Sept. 11, 2022

Luke 15:1-10

Exodus 3:7-8


The picture on the cover of your bulletin is a quick shot that I took of the Passion Play in Oberammergau, Germany.  It wasn’t entirely clear to me if pictures were allowed, but I couldn’t resist at least one, and of course this seemed to be the big moment.

The head you see there in the foreground may be the one that I accidentally, maybe partially, possibly sneezed a tiny bit on.  Of course, I had covered up, and I’m aware that especially during these times of Covid nobody wants to get sneezed on, and I did my best to apologize, but there’s a reason I doubted the motive for the man’s pretty harsh and angry response.

You see, prior to my own sneeze a woman 20 seats down the row from me sneezed three times, and I noticed that the wife of the man in front of me stared daggers at her until she was finished.  Later, there was a sneeze a few rows back and I saw the two of them meet eyes and share a look of disgust.  Other sneezes happened further away and each time they turned to one another as if objecting to outbursts that were both voluntary and insulting.  Well, shortly after that I felt the sensation coming on, and I just couldn’t stop it.  Maybe, regrettably, he felt a bit of it, but I think more than that, this particular couple was plagued and angered by a misconception about what sneezes are.

I bring it up because something about their attitude seemed to match the tone and tenor of this very hot, 6-hour presentation of Christ’s passion to which we and so many had pilgrimaged.  Apart from the beautiful choral singing and just a couple of moments where Jesus seemed to say something nice, the production mostly portrayed angry or anguished people yelling at each other for one reason or another.  Jesus himself was probably the biggest culprit.  He seemed always to be yelling at somebody: sometimes it was the Pharisees; sometimes the priestly council, sometimes the disciples.  He just wasn’t likable or compelling.  I couldn’t tell why he had any followers to begin with.  It was as if to him the whole world was made up of a bunch of idiot sneezers for whom the divine plan insisted he should die.  He would do it begrudgingly, but he would also let them know how dumb they were for as long as he possibly could.

We were given “self-righteous Jesus” whose model served to teach eager Christians that faith’s great gift was a kind of superiority.  It concerned me, and more accurately made me sad, because at exactly the time when the world needs a God of transcendent love and beauty, the Church (or, rather, many of its manifestations) is encouraging something less.

I thought maybe I was being overly critical of the Passion Play.  I said, “Well, if I were to pick up the Gospel story right at Palm Sunday and make my way to death and resurrection – as Oberammergau does –  maybe Jesus would come across the same angry way.  So, I read it again.  I read Luke’s version because that’s the gospel that the lectionary has us using for a while, and what I noticed was that most of Jesus’ time in Jerusalem is spent teaching lessons in the temple that we as the reader are not privy to.  I also noticed that Luke records a number of apocalyptic statements that we mostly don’t talk or think about when we turn to the passion.  Beyond that, it was hard to come to any clear conclusions about tone except that maybe it doesn’t make much sense to remove the end of Christ’s life from the rest of it.  In doing that it is pretty easy to forget that Jesus Christ is the embodied expression of a God who exists towards us in the grace and generosity of totally uncompelled and free self-giving.  There is no begrudging.  There is no disgust.  There is just love that gives of itself in ways that sometimes feel wrong to talk about in light of the more horrifying human failings but also in ways that enable us to breath and move forward with freedom and hope in light of our own (failings.)

Our scripture passages today are all about people and things that are lost.  I’m especially moved by the situation in Luke where the Pharisees and scribes are grumbling precisely because of Jesus’ unwillingness to live by a religion of superiority.  Instead, eating with sinners, Jesus explains that the ways of God get even more absurd than that, and he tells these parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin.  My colleague at lectionary group was impressed by the image of God’s persistence in these parables – God’s searching and searching so faithfully until what was lost is found.  I appreciated that thought too, but I was struck by something slightly different.  What spoke to me was the near absurdity and the odd extravagance that comes through.  I mean, doesn’t it seem nuts for that shepherd to leave the 99 in search of the one?  And, honestly, nobody throws a party when they find their lost coin!  These are the actions of someone with nothing to fear and a massive appetite for celebration.  These are the impressions of a God whose ways are always more than our own, who is never lost, who never ever loses us, and who is always eager to celebrate any sense of being found that we – and all God’s children – might ever feel.

My friends, this is the opposite of a God whose love is reserved for all the morally superior people the world.  This is the opposite of a God whose grace is begrudging.  This is a God who loves to love and who is perpetually celebrating the joy of having found the lost even when the lost remain lost to themselves.

Quoting Dietrich Bonhoeffer whose poem, “Who Am I” wrestles with the pain of such lostness, Douglas John Hall, a theologian who I think is spot on and pretty brilliant writes, “Whenever the self (as it does, being human) finds itself once again thrust naked into the burning questions of its being, meaning, and destiny, it must again discover the only satisfying answer, the answer that is beyond all the answers: ‘Whoever, I am, thou knowest, O God, I am thine.’”[1]

“Whoever I am, I am thine!”  Why not make that your morning prayer each day.  Why not make of point of reclaiming the freedom and joy of that truth as often as we can?  More important than knowing exactly who you are is knowing that God knows who you are.  God knows us; God has us; and God invites us to celebrate with God the joy of being so found.

Last week our preacher, Brian Bodt, talked about saying yes.  Saying yes to opportunities to serve, knowing that God will equip us for God’s work.  Knowing how easy it is for any of us to feel lost, and how painful it can be too, I want to suggest saying yes as well.  Wherever you can and whenever you can say “yes” to the remarkable truth of being found by God – claim that awareness – because in your “yes”, in the living out of your “yes,” ,”- in your presence to another, in a smile, or a hug, or an act of service, in forgiveness, or generosity, or prayer, or worship – however it manifests itself, others who are hurting with lostness will find help in discovering the life-giving truth that they too are always, in the heart of a beautiful God, FOUND.

[1] Douglas John Hall, “Waiting for Gospel,” page 104