17th Sunday after Pentecost, September 11, 2016
Exodus 32.7-14; Psalm 51.1-10; 1 Timothy 1.12-17; Luke 15.1-10
Pastor Renee Splichal Larson
Grace and peace to you from the One who seeks and finds, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
What is God like? When I say “God,” what image comes to mind? Often when I ask this question I get responses like: an old, bearded guy on a throne, or a judge, sometimes an angry judge. Rarely have I heard God described as a shepherd gently carrying a sheep on his shoulders. This image may not be too far past our imaginations since Jesus calls himself the “Good Shepherd.” We in fact have an artistic depiction of this right here in our chapel.
But never, when I ask what image comes to mind when I say, “God,” has anyone said, “a woman with a broom, sweeping the floor, stooped down on her hands and knees, carefully combing her house for a lost coin.”
When Jesus speaks about the shepherd seeking the lost sheep, and the woman looking for the lost coin, he is telling us that God is like the shepherd and like the woman. You and I, then, are like the sheep and the coin.
Maybe you’ve never pictured yourself as a sheep or a coin, but I am guessing you don’t need to stretch your imaginations too far to know what it feels like to be lost. This can be physically lost, emotionally lost, mentally lost, spiritually lost. You don’t know what to do; you don’t know where to turn. It feels like no one cares, least of all God. It is lonely, scary, and difficult.
I was reading a book (Lectionary Tales for the Pulpit) earlier this week by Richard Jensen. In the book he told the story of a man named, Yoshiro Ishida, from Japan. Yoshiro grew up Buddhist and spent a lot of time in the temple when he was young. The temple was a place of sanctuary, a place he felt safe and comfortable.
Yoshiro was a teenager during World War II, and one day when he was in the temple he got his hands on a Christian Bible, just by chance. He began to read it. Much of what it said was hard for him to understand. It was a whole new world for him and it didn’t make sense. What did these stories Jesus told mean?
One day that all changed as he was reading Luke 15, our Gospel reading from today. He couldn’t believe the description of the joy of God. God’s joy caught his heart.
“Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous persons who need no repentance. Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
It was mind blowing for him to have an image of God being joyful, an image of God throwing a party with the angels in heaven. What Luke 15 describes is a celebration, God’s celebration when the lost are found. This image is far from a staunch, bearded guy on a throne, or an angry judge.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Yoshida publically told a crowd of people once. “I always thought we need to get right with God. That’s what I was trying to do at the Buddhist Temple. But the Bible talked about a God who needs to save us. And when God saves us, when God finds us, God is filled with joy!”
Yoshida continued to tell the crowd of people: “’What a strange God this is!’ I thought to myself. God is overjoyed with finding just one person…I had never heard of such a thing. It meant that God was concerned with me. With me! Just one person! And God is filled with joy at finding me. To this very day, that is to me what the gospel of Jesus Christ is all about (p. 106).”
The love of God becomes real in our lives when we come to understand how precious you and I are to God. This is the realization that changed Yoshida forever.
You and I don’t need to wait until we are good enough for God to love and care for us. This is what the writer of 1 Timothy, some think that writer is the apostle Paul, is trying to say.
He says, “I was a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. I am the worst sinner to ever live. And even though this is true, I received mercy…and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”
In our Gospel reading the religious leaders, the Pharisees and scribes complain that Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with them.
It is quite clear that God came into the world in Jesus to hang with the people society looks upon and says, “They are insignificant and not worth anyone’s time.”
Jesus asks the question, “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?” I don’t know about you, but I think 99% is pretty good, except when it comes to people I suppose.
It would be like taking 10 kids on a youth trip and only coming back with 9. 9 out of 10 is pretty good, right? We all know this would not be acceptable so why would we think God would care any less for one that is missing?
God the shepherd doesn’t just search around a bit and give up after a while. No. God sweeps the house, overturns rocks, and walks through the prairie to find God’s beloved ones. Nothing and no one is lost when it comes to God’s love for you and for the world.
You are beloved by God. God made you and nothing will ever separate you from God’s love. I love two sentences that are written on the back of our bulletin this morning. They say: “The promise in Jesus is that we are never so lost that we can’t be found by our loving Savior. Even in death, Christ carries us to life.”
Don’t ever think that you have been worse than the writer of Timothy. Don’t ever think that what you have done in your life or had done to you is so bad that Jesus would not love you, or find you when you feel lost and alone. Don’t ever think that those who have died are lost.
Maybe you were feeling lost when you woke up this morning and you don’t even know why you came to worship today. Maybe you didn’t even want to come and Jesus sought you out, laid you on his shoulders and walked you here. My prayer for all of us is that when you enter this sanctuary that you feel found, that you belong.
Every Sunday in worship is meant to be a party of great joy with those in heaven and those of us on earth. God has set before us a table of bread and grape juice, still eating with sinners made whole by the love of Christ.
God brings you, me, and even those we might consider to be enemies into the body of Christ to belong, to receive forgiveness, and to have the purpose of reconciliation in our world. We are not to grumble when we think we get to decide who is in or out, or who we think Jesus should hang with. We are simply called to rejoice and to welcome those whom God brings into our midst.
We should not expect Heart River Lutheran Church to be a bunch of people who have it all together, but rather a diverse group of people who trust in the love and forgiveness of God for them and all who enter the doors of this place.
So how do you now imagine God? If you have been feeling lost, imagine yourself being found by Jesus who loves you and always has. God’s love in Jesus is the kind of love that will never stop seeking until all are found.