Life that Really Is Life | Proper 21

1 Timothy 6:6-19

 6 Actually, godliness is a great source of profit when it is combined with being happy with what you already have. 7 We didn’t bring anything into the world and so we can’t take anything out of it: 8 we’ll be happy with food and clothing. 9 But people who are trying to get rich fall into temptation. They are trapped by many stupid and harmful passions that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10 The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. Some have wandered away from the faith and have impaled themselves with a lot of pain because they made money their goal.

11 But as for you, man of God, run away from all these things. Instead, pursue righteousness, holy living, faithfulness, love, endurance, and gentleness. 12 Compete in the good fight of faith. Grab hold of eternal life– you were called to it, and you made a good confession of it in the presence of many witnesses. 13 I command you in the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and Christ Jesus, who made the good confession when testifying before Pontius Pilate. 14 Obey this order without fault or failure until the appearance of our Lord Jesus Christ. 15 The timing of this appearance is revealed by God alone, who is the blessed and only master, the King of kings and Lord of lords. 16 He alone has immortality and lives in light that no one can come near. No human being has ever seen or is able to see him. Honor and eternal power belong to him. Amen.

17 Tell people who are rich at this time not to become egotistical and not to place their hope on their finances, which are uncertain. Instead, they need to hope in God, who richly provides everything for our enjoyment. 18 Tell them to do good, to be rich in the good things they do, to be generous, and to share with others. 19 When they do these things, they will save a treasure for themselves that is a good foundation for the future. That way they can take hold of what is truly life. (CEB)

Life that Really Is Life

If you think about it, it really is amazing how much attention the Bible gives to material possessions. In parables and oracles it warns about the delusions that wealth brings, and wants nothing less than to destroy the way that we humans can make idols out of dollar signs. The Scriptures repeatedly direct our attention to the poor and the destitute. They constantly ask what we often think are rather impertinent questions about how we earn and spend our income. So brash is the Bible about material possession that any preacher who tries to reflect upon the biblical truths regarding money and possessions is likely to be accused of “talking too much about money.”

Well, I don’t care if anyone thinks I talk too much about money because, personally, I don’t think anyone in the church talks enough about money…at least not in the right way. Additionally, I always like to preface my sermons that concern what are possibly unpopular topics by saying that I preach about it because it’s part of God’s word to God’s people.

“Of course”, Paul writes, “there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment” (1Tim.6:6). How many of us can honestly say that we’re content with what we have or with our financial situation? I mean, I think I’m a pretty content guy, but sometimes I struggle with contentment, too! The reason so many of us are not content with what we have is because we’re constantly bombarded with messages that tell us that in order to be happy, in order to find contentment, we need more.

We’re conditioned to be discontent. The goal of every advertisement you have ever seen is to sow discontentment about our current reality and make us feel like if we just had this product we’d be happy. We’ve bought into the belief that happiness depends upon outward circumstances, visible achievements, a larger paycheck, and material comforts rather than coming from inner spiritual qualities such as love, peace, compassion, and generosity just to name a few. But breaking the cycle of conditioned discontent requires courageous soul work. It requires a reordering of who we are from the inside out.

Contentment comes from seeking that which satisfies. The trouble is that most people live under the delusion that if we just had a little more, we would be satisfied. It’s interesting that when most people are asked how much money they would need to earn in order to be happy, they almost always give an amount equal to about 20% more than what they are currently making. So a person who earns $30,000 a year believes that with just $6,000 more, they would be happy. A person who earns $100,000 a year believes that with just $20,000 more per year they would be happy. A person who earns $500,000 a year believes that when they earn $100,000 more they would finally arrive and be happy.

You see, it doesn’t matter how much a person earns, we always think we would finally be happy if we earned about 20% more than what we’re making now. This is a prescription for never-ending unhappiness because even if we did reach our goal of earning 20% more than we currently earn, we would suddenly find that we needed another 20% more to really be happy. We can never possess enough to satiate our culturally conditioned appetite for more.

Contentment comes from seeking that which satisfies, but most of the time we’re too busy seeking the things that will never satisfy. And I wonder, why do we keep chasing after this stuff? Why do we keep driving ourselves to acquire more money and more stuff? Once we have acquired it, what are we going to do with it? How long will it really make us happy?

We’ve all seen the bumper sticker that says, “Whoever dies with the most toys wins.” But Paul says something that we all know very well to be absolutely true: “for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it”, (1Tim.6:7), which is why I kind of like that other bumper sticker that says, “Whoever dies with the most toys, still dies.” Jesus tells us to be on our guard against all kinds of greed; “for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (Lk.12:15).

Paul wrote of contentedness in another place too. In Philippians 4:11-12 he says, “I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.” And we might say, “Well, congratulations, Paul, you figured it all out. Good for you, but my situation is different.” We might think that until we learn that Paul wrote those words of being content “in any and all circumstances” from a Roman prison cell where he was waiting to find out whether or not he would be executed. Paul, for me, is a model of contentment.

Then Paul goes on in 1 Timothy, “but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But 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. For 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.” You see, this struggle with being content over what we have is nothing new; it is as old as the human race. Paul says that Christians should be content with the basic necessities of life. That’s all it really takes for a Christian to be content. Yet, to our mindset, that is absolutely ludicrous. But why does it sound ludicrous to us? Because our appetites are insatiable. We only see scarcity where there is nothing but abundance. Surrounded by water, we are dying of thirst.

Benjamin Franklin said, “Contentment makes poor men rich, but discontentment makes rich men poor.” Whether we are content or discontent really depends upon our world view. Do we see the abundance of what we have? Or do we see only the scarcity of things we don’t have yet? Is anyone here lacking the basic necessities of life? If you are, then you should be able to rely on your sisters and brothers in Christ to share with you out of our abundance. If not, then why do we kill ourselves with anxiety in our quest to get more of the stuff that will never satisfy us nor give us contentment? The words of Saint Augustine are as true today as when he wrote them down 1600 years ago: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”

I have heard more than one person misquote what Paul says in 1 Timothy 6:10. Someone will say, “Well, you know, money is the root of all evil.” Well, not quite. There’s nothing wrong with money. It’s the love of money that is a root of all kinds of evil. There is nothing wrong or insidious about money itself. Money is important stuff. We go to work and get compensated with a paycheck. With that check we deposit money in our bank account. Then, with that money the first thing we do is tithe so we can support the ministries of the church… Right?… We tithe first, then we buy food and pay our bills. Then, we have some left over to put in our savings. We still have some left over for household items. Then we have more left over for discretional spending like entertainment and gifts. Maybe you even give yourself an allowance. Without money we can’t even get the most basic necessities of life: food, shelter, and clothing. Money is exchanged for the necessities of life. Money is a good thing. It’s not evil.

The root of many kinds of evil is the love of money. That’s when we have an unhealthy relationship with money and are ensnared by it because we are filled with the desire to get rich. The moment the idea sneaks into our mind that more money will make us happy, we have become a servant to money, we’ve set money up as an idol. And I don’t mean that any of us bow down before a dollar bill or pray to pennies. Anything that gets in the way of our relationship with God is an idol. It is our idolatrous worship of money, our unhealthy relationship with material possessions, our eagerness to gain, which is the cause of our piercing ourselves with many pains. It is our idolatry to money which causes us to wonder away from the faith.

So what is the cure for this kind of idolatry? What is the prescription for dealing with the disease of culturally conditioned discontent? God’s answer is generosity. God created humankind to be extravagantly generous. Generosity is a part of God’s nature, and because we are created in God’s image, generosity is a part of our nature too. We are created to give, but we are tempted to keep. Proverbs 11:24-25 says, “So give freely, yet grow all the richer; others withhold what is due, and only suffer want. A generous person will be enriched, and one who gives water will get water.” Our lives are supposed to be reflections of God who made us. It is through generosity in giving that we find contentment and satisfaction with what we have been given. Life itself is a gift, and so every person’s life is intended to be a source of generosity and giving.

Paul says again, “As 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. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus 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.”

A good baseline for what it means to be giving generously is the tithe, which started with Abraham. Jesus commended the practice of tithing, telling the Pharisees that they should, indeed, tithe their leaves of mint and dill but they should also attend to the matters justice and mercy and faith (Mt.23:23; Lk.11:42). John Wesley tithed and expected Methodists to do the same. Generosity is a spiritual discipline.

The people we admire and respect for their generous spirits, spiritual wisdom, deep-heartedness, and mature faith are almost always extravagant givers. Name one person you admire and respect because of all they keep for themselves. Name someone you consider generous and spiritually mature who never gives, or who constantly complains about giving, or who always seeks to give the least amount required. Depth of faith and maturity of spirit lead to an eagerness to give generously because that is how God made us. Tithing isn’t about what God wants us to do, but about the kind of person God wants us to become.

Extravagant generosity stretches us to offer our utmost, our very best to God. People who practice this kind of generosity have done the courageous soul work necessary to change their lives and find “great gain in godliness combined with contentment.” A generous life is a better life because only when we live the way God hard-wired us to live do we find the contentment and satisfaction that we’re all looking for but so often are seeking it in the wrong places. Generosity is a necessary step on our way of taking hold of the life that really is life.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Balm in Gilead | Proper 20

Jeremiah 8:18 – 9:1

8:18 No healing, only grief; my heart is broken. 19 Listen to the weeping of my people all across the land: “Isn’t the LORD in Zion? Is her king no longer there?” Why then did they anger me with their images, with pointless foreign gods? 20 “The harvest is past, the summer has ended, yet we aren’t saved.” 21 Because my people are crushed, I am crushed; darkness and despair overwhelm me. 22 Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then have my people not been restored to health? 9:1 If only my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, I would weep day and night for the wounds of my people. (CEB)

Balm in Gilead

This is the first of many verses in Jeremiah which give us cause to identify him as the weeping prophet. It is a dialogue between the religious pretense of Israel, which assumes that the Lord is in Zion and is obliged to save and protect the people, and the pathos—the deep emotion—displayed by both the Lord and Jeremiah because this people understands nothing of God’s ways.

This text is an expression of grief because there is a sickness among God’s people that cannot be healed. God’s anger can also be seen here, but God’s anger is really subordinated by the hurt which The Lord experiences in the unnecessary death of his people. This is a parent who is heartsick and full of lamentation over the death of a child: something my family has experienced with the death of my young nephew, Blake. But in this case, it is The Lord who laments because his child, Israel, has made terrible decisions, and has brought this mess of suffering and death upon themselves.

Frederick Buechner’s book, Now and Then, describes the helpless yearning and heartsickness of a parent over a child when he says, “To love another, as you love a child, is to become vulnerable in a whole new way. It is no longer only through what happens to yourself that the world can hurt you, but through what happens to the one you love also and greatly more hurting. When it comes to your own hurt, there are always things you can do. You can put up a brave front, for one, and behind that front, if you are lucky, if you persist, you can become a little brave yourself. You can become strong in the broken places, as Hemingway said. You can become philosophical, recognizing how much of your troubles you have brought down on your own head and resolving to do better by yourself in the future…But when it comes to the hurt of a child you love, you are all but helpless. The child makes terrible mistakes, and there is very little you can do to ease his pain, especially when you are so often a part of his pain, as the child is a part of yours. There is no way to make him strong with such strengths as you may have found through your own hurt, or wise enough through such wisdom, and even if there were, it would be the wrong way because it would be your way and not his. The child’s pain becomes your pain, and as the innocent bystander, maybe it is even a worse pain for you, and in the long run even the bravest front is not much use.”

The Lord sees the sickness of his child, Israel, and wants to head it off, but must stand helplessly while the disease of idolatry works to its dreadful conclusion of death. The Lord, and Jeremiah, could see it coming from a long way off. They could both see it long before the political or religious leadership in Jerusalem had any idea it was coming. Warnings had been given by the Lord through Jeremiah and other prophets. But Israel would not listen. God’s pain and anguish comes from Judah’s self-inflicted injury.

But the people don’t even know they’re sick. They continue to imagine that everything is hunky-dory and that The Lord will protect them from Nebuchadnezzar just as God protected them when King Sennacherib of Assyria threatened Jerusalem (Is. 36-37). At that time, the Lord said of Jerusalem, “For I will defend this city to save it, for my own sake and for the sake of my servant David.” (Is. 37:35). And God did save Jerusalem that day. Now, the people expected God to rush in and miraculously deliver them again if they’d wait.

It’s like the guy who was hiking on a mountain trail and wasn’t watching where he was going, so he ended up taking a bad step and fell over the cliff’s edge. Luckily there was a bush sticking out from the cliff wall that he was able to grab a hold of to keep from going all the way down. He prayed, “Lord, save me! I have faith in you and I know you can save me, so please get me out of this mess!” Shortly thereafter, another hiker comes along and he yells to the guy, “Hey, I’ve got some rope up here. Let me pull you up.” But they guy replies, “No thanks, I’m waiting for God to save me. Don’t worry about it.” So the hiker shrugs his shoulders and moves on. Then a mountain biker happens by and shouts to the guy, “Hey, I’ve got a rope ladder up here. I’ll let it down and you can climb up.” And they guy responds, “Thanks, but no thanks. I said my prayers and I’m waiting for God to get me out of here. Don’t worry about it. God will save me.” They mountain biker says, “You’re kidding me,” and moves on. Then a rescue helicopter shows up on the scene, and lowers a basket to the guy. The guy says, “No, really, no thanks. I’m waiting for God to save me. I’m just going to give it a little more time and wait for God to rescue me.” The helicopter crew then watches helplessly as the guy struggles to hold on to the bush, loses his grip, and falls to his death.

When the guy ends up in heaven he asks God, “Why did this happen? I asked you to save me. I had faith that you would rescue me and so I waited for you. Why didn’t you help me?” And God says, “Seriously? I sent you a hiker, a mountain biker, and a helicopter. What more did you want?” Israel would not listen to the prophets which God sent. Israel chose to ignore the warnings and continue with business as usual in the face of their own sickness and impending death.

It had long been a claim of the people and religious establishment that God is present in Zion. The Lord would protect God’s people, Israel, and come to their defense. The people quoted the Psalms in the Temple liturgy which declare God’s presence in Zion, Psalms like Psalm 46:5, which says, “God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns.” And Psalm 84:7, “They go from strength to strength; the God of gods will be seen in Zion.” And Psalm 99:2, “The Lord is great in Zion; he is exalted over all the peoples.”

There is another part to this as well. Jeremiah had to face the confused and complacent response of the people and leadership in Jerusalem; a complacency which had been induced by too great an emphasis upon the protective will of God and too little concern with divine righteousness. Jeremiah wasn’t seeking to rebut the assurance of God’s protection given in the Psalms of Zion, but Jeremiah was insisting that it is not the whole truth about God.

The prophets and priests were always butting heads with each other. The priests were usually more concerned about the religious establishment: offering the correct liturgy and sacrifice; while the prophets were more often concerned with the righteousness of the people: their ethics and attention to living out justice and mercy. It is the righteousness of God’s people that is often the bigger problem even today.

Not only do the people expect The Lord to be present and to save but they expected the saving acts to happen according to their time table. They see that God is running a little behind, so they remind God that the time for saving is almost over and done, “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.” They’re saying, Come on, God, it’s time to do your thing. They assume that God will respond to the plans of the establishment. They imagine that God is only a patron, and is therefore available at particular times and places. They still don’t see that death has come upon them, that the claims of God’s presence have been voided by their continued unfaithful idolatry. Nothing will work to fix this situation except truthful and radical repentance. But repentance is far from Judah. They don’t even think they need it. They think they are perfectly well. They don’t see their festering wounds, so they disregard Jeremiah’s words.

Jeremiah… or is it the Lord, their words are really indistinguishable from each other at this point, responds by saying, “For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.” God hurts because God is offended by Israel’s idolatry. Idolatry is the reason for the sickness and death of the people. Idolatry is the attempt to order and organize life around controllable objects rather than acknowledging our reliance upon a holy God. God is offended by the rampant idolatry of Israel, and Israel gives fraudulent worship to God.

Israel wishes for God’s presence in their place and on their time but Israel is already terminally ill because of idolatry. Israel wishes for God to rescue them and be there for them when they might need God, but continue to bow down to idols. Wishful thinking is inadequate religion. It is Israel’s commitment to fake gods that immobilizes the very power of the Living God that would save.

Perhaps, then, the people can look elsewhere for healing. The land of Gilead was famous for its healing balm which soothed festering wounds. Maybe there’s a doctor there who can make a difference? Maybe there’s an herbal remedy that can be found to cure the sickness of Israel: this festering wound of unfaithfulness, sin, and rejection of God through idol worship. “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?” The answers are Yes, there is a balm in Gilead. It’s famous stuff, and Yes, there are physicians in Gilead.

So God asks, “Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?” No answer is given in response to this question. But I think from the silence we can see that the balm in Gilead is the wrong kind of medicine for Israel’s disease, and the physicians of Gilead—as good as they are—don’t know how to treat it. The sickness is too deep. The idolatry is too pervasive. There is no help in Gilead either: no balm to make the wounded whole, no balm to cure the sin sick soul. Judah refuses the only medicine that is available: the medicine of repentance, of wholeheartedly turning back to The Lord.

Jeremiah can do nothing but weep, but he recognizes his own inadequacy in this act of mourning. His tear ducts aren’t large enough to shed the proper amount of tears for this kind of tragedy. “O 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!”

The hurt of Judah’s death requires more grief, more crying, and more tears than his body is capable of delivering. And there is a question of how to translate the Hebrew in this verse. The genitive construction can be taken as “the slain of my fair people,” or “those slain by my fair people.” Given what we read of the treachery of neighbors and kin if we continue a few verses into chapter 9, the second possibility looms large. Jeremiah is stunned by the collision course on which the people are bent because of their unrepentant idolatry; tears are the only appropriate response.

So why does the old African-American spiritual insist that there is a balm in Gilead? Because a remedy has indeed been found for the sickness of sin, for the grief of death. The hymn confidently proclaims that there is a balm in Gilead, but the balm to which it is referring is Jesus Christ. God loves his children and always feels deep sadness when humanity proves that it knows nothing of the ways of God. Our wounds are also largely self-inflicted, and God weeps for God’s people today just as God wept then.

When God sees, not only the sinfulness of humanity, but our refusal to live righteous lives. When God looks at his beloved children, whom God created in God’s own image, suffering from festering wounds caused by our blatant refusal or casual indifference to live in a right relationship with the Creator of the universe, our God mourns for us.

That is why God sent Jesus into the world. We, then, who call on the name of the Lord, who seek him, who earnestly repent of our sins, are offered the soothing balm that will comfort and heal all of our wounds. God is yearning for each and everyone one of his children to come to him, to drink from the fount of living water, to be healed.

But now, just as then, truthful and radical repentance is necessary for healing. Righteous living is necessary for continued good health. There is a balm in Gilead. There is a physician available, and he’s always on call. We are all sick with the disease of sin, whether we realize it or not. Only Jesus can make our woundedness whole. Only Jesus can heal our sin sick soul. Turn to the Lord, and find healing at the hands of the Great Physician. In fact, the meaning of the word saved in Greek is healed.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Welcoming Sinners | Proper 19

Luke 15:1-10

1 All the tax collectors and sinners were gathering around Jesus to listen to him. 2 The Pharisees and legal experts were grumbling, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

3 Jesus told them this parable: 4 “Suppose someone among you had one hundred sheep and lost one of them. Wouldn’t he leave the other ninety-nine in the pasture and search for the lost one until he finds it? 5 And when he finds it, he is thrilled and places it on his shoulders. 6 When he arrives home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Celebrate with me because I’ve found my lost sheep.’ 7 In the same way, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who changes both heart and life than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need to change their hearts and lives.

8 “Or what woman, if she owns ten silver coins and loses one of them, won’t light a lamp and sweep the house, searching her home carefully until she finds it? 9 When she finds it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Celebrate with me because I’ve found my lost coin.’ 10 In the same way, I tell you, joy breaks out in the presence of God’s angels over one sinner who changes both heart and life.” (CEB)

Welcoming Sinners

On my last day as a student at Oak Hill Middle School, I took a penny to show some of my teachers. It was a penny that I had with me on a visit to Stone Mountain, Georgia. A penny I had placed on the railroad tracks there and watched as the train flattened and stretched it. Several people put coins on the track that time, but mine was the only one that stayed on from engine to caboose. The cool thing is, the penny was so perfectly flattened that you can still read the date of 1989, and the word Liberty. You can make out Lincoln’s profile and the Memorial and words on the reverse side. The day I took it to school, just as I was packing up after the last bell, I slapped it against the wall above the lockers. It slipped out of my hand and dropped behind the metal flashing. I tried to get it out, but couldn’t. Then, I had to run for the bus, sure I would never see the coin again.

About five years later, I found myself back at Oak Hill for some program my sister was in. When I walked the halls, I remembered that penny. I headed toward my old locker, slipped my fingers behind the flashing, and pulled it right out. I found my lost coin, and I was stoked.

It’s probably safe to assume that most of us are familiar with these two parables. I remember hearing about them when I was a child in Sunday School and at Camp Santa Claus. I remember the emphasis always being on seeking and finding. After all, at face-value, that seems to be the meaning of the parables. Yet, something hit me as I read them this time. Jesus’ teaching here is not only about finding what was lost but recognizing what is valuable.

The thing about a lot of religious people is that we tend to set boundaries based on our comfort zones. We tend to be at least a little flexible, tolerating small incursions into our circle from the outside, but usually only in measured doses, and only if the visitors conform to our established expectations.

All the tax collectors and sinners were “gathering around” (CEB) or “coming near” (NRSV) to listen to Jesus. The Pharisees and Scribes were not thrilled about the presence of these outsiders. After all, they were the ones who knew the rules. They were the ones who defined the kinds of people who were righteous and the kinds of people who were sinners. They set the boundaries and delineated who was in and who was out.

The fact is, we can feel threatened when those we might count as outsiders come near. Somehow, their coming near—their gathering around—jeopardizes our sense of nearness. Maybe it even diminishes our sense of religious comfort or security of faith. If so, then we need to hear what Jesus says. Those whom we consider outsiders are already near. The reason they are near, as Jesus reminds us, is because God has drawn them. Remember what Jesus said in John 12, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I shall drag all things to myself.” (John 12:32, my translation).

Who is in and who is out is a valid theological question, but it’s how we answer that reveals whether or not we are in congress with our chief Rabbi and teacher, Jesus of Nazareth. The church has debated issues like this from early on. Regarding the sacrament of Holy Communion (or Eucharist) the church has asked who is allowed to received? As a pastor, I happen to be one of those religious insiders, much like the Pharisees and Scribes of Jesus’ day. Theologically, I see Holy Communion as the meal of the baptized. It’s a meal that represents the whole of Christian Community as a foretaste of the feast to come when we all get to heaven. Theologically, only the baptized should receive.

But pastorally, I answer the question differently. The teachings of Jesus suggest that people are more important than rules. If someone who is not baptized came forward to receive because they desired to receive the grace of God offered freely to all in the sacrament, how could I say no to them? Now, once they received, I would encourage them toward baptism as soon as possible, but I wouldn’t fence out someone who was seeking Jesus because of theological propriety.

In the parables, Jesus reminds us that the lost as already part of the flock. They are sheep of the same flock, they are already in the house, no different from the other coins jingling in your pocket. They are already gathering around, and they are already near. We have nothing to fear by the presence of those called into our midst by God. In fact, our response should be pure, unadulterated joy.

In both of the parables, there is searching and finding, and the response when what was lost is found. We often speak of salvation in terms of “finding God,” but the parables suggest that even if we seek God, the most we can do is be found by God. A lost sheep will hide in the brush, fearful and quiet. A lost coin cannot cry out, “Hey! I’m over here!” The lost do not find God, God seeks and finds them. God is the actor in the plan of salvation. God is the one who invaded the world for our sake and became one of us. Our loving God has a long reach and a patient heart.

People in the church are usually more comfortable with the idea of saving the lost than welcoming them. We can make sure they’re saved, send them on their way, and pat ourselves on the back for to good job we did. Saving is about power, even control. Welcoming is about relationship and closeness, tenderness and generosity, celebration and joy. We don’t save anyone. God does. When God brings home the lost, what is our response? It should be welcome.

When God searches for what is lost, it is not some haphazard, lackadaisical affair. God is all in. God searches diligently. God seeks with reckless abandon. God tears the house apart and sweeps every corner. The urgency with which God seeks us has nothing to do with our worthiness nor our righteousness. God seeks because God loves us, and God’s love has a long reach.

Sinners are called to repentance, but repentance isn’t about feeling bad. It’s about turning around. It’s about having our minds and our lives changed. The thing is, the parable doesn’t seem to be about calling sinners to repentance so much as inviting the righteous to join the celebration.

R. Alan Culpepper writes, “Whether one will join the celebration is all-important because it reveals whether one’s relationships are based on merit or mercy. Those who find God’s mercy offensive cannot celebrate with the angels when a sinner repents. Thus they exclude themselves from God’s grace.” And, “Typically, we want mercy for ourselves and justice for others, but the Lukan parables call for us to celebrate with God because God has been merciful not only to us but to others also, even to those we would not otherwise have accepted into our fellowship.” (Luke in NIB vol IX, 298). God expects rejoicing from us.

In fact, rejoicing seems to be the climax of each parable. The sheep is found and the shepherd rejoices. The coin is found and the woman rejoices. Not only do the shepherd and woman rejoice—these two who are the God-figures of the parables—but that rejoicing expands to include the heavens and the angels. Sinners, doubters, and tax-collectors will inevitably hear this parable and take away the fact that God is seeking them. But for those of us who are religious insiders like the Pharisees and Scribes, what we’re being told is that we need to learn how to rejoice. We need to join in the dance. We need to participate in the celebration that is already taking place on a cosmic scale and will last for eternity.

There’s a scene toward the end of C.S. Lewis’s book, Perelandra, where a celebration takes place. It’s a celebration of human beings and angelic beings, which includes the whole cosmos. It’s almost difficult to read because the celebration, this description of the Great Dance, just goes on forever. It’s splattered across four-and-a-half pages of roughly 2,500 words. But it describes this cosmic party that has been going on forever, and will continue forever as more and more people join in. Rejoicing is the response God expects. It’s the response God invites us to participate in.

It’s an exciting thing when the lost are found and sinners repent. But this also begs the question: Who are the sinners? The lost, yes, probably. But those who need to turn around and have their minds changed includes more than the lost. It’s also the insiders who refused to join the celebration but suddenly start to party, who change their hearts and minds about who is in and who is out, who is acceptable and who is not. Because, no matter who we are, we’re all sheep of the same flock. We’re all coins in the same piggy bank.

We can open ourselves to true rejoicing when we no longer make distinctions. When we no longer thing in terms of one sheep who is lost apart from the ninety-nine others, or one coin that is lost apart from the other nine. When we view our own community as incomplete until the whole world is included within our circle, until no one is lost, then we can rejoice each time God finds one of the lost and we welcome our sister or brother with open arms because we, too, are sinners. We have no high ground on which to stand in judgment of anyone, but we are invited to a party that never ends.

Jesus even gave us two parallel parables. One presents God metaphorically as a man working as a shepherd. The other presents God metaphorically as a woman cleaning out her house. This is the only parable that presents a woman as an allegory or metaphor for God. Maybe, if we have only ever thought about God in masculine terms, our minds need to change about who God is. If both male and female are equally made in God’s image, then we really have no excuse for speaking of God in exclusively masculine terms. Might we need repentance—to have our minds changed—in this regard, too?

Absolutely no one is excluded from the invitation to welcome and celebrate those whom God finds: female or male, righteous or sinner. Even those who do not seek God are often found by God. And those who do seek God are only found because our seeking is little more than our willingness to be found.

Jesus’ teaching here is not only about finding what was lost but recognizing what is valuable to God. What is valuable to God should be valuable to us. When God invites us to rejoice, what shall we do?’

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Searched and Known | Proper 18

Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18

1 LORD, you have examined me. You know me.
2 You know when I sit down and when I stand up. Even from far away, you comprehend my plans.
3 You study my traveling and resting. You are thoroughly familiar with all my ways.
4 There isn’t a word on my tongue, LORD, that you don’t already know completely.
5 You surround me– front and back. You put your hand on me.
6 That kind of knowledge is too much for me; it’s so high above me that I can’t fathom it.

13 You are the one who created my innermost parts; you knit me together while I was still in my mother’s womb.
14 I give thanks to you that I was marvelously set apart. Your works are wonderful– I know that very well.
15 My bones weren’t hidden from you when I was being put together in a secret place, when I was being woven together in the deep parts of the earth.
16 Your eyes saw my embryo, and on your scroll every day was written that was being formed for me, before any one of them had yet happened.
17 God, your plans are incomprehensible to me! Their total number is countless!
18 If I tried to count them– they outnumber grains of sand! If I came to the very end– I’d still be with you. (CEB)

Searched and Known

The very first thing I learned in my Introduction to Christian Theology class in seminary is we are all theologians. Theology is the act of contemplating, imagining, conversing, and writing about God. If, therefore, you think about God or talk about God, or write about God, then you are a theologian because you are doing theology. You might not be a professional theologian, but you’re still doing theology.

When we do theology, we’re usually considering something about either God’s transcendence, which is God’s characteristic otherness from the created world, or God’s immanence, which is God’s profoundly intimate connection to creation. Most of our thoughts about God are of the transcendent variety. In fact, the majority of our theological traditions highlight the God who reigns over creation, the God who established order from the chaos of un-creation. We talk about God a high above us, hanging the stars in their places, setting the planets on their courses.

If I say the word God, what thoughts or images or feelings come to your mind? Do you see yourself as small and looking up into the skies with the hope that God might happen to glance your way? Do you imagine God far away in heaven, seated on a throne surrounded by light so bright no eye can penetrate it? Or do you imagine yourself as a child huddled in your mother’s lap, wrapped up in her loving embrace as she kisses you? The first two are ideas of transcendence. That last one is the idea of immanence.

Much of the book of Job is an argument for God’s transcendence. As Job speaks to his friends, one of his responses is this: “Who shakes the earth from its place, and its pillars shudder? Who commands the sun, and it does not rise, even seals up the stars; stretched out the heavens alone and trod on the waves of the Sea; made the Bear and Orion, Pleiades and the southern constellations; does great and unsearchable things, wonders beyond number? If God goes by me, I can’t see him; he glides past, and I can’t perceive him.” (Job 9:6-11, CEB).

When God finally responds to Job at the end of the book, God’s questions to Job are equally about transcendence: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations? Tell me if you know. Who set its measurements? Surely you know. Who stretched a measuring tape on it?” (Job 38:4-5, CEB). “Can you bind Pleiades’ chains or loosen the reins of Orion? Can you guide the stars at their proper times, lead the Bear with her cubs? Do you know heaven’s laws, or can you impose its rule on earth?” (Job 38:31-33, CEB).

Job’s response to all of this was an acknowledgment of God’s transcendent might: “Look, I’m of little worth. What can I answer you? I’ll put my hand over my mouth. I have spoken once, I won’t answer; twice, I won’t do it again.” (Job 40:3-5, CEB). In fact, most of what we learn from Job is to accept that God is in control and it is not our place to question.

This is, by and large, the majority of our theological tradition. Theology so often paints God so high above us that we’re left to wonder if God is actually present with us or connected to the world at all. If we have no concept of God’s immanence, then we can doubt that God cares about us and our struggles. Another consequence is, if God is only high above us, then we can be tempted to sit on our haunches and wait for God to fix the world because we’re helpless to do it ourselves.

The way we do theology—the way we think and speak about God—shapes our faith. Yet, there is a paradox of doing theology. The words we use to describe God simply don’t work. We can use words like transcendent, immanent, omnipotent, and omniscient, but even those words fail to adequately describe God. We can say that God is omniscient, and it’s right for us to say that God knows everything. But, as Thomas Aquinas reminds us: “His essence is above all that we understand about God and signify in word.” In other words, we can say God knows everything, but we don’t really know that that means because we cannot know what it would be like to know everything. Our words fail because we have no concept of their very definitions.

We can call God omnipresent, but we cannot really know what that means. How big is God? It’s like trying to define the size of the universe. Astrophysicists tell us they can’t know how large the universe actually is. We can only know the size of what we can observe from Earth. The edge of the observable universe is about 46.5 billion light-years away. But, again, that’s only a far as we can see. If we were able to transport ourselves to the observable edge, we might find a similar vastness there. We would be able to see stars and galaxies, perhaps another 46.5 billion light-years distant, that are unobservable from Earth because the light from those objects hasn’t gotten to us, and probably never will due to the expansion of the universe. If God created all of this, even what we cannot—and may never—see, how can we possibly understand omnipresence? It is simply too big to grasp.

The beauty and power of Psalm 139 are the ways it connects the transcendent with the immanent, making God’s nurturing care incredibly personal and intimately close. The psalmist says, God searches and knows me. God knows every action of my body. God reads my thoughts from far away. God knows all my ways. Even before I speak, God knows my words. God so surrounds me that I am hemmed in, like a child wrapped in a blanket, and God’s hand is upon me. That the God of the universe would show such intimate care for a creature, the psalmist says, is too wonderful. Why God would do such a thing cannot be fathomed.

The lectionary skips verses 7 through 12, which speak more of God’s immanence in the world. God is so vastly present that, even if the psalmist wished to escape God’s presence, it would be impossible to do so. The questions are asked, “Where could I go to get away from your spirit? Where could I go to escape your presence?” (v.7, CEB). The answer the psalmist gives are profound: “If I went up to heaven, you would be there. If I went down to the grave, you would be there, too! If I could fly on the wings of dawn, stopping to rest only on the far side of the ocean—even there your hand would guide me; even there your strong hand would hold me tight!” (v.8-10, CEB). God’s presence is inescapable. God surrounds each of us, even now.

We’re used to speaking of God in paternal terms: God is Father, but here, the psalmist gives us imagery that is clearly maternal. God creates us, but it is not that God blinks us into being and lets us grow. God is intimately involved in the process of gestation. God formed our inward parts. God knit us together in our mother’s womb. God made our very being in secret places where human knowledge cannot have access. God’s creation, itself, is described as having a womb-like quality. As God created order from the chaos of un-creation, so God beheld our unformed substance and wove us together in the depths of the earth.

What does it mean when the psalmist claims that we are “marvelously set apart” or, as another translation render the words, “fearfully and wonderfully made”? (v.14, NRSV). Both translations suggest we are not of our own making. We recognize our finite limitations compared to God’s complete infinity. One of the Cappadocian Fathers said that God is so vast that we could spend eternity with God and never know all there is to know. That kind of vastness in comparison to ourselves is a cause for fear and wonder. That this humongous God who made and orders all things known and unknown should be so intimately involved in our lives is a cause for fear and wonder.

As an author of fantasy novels, I can imagine and write about worlds and places where the power of sin is broken, where people live in love and peace, where wounds are healed, but in this world, I often feel powerless before the brokenness, hatred, evil, and injustice the news plasters on my computer screen every day. (I get my news online, not from the television). The feeling of debilitation we have at the distance between what we can imagine and what we can achieve is a cause for fear. Yet, the intimate relationship that God offers to us, the connection to God we are given through prayer, the fellowship we can have with one another in our Christian community, the redemption made for us by God’s own son, God’s healing love—of which we are gratuitous recipients—are all cause for wonder. We are fearfully and wonderfully made.

God is transcendent, high above us, omniscient in knowledge and wisdom, omnipotent in power, unfathomable by human knowledge, infinite in all respects, God holds even the universe we cannot see in the palm of God’s hand. Yet, Psalm 139 reminds us that God is also intimately close.

Nicole Nordeman sings a song called Small Enough, which speaks to our desire for God’s immanence. Here are her lyrics:

“Oh, great God, be small enough to hear me. Now there were times when I was crying from the dark of Daniel’s den, and I have asked you once or twice if you would part the sea again. But tonight I do not need a fiery pillar in the sky. I just want to know you’re going to hold me if I start to cry. Oh, great God, be small enough to hear me now.

Oh, great God, be close enough to feel you now. There have been moments when I could not face goliath on my own, and how could I forget we’ve marched around our share of Jerichos? But I will not be setting out a fleece for you tonight. I just want to know that everything will be alright. Oh great God, be close enough to feel you now.

All praise and all honor be to the God of ancient mysteries, whose every sign and wonder turn the pages of our history. But tonight my heart is heavy, and I cannot keep from whispering this prayer: ‘Are you there?’

And I know you could leave writing on the wall that’s just for me. Or send wisdom while I’m sleeping, like in Solomon’s sweet dreams. But I don’t need the strength of Samson or a chariot in the end. I just want to know that you still know how many hairs are on my head. Oh great God, be small enough to hear me now.”

The wonder of it all is that God is small enough because God is transcendent. God is big enough to be this intimately close to every piece of God’s creation. God is vast enough to be immanent and love each of us to the deepest part of our being. God is beyond us. Yet, God is always closer than we think.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!