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Building a New Way:
Relentless Grace

Seventh Sunday After Pentecost • July 8, 2018
Scripture Lesson: Luke 15:1-10
Rev. Dr. Kimberly Bracken Long,
guest preacher

     Do you ever try to imagine God? Do you ever wonder what God looks like? It’s the kind of thing we think about when we’re kids. Is God an old white man with a big voice and a long beard? Or a strong brown woman with a warm smile and a comfortable lap? Or is God more like cloud or fire? When my son was little, he brushed his hair into a dramatic upsweep – kind of a cross between Elvis and Adele – and announced that he looked exactly like God. Who knew?

     Jesus must have known that we are always trying to figure out these things, because he tells us all these parables. Every parable gives us a different image of God, a different picture of just who this God is.

     Here in Luke, Jesus tells three parables in a row— the two we heard today, and the one you heard a few weeks ago, often called the Prodigal Son, or the forgiving father. The God- figure in today’s first parable is a shepherd. Jesus’ listeners would have recognized that image, since God appears as a shepherd all through the scriptures. In Ezekiel, for instance, the good shepherd takes care of Israel. In the Psalms, the shepherd leads his sheep to fragrant, grassy fields and streams of cool water.

     When Jesus told his listeners, then, that God was like a shepherd, they might have nodded in recognition – oh yeah, we know about this – God’s the shepherd who looks after lost sheep.

     They may have been more surprised, however, when Jesus tells them that God is a woman with a broom, turning her house upside down in search of a lost coin. That image for God is well, a little out there.

     Imagining God as a woman is only the first surprise. The second surprise comes when we remember why Jesus is telling these stories in the first place. It’s because the scribes and Pharisees are grumbling about Jesus again. “This guy hangs out with all the wrong people,” they complain. “For God’s sake, he eats with them, with sinners.”

     Now it must be noted that the scribes and Pharisees always get a bad rap. They’re the guys we love to hate. But to be fair, they are deeply concerned with being faithful to God. And for them, who you eat with is a matter of great importance. They are alarmed by this upstart who seems to be breaking those laws left and right. The faith and the practices that they hold dear – all that they have devoted their lives to – is being threatened by this young rabbi.

     So, when Jesus hears them muttering, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them,” he responds by telling these stories. He tells of things that are lost – a sheep who has wandered off, or perhaps has been left behind –  a coin that got misplaced in the chaos of life.

     I don’t know what the pharisees thought of Jesus’ stories, because the main characters— the shepherd and the woman — do some pretty ridiculous things.

     “Which one of you would leave 99 sheep in the wilderness and go find the one who got lost?” Jesus asks them. Um, the answer to that would be “No one.” Who does that? Leaves 99 perfectly good sheep in the middle of dangerous terrain to find the one silly enough to wander away? Nobody does that.

     “Or what woman with ten coins,” Jesus asks, “does not search until she finds the one coin that she lost?” No one, right? Who turns the house upside down to find one silly coin and then spends big bucks to throw a party for the whole neighborhood? It makes no sense. No one does that.

No one, that is, except God.

     The shepherd searches until he finds the lost sheep. The woman seeks the coin until she finds it. And when the lost are found, they rejoice. There is no complaining about the long search, no exasperated sighing, just a full-blown, all-out celebration. The friends and neighbors all come over to whoop it up. There is joy in the house when the lost are found.

     Do you want to know who God is? Jesus is asking. God is like this shepherd. God is like this woman: relentlessly seeking whoever is lost, tirelessly looking for whoever needs to be found.

     This God does not give up. And when those who were lost are found, there is no talk of a return to righteousness. There is no scolding or shaming. God’s only response is unmitigated joy. It bubbles up like a spring. It overflows like a fountain. The angels sing and all of heaven throws a party.

Jesus does not tell us who the lost are, but we can imagine, because we know them, too: some have drifted away from the fold,
some have never felt at home in the first place.
Some never really had a home,
and some have been pushed out of the flock.
Some are hidden from view, some are hovering on the margins.
Some have been separated from the others because of wrongs done to them,
          and some because they have wronged another.
Some are trapped, some are fleeing from demons, some do not know where to turn. Jesus does not tell us who the lost are, but we can imagine, because we get lost, too.

But we need not fear: for the God of Jesus Christ is the God of relentless grace.

     This, it seems, is the outrageous character of God: this God never stops seeking us until we are drawn back into the fold. This God does not give up until we are all welcomed home. This God will not leave anyone behind but is bringing all of us — all of us — into the kin-dom.

     This is radically good news – for us and for the people we love. There is no inside and outside. There is no saint and sinner. God is at work gathering us in.

     It’s also radically good news, for the people we hate, and the people who hate us.

     God is relentlessly seeking those people, too — the ones who have hurt us, the ones who have abandoned us, the ones who have broken our hearts.

     God is relentlessly seeking those people, too — the ones who want to deport us, the ones who want to shame us, the ones who are dismantling justice brick by brick.

     That is a hard word to hear. Them, too? Really? God wants them, too? But this is the God of relentless grace, who knows that life will not really be re-imagined until God gathers all of us in and overwhelms us all with grace. The kin-dom will not be the full re-creation of the world, until haters become lovers. Only then will our deepest wounds and most painful broken places are healed, once and for all.

     And when that happens.... Oh, when that happens.... There will be joy in the house. It will bubble up like a spring and overflow like a fountain. The angels sing and heaven will throw a party with a guest list you won’t believe.

That joy...it all starts here, in these waters.
When you were baptized, you were named as God’s beloved, once and for all. When you were baptized, you were marked as Christ’s own — forever.
When you were baptized, you were given the gift of the Holy Spirit who sustains you, empowers you, and gives you life, now and for all eternity.
When you were baptized, you were made part of that kin-dom of God

So, come back to the water where it all began.
Come and be reminded that you belong, body and soul, now and forever,
To the God who does not, will not let us go,
the God who will chase us down if we stray to far or run too fast,
the God who relentlessly seeks us so that we – and the whole blasted, blessed world -- may know unending, overflowing grace.

Come forward, now, and touch these waters. Kneel in the presence of God’s grace.
Drink of the water of life.
Come to the water, for here is joy.

 

Copyright © 2018 by Kimberly Bracken Long
All rights reserved.