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Sunday, September 16, 2007

Lost Sheep, Lost Coins and Radical Grace

“This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
Luke 15:1-10
XVI Pentecost – Proper 19
September 16, 2007
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul
(the Rev’d) Elizabeth Kaeton
rector and pastor

I want to begin this sermon with a comment about that opening collect and one about rock star and political activist Bono in order to talk about how ‘this fellow’, Jesus, does the unthinkable and ‘welcomes sinners and eats with them’.

First, ‘that’ collect, which begins, “O God, because without you we are unable to please you . . .” You may have noticed that I chuckled a bit when I saw some of your reactions to those words. “Without you we are unable to please you????” Duh! So, if there’s no ‘you’ to please, then there’s . . . well . . . no one to please . . .right?

I suspect this thinking comes from the theological perspective, embraced by many of the Billy Graham, Bill Bright, ‘Campus Crusade for Christ’ position that begins and ends with the utter and complete wretchedness of humankind. We are so weak, so utterly incompetent creatures that we can not even please God without God willing it. Without God, we are unable to do anything. Any where. Any time. Ever. Get it? No? Well, get over it and crawl back under that rock where you really belong.

Clearly, I’m no where near this position on the theological spectrum. Indeed, I think this theological position is an insult to the Grand Intelligence of our Creator.

I mean, I do think it’s well-intended, but completely misguided. It overstates the case, and does not comprehend the sacred gift of the enormous love God has for us. Neither does it honor the sacred trust invested in us to be about God’s work in the world to deliver God’s message of unconditional love with conviction and creativity.

Which brings me to one of my favorite stories about Bono. That would be “Sir Bono,” of course, the Irish rock star cum political activist and spokesperson for the United Nation Millennium Development Goals (or, MDG’s). Some jokingly call him “Saint Bono.”

The story is told that at a concert in Northern Ireland, Bono stepped up to the microphone in the middle of one of his sets and looked out over the audience in an attempt to make eye contact with them. Then, he began to slowly clap his hands and, after a few moments said,

“I want you to pay close attention. (Clap. Clap, Clap.).

Every time (Clap. Clap. Clap)

I clap my hands, (Clap. Clap. Clap.)

a child in Africa (Clap. Clap. Clap.)


There was a nervous, uncomfortable silence in the audience. Suddenly, one fine, upstanding Irish lad, obviously one pint short of a full keg of Guinness hollered out, “Well, then stop clapping yer hands.” (That’s the family, expletive-deleted version.)

Clearly, Bono misjudged his intended audience.

I told you all of that to tell you this: Sometimes we miss the important part of the message because we misjudge the intended audience.

Take, for example, today’s gospel.

Luke’s gospel lesson of the parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin can, itself, be lost if you miss an important point of the story.

We tend to concentrate on the lost sheep and the lost coin and the importance of repentance. That is, no doubt an important message – one which we all clearly need to hear on a regular basis. But, it is not the only message of this important gospel and these two important parables.

You’ll miss the message if you misjudge the intended audience. Jesus tells these two parables because “the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

You see, the story is not so much about the sinner as the religious people of the organized religion of his day.

Jesus was telling these parables not only as an example of God’s never-ending, unconditional love, but as a model of the responsibility of being a Christian.

We who profess to be followers of Christ are to be like the shepherd who had 100 sheep, and one was lost. We, like God-in-Christ, are to search out the one lost sheep until it is found. We, like God-in-Christ, are to be like the woman who had ten coins and turn the household upside-down until the lost one coin is found.

Most importantly we, like God-in-Christ, are to forgive. We are to be unrelenting in pursuing those who have sinned until they are brought back into the fold and returned to the household of God.

Now, that’s a difficult enough message for some to hear when we need to forgive our sister who ‘borrows’ our baseball glove and gets it all out of shape or our son who takes the car, gets into an accident and messes up the car.

But, what about the hard stuff? What about the really major mess ups in life? What about, for example, when someone betrays a trust? What about when someone crosses a boundary? A sacred, albeit cultural boundary? What if that sacred, cultural boundary involves the safety of our children?

Some of you know where I’m going with this, which makes this a challenging sermon to preach. Some of you know about the Chatham Township man who was caught in a sexual predator sting.

A 47 year old man, father of three sons, ages 14, 12 and 7, and baseball coach in the place many of us call, as a term of endearment, “Mayberry USA”, was caught in an online chat room, thinking he was having a sexually explicit conversation with a 13 year old girl – and that there was nothing wrong with that.

In reality, he was ‘chatting’ on line with a 45 year old male, a volunteer with an organization called, ‘Perverted Justice’, a group whose adult volunteers pose as children in online chat rooms to root out pedophiles.

Through a collaborative effort with community organizations, local police and the NBC Program “Dateline: To Catch a Predator,” the man was apprehended and charged with luring, attempted sexual assault, attempted child endangerment and attempted promoting obscene material.

When indicted, he posted $50,000 bail, and is awaiting trial. I understand that his three sons have not shown up for school and the family has not been seen in Chatham since his arrest and arraignment.

What are we, as Christians, to make of all of this?

How are we good, upstanding, citizens who are Christians to respond to all of this? We talk a good line about forgiveness when all we are being asked to do is to forgive a sister the “unauthorized” borrowing of a sweater or a brother who has betrayed a trust and taken a hockey stick.

When the sinful shoe is on OUR foot, it is comforting, is it not, to think that God forgives us when we mess up?

Yes, yes.

But, what are we to make of this situation?

Let me be very clear, lest there be any confusion: if found guilty, this man needs to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

But, what of God’s law? What might Jesus have to say about this situation?

Some of us are content to think that, if this man repents, he will be forgiven. Others of us are not. Some would like to believe that the betrayal of a child’s trust – especially in sexual matters – is an unforgivable sin. That this man should burn in hell forever.

Well, ready or not, here’s what this gospel tells us.

Jesus says that God, like the shepherd who has lost one of his 100 sheep, is now, even now, pursuing that man. Now, even now, God, like the woman who lost one of her 10 coins, is turning over the household of God, searching out that man who lost his way in the midst of his boredom or his loneliness or his perversion or his temporary insanity, or whatever it was that led this father of three boys to have a sexually explicit conversation with someone he thought was a 13 year old girl. That, my friends is not just grace.

That’s what some have called ‘radical grace’.

And, radical grace is radical because it doesn’t stop there.

Now, even now, God is pursuing the lost among us – you and me and those whose hearts are hardened by harsh judgment and fear. But, that’s not the only message Jesus has in this gospel.

There is more than a well intentioned collect writer giving us the message that without God we can not please God. There is more than Jesus, like Bono, standing at the microphone, telling us that every time he claps his hand, another soul is being pursued by God – another soul has repented, another angel rejoicing in heaven.

Listen to that and you have missed the fullness of the message of this gospel.

Jesus told these parables to the religious people of his day – the Pharisees and the scribes – who were criticizing Jesus for welcoming sinners and eating with them.

Jesus was saying to them by way of these two parables that the church exists not so much for those who are found but rather for people who are lost.

Jesus is saying to us, by way of these parables that the church exists for people like this Chatham Township man, who needs to be here in this place, or places like it, as much as sinners like you and me.

For some of us, this is decidedly NOT good news. Some of us hope this man is locked up in a dark cell and that someone throws away the key.

Jesus comes to us this morning and says that no one is so lost that s/he can’t be found. Jesus says that no one is so far from sight, that s/he can’t be seen.

Not you.

Not me.

Not any one of us.

Here’s the amazing thing about radical grace: it transforms not only the one who is being pursued, it transforms the purser.

The one who once was lost and now is found is not only changed and transformed by God’s justice, but the one who pursues the lost is changed and transformed to administer God’s justice with God’s mercy and compassion.

Radical grace is transformative grace and God pursues us all with this grace relentlessly until we are all brought back into the fold, back into the household, once again.

Here’s the gospel truth:

(Clap. Clap. Clap) Every time I clap my hands, another person is pursued by God to bring about God’s justice.

(Clap. Clap. Clap) Every time I clap my hands, another person is found by God to bring about God’s mercy.

(Clap. Clap. Clap) Every time I clap my hands, another angel rejoices that God’s radical grace has triumphed over sin.

(Clap. Clap. Clap) Every time I clap my hands, you and I are charged to seek out and find those who are lost and help them find their way back home again.

This is what it means to be church. This is what it means to be community. To be the Body of Christ. To be the shepherd who seeks out the lost sheep. To be the woman who finds the lost coin.

My friends, the good news is that we are neither wretched nor weak. We are, however, occasionally lost and need to be found.

From time to time, we all fall short and miss that mark, and we all need to seek repentance and forgiveness, no matter how small or how great our sins and offenses.

Our God is a God of abundant mercy and the source of amazing grace, freely given. We do not have to earn it or work for it – indeed, we can not. That’s the most amazing part of this amazing gift of radical grace.

We are not wretched, miserable sinners. We are, in fact, marvelously made by a most marvelous Creator who has made us God’s eyes and ears, God’s arms and legs in this world.

We have been given a sacred trust and a sacred task. We are co-creators with God, charged with helping to bring about the salvation of the world through Christ Jesus, being led by the power of the Holy Spirit and God’s gift of radical grace.

This . . . this . . . is what pleases God, without whom, nothing in this world makes much sense, nor provides much pleasure.



Bill said...

Bravo! Elizabeth – For reminding us what it means to be a follower of Christ,
Or in the vernacular, telling us to:
Put your money where your mouth is.
Step up to the plate.
Practice what you preach.

This was obviously not an easy sermon to write or deliver. There was some noticeable squirming in the pews. It’s so easy to look the other way and pretend we don’t see what is right in front of us. A family destroyed, the children uprooted, will the marriage survive, will he survive or be driven to suicide. How many knocked on the door to offer “Christian love and support”? How many closed the blinds and shunned them.

Elizabeth has addressed some hard issues here about what it means to not only say you follow Christ, but do what Jesus would have done.

David said...

And let the People of God say Amen!


Amen, Amen, Amen!

Dennis said...

Glad to hear that you are coming to the Mad One's Fan Club gathering.

We now have an RSVP blog up for the October 22nd gathering in New York City.

Looking forward to seeing you there.

I love the idea of a cardboard cut out of MP for the event.

Maybe he'll just send us a picture and we can pass that one around!

sheilabythebeach said...

That is just the message I long for when I attend my church. Challenge us; we can take it.