Sunday, September 15, 2013

The One

The One
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
September 15, 2013
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Luke 15: 1-10 

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives      
For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

15 Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
3 So he told them this parable: 4 “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? 5 When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 7 Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
8 “Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? 9 When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ 10 Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” [1]  

As difficult and challenging as last week's scripture passage was, with the cost of discipleship, we follow it up this week with a much more comforting text, at least on the surface. There is grace, there is care, there is love, there is God reaching out to the lost sheep, showing care without end, showing us that God will go to great lengths to care for us, to find us, even when we go astray. These are actually the first two parables of a set of three. The third in the set is the Prodigal Son, which builds on the same theme: should we ever go astray, God will be there seeking us out, welcoming us back with open arms, rejoicing that now the herd is back together because the one lost sheep has been restored. It's comforting. It's overflowing with mercy, grace, forgiveness and love. But there is a challenge to it, and that is because the audience is not the one, but the many, the herd, the elder brothers, the scribes and the pharisee's. Jesus is talking to the ones who see Jesus reaching out to sinners and are quick to say, "That's not fair!" We find ourselves often when we are faced with this passage, wondering which we are, which do we see ourselves as. Are we the many, herded together, the flock, or are we the one?
It's interesting that it actually matters. I love that it matters. It doesn't matter in most walks of life. Most world religions even don't build up the individual, or the one. Many of the eastern ones explicitly value the collective rather instead of the one. The one making waves threatens the group, so must be either stopped, ignored, or isolated, or silenced. But yet here, Jesus is claiming the one has value, the one matters, the one, not the group, but the one. So much of the world's game is not based on the one, but instead the many. It isn't easy to be the one. The majority rules, the herd votes, and the one will lose, every time, but is the one always wrong? How many times is it that the one is often actually right, on the right side of truth? How often is the lone voice crying in the wilderness the one that's actually making a whole lot of sense, fighting against the tide? In our Adult Sunday School class, we have been walking through the Bible, and have been engrossed in the Prophets for the last few months. Each prophet seems to stand alone against the herd, against the rising storm of the majority, against the much louder voices of the masses. One by one they come forward, Isaiah speaking of the one nation standing firm against all the much stronger nations, the one suffering servant, giving life for all. Jeremiah, the one voice of reason warning of the impending doom. Ezekiel the one voice reminding the newly exiled Jews that God is still in control. Amos trying to remind folks to be faithful when things are going well, and Joel trying to get people back on track when they have gone very bad. Jonah runs away, Daniel stands firm, Elijah is one against hundreds. Each one up against tremendous risk, each one very much on their own, each one thought of by those in the herd as very very lost. The list goes on and on.
A more well known example from the Old Testament is Moses. Having led the Israelites out of slavery, he heads up to the mountain to receive the law directly from the Lord, but he's gone too long, at least for the many. They begin to get restless. And they begin to get extra religious, but not in a good way. With Moses gone, and God's presence within him, seemingly away, the group convinces each other that Moses is lost, that he has led them astray, that he isn't coming back, that God has also left them, so in their restlessness they make a new god, a replacement, a golden calf. . . the one is with God, and the herd is lost. Connect that story here to the Pharisees, Jesus's audience when he tells this parable about the lost sheep and the lost coin. They would call themselves the heirs of Moses, the keepers of the law, but are they standing with God or have they made their own, for here has God come in their midst, and they are grumbling, wondering why things are this way, why it's not fair? If Jesus is the messiah and come to them, why is he not acting like they think he should? Why is he with the sinners and tax collectors instead of them? We're right, we're on the right so, ask everybody they'll tell you. Could all of them be wrong? Could the system be wrong? No of course not Jesus, you are wrong, what are you thinking? Have they shaped for themselves a golden calf, having found God absent in their lives, building a new God for themselves in their own image.
But Jesus triples down. He tells three parables all pointing to the importance of the individual, the perfect value of the one. If you look through the Old Testament characters you don't find perfect sheep, but flawed ones, with God providing the only perfection. It is the same with the disciples. It is the same with us. Again grace becomes the system. I talked last week a little about my teaching strategy and philosophy, of raising a high bar and including to the best of my ability grace. It came up during this week, as I was explaining to my students the way they would be graded. I told them how hard it is to fail my class. It's set up that way on purpose. It's hard to fail. I have this system where I grade all of their writing for me, paragraph by paragraph, looking at each on its own merit. Each paragraph then has to be of a certain quality, with a new and unique chance of scoring really high. But the ten point grading system begins with 0, for you guessed it nothing, then 1 for writing a word, 2 for writing a sentence, 3 for writing a sentence on the subject, 4 for writing a paragraph on the class as a whole, 5 for writing a paragraph on whatever topic the question was on, but still somehow not answering the question. Yes it sounds like that's pretty ridiculously easy, but you gotta remember, they are all failing grades, but a five is a 50%, failing, but 50% is much better than a zero, so just by being half way present you can fail, but only barely, setting your success up to fit into the average, if you are at all remotely answering at least part of the question you'll get a 6 which is passing. Then there is a 4 point scale of quality, 7-10. So it's hard, it's really hard to fail, you have to actively work at failing, but on the other hand it's hard to get an A too. It's hard to be exceptional, but I told them, the reason I make it hard to fail is not because I want them all to get processed through successfully, not at all, instead it's about creating a system that rewards risk, that rewards extra effort, that rewards really putting yourself out there. I think that's what Jesus does when he offers us grace.
Remember how the heroes of the Old Testament are pushing the edge, often out on their own, I think God wants us there working beyond the norm, on the outside of the herd, where we can be the most dangerous for good, where we can really be with him. Grace takes failing out of the equation, doesn't it, makes it no longer an issue. No longer. . . Some students, like the Pharisees may look to the system and find that it isn't fair. They work really hard to get a safe 8, and it's only 3 measly points beyond the person on the outside who couldn't even answer the question. I talk to students all the time, how come I keep getting 8's aren't I doing what you asked me to do. What can I to get that better mark? The answer is always the same. Always. Take a risk, put yourself on the line, do more than you ever thought you could. They always say, but what if I get it wrong? So what I say, how many points are you going to lose? 1 at most. Come on show me something. Show me your thoughts. Show me you, put yourself into the answer, that's what I want to see.
Do you think that is what God wants from us? For us to put ourselves on the line, to risk, to be on the edge. But what if I get lost? I'll find you. What if I go astray? I'll corral you back in. What if I fail? How can you, for I am there, and I've set up the system, and I made you, and I know you better than you know yourself.
The Call to Worship was from Psalm 139, I want to look at that Psalm more closely, let's read it.

1     O Lord, you have searched me and known me.  ---- me, you, me, each of us
2     You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.    ---- So how could we get lost? 

3     You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.     ----- Even before we know 

4     Even before a word is on my tongue,
O Lord, you know it completely.      ------ Even before we speak 

5     You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me. ---- God hems us in, so why should we do that for ourselves? 

6     Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is so high that I cannot attain it. ------ We can't, bet we can strive, growing closer and closer, approaching.  

7     Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence? ------ still afraid of getting lost? 

8     If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. ----- even self inflicted failure can't separate us 

9     If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
10     even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.  --------- so where can you be lost 

11     If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night,”
12     even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,  .
for darkness is as light to you. ------------------ outside of our perceived limits 

13     For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb. -----------  inside and out, before us, after us 

14     I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.  ---------------- he is a pretty good craftsman, don't you think 

15     My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth. -------- Do you think that's a God who cares for each and knows each 

16     Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed.  ----- Do we each have a chapter? 

17     How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them! ------ imagine all of his thoughts of us
18     I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
I come to the end —I am still with you.    ---- can you count?[2]

God knows us, completely, God made us completely, all parts, each of us, and God will go to every length to find us when we are lost, all of us, each of us. What else should I fear? What is left?
I quoted Bonhoeffer last week too, and will do so again, he once wrote this: 

“Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies. At the end all his disciples deserted him. On the Cross he was utterly alone, surrounded by evildoers and mockers. For this cause he had come, to bring peace to the enemies of God. So the Christian, too, belongs not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the thick of foes. There is his commission, his work. 'The kingdom is to be in the midst of your enemies. And he who will not suffer this does not want to be of the Kingdom of Christ; he wants to be among friends, to sit among roses and lilies, not with the bad people but the devout people. O you blasphemers and betrayers of Christ! If Christ had done what you are doing who would ever have been spared' (Luther).” 

Look to Christ's example. . . again. Not with a great group, nor a great multitude, at the end, for all had abandoned him, he was alone, surrounded by those deemed evil doers and mockers, Jesus, the one, fitting all the descriptors within Psalm 139, too, same as us, but was so much more, was also the one true holy God. The one. . . let us aspire to be like him, unafraid to be alone, and like him, never truly alone, for God was in him, and will never leave our side. Let us not fear getting lost, but to celebrate being found, with all of our brothers and sisters, uniquely each children of God, in his image, many many ones. Amen.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 15:1-10). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[2]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Ps 139:1-24). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.