Saturday, September 11, 2010

Break Out the Champagne!

Goodridge Lutheran Parish—at Faith, Goodridge
September 12, 2010
Luke 15:1-10

Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’

So he told them this parable: ‘Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbours, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.

‘Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbours, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.” Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Last month I read a newspaper article* that told a story that haunts me still. It was a story about the puzzling disappearance of many of Japan’s oldest residents.

Japan, you may have heard, has a reputation for being home to some of the oldest people in the world—a testament to the Japanese peoples’ healthier diet and strong commitment to the elderly.

But all that started to unravel last month when police found the mummified body of a man who was thought to be 111 years old. The man’s body was discovered at home, in his bed, where he had died some three decades ago. His 81 year old daughter had kept the death secret all that time in order to keep pocketing the man’s pension checks…..but what was even more disturbing was the fact that no one else seems to have missed the old gentleman.

This bizarre event spurred Japanese officials to go looking for other centenarians…and to their shock and dismay, they were unable to find nearly 300 of their country’s oldest residents. “Missing in action” in one of the world’s most densely-populated nations!

I shared this strange story with a friend the other day….and my friend—who happens to be single—wondered out loud: “What if I died at home? Who would miss me?”

It is a disturbing thought: being forgotten, out of sight-out of mind, lost. If you disappeared, would there be anyone out there looking for you?

The good news here in Luke 15 is that there is always Someone looking for you—whoever you are, wherever you might be, however you got lost, Someone is obsessively seeking you….peering into every nook and cranny, flashlight shining, broom at work, sweeping away any cobwebs that might hide you.

Someone is looking for you, even now. And that Someone is God—the One who created you, the One who died on the Cross for you, the One who made you his own in the water of Holy Baptism. This One is always hunting for you—he will not forget you, never, ever, ever.

Jesus offers two pictures of this obsessed, search-and-rescue God of ours. The first picture is of God the shepherd, crook in hand, trudging everywhere, earnestly seeking out a stray, a lamb that wandered from the safety of the flock. Must find! Must rescue! Must return to the flock!

The second picture Jesus provides of our seek-the-lost God is of a woman, part of her dowry or her life savings having disappeared….a woman on a mission, seeking a coin, turning her humble home upside down, looking over, under, around every piece of furniture…..broom in hand, sweeping away all the debris that might be hiding her treasure.

Someone is on the lookout for you. That’s the implication of these two tiny parables. Someone is obsessed with finding you. Someone will not rest until he finds you.

And it doesn’t even matter how you got lost in the first place.

People get lost every day…by happenstance, by accident, or because someone else led them astray.

And, as if that weren’t bad enough, we also choose to be lost. We get ourselves lost. We deliberately make choices that put us in harm’s way, place us in danger, invite death into our lives.

This is the worst kind of lostness: the lostness of our own choosing. And Jesus had a particular concern for that--the most dreadful kind of lostness.

“This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them,” is how our gospel lesson begins. It starts as an accusation against Jesus by persons who kept track of such things. Jesus troubled them with his fierce determination to sit with folks who wanted to be lost—sinners, persons curved in on themselves, you and me in our self-chosen lostness—the lostness of going our own way, going away from God, running from all that is good.

Even this worst kind of lostness does not deter the searching shepherd, the frantic housewife, from seeking us out. The shepherd’s crook, the sweeping broom, the floodlight of God’s grace is aimed at us—especially aimed at us when we want to be lost.

Which is why the end of all that searching and seeking is repentance, the coming to our senses, the waking up, the turning from destruction, the return to the freedom of the Father’s house that is repentance.

Here’s just how obsessed the Shepherd is with us. He does not subscribe to the Little Bo Peep philosophy that blithely says: “Leave them alone and they’ll come home, wagging their tails behind them.” That’s a formula for winding up with a whole pile of dead sheep!

Here’s how obsessed our climb-every-mountain Shepherd, our leave-no-stone-unturned Housewife is: God comes after us, he doesn’t allow us to “make our bed and lie in it,” God does not take our no for an answer—not without a fight, that is.

The goal is repentance, the turning from my way to God’s way with me, the turning from death to life….and that is a good and joyful thing.

Because however we think of repentance, however we’ve been taught about sorrow over sin, asking for forgiveness and resolving to amend our lives...repentance starts, it always starts with the simple act of being found.

And that is something over which we have absolutely no control.

The lost sheep probably was fleeing from its rescuer, or it may have been so injured it couldn’t stand on its own—that’s why it needed to be carried home. And the lost coin—it didn’t suddenly grow legs. It didn’t roll itself out from under the couch, into the light of day to be found.

No. To be found is to experience sheer, gratuitous, overflowing, seeking, saving Love in the flesh. The love of Jesus who went to the Cross and the grave for you and for me. “Love that found me—wondrous thought!—found me when I sought him not.” (ELW #609).

And how can there be anything other than joy—sheer, giddy delight--in such repentance?

I know, I know: we don’t normally link those words—“repentance” and “joy”….but Jesus does, and we will when we take our cues from Jesus.

“Just so I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.”

However you picture heaven—whether you picture streets paved with gold, crystal fountains, a healing river flowing from the throne of God—or whether you picture a Hallmark greeting card, cartoon heaven of drifting above the clouds, strumming a harp and enjoying eternal idleness…

However you picture heaven—please leave room for this: images of wild, out-of-control feasting and partying. Because Jesus our Lord draws back the curtain here in Luke 15, and he shows us angels doing cartwheels, members of the heavenly host getting tipsy and a little out of control….Jesus reveals to us a wild, noisy party breaking out every time one, just one, lost coin, one lost sheep, one sorry sinner returns, repents, is brought home again.

That’s God’s new math: just one. No “critical mass” is necessary for the hosts of heaven to break out the champagne. All it takes is one, just one sinner found. Just one.

In fact, I think that Jesus doesn’t just tell us about it here in Luke 15. Jesus shows us a glimpse of heaven—Jesus acts out heaven for us in the first verse of this lesson: Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’

A little bit of heaven was there, where Jesus was getting close to all the wrong people.

And a little bit of heaven is here this morning in Goodridge as well. It’s a Jesus Party that has brought us out this morning. For good reason many Lutherans call this Rally Day—a time to rally the troops, gather up all the wanderers once again and revel in the fact that the Good Shepherd has found us, God the Fastidious Homemaker has discovered us, God’s dearest treasure, God’s precious flock.

So we’re here for a party. Which means we’re here to give and receive gifts—Bible of all things! Think of them as “homing devices” for our children….divine GPS locators that will help them when they wander off. We return from wherever we’ve been all summer, so that we might sit under the Word that is always seeking us out, so that we might dine with Jesus who just loves rubbing elbows with sinners.

And—here’s what I’m really looking forward to—we’re going to eat together. Because eating together brings us about as close as we can get to heaven-on-earth, with Jesus, in our true home, never more to wander again because we’re found. Found! Found!

In the name of Jesus.


*"Japan, Checking on Its Oldest, Finds Many Gone," by Martin Fackler.   The New York Times, August 14, 2010.

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