September 15, 2012

“A Sure Saying”
1Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10

“Parables are told only because they are true, not because the actions of the characters in them can be recommended for imitation. Good Samaritans are regularly sued. Fathers who give parties for wayward sons are rightly rebuked, Employers who pay equal wages for unequal work have labor-relations problems. And any Shepherd who makes a practice of leaving ninety-nine sheep to chase after a lost one quickly goes out of the sheep-ranching business.

The parables are true only because they are like what God is like, not because they are models for us to copy. It is simply a fact that the one thing we dare not under any circumstances imitate is the only thing that can save us. The parables are, one and all, about the foolishness by which Grace raises the dead. They apply to no sensible process at all – only to the divine insanity that brings everything out of nothing.”
― Robert Farrar Capon, “Between Noon & Three: Romance, Law & the Outrage of Grace”

Today I’d like to offer you two sermons for the price of one.

Don’t get nervous. I promise that I will do my best to have you out of here so the chicken in the oven will not be overcooked.

The first sermon is for any of you who think you are not worth much. Perhaps you have been the recipient of criticism; so much so that you cannot think of yourself as better than the garbage at the curb on a Monday morning. Perhaps your self-image is so low because you are a realist. Nobody knows you better than you, yourself. Some of us dwell on our shortcomings and our failures.

When I was serving a church in Lebanon County, our local ministerium sponsored what was called ‘the Weekday School of Religious Education.’ It was a remarkable program that, based on voluntary participation, released children from school for an hour, once a week, for religious education in one of our churches. We contracted our own bus transportation. Our teachers were all volunteers from the local churches. Children who would never go to church were happy to go if it meant getting away from their classroom for an hour.

It came to pass that this exuberance to be out of the classroom flowed over into the bus ride. It went so far as to require the town’s police officer to pull over a bus that had children hanging from the windows. So we started having other volunteers ride the bus to keep the craziness to a minimum.

I took my turn. I learned pretty quickly where to sit to quench as much craziness as possible. One child was particularly disruptive. I asked him one day, “Mikey, why are you harassing these other children?” “That’s easy,” he matter of fact said, “everybody knows I am a bad kid.”

My heart broke. I freely admit that I’d of liked to given him a good paddling on more than one occasion. But to have a sense of self, provided by others, at such a young age that my identity is a “bad kid,” whew. Who can overcome that?

Like a character in Flannery O’Conner’s short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find”, this child may one day say: “I call myself The Misfit,” (he said,) “because I can’t make what all I done wrong fit what all I gone through in punishment.” And he would be right.

The God who is revealed in the Epistle and Gospel reading this morning is one that will have no such talk.

The second sermon is for any of you who think you are worth something. Some people fall into this second camp, like some complainers, “…the Pharisees and the scribes (who) were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

I am not sure anyone would self-identify with this second group. To identify yourself as someone with an overflowing portion of hubris, of self-righteousness, would require a self-awareness that would probably ipso facto eliminate you from this crowd. Instead folks in this category are like those in Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the Tax-Collector. The Pharisee who said, ‘thank goodness I am not like this poor wretch over there…’ While the poor wretch over there recognized his own sin and begged forgiveness from God.

There are some people on the outside of the church who have had a bad experience with those inside the church. They say, “The Church is full of hypocrites.” I say, “no, we’re not full, we have room for more.” This stereo type of the ‘goody-two-shoes’ church goer keeps others from our door, and with good reason.

In O’Conner’s Story, “A Good Man Is Hard To Find,” the grandmother is a woman who tries to lead a Godly life. I believe she is sincerely doing so, and believes she is doing her best. Still her racist comments, her petty concerns, her manipulation of the family, and her judgmental views of the folks the family meets along their journey betrays her efforts. Her actions disclose her stated intentions.

Along the family’s journey on vacation, Grandmother selfishly insists they take a side trip to visit a childhood home. It is there they happen to bump into escaped murderer called the misfit.

At the end of the story, after The Misfit shoots the grandmother, he says to an accomplice Bobby Lee, “She would have been a good woman, if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” He is saying that he noticed that she was trying to preach the gospel to him, but that it only happened because she was threatened by death. According to The Misfit, if the grandmother had lived her life held up at gunpoint, she might have lived a more righteous life.

Luke reminds us through the story of the self-righteous son; that none of us are as good as we think we are, and even in doing what we believe we are supposed to do, we can betray God. Still, God is like these stories say, “meticulously pursuing confused and rebellious creatures.”

Some of you need to know that those people who God loves are the very people you detest. “The minute we decide that some horrible sin is unforgivable, we challenge God to forgive it — and God answers our judgmental edicts with the promise of unexpected, unreasonable, overflowing mercy.”

Then there are some of you need to know that you are not outside the reach of the compassion and grace of Jesus. This is how you overcome the labels and taunts that society might place upon you. Over and over again, Jesus reaches out to those who are lost or shamed, and says ‘no, you are mine.’

The convenient thing is that the lesson from first Timothy applies to both sermons. “15The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost.” Here lies the cutting edge of the passage: Jesus embraces the very people the rest of religious society rejects.