Thompson’s Sermon from Sept. 11, 2010

September 12, 2010

Our Obsessive Compulsive God
Luke 15:1-10

15Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3So he told them this parable: 4“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? 5When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6And 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.’ 7Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. 8“Or 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? 9When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ 10Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

So how logical is it for a shepherd to leave 99 sheep in the wilderness to go in search of the one who has strayed? It would be easy to give this story a passing glance and say, yes, Jesus was advocating that we pay special attention to the people who are clearly out of bounds, and all of God’s angels get really excited when an absolutely horrible example of a human being turns around and becomes a Sunday School teacher, but if that is all this is about I’m guessing the angels have long gaps between their parties.

Jesus makes it clear that God is in the business of obsessively pursuing individuals who have lost their way, but he’s not so clear about who that is. I’m thinking there may even be some sarcasm here. As I say, there’s something odd about this. I think we are to think of God as the shepherd, and we’re told that God abandons the 99 and goes after the one. The one who is out of bounds gets the most attention from God. What are we to think of that?

Now there’s no threat to the 9 coins while the woman goes in search of the one lost coin, so this one makes more sense on some level, but I don’t think we should overlook who it is playing the role of God in this story. It was a woman. One commentator I read pointed out that this is the only parable that portrays God as a woman, and I don’t think the Pharisees and scribes were comfortable with Jesus seeing God as being like a person they considered to be inherently inferior.

Jesus was messing with people when he told these parables. He was messing with all of us. I think he was pointing out that discipleship is messy business. It’s not about keeping proper company and spending lots of time in the sanctuary. It’s about making decisions to head off into uncharted territory, working with absolute diligence without promise for success, and stumbling into opportunities for divine celebration. It’s about not listening to people who think they know what God expects from all of us.

That may sound like an odd thing to hear from someone in my position, but this passage is clear about Jesus’ suspicion of religious authorities. I don’t think Jesus just hung out with official sinners because they were the most lost – they were better company for him than the overly religious types. That’s certainly my experience, and as the former director of a Wesley Foundation I’ve had a lot of experience with people who aren’t overly religious.

I’m not particularly proud of this, but frankly, I never was able to generate much religious activity at the Wesley Foundation. It was hard for me to get people to engage in organized worship or study activities, but this is not to say that there weren’t things that went on there that felt very holy to me. I’m just not inclined to think that there are easily distinguishable lines between those who are spiritually lost and those who aren’t. What I do believe is that God is in the business of seeking those who are lost, and God uses us to do that work. God even uses us when we are still in the process of being found.

Of course some of us are further out in the wilderness than others. Which brings to mind my friend Randy. Randy came riding up to the Wesley Foundation on a bicycle one hot summer day. He was a man in his fifties who had clearly been traveling by bicycle for a long time. He wasn’t wearing a shirt and he was about as brown as the descendant of a European can be. Leathery would be the right way to describe him. My friend Charles Zook would go on to nickname him, Grissel, which seemed quite appropriate.

I tried to keep him moving by offering him nothing but food and directions, but he asked if there was anything he could do. I had a huge pile of debris in the back yard of the Wesley Foundation, and I was wanting to put that pile on a trailer, so I told him I would be happy for him to load all that trash on the trailer. Given the fact that it was close to 100 degrees I thought surely that would get him moving down the road, but it didn’t. He put a huge pile of construction waste and limbs on that trailer, and at that point he had my attention.

I was also at a critical point in the construction of the yurt we built at the Wesley Foundation, and I needed some help. I told Randy I would let him stay the night at the Wesley Foundation if he wanted to stick around and help me the next day. He said he would and he did. We got to work early the next day, and he and I worked well together.

We’ll that one day turned into a week, and I had never worked around anyone who was as focused and diligent on doing what I needed to get done. Building a yurt in the back yard of the Wesley Foundation was one of the most interesting things I got to do while I was there, and the appearance of Randy was critical to that process. I told Randy I couldn’t pay him, but I would let him stay at the Wesley Foundation and I would keep him fed, and that suited him.

Randy and I became very familiar with each other that week, and he was an interesting man. He had been riding his bicycle for about 18 months. He began in Minnesota, he had headed to east coast, went down to Florida, made an inland tour of Alabama, and then over to Biloxi where he had worked at a UM hurricane recovery center, and then he came to Little Rock. His journey had been shaped by an interest in the Civil War, and the fact that he was a Methodist. United Methodist churches and institutions were always the 1st places he checked for food, work or shelter as he made his way around the country.

Had Randy left after that first week I would consider him to have been nothing but an angel who had come to Little Rock on a mission from God. But he didn’t leave after that week. We continued to work together for a couple of weeks, but classes began to meet at UALR and as I often heard him say, “he wasn’t a people person.” I came to realize that there was a theme to most of the stories he told, which was that most of the relationships he entered into concluded with some kind of train wreck. And that would be the case with me as well.

Randy’s capacity to work hard was rivaled with his capacity to drink hard and we had a couple of incidents. I told him he couldn’t drink at the Wesley Foundation, so Randy set up a chair just beyond our dumpster that he came to call his office, and Randy proceeded to become a problem. I ended up getting Randy a good donated bicycle from a friend, I pulled together some money, and I told him he had to go. He proceeded to use that money to get really drunk and belligerent, and our next to final day ended with him in a stupor and me calling the police. They hauled him off and told him he wasn’t to return to the UALR campus.

A student called me the next morning as I was on my way to the Wesley Foundation and told me Randy was back. I genuinely thought he had returned to attack me in some way, so I arrived from a different direction and I hollered at him from a safe distance. It turned out that he was sober, and apologetic. He was also broke and his bicycle had been stolen. He said he was willing to leave but he needed a bicycle. Fortunately another student heard what was going on and offered to give him his old bicycle.

I’ll never forget my final conversation with Randy that day. He told me I had been a good friend to him. I pointed out that I had called the police on him on two different occasions, and he said, “Yeah, that’s what I mean, you only called the police twice.”

This story didn’t end with angels rejoicing in heaven, but it was a powerful experience for me. I don’t know what kind of impact the Wesley Foundation had on Randy, but I like to think God led him into our community and that God used us in some way to reach out to him. I would also say that Randy helped me understand something about God on some level. Randy was driven in a powerful manner – certainly not always in a good direction, but always full speed ahead, and I think that’s a characteristic Jesus wants us to see about God.

These parables reveal God’s relentless pusuit of us, and I’m sure this means God is reaching out to us whether we’re overly self-righteous religious authorities or we’re irresponsible belligerent alchoholic wanderers. God wants us to discover who we are in God’s eyes, and how we can best live that out on earth. I believe God is in pursuit of us all, and that we all have new discoveries to make about who we are, who we can become, and what we need to be doing.

We are called to engage in the messy work of reaching out to one another in gracious and redeeming ways and to always understand that we don’t even know how God will use us to do the work of reaching lost souls.There’s a lot of good news in these parables. I think it’s an indication of how obsessively pursued by God we all are, and how much joy we can bring if we will be followers of Christ and not imitators of Pharisees. This work of discipleship is so much more interesting and joyful than distorted religious authorities have forever led us to believe.

Thanks be to God for the crazy love that is there for us and empowering to us. Because of God’s love for us we can live without fear of associating with anyone. There aren’t any of us who are too far gone to be found by our obsessively compulsive redeeming God.

And thanks be to God for that.
Amen.

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