Sunday, February 17, 2013

This Week's Sermon: "More Equal Than Others"

Luke 15:1-7

All the tax collectors and sinners were gathering around Jesus to listen to him. 2 The Pharisees and legal experts were grumbling, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3 Jesus told them this parable: 4 “Suppose someone among you had one hundred sheep and lost one of them. Wouldn’t he leave the other ninety-nine in the pasture and search for the lost one until he finds it? 5 And when he finds it, he is thrilled and places it on his shoulders. 6 When he arrives home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Celebrate with me because I’ve found my lost sheep.’ 7 In the same way, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who changes both heart and life than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need to change their hearts and lives. (CEB)

“Loss, Mercy, and Redemption: The Luke 15 Parables,” Week One

The young pastor (yes, there are other young pastors besides me!) went off to seminary fresh out of college not just on a mission, but with a dream.  He knew exactly what he wanted in life, and from his calling, and thought that he could get it by attending this particular seminary—as he put it, “it was like I got accepted to Harvard.”

And for a kid who, like me, was born and raised in the Protestant church, it feels like a good gig.  You’re the young boy who went out and made good.  This pastor wanted to be no different.  As he put it, “I wanted to be your average megachurch pastor.  I wanted to play the game, have a pretty wife (who had) a lot of hairspray in her hair.”

And that never quite happened.  Because something happened in seminary.  He saw ministry that did not occur in this bubble of megachurch-dom.  He saw immigrant families face the prospect of being torn apart.  He had colleagues come out to him.  And in the process, he realized something: people, especially young men, trusted him.  This was real.  This was ministry.  And now, far from the dreams of a televised sermon series on “How to be Your Best Self Today,” he pastors a church out of his home while also working as a hospital chaplain and a volunteer prison chaplain.  Because, in the end, that is what being a Christian is—to dream dreams that help others, rather than simply yourself.

With Lent as a new season in the church’s worship calendar, you may notice a few things different—we hang purple, we draw the curtains on our baptistry’s portrait of Jesus, and, naturally, we begin another sermon series.  This sermon series takes us through the 40 days of Lent to Holy Week—the week of Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday that is the most important time in the Christian calendar (yes, I dare say, more important than Christmas!).  And Lent traditionally is meant to be a time of reflection and repentance as we do some even more intensive-than-usual soul-searching in preparation for what will eventually be the empty tomb.  And so we’ll be using this year’s Lenten season to walk verse-by-verse through the three parables that make up the fifteenth chapter of Luke’s Gospel: the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin, and the parable of the prodigal son.  These stories all have a common theme of being “lost and found,” so to speak, but there is a much larger dimension at work here—Jesus is telling these parables to the scribes and Pharisees—as Luke writes, “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.””  And what Jesus is responding with, in so many words is, “Yes, because it isn’t just about you!”

Luke 15 consists of a powerful trilogy of stories, and all of them are told as sort of one giant rebuttal to this charge of the scribes and the Pharisees who are present.  Say you’re having a debate with somebody.  It could be about anything—whether to have burgers or pizza for lunch, who you should vote for, or, dare I even come close to such hotly contested ground…Huskies versus Cougars.  But in this debate, when you say something about your point of view, your opponent not only tells you that you’re wrong, s/he explains at great length, using multiple examples with depth and thoughtfulness, precisely, exactly, painfully why you are wrong.

If you’ve had this happen to you, it feels a little like what it probably is like to try to take a drink from a fire hose.  And that’s what Jesus does here—He’s provoked to respond to the grousing of the scribes and the Pharisees, and he does so by unleashing a torrent of criticism in His trademark way—by telling parables.  Except where He might use just one or two parables—like the parable of the Good Samaritan or the house on sand versus the house on rock, Jesus tells three completely separate stories, right in a row, the last of which is really quite elaborate.

And that’s Luke 15 in a nutshell.  It’s a chapter of complete, unfiltered scolding from Jesus.  And like all scolding, it relies on a few assumptions.  Namely, in this parable of the lost sheep, it assumes that we, the audience, would agree that the shepherd’s action of leaving the herd of ninety-nine to rescue the one is appropriate.  And of course we would make that assumption, because in this parable, the shepherd is Jesus.

And, like most stories in the Gospel, there is a proxy character in the audience as well—that is, a character who we are supposed to identify with as we hear this story being told to us.  In the story of the Good Samaritan, we’re supposed to sympathize with the man robbed on the road to Jericho and left to die.  In the raising of Lazarus, we are meant to be as Lazarus himself was, being called by Christ to awaken to renewed life.

And I think traditionally, or perhaps sentimentally, the audience proxy in the parable of the lost sheep is the lost sheep itself—that’s who we’re supposed to identify with.  It has the added bonus of being profoundly humble, this notion that we are meant to identify with the lost sheep, because that means that we see ourselves in the same lot as the tax collectors and the sinners—the people who Jesus came to save.

But, I have to say, I do not think we always belong in such esteemed company.  Jesus is telling this story not for the benefit of the tax collectors and the sinners—they’re already receptive to Jesus’ teachings.  No, Jesus is telling this story to the scribes and Pharisees.  They are his audience.  And they are represented in this story by the other ninety-nine sheep.  As New Testament scholar Sharon Ringe puts it:

A valuable sheep that is lost merits one’s full attention until it is found.  What is not said, but is taken for granted, is that during the search for the one sheep, the others are left to their own devices “in the wilderness.”  Apparently, those in the audience readily accept the risk as worth taking to recover the valuable animal.

In other words, we aren’t always the lost sheep.  Sometimes we are.  But we share a herd—a world—with many, many more sheep whose needs often take precedence over ours, and sometimes even in a way that might put our needs at risk.

After all, we’re all here.  We all took time on our Sunday to be here.  Most of you are members, many of you serve the church and the world in a variety of truly wonderful ways.  In that most basic respect, I’m preaching to the proverbial choir here.  I’m ministering to people who are already in the flock.

Jesus is calling us to minister to people outside of the flock, but that isn’t just it, either.  He calls us to do so even when doing so directly goes against our own self-interest, or our own false humbleness.  I talked about this in my sermon on Ash Wednesday, but our humbleness has limits.  We’re fine calling ourselves sinners in the abstract because we are all sinners, but once we start digging underneath the surface of that, our egos make things testy very, very quickly.

And you had better believe that this happened with Jesus and the Pharisees—it’s a big reason why they wanted Him out of the picture!  He was exposing their false humbleness for what it was: a fa├žade that hid the belief that they were better than and worth more than their fellow Jews.

And that is a terrible warping of religion, to create a hierarchy of worth.  When I first read through this passage when vision-casting this sermon series, my mind jumped immediately to a book my dad introduced me to as a child—George Orwell’s Animal Farm.  That was partly because most of the characters in both this parable and Orwell’s book are, well, animals.  But it was also because of how the final commandment of the philosophy in Animal Farm was warped.  That commandment began as, “All animals are equal.”  But somewhere along the way, that commandment got changed to say, “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.”

I might tick some of you off by saying this, but while Orwell was critiquing Stalinist communism, it is a critique that is scathingly accurate to the church as well.  Far too often, we have space only for the safe sins to be confessed.  If you play the penny slots at the casino, we can work with that, but if you’re gay, well, you need to be fixed.  If you say the occasional four-letter word, you’re still salvageable, but if you vote for the wrong candidate, you’re going to hell.

The idea that some sinners are more sinful than others…church can never work that way.  Ever.

We need to be the church not just because we are aware of our sinfulness and want to break ourselves of it, but because we also are aware of how dark it is and how much we can be there for someone craving spiritual fellowship and enrichment but who is too afraid to ask for it.

Who are they too afraid of?  God, at least in part.  But also, honestly, some are also afraid of us.  That we would treat them like the Pharisees treated the tax collectors.  And when we do that, we cease to give God reason to celebrate our own righteousness.  Jesus cannot put it any blunter than He does in verse 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.”

It is a choice that tests the very limits of anyone’s inflated sense of self-worth—would you rather be righteous, and not give heaven any reason to rejoice over you, or would you rather be a broken-down sinner, over whom heaven rejoices when they are called and redeemed?

In this story, the choice is clear.  Jesus sides with the lonely.  He sides with the lost.  May we do likewise as well.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
February 17, 2013

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