Cross of Grace

A community of grace sharing God's love with no strings attached.

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Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)

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Lost Sheep, Lost Coins, Lost Dogs

Luke 15:1-10

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable:

“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? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 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.’ 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.

“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? 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.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”


Princess.jpg

Growing up, I had a dog – a mutt – named Princess, who liked to run away. (pic) My family got Princess from our neighbors when their mutt of dog accidentally had a litter of puppies. My brother and I convinced my parents to let us keep one of those puppies, we named her Princess, and she spent the first few years of her life chained to a dog house, out by the detached garage at the church parsonage. Winter, spring, summer and fall, she lived chained to the dog house my grandfather built just for her.

My brother and I were too young to be good parents. My dad might say he was “old-school” when it came to dogs, not believing they belonged in the house. We thought he was just mean. (I actually think it had something to do with the fact that we lived in the church parsonage.)

Anyway, when we moved from Ohio to Michigan and bought our own house, Princess all of a sudden became an “inside dog.” I think this was partly meant to be a consolation prize for moving us, in the first place, and partly because we moved from a house in the country to a subdivision in the suburbs where her constant barking would not be tolerated by the neighbors who were all of a sudden so nearby.

Still, Princess spent a lot of time in this suburban backyard, not chained to that dog house anymore, but confined to a postage stamp-sized lot by a pretty wimpy privacy fence. It didn’t take her long to learn she could dig her way underneath the fence, behind the bush in the far corner of our yard. And when we filled her favorite digging holes with bricks and rocks, it didn’t take her long to learn she could just rip the boards off of the privacy fence and make her escape. It happened so often, we kept a regular supply of replacement boards on-hand so we could repair it every time Princess got the urge to run.

Eventually, we bought a staple gun and rolls of chicken wire which we attached to the inside of the fence to keep Princess where she belonged. (We were the classy neighbors on Park Ridge Road.) The chicken wire finally worked, for the most part, but Princess was still, always looking to run. If the back gate didn’t get latched, she would notice and hit the road. If we had company over – and they weren’t fast enough – Princess would dart out the front door before they could close it. I think she even learned how to open that front screen door with her nose, if we didn’t remember to lock it. “Princess,” it turns out, wasn’t so aptly named.

And every time she escaped, it would send my brother and me into a panic. We would roam and race around the streets chasing after her: bribing her with treats, luring her into back yards where we could trap her, trying to beat her in a foot-race, frankly, and tackle her, if nothing else. I’m sure it was a spectacle to behold. (Did I mention we were the classy neighbors on Park Ridge Road?)

Well, I thought about Princess when I read, again, about the lost sheep and the lost coin – and about the parable of the prodigal son, which follows these two parables, in Luke’s Gospel, actually.

Because Jesus tells these parables about lost things – lost sheep, lost coins and lost children – in response to the self-righteous grumbling of the scribes and the Pharisees, who notice that Jesus welcomes and eats with sinners. In other words, they were surprised – if not downright disgusted – that Jesus would bother with the losers; that he would break bread with the broken; that he would slum it with the sinners. In other words, why chase after that stupid dog who doesn’t want to follow the rules, or obey your ways, or be with you in the first place?

Of course, I didn’t know when I was a kid – and it certainly wasn’t my motivation at the time – but chasing Princess around the neighborhood is likely the only time in my entire life that I might have been more like Jesus than my father. (I found out, after preaching this sermon at our first service, with my dad in the room, that he remembers this all very differently!)

See, my dad never joined us in these chases, probably because I’m not sure he cared if that dog ever made her way home again, for all the reasons you’ve already heard. And he didn’t chase after Princess because she knew that about him, so he was probably the last person she would come to anyway. But mostly, my dad didn’t chase after our renegade dog because he was always just convinced that Princess would come home when she was good and ready; when she was tired of running; when she was hungry enough; or tired enough; or lonely enough, or whatever. And, to be fair, maybe the story of the Prodigal Son bears that out.

But this morning is about lost sheep and lost coins and my brother and I were never so sure. We had lost another dog once when she got hit by a car on those country roads, back in Ohio. So we chased after Princess like her life was at stake. We searched for her. We called after her. We cried for her and worried about her and prayed for her to come to her senses. And time after time after time we brought that stubborn, stupid, sneaky, sinful dog back home – against her will – but home… and safe… where she belonged.

And that is the hope and encouragement and Good News in Jesus’ parables this morning. Coins and sheep and stubborn dogs don’t always know they are lost – or loved – or worthy. Coins and sheep and stubborn dogs don’t always make choices from a place of wisdom and understanding. Sometimes, coins and sheep and stubborn dogs need to be sought after, searched for, saved by a love that’s greater than anything some might say they deserve.

And the same is true for you and me and for the rest God’s children, too, from time to time. We don’t always make choices from a place of wisdom and understanding and deep faith. We don’t always know we’re lost, or loved, in need or worthy of rescue. So we need to be pursued… sought after… and saved by the love of God, in Jesus Christ, which is greater than anything we deserve.

And I hope – because I believe it’s God’s hope – that once we know the truth of that; once we learn about how mightily God has pursued us in Jesus Christ, that we will find ways to go after the lost and the broken, to seek out the hurting and the hopeless with the love of God, like their lives depend on it. The lives of some, may indeed, depend on it, after all – those lost to addiction or homelessness or poverty or injustice. But this is worthwhile, faithful, life-giving work, in any case, because the lives of all people – sinners, every one of us – will be blessed and better when we make way and make room for all people at the table of God’s grace.

Amen

Following Jesus

Luke 14:25-33

Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, "Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, 'This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.' Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand?

If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.


Accurate or not, I have some pretty clear pictures in my mind about the way it looked when Jesus walked around in this world – when he was being very literally followed from one place to the next. I imagine Jesus, walking around the hills of Galilee, looking a lot like Tiger Woods – not the Beatles or Michael Jackson, but Tiger Woods – making his way around the fairways of Augusta: with throngs of people following him from tee to tee, trying to get a closer look, hoping for a picture, begging for an autograph, waiting for a high five, or even just a glimpse of a fist pump or something.

I picture crowds pressing in on Jesus from all sides, trying to get as close as they could get – trying to get him to look at them, to smile at them, to say something to them. I picture kids on their parents’ shoulders. I picture the Pharisees and leaders of the synagogue watching – with envy, curiosity and suspicion – from a distance. I picture his disciples, moving along with him – like a motley crew of wannabe, impromptu security guards – trying to keep people at arm’s length.

So I imagine it wasn’t always easy being Jesus. Always being followed like that; always being sought out, always being looked for. And I imagine Jesus, the man, got sick of it sometimes. And I think maybe that’s where we find him in this Gospel – which all begins with the notion that “now, large crowds were traveling with him.” “Now.” Like maybe things were suddenly changing for Jesus. Like maybe his popularity had reached a new level that was surprising, even to him.

And I wonder if Jesus had had it. Like, maybe he’d just had enough of the "groupies" … enough of the "fair weather" friend types … enough of the people who followed him out of curiosity or because they were hoping for some sort of personal gain; those who just wanted to take advantage of some sort of “grace by association,” perhaps. I wonder if Jesus had grown weary of the fame seekers… or those who just wanted to test him… or who just wanted to see if he was for real… or who just wanted to prove that he wasn’t.

So I wonder if Jesus isn’t upping the ante with these words today when he lets them all have it – all of those followers – his disciples and whoever else was listening in that crowd. And I imagine them dropping like flies after each declaration. And I imagine Jesus wasn’t a bit surprised to see them go. After all, remember what he said to them:

"Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” Who would stick around for that? Can’t you imagine those on the fringes just sort of slowing down and drifting away and letting the crowd move along without them?

And then he says, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” The cross!? An instrument of torture and death?! An invitation to die for the good of the cause?! An invitation to the ultimate sacrifice and suffering?! Can’t you envision even more of that crowd falling away, then, remembering they had something else they needed to do that afternoon?

And then he adds, “…none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” And don’t you think this was a deal-breaker for even more of the wannabes in that crowd? That that must have sent them away, if they hadn’t gone already. “All of your possessions” is easy math, even for me. All is all, after all. What about that lamb they were going to buy for the Passover… or that new pair of sandals… or their daughter’s wedding they’d been saving for? All of it, Jesus?

Jesus couldn't make it any more plain to those who were listening and following him on that particular day. He told them he was more important than family… that allegiance to him meant suffering and sacrifice… that becoming his disciple meant getting rid of all the “stuff” and the “things” the world says are were worth something.

And Jesus’ words should get our attention, because that was and is their intention – nothing more and nothing less. Discipleship is about commitment. This life of faith means to impact all of the people and priorities and possessions that make up a life. Discipleship isn’t easy or safe or comfortable every step of the way. It can be risky. It can even be dangerous, when you do it well. And who wants to follow someone toward all of that?

But, think about any meaningful relationship you’ve ever had – a marriage, a friendship, your investment in a child, your connection to a parent or a teacher or a coach. Haven’t those relationships demanded something of you? Haven’t those relationships required some sacrifice? Some struggle, even? Some giving, maybe, more often than you’d like or ever thought you could? But haven’t those relationships been rewarding… fulfilling… life-giving in the end?

I don’t have a cute analogy or a funny story or an illustration for all of this, this time around. I guess what I’m seeing in Jesus this morning, is our God offering this kind of love and generosity and faithfulness to the world, looking for some measure of the same, in return. And not because Jesus or God need it, to do what God, in Jesus, was about to do. Where would the grace be in that.

But Jesus invites us into this relationship because he knows what a gift it is and will be for us, when we get it right; how rewarding… how fulfilling… how life-giving and world-changing this kind of love and generosity and faithfulness can be for those who practice it – and for the world who would see and be blessed by it, in the end.

This passage always shows up in the fall sometime, like today, when we are getting ready to begin another season full of more opportunities for worship, more opportunities for education, more opportunities for fellowship, and more opportunities to help make it all happen – and I happen to think that “following Jesus” means helping to make it all happen. And I think the severity of Jesus’ words are perfectly timed for us in that regard, and I can’t help but think Jesus knew what he was doing – way back then for all of those listening, and even now, for you and me.

I can’t help but wonder if Jesus talked about giving away all of our possessions – because then a tithe – 10% – or even more – would seem like the pittance it is by comparison.

And I can’t help but wonder if Jesus talked about carrying a cross, if he raised up the notion of the ultimate sacrifice – because then we might consider teaching Sunday School or serving in the nursery or signing up for a Bible Study or cleaning the church building from a different, more humble, grateful-hearted, willing sort of perspective.

And I can’t help but wonder if Jesus talked so shockingly about hating your father and mother, your wife and children, your brothers and sisters – because that would make loving your enemies a little bit more palatable and possible for the likes of you and me.

Let’s not forget that there was a time when no one followed Jesus. There was one place Jesus walked – utterly alone and completely uninterrupted. There was a day when Jesus made his way through the streets and out of the city and up a hill and to the cross. On that day, no one followed. No one reached out. No one cared to shake his hand. No one tried to catch his eye.

And let’s remember how blessed we are to be here, now, together following – receiving more than we could ask for, more than we deserve and more than we can ever even think about paying back.

Here we are together following, trying our best to be disciples – offering ourselves, our time, and our possessions – free to give away more than we ever thought we could do without. Free to give away “things” and “stuff” and time and energy and love and grace and mercy and hope and joy – because our lives and the world will be blessed and better for it, when we do.

Amen

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