Preached Sunday 9/15 at Head of Christiana PC. After the sermon I officiated my first baptism, which I talk more about here.
When I was in North Carolina this summer, I had a chance to meet one of pastor heroes, Nadia Bolz-Weber. It was awkward and sort of weird – I was looking around for a place to sit in this tent where another pastor was about to begin a workshop, and without recognizing her I pulled up a chair next to her at the back of the tent because she had short hair and a bunch of tattoos and looked like someone I’d be friends with. We smiled politely and she went back to talking to her friend (who had fabulous blue hair), and a few minutes later I heard her friend call her Nadia, and the pieces clicked. We got to talking a bit later on, but I had to laugh at how much I sometimes fail with “famous” people.
She’s just published a fantastic memoir called Pastrix: the Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint, and as you might expect from someone who reclaims an obscure derogatory term for female pastors, it is smart and sarcastic and very, very real. She grew up in a conservative church, and describes the black-and-white mentality of “saved and un-saved,” “good or bad,” “us and them” that she was taught, explicitly and implicitly; and how when she left the church as a teenager it was very easy to simply flip that – suddenly everything Christian was bad, and everything non-Christian was Good.
Years later, after getting sober and meeting a nice Lutheran boy, she managed to admit that particular Lutheran congregation into the “good” category, having fallen in love with the traditional liturgy and realizing that these were smart and loving people. But that was 1996, and when she learned that two years previously, their pastor had been brought up on charges by the denomination and removed from their official roll of pastors because he was in a same-sex relationship (which their congregation had ignored and kept him as pastor), things got more complicated. Suddenly they weren’t just only “good,” but somehow she managed not to write them off as totally “bad” either.
What won her over, in part, was what she had learned there and in recovery about the absurd grace of God that continues to call imperfect people and imperfect institutions to do God’s work. That God continues to redeem us and make all things new, in the midst of broken people and broken systems. She stayed, she says, but she was still angry.
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Jesus tells these parables we heard today in response to questions about who was in and who was out. The Pharisees were appalled that Jesus would sit down and eat with the tax collectors and sinners – people who were so obviously outside of the norm of society, outside of what was good and right and proper – and so Jesus tells stories of leaving the found ones behind and searching like crazy for those things that are lost. And there was joy and feasting for lost things which were found.
If we’re honest, we do recognize that in many ways we are like the Pharisees – the religious insiders who are generally comfortable with the status quo and skeptical of anything that will rock the boat too much. And I’d bet that most of us are used to being insiders in most of the places we go. We’re used to being taken seriously most of the time, and being in places where most people look like we do and share many of the same experiences that we’ve had. And in that way, this parable is a lesson, almost an admonition to us that we can and should look around us and notice who is here in our midst and who is not here, and to ask why that is.
But if we begin to think of ourselves only as “insiders” who are searching out the “outsiders,” the “lost ones,” we might very easily miss out on the things we have to learn from those who are “outside.” And when it comes down to it – it’s just not true that we’re always or only insiders, is it? There are plenty of times or situations when we feel like we’re that tenth coin, dropped behind the couch and forgotten, left out of the party. When for whatever reason we don’t get the jokes or our ideas just aren’t listened to or someone’s eyes skip over us as if we aren’t even there.
And because we know what that feels like, we are more able to notice when we are on the inside, and who is missing. We know what it feels like to be left out, even if we’d rather not admit it most of the time. So we can take up this call to look for that missing sheep. To notice that sheep is missing and to realize that we are incomplete without them.
And, yeah, that’s a little bit of work. I won’t deny that. But we’ve noticed, haven’t we, that it doesn’t necessarily just happen. It’s not always enough just to notice that someone is missing, sometimes we actually have to get up and go look for them.
But there’s even better news here, too. We’re not the only ones doing that searching. We are always, also, the lost ones. We lose sight of God and fall short of the work we are called to do and find ourselves wandering alone down some strange path – and it is God who drops everything and comes looking for us. Somehow, always, no matter all the things that God is calling us to do, to reach for and to search for, whether we succeed or not, our G0d is still right there searching for us lost and wandering sheep, to bring us back again into the fold.
And this is what we celebrate today at this font. Our God has made a covenant with us, a promise that we make again to God and to each other. Even before we are able to choose God, God has chosen us. The grace of God is poured out for us beyond measure, because of a love which defies all earthly logic. God’s love and forgiveness is gifted to the most innocent child and the most violent blasphemer, as the writer of the letter to Timothy calls himself.
And so how much more are we, wherever we may fall on that scale, however much we think we “deserve” God’s love or can’t possibly imagine ever being truly cared for, the astounding love and promise and forgiveness – acceptance – of God is shining down on each of us with the force of the bright summer sun, and all we need to do is just start to turn up our faces toward it, even if we still squeeze our eyes shut tight against the glare. God offers love like the sun shines light; constantly, abundantly, so brilliantly we can’t look right at it, and for no reason at all except that’s just what God does. That’s who God is.
In response to this amazing love, we have joined ourselves together as God’s people, this imperfect bunch of people who have said YES to the improbable love of God. 99 sheep who have somehow found our way to this place; missing the absent one and knowing that tomorrow when we are the lost one, that we are missed and that we have a shepherd who comes and seeks us out.
And you know what? This absurd kind of love will probably make us angry once in a while. Because God loves the people who don’t deserve it. Whoever we think that is at the moment, whoever we can’t imagine can possibly be loved by God, they are just as covered by God’s grace as anyone else. But the incredible part is, that applies to us, too. No matter how lost we feel, no matter how unlovable we think we are in our worst moments, God will drop everything and come find us.
And for that crazy, irrational love that finds us wherever we are, we give thanks.