way out.

But even if Jerusalem is as familiar as the back of your hand, and your cell phone reception is crystal clear far beyond the Green Line, you may have a memory of being lost (or feeling lost) as a child.

At a dinner party recently, one of the guests was telling the story of how once, when she was about 8 years old, her parents accidentally left her at a remote highway gas station during a long road trip.

“Oh my!” I said. “Did you have a really large family or something? Did they just lose count of all the kids?”

“Actually, there were only three of us kids—me and my two older brothers,” said my dinner companion. “I took longer than usual in the restroom, and my parents were distracted, and apparently they just drove off without checking the backseat.”

All these years later, this grown woman described with great emotion how it felt to exit the restroom and find that her family had left her behind. At only 8 years old, she sat down on the curb outside the gas station and thought to herself, “Well, I guess this is it.”

While she told me this story, this woman’s toddler (her third child) was running all around the dining room, causing mischief and attempting an escape. We chuckled at how something like leaving your child behind at a gas station seems incomprehensible when you have no children, or when you have a tiny baby, but at some point during parenthood it becomes almost understandable.

“Listen,” she said, “Now that I have kids, I can forgive my parents for leaving me behind. I mean, it happens, right? We get distracted. We get tired.

But you know what I can’t forget? After all these years, I still think about my two older brothers sitting in the backseat of the car! I mean, they definitely noticed I wasn’t in the car. They must have realized right away I was lost. And yet, it took them miles—many miles, and many minutes—to say anything to my parents. It’s like they were deciding whether I was really worth going back for.”

While most of us can relate to the feeling of being lost, I wonder how many of us can imagine what it means to be lost, and to feel that no one is looking for you. That no one is turning the car around on the highway. That you are, according to others, expendable.

As unacceptable as it may be for us to admit, this is the reality for many in the world today. Nigerian girls are kidnapped by the hundreds. Palestinian boys are held in “administrative detainment”. In my hometown, Chicago, 500 people have been murdered since January. Bombs explode and wars rage on in countries we can’t find on the map, and almost none of it makes the news or disrupts our daily schedule. This week I read a report about the alarming number of child suicides and suicide attempts in Syria in the last few months. Can you imagine? How lost, how desperately lost must a little child feel to consider such a thing?

And yet, on the other hand, who could blame them for feeling lost? After all, it was just one year ago this week that the body of little Aylan Kurdi washed up on a beach, and the photo of his pudgy two-year-old legs and tiny hands lying in the sand broke the world’s collective heart. For one moment in time, it’s as if our eyes were opened and we realized that refugee children are worth our time, are worth our money, are worth opening the borders, are worth even turning the car around on the highway.

But then we were distracted. There are other boats, other washed-up children, other terrible photos, and other problems closer to home to capture our attention.

Consciously or unconsciously, it seems the world has simply decided these children—along with so many others—will stay lost.

In the Gospel text for today, we hear how Jesus has been keeping company with some lost folks. He’s been eating with sinners and tax collectors, and they’ve been hearing his teachings. These lost ones from the edges of polite society even seem poised to become Jesus’ next faithful followers.

Of course, this situation just could not be tolerated by the scribes and the Pharisees, religious authorities who saw themselves as protecting the boundaries of all that is sacred and holy. Sinners and tax collectors were simply not good candidates for discipleship. No real prophet would risk being associated with them. No religious community would accept them. No dinner party would invite them. In terms of purity, in terms of reputation, in terms of respectability, they were simply lost—and in the opinion of the religious men, should remain lost.

 “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them,” grumbled the scribes and Pharisees.

But Jesus said to them:

“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?”

“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it?”

In other words, Jesus makes it clear to the religious authorities—the ultimate insiders—that these human beings, whom they have decided are not worth Jesus’ time, are actually precious in God’s eyes. 

As precious as a sheep in a shepherd’s loving care. 
As precious as a silver coin worth a year’s salary. 
Precious enough to turn the car around immediately on the highway! 
Precious enough to turn the world upside down in order to find them!
Precious enough to go to Calvary and the cross.

If you are lost, abandoned, forgotten, or excluded, God’s Good News for you is this:

You may feel lost, but God’s heart is always searching for you.
You may think you are expendable, but God’s kingdom is not complete without you.
Indeed, God’s joy is not complete without you!

For this reason, the shepherd in Jesus’ parable says: “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.”

For this reason, the woman who found the lost silver coin calls her neighbors together and says: “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.”

For this reason, we are invited to rejoice with God. For only when all the lost have been found, and all have a seat at the table, will the party really get started. Amen!

God always seeks out the lost. This is Good News indeed!

But ultimately, Jesus did not tell these stories for lost sheep, lost coins, lost sinners and tax collectors, or lost children.

These parables are told for the scribes and Pharisees inside the religious institutions of Jesus’ time, and these parables are for those of us inside the religious institutions of our time.

Jesus tells these parables for us, because God’s Goods News for the lost and the outsider is a real pain in the neck for the insiders.

We know these parables are for the insiders because of this one line at the end of the story, when Jesus says:

“Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

There is joy when one sinner repents!

Can a lost sheep change his ways?  Can a silver coin repent?

This call to repentance is not for the sheep or the coin. This call to repentance is for all of us who have ever counted one of God’s children as being “not our problem”, not worth our time, or not wanted in our backyard.

There is joy in heaven over one sinner who repents…

Therefore Jesus invites us to repent of the sin of exclusivity in the church and in our communities.

Jesus invites us to repent of our complacency in the face of racism, sexism, homophobia, and other evils which keep people from full inclusion in the church or society.

Jesus invites us to repent of our short attention spans, and our collective willingness to accept neighbors, strangers, refugees, immigrants, and fellow sinners as lost forever.

Jesus invites to us to turn back toward God—and there will be joy in heaven when we do. There will be joy in heaven when even one self-righteous Christian opens her heart to the knowledge that no one is outside God’s grace.

There is joy in heaven when the church remembers that no one is outside of God’s love.

There is joy in heaven when countries decide no one is outside the concern of society. 

In a time when our will for peace, our capacity for hope, our joy, and even our common humanity often seems lost or missing, it is Good News indeed for us to hear that no one in this world will ever be lost to God.

The God of love, who searches for lost sheep and single coins,
The God who eats with sinners and tax collectors,
The God who brings little children home,
This God will never stop searching for the lost.

Through Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, God will never stop inviting the world to turn away from exclusivity and bigotry, from injustice and hatred, and turn toward love, peace, justice, and reconciliation. And there will be joy in heaven on the day when every sheep has been found, when every sinner has repented, and every child has been brought home safely at last. Amen. 

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