Sunday, October 1, 2017

God on the Hunt: Sermon on Luke 15:1-10

It had been a drizzly autumn day. And now it was a chilling autumn night. For this little sheep, not a pleasant one. This little sheep felt a rumbling in his stomach. This little sheep panted with thirst. This little sheep was shivering and anxious. This little sheep was hurting and stuck. It had started the morning before. He thought he'd seen a greener patch of grass over by the ridge. But mean ol' Shepherd wouldn't take the flock there. This little sheep had been quite frustrated. This little sheep had a rebellious streak. So this little sheep had parted ways with the flock and gone over for a tasty bite. It had been easy to slip away from the back of the flock. And it had been easy to slip and fall over the ridge's rock. And down this little sheep had tumbled, tumbled, over stone and root and withered dandelion tuft, into a dry and shady place where even the grass was dusty.

This little sheep tried to get up. This little sheep had fractured a leg. So this little sheep struggled and struggled to get back up the hill – and this little sheep just couldn't. He looked to and fro. But nothing was familiar. This little sheep started to panic. He wanted to convince himself he didn't need Shepherd. This little sheep calmed himself as best he could, made one more valiant effort – and he tumbled again, tumbled head over heels, down further – and then it hurt worse.

This little sheep opened his eyes and twisted his head. All round about his matted fleece were thorns on living wires – a briar patch, he saw – and such was his hunger, he twisted round and tried to take a bite. It pricked his mouth, made him taste iron on his tongue – and the briars were sour and decayed. But this little sheep wasn't in a position to even reach the thorns holding him tight. Like it or not, this little sheep was stuck. And so he laid his weary little body down in resignation. Hours passed. He tried to convince himself of all the perks of his new thorny home. But deep down, he knew it wasn't true. The sun grew high in the sky, high enough to pierce the shade. But it only brought heat. And then the sun moved far behind him, and the light grew dim. His leg still hurt. Everything hurt. And as the sun set, the air grew cold. And this little sheepish heart raced as he heard behind him in the distance an ominous chorus of howls. But this little sheep, whose struggles only bound him more and more tightly to the briars, could do nothing but wait and lament.

A couple hours earlier, having reached the edge of the desert, a shepherd and his apprentice saw fit to carry out a little census of their flock. There was Lumpy – he was never far behind. There was Frisky – never far from Lumpy. There were Fluffy and Drowsy and Flighty and Trippy, Shaky and Nosy and Peace Boy and, yes, even Steve. And so on it went – the shepherd knew his flock by name, recognized the minute details in the contours of all their faces, could even recognize many by tail alone. As he passed through the flock, he recited the names to his apprentice. And then he reached the end. And he knew his fears were confirmed. Ninety-nine names had passed his lips. And that was the wrong number.

“Benjamin,” he said to his apprentice, “take good care of them 'til I come back. If it gets dark, go to the village and put them in the pen yourself. You can do this. I believe in you. But my heart is sick thinking of that little sheep lost out in the cold.” And so, leaving the ninety-nine in his teenage apprentice's care, he began to race to retrace the day's steps in search of the one. This little sheep, he thought to himself, wasn't the biggest in the flock. Not quite the smallest, but on the runty side. He certainly wasn't the strongest. He wasn't the friendliest. Certainly not the best behaved by any stretch of the imagination. But this sheep was his. And in its absence, his heart was pained with grief; it beat thunderously within him. As he scoured the slim grasslands mowed low by his flock's passage, memories flooded back. The day that little sheep was born. The first tottering steps. Some funny antics of a prancing lamb. Adventures and misadventures. A tear of concern trickled down his cheek. As he roved, he called out this little sheep's name.

He passed south of another village, where coincidentally, a similar tear of concern was sliding down the cheek of an old widow. Early that afternoon, a couple hours after the shepherd's sheep had slipped away, the widow had come to a bitter realization. She had only ten drachmae to her name, ten silver coins to spell all her wealth – but only nine were accounted for. She looked down at the dirt floor. It would be so easy for a coin to get lost down there. And this was no small value. This was no penny, no nickel. For her, this was two days' pay of what she could get for her hired weaving, her meager livelihood. Two days of work, amounting to a tenth of all her savings! She thought of where she might have been outside the home, but no – no, best to look here first. And so, as daylight filtered lazily through her slender window holes, she took up a broom and started sweeping – first turning over the top layer of dirt anywhere she could see, then scraping in every nook and every cranny, bending low to inspect with her blurred and hazy sight. Neighbors came calling – she could only wave them away. Today was no day for frivolities. Today was no day for togetherness. Today was not even a day for weaving. Her sustenance was in jeopardy. Sweep. Sweep. Sweep.

A mile west of the village, in the chill of night, a little sheep in a briar patch had been trying to shut his ears, trying to block out the slowly approaching howls. But then, through his little ears came a lofty and familiar sound. His ears perked up to catch it, sailing overhead. “Dopey! Dopey!” His name! His name, his name – Shepherd was calling his name! He bleated feebly in answer. He struggled again to stand up, but the briars had too tight a grip on him. He bleated again. Up above, the shepherd heard that sound, and a sense of relief spread over him. That dopey little sheep was alive!

The sickness in his stomach began passing away as he peered over the ridge. He climbed down until he could see the sheep, wool a bit bloodied, stuck in the thorns. Whispering softly to reassure Dopey, the shepherd pulled out a knife and cut away the briars. Squinting in the darkness and feeling with his fingers, he felt the fractures in Dopey's leg bones. He felt Dopey's quivering, labored breathing. But he managed to cut Dopey free. Tenderly picking up the little sheep, the shepherd draped him across his shoulders and the back of his neck, climbed the steep rocky incline toward the ridge, and then began the midnight trek back home.

Dopey, for his part, was so relieved to have been found – so relieved to have a protector – so relieved to be safe from the elements and safe from the wolves. He breathed a sigh of relief and rested his weight fully and fully contentedly on Shepherd's strong shoulders. And then he felt a curious shaking, bouncing him wincingly up and down. And he couldn't understand what was happening to Shepherd. Until he heard the sound. The shepherd, you see, was laughing – the laughter that only grief giving way to relief can produce. And tears no longer of concern but of joy slid down his cheeks as he walked through the early morning hours.

That very hour, as he passed south of a village, a woman there had similar tears carving their way through the wrinkled canyons of her face. And so, too, did her shoulders shake like the shepherd's shoulders, for much the same reason. Drawing up her candle, she held it near her other hand, wherein her knotted arthritic fingers felt metal wedged in a narrow crack. Prying it loose, she held it to the soft candlelight. She rubbed aside the dirt – and she saw a reassuring gleam. Her tenth drachma had been lost – but now her coin was found! And so what could she do but laugh and laugh and laugh?

As a new crisp autumn day dawned, two people in two villages called together two sets of friends, family, and neighbors. With relief like they felt, with joy like they knew, how could it not be shared? “Rejoice with me,” he said to his apprentice and his neighbors, “for I have found my sheep that was lost!” “Rejoice with me,” she told the neighbor women, “for I have found the coin that I had lost!” Their joy cared little for expense. All that mattered was that right was restored – it was as right as an estranged son finding his way back home. It was too right, too good, too true, too beautiful, to let the opportunity for a party go to waste.

Stories like these need no GPS coordinates, no latitude and longitude; they don't have to be placed on a calendar or measured by the regnal years of kings and queens. They need no names. Stories like these could happen, did happen, in any and every village since time immemorial. And that's why Jesus told stories like these. They had that air of familiarity; they were instantly relatable. But he told them from his grief and disquiet. As the crowds had gathered 'round, as tax collectors and thieves and an assortment of notorious ne'er-do-wells hung on his every word about his Father, a cadre of religious experts, with greedy, prideful hearts as filthy as rotting corpses, but outwardly plastered over with a pretty facade, mocked and grumbled and murmured their noisy complaints. Jesus heard them all too well.

This man, this Jesus, has no discernment. He teaches all and sundry. He revels in impropriety. He squanders his fellowship on bad company. He associates with the filthy. He calls thieves and ruffians and killers his friends. He's close with loose women. He pitches his tent in flyover country and hangs out in dark alleys in the city's seedy underbelly. He drinks with rednecks and wastes his time with hillbillies and outlaws. He goes to all the wrong parties. This Jesus character, you see – he welcomes sinners, approves of them, endorses them, even eats with them! And in this we know what kind of man he is, for did not the sages say, 'Let a man never associate with a wicked person, not even for the purpose of bringing him near to the Torah'?”

Oh, Jesus heard their gripes and snipes, their scornful complaints. And sometimes, at least I imagine, he might have wanted to pry their eyelids open and make them see what he saw! If these callous Pharisees and scribes have the earthly sense to recognize the joyous tears in a shepherd's eye as he carries his lost sheep home, and if they can understand and appreciate the laughter in a widow's voice as she sees silver where she feared was only dirt, if they can grasp these ordinary, day-to-day celebrations of finding what was lost, how is it they can be so blind to the same tears and laughter writ large in his Father's heart? Don't they see? Don't they get it, these Pharisees? For what other reason was the Messiah to come, but to seek out and save the lost (cf. Luke 19:10)? What kind of god have they been worshipping? How can they be so blind not to know that there's no God but a God on the hunt?

But enough of lambasting the Pharisees. O church, can you see what they couldn't? Do you know what tears of joy were shed, and what laughter boomed in all the halls of heaven the day each one of you went from lost to found? Do you understand this truth, that “there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:10)? That day you were saved, that day you were found – it was a pretext for the angels to party with their Maker! They blew the trumpets, they banged the drums, they broke out the champagne, they held a parade over gold-paved roads from one pearly gate to the next – and it was all because of the laughter of God when he cut you loose, picked you up, and carried you all through your darkest night back to his fold, his church! The angels soaked up his howls of delight as he brushed off the dirt and saw you shine! But do you realize it today, brothers and sisters, that you've been the occasion for such a shindig way up yonder, all because you repented and believed – all because, when you raised your clenched fist, he opened up your hand to receive his gift?

Mike, let me ask you something. You and Wanda have your fair share of furry critters sharing a home with you. Suppose Baby Girl slipped out the door and got loose in the neighborhood – maybe stuck in some bush, you don't know where. Would Wanda be indifferent to the whole situation? Can you ever see Wanda getting that news and saying, 'Good riddance'? Even if Baby Girl had started biting, even if she'd begun ignoring the litter box, whatever the case, wouldn't Wanda still be desperate for Baby Girl's return? And Mike, would your wife give you any rest 'til you spent day and night with her in the hunt? 

And Jesse, if one week your paycheck from Rocky Ridge slips behind the fridge, way in the back where you can't reach (even with a yardstick going underneath), wouldn't you move the darn thing out of the way? Wouldn't you slide it away, wouldn't you lower yourself down and squat among the dust bunnies to reclaim your treasure? 

Who among us wouldn't be sick over a lost household pet? Who among us wouldn't get dirty to fetch a missing paycheck? Who among us wouldn't go on the hunt?

We know these things! So how can we see less in our Father's heart? Didn't the divine glory kneel among dust bunnies, move heaven and earth with the leverage of his cross, shove a stone from his path, all to reclaim what's his? And when he calls us to the hunt for his strays, how can we look down on what our Father treasures? And how can we stay aloof from the celebration when a stray is brought home?

The Pharisees saw tax collectors and sinners. The Pharisees saw addicts, gluttons, liars, thieves, killers, loose women, gays, atheists, pagans, drunks, rednecks and hillbillies and outlaws – they saw dirt all the way through, because they saw them only through a sneer and a squint, and their own eyelids were dirty on the inside. But Jesus saw lost sheep who belong in his fold, lost coins who belong in his treasury, and lost sons and daughters who belong at home with their Father. He came for no other reason. He aims to implement a No Lost Sheep Left Behind policy. God is on the hunt, lookin' for a laugh to share with the angels when another lost treasure is found and another lost critter gets carted home – no matter how wild, no matter how woolly.

What about us? What do we see? Are we the voice of judgment or the arms of welcome – love that does better than merely affirm the lost in their lostness, love that goes far enough to invite the lost back into the limelight of home? Do we only see dirt? Do we pass them by? Do we murmur and complain about the notion of having 'that sort' get too close? Or are we actively seeking them out, not as a project, but as real live people to find – to eat with – to share life with – to introduce to Jesus – to celebrate over? Are we keeping aloof from the raucous parties and the uncouth dinners with Jesus and the sinners, preferring our faux gentility and our refinement? Or are we willing to venture into the rough-and-tumble places where the kingdom of God is taking place? Are we content to exclude, or do we long to include? Do we prefer talking points, or are we ready for conversation? Make no mistake: God is on the hunt. The only question here is whether we aim to join the hunt and join the party. For in no other way can you laugh so happily with your Father... than by going with him on the hunt.

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