Monday, September 12, 2016

Unbreakable Love for the Lost

September 11, 2016 – The 17th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 19C
© 2016 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

When I was a little kid, my mother took my brother and me to visit our grandparents in Fayette. I don’t know how old I was, but it was back when there were still Gulf stations in Alabama, so I know that it was a while ago. I also know that I was old enough to go to the bathroom by myself but not old enough that my mother would let me use the men’s room—you know, in case I needed her help—so, when we pulled up behind the Gulf station in a tiny west Alabama town along the way, that’s where my mother told me to go—in the women’s bathroom. I objected but to no avail. So I walked into the restroom and locked the big metal door behind me. I finished my business and then washed and dried my hands, but, when I unlocked the door and pulled on the handle, it did not budge. I pulled harder: nothing. I locked the door and unlocked it again just to be sure, and I pulled and pulled with all of my might. Nothing. I banged on the door with both fists and yelled as loud as I could. I shook the door with all my strength. Nothing. I placed my ear against the door to see if I could hear my mother on the other side, but I heard…nothing.

Looking back, even I am surprised at how quickly my mind went to a dark, desperate place. Not even old enough to use the men’s room, I looked at the sink and wondered how long I could live on water alone. “Could I eat those paper towels?” I asked myself. “Is that enough to live on?” As I pondered my mortality and the possibility that the paper towel dispenser hanging on the white tile wall might forestall it, it occurred to me that the gas station attendant on the other side of that wall might be able to help. So I pounded on the wall and screamed as loud as I could. I waited but, again, nothing. Minutes that felt like hours went by. Finally, resigned to whatever fate lay ahead, it occurred to me that some other woman would likely come to the Gulf station to use the bathroom, and I began to wonder what sort of family I might have to go and live with. Would they like me? Would they be nice to me? Or would they treat me the way that all the wicked stepmothers treated the children in the fairytales I had heard?

It did not matter that my mother loved me. It did not matter that she would never leave me. It did not matter that there is nothing in this world that could pull me away from her love. In my mind, I was lost and there was no hope. When she finally shoved opened the door, I collapsed onto the floor in a puddle of tears. She picked me up and held me. In between sobs, I screamed at her, “Where have you been? Why did you wait so long?” She tried to assure me that she never would have left me there by myself, but her words did not matter. In my moment of panic, nothing else mattered. When I was locked in that bathroom, the only thing that I could believe was that I was lost forever.

Should it surprise us, then, that people have a hard time believing that God loves them and will never leave them no matter how lost their lives may be?

I want you to know that I do not believe that God changes his mind. I know what it says in the reading from Exodus. I know that right there it says it as plain as day: “the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.” But I want you to know that I don’t believe it. That might seem pretty risky—the preacher disagreeing with what the bible clearly says—but the bible also says in Malachi that the Lord does not change, so I’ll take my chances with the bishop and the heresy police. Now, I think that there are plenty of times when it seems like God changes his mind, but I am convinced that God doesn’t really work that way.

When Moses came down the mountain and found that the people of God—the people whom God himself had miraculously rescued from slavery in Egypt—had made a golden calf and were worshipping it, calling it the god who had saved them, I bet it seemed certain that God was going to wipe all of them out and start over with Moses. Why wouldn’t he? This was the definition of faithlessness. God’s people had completely given up on him. Why wouldn’t God unleash his fiery wrath and consume them so that he might start again with a new people? Because, as Moses reminded God (or, perhaps, reminded us) in his prayer, God is the one who had made a promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, saying, “I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.” And, no matter how faithless we are, God is always faithful. Just when we are sure that God is going to abandon those who have turned their backs on him, God surprises us in a way that doesn’t make sense—a surprise so great that it could only be described as God changing his mind. And why? Because that’s who God is: the one whose promise of love and mercy are certain.

That’s what Jesus shows us. He didn’t just spend time with the wayward and lost. He welcomed them. He ate with them. These “tax collectors and sinners” were people whose entire lives were defined by their sin—not just the “sinners” that preachers like me like to remind you that all of us are but the kind of sinners for whom their sin had become an unshakable label. Just as we might call someone a “prostitute” or a “drug dealer” or a “pedophile” in a way that assumes that person could never be separated from his or her misdeeds, these “tax collectors and sinners” were those who had no place in the religious life of God’s people. They were the ones on whom everyone knew God had already given up. When it came to God, they had no hope. But Jesus showed them something different. He didn’t just speak to them or nod politely as they passed each other on the street. He sat down at table with them. He shared a meal with them. He enjoyed the same intimate exchanges with them over dinner that we enjoy with our closest friends and family. These were his people, his disciples, his friends. And the religious leaders were scandalized by it.

“Look at him!” they said to each other. “He claims to be a prophet, but no prophet of God would welcome sinners like that.” It is easy for those of us with access to religion and the power it brings to know what God wants and thinks and approves. Those of us who have a place in church—who are allowed to enter the courts of the righteous—can’t help but know the kind of people whom God is proud of, the ones whom God truly loves, the people at whose table God is likely to be found. And it’s even easier for those who don’t have that access—whose lives are defined by their sin—to assume the same thing: that God is not with them, that God has forsaken them, that God has abandoned them. And why wouldn’t he? Why wouldn’t the God of holiness turn his back on the wicked? Because Jesus shows us that’s not who God is.

“Who among you,” Jesus asked, “having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine behind to go and search for the one that is lost? Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp and sweep the house until she finds it?” Some scholars find it fascinating—even shocking—that Jesus would liken God to a woman, but what’s more controversial: that God would be depicted as a woman or that God would be described as being down on God’s hands and knees, searching with a lamp, scouring the house for one lost sinner?[1] The scandal of Jesus Christ is that he shows the religious world that God is not to be found in the company of the righteous but in the fellowship of sinners. Jesus reveals that God’s heart belongs not to the pure and the holy but to the sinful and the wicked. God’s love does not pursue those who are good. “Those who are well have no need of a physician.” God’s love searches out those who are so completely lost that they don’t even know how to hope.

I hope you’re here this morning because you’re looking for Jesus—because you believe that Jesus Christ can bring you back into the presence of God. And I hope you expect to find him here. I do. I believe that Jesus is here, and I believe with all my heart that he is the one who can help us find our home in God. But I hope you’re not expecting to find him here because this is a church full of saints. We might be saints, but God is here because we’re sinners. We are his lost, wayward children—all of us—and God is here to find each and every one of us. No matter how lost you are, no matter how hopeless your cause may be, no matter how unlikely it may seem that God would be down on God’s hands and knees searching for you, believe it. God won’t change his mind. He has promised to love you forever and always.

[1] Thanks to Steve Pankey for the image of God being down on God’s hands and knees, searching for the one lost sinner.

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