God, The Lost Sheep

The parable of the Lost Sheep is one of the great parables in the Bible because it is simple, understandable, and we recognize God and ourselves so vividly in it.

It is tremendously comforting to be reminded in such clear terms of God’s unending love for us.

When we are lost, God will stop at nothing to find us.

When we go astray, God will search to the ends of the earth to bring us back.

We cannot be reminded of that too often, because sometimes in our heart of hearts we find it difficult to believe that the Almighty and Everliving God would care that much about us.

As beautiful and important as I find that traditional interpretation, I’d like to try a different one today.

One thing you’ll find out about me is that I can’t stand the obvious sermon. I do not feel like I’ve really lived into studying a Bible text, and certainly haven’t preached on it well, unless the Holy Spirit helps me see a new and unique angle I’d never seen before.

And as my clergy friends will tell you, I sometimes play a little fast and loose with exegesis when I do that.

But I don’t care—if it helps us see God in ourselves and each other more clearly, than I’ve done my job.

So all that wind up is to say that I know I’m going way out on a limb with the interpretation I’m bring you today, and I’m asking you to join me just for the next few minutes.

If it leaves you cold, you can forget it during the Nicene Creed. But if it awakens something new in you, then thanks be to God.

So here is me bending this parable as far as I think it can possibly go.

All of Jesus’ parables function as analogies.

We read about the mustard seed and realize that it symbolizes our faith.

We read about the treasure hidden in the field and realize is symbolizes union with God.

And in this story, we traditionally picture ourselves as the sheep and God or Jesus as the shepherd.

But what if we flip that on its head?

What if God is the sheep and we are the shepherd?

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The End of the Reign of Goody Two Shoes, Or, Start Breaking Some Rules

What a scene we have in our gospel text today! I love it!

Jesus is teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath, and everything is going great.

The leader of the synagogue seems to be on board—it’s nice to have a guest speaker who brings a little prestige to your local congregation.

But then a woman in need shows up to spoil the party.

Can we be honest with ourselves for a moment here? Have we ever felt uncomfortable when someone clearly in need, someone who definitely doesn’t fit in with our crowd, shows up at worship?

I’ll confess to my shame that I have.

But Jesus, instead of dismissing or marginalizing her, or even waiting until after the sermon to take her aside and care for her, brings her right into the heart of the worship service and heals her.

The crowd loves it.

The leader of the synagogue is furious. But notice that he doesn’t quite have the guts to confront Jesus himself.

Instead, Luke says, “the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the Sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, ‘There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day.’”

Rather than reminding Jesus of the rules and thus risking a confrontation with a clearly powerful spiritual leader, he tries to intimidate the vulnerable people seeking out Jesus’ care.

Jesus creates the confrontation anyway.

He calls the man out as a hypocrite, and “when he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.”

Okay, so here’s the thing you should know about me. I am a professional Goody Two-Shoes.

I spent the entirety of my childhood, teenage years, and the vast majority of my adult life following the rules.

I’ve always been a good girl. I’m on time, I’m nice, I never wear white shoes after Labor Day, and I always send thank you notes.

If there is a box to be checked to get approval, I check it.

If there is a social custom to be followed to adhere to etiquette, I follow it.

The best I could do for my rebellious phase as a teenager was cop an attitude with my parents every now and then. I was so boring I never even drank before I turned 21.

I’m the prim and proper, teacher’s pet, snot-nosed Goody Two Shoes you loved to hate when you were in school.

But the thing I’ve begun to realize as I’ve studied the gospels over the years is that Jesus is not a Goody Two Shoes. Jesus is a red-hot rebel.

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Actually, It Is a Laughing Matter

We have a very serious set of scriptures today, and I assure you I am going to take them very seriously.

Really. I promise.

But first I just have to share with you the verses from our Hebrews text that make me laugh.

The author is talking about the sacrifices our forebears in faith made for the sake of God, and he says, “They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented– of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.”

I mean, that sounds pretty bad.

But look at that first sentence: “They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented…”

Being stoned to death, sawn in two, killed by the sword—I get why those three are grouped together as terrible fates.

But that last one—“they went about in skins of sheep and goats.”

I understand he’s probably alluding to poverty.

But it makes me think that the people of God counted fashion faux pas right up there with swords and saws and stones as a fate worse than death.

I mean, with everything else we have to deal with, now God is forcing us to wear sheep and goatskins? I wouldn’t be caught dead in that!

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Saying Yes to Judgment

“Someone in the crowd said to Jesus…”

Someone in the crowd. That’s our first indication that things are not off to a great start in our passage from Luke today.

Throughout the gospels, “the crowd” is often a code word that stands for “people who don’t get it.”

(I would love to teach a class that traces the experience of “the crowd” through the entire gospel narrative, right up to Palm Sunday and beyond.)

But anyway, we know from the beginning that this person who is questioning Jesus is probably going to be off track. And he is.

Following up on our sibling rivalry conversation from a couple of weeks ago, we have a person angry with his brother. “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.”

But Jesus is not having it.

“Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?”

Now this is one of the most fascinating of the Questions of Jesus, another really interesting way to trace our way through the gospels. Jesus asks 307 questions and only answers 3. It’s worth wondering what he’s asking you, today.

But this question in particular, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” puts a major chunk of Christian orthodoxy in a bit of a pickle.

It is a foundation stone of orthodox theology all the way back to Nicaea and beyond that Christ is our Eternal Judge.

At the Last Day we will stand before him and be divided as sheep and goats if the Church Fathers are to be believed.

And to be fair, there is ample scriptural evidence for Christ as Judge.

But here Jesus tells us directly that he is not here to judge us.

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Siblings: Fighting With Them, Fighting For Them

Everyone loves a good dose of sibling rivalry.

Mary and Martha are among the most famous sibling rivals in the Bible, and Christians for generations have wondered what to do with them.

Many of us identify more strongly with one or the other of them, and then feel slightly guilty about it.

Team Martha feels like she gets a raw deal, being gently corrected by Jesus when she complains about Mary not helping her. “Where’s the love for Martha?” we ask. “Marthas make the world go around, especially at church!”

Others of us know we’re Mary. We love being spiritual and contemplative, thinking deep thoughts and feeling very religious, but sometimes we’re hard to be found when it’s time to get down to real work. Oops.

As often as I’ve wrestled with this text and its clear call away from busywork and into the peace of God’s presence, I heard it differently this time as I thought about it in the context of the whole Bible.

And what I realized is the Bible is all about sibling relationships, and most of those relationships are troubled at best.

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Jesus, A Lawyer, And Who Is Real

There’s someone missing in most of our discussions of the Good Samaritan, which is possibly Jesus’ most well-known parable.

This story is such a part of our cultural DNA that even those who do not consider themselves people of faith know what “a Good Samaritan” is and agree it is admirable.

And the modern definition of “a Good Samaritan” hews fairly close to the original story: someone who stops to help a stranger in trouble.

But of course for those of us who call ourselves Christians, there is a deeper and harder call within this story.

It’s not just about extending goodwill and literal help when happenstance provides the circumstances of someone in need right in front of us.

Jesus calls us to notice that the priest and the Levite, the religious authorities and supposedly models of ethical rectitude, leave the beaten man in the ditch and pass by.

It was the Samaritan, the outsider, reviled and excluded and considered unholy, who stopped and helped and ensured the continuing care of a man who possibly would never have spoken to him in other circumstances.

It is all the more remarkable, as a clergy friend pointed out to me this week, that just a few verses ago, Jesus got rejected by a Samaritan village and the disciples wanted to call down fire upon them. Now the Samaritan is the hero!

These are all familiar interpretations that many of us who have been around the church for a few years have heard and taken to heart.

We hear and understand the call to love and care across boundaries and borders of prejudice, receiving Jesus’ teaching that our enemy is our neighbor whether we like it or not.

Now, living into that call is something else entirely, which is why it is so helpful that the story of the Good Samaritan returns to us year after year in the lectionary, pricking our conscience as we think about those we discount and discard.

The crisis of migrants at our borders and how our government is treating them in our name makes this story all the more painful and galvanizing.

But what struck me this time around is the person that most of our Good Samaritan sermons and reflections leave out.

Who are we not talking about?

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I Guess Laborers and Lambs Don’t Wear Lipstick

Last week we talked about how the author of Luke’s gospel escalated the story of Elisha in 1 Kings. Elisha is called to follow Elijah, and he goes back to cook one last meal with his community before he sets out.

Jesus said in our gospel last week that the call was so urgent that no one could turn back for any reason, not even to say goodbye.

Today we get what seems like even more intimidating news.

Not only are we to set off immediately without worrying about loose ends, we also don’t get to pack anything. “Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals,” Jesus says.

I don’t know about you, but I never leave home without my phone, wallet, and keys at the very least, and frankly I don’t like to leave home without a lipstick and a prayerbook.

(FYI, that’s a tried and true clergywoman slogan: “Lipstick and prayerbook: don’t leave home without them.”)

But according to Luke, Jesus is having none of it.

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Homebodies On The Move

Who loves a Bible text they know they can’t live up to?  I know I do! 

Not really, obviously. 

Grappling with scriptures that detail and point out my greatest roadblocks in discipleship tends to make me depressed. 

But I have learned over the years that those are exactly the texts that I need to pay the most attention to. 

So if you’ve ever had the same problem, come along with me and we’ll try to drill down into how to hear our scriptures today.

We’ve got our lesson from 1 Kings, and our lesson from Luke’s gospel.  Both are all about what it takes to sign up for the journey of discipleship. 

At first it’s a bit confusing, because Jesus tells his disciples not go back even to bury their parents, much less go back and say goodbye to the folks at home, but Elisha does exactly that and it seems to be no problem. 

Hold that thought, we’ll come back and untangle that in a minute.

But regardless of the methodology, the basic elements of the stories are the same. 

When God’s call comes, you drop everything to say yes. 

You get on the road and follow your spiritual teacher, whether it’s Elijah or Jesus. 

These stories are about travel, more specifically travel for the sake of ministry.

And here’s my painful confession: I hate to travel. 

I am a total homebody. 

In fact, I think I may be the only millennial in North America for whom world travel is not a number one bucket list dream.

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The Comforter Is Not All That Comforting When You Get Down To It

You know, I wish I could translate the Gospel the wrong way.

Or rather, I wish the Bible translation we read in church used the word that I like and makes me feel comfortable to describe the Holy Spirit.

But it doesn’t, and I think I’m finally beginning to understand why.

Today is the great Feast of Pentecost. In the Book of Acts, we read of the tongues of fire lighting on the disciples and enabling them to proclaim the Good News in many languages simultaneously, just like we had in worship here this morning.

And it felt as unexpected to them as it might have to you. That’s precisely why we didn’t warn you that was going to happen.

If it caught you off guard and you wondered what was happening, you had a very authentic apostolic experience of Pentecost.

And that ties into what I wish our translation says, but doesn’t.

The word Jesus uses in John for the Holy Spirit is paraclete, which can be translated as it is in the NRSV that we read in church, as Advocate.

That is by far the most accurate translation. It comes from Greek roots meaning “to call alongside,” and it meant having a friend show up with you in court to help you defend yourself against charges, like having a lawyer only with a closer relationship.

Paraclete has been translated as Intercessor, and also the word I want to use: Comforter.

(Side note: my seminary had a soccer team that played against the other professional schools at Yale—the Div School vs. the Law School vs. the Med School, etc.—and they were called the Paracleats. Get it? Like soccer cleats? The Paracleats? That will never not be funny to me.)

So anyway, I like to think of the Holy Spirit as the Comforter, because frankly, I really am in need of some comfort every now and then.

I know I’m not the only one.

And while I certainly believe the Holy Spirit does bring us comfort and solace, I really don’t see that happening in our texts this morning.

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Singing from Prison for the Earthquake of God

Today we are going to talk about one of the most important characteristics of the gospel.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ, above all other things, is liberation.

We see this dynamic all over our story from Acts.

We read that Paul and Silas, as they minister in Philippi, attract a hanger-on.

She is an enslaved woman, and she is said to have a spirit of divination.

We don’t really know what that means or how we would think of that in modern terms, but the author makes clear what the practical result was: “She brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling.”

This woman was being doubly exploited.

First, she was held in slavery, and second, she was used to make money by manipulating what was either a genuine spiritual gift of her own, or the gullibility and spiritual hunger of anyone her owners could attract.

She had no freedom or self-determination, and she was being used as a circus side-show act.

But she could sense the true spiritual power of Paul and Silas, and she pursued it.

“She would cry out, ‘These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.’ She kept doing this for many days,” we read, and then Luke tells us that Paul was “very much annoyed.”

Why was he annoyed?

Well, I think anyone following you around shouting out the same sentence for days at a time might get a bit annoying after a while.

It’s also possible that Paul was irritated that someone was stealing his dramatic thunder in the public square.  Never one to shy from the limelight, Paul loved being a showstopper for Christ, and this woman was rather upstaging him.

But I wonder if there’s another explanation for his annoyance. Continue reading

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