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September 12, 2004 (Pentecost 15)—“Just Showing Up...at the party that is!”
Pastor David Barber
Sisters and brothers, grace be unto you and peace from God our loving Creator and from our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.
If you were here last Sunday, you heard me fussing about the harshness of the Gospel and the difficulty of preaching on such a challenging and offensive text.
Well, today it's entirely the opposite. We truly have some astounding and amazing good news. But now we have another problem. Like the parable of the prodigal son, which also appears in this chapter, these stories are just too familiar to us.
But just maybe, we can never get enough of the good news. For when we have nothing, that's when we may realize that we have everything. When we are last we are first. When we are lost, we are found, and when we are dead, we are made alive.
There's not a place where we can hide from God, for God is always there, faithfully pursuing and calling us back. God doesn't give up on us, but faithfully follows us wherever we go and leads us and carries us back to where we belong: into the open arms of love and grace.
Several years ago there was a blockbuster movie entitled Saving Private Ryan. Perhaps many of you saw it. The opening scenes of the movie begin with D-Day at Normandy, June 6, 1944.
The first wave of soldiers were sitting ducks for the machine gun fire from the bunkers on the cliffs above. 23,00 died on the beach. The water was red with blood and the beach was lined with bodies.
After the beach had been secured, the theme of the rest of the movie is exactly as the title says, Saving Private Ryan. I don't remember the exact number, but a group of 6-7 soldiers have been given a mission to go and find Private Ryan so that he can be sent back home. Private Ryan was a paratrooper who landed somewhere behind enemy lines in Germany, but they didn't know his exact location.
Why did Private Ryan need saving? Three of his brothers had already been killed in battle, and The War Department felt that the possible death of the fourth brother was just too much of a sacrifice for any family to pay.
On the way to search for this lost private, the group of soldiers on the rescue team fight among themselves. They can't understand why they should put their lives in jeopardy for the life of one insignificant soldier.
Is the life of one man more important than the lives of a number of soldiers? Why, he's not even a general--just a lowly private. In fact, several of these soldiers will give their lives so that Private Ryan might be saved and be brought back home.
Perhaps the mission and the ways of Jesus are incomprehensible to us as well. As Timothy tells us: "Jesus Christ came into this world to save sinners."
We understand that and can accept that as long as we're talking about "upscale" sinners like ourselves, but when those on the outer fringes of life are included as well, that's when we become a tad uncomfortable.
Our Gospel for today turns our expectations upside down. It, too, is incomprehensible. Indeed, when Jesus asks, "Which one of you does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?" he assumes that that's exactly what we would do. But in reality you'd have to be a crazy shepherd to do that!
And the woman wastes her time and energy looking for something as trivial as a coin. As my mother used to say, she searches for something that "doesn't amount to a hill of beans."
When we are lost and last--and when it seems that we don't matter--we matter to God. Especially in our lostness this extravagant, over-generous, and foolish God doesn't give up on us, but searches and seeks diligently for us. This God goes to any cost to claim us, to deliver us from our lostness, and then carries us back home.
Why should God care for a person like you or like me or our neighbor in need? Why are we so precious and valuable that God would extend such generous and loving patience to us?
In every kind of lostness or brokeneness that we face, God in Jesus Christ continues to search and search some more until we are found. Even though we might tell ourselves that we're not worth the effort, this foolish and outlandish shepherd continues to tell us that we are worth the effort.
God knows our weaknesses, our faults, our sinfulness, and the secrets that we hide from others, and yet Jesus continues to treat us with unlimited love and faithfulness, compassion and mercy. Such is the promise of the Good News in our Gospel for today.
But not everybody sees this as good news. Once again the opening verses of our Gospel set the context for the stories that follow.
Some curmudgeons in the religious leadership were grumbling and complaining because "this fellow (they don't even call him by name), but rather "this fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them."
So there's a bite to this story isn't there? For not all folks are rejoicing that this shepherd left the 99 in the wilderness to fend for themselves while he went on the hunt for one miserable sheep who probably deserved to be lost in the first place.
Jesus especially seeks out those folks in our society and culture that we write off as not worth the effort--the poor, the drunk, the lazy, the inactive, the young person in the classroom or at work who doesn't respond, and those upon whom we've already invested considerable effort and energy and they just don't change.
He searches, he finds, and he carries back upon his shoulders all those folks of whom we'd just like to wash our hands. And not only does Jesus search diligently for these folks and consider them worthy of all that he has to give...not only do they matter, but there is great joy when Jesus brings these folks home and there's a return to the family.
It's party time! It's celebration time with ice cream sundaes and brownies just like we had last week for Intern Katy. I like that. Any church that has ice cream sundaes at 9:15 in the morning knows how to celebrate. That's the kind of party that the shepherd has for those who were lost and have now been brought home.
The question is are you involved in this party? Are you standing there cheering, not only for yourself but also for all those other folks who have been carried home as well by the shepherd? Will you join the party when God celebrates the return of one who is not like us and is unworthy of God's mercy by our standards?
Such stories expose the foundation of our relationship with God. Is it based on our presumption of merit or is it based on God's mercy? Is it centered on our need for reward and what we can get from God or is it centered in celebration of God's determination to show mercy to all people?
Alan Culpepper, a New Testament commentator, writes, "only those who celebrate God's grace to others can receive it themselves. Grace is the rule in God's household." And then he includes this Jewish story about a hardworking farmer.
The Lord appeared to the farmer and granted him three wishes, but with the condition that whatever the Lord did for him, God would do double for his neighbor. The farmer, scarcely believing his good fortune, wished for a hundred cattle, and he was overjoyed until he saw that his neighbor had two hundred cattle.
So he wished for a hundred acres of land, and again he was filled with joy until he saw that his neighbor had two hundred acres of land. Rather than celebrating God's goodness the farmer could not escape feeling jealous and slighted because his neighbor had received more than he.
So finally, he stated his third wish that God would strike him blind in one eye. And God wept. "Only those who celebrate God's grace to others can receive it themselves."
John Keller, who has done much work with alcoholism, and also a brother of Jim Keller who worships with us during the winter, tells the story of an elderly pastor. This elderly pastor looked back on his life and saw three distinct phases of ministry.
In the first phase of his ministry, he saw himself down by the riverbank. He was on the bank. The people were in the river, and he asked the question, how do I get the lost people up here on the bank where I am?
In the second phase of his life, he was still on the riverbank but now he was reaching into the river with his hands and pulling them out of the river to stand on the bank where he was.
But in the third phase of his life, we actually see him in the river, and he was holding the people up, and the people were holding him up, and together they were being held up by the loving arms of the everlasting Lord.
That's one of the ways to unlock our Gospel for this day--not as us and them--not as 99 or 1--but together in the river of grace--in our brokenenss, in our need, in our different forms of lostness. We are holding each other up and together we are being lifted up and being held in the loving arms of the shepherd.
Together we are rejoicing and praising God for the great mercy, the extravagant love, and the amazing grace which has brought us and continues to bring lost and sinful people like ourselves safely back home.
God is giving a party, and you're invited. All you need to do is to show up.
Copyright © 2004 David Barber
Comments welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org