Saturday, September 14, 2013

That's What God's Like (Sept 15 2013)

Homily:  Yr C Proper 24, Sept 15 2013, St. Albans
Readings:  Jer 4.11-12, 22-28, Ps 14; 1Tim 1.12-17, Lk 15.1-10

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus.  And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling, and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”  And wouldn’t you be grumbling too?  After all, these tax collectors aren’t like the nice polite auditors we have at CRA.  Tax collection in the Roman Empire was, let’s say, a tad more aggressive.  We’re talking about thugs, mafia types.  Traitors who were in league with the occupying army that oppressed your country.  The ones who would threaten to kidnap your children if you didn’t hand over the money you made from selling your crops.  These were people who bullied you and kept you dirt poor.  They were the ones who had abandoned their faith, their law and their own relatives in order to get rich.

Surely God isn’t with people like that!  Didn’t we just hear in our psalm this morning that “those evildoers should tremble with fear, because God is in the company of the righteous”?  So why did Jesus, who claimed to be sent by God, why did Jesus even tolerate the presence of these tax collectors, let alone welcome them and share meals with them?  And so the good people grumbled.

Jesus hears the grumbling, and in response he tells three stories.  Two of them we heard today, the story of the shepherd who goes after the lost sheep, and story of the woman who searches for the lost coin. 

Surprisingly, perhaps, given the context, the two stories that Jesus tells are not about the difference between the righteous and the sinners.  The only difference between the lost coin and the others, the lost sheep and the rest, is that they are lost.  And the stories focus not so much on the lost sheep and coin anyways, but rather on the shepherd and the woman who are doing the searching.   Because the real point of these stories is to answer the question ‘what is God like?’ and to reveal the essential character of God not as the one who is found in the company of the righteous, but rather as the one who seeks the lost and then throws one heck of a party when he finds them.  In fact it even goes beyond this.  Not only do the characters representing God in these stories,search for those who are lost, but they do so in a fashion that perhaps would be best described as obsessive. 

Let’s take the shepherd for example.  “Which 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?”  Well, actually, I don’t think any of us would do that.  No good shepherd in his right mind would abandon 99 sheep in the wilderness in order to pursue one sheep that had wandered off.  That would be totally reckless.  The wilderness is a dangerous place for sheep.  That’s why there were shepherds in the first place.

Or take the woman.  “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?”  Think about it.  The reason she’s lighting a lamp is because it’s night time.  Wouldn’t it make a lot more sense to simply close the door, go to sleep and look for the coin in the morning?  Why stay up all night, sweeping in the dark?  Why such a rush, the coin’s not going anywhere.  But she lights the lamp and sweeps the house and then when she finds the coin, maybe it’s about 3 in the morning now, she wakes up all her friends and neighbours and throws a big party.  And if you do the math, that big party she throws for all her friends and neighbours, it’s going to cost her more than one coin.  By the time the sun comes up, she’s actually going to be worse off financially than she was before she started searching.

How would you describe these people?  Reckless?  Impatient? Foolish? Relentless?  The shepherd and the woman in these parables abandon all the normal considerations of costs, benefits and logic in pursuit of that which is lost.

That’s what God is like.  The God Jesus is telling us about is a bit crazy, maybe even a little obsessive in the way he searches for the lost and then rejoices when he finds them.  So why, Jesus asks the righteous people, why are you surprised that I seek out those who are lost, and when I find them, we celebrate by sharing a meal together?  That’s what God is like.

You see the fundamental difference in these stories is not the difference between being righteous and a sinner, a good person or a bad person.  That’s the way the Pharisees and the scribes characterize people.  It’s a way of defining and distinguishing ourselves by what we have done, and of course we do that all the time don’t we.  But in the parables that Jesus tells, the important distinction is between being lost and found.  And the difference between being lost and found, the transition from lost to found, is much more existential, and much more relational.  Those of us who once were lost and now are found have a new awareness of our relationship with God, and have experienced first-hand the essential character of God as the one who seeks the lost and rejoices when he finds them. 

Who are the lost?  Who are the ones that God is actively seeking like a crazy sweeping woman or a reckless shepherd?

The scribes and the Pharisees thought that they knew who the lost were, those tax collectors and sinners, and they were probably right.

But one of the ironies of today’s text is that good people can be lost too!  Oh, we don’t like to talk about it, we don’t even like to admit to ourselves, but we can be doing all the right things, and we can be in all the right places, and we can still be lost.  The scribes and Pharisees who grumbled in today’s gospel were good people who prided themselves on their knowledge of God and yet as it turns out, they really had no clue.  They had never experienced what God is really like.  They were lost.

Who else is lost?  Do you think there are any lost people in here today?

Could it be the person who just lost the job that was such a big part of their life?

Maybe it’s the ones whose relationship is having a rough patch?

Might it be the parent who dutifully signed their children up for all sorts of activities and now finds that life consists of driving from event to event and sitting in cold arenas?

Could it be the person who would have a great pension if she can only put in 10 more years at a job which she hates?

Might it be the priest whose ministry seems to consist of going from meeting to meeting and dealing with stacks of paper work?

Maybe it’s the student who’s got one year left to go in a program that she really isn’t interested in any more.

Might it be the teacher who realizes he really doesn’t enjoy being around children much?

I think that all of us are going to experience times of “being lost” in our lives.  In fact it’s even possible that ‘being lost’ might be one of the defining characteristics of our time.  We live in an age that has been described as a massive social experiment in learning to live without God.  The proposed charter of values in Quebec is just the latest manifestation of this social experiment.  However, if God really is the one in whom we live and move and have our being, as St. Paul put it so eloquently after his own lost and found experience of God, then the results of our current social experiment may well appear in the form of losses:  loss of meaning, loss of purpose, loss of identity, the loss of our experience of and our relationship with the divine.

So, yes, there probably are some people here with us today who know what it is to be lost.  And there are some people here with us today who have experienced what it is to be found.  And there are some people here with us today who are somewhere in between.

But there is also here with us today a crazy, relentless, even reckless, divine presence who is looking for us and who will find us, and will be so overjoyed at finding us that it’s only appropriate that we’ll share a meal and then have a bit of a party together.

Because that’s what God’s like.


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