Sunday, October 29, 2017

The Pros and Cons of Obnoxious Prayers

Two men like that could scarcely have been more different. And yet, one Ash Wednesday evening, the both of them stood in the same sanctuary in the First Baptist Church of Somewheresville. They didn't arrive at the same time, and certainly not together. Not even close on either count. Thurston was one of the first ones there. He made sure of it. Dressed in an immaculate three-piece suit, he strolled to the second pew, sat near the center aisle. It was a couple pews in advance of where most folks felt comfortable sitting. There was plenty of room in that big sanctuary, you know.

Everybody knew Thurston. Thurston sat on the borough council. Thurston was a board member here. If you needed help, you turned to Thurston. Thurston wouldn't let you down. See, Thurston always went above and beyond the call of duty. Thurston budgeted ample resources for generosity. Every Sunday morning, you could faithfully hear the offering plate go clunk when it came by Thurston. Same for every special offering – half of what went into the plate at the back of the sanctuary fell out of Thurston's hand. Above and beyond – always Thurston's motto. He knew the Bible backward and forward, up and down. Celebrated every holy day with exacting precision. Ran a successful business, and gave his employees their Christmas bonuses without fail. Thurston was articulate – he volunteered to preach whenever the pastor went on vacation, and half the congregation sometimes wished the pastor wouldn't come back so they could keep Thurston! He was a fountainhead of moral advice. He avoided all the classic vices scrupulously – never smoke, never drank, never gambled, never danced. (Hey, it was a Baptist church, after all.) Faithful and supportive of his lovely wife. Everybody knew Thurston. A man without scandal, trustworthy and true. A role model to the whole church.

Thurston was a real stand-up guy. So Thurston stood up. And Thurston prayed. Words flowed off Thurston's tongue. “Almighty and Everlasting God, I thank thee most highly and most heartily that thou hast seen fit to bless me in multitudinous ways. Thou hast prospered me, and thou hast extended mine borders. I thank thee, O Lord Most High, that thou hast made me who I am. For surely I could have been raised differently; I could have had a weaker character; I could have had less opportunity; I could have taken less initiative. But God, my God, I am not like other men, those who disappoint thee or disobey thee. O God, I am not unrighteous. O God, I am not an adulterer. O God, I am not a thief. O God, I am not a murderer or gangster. O God, I dress well. O God, I am not a drunkard, nor a smoker, nor a gambler, nor an addict. I stand for thy values, I write letters to my Congressman, I quote thy words to him. Thy favor is upon me, as all my dealings and all my prosperity doth abundantly attest, O God of heaven. And so I thank thee, O God, that I am not like those many other men – weaklings, reprobates, hypocrites, judgmental, militant, bigoted, promiscuous, greedy, bankrupt, rapacious, traitorous, and unreliable. I thank thee especially, O God, that I am not like him,” prayed Thurston, noticing out of the corner of his eye as a bedraggled figure crept sheepishly toward the back pew. “For I, O God, pray three times a day. And I, O God, hold vigils to take America back in thy name. And I, O God, never fall short of a full tithe. I am chaste, truthful, virtuous. Whatever thou hast asked for in thy word, I render it double unto thee. And so, Almighty and Everlasting God, this is my confession: I thank thee in advance for another year of reward and plenty. Look down from thy holy habitation in heaven and bless me, as thou art bound by thine promise so to do.”

And Thurston sat down. Thurston shares a great deal in common with a story Jesus once told – a story we heard read this morning. Thurston, had he lived in first-century Judea, would have been a card-carrying Pharisee. It's easy for us to forget, given the dim view of Pharisaic spirituality that prevails in the Gospels, that to most Jews of the time, the Pharisees were spiritual rock-stars. They were superheroes. They avoided obvious vices. They had their hearts set on renewing Israel and paving the way for the Messiah through national righteousness. They scrupulously obeyed the Law of Moses – the one in the parable went above and beyond the Law, carrying out acts of piety so intense, as if to put God somehow in his debt. The Pharisees held sin at the greatest distance by building a 'fence' around the Law, carefully steering clear of any infractions. And they held themselves out as an example for others to imitate. Thurston would've made a fine Pharisee; in fact, he did (cf. Luke 18:10-12).

The trouble here, you see, is that Thurston's prayer knows nothing of real grace or real mercy. It doesn't glorify God at all. Thurston's prayer glorifies Thurston. Thurston's prayer fits very poorly with Ash Wednesday, or any day of the Christian life. Thurston speaks volumes on his fidelity to the Law, his achievements, his fulfillment of the commandments. But the people Thurston distances himself from: he doesn't love them as himself, which is a pretty central commandment (Leviticus 19:18). And a prayer where Thurston's 'I' is the main active agent is a prayer that puts him at the center and God in a supporting role. Thurston's prayer is all about what he's earned and accomplished; Thurston prays for what he insists he deserves. Thurston's religion is business, a transaction: he keeps all the 'Thou shalt nots,' and in turn God must prosper him, and people must respect and admire him. Thurston looks down on others who don't meet his exacting standards – benignly, sometimes, but disdain and judgment all the same. Thurston has a lot going for him. Martin Luther describes his Pharisaic forefather as having “nothing but beautiful works,” such that he “appears to the world a paragon of godliness, a fine, pious, God-fearing, and holy man.” But Thurston's prayer is self-centered, prideful, loveless. It's not only obnoxious; it's an abomination, a blasphemy. And to the astonishment of all who heard Jesus, people like Thurston walk away dirty from the service – stained by sin, and in opposition to the heart of the God they claim (Luke 18:14).

But Thurston wasn't alone in the sanctuary. Midway through his prayer, another man entered the sanctuary. Ira didn't have much in common with Thurston. Ira didn't wear a three-piece suit. In most people's opinion, he wasn't “dressed for church” at all – in his grubby, wrinkled shirt, his hole-ridden jeans riding low beneath a couple inches of underwear, his grimy sneakers trailing mud behind him. Ira dressed the part of a teenager – it made him feel young again. He knew he'd squandered his life. He'd attended First Baptist as a kid. But that was then. After quitting the church, he'd spent some time as a radical activist – ah, the passions of youth. The Feds had a file on him, no doubt. In the years since, he'd rotated through plenty of avocations. Heroin dealer, for one. Ira almost didn't come today – couldn't bear to face church families who'd lost a daughter, a sister, a son, a brother, to his product. A loan shark he'd been, for a while, after lucking out in a poker tournament. But these days, he made a lifestyle out of dodging child support payments and taxes – doing odd jobs for under-the-table cash. Thurston was very proud of being nothing like Ira. And Ira couldn't blame him.

Ira sat in the far corner of the back pew, closest to the door in case he needed to cut a hasty exit – which was fine with most, who'd learned around town to keep a close eye on their watches and wallets when Ira was near. Ira knew good and well what other people thought of him. He used to be defiant about it. But the past weeks had driven it all home. He could hardly stand to look himself in the mirror when he brushed his teeth or shaved – tasks he reserved for special occasions. He felt like the bottom had fallen out of his life. If he were here to confess his sins, it'd take him from Ash Wednesday 'til Easter to even tell the half of it – and that's just what the drinking hadn't made too fuzzy to recall. After a week of close calls, Ira was desperate for someone to turn to. But Ira had no friends. And Ira couldn't blame them. So here he was, in the place no one expected – least of all Ira himself.

Ira listened with muffled ears to the close of Thurston's prayer. And he listened, in a way Thurston didn't, as the pastor led the Ash Wednesday liturgy. Words seemed to trail in and out. “To dust you shall return.” “I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.” “We have sinned by our own fault, in thought, word, and deed.” “Our self-indulgent appetites and ways, and our exploitation of other people.” Ira's eyes filled with tears. He'd stolen more than he could ever give back – not just in money he'd appropriated, not just in evil causes supported with a hard heart, but in flesh-and-blood lives he'd broken and ruined. Ira did know his transgressions. His sin really was ever before him. He could harbor no illusions about his self-indulgent appetites and ways. And he could bear it no more. He thought he was about to burst. As if in a dream, he leapt to his feet, interrupting the litany of penitence, and with a downcast gaze and a heavy heart, he pounded his chest with a calloused hand and sobbed the words, over and over again: “God, mercy on me, on sinner!” He broke down in blubbering – an unattractive sight. The pastor unsteadily wrapped up the words of absolution – after which Ira fled (cf. Luke 18:13).

Ira's prayer was obnoxious. It was noisy. It was loud. It was intemperate. It interrupted the service. It lacked all social graces. It came in an ill-dressed and odorous package. It wasn't eloquent; it was barely English. And it came from the mouth of someone who has no reasonable expectation in himself of getting an answer. All that is true. But where Thurston's prayer was centered on himself, Ira's prayer left Ira as an afterthought. Where Thurston's prayer was bold, confident, proud, Ira's was humble – not in the way of our common false modesty, but in real emptiness of self. Where Thurston's prayer was par for the course, Ira's prayer was life or death. And where Thurston prayed for his just reward based on his goodness, Ira prayed for the mercy of God in spite of his own corruption. Thurston looked in the mirror and saw nothing to repent of; Ira saw nothing else. And as Jesus tells the tale, the tax collector – Ira's spiritual forefather, a traitor to the nation of Israel and a social outcast – was the only one of the two who walked away looking good in God's eyes (Luke 18:14). If Ira's prayer is an obnoxious one, well, it's the kind of obnoxious prayer God loves. Like Martin Luther once said: “We pray, after all, because we are unworthy to pray.” And that was Ira's prayer. Thurston's prayer was I-centered; Ira's was I-emptied, for the sake of God's mercy. Pray like Ira. Be obnoxious like Ira.

Before Jesus set the stage for the Pharisee and the tax collector, he spun another good yarn – told of a widow who was destitute and desperate, and a judge whose hunger for a bribe was keeping her down. This judge didn't have any awe for God, and he respected nobody but himself. And the widow came to him – she was being taken advantage of by all her neighbors, victimized by crime, hounded by the bank – and she made her case to the judge. And the judge said no. But the next day, there she was again. And the judge said no. And soon she was appearing everywhere. You can imagine it: at the mall, at the luncheonette, in the park, outside his house, there she must be, inconveniencing him. As his sleep ebbed away, as his patience wore thin, eventually he says to himself, “I'm sick of this. If giving her justice is what will keep her away, then fine, she can have it.” I guess they didn't have restraining orders in those days. But it worked. The widow was so obnoxious in pestering the judge loudly and constantly, day after day, that her obnoxious petition prevailed (Luke 18:2-5).

And Jesus told this story so that we might “always pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1). For if even an unjust judge will yield to the obnoxious pestering of a widow who cries out day and night, won't a good God give quick and sudden justice to his chosen children who pray the same way, never losing heart, never giving up hope of being vindicated when Christ grabs the wheel of this car careening out of control (Luke 18:6-8)? You see, the widow's prayer is certainly obnoxious. It's repetitious, it's loud, it's abrasive, it's a nuisance. And Jesus tells us that God is plenty responsive to his favorite nuisances. So go ahead and pester your Father. He's not too busy to handle your case, however big or however small.

And finally, after treating us to the widow, the Pharisee, and the tax collector, we see one last vignette in today's reading. Some people were carrying small children to Jesus – infants, toddlers, maybe leading a couple of elementary-school age his way – just because they wanted these kids to have some contact with Jesus. And yet when the disciples saw this, they appointed themselves bouncers, tried to interfere (Luke 18:15). Why? Why would the disciples think it wise to keep these children away from Jesus? Is it because they thought it would be a waste of Jesus' time, a drain on his energy after a long day of preaching?

Maybe. But here's another reason that probably went through their minds: Kids are obnoxious. Don't deny it – it's true! Have you ever spent time with kids that age – kids besides your own or your grandkids, I mean? They don't know how to shut up, and it isn't like they have much interesting to say. They have no sense of propriety. They'll dress themselves in all sorts of mismatched ways, if you let 'em. They can be loud. They like to scream. They cry at the drop of a hat – sometimes literally! They're brash. They say whatever they're thinking; they love to voice their opinions. They eat too much, and then they throw up all over you. They are, in a word, obnoxious – but quick to trust.

And Jesus tells his disciples off – says that these obnoxious brats are no waste of his time. Their obnoxiousness is the stuff God's kingdom is built on. If you want to get in on it, start over from here. Be more like them. Pray more like them – bold, daring, humble, obnoxious. When I was a daycare teacher, I'd usually ask some kids to volunteer to lead the daily prayers. They had no guile. There was none of the Pharisee's braggadocio. Their prayers could be sweet, they could be long-winded, they could be grating and tiresome and misplaced, they could be whispered, they could be shouted. They were, at their very best, blessedly obnoxious.

An obnoxious prayer like the Pharisee's prayer is obnoxious because it's hurtful – harmful to those around him, derogatory toward God's glory. But an obnoxious prayer like the tax collector's, the widow's, the child's – those are dangerous prayers, fierce prayers, prayers with all the rawness of wild faith. This week, the world will be observing the five-hundredth anniversary of the Reformation – a movement that coalesced when one obnoxious monk challenged the domesticated propriety and the prideful self-centeredness he saw all around him. He bade us to strip away the inessentials, to empty our blowhard prayers, to admit our thoroughgoing sinfulness, and to lean on nothing else than the mercy of God made near to every sinner in Jesus Christ. To cry out for grace alone through faith alone is an obnoxious thing – loud, unseemly, unpolished, impolite, repetitive, pesky. But in no other way can we trade our filthy rags for a righteousness we can't manufacture or manage. In no other way can we gain the humble love through which faith blooms. This week, go pray some obnoxious prayers. Amen.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Being Rich: Jesus' How-To Guide

The farmer whistled as he stood on a hill and surveyed the unrelenting white of his fields. He'd never seen so much wheat, so much barley, so many other grains. As if he'd planted some kind of super-seed, the field was choked solid with it – no bare spots, no dim patches, no gaps – and every stalk looked full to bursting. Turning to his other fields, every crop was the same way. He didn't know what he'd done right – he didn't know if he'd done anything at all – but whatever crop he'd planted this year, the harvest season had found plump and plentiful. On a normal year, he did quite well for himself. He had oodles. He was never dissatisfied. He'd bought up plenty of little family farms from his former neighbors over the years, so there was no shortage of fields in his name. But now every one was yielding like it'd been bathed in a miracle fertilizer or a growth hormone or... or... he didn't know what (Luke 12:16).

The laborers had been working for a couple days already to harvest it all – and it hardly seemed like they were making a dent. The sun rose, the sun set, the sun rose, the sun set – they kept hauling it in. And then they came to him. “Sir... Sir, Barn A is full.” “Sir, sir... There's no room left in Barn B.” “Sir – I mean, if you've got a moment – I hate to tell you, but we can't fit anything else in Barn C.” And the farmer looked out over his fields. A third were yet to be harvested. And all his barns were full. “What on earth am I gonna do? I can't just waste it. I want it all! Think of what it can do!” (Luke 12:17).

The farmer thought that over for a day. Wrestled with the possibilities. And he reached a decision. “I know, I know. Here's what I'm going to do. Boys, gather 'round. Get rid of Barn A, Barn B, Barn C. Deconstruct 'em. Dismantle 'em. I'm placing an order for more lumber. Time for an old-fashioned barn raising. How big? Oh... very big. Enough to stockpile a lifetime supply, that's how big. Tear down these barns. Build larger ones. Big enough to handle all this harvest. Big enough to store all this grain. Big enough to stash all my purchases. All my grain, all my goods. Big enough to hide away years of plenty for the days of famine. Big enough to guarantee my security. Bigger...” (Luke 12:18).

The labor teams went to work. The farmer watched with contentment and pride. Barn A2 went up. Barn B2. C2. Biggest barns on the block – like aircraft hangers. The farmer watched. The farmer watched, and he whispered: “I'm free. I'm set. I could retire. I'm safe. Even if my fields lie fallow for ages, even if it doesn't rain for three years – I'm set. I've got so much! I can withstand many years with these ample goods! And now it's time to enjoy the good things in life. I could use a vacation at the beach. I can finally relax. I want to lounge in a hammock stretched between two palm trees. I want to sip margaritas by the bay. I want to eat barbecue and steak. I want to sample the night life. I've been breaking my back out here for years. I deserve this. And thanks to this windfall, with a harvest like this, I can afford it and then some. I'll never go hungry. I'll never run out. This harvest – it sure is a lifetime supply. My safety net. Time to relax, eat, drink, and be merry” (Luke 12:19).

The farmer sighed a sigh of relief as the sun dipped toward the horizon. He knew he was the envy of his neighbors. He'd done everything right, after all. He was fiscally responsible. He was planning ahead. He was setting aside an ample retirement fund. He was well-to-do and respectable. He could afford to live a little, and he deserved it. The sun sank a bit lower in the late afternoon sky. All was quiet. Until it wasn't. A sound like a jet flying low enough to give him a haircut. In the roar, he could barely make out the words that boomed like a jackhammer in his ear. “You fool! This very night, your soul is required from you! And these things you have prepared, this grain, these goods, all those plans and dreams... Whose will they be then?” (Luke 12:20).

No answer was given. But with a prophecy of his death before sunrise, the formerly satisfying sinking sun must have instilled a much different emotion in the farmer's heart throughout the following hour. Such was a scenario that Jesus framed for us: the story of a man who already has plenty, but when more gain comes his way, he doesn't even consider any option but expanding his storage capacity – his luck is his luck, no one else's; his blessings are private bonuses and yield security with which to savor his good fortune. A good harvest is all about him, you see.

And Jesus explains two important things about this story – two basic lessons on how to be rich. First, there's a key distinction. On the one hand, you can be rich toward self. You can treat yourself well. You can pamper yourself. You can spend it on luxuries, you can hoard it like a miser, whatever. You can be rich toward yourself. You can make your gain and your blessings all about you. You can lay up treasure for yourself – for your own use and your own purposes against a rainy day – or, in the farmer's case, the dreaded not-so-rainy day that won't end for a while. That's being rich toward yourself. And that's one option. But there's another one. The opposite of laying up treasure for yourself, like this farmer did – and most people throughout history would have applauded the farmer's fiscal wisdom, don't forget, and not seen him as foolish at all – but the opposite here is being rich toward God (Luke 12:21). And that's a different way to be rich. That's something novel, something radical.

The second lesson, Jesus explains, is that all these things the farmer has, all these things the farmer is daydreaming about – life is about more than living it up. Life is about more than earning. Life is about more than eating food and drinking drinks. Life is about more than relaxation and the good moments, and it's about more than work and toil. Life is about more than what you own. Life is more than a sum on a bank statement or a sequence of hours billed. Life is about more than that. Jesus says, “Take care and be on your guard against covetousness, for one's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15).

Maybe that's a better way to phrase it: not just that life is about more than these things, but that if you add them all together, even that doesn't qualify as actually living. You can stockpile as much as you want – that doesn't mean you're living. You can go on vacation to the beach, to historic sites, to cosmopolitan cities in every land hither and yon – that doesn't mean you're living. You can eat the finest gourmet food – that doesn't mean you're living. You can go to all the parties – that doesn't mean you're living. You can have the fanciest toys – that doesn't mean you're living. You can win all the trophies – that doesn't mean you're living. You can work out all the spreadsheets, you can spend hours budgeting, you can make smart investments, you can weave your best safety net to give you breathing room to do all this and take control of your life – and yet it doesn't mean you in fact have a life, much less that you can actually control it. All this doesn't amount to living. And your soul is at the bidding of Another who can recall it at any time. All these things, all the sequence of moments they bring – yet it doesn't amount to living.

It would be so easy for us to look at this parable, read the headline, and safely and smugly think, “Oh, this one is for the rich. Well, I don't much like them anyway. Good for me.” That's easy, to dismiss the parable as saying anything we don't already know and agree with. It's easy to dismiss its relevance to us middle-class Americans – even though each and every one of us probably owns more, and certainly enjoys a higher standard of living, than even the most prosperous farmer in first-century Galilee. We're so quick to assume we're not materialistic. We don't think of ourselves as greedy. But maybe we're too quick to dodge what Jesus is saying.

Why did Jesus tell this story in the first place? “Someone in the crowd said to him, 'Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me” (Luke 12:13). This man in the crowd is a younger brother. His father has passed away. By law, his elder brother was entitled to a double portion, and they could split the property that way, 67-33. It was widely considered preferable, though, to keep the property intact and live there as equals, with the elder brother looking out for and protecting the younger. That was the advice of many Jewish sages in those days. But this younger brother doesn't want that. He doesn't want to do things right. He wants to be financially independent. Maybe he wants to move away. Maybe he's not getting along with his brother. He wants security of his own, not bound to any particular social tie. He's willing to embroil himself in a family conflict – and to drag Jesus into the middle of it – to get his independence and his security, some funds of his own, all his. And what Jesus saw is that this man was at the risk of organizing his existence – like his family relations – around what isn't life. He was putting something not life-giving at the center, and subordinating his family life to that prospect of gain with which he might “relax, eat, drink, be merry” (Luke 12:19). Like the farmer in the story, this younger brother is making his existence about what doesn't amount to life; and that's the inevitable result of seeking to be rich toward self.

Financial responsibility is good. But it isn't life. And when we orient our existence around what isn't life and therefore can't give us life, we fall prey to the same foolishness as any idolater past or present. This isn't about just “the rich,” somewhere out there. This is about us. Because we dream like the farmer. We chafe like the younger brother. This parable is about us. We're embarrassed if our neighbors walk through our house and judge us as poor in their eyes – poor towards self. Shouldn't we be more embarrassed for the “great cloud of witnesses” to see us as poor in their eyes – poor towards God? “Such is the one who lays up treasure for himself” – anyone who makes their existence about what doesn't amount to life – “and is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:21).

Being rich toward yourself doesn't amount to a rich life, because it doesn't amount to a life. Enjoying the finer things, having plenty, a sequence of thrilling moments and memorable experiences, making a name for yourself and leaving a mark on those around you – those may be fun, there may even be some limited good there, but it isn't life, and it isn't being rich toward God. But Jesus is explaining a how-to guide for really being rich.

First, “seek God's kingdom” (Luke 12:31). As in, “seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matthew 6:33). The farmer in the story was seeking big barns. The farmer in the story was seeking relaxation, food, drink, and merriment – somewhat fine things that don't amount to life. But the kingdom of God amounts to life. The kingdom of God is that long-lost world with God at the center and God in charge, a world that's healed and fixed and made right, a world made clean and whole, a world of goodness and beauty and truth; and just this world of lavish grace poked into our old world wherever Jesus went – and still does. The first step in being really rich is to put aside other concerns and make your #1 priority to chase after this kind of world – and the only path is the one marked by Jesus' footsteps – up to a cross and then out from a graveyard. Chase Jesus and his Spirit wherever they go, and other things will find you in their proper measure.

Second, Jesus advises us: “Sell your possessions” (Luke 12:33). The farmer in the story was building big barns so he could accommodate more possessions! As a sign of being rich, he wanted to expand. But Jesus says, if you want to really be rich, don't expand; contract. Virtually every single one of us has things we don't need. And nothing you own is neutral. Either it helps you or it hinders you. It enhances your riches or impoverishes you. We stockpile all these things – but when our soul gets recalled, whose will they be? And will they offer life and security to them when they couldn't waylay our soul here an hour longer? So Jesus advises us, “Sell your possessions.” Look over what you own. Don't ask, “Does this bring me joy?” Ask, “Does this help me seek the kingdom for myself and others – does this glorify God – or not?” Sell off the obstacles. That's what true wealth involves.

Third, Jesus continues his thought: “Give to the needy” (Luke 12:33). The farmer in the story was all about hoarding. He looked over his white fields, and his thoughts were all about, “How can I keep hold of more of this for myself?” Not once did he look over the fields and seriously consider, “This is more than I need right now. It must not all be for me.” The farmer wanted to hoard it. But really being rich doesn't mean hoarding; it means giving. Jesus explains that only those who give will thereby stockpile “moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys; for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Luke 12:33-34). We dare not let our heart be in our own frail chests. Better to keep our heart in heaven. And like St. Peter Chrysologus used to say, “The hand of the poor is Christ's treasury, since whatever the poor person receives, Christ receives. … O man, while on earth, give to the poor those things that you want to abide with you in heaven.”

Fourth, Jesus urges us over and over again: “Do not be anxious about your life...” (Luke 12:22); “Fear not...” (Luke 12:32). The idea of selling things, giving to the poor, all that – if you're really radical about it, it can be unsettling. Jesus tells us we don't have to be unsettled by it. Life is about more than the things over which we get anxious. Life is more than eating, more than drinking, more than having clothes and shelter. Life is more than a balanced budget and a 401(k). Life is more than opportunities; life is more than workdays and vacations.

Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32). Aim to be rich toward God, not toward yourselves. Sell what holds you back, give to those in need whatever God gave you for them and whatever you'd like to have forever, and set aside concerns so you can chase Jesus and his Spirit toward a world made right – and don't be afraid, even if only a few join you in the hunt, because your Father has his heart set on getting you there. Be rich toward God. It's his business to be rich toward you – in his kingdom. And that is how to truly be rich. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

A Prize by Surprise

“Wealth and wages make life sweet, but better than either is finding a treasure” (Sirach 40:18). That line from the Book of Sirach turned over and over in the mind of Ben, the hired hand, as he sweated beneath the sun. His body was overheated, sticky, and weary in the seemingly permanent heat that was ceaseless by day and apparently unending at night. He'd had dreams once – dreams of a life he could enjoy. Dreams of having a place to call his own. Dreams of farming his own land, instead of hiring himself out to farm this distant edge of a vast plantation not his own. Dreams of really being his own man. But life didn't turn out that way. He had to eat by the sweat of his brow – and then some. His daydreams were useless. But they got him through the long days of manual labor when there was no breeze to help. So he dreamed. And he dug at the soil.

And then he heard an unusual sound – clink – like instead of hitting dirt or hitting rock, he'd struck a patch of wood and metal beneath the sediments. Scratching inquisitively, he found a box – very narrow but two feet long and plunged lengthwise into the earth. He needed a break anyway, so he paused to pull it up. And when he opened it, his hands trembled so he nearly dropped it. He unfurled a stretch of canvas and saw something he'd seen in a textbook once, in that art history class he'd never finished – he gazed at the Renaissance painter Raphael's lost Portrait of a Young Man – worth a fortune – he thought he remembered an estimate of a hundred million dollars it might fetch now. Ben was so overwhelmed, he absentmindedly turned over and over the yellow gem in his hand, with all 126 of its facets gleaming in the fiery sunlight – the missing Florentine Diamond, unchanged since its theft from the last Austrian emperor in 1918. What room was left over in the box alongside those two fit in – it was overflowing with gold coins. There could not have been a greater surprise.

Ben looked around – no one in sight. No one could see him except maybe as an indistinct silhouette on the horizon. It was a vast plantation, after all, with few to work the spacious fields. And so, with his heart pounding in his chest, Ben carefully rolled the painting back up, slipped it into the box; gently placed the diamond in; and scooped gold coins in until they were all there. Wedging the box back into the crack whence it came, he dropped a few spadefuls of dirt over it, smoothed out the soil, and moved merrily along his way, with a barely concealable spring in his step – it was joy, plain and simple.

Ben hustled home – he had scarcely any time to think. He knew his neighbor had been wanting to buy his house – wanted room to expand, he'd said – so Ben hammered on the door and made a cash sale. Ben cashed in his few stocks and bonds. He emptied his retirement fund account. He sold his clothes, his favorite chair, everything in his house that wasn't nailed down – and a few things that were. Wasn't much – but when everything was put together, it was enough. Enough to march into the landowner's office. Enough to say he wanted a new start, some land on his own – and a plot of a couple acres at the edge of the plantation would be quite nice. Oblivious, the owner saw only a dumb peasant willing to fork out 190% of the plot's retail value – a winning transaction for the owner. He had no clue what had been buried there years before he'd bought the land himself. He signed the bill of transfer. Done deal.

In the days to come, Ben threw quite a few parties in celebration. His former employer was now, you see, the second richest man in town – a distant second, in fact. It had cost Ben everything he had – his home, his investments, his security in the future, his clothes, all his earthly possessions. When his brothers and sisters heard, they were ready to drag him off to the asylum. Why become homeless and penniless to get a couple acres of dirt? But as soon as the land and all its contents were legally his, he dug up the box. The cost was nothing next to the value of the prize. And thanks to the discipline to handle it wisely, Ben was set for life. “Wealth and wages make life sweet, but better than either is finding a treasure.” Amen, thought Ben. Amen.

If Ben were real, and if Ben were one of the relatively few Americans who still possess some basic biblical literacy in this day and age, Ben might have drawn a comparison to a teensy snippet from the Gospel of Matthew – a story from the lips of Jesus. Two stories, in fact. Jesus invited his students and the eavesdropping crowds to imagine two men. One, a refined pearl merchant on the hunt for quality merchandise, makes a stunning discovery: a seller who apparently has less refined tastes is willing to part with the biggest pearl anyone has ever seen for a price criminally cheap; so the merchant divests himself of all his stock and his personal possessions at a discount, and scoops up the bargain of the century. Or as Jesus tells it: “The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it” (Matthew 13:45-46).

But Ben would have resonated even more with the other story, a story of a farmhand and some buried treasure: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all he has and buys that field” (Matthew 13:44). See, back in those days, people did bury their savings – no banks in Galilee, after all – and it wasn't outside the realm of possibility to uncover a stash hidden a couple generations ago, before the land changed hands a few times. Finders keepers, for landowners.

The dream of finding buried treasure was to them what winning the lottery is to twenty-first-century Americans – it's not likely to happen, but folks find it fun to daydream about. And if there were a fair and legal way to make it a sure thing, there's no cost within your reach that's too great. It's simple math – the jackpot outweighs your current assets, so if it can be a sure thing, you ditch your current assets and grab that jackpot. If the field holds a buried treasure worth more than all you own, you sell all you own and buy the field. Passing the opportunity by makes no sense. Dismissing the find of a lifetime is ludicrous. Dithering and dilly-dallying would be foolish. Deeming it just another day on the job would be absurd.

There's nothing humdrum about finding buried treasure. That's the moment that changes your life forever. That's the moment where your dreams come true, and a totally new life comes within your reach. When you find buried treasure, you don't just move along. You figure out how to get it legally in your possession. And when you find buried treasure, you don't shrug your shoulders and say, “That's pretty nice.” Your heart races, you grin, you leap and holler – you celebrate – you rejoice. And no matter what sacrifice it calls for to get it, even if it's everything you own, even if you have to sleep in a cardboard box for a month, no matter what worldly possessions or creature comforts you have to part with for a season to get that treasure – you know you'll look back once you've got your prize, and you'll think, “It was all worth it. I would have been an idiot to pass this up. I would have been an idiot not to take the deal. I would have been an idiot to forgo this treasure I found... a prize by surprise.”

Jesus told just such a story. And the point of Jesus' story here is that this is what God's kingdom is like. Have you ever thought about it like that? When people imagined God's kingdom, what they were thinking about was a healed world – a world fixed and made right – a world with God at the center and God in charge – a world and a society with God as King, who would finally reward his loyal people with victory, with top-dog status, and with every lavish luxury their hearts have ever dreamed of – who would finally crush all evil and cleanse all stains – that God would take charge and enforce his perfect will, to the benefit of all those who gained his favor.

That's what people meant when they talked about the kingdom of God – it was the world they were all waiting for, a world their ancestors had almost tasted in the days of David when Israel was humming along in working order, but which had clearly fallen into grave disrepair. And then Jesus came along and announced that the kingdom, this long-lost world, was arriving – it was showing up in strange ways wherever he went, in whatever he touched – like he said, “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them; and blessed is the one who does not stumble on my account” (Matthew 11:5-6). This abundance, this healed world, this lavish grace – a new world poking into our old world wherever Jesus is. And those who follow him and live according to his vision get tastes of it now and, when the new world takes over fully, will enter it and enjoy it completely. That's the kingdom of God.

And what Jesus is telling this story for is to show us what a surprise this kingdom is. Jesus' new world pokes and prods at the fabric of this one in places you didn't think you'd find it. His lavish grace jumps out at you when you're not looking. You're going about your daily business, trudging through the dirt, lazily strolling the aisles at the corner store – and whoa, there it is! There's the kingdom! The kingdom shows up where you least expect – even at an execution on a hill outside Jerusalem – even in a locked-and-guarded grave. The kingdom is not content to be obvious. You'll find the kingdom hiding under a layer of topsoil. You'll walk face-first into it and break your nose. But there it is. The only question is: Will it be yours?

And when you crash into the kingdom, when you turn over the dirt and catch a glimpse, you need to understand: what you have just found, what you have just seen, is not merely one option among others. What you've found is not mundane. What you've found is incomparable. What you've found is an only hope. What you've found is riches beyond compare. What you've found is not worth trying to find a measuring system that can handle both it and what you've known before. The kingdom is of an incomprehensibly higher order of magnitude than all else you've ever known. Because the kingdom yields abundance. The kingdom yields peace and joy. The kingdom yields virtue. The kingdom yields wholeness. The kingdom yields eternity. The kingdom is divine – it is the very treasure of God. If you can think of the kingdom and dismiss it as unimportant, you ain't seen the kingdom. Every act of terror, every mass shooting, every tyrant's injustice, every mob's riots, every famine and drought, every scream of grief or silent pang of poverty – that's from the old world, where we're all grabbing at the crown. But the invitation to a new world stands open, and those who enter in will ultimately find that “death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).

The kingdom, the grace of God, comes knocking with a rare invitation. The grace is given freely – but to accept this free grace may well cost you, and cost you dearly. Like the man in the story, you may have to sell more than you bargained for. Entering the kingdom means doing the Father's will (Matthew 7:21). You can't see it unless you've got a new start to life, a new birth (John 3:3). You have to strip away all your pride, stoop down, turn around, become like a humble, helpless kid (Matthew 18:3-4). You've got to get hold of a righteousness that “exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees” (Matthew 5:20). You have to let the big sack of possessions roll from your back, or else you'll no more fit through than a camel can squeeze through the eye of a needle (Matthew 19:24). And yet the most sinful and outcast, “tax collectors and prostitutes,” can find this deal within their reach (Matthew 21:31). But the pathway in is “through many tribulations” (Acts 14:22). And you'll find that “the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:9) – those who cling to lives of “sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry..., hatred, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy..., and things like these … will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:19-21).

The grace of God comes knocking... but the kingdom's new world will cost you all that old-world junk, and more besides. A German pastor named Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was killed under Hitler, famously wrote about this kind of costly grace. He said: “Costly grace is the hidden treasure in the field, for the sake of which people go and sell with joy everything they have. It is the costly pearl, for whose price the merchant sells all that he has. … It is costly, because it calls to discipleship; it is grace, because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly, because it costs people their lives; it is grace, because it thereby makes them live.”

And that's the honest-to-God truth. And that's the measure of a true teacher: a true teacher will showcase the value of God's kingdom – and its cost. Lose out on either, and you've missed the message of Jesus. “Therefore every scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matthew 13:52). The kingdom treasure has more facets than the Florentine Diamond – it shines from all angles, all different but all beautiful, no matter when those angles were cut, whether in the era of Isaiah or the days of Paul. There's plenty in that treasure – and a true teacher is going to show you an endless parade of reasons to celebrate in finding it, but won't gloss over the price tag.

The truth is, even though God offers his grace freely, even though the gates of the kingdom are thrown wide to all who'll dump their old-world junk by the wayside and come near to slip on through, there are plenty who count the cost as too high. The Gospels are honest about that: folks invited to follow Jesus to the kingdom, but they make excuses – they want to cling to life as they know it. Not everyone knows an eternal investment when they see it. You can even sit in a pew, you can get your name on the membership roll, you can put a token bill in the plate now and then – but still not be buying the real treasure. Jesus tells another story: “The kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind. When it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into containers but threw away the bad. So it will be at the end of the age...” (Matthew 13:47-49). The Sea of Galilee was full of plenty species you could catch by trawling with a net spread between two boats. But not every species was kosher, not every fish caught was clean. When the net gets pulled ashore at the end of the day, some won't pass muster for the kingdom. The kingdom was within our reach, and yet there are those who don't know a treasure when it's right underfoot or staring them in the face. And only when the net's reeled in and the crops are harvested do we get sorted.

But what about now? Maybe you hear that story, and it makes you concerned. Well, Jesus probably meant it to. If you truly trust in him, if you proclaim him as the Lord who rescued you, if the truth of his resurrection is planted in your heart – then you've found a real treasure. It's already yours, by grace through faith... and when the end of the day comes and the new world crashes fully down, you'll enjoy it without any impediment. In the meantime, though, sticking to that path and following through is a costly endeavor. But if we've actually caught sight of the treasure, if we really understand, then the price doesn't seem so high, because we see how short it falls next to the surprise we've uncovered. And so we can sell all we've got with joy.

There are plenty of things we have. Many of them are obstacles in our progress toward the kingdom: demands on our schedules, demands on our energy, demands on our bank accounts, demands on our lifestyle – demands that proceed from society, from culture, from family and friends, from traditions, from desires, from all sorts of scripts we make up or accept and pursue. And when we lose sight of the joy of buried treasure, we struggle to sell those off – but that discovery, that sale, that blessed purchase, is just what the kingdom of God is like.

Do we rejoice to invest our time, gathering with fellow kingdom-citizens on a Sunday morning? Do we rejoice to invest our efforts, serving those around us with what they need? Do we rejoice to invest our paltry funds to favor those through whom our King accepts our gifts? Do we rejoice to invest our devotion in our King? Do we rejoice to invest our words to invite others to his treasure? If so, we're getting more than the bargain of a lifetime – we're getting the deal of eternity. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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.