“I have an affection for a great city. I feel safe in the neighborhood of man, and enjoy the sweet security of the streets." -Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Importance of One: Luke 15:1-10

So, here you have it…two distinct groups, two very different groups. They are vastly different and both in search of the same man.

On one hand you have the Pharisees and the Scribes. These are the religious leaders, upstanding men who are respected by the entire community. Their name comes from the Hebrew word parush meaning “set apart.” These men adhered to religious law and ritual purity. They were the leaders of the temple, good men. Men who did what they were supposed to do, they were above reproach. In today’s world these would have been the leaders of the community; business people, elected officials, teachers, individuals in the healthcare profession, and maybe even ministers.

On the other hand you have the tax collectors and with them are what Luke calls “other sinners.” It is safe to say that in this group among the tax collectors are some of the days most vile. Thieves, dishonest men, perhaps a prostitute, maybe even someone like that woman Jesus met at the well who had five husbands. Barbra Brown Taylor, an Episcopal priest in North Georgia, says this group might today include “an abortion doctor, a child abuser, an arms dealer, a garbage collector, a young man with AIDS, a drug addict, and an unmarried woman on welfare with five children by three different fathers.[1]” This is indeed the lowest of the low. People with whom Jesus, this well-known teacher and rabbi should have very little if none contact. But amongst them all is this man… this man who calls himself the Son of God.

Both of these groups gathered to hear Jesus’s message. They came to listen, to learn, and to be transformed. I have often heard that the mark of a great preacher is one who speaks one sermon but there are multiple lesions for various people… and that is exactly what Jesus does in this passage. He tells the same story to different groups but they leave with two different messages. The first group leaves knowing it is their job to seek the lost, the other group leaves knowing that the Almighty cares for the lost. They leave knowing that they are loved.

As the Pharasees gather they expect to be challenged by this rabbi. Each time they gather around him to listen to the words that he will utter they leave with a new perspective and this time is no different. They gather to listen. They gather to learn. So Christ begins to tell his parables, first the lost sheep, then the lost coin. So what is the big deal about things that are lost they wonder.

This past weekend I went to Atlanta for the first time in quite a few months. For those of you who know me well, I cannot stay away from the city for too long. There is something about the excitement, busyness, fast paced life, and I suppose the traffic that I occasionally crave. This weekend I was venturing to the northern part of this city on the GA 400. For those of you unfamiliar with the GA 400 this is the toll road that links the northern suburbs to the heart of Buckhead and the rest of the city. Not being an individual who frequents the 400, as I approached the lanes to pay, I chose the one that did not require the monthly pass. I gathered my coins from my car (this is typically my diet coke money for Sunday mornings), and drove up to the pass way. At the GA400 there are electronic basket like devices that you throw your money into allowing the arm of the gate to be raised so that you can continue on your journey. On the not so rare occasion that your aim is off and you miss the basket your change simply drops to the ground. Thinking about the story of the woman with the coin, I looked at the ground. A variety of dimes, quarters, and nickels lay around the basket. Had I been a brave woman I might have attempted to gather the change, surely there would be enough for quite a few Diet Cokes on a Sunday morning. Not being a daredevil I decided to continue on my journey as the arm raised, allowing the somewhat already impatient driver behind me to toss their coins into the basket.

It is rare that we place a great deal of emphasis on small items that are lost. I mean it is just one sheep, it is just one coin. But Christ tells the Pharisees…. You see it is not JUST one sheep and it is not JUST one coin. But that sheep and that coin are of great value. They are priceless. Christ tells the Pharisees that is their job, their obligation, even their calling to seek out that which is lost. The other 99 are fine, they have been redeemed but the one that is lost is of great great great value to the kingdom of God. In this parable Christ reminds them WHY they are the religious leaders. Christ reminds them of their calling. They leave not only challenged but with am obligation to seek and save that which is lost. The responsibility is on them. And what a great responsibility it is, to care for God’s kingdom. They are respected, they have great honors but their job is intense and can be as messy as sweeping an entire home in search of a small piece of metal. They are not just individuals part of an elite group of religious snobs, no they are to seek and save the lost. The responsibility is great but so are the rewards…the heavenly rewards.

Christ message is very different though to the other group who are listening intently on the stories that he tells. This group of misfits, outcasts…. this group of sinners has approached the Son of Man for a different reason. They have come seeking a message of grace, love, hope, and forgiveness. They have messed up. They are the ones who are lost. They are the sheep that have wondered from the herd. They need the message that Christ will bring to mend their broken lives, to restore their shattered hearts. With kindness the Messiah looks upon these “tax collectors and sinner,” with love he looks into their eyes. He sees their brokenness and pain. Their road of life has been taxing full of potholes, turns, and detours. Through this process they have become lost.

The same message that he spoke to the religious elite he speaks to these men and women. The same words come out of his mouth but they have vastly different meanings to the two groups. To this group, the “sinners,” hear the message of love, forgiveness, and redemption. They hear that this man, this person who calls himself the Son of God, this Messiah will seek them out. He will love them. He will care for them. Christ arms will reach out to them seeking them out, healing the pain, hurt, and anguish that the journey of life has inflicted upon them and loving them. They do not need to worry about being lost because they WILL NOT be forsaken.

I am not sure if you have ever lost something or perhaps someone. I am not talking about loosing your keys, purse, or wallet. I do that on a daily basis. I am talking about loosing something of great value and the feeling that you get in the pit of your stomach until you find that which is lost. One summer I worked at a camp. There were a few families who lived at the camp, the directors and permanent staff all had homes on the outside of campus. For just a few moments the director gave me the charge of watching his youngest son. This wonderful five-year-old boy had autism. We had grown close to one another, as I would occasionally watch him in their home. This time did not seem much different than the others except this time we were outside, on the camp ground, not in his home. One minuet went by and I watched as he mingled with the counselors. Another minuet went by and I watched him walk over to the gazebo…a place he often called his office. A third minuet went by and one of the counselors asked me a question. In the time it took me to look her in the face to answer her question, the young boy was gone. My heart jump and I frantically began to search. I asked the others if they had seen the young guy but no one had. I knew he could not have gone far so I quickly began to walk and out of the small buildings surrounding the common area. When I walked in the library, there he was “reading” a book out loud. I rushed to him giving him a huge hug. He looked at me like I was a bit crazy and hugged me back continuing to read.

When we wander, Christ seeks us out…frantically until we are found and he can wrap his arms around us and rejoice that we have been returned to our rightful place. That is the message he wanted to convey to that second group listening intently that afternoon. Although they had wandered, although they were lost, Christ would seek them out. Christ would save them. They did not need to fear.

One of my favorite hymns is “Come Thou Fount.” This hymn, composed by a Methodist minister Robert Robinson, has continued to be influential at various stages of my life. As a student at the Auburn Wesley Foundation I loved when I received the order of worship bulletin as I walked in the doors of the chapel at Auburn United Methodist and realized we would be singing this hymn. One of the phrases that resounded with me at that time and continues to today is “Prone to Wander Lord I feel it, Prone to Leave the God I love, Here is my heart Lord, take and seal it Seal it for Thy courts above.” There have been many times in my life when I have felt like the lost sheep, when I have wandered and when God has sought me out and restored me to the flock. It seems like every time I sing that hymn I sing that phrase with a bit more gusto than the rest of the song. At times with tears in my eyes and at times with a thankful heart because I have been sought out by my Redeemer. We are all prone to wander.

This parable was spoken to two very different groups and perhaps this morning we find ourselves in one of these positions. Maybe we are being called to seek the lost, or perhaps we, ourselves, are the lost. Regardless, Christ message is clear. Christ redeems us, restores us, loves us, and forgives us AND we are called to share that message of grace with others. We are called to be Christ light to the world in all places where we find our self. We are called to be the salt of the earth in every corner of God’s creation. We are called to be the sheppard to seeks the marginalized, the lost, and the neglected. We are called to be the woman who tares her house apart looking for that one small piece of metal, that one small coin. We are called to be God’s people in a broken and hurt world that desperately needs the message of Christ’s grace. This is our calling as people of faith, as members of the United Methodist Church, and as members of this local community. It is my prayer that we will all go forth from here receiving the forgiveness and grace that Christ offers to all and sharing with those that we encounter.

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, "Table Manners," article appearing in The Christian Century, March 11, 1998, page 257, paraphrased