St. George’s United Church, September 11, 2016
Sermon: “Lost and Found”
Preacher: Rev. Ryan Slifka
Scripture: Luke 15:1-10
This week we continue through the Good News According to Luke. And here Jesus, as usual, is hanging out with the wrong people. A crowd of unsavory characters—people who the text refers to as “tax collectors and sinners.” Tax collectors. Traitors who squeeze the local people for taxes on behalf of the Romans who are the occupying army. And sinners. Maybe they are prostitutes, maybe they are people who choose not to follow the commands of the scriptures. Those people whose beliefs, and whose lifestyles put them outside of polite society. And, as usual, the Pharisees, the righteous pious church folk, are having trouble with all the attention Jesus pays to these bums and low-lives. These people just can’t seem to get their act together, and Jesus is just coddling them by not holding them to account. Even worse, he’s even encouraging by chumming around and partying with them.
And it’s understandable in some ways. We’ve talked about this before. But the Pharisees are the portrayed by the gospels as the bad guys. The guys who have a woman tied to the railroad tracks while they twirl their moustaches. But in truth, the Pharisees were good guys in a way. They took their scriptures seriously. And sought to apply them to everyday life. In many ways, their goals and their way of life mirrors the goals, and the purpose of the Christian life. To live life in deep relationship with God. And to be the kind of person God wanted them to be. Their goal was to walk the path to righteousness. That leads to life.
And yet, they seem to have a problem, according to Jesus. They have a deep love for God, and have a deep desire to live good lives. They want to walk the path of righteousness, side by side with their Creator. And yet, when it comes to those who either don’t follow in that path, or those who follow it poorly, they have a sense of their superiority. They not only look down their noses at the people that Jesus is hanging out with—tax collectors and sinners, all the wrong kinds of people—they write them off. The Pharisees, like so many of us, have worked hard, paid their taxes, pray, read scripture, cared for the poor. Spent time at the protests and social justice campaigns. And yet these people haven’t got the right beliefs, and they aren’t living in the right way. Unless they do, they can expect God’s judgment, God’s condemnation. When it comes to walking the path with God, they need to turn back towards God, and pay their toll at the toll booth on the heavenly highway. But until they do, they’re on their own. This is what gives the Pharisees their bad reputation.
And if you think about it, an attitude like the Pharisees’ attitude is what gives us Christians a bad reputation, too. What’s interesting to me is how when Christians of any stripe—liberal or conservative, evangelical or Catholic—is that we tend to put ourselves in Jesus’ place. And the Pharisees are always someone else. But I find it helpful, especially in this text, to sit in a chair with the Pharisees, rather than Jesus.
This past Thursday, I was a speaker at what was called an “Interfaith Celebration of Peace.” Where representatives of different religious traditions—from Jewish to pagan, to Indigenous to Buddhist—shared their perspectives on peace. And what it means to their community. I was the Christian voice. In conversation afterwards, someone expressed disagreement. This person, a middle-aged man shook my hand. He told me that he appreciated what I said. But still found it too exclusive. So I asked him what he meant, and he told me what turned him off about my talk… was Jesus. I said in my talk that the Christian vision of peace is modeled on Jesus. That we have been given a glimpse of our future destiny here and now. Who God is, what God is up to, is on display in Jesus. “That’s a problem,” he told me, “because what you’re saying excludes everyone who doesn’t believe in Jesus. I believe that all religions are a pathway to God. They are different paths up the same mountain.” In connecting Christian beliefs about peace to Jesus, he was telling me, I was not only blocking the pathway to peace for others. Like the Pharisees, I was putting up a checkpoint on the heavenly highway to a relationship with the divine. And only opening it for people with a cross on their passport.
It’s not what I said. But it wasn’t the first time I’d heard something like this before. I recall a friend telling saying to me when I first started going to church a decade or so ago, that he couldn’t ever go to church or be a Christian because, he said, “I can’t believe that Christianity is the only way to God.” The sort of unspoken thing in this statement is fear. One that I get. I remember an American Christian leader being interviewed on ABC television or something. And the interviewer said something like “but there are some great people who aren’t Christians. What about Gandhi?” And the leader responded very matter-of-factly. “Gandhi did a lot of great things,” he said. “But I know for a fact that Gandhi’s in hell.” As good as Gandhi was, he didn’t have the credentials he needed to get past the checkpoint. In fact, there was a detour sign pointing in the direction of a very hot, very unpleasant place. This is a bit of an extreme example, I know. But it does represent many of our fears about the particular nature of the Christian faith. And this is what turns off many people from considering the faith altogether. That to believe that the road is open for us to get to God… means that the road is inherently closed to everyone else. Or worse.
This is a question I’ve thought about a lot. But in considering this morning’s scripture, I started to wonder if we’ve not only misunderstood how the Christian tradition thinks about non-Christians. We may have also misunderstood something fundamental about Christianity itself. What if Christianity isn’t a way for us to get to God… and everybody else be damned. But what if it’s a way for God to get at us?
Because this is kind of how this morning’s scripture passage kind of portrays God. In response to the judgmental attitude of the Pharisees, Jesus tells these two parables, these two short stories. First, he tells a story about a shepherd who loses one sheep. And the shepherd leaves the other 99 sheep of his flock behind in the wilderness, not the most friendly of territory, to search out the stray animal. Then he tells a story about a woman whose got ten silver coins and loses one. She turns the house upside-down trying to find this one coin, even though she has nine others. She stays up all night, eventually finds it, then runs outside to make sure the neighbors know she found this one little coin. One is lost, and found again. There’s a tremendous celebration. Jesus says that there’s more celebration over someone who was outside the fold returning… than all the rest who have already been found. Like choirs of angels in heaven. In each of these stories, God doesn’t give up, and wait for people who are outside the fold to come to him. But instead, she is relentlessly, tirelessly, seeking all until every last one is found. And those who take pride in thinking they are found, that they’ve earned their way on to the heavenly highway. They are actually the lost ones. Jesus isn’t our way to God. He’s God’s way to us.
It may sound like a bit of a small distinction, a minor detail. But let me tell you what it means. First, it means for those of us who feel like we’re outside the fold, who feel like we’re lost. Whether it’s our families, our society, our church. It means that none of us is ever written off. No matter how broken our lives may be, no matter how deep we are in the mud and the muck of sin and death. Like the shepherd who leaves 99 to go after one. Like a woman who turns the whole house upside down for one measly coin. God never stops searching, mending, healing. And never will until we are brought home again. For good.
And for those of us who feel like we’ve somehow made it home. Those of us find ourselves inside the fold already. It means something like this: we are freed from the role of eternal judge. We may never write anyone off every again. Tax collectors, prostitutes and sinners. Addicts or deviants. Christians and non-Christians alike. From the most self-rightous saint, to the most doubting atheist, the most pious Buddhist, or militant Muslim. On a broader level, this is why Christians have such trouble with the death penalty, for example. But on a much smaller lever, this is why we extend such a huge welcome every time we meet. It’s why we have a soup kitchen, a food pantry, a drop-in. Why we give our money to development projects around the world. Because as people who once were lost ourselves, we know what it’s like to be found. And we know who we have been found by. So we are freed from the role of judge and, instead, free to empty ourselves. To pour out God’s grace and mercy to all. We are freed to become seekers. Alongside the divine shepherd, who is seeking us all. The truth and beauty of the gospel isn’t a privileged possession for us. But one to be lived. And shared for the benefit of all.
So perhaps we’ve made a misstep in our thinking. That that Christianity is the way to God, to get to God. Or even one way to God among many. Something that we seek after, figure out and establish. Something that we discover, that we earn, or attain. Often, religious traditions—Christianity or otherwise—is that we need to have the right method to establish a relationship with the divine. And if you do that, you get the keys to the kingdom. Whether it’s eternal salvation, or enlightenment, or a higher level of consciousness. But the uniqueness of the Christian tradition is on full display in these parables. Where it’s the other way around. God’s Spirit is already on the loose. God is already on the move, here and now. And like Jesus, in Jesus, eternally persistent in reaching out. In gathering up the least and the lost. Extending grace and mercy to all. If you remember that comedian from the 1990’s Yakov Smirnoff, whose every joke seemed to be about how backwards the Soviet Union was. “In Soviet Russia, car drives you.” Well in Christian tradition, you don’t find God—God finds you. And won’t stop until every last one of us is found. Christian, and non- Christian alike. You… me… and the whole world that God loves.
And what good news it is. Amen.