Sunday, March 31, 2019

Year C Lent 4 2019 Desperately Seeking You

Year C Lent 4, 31 March 2019
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Desperately Seeking You”

Collect: Gracious Father, whose blessed Son Jesus Christ came down from heaven to be the true bread which gives life to the world: Evermore give us this bread, that he may live in us, and we in him; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Luke 15:1-32
Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’

So he told them this parable: ‘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? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbours, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.

 ‘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? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbours, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.” Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’

"There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.' So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, 'How many of my father's hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands."' So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.' But the father said to his slaves, 'Quickly, bring out a robe--the best one--and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!' And they began to celebrate.

"Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, 'Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.' Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, 'Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!' Then the father said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.'"

We are the music makers,
    And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Thus begins one of my favorite poems. I use it at weddings and at funerals. But today I want to share the last two lines, because it helps us transition from last week’s sermon to today.
For each age is a dream that is dying,
    Or one that is coming to birth.
The coming of Jesus marked the end of an age. As well as the birth of a new one. The dream of a coming Messiah was dead, because the Messiah had come! But he was breaking rules, and doing things against the status quo. He was not there to justify to the righteous, like was expected. But to enable us to become the children of God, which changes EVERYTHING!

Last week we looked at one of the major hurdles of faith, when bad things happen,  theodicy for the theological term. And this week I want us to look at the flip side of that. I want us to view the seeking nature of the sought for God.

Our Gospel today is one of the best strings of stories in the Gospels. Each enlightens the next, and rich out of context, together they are a sumptuous feast of Grace.

I have a confession, the Gospel lesson today is only the introductory verses and the story of the Prodigal Son. I added to it the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin. In fact the third story should be the Lost Son. The word Prodigal comes from the Latin word for “lavish.” The son may have been lavish, but like the sheep and the coin, he was just as lost.

In setting the stage, Luke tells us the very reason for Jesus’ trilogy of parables.
Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’
Jesus was being judged for the very reason he came, to seek and to save the lost. I pray that the work we do ruins our reputations with the “respectable” people, too. Too often the church has become a Chapel for the Comfortable, as opposed to a fueling station of Ambassadors of Grace. So Jesus tells us these stories.

The Lost Sheep. Sheep are not the brightest of critters, and domestication dumbs them down even more. The sheep wandered off. There is a reason we need sheepdogs and shepherds. Sheep follow their noses, and go from clump to clump to clump. Sometimes they do this and do not even notice that they are no longer with their flock. Sometimes in their wandering they fall down in pits or gullies. And that necessitates someone going to seek them out. They need a shepherd. That is where we get the word pastor, someone to shepherd God’s sheep. I trust you are a step above sheeple.

But think about it. If we are the sheep, and God is the Shepherd, then what fault does the sheep have in getting lost? Does the shepherd even ask that question? No. The shepherd only wants the sheep home safe and sound. How often do we concern ourselves in how someone “got lost?” That was Bob being Bob, or Sue being Sue. But the shepherd knows that sheep get lost, and their only concern is saving the sheep.

Then we have the Lost Coin. One of ten. The Greek word used is not coin, but rather drachma, a day’s wage. This is not a gold coin that is being sought, it is a meager, humble, working class coin. In our luxury, we sometimes walk past a penny on the ground. Why bother?

Why does the woman search and clean till the coin us found? It is of value, great value to her. Someone gave a day of their life to earn that coin, and she was not resting till it was found. Unlike the sheep, the coin did not wander off. It did not follow its nose. It has no free will or ability. It was lost. It found itself lost. It had no way to get out of its predicament. But it was of value by the nature of what it was. It was worth finding. If we are the coin, and God is the woman, what does that say? We are of worth. We are of value. We are worth finding BECAUSE OF OUR INHERENT VALUE.

Think of what Jesus is saying in this context. When we are stupid, and do things we probably should not, we are still worth the trouble. When we get into situations through no fault of our own, we are still worth the trouble. And then we get to the Prodigal, the Lavish but still lost, Son. Here we find a different situation, and Jesus really pushes the point with this one.

The Prodigal could not have been more upsetting to the cultural norms of his day. He does everything wrong he could do to upset the beloved patriarchal approach to his listeners.

To start the offense, the son asks for his half of the inheritance BEFORE the father dies. What is the son saying? We have no relationship. You are nothing to me but a means to an end. I wish you were dead so I could get the heck out of here. Think of how the Father hears these words. The Father has such love for the Son, that even though it breaks his heart and divides his estate, he gives it to the Son. He goes off to a foreign land, and squanders it. Loose living and high times takes every penny, and when all is gone he finds himself far from home in a land famished and with no one to turn to. Jesus was a masterful storyteller. And here we see him at his best.  What does the Prodigal, the lavish one, turn to to feed himself? No Jewish boy could fall any lower in his kinsmen’s eyes than to feed pigs. Pigs were not kosher. You do not touch a pig, much less feed them. And then look, he had fallen so far he was JEALOUS of a pig! He wanted their pods, their slop, he was so hungry. This is HUGE! And then he figures it out.
          ♪♪ “Don’t it always seem to go, you don’t know what you’ve got till its gone…”♪♪
He could go home. At least at his Father’s house, his generous, lovely, naive, loving Father’s house he could be a servant. So he sets out. He heads home. All the way there he practices the speech. "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands." And he pauses when he sees the house afar off.

And what is it he sees? A trail of dust. A running man. Is it someone come to chase him away? Is it someone to send him packing. It is what he deserved, in a fair and just world. He wished his Father dead, and he is probably dead to his Father. But then coming closer we see something else. It is not a servant with stick in hand, it is the Father with tears in his eyes thanking God. If you cannot image this, stop right now.

The image of the Return of the Lost Son being embraced by a loving, forgiving Father is The Epitome of what Jesus is about, here we see him at his height of making an approachable metaphor that anyone can understand, and yet take books by scholars to begin to unpack. But being human, we do not need to be scholars to understand. We know UNCONDITIONAL LOVE when we see it.

In that day and age, it was beneath the Father’s decorum to hurry anywhere. He was a wealthy landowner and he need not rush for anyone. And yet, he ran. This is the most poignant story of Grace in Scripture until Jesus hangs on the Cross. Jesus, who we call God the Son, is saying THIS is the very nature of God. Even while we are yet Sinners, God DESPERATELY wants us to come home. No questions asked. No caveats or exceptions. It did no good for the Father to chase after the Son like the Shepherd hunted after the Sheep, or the Woman sought for the Coin. The Son chose to leave. The Son had to turn and come home. He had Free Will. He had to see for himself that what he had rejected was truly what he wanted. Dorothy has to realize there is no place like home, and click her heels. The Prodigal had to realize better a servant in the Father’s house, than Lost and Alone far from home.

Now remember the context, the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ This is where he adds the kicker. The Other Son. The Son who always did “the right thing” and could not resent it more learns that his good for nothing brother has come home. Not only that, he has been given THE BEST ROBE, THE GOLD RING, AND HAS A FEAST WITH THE FATTED CALF! I can hear it now, “THIS IS NOT FAIR!”

We say we want Justice and Mercy. No we don’t. Not really. We want Grace. Justice is getting what one deserves. Mercy is getting off easy but still being held in account for our actions and decisions. Grace is a gift, a free gift, with no strings attached. And Grace is Amazing.

The Father invites the Good Son to see what Grace looks like. Lost and now Found, Dead and now Alive. The Good Son says clearly he did what he did out of obligation, he did what he did out of loyalty, maybe. He did not do it joyfully. He did not do it out of love. “I worked like a slave…” He was so close to love and grace and did not know it, he did not even see it. Everything his Father had was to be his. He was set to receive all, his brother had gotten his share. And he could not see that. The more he did for his Father, the greater would be his reward. Especially when he did it in love. He was so caught up in doing right, he had somehow missed the boat on being loved.

If you have never read Henri Nouwen’s book The Return of the Prodigal  I cannot recommend it enough. We are all the Father, the Prodigal, and the Good Son. When we are lost, we are encouraged to come home, like the Prodigal. When we are judgmental and hypocritical, we are invited to not just see things differently but to be transformed, as was the “Good” Son. And with all we meet, may we run with Grace to embrace and welcome people home like the Father. We have been blessed to be a blessing. We receive Grace to freely give it away.

These three stories model for us a Transforming Vision of the World. May we be so ridiculous to run like the Father, to sweep and seek like the woman, to go out with desperate intent like the Shepherd. And when we receive Grace, we weep with the tears of grateful hearts.

Jesus came to make the Blind to See, the Lame to Walk, and the Dead to Rise. If that is not Revolutionary, I do not know what is.
We, in the ages lying,
    In the buried past of the earth,
Built Nineveh with our sighing,
    And Babel itself in our mirth;
And o'erthrew them with prophesying
    To the old of the new world's worth;
For each age is a dream that is dying,
    Or one that is coming to birth. Amen.

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Blessings, Rock