Worship
Don't Lose Heart PDF Print E-mail
Written by Pat Ireland   
Monday, 18 October 2010 19:01

First Presbyterian Church, Cottonwood Falls, KS

Without Losing Heart: Luke 18:1-8

Rev. Pat Ireland, Pastor

Oct. 17, 2010

 

Luke 18:1-8

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. 2 He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3 In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ 4 For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’ ” 6 And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8 I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

 

For 68 days the world prayed for the trapped miners in Chile.  When I heard the news of the rescue of the first of the Chilean miners I was driving to Salina for a meeting.  My heart overflowed with joy and gratitude just hearing the news.  Only later did I get to see the rescue and I stayed up to watch the last man return to the surface.

 

You know the story.  Thirty-three miners had been buried deep in the earth for more than 68 days after a catastrophic mine collapse on August 5th.   For the first 2 weeks no one even knew if the miners were dead or alive.   The whole world watched and waited, praying with the families camped out above as they drilled a small shaft down to the safe room.   It was a miracle they were found alive, but how could we get them out?

 

It took the expertise of engineers from all over the world, working day and night but this week their persistence paid off and our prayers were answered.  The miners are free and have been returned to their homes and families.   That mine will closed forever.

 

Yet even as we rejoice, we remember that there’d been lots of warning that the mine was not safe.  Miners had reported fresh rubble each day from falls that had happened since they’d left the previous day.  One month before the collapse, a large piece of rock had fallen and severed a miner's leg.  Pieces of tunnel were constantly giving way.

 

Everyone knew things were not right.  Something was going to happen.  Despite the safety concerns, work at the mine was not suspended and the miners continued to be sent down deep below the ground.

 

Even as we celebrate the courage of the miners and their families we must deplore systems that put poor people in harm's way, ignore their voices and dismiss safety concerns in order that more money can be made for the mine owners.

 

The story shouldn’t end with the rescue of the miners!  Persistence in working for justice is still needed, so that safe working conditions become mandatory.  So, in our prayers this week, our thanksgiving should not only be for the safe return of the miners but also for the faithful persistence of unions and other organizations that speak out on behalf of worker's rights and safety around the world.

 

As they were bringing up the last man, I heard the lead engineer on the rescue project say: “We had 33 people down there, alive, asking for help.  We couldn’t fail.”    There are hungry, marginalized, oppressed and displaced people all around the world who are trapped alive and relying on us for justice.  Jesus’ story teaches us that we must not lose heart, we must continue to pray and work for justice and compassion so that the reign of God might be manifest on earth as in heaven!

 

Prayer:  Holy Spirit, guide the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts that we might persistently and patiently seek your desires for our lives and our world.

 

The story is unique to Luke who tells us that Jesus told them a parable because the disciples were having problems with prayer.   They’d been praying to be free for Rome since before Jesus was born, yet as he told the story they were still under the thumb of the Roman Empire.

 

It was at least a generation after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection when Luke included it in his gospel.  The disciples had expected Jesus to return soon and it had not happened.  They were praying for vindication of their faith and acceptance in their synagogues.  They wanted justice!

 

It is no wonder that Jesus’ disciples were having problems with prayer.  We all have problems with prayer.  We have lots of questions and issues and problems about prayer. Mainly we wonder if prayer is really heard by God.  So many of our prayers seem unanswered.  We pray for health, but there is still a spot on the X-ray.  We pray for peace, but the troops aren't home and the war rages on.  We pray for our children, but they still get into deep trouble.

 

Jesus doesn’t try to resolve the mystery of God’s timing or God’s will.  He doesn’t even hint at a solution to the mystery of answered and unanswered prayer.  Instead he teaches his disciples persistence because, as Tom Long suggests, when we go all the way down, our deepest problem with prayer is that we lose heart.  We just lose heart.  We lose confidence and trust and hope that our prayers will be heard and answered.  We lose heart.  So Jesus told them a parable that they might pray always and not lose heart.

 

The story that Jesus told his disciples was about an absolutely horrible judge.  This judge hated people and he hated God.  He didn't go to church and he refused to give to the United Way.  He was the kind of corrupt judge who makes a mockery out the title “Your Honor.”

 

Appearing in his courtroom was a poor widow who needed justice but had nothing.  She had absolutely nothing.  She had no money.  She had no husband.  She had no standing. She had no power.  She had no resources.  She had nothing!  She was so insignificant, she probably couldn't have gotten justice in a good courtroom with a good judge, but here she was in the courtroom of the worst judge in the land.

 

Did I say that she had nothing? That's not quite accurate.  She did have one thing.  She had the capacity to be a pest, to annoy.  And, when you only have one weapon, you use it.  So she annoyed this judge constantly.  She shouted aloud for justice in his courtroom: “Give me justice! Give me justice! Give me justice!”  She knocked on his chamber doors, left messages on his answering machine.  She probably even found him teeing off at the Golf Club shouting, “Give me justice! Give me justice! Give me justice!”

 

Finally, she wore the old judge down.  The judge said to himself, “You know, I don't care about justice.  I don't care about this widow.  I don't like people.  I don't like God and I don't care about anybody.  But this woman is about to drive me crazy!  I'm going to give her what she wants just to get her off my back.”

 

And that's the story that Jesus told us that we might pray always and not lose heart.  So, what are we supposed to get out of that story that will help us pray always and not lose heart?

 

Well, some people say that maybe Jesus wants us to keep our eyes focused on the bad judge.  He does tell the disciples, “Pay attention to what this unjust judge says.”  And if we pay attention to the judge, well, what do we see?  What we see is that, even though he was a horrible man, at the end of the day he did give the woman the justice that she demanded and needed.

 

So maybe what Jesus is teaching us is that, even though the headlines in the newspaper often show a world of corruption and evil, this is, you know, God's world, this is a world ruled and overruled by a loving and just God, and at the end of the day, there is justice after all.  Maybe that's what Jesus wants us to see.

 

Well, I believe that and I think that's part of the message, but I don't think that's the heart of Jesus' story, because if that's all Jesus wanted us to see, the moral of this story would be, “Take heart. Things are not as bad as they seem.”  But the moral of this story is “Pray always and do not lose heart.”

 

So:  maybe Jesus wants us to focus our attention on the poor widow.  Did you notice how she went after what she needed?  It was, after all, her persistence—“Give me justice! Give me justice!”—that managed to wrangle justice from the unjust judge.

 

Evan Thomas wrote a biography of Edward Bennett Williams, a legendary Washington criminal lawyer.  He was a powerful lawyer who, at one time owned the Washington Redskins and the Baltimore Orioles.  He was the lawyer for Frank Sinatra and Richard Nixon, among others.

 

That biography tells a story about when Mother Teresa visited Williams because she was raising money for an AIDS hospice.  Williams was in charge of a small charitable foundation that she hoped would help.  Before she arrived for the appointment, Williams said to his partner, Paul Dietrich, “You know, Paul, AIDS is not my favorite disease.  I don't really want to make a contribution, but I've got this Catholic saint coming to see me, and I don't know what to do.”  Well, they agreed that they would be polite, hear her out, but then say no.

 

Well, Mother Teresa arrived.  She was a little sparrow sitting on the other side of the big mahogany lawyer's desk.  She made her appeal for the hospice, and Williams said, “We're touched by your appeal, but no.”  Mother Teresa said simply, “Let us pray.”  Williams looked at Dietrich; they bowed their heads and after the prayer, Mother Teresa made the same pitch, word for word, for the hospice.  Again Williams politely said no.  Mother Teresa said, “Let us pray.”  Williams, exasperated, looked up at the ceiling, “All right, all right, get me my checkbook!”

 

Maybe that's what Jesus wants: pray like that, pray like Mother Teresa, pray like the widow, cry out, bang on the doors of heaven with insistence.

 

Well, that's part of it, to be sure.  But that's not all of it.  If that were the whole meaning of Jesus' story, then the moral of the story would be “Be feisty.  Pray always.”  But the moral of this story is, “Pray always and don't lose heart.”

 

No, Jesus' story is not finally about the bad judge and it's not finally about the insistent widow.  It's finally a story about God and about you and about me.  This story says, if a poor widow with no standing can finally wrangle justice out of a judge without honor, how much more will you—God's own child, the one God formed in the womb, the God who has loved you from the very beginning—find a God who will hear and answer prayer.

 

There's a famous story about a young boy named Frank who was walking along the bank of the Mississippi River and he noticed in the river another boy about his age wrestling with a homemade raft. He said to him, “What are you doing?” He said, “I'm going to take this raft out to that island in the middle of the river.  I dare you to go with me!”

 

Well, Frank couldn't resist the dare so he scrambled down the bank and got on the raft.  The two boys headed out to the middle of the river but the current was swift and strong.  As they approached the island, the raft broke up and sank and they had to swim to the island.  And there they were, abandoned on an island, late in the afternoon.  Nobody knew where they were.  What would they do?

 

Right at that moment, one of those paddle-wheel steamers started coming down the river and Frank ran to the edge of the island and began screaming and waving his hands, “Help! Help!” The other boy said, “Don't waste your breath.  They can't hear you and even if they could they wouldn't pay any attention to boys like us.”  But just at that moment the paddlewheel steamer turned toward the island.  The boy said to Frank, “How did you do that?”  And Frank said, “Well, there's something you don't know.  The captain of that boat is my father!”

 

Well, the captain of the universe is our father; so how much more will one who has formed us in the womb respond to our every cry.  So “pray always and don't lose heart.”

 

Whether we are praying for world peace or local jobs, Jesus says: “Pray always and don’t lose heart.”  Whether we are praying about empty pews or empty school buildings, Jesus says: “Pray always and don’t lose heart.”

 

Because God created and loves us, God cares about our lives and about our community.  The woman was praying for justice.   So too, the faithful pray and cry to God against injustices for we respond to God’s love by loving those whom God loves.  ‘Praying always’ describes the life of the believers: their efforts, their protests against injustice.  It describes also the believers’ trust in God, for we know that God acts very differently than the unjust judge.  “Pray always and don't lose heart.”

 

Pray for this congregation, for this community, for our elections and for those who are trapped by circumstances beyond their control. “Pray always and don't lose heart.”

 

Adapted from a sermon by Thomas Long, 30 Good Minutes, Chicago Sunday Evening Club, 2007.

 
New Normal PDF Print E-mail
Written by Pat Ireland   
Tuesday, 12 October 2010 15:44

 

A New Normal:  Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7

Rev. Pat Ireland, Pastor

Oct 10, 2010

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7

These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. … 4 Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

 

At first glance the lesson from Jeremiah seems to have no connection with the story of Jesus healing 10 lepers.  However- both lessons offer a surprise revelation about how God works in the world.  It is a surprise that the one in ten who returns to give thanks to Jesus is a Samaritan.

It is even more surprising that Jesus healed this outsider in the first place!  The story is remembered, or course, because Samaria, in what we now call the West Bank, was the first missionary outreach after the resurrection and has nurtured Christians ever since.

It is a bit of a surprise that Jeremiah tells the Jews to settle in Babylon and to seek their welfare.  It is a real surprise when Jeremiah tells them to pray for their enemies.

Both Old and New lessons are about obedient, faithful response to the surprising work of God among non-Jews, among those who not one of us!  Both lessons challenge us to gratitude and obedience even in the most difficult situations.  For God is not in some distance Temple or homeland, but with us - even in exile.

 

Let us Pray:  Holy and Eternal One, guide the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts that we might be faithful and filled with gratitude for your presence with us.  Amen

 

What’s happening to our world?  What’s happening to our families, our communities, our churches; the very fabric of our society?  And who’s responsible for the mess we’re in? What can we count on?  All we get is news of unemployment and poor economic indicators, stories of murder and war, and political ads telling us why we shouldn’t vote for the other candidate- with no clue as to why we should vote for anyone!  Everyone is tearing down and no one is building up.  No one is offering constructive alternatives.

Can anyone blame us for hungering for a little bit of good news?

The letter from Jeremiah was written to a people about 600 years before Jesus who hungered for good news.  The letter was sent to the first wave of exiles.  They were taken into captivity along with their king, in 597 B.C.E.

This first group included not only the king but the leaders of society- priests and prophets, skilled laborers and craftsman- in other words, all those who could be of use to the Empire.  Ten years later Babylon would return to devastate Jerusalem and carry off even more of the population, and then a third group was taken less than a decade later.

Of course, when a calamity happens, everybody has an opinion about who’s at fault.  You remember the televangelists blaming the terror attacks of September 11 on feminists and gay people.   In that in-between time, the ten years between the first deportation and the utter destruction of Jerusalem, there was a whole lot of speculation about who was responsible for bringing upon the people of God such a disaster.

Some back in Jerusalem found comfort in the thought that they had escaped the judgment of God (about which Jeremiah had warned them) because God was punishing those who were carried off but not those who were left behind.  They didn’t realize that their time was coming!

We have to wonder, “How did the Jews remain an identifiable people through all of this turmoil?”  We could say it was the will of God, of course; but Jeremiah, speaking for God, deserves part of the credit for his powerful words of inspiration and hope.  Jeremiah helped the people come to terms with their situation and to rise above it.

Remember that Jeremiah is writing during that little window of time between the first and second wave of deportations.   The folks he is writing weren’t suffering in the way we might imagine.   Instead of being sold off into slavery, they were allowed to keep their families, their communities, their public gatherings and their worship services.

In other words, they could still be who they were, still experience themselves as a community even though they had lost the temple.  And that, of course, raised questions about how God could let this happen and what God planned for the future.

Well, as you can imagine there were then, as now, all sorts of opinions.  In the previous chapter you can read about Hananiah and other prophets.  They were assuring folks that this was just a little blip on the radar, to sit tight, and things would soon return to normal.

Jeremiah, the prophet of God, throws cold water on that kind of false optimism.  He calls the people to a deeper kind of hope, a deeper faith, and takes the much longer view of things.  This isn’t going to be over in two years, he says.  It will take 70 years!  That’s Jeremiah’s way of saying; “This is going to be long haul.  There are no quick fixes!”

Still there is good news.   God can be found in all this upheaval and God is seeking all that is best for the people.  God is working for shalom – for a real, lasting and just peace.

Jeremiah says the good news is that God knows what God is doing - even when we don’t!  God keeps promises and God has promised a future and a hope.  Jeremiah writes in verse 11: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”29:11

With that assurance the people can live in this extended “in-between” time.  It is not sufficient to simple wait, nor to try to escape, over throw their captors or to sink into complaining and depression.   Jeremiah speaks poetically about houses and gardens and families that go on even in an inhospitable land, surrounded by pagans.  Jeremiah speaks of not simply surviving but flourishing!

The people of God, as the saying goes, are to “bloom where they are planted.”  In so doing they create a new normal, learning to live into their new reality.   We’ve seen advice of this sort in the news this very week.  New threats from AlQaida about traveling in Europe were met with caution and defiance.  “If I don’t travel, they win!”   After nearly 10 years we are learning to live with the threat of terrorism.

Tucked safely in the middle of the country, not often traveling far for either business or pleasure, we are less affected by the threats of terrorism than many.  But all week, I’ve been haunted what appears to be the new normal for this congregation.   We are more likely to have 20 in worship than 30 or 40.  We continue to use savings to pay for routine expenses.

I don’t know about you, but there are days when I feel like an alien in my own community when the talk is more negative than constructive.

But as one scholar reminded me this week, “the news doesn’t have to be good in order for us to live out the good news and…to be blessed ourselves and be a blessing to those around us.”

Jeremiah’s words fit the situation of a people living under the thumb of an ancient empire just as they fit our situation today, mired in different kinds of empires, including fear, and materialism, and militarism, and consumerism, to mention only a few.

If faith is, at its heart, trust in God, then Jeremiah is telling the people to have faith in God and in the promises of God.  When we lament our current situation, we too should be asking what does God want us to do differently?  How is God calling us to change, to repent and be made whole?

Jeremiah counsels folks to ‘seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you’.  Are not these words valid for us?  Are we not to seek the good for our community, our schools, our children, our businesses?  Are we not all interdependent?  When we work to discredit another’s point of view or activity don’t we undermine our own foundations?

Jeremiah’s advice is to work with our enemies for the welfare of the city, to work for the common good.  Now this might be considered simply self interest, but it is really God’s interest;  for God seeks good for all creation.  “For God so love the world, that he gave…”John 3:16

Jeremiah is interpreting current events theologically.  He is reassuring the people “that God, in spite of appearances, is still in control.”  That was a comforting message for the exiles and it should be a comforting message for us, who often feel like strangers in a strange land.

In the midst of deportment, disappointment and ethnic hatred Jeremiah calls God’s people to live as if God were in control and to seek the welfare of the community.  He calls them to marry and raise children, to work and reap harvests, to spread a table in the presence of their enemies.  It is a remarkable image.  There is no talk of hatred or retribution.  Not even passive resistance, but active participation in the community because that is where God is working out God’s purposes.  Six hundred years before Jesus, Jeremiah is calling the people to work with their enemy and even to pray for them!  It is a remarkable insight into the heart of God more fully revealed in Jesus.

We like to think that Jesus’ teaching was new and revolutionary, but here we see the roots of our tradition; for Jesus is in a prophetic line that stretches back to Jeremiah, and he shares the vision that “God’s imagination is not bound by the dividing walls of hostility constructed by human conflicts.”  If Jeremiah tells the people of God to pray for the Babylonians, their pagan conquerors, and Jesus tells us to pray for our enemies, then we have to ask ourselves, “Whose welfare is God calling us to seek and with whom is God inviting us to live in peace?”

And even as we ask that global question, we realize the answer may well put us at odds with neighbors closer to home.  It is a different mode of existence from the permanent hatred of the enemy that is our instinct and even sometimes the word we hear from the Bible.  Like the ancient Jewish people, we are being told to change our attitude, to live in a whole new way.  After a decade of patriotic fervor under girded by religion we need to recognize that we serve a universal God who is not limited to one nation and people.  We serve a God who calls us beyond ‘God bless America’ to ‘God bless everyone.’

But this shouldn’t come as a surprise to people who preach a gospel that is “good news of great joy” not just for some people, but “for all the people.” Luke 2:10-11

This lesson demonstrates that God cares, not only about our spiritual welfare, but our physical and material welfare too.  Like the exiles of old, it is God’s desire for us to work and eat the fruit of our work, to marry and have children and grandchildren, to survive and flourish even in a strange land.

At the same time, we have to let go of what is gone, what is in the past that will not be part of our lives anymore.  Like the ones who were carried off into exile, we may not live to see the end, so we too need to learn not only a “new normal” but see a new future for ourselves, to accept that what is in the past is gone, and trust and look for something new that is being born.

There is no quick fix.  We, like the exiles, might long for the way things used to be but Jeremiah speaks to us as to them: God says, ‘Your old life is dead. Your new life is to be found here in Babylon. Deal with it.  Settle down. Adjust!’”

But it is even more than that, we are to flourish, no matter where we are or how alienated we may feel by what is happening around us.   This can happen, - whenever we are obedient and full of gratitude.  We flourish whenever we notice and give thanks to God for our healing.  We flourish when we seek not only our own peace but the good of the city, the place to which God has brought us.   We flourish when we pray for our enemies and seek God’s goodness for all creation.

Living in exile does not mean pining for the good old days.  Neither does it mean simply giving up and becoming part of the dominant culture.  We can live faithfully and creatively as a minority within a dominant secular culture.

Further, if we keep in mind what God has done in the past, remembering the stories of Exodus, Exile and Jesus, we may be able to discern what God is doing in the present.  If we do that, our influence may be much greater than we might think. …

Our response to the word today is a little different.  The hymn is new, but not difficult to hear and sing.   We’ll listen to the melody first.  Then before the singing of each verse we’ll hear a spoken word, reminding us of the new normal in which we live and serve.  You’ll also  notice a final word and congregational Amen as printed in the bulletin.

Let us acknowledge and respond to God’s word for us today.

*RESPONSE “Unsettled World” FWS 2183

Domestic violence, shootings in schools, warfare, anger, hatred, violence, destruction…

Sing Verse 1

Greed, gambling, grabbing for all the wealth, subservience, domination, control, authority . . .

Sing Verse 2

Savagery, oppression, slavery, crushing of people’s lives and spirits . . .

Sing Verse 3

In such a time our faith is sorely tested. Who will bring us through this valley of death?

Where, O Lord, is the voice of hope?

Sing Verse 4

O God, give us healing and strong faith

AMEN

 

 

Last Updated on Tuesday, 12 October 2010 15:52
 
Eternally Intertwined PDF Print E-mail
Written by Pat Ireland   
Wednesday, 29 September 2010 14:05

 

First Presbyterian Church, Cottonwood Falls, KS

Eternally Intertwined:  Luke 16:19-31

Rev. Pat Ireland, Pastor

Sept. 26, 2010

Luke 16:19-31

19“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. 23In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 24He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ 25But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. 26Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ 27He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— 28for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ 29Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ 30He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

 

One day you’ll have to face up to the truth about yourself.

A favorite way of making this point, in Jesus time, was to imagine what happened to people when they died.  Then their true reward would come.  Such thinking inspired visions of the place of the rewarded and the place of the condemned, variously described as heaven and hell, paradise and Gehenna, and in this story as ‘Abraham’s bosom’ and Hades.

Today’s story was already old when Jesus told it.  The familiar formula most likely comes from an Egyptian tale, the journey of Osiris to the underworld.  Jesus and his listeners probably knew the old Jewish story, Bar Ma’jan, about the condition of a poor scholar and a rich publican after death.  Satirists told stories like these to expose and make fun of self-indulgent behavior.

That is a good lesson, but Jesus’ point is more serious.  In the mystery of God’s love and divine desires for creation, the lives of the rich and the poor are eternally intertwined.

 

Let us pray:  Loving Spirit, guide the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts that we might be drawn into your eternal love.

 

Someone once said: "It's not what I don't understand about the Bible that bothers me.   "It's what I do understand!"

That could be said about today's scripture, a story about a rich man and a poor man named Lazarus.   This is not the Lazarus that Jesus raised from the dead.  This character is named Lazarus because it means “God is my Help.”  Interestingly, he is the only named character in any parable.  The rich man remains unnamed despite the fact that tradition has called him Dives, which is Latin for rich man.  So, we have a story about rich man and God is my help.  One has a feast, the other a famine.  One's life is a party, the other’s misery.  Yet, as Jesus tells the story these two are interdependent, even though they live in different worlds.

As the story is told, the poor man dies.  Then the rich man dies.  This is the moment of dreadful equity.  The rich and poor, so different in life, are alike in death.  Then, in the story a reversal takes place, the first is now last and the last first.   (Didn’t Jesus talk about something like that? Matt 19:30 )

The poor man sits next to father Abraham at the table; the rich man is in Hades, or Sheol, the place of the dead.  And there is no getting from one side to the other for there is a great chasm.  Imagine the Royal Gorge, or Grand Canyon.

The rich man, recognizing the truth says to himself, "I blew it."  But maybe he can salvage something out of his experience.  "Send someone to warn my brothers, so that they don't end up like me!"

Abraham replied, "They've got the law and the prophets, they should listen to them." And then the rich man responds, "Maybe if someone rises from the dead they'll listen." And Abraham replies again, "If they won't listen to Moses and the prophets, they won't listen to someone who rises from the dead."

The rich man, you see, wants a sign that validates all other signs.  He wants an event so miraculous that there can be no possible doubt that this messenger was speaking the Truth of God.   Abraham says: No communication rises above our finite nature and our sinful penchant for self-serving misreadings.

We are always in a place of having to have faith.  Even if Lazarus returned, the brothers would have to believe that this really was Lazarus, that he really had died, and that he really had a message from his brother.  There is no proof positive.  There is no message or messenger so astounding that it cannot be ignored. We might ask, "Why don't' they get it, why don't they listen?"  But then, we would have to ask, why don't we?    Sometimes our quest for certitude is just an excuse for NOT acting.

This parable suggests that God will not, perhaps cannot, speak to us with a sign that escapes the need to be interpreted and believed.  So, we are left with a call to act based, not on an absolute certainty in the divine command, but on our ability to see the suffering all around us.

This story restates a re-occurring biblical theme; our relationship with God is somehow related to our relationship with the poor.  There is absolutely no ambiguity about this point in the Bible, it is clear from Moses to Amos, Hosea to Micah, and Jesus to Paul.   If we want to be in relationship with God, the Creator and Redeemer, we have to be in relationship with those who are forced to rely on God for help -  the poor and poor in spirit.

But here’s our problem.   Even the poorest of us is more like the rich man than Lazarus.  Not only are we not destitute like Lazarus; we, like the rich man, prefer to close our eyes to those who are in need, even when they are right on our doorstep.  We prefer to see our poor as social problems, illegal aliens, and folks who made bad choices.

We are satisfied with a minimum federal wage of $7.25 an hour even though it would take a wage of $19.80 an hour to provide basic necessities for a family of four.  And where are there jobs like that in Chase County?  Certainly not at Dollar General, the factory or the nursing home.  The poor are right here in our midst and we choose not to see them- or to blame them for their poverty.

But even our poorest folks are rich by global standards.  The Millennial Development Goals have been in the news this week.  Unfortunately we’ve seen more pictures of the bureaucrats than the folks who need help.   That’s a symptom of our condition.  We don’t want to see the hungry.  Because if we really saw them, we’d have to respond.

As Christians we don’t have to wait for governments to address the concerns, we are part of a worldwide body of Christ that has been at work for two millennia.  Part of that work is advocacy to change the systems; but much of it is direct delivery of service.  Both are happening when you support the CROP walk.

CROP stands for Communities Responding to Overcome Poverty, and that’s the point of this morning’s story.  We have to open our eyes to see the problem before we can respond.   Here in Chase County we realized that even though we have a food pantry very few folks can access it.   The Ministerial Alliance is working to create a expanded pantry that will be open to those in need on a walk-in basis.  Twenty-five percent of the funds raised by our CROP walk will be used for this program.

Church World Service and partner agencies will use the rest of the proceeds to offer development assistance from Haiti to Pakistan and from Mali to Bosnia to Nicaragua.  Your donations will provide seeds, tools and water for crops and villages.  The good news is: today we are confronted with a hard lesson and an opportunity to respond constructively.

But wait, there’s more.

We cannot assume that we’ve gotten the message, established a relationship, just  because we make a donation; and we certainly don’t give money to buy our way into God’s heart.   We have already been drawn into God’s heart through Jesus and we help the poor because it pleases God.

We please God when we work to overcome poverty, by walking and/or donating. There are other ways we can please God.  We please God whenever we open eyes and heart and mind to the suffering in the world.  Attentiveness lies at the heart of Christian spirituality.  Who are the poor who lie at our gates?  Perhaps it is the suffering women and children in sweatshops who are invisible behind the clothes we buy, or the suspect who is tortured behind closed doors to calm our cancerous fears of terrorists.  Maybe it is the mentally ill, the closet addict, the abused neighbor or neglected child.

Unfortunately, most of us are like the rich man.  We prefer to do what he did.  We turn our eyes and try to ignore what is hard to see. We work hard to earn what we have and spend the majority of what we have on ourselves.  The rich man wasn’t really evil, you know.  There is no reason to suspect that it was his fault that Lazarus was poor.  He just didn’t do anything to change it.  His sin was his self-preoccupation. It prevented him from caring about others as he cared for himself.   The problem is that sin landed him far from the heart of God and the bosom of Abraham.

Moreover, the story suggests, you and I cannot be connected to God unless we are connected with the poor.  John Wesley commented, "Oh that God would stir up the hearts of all those who believe themselves his children, to evidence it by showing mercy to the poor." The gap between rich and poor is not only economic and sociological.  It is biblical and spiritual.  At its best, the church of Jesus grasps this truth.    As people, we are at our best when our faith becomes action.

But if the talk of spirituality is too vague, and you need something more concrete for motivation, remember Jesus’ words to his disciples on the night before he was crucified: "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” John 15:12

The verses we heard from Timothy spell out quite clearly what we should do.  We must set our hopes on God rather riches.  We should be rich in doing good.  We should be liberal and generous, because we have the means to do this.  And, here is the good news; in this way we “take hold of the life that is really life.” Tim 6:19b

I need say no more, but I invite you to open your eyes and hearts to the CROP WALK video during the offertory.

 

 

1 Timothy 6:6-19

6Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; 7for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; 8but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. 9But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains. 11But as for you, man of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. 12Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.

13In the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you 14to keep the commandment without spot or blame until the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ, 15which he will bring about at the right time—he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords. 16It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see; to him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen. 17As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. 18They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, 19thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Last Updated on Wednesday, 29 September 2010 14:07
 
Crisis Mode PDF Print E-mail
Written by Pat Ireland   
Tuesday, 21 September 2010 14:37

First Presbyterian Church, Cottonwood Falls

Crisis Mode:  Jeremiah 8:18-9:1; Luke 16:1-13

Rev. Pat Ireland, Pastor

Sept. 19, 2010

 

Luke 16:1-13

Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. 2So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’

3Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. 4I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ 5So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ 7Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ 8And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.

9And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes. 10“Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. 11If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?

13No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

 

Jeremiah 8:18 - 9:1

18My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick.

19Hark, the cry of my poor people from far and wide in the land:

“Is the Lord not in Zion? Is her King not in her?”

(“Why have they provoked me to anger with their images, with their foreign idols?”)  20“The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.”

21For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.

22Is there no balm in Gilead?  Is there no physician there?  

Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?

9 1O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears,

so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people!

 

Jeremiah hit the wall.  Despite all his efforts, things for God’s people had gone from bad to worse.  Sometimes called the weeping prophet, Jeremiah can’t cry enough about all the suffering around him.  “O that my head were a spring of water so I could cry 24/7,” he laments.

God did not choose the strongest or richest of people.  God chose an ordinary people and placed them in the center of an international swirl of trade and conflict.  That’s why the Bible is full on lamentations.  From the complaining of the desert wanderings to Psalms and a whole book of Lamentations from the exile, God’s people, a stiff-necked people, mourned, and griped and blamed God when things went bad.

Today’s lessons give us a chance to talk about our grief and to consider how we respond to the inevitable crises of life.

Let us Pray:  Holy Spirit guide the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts that we might trust in your presence and leading.

 

I can’t imagine that there is anyone in this room who hasn’t gotten so overwhelmed with life that they haven’t been ready to cry!  I hope you gave into the impulse because, usually, it’s a healthy way to respond.  There is lots of crying in the Bible.

Too often though, we think crying might be interpreted as a lack of faith or fortitude on our part.  Too often, we think we must be strong and in control, forgetting that there is little that we really can control.  We can never avoid or prevent bad things from happening.  However, we can control how we respond to them.

The reading from Jeremiah is full of distress at the disaster the prophet foresees, and at the apparent futility of his preaching.  In spite of everything he says the people are not changing.  You probably know that pain; the pain of a parent watching a child mess us again and again, or a spouse who loves dearly but cannot change the partner, the pain of God who longs for the return of the prodigal.    

Jeremiah weeps at what he and his nation have become.  True prophecy comes not from self-righteousness or arrogance, but a depth of compassion that mirrors God’s own.  In fact, when I first read the lesson, I wasn’t sure who was speaking, Jeremiah or God.  (I was relieved to discover that real scholars aren’t sure either.)

My devotions this week took me to the story of the Golden Calf.   I realized that sometimes we bring on our own troubles by worshiping false Gods, by not establishing justice, or not living in community as God desires; but not always.   Sometimes bad things just happen.  God makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” Matt 6:44

Jeremiah’s reference to the harvest in verse 20 suggests that Judah may have been suffering from drought.  This natural disaster, coming when the Babylonians were already threatening, makes the people wonder if God had abandoned them.v.19   But the catch is that it’s clear from later verses, although the people are afraid and crying to God, they have not changed their ways.  Injustice, oppression, slander, and deceit are still rampant among them.  So, Jeremiah mourns the lack of a “balm in Gilead,” a medicine that could truly bring healing.

We don’t often cry out in public.  Lament is not a form of address we often use.  Lamenting acknowledges our own helplessness.  We may be reluctant to admit to such grief, or nervous about directing it at God.  This lesson makes it clear that Jeremiah felt safe in sharing his feelings with God, and we can be encouraged to trust God in the same way.  God weeps with us at disasters… even if we bring them on ourselves.

Truth be told, when the world comes crashing in on you, crying is a good place to start.  As football player Rosie Greer sang so many years ago, “It’s all right to cry.  It just might make you feel better.”  It is good to vent our pain and frustration and anger.  If you read the Psalms you know the Hebrews were never reluctant to cry out to God.

I always find it amusing, however, that they try to blackmail God saying, in essence; ‘What will the neighbors think if you don’t save us?’  How natural it is for us to test God.  ‘If you’ll save me then I will…  or How do I now you are really there if you don’t save me? Vindicate me!   Justify me with your healing!

That raises hard and legitimate issues for which I have no easy responses.   I can provide assurance, however, that whatever form your personal lament takes, God has heard it all before.  And nothing you can say or do can change God’s love for you.  God will be with you in the midst.  And though the situation my not look any different it will be different for you are never alone.

I remember a sermon I heard at chapel while in seminary.  A respected professor and pastor told us how, as a young man in crisis, he’d spent the whole night cursing God.  It was startling, but reassuring at the same time because it didn’t bring the end of the world, or his relationship with God, but created a stronger, more honest and deeper relationship.

The church needs to learn how to lament.  How can we see or be a part of things for the better if we don’t acknowledge what is wrong?  We need to learn how to mourn the evils of our society and thereby be empowered to address them, rather than simply become paralyzed by guilt.  We need to speak to God graphically and passionately, trusting God to take our anguish seriously.

Rather than suppress our emotions out of a misguided sense of what is the right way to pray, or questioning the very existence of God at all, sometimes we need to find the courage and the freedom to cry out to God, “How long?”…

There are lots of ways to respond to a crisis and no matter how out of control things get for us, we always have a choice of how we will respond it.

I’ve been told that the Chinese symbol for crisis is composed of two characters - danger and opportunity.  Hard times can be a profound invitation to respond to God’s presence, to be changed – to be healed.   Many of us know folks who have been healed- made whole- even in the process of dying.

Sometimes how we deal with crisis or disaster is a strong witness to our faith – much more potent than we might expect. There are folks in this congregation who have come through terrible times, only by the grace of God.  We need to tell those stories to one another, so that we can hold on to them the next time things fall apart.

The steward in Jesus’ story had a crisis.  He found out he was going to be fired… for cause.  He was squandering the master’s estate.  Like us, he was a steward not the owner of that which he managed.  We might allegorize the story an environmental or economic crisis brought about by exploitation or greed for excessive profits.  Anyway, like ancient Israel’s breakdown of society this crisis was of the steward’s own making.

But this is a shrewd guy even though he doesn’t know how to do anything else except be a steward.  Apparently, he's too frail or weak or lazy to do hard physical labor.  Yet he comes up with a plan and coolly executes it in the face of his crisis, and the shrewdness of his actions win him a commendation from his master.

Not only that, but in even telling us this parable, and with some of the things he says afterwards, Jesus seems to approve of what this steward did.  If we want to get at Jesus' answer to how to face crises, we'd can take a closer look at what the steward did in facing his crisis.

The puzzling thing about this parable is that the steward is openly called dishonest.  Then the steward is dishonest again in his solution to the crisis.  He calls his master's debtors in and forgives large portions of their debt.  This feels more like a story from the newspaper than the Bible.

Jesus realizes that this guy isn't honest.  He contrasts him with the "children of light," but he commends him anyway.  Why?  … Well, what, precisely, is it that the steward does?  (albeit without authorization and with apparent deception)

The Answer?  The steward forgives debts.  The steward forgives.  He forgives things that he had no right to forgive.  He forgives for all the wrong reasons, for personal gain and to compensate for past misconduct.  That's the decisive action that he undertakes to redeem himself from a situation that looks hopeless.

So- what's the moral of this story, a story unique to Luke?  It's a moral that Luke lifts up again and again: FORGIVE.  Forgive it all.  Forgive it now.  Forgive it for any reason you want, or for no reason at all.  Forgive!

The dishonest steward is commended because he forgives debts at his time of personal crisis.  The matter of forgiveness is central to Jesus teaching and to his life.   How can we do that - forgive someone who's sinned against us, or against our sense of what is clearly right?

The story suggests that we don't have to do it out of love for the other person, if we're not there yet.  We can do it for our own sake.  We could forgive the other person because of that whole business of what we pray in Jesus' name every Sunday- and because we know we'd like forgiveness ourselves.

We could forgive because we recognize what we're like as unforgiving people.  We’ve learned that refusing to forgive because we don't want the other person to benefit is, as the saying goes, ‘like eating rat poison hoping it will hurt the rat’.  Refusing to forgive usually festers like poison inside of us.

We could forgive because we are, or we want to be, deeply in touch with a sense of Jesus' power to forgive and free sinners like us.  Or, we could forgive because we think it will improve our odds of winning the lottery.

It all boils down to the same thing: deluded or sane, selfish and/or unselfish, there is no bad reason to forgive.  Extending the kind of grace God in every possible arena -- financial and moral -- can only put us more deeply in touch with God's grace.

Imagine how different the world would be if forgiveness were a regular response to crises, both personal and communal!

That’s what Jesus was talking about - the Kingdom of God.

Now, think of this parable as a story, not as one about how we ought to behave, but about the reign of God (like most of Jesus’ parables).  We might understand it to say that the Reign of God is as irrepressible, wily and shrewd as the unjust steward.  The Reign of God happens among people as crooked as the characters in this story – people like us, if we’re honest about it.  While Jesus is clearly not endorsing fraud or dishonesty, he is saying that the Reign of God can be trusted to come - no matter what the circumstances.

It is easy to trust in God when things are good and life is easy.  It is harder to build trust in the midst of a crisis, or when our world seems to be falling apart.  But we can trust God to hear us when we cry out.  We can trust God to take our pain seriously, not to shrug it off as of no importance.  We can trust God to be powerful in ways that we may not fully understand.  No matter what odds are stacked against us, no matter what disaster threatens, God’s reign will thrive in astonishing ways.

That is the promise of the Resurrection of Jesus; the one we worship and celebrate this day.  That is the good news.  The Kingdom of God is in our midst – even in the worse of times.    Thanks be to God.

 
Joy In Heaven PDF Print E-mail
Written by Pat Ireland   
Saturday, 11 September 2010 20:49

First Presbyterian Church, Cottonwood Falls, KS

Joy in Heaven:  Luke 15:1-10

Rev. Pat Ireland, Pastor

September 12, 2010

 

 

Pat:  John, Have you ever been lost?  It’s a scary thing to not know where you are.  Who knows what could happen?

John: There are many ways we can be lost.  We can be literally lost in the woods or lost in a shopping mall or lost in a crowd at the fair.

Pat: We can feel lost if we can’t understand what people around us are saying, or if we can’t solve a problem, or if we don’t know what choice to make.

John: We can feel lost if we feel we don’t belong, or if we have been abandoned, or if we feel far away from God.

Pat:  Jesus knew how awful it felt to be lost, and how joyous it was to be found.  He told two parables, or short stories, about being lost and then found.

 

Luke 15:1-10

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.” 3So he told them this parable: 4“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? 5When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6And 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.’ 7Just 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. 8“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? 9When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ 10Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

 

The lesson begins with a stinging criticism of Jesus: he eats with sinners!  It was safer to baptize sinners than to eat with them.   

Remember that in the 1st century Palestine, tax collectors were little more than legalized thieves. Worse yet, they were traitors who collaborated with the occupying government. Good people did not associate with- much less break bread with- that unsavory lot!  They were literally excommunicated from polite society.   That is why Jesus was not considered polite society!

Jesus confronts this self-righteousness with three stories about Joy in Heaven.  We’ve just heard two of them.  The third is the story of the prodigal son.

Prayer:  Holy Spirit guide the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts that we might contribute to- and be a part of- the Joy in Heaven.

The Pharisees and scribes are out to get Jesus, but Jesus tells a story that turns the table.  The first story begins: 4“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?     

The answer is no reasonable shepherd would have left 99 sheep to go find one.   Why the untended sheep were not even left in some protected enclosure, but in the "wilderness!"  Now, remember this is a story about God!  That the shepherd in the story is willing to risk loosing everything for the sake of the one implies that God, as the shepherd, might act in unreasonable ways to accomplish Gods ends.  Jesus critiqued the Pharisees and scribes because they were not acting like God.  Do you suppose we, as God’s people, might also be judged because of our unwillingness to risk for the sake of the lost one.

Pastor Sarah Dylan Bruer seems to suggest this as she retells the Parable of the Ninety-Nine, subtitling it: Why it's probably a good thing that sheep don't talk.  Here is the way she tells the story.

Once there was a shepherd who had a hundred sheep.  One of them went astray.  The shepherd's colleagues figured this was probably due to some carelessness on the shepherd's part -- after all, when the shepherd had been a farmer, he’d repeatedly been seen tossing seed in the middle of paved parking lots and pigeon hangouts without much thought as to whether anything would actually grow there, so he had acquired a reputation for being a little off.

The ninety-nine sheep, wanting to be helpful, immediately sprang into action ... or discussion, anyway.  One loudly announced that the Historic Flock had never included more than ninety-nine sheep, and therefore that the stray was probably a goat, or perhaps a marmoset, and should not be bothered with.  If a wolf got it, that's what it deserved for straying from the flock, or for being a marmoset, or whatever its problem was.

Factions gathered in response to that announcement, some suggesting that perhaps a message could be sent to the stray that if she were to stop being a marmoset and instead become a sheep, or at least learn to bleat like one, or perhaps if she stopped making...what noise is it that marmosets make?- anyway, if,  she could act like a sheep she could rejoin the flock.  Cries immediately went up for a subcommittee to study that issue.

A website and glossy magazine ads were put in place to further this effort, as were a series of dialogues, in which each member of a panel of three sheep would present its view of what species the strays were, followed by discussion and concluding with a very nice and moving liturgy.

Another faction formed to try to win over the first group.  They poured their resources into a public relations campaign in the flock to celebrate the contributions of all sheep, even the ones reputed to be marmosets or goats.  Since their desire was to convince the Historic Flockers, it was very important not to engage in any precipitous action that might offend them.  

So, when rumors arose that the stray sheep was being attacked by wolves and a voice in the flock suggested that perhaps something ought to be done, another of the ninety-nine sheep produced a marvelous-looking PowerPoint presentation documenting the decline in wolf attacks by well over 30% over the last fifteen years.   "And there used to be 78 strays per year," she noted, "that we've got it down to one is most impressive!"  The faction responded with a loud cheer and rumbled off to a celebratory ball and fundraiser to cover the cost of a digital camera to supply graphics for future presentations.

All of this "pro-stray" rhetoric greatly annoyed the planners of the campaign to convince the stray to return to sheephood, and the sheep who didn't want the stray back in the flock at all were furious, threatening to leave the flock.

Much hub-bub ensued, and hours later, if you could somehow manage to listen beyond all of the loud bleating and blaring loudspeakers and committee deliberations and rousing choruses of "Bringing In the Sheep" and a new hymn, "Goading Out the Goats," you might have heard a few sheep quietly noting the shepherd's absence and wondering where the shepherd had gone, as one silhouetted figure made its way toward the horizon and the stray ... and some wolf howls echoed in the distance.”

Sarah then asks:  "If one sheep is with the shepherd and ninety-nine aren't, who's really the stray?"   That’s  a really good question in a time when we can hear non-church folks  saying: “We like Jesus, but not the church”, or “I’m spiritual but I don’t want to be involved in a congregation.”  Perhaps Jesus has escaped and is out there in the wilderness with the strays. …   

It is Luke’s style to pair stories, one male and the other female, wo Before this gets too close to home, let’s look at the 2nd story. In it a woman who had 10 coins turns the house upside down to find the lost one.  Scholars have speculated that the coins might have been her dowry.  One imagined that Jesus, as a boy, might have seen Mary search frantically for a lost coin.  

Others have noted that 100 and 10 are complete numbers symbolizing fullness so that the set is not complete without the lost lamb or coin.  Perhaps the church is not complete until we have included the lost who all around us.  

Now, if I were teaching this lesson to children I’d say the point is that each one of use is important to God.  That is true and an important lesson to believe and remember.  However- the challenge to more mature Christians is not so much learning that we are important as remembering that we are no more important than those who live on the margins of society -- the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind and the strays. 

And, consider this: because these are stories about God- not about us- repentance can’t possibly be the point.  The idea of a sheep repenting is only slightly less absurd than the idea of a coin repenting!  The sheep does nothing except to be found.  The burden of restoration is not on the sheep but on the shepherd who went looking for the lamb.

Further, there is nothing to indicate that the sheep was bad or that the coin was sinful and that they needed repentance.  If Jesus point is repentance, then his definition of repentance is:  acceptance of the reality that God has already found us in Jesus.  This means, of course, that we have to acknowledge our own lostness, which is why we begin worship with confession.  When we can acknowledge that we are lost, we are more willing and likely to be found!

The point of the story is: God’s people are expected to celebrate with God the return of each and every sheep and/or coin.  Jesus depicts the happy laughter of a Father who invites the angels to the homecoming festival.  Somber, morbid religiosity has no place in the Kingdom.  Dancing, the blowing of trumpets, and beating of drums are a legitimate part of the church's worship. Sunday worship is to a celebration of the resurrection, a celebration of our new life in Jesus. 

We gather to welcome and rejoice with God and the angels the return of the lost.  Are we failing when we have folks who have once been a part of the flock but have been allowed to wander away?  Is it fear of failure that makes us afraid to invite some folks to church for fear they won’t fit in?

Look around you; we are not complete this morning.  Many are missing.  Do you think we can we love them back rather than criticize them for their absence?   Can we let them know that God is standing out at the lane watching for them?  Maybe we should be standing there watching with God.  …

I’ve jumped ahead.  I’m thinking about the third story that Jesus told to the Pharisees.   You’ve heard it before, but perhaps you should hear it again.  Sit back and close your eyes (I won’t tell) and listen for what the Spirit is saying to you this morning.

“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 gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; but no one gave him anything.   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 when 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.’ ”  Luke 15: 11b-32

There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. Luke 15:7  The parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin are about joy.  They were intended to show how God felt like the father of the lost son: his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Luke 15:20

God cares. God cares for each and every one.  For one to be restored to the family is a cause for great rejoicing.

 

 

 
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