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Saturday, September 11, 2010

Luke 15:1-10: Joy in Heaven

Pentecost 16C, 2010 9/12/2010

Think for a moment – what is the thing – or person – you could not imagine losing? That you could not live without. If it or they were lost, to what lengths would you go to find it or them?

The Spring I was seven, the wonderful Chesapeake Bay Retriever who literally raised me, Skipper, died. We went through the summer without a dog, and then one day in the Fall my father brought home a black Lab mix puppy that we named Bo. Bo quickly became my best friend and constant companion. Not too long after Bo became a part of our family, we took him down to my grandparents’ farm on the Eastern Shore. We introduced Bo to my grandfather’s collie, Tom, and the two dogs romped far and wide across the farm. I don’t remember the timing, but at some point we realized the dogs were missing. We called and called, and finally Tom came trotting across the fields without Bo. We launched a search for the puppy across the farm. Understand, this was a 340 acre farm with deep woodlands bordering on a swamp. We looked for hours, everywhere, calling Bo’s name. Finally, late in the day, exhausted, we decided we needed to go back to the house and hope Bo would eventually find his way to the house or to a neighbor’s. As we walked down the road at the back of the farm, we saw a small black shape cross the road. “Bo?” we called out. The shape stopped and turned. I ran down the road, yelling his name. A muddy, cold, and very happy puppy ran into my arms and licked my tear-streaked face.

What lengths would you go to find someone or something you loved and lost? This weekend of September 11th, we still tell stories of the thousands of people who waited to learn whether their loved ones had been lost or not. There are poignant stories about last phone calls, email messages, and, sometimes, a loved one thought lost who was found alive.

Last Sunday on our way out of church, my son, Drew, called me. “Um, what are you doing for Labor Day?” he asked. I don’t know about your family, but in ours, that translates to “can we come visit?” Vicki and I had made other plans, but I asked Drew if he and Shea and the baby would like to come to our house, spend the night, and maybe we could go to the last Squirrels game together. Which is exactly what happened. One of our greatest joys at this stage of our life is when our children – and now, grandchild – come to visit. What makes it even sweeter is when they come not because there’s some official holiday when they’re “supposed” to be there, but when they come because they like hanging out with us. There are a thousand places they can go, things to do, and people they could be with, but they want to be with us. Honestly, I can’t think of a greater joy than when all the people I love – family, friends, colleagues, church -- are under the same roof.

I think I’ve figured out where that comes from. I get it from my parents: my mother loved to entertain, and was never happier than when as many family and friends as possible were in her house. My father loved to put together parties, and for many years chaired the reunion of his World War 2 Coastal Air Patrol Squadron. My grandfather’s favorite song was “There’s No Place Like Home For the Holidays,” because he wanted the whole family to be at his table for Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, birthdays, and as often as possible. I get it honest.

But it goes back farther than that, according to this morning’s Gospel lesson. Jesus has gathered a wide assortment of people: Pharisees, scribes, Roman tax collaborators, people of dubious morals, people who were not observing proper religious customs, and heaven knows who else. Whenever something like that happens, someone’s going to get uncomfortable with someone else present. That’s the way the world works: we want to carve the world up into us and them, good and bad, saved and damned, insider and outsider, native and foreigner, been-here and come-here. Have you ever thought how much of what’s on television, from the news to sports to drama to comedy to so-called “reality TV” divides the world into us and them? Choose sides. Pick a winner, boo the losers. That’s the nature of our political discourse now: no one talks about finding win-win solutions, of effective compromises, of negotiating the best possible outcome from a variety of proposals. It’s good against evil, them and us, right and wrong, black and white. I think it was the late veteran journalist Eric Sevareid who said something like, “It used to be that we brought together a few leading experts to talk to each other thoughtfully about important issues. Now we invite the whole world to rant publicly about things they know nothing about, and we take them seriously.”

Jesus is always, in the Gospels, bringing together the most unlikely groups of people. Look at the disciples: four fishermen, a tax collector, and at least one terrorist (probably two). He associates with prostitutes, lepers, heretics, Roman soldiers, women, and children. There’s always someone offensive, and always someone offended, which is the case in this morning’s lesson. So the Pharisees, and scribes, who are trying to reform the nation by going back to a strict interpretation of the law, object to Jesus’ associations.

A few years ago, several of the United Methodist churches around Virginia Center decided they would set up an information booth one Saturday to give shoppers information about their churches. They went first to Ukrops, thinking that would be the most likely place to be granter permission. Wrong. They went to Target, and were turned away. They went to every shop on that strip and were denied permission to set up a display, except by one. The Virginia ABC store. What an irony: the business least in conformity with the Social Principles of the United Methodist Church was the only place to offer them hospitality. I think that’s exactly where Jesus would have been hanging out, too. It’s often the case that those who seem to be farthest from the light are the people most open to it.

So, Jesus answers the objection of the Pharisees and scribes with two parables about the character of God. Which one of you, Jesus asks, 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? I learned an interesting thing about sheep researching this parable: not only are sheep incredibly stupid, but when one is lost and in danger, instead of crying out in hopes it will be found, a sheep will often, out of fear, lie down in cover and keep silent, so a predator won’t find it. Instead of cooperating with its rescue, sometimes a lost sheep is its own worst enemy.

Two things leap out at me in this parable. First, no one leaves ninety-nine sheep in the wilderness to search for one. No good business person is going to fret over a one percent loss in inventory. Jesus knows that perfectly well, and that’s his point. The Pharisees have no problem with the loss of sinners. If they’re not going to cooperate in their own salvation, then they deserve to go to hell. We need to look after the ninety-nine – that is, ourselves.

For God, sinners aren’t inventory. They are children. While I’m not entirely comfortable with the saying “God treats each one of us as if we were the only person in the world,” it’s a useful phrase here. When Bo got lost, I could have said, “well, I’ll just get another dog.” God will not rest until all his children come home. I was recently talking to someone who said she had grown up in a very fundamentalist church environment, where she was taught that there are many, many ways to go to hell, but few ways to get to heaven. Since then she said she has learned that heaven is for everyone, not just a few. St. Francis of Assisi believed that God would not rest until the entire Creation was restored, and all those who were lost had been redeemed. Francis believed that the farther you had fallen, the higher you would be raised, until one day, worn down by the relentless love of God, even Lucifer would repent and be raised to glory.

That’s the second point of these parables: God doesn’t sit waiting for us to come home. The shepherd hunts for the lost sheep. The woman turns her house upside down searching for the lost coin. God is actively searching for his lost children, trying to bring them home under one roof. God is trying every trick in the book and every one not in the book. God shows up in the most unlikely places – in front of ABC stores, for example – searching for the lost. My favorite movie is Field of Dreams, the 1989 film about an Iowa farmer who plows up his corn to build a baseball field, thinking that Shoeless Joe Jackson will return. Joe does, but so also does a cynical writer, a small-town doctor who had once played ball, and, finally, the farmer’s estranged and long-dead father. The movie is about salvation and redemption, forgiveness and reconciliation, and heaven. The makers of the film are not believers, and had no intention of making a deeply spiritual movie. But God snuck in anyhow. That’s why if you only read Christian books and listen to Christian music and watch Christian movies and TV, and only go where Christians go, you’re going to miss a lot of places where God is at work searching for the lost sheep, maybe even including you. God is at work everywhere, because God will not rest until all the sheep are home and all the treasure recovered.

When that happens, Jesus says, there is great joy in heaven. What could possibly be more wonderful than when everything that separates us from each other and from God is destroyed, and we are united in one family at God’s dinner table? In your own life, is there anything better than when everyone and everything you love is together and whole and full? You get that honest: from your Heavenly Father.

When psychologists talk about healthy people, they say they are integrated: all the broken and separated pieces of their lives are brought back together. That’s good religion: the word, religion, literally means to reconnect. The greatest joy in life comes when we are united with the scattered pieces of ourselves, with others, and with God. It doesn’t happen by accident. Like God, that’s the whole work of our lives. If you’re not doing that, you will never find joy. And every time people find themselves, find each other, and find God, there is great joy in heaven.

God never quits until all the family is home. Go tell your friends, go tell your family, go tell yourself. It’s time to come home. And the joy will be overwhelming.

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