A note about the composition–my church just started a new preaching adventure called “The Roundtable Pulpit.” On Sunday, a small group of congregants and the preacher gathers to talk about the next Sunday’s preaching texts. The group brainstorms together and talks about how they come to terms with the scriptures in front of them. Those reflections become the soil out of which the sermon grows. Much of this sermon reflects, directly or indirectly, the content and dynamics of that conversation.
If you’re riddled with curiosity about this “Roundtable Pulpit” thing, check out John McClure’s book by the same name.
Proper 19, Year C
September 15, 2013
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be pleasing in your sight, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer.
Do you ever get the feeling that Jesus just can’t win with the Pharisees? In our gospel a couple weeks ago, they were complaining because of the way he acted when he ate with them. Now they’re grumbling because he’s eating with people who aren’t them. Sheesh. The guy can’t catch a break.
So what does Jesus do? He whips out his favorite weapon: parables. Jesus loves parables. They’re like time-release theology bombs. You think you know what they mean when you hear them, but they have this way of working on you….
Jesus tells a parable, and I start out feeling like, “Ah, yes, I know exactly what he’s saying here,” but then I start to wonder and second-guess myself, and then second-guess everything I thought I knew, and that right there, that crazy-making effect of parables, I’m pretty sure that’s why Jesus loved them so much. Trouble-maker that he is, I’m pretty sure turning people’s preconceptions upside-down is just about his favorite hobby, when he’s not busy saving humankind from sin and death.
So Jesus tells this parable, and the Pharisees who listen have this choice: how do they cast themselves into these stories Jesus tells, which are obviously somehow about them? When the roundtable pulpit talked about how the Pharisees might have themselves, we basically came up with two options: either the Pharisees are the shepherd or the woman seeking the lost object, or they’re the 99 righteous people who don’t get rejoiced over, because they never got lost in the first place.
The Pharisees probably weren’t thrilled with either of these options. Because despite Jesus’ optimistic question, “How many of you WOULDN’T abandon an entire flock of sheep to go searching for one truant?”, they knew they weren’t that kind of shepherd, because that shepherd was crazy. Good shepherds don’t abandon 99% of their livelihood to track down a missing percent point.
But on the other hand, if they’re the righteous people, it rankles kinda to think that God is happier about repentant sinners than God is about them, the ones that never put God to any trouble.
My point is that this parable probably leaves no Pharisee feeling particularly satisfied. But I can so easily imagine that vague annoyance becoming slowly worse, as Jesus’ time-release theology bomb starts its slow detonation. Maybe it started when the Pharisees lay down to sleep that night, but found they couldn’t, and in the dark and the quiet, they start thinking over that whole stupid parable, and how annoying this Jesus guy is, and about what they should have said back to him, and about all the other things they wish they’d done differently that day, and all the mistakes they made, and all the people they hurt even if they didn’t mean to… and maybe one Pharisee, maybe just one out of all the ones who were there sits up in bed and says, “Hey, wait a minute…if I’m the righteous one, then why do I feel so lost?”
Can you be righteous and still be lost? This was a theme that kept coming up at our roundtable pulpit last Sunday morning. It appeared in different ways, and under different words, but there was a clear consensus at the table—just because you’re a good person, a righteous person, a churchgoing person, that doesn’t mean that you still can’t be lost.
Maybe you are a parent who’s so focused on raising a good kid that you lose yourself in the discipline and forget to show them love. Maybe you are a teen who is so busy trying to fit in or be perfect that you’ve lost track of who you really are. Maybe you read the news in the morning and lose yourself to prejudice, because it’s so easy to look at the pictures of people accused of terrible things and just believe that they’re terrible people, forgetting that there might be another story.
Maybe the righteous are even more likely to be lost than the people who know they’re sinners, because they are—we are—so much more likely to trust in our own righteousness instead of in God’s mercy and unfailing grace.
But the thing is, all this supposing and guessing about who the lost really are misses half of the picture the parable is trying to show us. Because Jesus doesn’t just use parables to tell us who we are. He uses them to reveal who God is.
And here’s the God the parable reveals to us: a God who won’t stop looking for us. No matter how lost we get or how found we look, God doesn’t stop seeking us out. This isn’t simply some charming little hobby for God. This is who God is.
Which is why this parable reminds me of one of my favorite Bible stories: the story of Hagar in Genesis. Remember Hagar? She was a slave-girl who belonged to Sarah, Abraham’s wife. When Sarah found she couldn’t conceive, she sent Hagar to get pregnant in her place. Well, it works, and Hagar gets a little hoity-toidy about her super-fertile self around Sarah. So Sarah treats her so badly that Hagar runs away.
Well, out in the desert, Hagar meets God. The angel of the Lord comes to her, and tells her to return to her mistress, and makes to her the same promise Abraham got: “I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted.”
And this is my favorite part: Hagar names God. Keep in mind, this was before Moses and the burning bush, before that whole “I am who I am” thing. Hagar is the first character in the whole Bible to name God, and this is the name she comes up with: “God who sees me.”
To a slave girl, impregnated by her owner’s husband, abused by her owner and lost in the desert, the most poignant way she could experience God was as a God who actually saw her, actually cared about her, actually made her, a slave, the same promises God made to her owner, the patriarch of Israel. And so the name Hagar gives God is the most powerful, the most loving, the most grace-filled name she can come up with: “God who sees me.”
Our God is the God who sees us, and seeks us. Our God is the God who saw a slave-girl as just as important as the father of the nation of Israel. Our God is the God who thought that one lost sheep was just as valuable as 99 others, that one lost coin was worth staying up all night and turning the house upside down. Our God is a God who makes no sense, whose investments can’t possibly be worth the dividends they yield, but who just doesn’t seem to care.
In fact, God just doesn’t seem to give a flying fig about looking stupid in God’s quest to track us down and love us. That’s what I really love about the lost coin parable. Can you actually see what that would look like? A sweeper-woman God, putting on an apron and running around the house brandishing a broom, down on her hands and knees, butt up in the air to look under the bureau for this little coin?
That’s just about as undignified an image as God putting on human flesh, running around the earth brandishing parables, down on his knees washing other people’s feet, raised into the air on a cross just so he can draw all people to himself.
You know, the other thing about these parables that Jesus tells is that they’re unfinished. They both end with an invitation to come and rejoice with the seeker. But we never find out whether any of those neighbors and fellow shepherds takes the woman or the shepherd up on their invitations.
Maybe that’s intentional. Maybe it’s meant to leave us with the question: are we rejoicing? Really and truly? Are we alive and awake to the reality that every Sunday, we start out by confessing to ourselves, to others, and before God that actually, we’re lost—and that every Sunday we remember that God finds us through forgiveness? That God finds us through the scripture? That God finds us through the Spirit that sweeps us up together in mercy and brings us into the light? Are the songs we sing truly acts of rejoicing? Do you come to church ready to party with the Sweeper-woman God, with the Shepherding God, with the God who sees you?
Well, I don’t always. Sometimes I’m not awake enough, or “on” enough. Sometimes I come to church needing to lament instead of celebrate, and sometimes, that’s okay.
But you know what? Even if we forget to throw a party, God doesn’t. God sets up the banquet for us, and invites us to be fed with Christ’s own body and blood. And God reminds us every week, through the scriptures of prophecy and promise, that this is just a foretaste of one big fat party to come, full of those who were lost but now are found, those who felt hidden, but now they are seen.
Are you coming to the party?