Message Manuscript of “What’s Better than Cutting Pages from Your Bible” Luke 15:1-10
Delivered to Church for the Highlands John Henson
Sunday, September 11, 2016
[Audio of this sermon is here]
As I read the texts in the lectionary for this week, I winced at how all but one was perfect for a fire and brimstone preacher, but not for me. It’s not that I’m against beating on the pulpit, hollering, and stepping on feet with my preaching; I just don’t think that’s how God wants to be represented. I recall reading how Marcion concluded that the God of the Old Testament could not be the God of the New Testament; that it wasn’t an accurate portrayal of God when held up against that of Jesus in the New Testament. Thomas Jefferson did something similar to Marcion, going through his Bible and cutting and pasting all of the pages and parts he didn’t think fit with his views of Jesus. Now I want you to know that I didn’t do any scratching out nor did I use my scissors to carve out my own version of the Bible. What I did do is thank God for Jesus. For his witness of what God is really like. For his storytelling abilities. For the brilliant light of his revelation.
The two stories we’ve heard this morning are part of a triad about lost things: a lost sheep, a lost coin and the third story being about a lost son. The third is not in our readings for today. We will get to it in October during our second storytelling event. Jesus tells these stories in the context of being criticized by religious leaders for how he welcomed tax collectors and sinners. So, really, the stories are not as much about lost things as they are the one who pursues the lost things.
In the first story, for example, Jesus does tell about a lost sheep. And we usually identify ourselves with that sheep. That’s ok. It’s an accurate description for us. But we may miss Jesus’ central point if we overlook the shepherd. He does something unheard of. He leaves the 99 sheep who are with him to pursue the one who is no longer in the flock. The people around Jesus that day, who probably felt like lost sheep, were to hear first and foremost what Jesus was saying about God; that God is like the shepherd in that God passionately pursues people who have lost their way, become separated from the flock, and/or been excluded. God is like the shepherd who had authentic concern for the well-being of the sheep, faithfulness to his role as protector, and his love for each sheep rather than just the flock. These words had to be of great comfort to anyone there who felt lost and excluded. But these words must also have been a great challenge to the people there who viewed God as harsh, punitive, and exclusive.
Jesus moved on to a second story, this one not so much about a lost coin as the woman who goes on a search for the coin. She has ten coins in her headband, which the crowd would have recognized as part of her wedding dowry. These would have had significant monetary value. They would have had, even more, sentimental value. She notices that one is missing. It is lost. Imagine how distraught she was at this realization. Whatever she was doing was all of a sudden unimportant. What was now urgent was an all-out search for the coin. She sweeps, pulls up furniture, looks under pillows, feels blindly through cracks in the wall and floor until she finds it. Once she finds it, she hoots and hollers with ecstatic joy. She calls over her neighbors and has a party to celebrate what she has found. Like with the first story, the people in the crowd no doubt could identify with what it means to be lost and found. But Jesus seems more concerned that they understand something different about God. God, interestingly portrayed by Jesus as a woman, cares so much about lost people that God will leave nothing uncovered until each one is found, reattached, and celebrated.
I read a news article this past week that caught my attention with its unusual title, “Evangelicals Ignore G.O.P. by Embracing Syrian Refugees.” It told of how conservative Christians, like some at Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in Georgia, are receiving and helping Syrian refugees. I had just read a quote from Franklin Graham that he agreed with Trump’s policy to ban Muslims from our country, saying, “We’re not just leaving them on the side of the road, but we also care for this country and the people of this nation,” Mr. Graham said. “We have to put America first.” Can you imagine Jesus saying, “We have to put Rome first? Discouraged by his comment, I was surprised and encouraged to see a Southern Baptist church and Convention working from an understanding of a God who seeks out and embraces people, no matter what nation or religion they are from. I’m glad to know that their actions are shaped more by the words of Jesus than those of Mr. Trump or Franklin Graham.
Jesus’ stories are to change us in that they inform or correct our view of God. And, yes, they change our view of ourselves as we can so easily identify with being a lost sheep or coin. The Old Testament texts like Psalm 14 are quite adequate in reminding us that we are lost. I don’t think understanding this about ourselves is the bigger problem, though. Our bigger problem is the one Jesus continued to address with people: their incomplete or incorrect view of God.
Maybe the problem in our world today is that we don’t love one another because we have missed the big point Jesus made with his parables, stories, and life: that God loves us and seeks after us with a passionate and relentless pursuit. This was the message, the light Jesus shined for the world to see. Wouldn’t it make a difference in our world if we all truly believed that God was this kind of God? Would we need a plan for Mutually Assured Destruction, chemical weapons, and boots on the ground if we understood each other in the way Jesus revealed God? Would we still feel inclined to draw lines about who is acceptable to God and who isn’t; about who is in and who is out; about what lost sheep merits an all-out pursuit and what one doesn’t. I’m thinking the world could benefit when we spend time considering the celebration God has at the end of a pursuit with the lost.
How we see God also has a lot to do with how we see ourselves. Think about it. Could your view of God be wrong? Could your perception of how God responds to you keep you from seeing and experiencing the love God has for you? Is it possible that the reason you may not love yourself at times is that your view of God is wrong? You may know that the first several steps of AA are: 1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol–that our lives had become unmanageable. 2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. 3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him. The other nine steps—and success over addiction—flow out having a correct understanding of who God is; that God is God, and you are not, that God is for you even when you are not, that God wants us to be found and restored.
I’m not sure what your Bible would look like if you were to approach it with scissors and glue. What I hope for you—and for me—is that, after listening in on the stories of Jesus, the only cutting and pasting would be what we do within ourselves as we see God in the light of Jesus.