Sunday, April 28, 2013

Parable of the Lost Sheep (Luke 15:1-7)

The story of the lost sheep is the first of three stories Jesus tells in Luke 15 that are meant to illustrate God's love and some things about how it works in our lives. All three revolve around something or someone that's lost being found or returning.

Jesus tells the stories when a crowd of riff-raff gathers as he teaches, drawing disapproval from the religious leadership who are also present. "Which of you," he begins, "having a hundred sheep and finding one missing, would not go out and look for it and rejoice when you found it? There is more joy in heaven over one lost sinner who repents than over 99 who need no repentance." I don't know what the first-century Aramaic equivalent of air quotes would have been, but I'll bet you Jesus used them to set off the "need no repentance" in that sentence.

The story has a surface meaning that's hard to miss. Jesus wants to reach out to the folks who need to hear him -- tax collectors and sinners. Just like the sick need a doctor more than the well do, and the sheep wandering around lost needs the shepherd more than the sheep safely in the pen do, the sinners need God more than the righteous do. Of course, the perceptive among us realize we're all lost sheep at one point or another in our lives. We all stray, turning, as Isaiah says, to our own way rather than following God's path for our lives.

But there are some aspects of the story that its original listeners would have understood that we miss unless we explore its context. First-century Judea is not twenty-first century anywhere. The shepherd goes to search the wilderness for his lost sheep, and that's not just a stroll through the hills. One of the reasons he has to find it as soon as possible is because there are a lot of things that live in the hills that would looove to find fresh mutton on the menu. And that's risky, because even though they've ordered mutton they're willing to sample the slow, two-legged buffet as well.

For another, we tend to just think of the number of sheep involved as a convenient round number to use. Jesus' stated meaning makes just as much sense if the shepherd in his story has 97 sheep or 103 sheep. But we overlook the reality that a hundred sheep represented significant wealth in Jesus day.  The image might be enough to bring the kind of dreams we reserve for "what-ifs" about our Powerball ticket having the winning numbers.

If Jesus were to tell this story today, he might say, "Which of you, having a billion dollars and finding your checkbook balance shows a thousand-dollar error, would not spend all night balancing and re-balancing it until you found the mistake, and finding it call all your friends and say, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found the thousand dollars that I lost!'"

Who would do that? Would you? I probably wouldn't. I might check the figures once or twice, but the reality is that if I have to live on $999,999,000 instead of $1,000,000,000, I'll likely be OK. Donald Trump probably spends a thousand dollars a month on his hair (and it's not enough). At that level of wealth, amounts as small as a thousand dollars aren't worth the effort. And for a shepherd with a hundred sheep, the idea of risking his life for one that wandered off isn't worth the effort. He still has 99 rams and ewes, so with some soft lights and the right music he's just a few months away from having a hundred sheep again -- probably more.

But, Jesus says, see what kind of a shepherd God is? He won't cut his losses. He'll do everything he can to find the sheep than wandered away and carry it home himself and rejoice when it's back with the flock. We know that Jesus even called himself the good shepherd, recalling the imagery Ezekiel used when he described why the people had strayed away from their devotion to him.

And this is a deeper message in the story, one that we need to hear just as much if not more than the one on the surface. When it comes to us, his creation, God does not cut his losses. He will take any risk and go to great lengths to bring back even one of his lost sheep. Though he had already gained everyone in the world but me, still he would not stop until he had retrieved me as well.

Or you.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Extend the Invitation (Luke 14:23-24)

This sermon is one of three using ideas from Scott Chrostek's sermon series "R.S.V.P.: Responding to God's Invitation with Power and Grace."

Among the many things we Christians do when we answer God's call on our lives is to tell people the gospel of Jesus Christ -- the good news that God loves them and through Jesus, has provided a way to heal the broken relationship between people and God. In fact, it's a part of the call that's unique to us. Many people of many faiths or of no faith help their fellow human beings. But only Christians share the invitation of Christ to come and follow him on the path that leads to a reunion with our Creator.

And this parable of the guests who refuse their invitation to a great feast can show us a couple of things about that call and those who respond to it, which in turn might make us think about how we share that invitation.

The story before our pair of verses here is that a man has invited people to a great banquet and when he sends them word that it's ready, they demur with a variety of excuses. One guy's bought some land; "Please accept my regrets," he says. Another just picked up some oxen; "Please accept my regrets," he says. Another just got married; he doesn't say anything. Either he figures no more explanation is necessary or he's in more of a hurry than the other guys. Eventually every guest makes some excuse about not coming, so the banquet host gets mad.

In his hospitality-based culture, the guests' behavior is an insult. None of them named an emergency or anything that might cause a person to cancel at the last minute, and in this society that was more than just an inconvenience or a disappointment. It was disrespect and a snub.

So get out there, the host tells his servants. Find the crippled and the poor and the beggars and invite them into my banquet. I'd rather eat with the riff-raff than those people I talked to first. The servants do this, but they report there is still room. Go out into the roads and get anyone you see, the host says. I don't care if they're walking out the city gate, you get them to come! My NRSV translates the word he uses as "compel," which we will pay more attention to in a minute.

Now, this first group, the beggars and such. Someone able to throw a banquet, as well as someone able to turn down an invitation to one, has one characteristic of which we may be certain: They're not hurting for food. They've got enough extra to invite other people over, or they've got enough they don't have to take advantage of every meal they may be offered.

Beggars do not have that luxury. The average beggar has not just bought a piece of property or a bunch of oxen, and if he has just gotten married, his answer to the invitation is probably something like, "Can the wife bring her family too?" Just telling them about the banquet is enough to get them moving towards it in whatever way they have available to them. There are some people who respond to the gospel message in this way. They're so needful of the gospel message of the love of God that we don't need to do much more than tell them it's there and then they outrun us to get there.

Now, that second group of people might have need of the free food or they might not. After all, they're just random passers-by. So the host says, "Compel them to come." One meaning of compel, of course, is "force." But that makes little sense in this context. Other than unreasonable parents since the beginning of time who expect children to consume horrid things like Brussels sprouts, it's probably not possible to actually force anyone to come to a banquet. And once you force them there and go back out to force someone else, who says the first draftee has to stay?

There's another meaning for compel, though, that has more to do with a more internal drive to do something. We can see this when we look at the similar word "compulsion" or "compulsive." People with compulsive behaviors find that they have to do them, no matter whether they really need to do them or not. Tony Shaloub's character Adrian Monk had such a disorder when it came to cleanliness.

We might think of this as more like a person hearing or seeing something and feeling, "I've gotta know more about this!" Think of Moses and the burning bush.

And that's when it comes down to us. How do we say things and do things that reflect on our lives and Christians in such a way that when people see them, they say, "I've gotta know more about this Jesus!" Figuring that out? Well, that's what each of us must do. If our simple given invitation doesn't reach, then it's up to us to learn and pray and discern how we might extend it so it does.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Detail Work (John 4:39-42)

This sermon is one of three using ideas from Scott Chrostek's sermon series "R.S.V.P.: Responding to God's Invitation with Power and Grace."

"From small things, Mama, big things one day come."
-- Bruce Springsteen

One of the reasons we may not answer God's call on our lives is because we don't recognize it as God's call. Last time we looked at how knowing God's identity -- the great I Am, Creator of the Universe -- can empower us to answer the call. This time we will look at how understanding that God may call us to even the smallest of things can do the same.

We perhaps expect God's call on our lives to be for something really big. After all, it's the great I Am, Creator of the Universe on the other end of the line and it makes more sense to us that he would not bother with the piddlins. If you're in the business of creating 13 billion light-years of observable space and all of the stuff therein, you are a big-picture sort of being.

But our story today shows us that Jesus was almost exclusively concerned with detail work. As he rests by a well near a Samaritan village, he notices a woman who has come to draw water. Now, people who live without air conditioning are no more enamored of work during the heat of the day than are people who live with it. So most water-drawing would have been done during the early morning or in the evening. In fact, anthropologists believe that the well served a social function for the women of a village as well as the practical function of getting the day's water.

Which is exactly why this woman would be going when she did. We see during her conversation with Jesus that she didn't provide a very good example of how to live a life. Married five times and now just living with a man -- we're not judging her as a person if we say that there's something about the way she's been living that would draw the kind of attention small-town social groups would looooove to comment on. In order to avoid that kind of activity, the woman goes to the well when no one else would be there. It's a small thing, but Jesus notices it.

He then asks her for a small favor -- a drink. Perfectly ordinary thing for someone who has no means of getting water from a well to ask of someone who does. In the ancient Middle Eastern culture of hospitality, nothing could be more run-of-the-mill.

Except that this woman is a Samaritan, and Jesus is a Jewish Galilean. Most of us recall from our Sunday school that Jews and Samaritans mixed poorly and preferred not to mix at all. Which means the woman remarks on it, and thus begins her conversation with Jesus that will lead to her first recognizing him as Messiah and then telling her village about him.

And then, as we see, the entire community comes to follow Christ: First because of the woman's testimony and then because of Christ's own words to them. The small act of asking for a drink leads a whole town to know Jesus.

When Saul encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus, he was blinded by the encounter. Waiting at the home of a Damascus Christian, he didn't know who he was with or what was going on. He didn't know what would happen to him. Then a Christian named Ananias came to see him, answering God's call. He laid hands on him, called him "Brother Saul," and Saul was healed. I believe the word "brother" from Ananias was as powerful a gesture as God's own healing mercy and had as much to do with Saul's recovery as anything else. Even though it is just one small word, it has an impact far beyond one man or even one city -- through Paul, the gospel became known throughout the Roman Empire.

I read a story once of a Detroit community group in an impoverished neighborhood that applied for a grant to a foundation headed by Lee Iacocca. The group made their pitch and Iacocca said something like, "Thank you, Mr. Miller -- we'll consider this and I think we can help you." Afterwards, the group celebrated because they would receive their grant, but the man who made the presentation was quiet. Someone asked him, "Aren't you happy? We got the money!" He said, "Oh yes." "Then why are you quiet?" The man was silent for a moment. "Lee Iacocca called me Mr. Miller," he said. Low income folks don't often get courtesy titles when they deal with the people helping them, but he had been called Mr. by a man of Iacocca's wealth and power.

We can and should pray for ways to make our churches and our faith known to the masses. Ways to show the world what the word and work of Jesus Christ can mean in the lives of his children. But we can't neglect the call to make those same things known in the lives of the people down the street or around the block or in the store or across the classroom or at the next desk or in the other office...

You get the picture. Following a Christ who made a drink of water the way to reach an entire town means remembering that there are no things to be done that are so small they cannot be done for God.

Sunday, April 07, 2013

Who's Calling? (Luke 1:26-34)

This sermon is one of three using ideas from Scott Chrostek's sermon series "R.S.V.P.: Responding to God's Invitation with Power and Grace."

Of course, sometimes people don't answer God's call because they're pretty sure what God will ask of them and they don't want to do it. In many cases, we know what God's call is for us because we know what it has been for others in the same position. God calls us not to lie to someone to gain an advantage or get out of trouble and we already know that. We just don't want to do that, so we don't answer his call.

Sometimes, though, we might not answer God's call because we don't really understand who's calling us. Sure, we might know it's God, or at least it's the understanding of God we usually work with. But have we considered just Who -- capital "W" -- that might be? Let's look at some people in the Bible.

Moses started out life under a death sentence. Pharaoh declared all Hebrew male children were to be killed, but his mother hid him for awhile before she had to risk his life on a wild chance he might be found by someone who could better protect him. He was so found, and raised in the Egyptian court. But one day, enraged at the mistreatement of a Hebrew slave, he killed and Egyptian and eventually had to flee to the wilderness of Midian. There he made a life and family for himself, working with his father-in-law Jethro and tending their flocks.

Until the day he met God in the burning bush. God told Moses he was going to free the Israelite people, which sounded like great news to Moses until he saw the spot on the organizational chart labeled, "Tell the world's most powerful ruler to free his slaves" had his name on it. He had a mixture of objections. Some of them came from him just not wanting to do it. That's why he at last asks God to send someone other than him. But some came from his genuine concern about how he, a lowly shepherd and a fugitive from justice, was supposed to talk the mighty Pharaoh into parting company with a valuable asset and receiving nothing in return. Who was he to do such a thing?

"I'll be with you," God said, and when even that wasn't enough for Moses God identified himself by name. "I Am," he said. "Tell them I Am has sent you." And at first it seemed like Moses' worries were justified, because Pharaoh paid him no attention whatsoever. Then God began to reveal just who I Am was and eventually even Pharaoh bowed before his power.

Mary is a young girl, very likely no older than 15 or 16. She lives not in the bustling city of Sepphoris but in the no-account village of Nazareth. Whether or not she's ever heard the phrase "nobody from nowhere," she would understand why someone mightapply it to her. But then she meets an angel, a heavenly messenger, who tells her she has found favor with God -- she is most definitely somebody. She will, in fact, be the human being by which God will enter his creation and identify with it as completely as anyone might ever have imagined. She will bear God's son!

How can this happen, Mary wonders. She isn't even living with her betrothed husband yet as they have not officially married. She knows that unmarried pregnancy can have serious, even lethal consequences in her culture. So how can she be pregnant, and if she is, how can she possibly manage to live long enough to have her baby, or how could she ever support herself and a child if she did, because Joseph will know the baby's not his and he might not even marry her now.

But the angel tells her the Holy Spirit will come upon her. God will be with her. It's not only a description of how she will become pregnant, it's a promise that God will take care of everything. And once sure that it is indeed God, the creator of the universe and the all-powerful Lord of Hosts, who seeks her obedience, Mary agrees.

I've found my reluctance to answer God's call often comes when I forget Who is calling me. Moses, Mary and many others in the Bible require reassurance that their calls actually come from God, but I seem to require reminders that the God calling me is the Lord. Am I called to an uncomfortable situation? Am I called to risk ridicule? Am I called to do something difficult or to face a reality about myself I dislike? If the one calling me is the Lord, why should I fear? Even death was no barrier to his love for us and if that love is with me, what harm could I face that would keep him from me?

In older cultures a king's messenger carried some kind of sign or token he was on royal business and not subject to lesser requirements. He was protected because anyone who obstructed or harmed him faced the full force of the royal power. I need to remember that though there are times when I rest in God, I am also called to serve him. And the One I serve is indeed all-powerful.

So we have some business, Christian, wouldn't you say? Our King is calling us.