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Sunday, October 18, 2009

All Are Valued - Luke 15


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 neighbors, 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 persons 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 her friends and neighbors, 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.”
Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would have gladly filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger. I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe – the best one – and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”


Have you ever been lost? Personally, I have never been lost because I always have a map with me, and I always stop to ask for directions. If you believe that, I have some real estate in Florida I’d also like to talk to you about. When I was living in Boone, it was not uncommon to hear news stories about tourists who had gotten lost hiking in the mountains. Any of you who have done this sort of hiking know how easy it is to get lost in the woods. A trail isn’t clearly marked, you think you’re on it, and all of a sudden you realize you’ve been off it for the last 20 minutes. You head back in the direction you think you came from, but it’s easy to get twisted and turned around. Before you know it, you’re disoriented and don’t know where you are, where you came from, or where you need to go. Of course your cell phone doesn’t work because, come on, it’s the mountains. Don’t panic. eHow.com offers some instructions on how to avoid being lost in the mountains. Step 1: Tell someone exactly where you are going hiking or climbing. Step 2. Travel with another person or group. Step 3. Take a compass and map. By the way, these are only helpful if you know how to read and use both a compass and a map. Step 4: Take your time and study the landscape. Take special note of a particular tree or rock formation. Step 5: Turn around and look at your back trail every few minutes. This will help you remember the landscape on the way back. Step 6: Mark your progress. This can be done with a small cut on a tree or using chalk.

A different question for you. Have you ever lost something that was incredibly valuable to you, whether or not it had any great monetary value? Have you ever lost someone who was incredibly valuable to you? Have you ever been that lost person?

Today’s message is the second of a three-part series on our new mission statement. You’ll find it on the front of your bulletin. Let’s turn there and say it again together: “A Christian community where all people are valued and become deeply-committed followers of Jesus Christ.” Last week we talked about being a Christian community. Next week, we’ll talk about being deeply-committed followers. Today, we’re talking about what it means to value all people. May we pray.

Here at St. Paul, we will be the sort of Christian community in which all people are valued. Period. I did some of my sermon research over facebook this week, as I do from time to time. I asked for people’s feedback on why some churches feel the right to devalue certain people as well as experiences in which they have felt devalued by a church. Almost immediately, the discussion thread in my status update was hijacked by good friends of mine who wanted to make this a liberal vs. conservative issue. They immediately jumped to contentious social issues and wondered if I was making some thinly-veiled argumentative statement.

The fact that the immediate gut reaction was to paint this question of valuing all people in black and white conservative vs. liberal terms was, in and of itself, troubling. It reminded me once again that our old human biases so often get in the way, and people were more informed by their particular philosophy than they were by Jesus. We like to paint everything in us/them, insider/outsider terms, and everyone immediately jumped to conclusions and began running the same old scripts and attacks against people on the other side of the ideological divide. Friends, this isn’t a liberal vs. conservative issue. This is a Jesus issue. I’m not here to encourage you to live slightly more spiritual otherwise normal Republican or Democratic lives. I’m here to get Jesus into your lives and completely turn your worldview on its head. I’m here to get Jesus into your hearts and completely mess up your lives as you realign your priorities with his. Let’s turn to the scriptures.

Today’s reading is the 15th Chapter of Luke. This is one of my favorite passages in the Bible.

The Pharisees – the religious people – have been grumbling about Jesus because he is spending time with tax collectors and sinners. He’s spending his time with outsiders, caring about them, building them up, offering them God’s grace and a place in the story of God’s redemption. How dare Jesus care about those sinners! Mike Berry says “Pharisee is Greek for stuck-up religious snob who just doesn’t get it.”

Jesus tells three parables – three stories about lost things and lost people.

Suppose one you had 100 sheep and lost one. Would you not go and search it out, and rejoice when you have found it and returned it to the flock? In the same way, heaven rejoices over one sinner who returns to God.

A side note here. Church people often use the term “sinner” in a very derogatory manner to talk about people they perceive to be inferior. Would you all kindly do me a favor? Anyone here who is a sinner, would you please put your hand up? Now, if you didn’t put your hand up, kindly raise it now, because lying is a sin!

The term “sinner” has been given some very negative and judgmental connotations. But if we remember the Biblical definition of sin, not a long list of bad things or a judgmental term, then we can also remember that sinners are simply those who are separated from God. So here, when the Scriptures speak of heaven rejoicing over one sinner who repents, it might better be said: God’s family rejoices when one member of the family who has been separated returns to the family. Sinners, then, are not evil people whom God is waiting to punish. Sinners are people created in the image of God with whom God desperately longs for restored relationship.

Then, there was a woman with ten silver coins who loses one. She throws her hands up and says, “Oh well, you win some, you lose some.” Right? Of course not! She lights the lamps and sweeps the house. She looks under the bed and in dresser drawers and in the couch cushions. She goes out to the garage and looks in the car between the drivers’ seat and the door sill, she checked the washing machine and the pocket of the pants she wore yesterday. She turns the house upside down until she finds it and throws a big party with the neighbors.

Don’t you see God doing the same thing over every one of God’s beloved children who are restored?

And then there is this story. This parable IS the Gospel of Luke. A man had two sons. One was a hard worker, loyal, and uber-responsible. The other was a goof-off who asked for an advance on his inheritance. Think about the trouble this caused. His father had to divide half his property, livestock, and wealth, liquidate the assets, and then give that half to his son. The son re-payed his father’s generosity by hopping in his Lexus chariot and heading out of town, where he lived the playboy lifestyle as bachelor-of-the-year.

It was a fun life, but eventually the money ran out. Once the money was gone, so were all the supposed new friends. Gone were the women, the parties, the drink, the food, the lavish condo, and even the Lexus chariot.

But then things got rough. Addicted to his hedonist narcissistic lifestyle, he found his life in a tailspin until he hit rock bottom and the text says, “he came to himself.” He decided to return to his father’s house, and beg for a place among the hired help. He knew he was screwed up, he knew his life was in shambles, he knew that he had disgraced his father and betrayed his father’s generosity and love. So he went, back toward the home he had once known and thumbed his nose at on the way out of town.

Here’s the part of the text I love – words on which the whole story hang. While he was still far off, the father recognized him and ran to meet him. Did you hear that? While he was still far off. I imagine the father, every day since the son had left, longing for his son’s return. Going to the roof of the house, peering off into the distance, hoping this would be the day his son came home. Going to the gate, straining to see far down the road, hoping this would be the day his son came home. Heading to the far corner of the most remote field, looking at the ridge of the hills off in the distance, hoping this would be the day his son came home.

How God longs for such a restored relationship with every one of God’s children. How valuable is every one of God’s children that God so desires to stand face-to-face with each. Oh the lengths to which God will go to see a broken humanity restored to full communion with God!

Friends, we are a Christian community. We talked about that last week. Remember that means we belong to Jesus, which means we need to make Jesus’ priorities our priorities. We need to care about the things that Jesus cares about. We need to care about the people Jesus cares about. We need to value all people.

Imagine the parable of the father and his two sons ending this way: The son came to himself and decided to return to his father’s house. While he was still far off, the father saw his son returning along the road. But then, the father saw one of his own servants approach the son, and tell him to turn around and head back, because he was no longer welcome there.

Given that the father was waiting and longing for his son’s return, how do you think the father would feel toward that servant who intervened and turned the son away? How do you think a father feels toward a servant who says “Too bad, you blew it, and there’s no way your father wants to see you again?”

How do you think God feels toward a church that says the same thing to God’s estranged children?

Many of you know that I lost my mom in June to a five-year battle with cancer. What many of you don’t know is that I have a sister – not the one you’ve met - who is both geographically closest to my parents’ home and the most emotionally distant. The final months before mom died were incredibly difficult as cancer did the only thing it knows to do and we watched mom slowly being taken away from us. During that time, my sister refused to bring her kids -10 and 5 - around to see my mom. On the one hand, I understand that she didn’t want the kids to have unpleasant final memories. On the other hand, I’m still furious with her for keeping them away. My mom needed to see her grandchildren, and those kids needed to see their grandmother. Parents need to be loved by their children and by their grandchildren, and God needs to be loved by God’s children.

We are a Christian community, and as such, we will value all people. We talked about this last week – who does St. Paul United Methodist Church belong to? If we truly believe we belong to Jesus, we will welcome and value the very people Jesus welcomed. The holier-than-thou religious people wagged their fingers at Jesus for eating with tax collectors and sinners. Would that they accuse us of the same thing. We are a Christian community, and we ARE a place where all people are valued. Period.

Some worry that such a posture says that we’re all of a sudden soft on sin, that we’re not standing up for Biblical morality, that we’re becoming too accepting and that we need to take a stance against sin. Friends, it is because I take sin seriously that I am convinced we as the church need to value all people. It is because I believe in the Biblical definition of sin – as a condition of separation from God, the loneliest spiritual place any of us could imagine – that I believe we need to be a place where all people are valued. However, if you think of sin as a list of bad things we humans do and think we are justified in keeping so-called “sinners” out, then you and I could not be further apart. Because if you follow such a position to its logical extreme, there wouldn’t be anyone left. Think about it. We’d need to kick the fat people out, because gluttony is certainly named as one of the big no-no’s. Then we’d lose any man who has ever shaved the hair on his face or on the side of his head at his temples – that’s an abomination unto the Lord, according to Leviticus. Say goodbye to anyone who has ever gossiped, too – that’s one on the big list, according to James. And while we’re talking about big gaffs, have you ever noticed how much Jesus talks about money? It was actually his favorite topic, apparently; he talked about wrong attitudes and behavior about money more than any other subject, including the sins we seem to single out and with which we seem to have an odd fascination.

You can see that if we start naming specific vices and banning from the church anyone who has them, it won’t take long before we’ve kicked everyone out, including ourselves. As a Christian community, we are a place where all people are valued. Period. End of story.

Back in today’s scripture reading, that’s the opposite of what one son wanted to do. The son who stayed home started complaining about the other son, about how he had his chance and blew it. Then he begins to whine. “Dad, I’ve been here slaving away for you, and when did you ever throw me a party for all my years of faithful service? When did I ever get to have my fun? When did I get my share? Where’s my portion, Dad – where?”

We think it’s a story about one son who was lost, but in reality, both sons were lost. One was far away, the other was right under their father’s nose, but it turns out that one was just as lost as the other. The son who was angry at the father’s welcome of the estranged son turned out to be just as lost as his brother. This is why we shouldn’t be too quick to point out the sin of another, because in the act of pointing it out, we may, in fact, be just as distant from God as the person we are so quick to judge, if not even moreso.

Will we a place where all people are valued? I certainly hope so. It’s not optional. If you are visiting with us and someone here makes you feel devalued, kindly get that person’s name and send me an email because I would like to have a little chat with them. If you are a long-time member here and someone here makes you feel devalued, I’d also like to have a chat with them.

This week, people shared with me their stories about being devalued in churches, and I was surprised at 1. how many responses I got, and 2. the things over which people were made to feel devalued. Here are a few things:
• A long-time Sunday School teacher was asked to step down
• A pastor ignored a problem and hoped it would go away instead of offering guidance
• A family got up and walked out after a homosexual couple sat two pews ahead of them
• A person struggling with depression was blamed for “allowing demons into their life”
• A single mother was ordered to sit in the back at a fellowship dinner so her child wouldn’t disturb others
• A man with turrets syndrome was ostracized for not keeping his outbursts under control
• A couple who had been divorced and remarried were told “their kind” weren’t welcome

This is unacceptable. If our father is scanning the horizon every day waiting for the return of his children, we have no right to be bouncers in the kingdom of God and tell people they are not welcome to experience the transformative grace of God. We have no right to tell them they are not welcome. We have no right to force estrangement between God and other people. As the church, we must be a place where all people are valued.

Last week, I was the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City, the largest church in our denomination. Adam Hamilton, the senior pastor, told us about his oldest daughter who is currently distant from God. You could feel his pain, as he shared with us, as a father, what it is like to see his daughter so far away from God. I got to wondering, if his daughter were traveling through Charlotte and decided, for whatever reason, to stop in here, would she be valued? Would she be given an opportunity to encounter God through our lives? Adam told us about her. She has a wonderful inquisitive mind. She loves to ask bold and audacious questions. She dyes her hair a new color every week and wears all sorts of off-the-wall clothes. Would she be valued here?

God longs for each child to come home. When those children finally do come home, will we value them?

Here’s what I know. One day, I will have to give an account for my life and ministry. If I have to give an account for my life, I would rather be accused of welcoming too many people. I would rather be held responsible for overcrowding in the banquet hall, for the place being filled with tax collectors and sinners, than for finding out that because I was exclusive or judgmental, some of God’s precious children never made it back home to be reunited with our heavenly father.

If the evidence is going to go either way, I’d rather err on the side of valuing too many people, not too few.

I want each of you to think of someone in your life who is currently distant from God – someone who is close to you – it could be a friend, a family member, a co-worker, whatever. What would you give for a church near that person to intentionally reach out to them, to welcome them, to value them, and give them a chance to experience the grace of God for perhaps the very first time? If you’re like me, you’d give just about anything.

Do you think it’s possible there are people in our community who have a loved one somewhere who is praying for them to be invited back to God? Who is praying that a church in their community will reach out to them, and welcome them, and value them, and give them a chance to experience the grace of God for perhaps the first time? Regardless of how they look or act, regardless of who they hang with, regardless of what they know or don’t know, some church needs to welcome them. I am convinced that we are called to be that church.

Even while we are still far off, God is watching and waiting and longing for us to come home. We are a Christian community, and we value all people.

2 comments:

  1. Oooooh. This makes me want to cry and dance around the room.

    You turned it away from being a political issue, a power struggle, and made the idea of value one of compassion. (As it should be!). You told the story of the prodigal son in a very powerful way; the servant turning the son back gave me shivers. And you didn't leave out the most convicting part for many of us churched folk: the older son. The "good" guy. The one with whom we like to identify in our smug assessment of ourselves... until we get to the end of the parable and it turns out we're messed up, too. Well done.

    This might be my favorite yet. Even though it means I have to be gracious to that guy who really annoys me on the bus every week.

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  2. The temptation with this parable is to figure out with which son we identify. I wanted to look at it through the perspective of the father. Once I had gotten inside his head a bit, the parable became so much clearer. That's when I got the idea of the "alternate ending" which, of course, is a fairly literal re-interpretation of what many churches and Christians actually do.

    When that alternative ending came to me, it was such a powerful image in light of the compassionate longing of the father for restored relationship. Truth be told, it got me a bit choked up yesterday as I delivered it.

    I felt it was necessary to rescue this issue from the clutches of the conservative/liberal ideological argument, which is why I tackled that one head on at the beginning. I didn't want people sitting there through the entire sermon saying, "Well, he's not on my side," or "Well, he's on my side."

    This issue has no sides.

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