Sermon March 19th, 2017 Savage.
Luke 15.1-32 Lenten #3
Today Scripture blesses us with three old, very familiar parables from the teachings of Jesus. These were Sunday School lessons for most of us and we can remember sitting around the little tables in the basement rooms of our various churches. Some of the tables were painted. The chairs were all small and fit us just right. We had folders probably from Augsburg Publishing with colored pictures and the teachers led us through a flannel board story as Jesus taught it, then we talked a little about it and then we colored a picture so we would have something to show our parents when we went upstairs for church.
Three parables and each one of these has one purpose only, that is to let us know how very much God loves us. That we are important, each one of us. Just like children are loved by their parents, so God loves us and doesn’t want any of us lost to him.
What can we hear Jesus telling us today? We are all grown up now and do these Sunday School stories even matter. We are told the Pharisees and scribes are grumbling. Jesus eats with sinners. He spends time with people who are not like us. If he were a good Jew he wouldn’t do those things. To answer this grumbling and to illustrate just how important each person is to God, Jesus begins by telling about a shepherd and his sheep, a subject near and dear to the hearts of most of his listeners. Sheep were a livelihood in the nation of Israel. Think of the sheepherders’ wagons we were familiar with out on the prairies. Probably an old Norwegian bachelor and his dog. One morning your 100 count flock is down to 99. What has happened to the one? Do we have a problem with coyotes or is it just lost? Leaving the 99 (for one sheep?) the shepherd begins to look and eventually finds the lost sheep. Returning to the flock he is jubilant to have his flock back to full size once again. Somehow, to just forget about the lost lamb is not in the nature of the shepherd in the story. One sheep is important.
Story 2. When I was in India, especially traveling in the rural areas we saw women with several bracelets on their wrists. The bracelets were gold and we were told by the guides that the bracelets were a woman’s saving account. When she was in desperate need, she could take off a bracelet and sell it and get money for the family. Well, likewise, almost 3000 years ago women in Israel did the same thing only the woman we hear about in Luke has gold coins on a bracelet like a charm bracelet women wear today. That is her savings’ account. But she has lost one and in spite of all the others that dangle on her wrist, one is precious and she sweeps the floor and searches until she finds it. Remember in this parable, God is portrayed as a woman!
Story 3 is much longer. It is the well known parable of the Prodigal Son. The main characters in the story are a father, an elder son and a younger son. In a seminary class the professor asked us how many of us were the eldest child in the family. Hands shot up all over the room, including mine. Then he asked how many of us felt as though we had been short-changed being the eldest child. That the younger brother or sister got away with everything. That we had to be the dutiful child, the good one. Every hand remained raised. There wasn’t a one of us that didn’t have that bit of resentment clinging to our childhood. So, where do you belong? Which son are you? This story is one of the major pieces of literature in the Western world, known by people everywhere, it is a very personal story and that is precisely why Jesus tells it. Where do we fit in this ancient tale about relationships in families and relationships between God and us?
There are two important threads running through these stories. Most obvious is the importance of one in the sight of God. In a world full of billions of people it is very hard to feel special. In 1985 I spent six weeks in India. We saw masses of people everywhere and yet we saw ways this culture attempts to assert individuality. Once riding our bus past a slum I saw a single red kite flying high above the shanties; another place a pot of red geraniums sat on a window sill. Nothing much, but it made the point I am one and I am here. See me. We were sitting in our bus after an afternoon concert in Calcutta. People were heading home after dark. For a moment the bus driver turned on his headlights. They shone into the crowd and it was masses of people, hundreds, maybe even thousands moving back and forth in the dim light. I thought, looking at that that I could have walked down the street stepping on the heads of people it was such a solid mass. One person counts. In the recent debate over health care it is estimated that 24 million people will lose insurance. That is a staggering number and one we can block out pretty easily. But what if that one is a sister, a brother, a child, a niece or nephew, a neighbor, a friend. One person counts and God says so in each of these parables. Don’t forget you matter not only to those who love you, but most important to God.
The other theme is one of celebration! God says when one sinner returns — when one lost son comes home, when one sheep is found, when one lost coin is scooped up and refastened to the bracelet — it is party time!! The father in the lesson of the prodigal son tells the eldest we are celebrating because your brother who was lost has been found. God never stops searching for those who have wandered away from the fold. I used to tell my confirmation students they were baptized which is rather like a brand — the cross on your forehead and you can run, but you can’t hide, because God will never let us go.
Our world these days is so high-tech. There are some new books out and quite a discussion these days on Artificial Intelligence. I don’t even want to know what it all means, but as the discussion continues, there is the fear of humanity losing itself in a world of machines where there is no talk of soul. Where words like religion and faith do not belong. One author said everything is being boiled down into mathematical formulas and humans will have no thought of conscience. Right and wrong will become only mathematical probabilities. When that is what is preached in the world, it is no wonder our young people do not see the need for church or bringing up their children in the faith. There is a sense of hopelessness and uselessness. We have to work harder to keep a sense of the nature of humanity and that we are created beings of a great and good God. Now we can’t escape these changes much as we might want to, but we do need to keep up our prayers and diligence in reading Scripture and living the life to which we have been called. Like the younger son in the story, the call of the world is loud and it draws us farther and father away from the things that really matter.
But there is also that pesky eldest son with whom we all can identify. We may be one, important in God’s eyes, but we also want to be No. 1 which places us in a position of importance in the eyes of the world and the two cannot go together. In the parable we never do learn if the younger son mended his ways or the elder son accepted his brother back, but regardless we do know the Father who breaks all the cultural rules and runs to meet the son he thought he had lost forever, a Father who loves both his sons with a deep and tender love and will never turn anyone away when they are trying to find their way home. And for that we can say a heartfelt thanks be to God.