September 15, 2013: Search and Rescue

The Rev. Dr. C. Steven Teague, Rector
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

We don’t know a great deal about Jesus, his early years, or where he gets his religious ideas. We do know he’s a troublemaker. That’s why scribes and Pharisees shadow him today. They stand on the sidelines grumbling. He’s been seen eating in public with sinners and tax collectors. Remember how our mothers warned us of being seen with the right people in public. Well, you can understand why religious leaders have concern. Prophets warned against associating with sinners, idol worshippers and pagans. The religious leaders fear Jesus’ followers might think it’s okay for them to do likewise. People will start thinking Jesus prefers sinners and outsiders to decent, law-abiding church folk, like us.

To counter their grumbles Jesus tells a story of a shepherd, who leaves 99 well-behaved sheep on their own to go find one lost sheep. He finds it, brings it home and throws a party. And a woman loses one coin. She has nine more, but she tears her house apart until she finds one lousy, lost quarter. And she, too, throws a party. “What one of you wouldn’t do the same?” A reckless shepherd – an obsessive/compulsive old crone? Are you kidding? None of us would do that. That’s crazy behavior.

But Jesus says, “Hold on here just a minute. Don’t think I’m talking about you. These stories are about God. God is like the shepherd and the woman who goes on search and rescue missions.” So if you want to know what God is like – get lost, and see who comes looking for you. And when the lost gets found, heaven erupts with a party the likes we can never imagine.

When did you last lose something – important? I lost my wallet the other day. I searched in and outside the house, pants pockets, desk, and even called a restaurant where Karen and I had just eaten. No luck. If Jesus had appeared and said, “Fear not,” I’d have said, “You’re kidding, right?” I was worked up about how I’d have to spend my afternoon canceling credit cards, replacing my drivers’ license. I decided to check the car, as a last resort, and between the seat and center console – my lost wallet. You know how you feel when something you lose is found and safe? I was relieved, but never thought I’d throw a party. If I had, you’d have been invited.

If the lost get found – no one objects. After all, that’s why we are here. We join Jesus, we get sent out – to seek and welcome those no one else invites to a party, especially a church social. Too often the church misses the point. God gets giddy – really silly when we repent – return on our own. But a sheep – a coin – repent? That’s what gets Jesus in hot water. They can’t. They simply get found and are brought home – just because they’d been lost.

So what is God like? God goes after the lost who have no hope of getting home on their own – who don’t believe they’re worthy of saving, or those who are so self-stinking righteous, they never realize they’re lost. Here’s what really gets to the scribes and Pharisees. It’s not that the lost get found, the saved get saved. It’s that Jesus says God brings them home with no questions asked – and even throws a party to celebrate. Fred Craddock, New Testament scholar, says forgiveness looks a lot like condoning bad behaviors from a distance. You recall that outrageous father Jesus knows, who lets his disaster for a son come home scott-free, no trial period, no conditions – even throws him a party – takes his far country rags and gives him a robe, new shoes and a ring. But what’s happened to moral standards, improvement, earning your way back? It’s not there for Jesus – pay attention. That’s what God is like. God invites the 99 and the 9 to come close: “Come join the party. Kick up your heels. Have a glass of champagne and rejoice with me.” That’s who God is. I would never have thought of that had Jesus not said it. It’s what God is doing that matters. Getting found and saved is prelude to God’s joy – so great that everyone gets invited to celebrate, join the party. It’s realizing the 99 need the one, as much as the one needs the 99. It’s about God sending Jesus to open the door so wide he offends the faithful. It’s about a kingdom where God will keep forgiving and loving us than risk losing anyone again. And it’s a picture of God Jesus brings that the self-righteous, “I’ve earned my way and you should, too” – can’t stomach.

As with many a parable – who now is on the outside? It’s the good, religious church leaders who can’t really stomach grace when it becomes close, tangible and real, and given to those who don’t deserve it. Jesus is a troublemaker – he troubles the souls of the good baptized church-going folks like us, telling us God seeks and finds the lost – whoever they are and expects us to do the same. WHOEVER? I have a hard time with this. Fifty years ago today, September 15, 1963, four girls were killed – martyred in the struggle for racial equality. They were shot to death at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. And God will go find a perpetrator that kills children?

Jesus is a troublemaker – troubles the souls of those who think they can escape God, or hide from God, or think God doesn’t exist. You’d better keep looking over your shoulder. Jesus is a troublemaker for those he invites to eat at his table with him. Churches tend to restrict people – only the eligible and deserving. Jesus can invite some messy folks to be here – and once we eat with Jesus, we can never be the same again. Jesus is a troublemaker. He says God cares for all, even those we don’t see or care about – and what’s really troubling – Jesus says God cares that we care, too. I’m not sure I understand – everyone – It’s grace, and I don’t know any who really understand – God goes and gets all who get lost – and expects us to be as happy as God is about all this….Well?


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