The story today is about the first passover in the promised land.
Wholeness/ Holiness 2013 03 10 Luke 15:1-32
Eric grew increasingly irritated as his friend Jim would casually solve all kinds of puzzles. One day Eric handed Jim a set of blocks. “Here, Jim. These blocks are supposed to be able to make a cube. How quickly can you solve it?” Next day, Jim asked Eric how to solve the puzzle. Eric said, “First, you need the block I didn’t include.”
There are many things which just don’t work when even a small part is missing. Remove a coil wire from an engine, leave out the yeast in a bread recipe, break the cotter pin for the propeller on a boat, and nothing good happens.
I believe today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke was central to the mission served by Jesus, a mission of including everyone in God’s empire. The three stories speak to three of the ways people can become lost.
Sheep tend to follow their nose, and one wrong turn after another can lead to a sheep becoming separated from the rest of the flock. When a person makes little choices that are the wrong choices in friends, school, jobs, hobbies, or anything else, they drift into tough places. Each choice presents new choices and loses some previous choices.
The coins were probably related to dowry, and the loss of one coin made the set incomplete. The coin did nothing to get lost. Disease, accidents, war, and other random events happen that result in a person ending up lost.
The son lost his way with deliberate choices, like others do today. Religious people would have the most compassion for the people who are like the lost coin. In telling these stories, Jesus challenged faithful people to love unconditionally, and to do what was necessary to retrieve each kind of person.
As we examine each of these stories, first remember that one line of a New Creed is to love and serve others. This is a bland, motherhood statement at first sight. It doesn’t say all others, and it doesn’t say no matter what they did. If we are allowed to pick and choose whom to love and how to serve, this is a very easy directive. The stories from Luke strip away the comfort we might feel at first.
The stories responded to the complaint by the good people that he was a friend to sinners, to people judged unclean.
The story of the lost sheep would have challenged almost anyone who worked with livestock. In those days, the wilderness had lions, bears and wolves, unsafe water, and numerous other hazards. The shepherd left 99 well-behaved sheep in the midst of danger in order to find and retrieve the lost sheep. Then Jesus claimed God was happier when one lost person was saved than for 99 good people who did not need saving.
This story challenges to put what we have at risk in order to find the ones who are lost, whose lives have become a mess. Who are we to love? The ones who are lost. How are we to serve? To do whatever is needed to find them.
The second story provides us with a contrast between completeness and incompleteness. The woman who still had 9 coins had a string where one coin was obviously missing. In God’s eyes, a community in which even one person is missing is a community that is glaringly incomplete, like the burnt out light bulb in a string of Christmas lights.
Why do we seek the lost? Because their absence leaves a hole that is visible to God, even if not to us at first. What do we do? We use every tool at our disposal to find them.
Right now we are using new signboards on the main streets around St. Matthew’s, keep our website up to date and reasonably interesting, and we are planning to make use of the community newsletter. We are also considering the use of brochures. Unfortunately, these mostly make it easier for others to find us. This leaves us with you. If St. Matthew’s is going to serve God by seeking the lost, we need your eyes and your ears to find them. Once we find them, we need to learn enough about them to develop a strategy to help them.
The story of the prodigal father challenges us as it would have challenged the people around Jesus. A good father who behaved morally would have refused to divide his property. His son’s request was a deep insult saying his father was as good as dead. A morally upright father would have tossed him out on his ear. Jews didn’t eat pork, and had nothing to do with pigs. When the younger son had reached the point where he was willing to eat the food for the pigs, he had gone as low as a person could go and still be alive. The father showed no dignity in running up to his son, and his joy-filled acceptance of his son and eagerness to celebrate his son’s return was way over the top.
This part of the story would have embarrassed his listeners. The response of the elder son is the first normal action in the whole story. The elder son’s complaint, “Your never threw a party for me,” pierces us. Who of us at some time wanted someone we loved to show us a special sign of affection and acceptance for us. Some have worked for years with a dark cloud of feeling unappreciated, sometimes finally quitting because of a lack of a sign of appreciation. Some marriages fall apart when one person quits waiting for a sign their partner appreciates and loves them
The elder son helps to make the story real, because, most of the time he is us.
The point of the story answers my two questions. Who should we love? How should we serve them? God from this story loves everyone unconditionally, which means we are called to love unconditionally No one is out of bounds for receiving our love, not even the person who has done terrible things. How should we serve them? Sometimes by just patiently waiting for them; and then to offer our love without condemnation, but with great joy.
So who is left out today? Who needs to be saved or included? I listened to an old interview of Betty Freidan who wrote The Feminine Mystique. At many times in our past, many women got the message that they were only valued as wives and mothers, not as real persons. Betty Freidan shone a spotlight on that reality, and opened the door to many changes that made it easier for women to be valued as people. There are many ways in which women are not recognized as fully human. Friday was International Women’s Day, reminding us of the need for more change.
The empire of God is a spiritual place available to us by our ability to adopt and live in a state of mind and spirit that brings us there. When any one is either coerced into thinking of themselves as an object, or chooses to objectify others, they move out of that space. How we think of others affects how we connect with God. To love and serve women and men lost to cultural conditioning, we need to see them as people first, as individuals of worth, and to walk with them as they claim who they really are.
There are hundreds of thousands of lost coins, people who have grown up with no connection to faith.
The Emerging Church program was an attempt to connect with this group of people, and we are still working at this. For them, the call to love and serve others requires patient listening and readiness to meet them as individuals, building relationships that start with where they are.
Changes provincially, nationally and internationally in taxation, trade and other policies are creating a growing class of people feeling separate from the rest of us.
Loving and serving the extremely wealthy needs patience, courage, and wisdom in finding ways to foster a greater sense of connection on their part to the rest of society, for them to see others as people of worth and not as tools to increase their wealth. When Jesus said it was easier for a camel to crawl through a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven, he was speaking to their disconnection from the rest of society, and often even from God. There are people like Warren Buffet and Bret Wilson who have not lost their sense of connection.
At the other end of the social and financial scale are those struggling with mental illnesses, addictions, or a lack of social skills who also do not feel like valued members of God’s family. Loving and serving them requires working for changes in all policies including taxes, budgets and others that provide barriers to their inclusion. It requires our readiness to meet them as brothers and sisters, to build real relationships with them, and to work with community agencies that share our goal of inclusion.
There are people who face physical barriers in becoming part of our community: people with blindness, deafness and mobility limitations. Are we able to love them enough to work at lowering the barriers within our power to change?
Some people may feel excluded by the time or style of our worship services. Are we ready to love them enough to serve by offering worship in other ways at other times?
Finally, many people need opportunities to establish intimate relationships, to develop a circle where they feel safe in sharing their questions, their issues and their interests, opportunities best offered through small groups. Are we prepared to love and serve them by developing small group ministry?
There are many people currently missing from active participation in faith communities. There are many people whose lives are less than whole for some reason. Like the Israelites who celebrated their first Passover in the Promised Land under Joshua, we need to remember who we are by the special things we do. We are called as followers of Jesus to work for the wholeness of ourselves and others, and to work for wholeness of our communities. In our quest for wholeness we will find growth in our holiness. May God guide and shape us in our quest.