September 2019

What Will You Do?

Luke 15:1-10
© Stacey Steck

Once upon a time, a little boy and his family went to a baseball game and it was a losing proposition. First the little boy’s team lost the game. And then, as the boy and his family were leaving the stadium, the little boy himself got lost, separated from his family in the crowd of people hurrying home. For what seemed like hours the little boy wandered in circles looking for signs of his family, while his family did the same looking for him. It was probably only fifteen or twenty minutes, but it seemed like an eternity for everyone. Finally, they found one another, embraced, and headed for home. A classic story of losing, finding, and rejoicing.

The fifteenth chapter of Luke contains several such stories, the parables of the woman and the lost coin, which we heard this morning, followed by the more famous Parable of the Prodigal Son, or, as I prefer to call it, the parable of a Man and his Two Immature Sons. The editors of the Lectionary wisely leave that parable for another day, since its drama and power cast such a large shadow, and so it allows us to concentrate on these two other parables, even though the more famous one, like the two before us today, also has to do with finding what was once lost, and then celebrating. I guess you could call this chapter of Luke “the Amazing Grace” chapter, “I once was lost, but now I’m found.”

For the most part, I think we usually read these two parables as if we ourselves were the lost sheep or the lost coin, waiting to be found, or remembering when we were waiting to be found. This may be especially true when we ourselves are feeling a little bit lost or directionless. We imagine, rightly, that God seeks us out, and once we have responded to God’s grace, we return to the fold, or the pocket, and that God rejoices at our homecoming. I have no doubt this is true. Each of us is lost without God, unable to find our way back to the flock on our own, wandering around, often in circles, sometimes in darkness, hoping desperately that there is someone looking for us. That child I told you about earlier was in fact me, following a baseball game at the Cleveland Municipal Stadium. No one knows quite how, but I was somehow separated from my family for what seemed like an eternity. It was bad enough that my team had lost the game, which is what they always did in those days, but then for me to be lost on top of that, in an imposing and confusing building, literally walking in a circle, was a truly frightening experience. And when I was finally found, there was indeed much rejoicing among my family and our friends. Being lost is indeed distressing whether it’s a bodily experience or a spiritual one, and I have no doubt that God feels the same way when a lost soul returns to the comfort of the body of Christ as my parents did when I was returned to their waiting arms.

I think we also sometimes read these parables in reverse, as a call for those of us who have already been found to become shepherds to seek out the other lost sheep and lost coins of the world, for there is no one whose return is not coveted by God. We then, like faithful shepherds and house managers, are called to spare no effort to find the least, the last, and the lost. These parables express the great Gospel truth that there is no one beyond the desire of God’s love, even if they are not capable, on their own, of recognizing that. The task of discipleship is then to go out and share that message, welcoming home with a great celebration those who are found. This is the great impulse of missionary movements and evangelistic campaigns, to make the whole world aware that God has a place in the kingdom for everyone. We needn’t worry quite so much about the ninety-nine safely grazing sheep or the nine silver coins carefully tucked away in a purse, for God has them well in hand. Our call is to be like the shepherd or the woman who are not satisfied with a ten percent, or even a one percent, loss, but who want for the Kingdom of Heaven the fullness of what was entrusted to them on earth.

As valuable as these interpretations are for us, both in our personal relationships with God, and in understanding our call as followers of Christ, let me suggest a third way of thinking about this passage that I hope will deepen it even further. This third way is not unrelated to the first two, but perhaps its twist will help us in understanding this passage in the light of the unavoidable journey of Christ toward Jerusalem, and the of cost of discipleship, the two great and intertwined themes which Luke has been stressing in the chapters preceding our reading this morning. You will remember that since the end of the ninth chapter in Luke, Jesus has been slowly and theologically making his way toward the City of David, toward the cross he will carry, and along the way he has been teaching his followers about discipleship, about the crosses he calls them, and us, to carry. You see, as much as Jesus is teaching the Pharisees about the acceptability of so-called sinners, he is also teaching us about himself, and how we are to imitate him.

That’s why I think it is helpful for us to take the sentimentality out of these parables and remember that the little lost sheep, like all the other ninety-nine, was not kept as a pet, but as food. And the coin, as fine a piece of handiwork as it may have been, was not kept as a work of art, but as currency to be spent when the need arose. The value of these lost objects is significant in the lives of their owners, one percent and ten percent respectively, perhaps even the difference between life and death in a tough year on the farm. And thus, the value of these assets makes all the more meaningful the actions of both the shepherd and the woman when, in joy, they called to their friends and neighbors to celebrate. You see, between the lines of these two parables, even if we are spared the details, is the idea that what is found is then used up in celebration; the sheep is eaten, and the coin is spent. When the shepherd finds the wandering sheep and when the woman finds the misplaced coin, their first reaction is to call to others to share the blessing, not simply to relate the happy news, but truly in celebration, with a party, a feast! And what would be the main course of such a feast? Roast lamb, of course. And what would pay for all the side dishes and the drinks? A piece of silver, of course. And even if what was used wasn’t the sheep or the coin that had been found, it would have been another sheep or another coin, which would really just be the same thing, the giving of a significant gift from an attitude of gratitude.

Ok, so now here is the twist for the day, and why this is important for those of us who are not sheepfarmers and who keep our money in banks rather than underneath the mattress. What I would like you to think about is this: that the sheep we have lost, or the coin we have misplaced is that part of ourselves that makes us whole, that part which allows us to live freely and fully, as God intended for us to live. It is the part of us that keeps us from being recognized as the image of God we were created to be. It’s the part that our pain, our sorrow, and our sin have hidden from our view. It’s the part that has been stolen from us by the pain or sorrow or sin of others. Some have lost one percent, some have lost ten percent. Some, like the father in the Parable of the Man and his Immature Sons, have lost fully one half. Some have lost so much that they can’t keep track. The tax collectors and the sinners, the people about whom Jesus is sharing these parables with the Pharisees, had lost virtually everything. And yet in meeting and knowing Jesus Christ, just like us, they regain the lives they had lost, they regain that part of themselves that allowed them to go from barely surviving to genuinely thriving. And the question we hope they asked, like one of those characters in the movies who wakes up after years in a coma, is “What am I going to do with the life I have been given?” How will I share the gift of my life? With whom will I celebrate?

I said before that these parables were a bit of self-revelation about Christ, and an invitation to our reflection on imitating him. That is because the question, “What am I going to do with the life I have been given?” was never more faithfully answered than by Christ himself who fully used the life, the gift from God, he had received. His life fully his own, with all its parts in place, he called his friends and neighbors to a celebration that consisted of him giving away the very thing he had received. Jesus did not hoard his life for himself, like the foolish man who built bigger barns to hold his surplus. He did not bury it in the ground in fear of the master like the servant did with the talents he had been given. He did not fail to return to give thanks for it like the nine of the ten lepers who were cleansed. Instead, Jesus, in celebration for the life he had received, offered himself fully for others even unto death on a cross. Yes, he roasted the found sheep, and he spent the recovered coin, and he didn’t do it just for himself, but for his friends and neighbors, and for us.

I’m tempted to say that we have the choice to do nothing with the life we receive in Christ, but I’m not sure how true that really is. I mean, is it really possible for us to be in relationship with Jesus Christ, to have returned to us that which was missing from our lives, and not respond in gratitude with a celebration that involves us giving ourselves away for others? Is it possible to live in the Spirit and not lead Spirit-filled lives? Is there such a thing as containable joy? Of course, the truth is that no matter how aware we are of the gift of our lives in Christ, we’ll never quite be able to give our lives away as fully as Christ did. But that shouldn’t stop us from giving away more and more, celebrating more and more, and living more and more. For when we give away the life we have received, we receive even more life to give away. That’s the promise contained in Jesus’ words that “Those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Friends, as we leave this place today, may the question “What will I do with the life I have been given?” lay heavily but joyfully on our hearts. May God help us to live our answers faithfully. Amen.

Spin Control

Jeremiah 18:1-12
© Stacey Steck

I’m pretty sure you’ve heard one or more of the following statements:
I was just following orders.
My subordinates must have done this without my knowledge.
My opponent is just using this small misunderstanding for political purposes.
It’s not about the money.
I’m just glad to be able to help the team.
Even though my opponent won more votes, our second place finish shows momentum is building for our platform
We will find the person responsible.
This is an isolated incident.
The woman gave it to me to eat.
The serpent tricked me and I ate it.

Spin, the mostly political, but also personal, practice of making the best of a bad public relations situation, is like putting makeup on a monkey; it has mostly to do with denial, or at least plausible deniability. The monkey will always be ugly no matter how many people you get to say otherwise. Put more academically, the purpose of spin is “to forestall negative publicity by publicizing a favorable interpretation of the words or actions of a company or political party or famous person.” You may remember Hans Christian Andersen’s famous story of “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” a classic tale of an elaborate spin finally undone by the wonderful naivete of a child. In that story an entire town was in denial while the Emperor paraded before its citizenry in nothing but his birthday suit, all of them worried about being uncovered as “stupid or incompetent,” the persistent theme of that particular spin job.

Denial is a fairly natural human tendency. It is hard being honest all the time, because being honest means owning up to, and confronting, our failures or shortcomings, or put in more theological language, our sin. Leaving aside those people whose wearing of their honesty on their sleeves is its own form of denial, I think most of us hope that no one discovers our misdeeds, and that if they do, that we can come through it relatively unscathed. And so we outright lie, or we shade the truth, or we shift the blame, or any number of other methods of spinning the discovering of our sin so that we don’t have to go to jail, or forfeit privilege, or lose face, or, heaven forbid, actually repent and apologize. The kind of ignorance gained by denial is truly bliss, if only for a short time, for as we are told in the Epistle of First John, “If we say that we are without sin, the truth is not in us and we deceive only ourselves,” and sooner or later our denial catches up with us.

The people of Jeremiah’s time, or more specifically, the leaders of the people in Jeremiah’s time, were in a serious state of denial. For them, there was nothing wrong that more politics, or more spin, or a bigger army couldn’t fix. If there was a problem, it was that Jeremiah guy running around condemning them all the time, reminding them that “Thus says the Lord,” followed by a list of all the ways they were forgetting what God had done for them, or ignoring the Sabbath, or neglecting the poor, or chasing after gods who were no gods at all. They were simply unable, or unwilling, to accept the fact that they had strayed so far from the covenant God had made with their ancestors that God needed to send prophets like Jeremiah and Isaiah and Ezekiel to tell them to shape up. And so they try to spin God’s own words by dismissing Jeremiah as a crackpot who didn’t even know the history of the faithfulness of the very God he claimed to represent; after all, their God would never forsake them no matter what. Ah, “If we say that we are without sin, the truth is not in us and we deceive only ourselves.”

The depth of this denial, this self-deception, was so deep that in this eighteenth chapter of Jeremiah we see God as close to despair as God can be, so close that we learn of our God, the Creator of the Universe, the maker of covenants, actually “shaping evil” against them, “devising a plan” against the very people chosen to be a light unto the nations, which is to say, to make God known everywhere. God is ready to destroy the hope of the world, to throw it down like a piece of stubborn, unyielding clay and to start over again. Not since the flood of Noah had God been this close to wiping the slate clean. And so Jeremiah is sent with the message, “Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.” And what is the response? “We will follow our own plans, and each of us will act according to the stubbornness of our evil will.” Listen to that! “We will follow our own plans, and each of us will act according to the stubbornness of our evil will.” And even though this last statement does sound more like someone’s summary of what was actually said, rather than a direct quote, the spin is, for once, more accurate than the truth, for that is how we tend to behave.

As we have observed, we human beings are masters of one kind of spin, but the good news of the Gospel is that God is master of another, the spinning of that potter’s wheel, the shaping of history and lives and meaning and beauty. God is the spinner of purpose and intention, power and invention. We spin our mistakes. God spins planets. We shift blame. God shifts the stars. We are into plausible deniability. God is about implausible generosity. The biggest difference between us though, is that when God spins, people win and when people spin, people lose. You see, what God is spinning on the potter’s wheel is the fulfilment of the promises of creation: peace with God, shalom with one another, the absence of shame and guilt, all things we – in our daily efforts at spin control to try to save ourselves from the consequences we deserve – all things we are working against, just as they were in Jeremiah’s time.

The spinning God does on the potter’s wheel Jeremiah was sent to see had a purpose, a purpose bigger certainly than Jeremiah’s opponents could discern. It was beyond their imagination, or at least beyond their collective, long-term memory, that God’s purpose was for the whole world, not just for them, even though they had been chosen especially for that purpose, that through their faithfulness, they might lead the other nations into the same type of covenant relationship Israel enjoyed with God. It wasn’t just that God was peeved with disobedient children. And so if, like clay that simply won’t conform to the shape the potter intends, Israel refuses to live in such a way that truly demonstrates the glory and love of God, can we begrudge God the option of trying again with a more pliable people? Is not the purpose of God larger than the petty doings of a pathetic people? Were not others waiting to experience the blessing Israel had chosen to snub?

The visual metaphor of the potter and the clay is not hard to understand. God’s people were like a pot that just wasn’t turning out right, a pot the potter decided needed to be started again from scratch. What may be harder for us to understand is what is at stake in God’s relationship with the world, and just how important God has made us to be, first as the nation of Israel, and now as the church of Jesus Christ, and just how important it is that we allow God to be the Spin Doctor rather than us. You see, in the midst of this passage is the wonderful message that God has not only chosen us a partners in fulfilling the purpose, but that God doesn’t simply give up on us when we fail, but gives us the chance to return and be that light to the world. “Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.”

Getting out of the habit of applying spin control to our mistakes is no easy task, especially when we live in an environment in which spin is clearly more valuable than truth. But we can begin by learning to place our trust in God’s ability to spin rather than our own. This is what Jeremiah had to do. He was one man against a whole people, one lone voice of truth against a machine of spin. And though the prophet’s life was no picnic, God did indeed provide for Jeremiah, saving him repeatedly from those who sought to end his life. For us, it is not so much a matter of remaining true to delivering God’s pronouncements to intransigent governments as it is of demonstrating daily the power of humility and trust in God that comes with honestly confessing our errors and seeking the forgiveness of those we’ve hurt or wronged. If politicians have earned our mistrust, it is more their application of spin to an already bad situation than the misdeed itself that raises our ire. How much more time might we have for the shalom God desires for us, were we simply to say, “I’m sorry, please forgive me,” and leave behind the work and worry of trying to convince people of something they will probably never fully believe anyway?

As we learn in this passage from Jeremiah, that’s all God wants: for us to turn from our evil ways and amend our ways and doings. And when we do that, we have more power than we could ever imagine, for we are the instruments of God’s purpose to bring all the nations streaming towards the shalom that God has in mind for all of us. It was for this reason that God contemplated, and even completed, the destruction of Jerusalem, so that its citizens might not thwart God’s purposes but fulfill them. Knocked down a few pegs by the Babylonian invasion of their city and by spending generations in a foreign land, God’s people came back stronger than ever, a pot on the potter’s wheel that came a lot closer to being what God wanted it to be. But I have to believe that God would rather have avoided all those generations spent, indeed wasted, in captivity, just as God would rather avoid them in each of our lives, the lost moments and even years of spin we will never get back, when all we need to do is repent.

For some weeks now, as a congregational response not only to the benediction but more importantly to the grace we have experienced in worship, we have been singing a hymn called “Spirit of the Living God,” the lyrics of which include “Melt me, mold me, fill me, use me.” As we heard, the congregational response to Jeremiah’s benediction, and more importantly, the grace contained in God’s call for repentance, was somewhat different: “We will follow our own plans, and each of us will act according to the stubbornness of our evil will.” I think it is safe to assume that to God’s ears, “Melt me, mold me, fill me, use me,” is preferable to “we will follow our own plans.’ May each of us seek a path of humility that relies on God’s abilities to spin, rather than our own. Amen.

The Divine Pecking Order

Luke 14:1, 7-14
© Stacey Steck

It’s a good thing for me that you are not beholden to the finer points of the Old Testament Law, because if you were, I’d be unfit to serve as your pastor. You may not know what is the favorite Biblical passage of a majority of teenaged boys participating in Confirmation classes all across this land, but I do: It is Leviticus 21:18-20. “For no one who has a blemish shall draw near, one who is blind or lame, or one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long, or one who has a broken foot or a broken hand, or a hunchback, or a dwarf, or a man with a blemish in his eyes or an itching disease, or scabs, or crushed testicles.” Fourteen year olds love to huddle together around their Bibles, reading passages like this and looking for others like them, in part because they can suddenly say out loud in church certain kinds of words which will get them into trouble when uttered almost anywhere outside of their health education class.

If the truth be told, I think they look for these kinds of passages for two additional, and interrelated, reasons. The first is to do what teenagers seem to be experts at doing, that is, to create an “in group” and an “out group,” to reinforce their ideas that there is a “cool” group and a “loser” group, obvious physical differences being a key defining feature of those in the latter category of “loser.” But the other reason they do it, I think, is actually to see whether they themselves measure up, to see if they have any kind of physical attribute which would disqualify them from the social acceptability they crave. Generally, this is safe reading because the lists read are not full of traits widely characteristic of teenaged boys, and because that age group is not generally given to the kind of reflection which might extend the idea of these prohibitions to less obvious physical differences, or to use the Biblical word, to the “blemishes” of our emotional or psychic lives. If they did reflect a little more deeply, they might realize that there is no one without some kind of “blemish,” something which prevents them from being perfect, and which therefore disqualifies them from being God. But as we know, most teenaged boys think themselves invulnerable and invincible, God-like characteristics if ever there were some.

You are by now probably wondering which of my legs is longer, or whether I have scabs you just can’t see, as I began by observing that in some circles I could be seen as unfit for religious duty. It is true that my right calf is slightly larger around than my left calf, but the real reason I probably would have been disqualified in days of old is because I am afflicted with what are generically call “tics,” involuntary muscle contractions that typically manifest themselves in arms, legs, and sometimes face. For those of you who are familiar with Tourette’s syndrome, tics are a very mild cousin of that more famous affliction. When I was a scrawny fifth-grader, my tics presented themselves most acutely in my face and were therefore easily observable, and mimicable and useful for separating the “cool” group from the “loser” group. Although it was not an easy time in my life, it was a useful one for it opened my eyes at perhaps a younger age than my peers to the fact that each of us has something which marks us as physically imperfect (as if there really were such a thing as the “perfect” human being). Some people have birthmarks, others need glasses, others have a curvature of the spine, or allergies, or dyslexia. The truth behind all the taunting that I received for my obvious difference, was the denial, or at least a silence and a hiding, of the ways in which each of my tormentors was also less than perfect.

What my peers were trying to create, of course, was a playground pecking order. Perhaps there are some here for whom the term “pecking order” may be unfamiliar, and if so, let me remind you that it refers to the internal social dynamics of flocks of chickens and other domesticated birds to determine a ranking of importance and benefits. Chickens “peck” one another with their beaks as a means of dominance and so the term pecking order has been applied to describe who pecks and who gets pecked. There is a top chicken and a bottom chicken and lots of chickens in between and the higher up you are, the more you do the pecking, and the less you get pecked. If you’ve ever been pecked by a chicken, or worse, by a goose (which can break your arm), you know it is not a pleasant experience and thus it behooves lower ranked chickens to try to move up in the pecking order, although at the expense of other chickens. A playground pecking order, such as school children seek to establish on the basis of such things as physical differences, involves the same dynamics, but of course does not stop after elementary school and exists in almost every area of society, including religion, a fact not lost on Jesus while he is dining at the home of a leader of the Pharisees, a group of people for whom the idea of the pecking order had been raised to a fine art. The party situation Jesus describes about the honor involved in being seated closest to the host was one such manifestation of a first century religious pecking order. The pecking would have been in the form of making sure the people below you knew they were beneath you and why, not only during the party, but also before and after. The high society page of the local newspaper is not a new invention, and it was as true then as it is now that it is not what you know but whom you know that matters.

There are at least two things noteworthy about Jesus’ observation of the pecking order of his time. The first is that it doesn’t stop with the upper echelon of the pecking order, the upper crust, so to speak. He goes on to address those who were so far down the scale that they weren’t even invited to the party in the first place, the “poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” These folks didn’t even have the chance to exhibit the lack of humility Jesus critiques in the others! They wouldn’t have gotten through the door, much less to the table, and then to a position at the table higher than they ought to have been. Jesus is talking about people so far outside the thinking of the upper crust that they may as well not even have existed, and for that reason barely existed at all, living in streets and alleyways and tombs, begging and scrounging for food, waiting to crawl into pools of healing water but having no one to help them. But make no mistake. These people too are part of a pecking order, like the ones found in prisons and homeless shelters. But that does not disqualify them from places of honor at the table. The Gospels are full of descriptions of such people, and how Jesus not only noticed them, but invited them to his own party, not at the position farthest from the host, but at the positions of honor nearest him.

The other noteworthy feature of Jesus’ critique of the prevailing pecking order has to do with the ideas of value and reward which are just as much a part of your average social hierarchy as knowing where you stand. In essence, Jesus says to his host, “do not invite those who will be of value to you,” those who will help you maintain or enhance your place in the pecking order, but rather those who seem to offer you no value at all. “You will be blessed,” he says, precisely “because they cannot repay you,” You see, the problem with pecking orders is not the intrinsic idea of social organization. People will always organize themselves; all of nature is organized and God organized it. The important question about pecking orders is how they are constructed and how they are maintained. Organizational structures become a problem when they are driven by things like the value which can be extracted from the people who comprise them. People are not commodities with value you can place on them or natural resources that can be mined or exploited, at least not in the Bible I read. You will not be surprised to hear that the pursuit of value, whether economic or emotional, is not the highest virtue in the Gospels and in fact, probably falls somewhere down the list close to greed and gluttony. The fact that we have a choice in how we construct our pecking orders was, however, a surprising idea for those who had invited Jesus to their party.

At first glance, it would seem then that Jesus is laying out a divine pecking order that places the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind closer to the host than the Pharisees. Jesus is frequently turning societal notions of things like honor and shame, master and slave, clean and unclean on their heads and this sounds a lot like that. But to say here that Jesus is simply replacing those at the top with a different set of characters seems to miss the point of the party. Remember that the punchline is one of blessing: “you will be blessed…repaid at the day of the resurrection of the righteous.” And if the guy Jesus is talking to, the one who invited him to the party in the first place, if that one guy is blessed by associating with those previously at the bottom of the pecking order, how much greater the blessing for everyone, for all who attend the party together no matter where they stand in somebody’s pecking order! If Jesus has turned a notion on its head, it would seem to be the one that suggests that there is really any difference between any of us that should cause us to try to create a social hierarchy that would value one person over another. The key feature of the divine pecking order is that there is no pecking at all because there is nothing to be gained from it, and everything to be lost. You see, the only value that matters is the value that God places on us, a value worthless in the currency of our daily pecking orders. Hidden behind the carefully cultivated facade of the daily pecking order is the truth is that each of us is in the same barrel of imperfection, each of us “blemished” in one form or another, each of us bearing wounds and scars, sins and shortcomings, social and spiritual disqualifiers for communion with God except for the grace of that same God. You see, there is not one of us who is not counted among the “poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” Your poverty or your lameness or your blindness may not be exactly the same as mine, but it exists nonetheless whether you want to accept it or not. When Jesus tells the man to invite the usually uninvited characters to the party, it is not merely a piece of good advice, or a way to make his point. No, he is describing what God has already done for us in Christ, and calling us to go and do likewise. Like those in the story once excluded but now invited, we cannot repay our host, for love and grace are truly invaluable, but we can make sure that where we have a choice, we demonstrate the divine pecking order rather than the daily one, by being hosts whose hearts, hands, and voices throw one heck of a good party for everyone.

The Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is one such party, even if the church is a provisional host, a physical, though not spiritual, stand-in for Christ himself. As we approach the table this morning, let us remember that we come through no intrinsic value of our own but only that which God has imparted to us, that even though we come as flawed and wounded people in mind, body, and spirit, none of that matters to God. Let us realize that we have been invited through the grace of God, not because we have been such great hosts ourselves. And as we come, let us rejoice that we need not peck at one another to get our share of this bread and this cup, that no one deserves it any more or less than any of the rest of us, for God gives freely in the divine pecking order of the Kingdom of Heaven. Amen.