Proper 19c, September 15, 2013

September 16, 2013

Partyin’ With Jesus
Luke 15:1-10

15:1 Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3 So 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? 5 When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6 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.’ 7 Just 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? 9 When 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.’ 10 Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

I don’t remember saying this, but Anne told me the other day she remembered something I said several years ago – prior to my arrival here as the pastor. She and David had had some kind of gathering at their house that Sharla and I had been invited to attend, and apparently I had contributed some beer to the occasion. As we were leaving Anne told me that she thought there was some beer in the refrigerator that belonged to me. And she says I responded by saying that I consider any beer in any refrigerator to belong to me.

I can’t believe that I would have said something like that. I’m not saying that this isn’t an accurate reflection of how I feel, but I can’t believe I would have come up with such a clever line in such a timely manner. I usually think of good lines well after the optimum moment of delivery. But you might say I didn’t even have to think about this line – this is actually how I feel about beer. Now if it’s light beer in the refrigerator it belongs to somebody else, but if it’s a full-bodied hoppy beer I will assume it’s there for me. This may be bad, but it’s true. I’m a bit of a beer snob actually. I’m not so choosy when it comes to wine or other spirits, but as you can see, I’m definitely an advocate of temperance as opposed to abstinence.

And I think Jesus would put up with me for being that way. From what I can tell, he was not one to stay away from a party. I think he probably earned this reputation that the Pharisees gave him for eating with sinners, and I don’t think such people would have gathered around him the way they did if he just showed up and started preaching to them about what they were doing wrong. They heard enough of that from the Pharisees. I believe Jesus had actual fellowship with these people who weren’t properly righteous – and it caught the attention of the religious police. He wasn’t living in what they considered to be a righteous manner.

And I love that about Jesus. I love the fact that official sinners were drawn to Jesus. In fact, that may very well explain my own attraction to Jesus. He was a friend to the sinners of his day, and he didn’t avoid stepping in to the places out where sinners generally gathered. That’s why I make it a point to stop by Vino’s on a regular basis. I’m thinking I’m as likely to run in to Jesus there as anywhere else.

Because of my attitude and my behavior there are religious bodies that would not only find me unfit for preaching – they wouldn’t grant me membership. I am an officially unrighteous person on a significant level. I have great respect for people who stay away from alcohol, but I have never in my adult life been one of those people. I think I keep it under control, but of course that’s a subjective matter. And I don’t lift myself up as a great role model in this way, but I don’t feel that it causes me to violate my core beliefs.

And one of my core beliefs is that Jesus was more interested in us getting along with each other than in trying to be better than one another. I’m totally convinced that self-righteousness is more poisonous to a religious community than is any form of liquor. Certainly alcohol and other substances do their share of poisoning relationships. I am not unaware of that, and my heart goes out to people and families who struggle with addiction issues. I have great admiration for people who have battled and defeated that demon. Drugs and alcohol can and do wreck people’s lives, and I understand the logic of people who think we would all be better off if none of us ever touched it, but that’s such a hard thing to regulate.

I could adjust to such an alcohol-free world, and I might learn to love living in that world, but I can tell you I would harbor some ill will in my heart toward those who would impose such a world on me. I don’t think it ever works for one group of people to narrowly define righteous living for all other people.

This was the nature of the problem that Jesus ran in to with the Pharisees. From what I understand, Pharisees weren’t generally bad people. They were highly disciplined people and many of them were well motivated. They had great passion to reform the way Judaism was practiced, but many of them were blinded by their own pursuit. In the process of trying to reform the faith they had come to worship a narrow agenda and it became a very ugly thing. And one of the ugliest aspects of the Pharisaic tradition was to cut people off from the community who didn’t measure up to their standards. If you violated their strict code of religious piety you were ritually unclean and unwelcome in the synagogue.

The people who were probably the most in need of the care of the religious community were cut-off and kept away. And it was in response to this practice that Jesus told these parables. These parables don’t make so much sense unless you think about the way in which the Pharisees would more or less cast people away who didn’t live up to their standards.

The truth is that it doesn’t make sense for a shepherd to leave the 99 sheep unattended in order to go in search of the one that has gone missing. He asked the question of who would go and do this, and the answer is that no reasonable shepherd would do such a thing, but God is not like a reasonable shepherd. God doesn’t reason the way we do. It appears that God pays more attention to the missing than to the ones who are ok.

You might say he is putting the other sheep at risk by leaving them to go in search of the one who is missing, but that simply isn’t the point of this parable. The point of this parable is to show how valuable everyone is to God – not just the people who meet certain standards.

Now in the other parable there’s no threat to the 9 coins that are accounted for while the woman goes in search of the one lost coin, so the situation Jesus presents makes more sense on some level. It wouldn’t be unusual for a person to go to great lengths to recover a tenth of their wealth, but it’s interesting to think of the way this story would have struck the Pharisees. This story portrays God as a woman who was cleaning her house. The Pharisees were functioning with an entirely different image of God. Their God was a very harsh judge, and Jesus shows God to be a searching woman – and as someone who probably spent more than the coin was worth on a party to celebrate the discovery of her precious coin.

There is a lot of good news in this morning’s passage. There’s a lot of good news for those of us who know ourselves to fall short of perfection, and there’s good news for those of us who sometimes think too highly of ourselves. God doesn’t give up on any of us – ever. And God celebrates those moments when we get better.

I’m not inclined to think that there are easily distinguishable lines between those who are spiritually lost and those who aren’t, and this morning’s scripture reminds me that regardless of what we think of ourselves, God isn’t confused about who we are and what we need, and God is in the business of seeking us out wherever we are. Some people are caught up in the clear darkness of addiction, greed, infidelity, theft and other forms of behavior that destroy relationships and create hardships for others. Other people are tangled in the web of self-deception about how well they are are doing and how pleasing they must be to God and their neighbors.

Wherever we are on this scale of lostness – our calling is to get better. To use the language of John Wesley, we are to be engaged in the process of moving on to perfection. And while the work of moving on to perfection sounds like a daunting and tedious task, I think there’s a lot of opportunity for celebration along the way. I believe this enterprise of Christian discipleship is much more interesting and joyful than distorted religious authorities have forever led us to believe, and I’m grateful for the spirit of joyful celebration that exists within this religious community.

I’m grateful for this crazy level of love that God has for us that serves to empower us to get better. Because God hasn’t quit reaching out to us we don’t need to give up on anyone else, and when people take steps to move out of darkness and in to the light of love we need to join our hearts with the angels in heaven and celebrate. If the church isn’t a joyful community we aren’t doing something right.

I give thanks to God that Jesus wasn’t afraid to defy the logic of the Pharisees and to hang out with people like us. We don’t have to be perfect – we just need to give God our thanks and our praise.
Amen.

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