September 18, 2013, 11:35 AM
I bought a new cell phone while I was on vacation. I wanted a smart phone and I knew that I would need some expanded free time to learn how to use it. I’ve had it for a week now and I am still lost. I learn things pretty easily, but I’ve noticed that I keep doing the same things over and over, hoping for different results. I honestly don’t know how to get the phone to do what I want it to do. Theresa took a look at it my first day back at work and immediately showed me how to work several features. Just like that!
You know what it feels like to be lost. It’s awful. I can remember trying to find my way to Lazy F camp, our United Methodist camp in central Washington. It’s in a box canyon in the Manastash Ridge near Ellensburg. I’d been there once before in the summer, but this time it was late September and the corn had grown so high that it obscured some of the landmarks I was looking for. I kept making the same wrong turn over and over again, driving in a giant circle in farm country as twilight approached and it got darker and darker. No one answered the camp phone. I felt totally alone and a little desperate. Remember what it feels like to be lost as we examine today’s gospel reading.
The gospel lesson today contains two of the three stories that Jesus tells to illustrate why he hangs out with the folks that the Pharisees call sinners. Remember that the Pharisees were very conscious, proud even, of always obeying the law and doing what was “right” in God’s sight. And they grumbled about Jesus’ behavior. That brought me up short. How many times did I catch myself grumbling this week about somebody else’s behavior? Ow!! Caught in the act. But Jesus didn’t see sinners. Jesus saw people; people that had gotten lost. He tells thee parables to explain what he sees. The sheep wanders away looking for the next clump of grass. The coin is lost by the negligence of its owner—coins can’t make decisions and don’t have feet. But somehow they both get lost—that means separated in these stories, not doomed or damned. Separated! What a difference from the Pharisees’ tone of condemnation calling these folks sinners. Jesus talks about things of value, treasures that wander off or get misplaced. Even if there were a hundred sheep in your flock, one lost sheep was worth searching for. Everyone knows the worth of a silver coin. Not only did the Pharisees not see the worth of the lives of the people they called sinners, they openly rejected them—pushed them out of God’s kingdom and said, “Good riddance!” These are stories told to grumblers. The moral of each story is that when one of God’s treasures is found and restored to the safety of the community, there ought to be extravagant rejoicing—not grumbling. So church, listen up!
God is like a reckless shepherd.
Jesus did not spend very much of his time with the religious community—he was out relating to people who were often left out or left behind and restoring them to the Kingdom of God. He was busy loving the very people who made the good people nervous. He loved those people because God loved them. He saw God’s treasures wandering into dangerous territory looking for something to satisfy their hunger. Let me bring this home. The Pacific Northwest is often called the “none zone,” meaning that when asked about a religious preference or affiliation, 75% respond “none.” Only 25% claim to have a preference of affiliation and many of those do not belong to or attend a worshiping community. People in the Pacific Northwest say that they are spiritual, but not religious. They are looking for something to feed their spirits, but they don’t expect to find what they are looking for in houses of worship. They expect to find judgment, hypocrisy, oppressive rules, and boredom. They don’t expect to find love, acceptance, community, direction, and freedom.
If you look at Jesus, he seems to be way more spiritual than religious. Maybe it’s time for us to imitate Jesus and become more spiritual and less religious—I know that hard for Methodists. We like our methods. The truth is that methods are fine for sheep folds, but not much use to wanderers and searchers. People looking for God aren’t looking for rules. They’re looking for love and wonder. We need to become reckless shepherds if we want to be like Jesus. We’re okay without a lot of tending because we know that we’re loved, that we belong here. We have work to do inviting, welcoming, and nurturing God’s treasures who have wandered off searching for spirituality without religion.
God is like a woman who sweeps and sweeps.
There could not be a more counter-cultural image of God than a woman doing woman’s work. The Kingdom of God belongs to women as well as men. And the Kingdom of God belongs to God’s treasures who are lost through the negligence of others. Jesus says that God sweeps and sweeps looking for the treasures that others lost, the ones who have never known love, have not had enough attention, who have been wounded by people who have used or abused them, who have never had a chance. The Kingdom of God belongs to them and God will not stop sweeping until they are found, and loved, and welcomed, and nurtured.
Jesus knew his mission. He knew how he was to spend his time. It was not gathering with the good folks in the church. It was finding people of inestimable value in God’s eyes who had become separated from the flock or the fold.
There’s a two-fold message here. Sheep who are gathered together will be just fine. Coins safely in a purse will be just fine. We don’t need to worry about them because they are already gathered into community. The community will be fine. It’s those who are searching or languishing, who do not have the love and safety of the community that need to be found. They are the ones who need the shelter of community and the wholeness offered by God’s love.
As a church, we have a two-fold mission:
- Seek the lost
I am asking each of you to think of someone who needs the safety and love of God’s community. It may be a person or persons that you know, or it may be someone you don’t know. You might pray for a neighbor and friend, or a child or a single mother. You pray for the person that is in your heart. Pray for them every day and then see what God does. God will not always bring into the community people who are just like us—God brings who God brings and it’s our job to welcome and love them.
- Nourish the community of saints
We need to make sure that there are opportunities for searchers to find food for their souls—in small groups or one-on-one conversations. They need a safe place to ask questions; a soft landing when they are hurting.
Read the Tony Campolo story from The Secret Message of Jesus by Brian McLaren (printed here from a version on the internet).
I had to go to speak in Honolulu. Well, sometimes you get L.A. and sometimes you get Honolulu. If you go to Honolulu, because of the distance from the east coast where I live, there’s a six‐hour time difference. And I woke up at about three o’clock in the morning and I was hungry and I wanted to get something to eat. But, in a hustling city like Honolulu at three o’clock in the morning, it’s hard to find anything that’s open. Up a side street, I spotted this greasy spoon, and I went in. It was one of these dirty places and they didn’t have any booths, just row of stools at the counter. I sat down a bit uneasy and I didn’t touch the menu. It was one of those plastic menus and grease had piled up on it. I knew that if I opened it, something extraterrestrial would have crawled out. All of the sudden, this very heavy‐set, unshaved man with a cigar came out of the back room, put down his cigar, and said, “What do you want?”
I said, “I’d like a cup of coffee and a donut.”
He poured the coffee and then he scratched himself and, with the same hand, picked up the donut. I hate that. So, there I am, three‐thirty in the morning, drinking my coffee, and eating this dirty donut. And into the place comes about eight or nine prostitutes. It’s a small place, they sit on either side of me, and I tried to disappear. The woman on my immediate right was very boisterous and she said to her friend, “Tomorrow’s my birthday. I’m going to be thirty‐nine.”
Her friend said, “So what do you want me to do? Do you want me to sing happy birthday? Should we have a cake a party? It’s your birthday.”
The first woman said, “Look, why do you have to put me down? I’ve never had a birthday party in my whole life. I don’t expect to have one now.”
That’s all I needed. I waited until they left and I called Harry over and I asked, “Do they come in here every night?
He said, “Yes.”
I said, “The one right next to me…” “Agnes.”
“Tomorrow is her birthday. What do you think about decorating the place? When she comes in tomorrow night, we’ll throw a birthday party for her. What do you think?”
He said, “Mister, that is brilliant. That is brilliant!” He called his wife out of the back room. “Jan, come out here. I want you to meet this guy. He wants to throw a birthday party for Agnes.”
She came out and took my hand and squeezed it tightly, and said, “You wouldn’t understand this, mister, but Agnes is one of the good people, one of the kind people in this town. And nobody ever does anything for her, and this is a good thing. I said, “Can I decorate the place?”
She said, “To your heart’s content.”
I said, “I’m going to bring a birthday cake… Harry said, “Oh no! The cake’s my thing!”
So, I got there the next morning at about two‐thirty. I had bought the streamers at the K‐mart, strung them about the place. I had made a big poster – “”Happy Birthday Agnes” ‐ and put it behind the counter. I had the place spruced up. Everything was set. Everything was ready. Jan, who does the cooking, she had gotten the word out on the street. By three‐fifteen, every prostitute was squeezed into this diner. People, it was wall‐to‐wall prostitutes and me!
Three‐thirty in the morning, in come Agnes and her friends. I’ve got everybody set, everybody ready. As they come through the door, we all yell, “Happy birthday Agnes!” In addition, we start cheering like mad. I’ve never seen anybody so stunned. Her knees buckled. They steadied her and sat her down on the stool. We all started singing, “Happy birthday, happy birthday, happy birthday to you!”
When they brought out the cake, she lost it and started to cry. Harry just stood there with the cake and said, “All right, knock it off, Agnes. Blow out the candles. Come on, blow out the candles.” She tried, but she couldn’t, so he blew out the candles, gave her the knife, and said, “Cut the cake, Agnes.”
She sat there for a long moment and then she said to me, “Mister, is it okay if I don’t cut the cake? What I’d like to do, mister, is take the cake home and show it to my mother. Could I do that?”
I said, “It’s your cake.” She stood up, and I said, “Do you have to do it now?”
She said, “I live two doors down. Let me take the cake home and show it to my mother. I promise you I’ll bring it right back.” And she moved toward the door carrying the cake as though it was the Holy Grail. As she pushed through the crowd and out the door, the door swung slowly shut and there was stunned silence. You talk about an awkward moment. Everyone was motionless. Everyone was still I didn’t know what to say.
So, I finally said, “What do you say, we pray?” It’s weird looking back on it now. You know a sociologist leading a prayer meeting with a bunch of prostitutes at three‐thirty in the morning in a diner. But, it was the right thing to do. I prayed that God would deliver her from what dirty filthy men had done to her. You know how these things start ‐ some ten, eleven, or twelve‐year‐old girl gets messed over and destroyed by some filthy man and then she goes downhill from there. And men use her and abuse her. So I said, “God, deliver her and make her into a new creation because I’ve got a God who can make us new no matter where we’ve been or what we’ve been through.” And I prayed that God would make her new.
I finished my prayer. Harry leaned over the counter and said, “Campolo, you told me you were a sociologist. You’re no sociologist, you’re a preacher. What kind of church do you belong to?”
In one of those moments when you come up with just the right words, I said, “I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at three‐thirty in the morning.”
I’ll never forget his response. He looked back at me. ”No you don’t, no you don’t. I would join a church like that!”
People of God, it’s our job to throw the party!