Saturday, February 16, 2013

Sermon: February 17, 2013 - Lent 1

Grudging Grace
Luke 15.1-10 - The Shepherd Who Searches for One Lost Sheep

            Lent has begun – the season of spiritual preparation and return.
            Throughout this Lent, we are going to focus on Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son. This is the familiar story of the younger son who turns to his father and asks for his share of the coming inheritance. You recall how he took the money and ran away to the foreign land; there he wasted it all. Later, he comes back, expecting nothing, only to discover that his father has been watching the road for his return. He also comes back to the disapproval of his older brother who had dutifully stayed at home.
            The parable is a story about sons and fathers; it is a story about families; at another level, it is a story about the character of God. Jesus uses a story about fathers and sons to help us understand how the Heavenly Father works.
            As a resource, we are going to use Dr. Kenneth Bailey’s book, *The Cross and the Prodigal* (1). Dr. Bailey taught for many years at the Middle Eastern School of Theology in Beirut, Lebanon and used his experience there, especially among the societies of poor rural villages, to understand better the world of the Bible.

            In the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, the nuns at the Abbey where she has come as a novitiate introduce “The Sound of Music,” Julie Andrews’ character, Maria. She is young; she is not settled as they are; she is upsetting the status quo. The nuns sing, lovingly I think, as they talk about the problems she presents:
She climbs a tree and scrapes her knee
Her dress has got a tear
She waltzes on her way to Mass
And whistles on the stair
And underneath her wimple
She has curlers in her hair

I hate to have to say it
But I very firmly feel
Maria's not an asset to the abbey (2).

The scribes and Pharisees are complaining about Jesus. But, the loving tone of the nuns in the “Sound of Music” is missing. This is real disapproval.
All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

A. You see, in the world of ancient Judaism, the faithful were expected to give evidence of their faith by keeping themselves pure. This comes from the same concern that our mothers expressed when they warned us as children to keep away from bad company. The people you spend time will shape the person you become. Bad company yields more troubled kids; good company yields good kids. Every Mom, watching her kids grow up, knows there is great truth to this concern.
            Taxes were collected in ancient Israel through a system of contractors. A person would contract with the Roman authorities to collect the required taxes for an area. They were hated.
1.     First, these tax contractors were traitors to their own people. They agreed to collect taxes from their own people and then turn them over to Rome.
2.     The Romans were an occupying army; the Israelites hated them as we would hate an occupying army in our land.
3.     Then, to add insult to injury, these tax collectors were notoriously corrupt – extracting whatever they could from the people. Abuses were rampant and expected.
When the Scribes and Pharisees charged Jesus with welcoming sinners, this was a serious charge. Did he support their treason? Did he support the Roman occupation? Did he approve of their ill-gotten gain? Was Jesus loyal to his own people? Or, had he sold out for a fancy meal with bad company?
B. Jesus realized that this was at its heart a conflict of values.
a)     B. On the one hand, God through the scriptures cautioned Israel to keep itself away from sin – to practice holiness. Leviticus 20.26 says: “You are to be holy to me because I, the LORD, am holy, and I have set you apart from the nations to be my own.” Taking this seriously, the Scribes chose holiness.
b)    But, God, through these same scriptures, has spoken of his mercy – God’s desire to restore the lost and the sinner to Himself. The only way to seek and restore the lost is go where they are – to get so close to the sinners that some of their smell clings to you. Thus, anyone who seeks the lost is going to look like one of them much of time. This, it seems, is the cost of mercy.
c)     The Scribes and Pharisees contended that each of us has to choose: holiness or mercy. They chose holiness.
On one hand, God in holiness is calling all believers to be holy and to keep themselves holy – to keep themselves from anything that would lead them into sin. On the other hand, God in mercy is determined to restore the lost to himself.
So, which rule was Jesus supposed to follow? Should he keep himself from the riff-raff, lest he fall into their sin? Or should Jesus go out in the name of God to lead sinners back to faith?
[APPLIC:] And what about us? Should we choose holiness so that we are always ready to stand before God? OR, should we go out among the bad reputation people, knowing that God could use us to call them back to God in repentance?
The human tendency is that keeping ourselves away from the riff-raff makes us less willing to extend grace to those who stumble, less willing to forgive, less willing to spend our time with “those people.” If they get in trouble living the way they do, they must have brought it on themselves. If they reap the natural consequences of their ways, then that is the result of their bad choices. Because we focus on the holiness of God, we see no reason to go further. But, Jesus did – see a reason to go further, that is. In the balance between God’s holiness and God’s mercy, Jesus came down on the side of God’s mercy. And when Jesus chose mercy, he ran the risk of looking too much like the sinners and tax collectors he wanted to call home to God.

III. The first parable comes from their daily life:
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? 5 When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’

There are some things I want you to know about this parable, which will help it come alive for us.
1.     First, by telling a story about shepherds, Jesus is poking his finger in the eye of the Scribes and Pharisees. Shepherds were necessary in Israel but considered lower class; their work was considered unclean. In other words, Jesus is comparing the scrupulous Pharisees with shepherds who were anything but scrupulous.
2.     Second, Jesus is addressing this parable to the Scribes and Pharisees. By answering with a parable, instead of an explanation, he draws them into the story, making them help him answer their complaint. If the story rings true of shepherds’ tenderness toward their sheep, and if it rings true of God’s mercy toward His people, then what does it say about their complaint regarding Jesus’ way with sinners?
3.     A hundred sheep represents considerable wealth. My guess is that sheep got lost from time to time for many reasons: injury, a predator or simply getting separated from the flock. If you had 99 healthy sheep close by and realized that one had gone missing, would you leave the 99 and go looking for the one lost sheep? Maybe there is an under-shepherd to keep the 99. Maybe there is a cave where the 99 can be contained. But, there is no mention of these; the impression is that the shepherd leaves the 99 without his protection and goes out to seek just one. On the one hand, I’m not sure that this is great animal husbandry; on the other hand, it speaks of a mercy from God that is very attractive to me. Any of us would want to believe that God in mercy would go looking for us if we became lost.

B. “When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices.” The image is lovely, and it has generated some beautiful paintings, but the reality is not very pleasant. The shepherd would be tired from the search. The sheep is tired from its wandering and, if it realized the danger, may have exhausted itself in panic. A female adult sheep weighs between 100 and 220 lbs.; males weigh somewhat more. Yet, the shepherd puts the heavy sheep on his shoulders and carries it home rejoicing.
[SINAI:]  In 2008, I hiked to the top of Mt. Sinai. On the way down, we were asked to carry down a woman who had died on the trail. Four at a time, we took turns carrying that stretcher along a good trail. It was exhausting.

Yet, Jesus tells us that the shepherd was *rejoicing* at the grueling task. I think he is telling us something about the greatness of God’s mercy – though we are lost in sin, God in mercy rejoices at the burden of carrying us back to restore us. The Pharisees had to get the point just as we do.
            C. Then, when he arrives home, the shepherd calls the whole community together to hold a party. “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.”
I will follow Bailey closely in this section. He has some powerful insights (3).
1.     Whatever concerns we might have about the wisdom of searching for one lost sheep while leaving 99 at risk, the shepherd made the decision to search. He is that sort of shepherd.
2.     The shepherd calls the community to come out and rejoice with him. Bailey points out that the large number of sheep suggests that in a poor village this large flock would not be the property of one person or one household but more likely the combined sheep of several close neighbors, all likely related. Thus, they all have a stake in the welfare of the flock. The shepherd, watching the sheep on behalf of the neighborhood, went out to search for one that was lost.
3.     Now, what if the one *lost* is a person? What if the one lost is a member of the family of faith? One lost person from the faith is a loss to the family of God. When an individual is lost, the community should mourn, and the "shepherd” who returns restoring that person should receive a joyous hero’s welcome from his “friends.”
4.     The Pharisees, as religious leaders, were indeed the “shepherds of Israel.” Thus, in this parable Jesus holds them responsible for any “sheep” or any person that is lost from the community of faith (like sinners and tax collectors). In the parable the shepherd does four things:
a.     He accepts responsibility for the loss.
b.     He searches without counting the cost
c.     He rejoices in the burden of restoring the lost sheep.
d.     He rejoices with the community at the success of restoration.
5.     Jesus is setting a high standard for the church in any age. Think about what Jesus has done.
a.     He told a parable in response to the criticism that he was too happy to spend time with the lost.
b.     Instead of defending himself, he tells a parable to remind them about the character of God who is very concerned to find and restore the lost sheep of Israel.
c.     For the Scribes and Pharisees to continue their criticism of Jesus, they must contend that the mercy of God so vividly portrayed in the parable is not true of God.
d.     But, of course, such mercy is true of the character of God. In acknowledging this, they themselves state the argument against their criticism. They also acknowledge that the shepherds of Israel, like themselves, have not gone out gladly to do the work of searching out and bringing home the lost.
            What do you and I now say? In our concern not to dirty our hands with the riff-raff, and our impatience with those who have made a mess of their own lives, have we denied God’s call to seek and to save the lost? To accept this parable as the teaching of Jesus is to acknowledge God’s call to leave our comfortable places to seek and to save the lost.
            As I sat in a coffee shop this week, working on this sermon, I noticed across the room a fellow approaching other patrons of the shop. I did not pay much attention until a clerk from the coffee shop approached him and told him that he could not panhandle in that place. Though the fellow denied that he was panhandling, the clerk was firm and walked the fellow outside. Frankly, I was relieved at the assurance that I would not be approached by panhandlers inside that store.

It was a great example of why seeking and saving the lost is hard to do. The clerk did what everyone in that store wanted him to do. And no, I did not rush out to talk with the fellow. No, I did not buy him a sandwich. I was busy getting ready for Sunday’s sermon; I had no time. We all know that getting involved with people from the street can be very time consuming and will likely end in failure. It left me wondering what parable Jesus would be telling about me.

Did Jesus get burned sometimes or even most of the time? We will never know. All we have are the stories when Jesus enjoyed wild success: Zaachaeus, the Ten Lepers, the woman with a decade of bleeding, Jairus’ daughter, for starters. 
I hope you hear along with me the *holy ought* from Jesus. We give grace only grudgingly. We *all know* that the lost are often hard to restore. We *all know* that such people can become a never-ending project with no guaranteed success. We all know… But, even though the task is difficult, Jesus keeps pestering us to seek and to save the lost. We find Jesus reminding us that God did not give up on us. And, because that is the character of God, we must do the same. Instructively, Jesus did not quit, and neither should we.

1. Bailey, Kenneth. The Cross and the Prodigal 2005
2. Rodgers and Hammerstein, “How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria,” The Sound of Music.
3. Bailey, pp. 32f

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