Sunday, September 11, 2016

Is This the Way It Is?

Luke 15:1-10
September 11, 2016
William G. Carter

Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ So he told them this parable: ‘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? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.'

So I’m going to tell you something today that could get me in a lot of trouble. I’ve given a lot of thought to this, so I don’t do it lightly. Ready? Here it is. The truth: whenever I talk about grace and mercy, someone always gets angry. Whenever I preach about forgiveness, someone always stomps out of the sanctuary. Whenever I say, “God is love,” somebody scowls.

Now, that’s the truth of it. In my baser moments, when somebody stomps or scowls at the kindness of God, I want to say, “Get over yourself.” And in my wiser moments, I don’t say anything. I simply remember that religious people killed Jesus because he preached and practiced kindness. It goes with the territory. This is the way it is.

One day, they dragged a woman in front of him.[1] They had caught her in the act of adultery. Apparently they didn’t catch the man, just her. One of them said, “Teacher, you know what our Bible says about this. Moses said we should stone her to death. What do you say?”

At that point, there is a long pause, a palpable silence. Jesus writes in the dirt with his finger. Then he says, “Let the one who is without sin throw the first stone.” Again, there is another painful silence. Then he hears “thud, thud, thud,” as one stone after another drops from their hands. There is a rustling, and when Jesus looks up, the angry crowd is gone. There’s just that woman who was dragged from her bed.

He says, “Lady, where are your accusers?” She said, “They are gone, sir.” And he said, “Neither do I accuse you. Go, and stop sinning.”

Now, what the Bible doesn’t tell us is that there was one guy who had a hard time letting go of his stone. He is hiding behind that palm tree over there and watching the scandal of it all. Jesus forgives this woman and then he talks with her! I bet he stomped out of there, went home, and wrote a letter to complain. Jesus forgave and did not condemn. He saved her life and she was a sinner.

It sounds like this was an ongoing issue for Jesus. The religious leaders grumbled and said, “This fellow welcomes sinners. He eats with them.” For them, that was a huge crisis of faith. If you welcome a sinner, you don’t separate yourself from them. The word “Pharisee” means “the separate ones.” They are the ones who do everything they can to live a holy life according to the Torah of God, even if that means separating themselves from the everyday spiritual slobs who aren’t so careful.

What’s more, to eat with somebody is to be at peace with them. It means you are in fellowship with them. If you eat with a sinner, it looks like you condone who they are and what they have done, and in some cases, what they are still doing. Jesus not only forgave the sinners. He welcomed them and ate with them. So the holy people murmured about him. This is the way it is.

Years ago, there was a couple in our congregation who separated. Before the divorce was finalized, he moved in with a girlfriend. That year, he was serving a term as an elder on the session. He was the chair of the stewardship committee. Some friends of his wife paid me a visit and declared that I needed to throw him off the session. They felt my job is to be the spiritual police officer of the congregation.

I listened as they made their case, and I listened carefully. I offered to meet the man for coffee and have a conversation, even though they didn’t know I had had many conversations with him already. Well, that wasn’t good enough. They expected more drastic action. So I said, “I suppose we could go through the membership roll and get rid of all the sinners. Let’s see: Acker, Ackerly, Armstong, Bailey…” With this, one of my visitors started getting huffy and declared we didn’t need a person like him in our church.

So I said, “Let me tell you the truth. I’m a pastor. I deal with people every day whose lives are in transition. Some of those lives are a real mess. But they are coming here because it is the only place in town where they are going to hear that in spite of what they’ve done, God loves them, that God is walking with them in the middle of their mess. This is the only place where they are going to hear that God gives them a second chance, and that even if they screw that up, ultimately God is going to save their lives and carry them home.” That’s the way it is.

“Besides,” I added, “if you want to run the stewardship campaign, go to it.” There was a long, long pause, and then a “thud” on the carpet as they dropped their stones and slipped away.

Please understand: I am sympathetic to their concern. I would love it if everybody was well-behaved. Yet I serve a wonderful congregation that has its flaws. This is a flock of imperfect people with an imperfect pastor. And I knew there were extenuating circumstances in that man’s former marriage. There always are. There are at least three different sides to every divorce. All I’ll say is it never fails to take my breath away to discover how cruel people can be to one another. That’s not how we are called to be or how we are to live. The call to be a follower of Christ is a call to grow in faithfulness and fruitful living.

But following Jesus includes becoming more and more like Jesus, the same Jesus who said, “Neither do I condemn you; go and stop sinning.”

I know, these are difficult matters. We really want everybody to be good, and to be good to one another. And sometimes we might think that we ourselves are on top of the world. Maybe our relationships are healthy, our children’s teeth are straight, and our investments are turning out well. If so, hallelujah, praise the Lord!

The truth, however, is that all of us have some hurts that we carry, some difficulties that we disguise, some fears and inadequacies that gnaw at us after dark. Some of us cobble a few things together just to get here on a Sunday morning. I realize you clean up pretty well, but I know better – because I know the truth about myself. I don’t need an annual personnel evaluation to point out my flaws; I already know what they are, and am generally surprised that more of them don’t show. The apostle Paul called himself “the foremost of sinners”? Well, call me “El Jefe

Somebody asked me the other day what I thought about 9-11. We swapped stories of where we were, how a beautiful September day was demolished by hatred and senseless destruction. The conversation started to turn in the direction of “how terrible those terrorists are,” but I needed to hit the pause button. It’s fifteen years later, I said. The tragedy was bad, but we can’t respond to hatred with more hatred. That’s deadly.

My coffee partner said, “What would you suggest?” So I quoted a song lyric from the rock star Sting. His poetry may be a little obscure, but he’s talking about an alternative to perpetuating violence. He sang it on a concert on the night of September 11, 2001:

If blood will flow when flesh and steel are one
Drying in the color of the evening sun.
Tomorrow’s rain will wash the stains away
But sometime in our minds will always stay
Perhaps this final act was mean to clinch a lifetime’s argument
That nothing comes from violence and nothing ever could
For all those born beneath an angry star
Lest we forget how fragile we are

On and on the rain will fall
Like tears from a star, like tears from a star.
On and on the rain will say
How fragile we are, how fragile we are.[2]

All of us are fragile. That’s the point. None of us are better than anybody else. None of us. The Pharisees and scribes couldn’t see it, but Jesus could. That’s why Christianity is not the practice of superiority. Not now, not ever. For God’s sake, our leader was a condemned man, spat upon by religious superior-thinking people, and killed on a cross like a criminal. And he is the King of kings. He was misunderstood then, he is ignored now.

If Jesus is superior, it is in his graciousness. Ever notice, after his resurrection, he never goes back to say, “Hey Pontius Pilate, you want to take another swing at me?” He never returns to say to the high priest Caiaphas, “Hey, you dummy, you got it all wrong.” No, that’s not how Jesus was -- or is. He doesn’t blast down the wall. No, he knocks on the door and he waits us out.

And in a parable of astonishing self-definition, he is the foolish shepherd who leaves ninety-nine sheep in the wilderness to go after the one who is lost. Well, what if one of the other ones wanders off and gets lost? He will go after that one too.

So we have this parable from the lips of Jesus. The shepherd risks everything to go after the wayward sheep. He risks his reputation, he risks his own safety, he risks the rest of his flock – because he has to rescue that lost sheep. Notice he does he does not wait for the sheep to repent. No, he goes after that sheep, because grace always precedes the return. Grace is what carries us home. This is what gives the shepherd great joy: going after the one who has lost its way, lifting it in rescue, and giving it a whole new life. It’s slow work, it’s holy work.

Robert Capon was an Episcopalian priest who loved this parable. He says it is the essence of the Gospel, and it cannot be separated from the work that Jesus does in his death and resurrection. Here’s what he says:

When God pardons, he does not say he understands our weakness or makes allowances for our errors; rather he disposes of, he finishes with, the whole of our dead life and raises us up with a new one. He does not so much deal with our derelictions as he does drop them down the black hole of Jesus’ death. He forgets our sins in the darkness of (Christ’s) tomb. He remembers our iniquities no more in the oblivion of Jesus’ expiration. He finds us, in short, in the desert of death, not in the garden of improvement; and in the power of Jesus’ resurrection, he puts us on his shoulders rejoicing and brings us home.[3]

Is this the way it is? I hope so, I believe it to be so, and I trust it with all my heart. Because my life depends on the grace of God, and so does yours.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] John 7:53-8:12. Some scholars, noting its odd location in the Fourth Gospel, believe this story really belongs in Luke.
[2] Sting (Gordon Sumner), “Fragile,” recorded on “Nothing Like the Sun”
[3] Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of Grace, Eerdmann Publishing, p. 39.

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