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The world feels like a crazy place these days. I don’t have to offer a litany of reasons – you know them all too well. Fear is real as news of violence continues to pour in. The layers of complexity are many – easy answers no longer feel enough. The world seems scary and unpredictable. But, I’m grateful that we’re all here, in this place, this morning and that we can turn to Scripture together, that we can pry open our hearts in prayer so that we might listen for God’s Word for us in this time of such visible brokenness and find hope and a call.
This summer, we at Western have been studying the parables of Jesus. We are continuing that study this morning, but we are leaving Matthew, whose parables we have studied so far this summer, and are turning to the Gospel of Luke. In the 15th chapter of Luke, Jesus tells parables of three lost things, though this morning we will focus on the first one. But have no fear, we’ll get to the other ones later this summer. The one this morning tells of a lost sheep and this story, like our world, is layered with complexity and it points to our hope in God.
Gracious and Loving God – find us where we are. In this wild and sometimes scary world, find us where we are and orient us towards your grace and love through your Word to us this morning. We pray this in your beloved Son’s name. Amen.
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 people who need no repentance.
This is the Word of God for the People of God. Thanks be to God.
Have you heard this story before? This parable is relatively well-known – it is short and sweet and seemingly has a simple message – that there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God. Even the sinner is sought after, and through repentance he is restored to the flock. It is Good News, isn’t it? It surely is – yet, on a day like today, a day on which we still experience the ache of mourning over Charleston and Orlando, Baton Rouge and Minneapolis, Dallas and Nice, Syria and Turkey it seems a little too simplistic, true as it is.
Taken in today’s context, we ask more questions of the text. Which one of us is the lost sheep? Which one of us is among the righteous – among the 99 sheep – feeling alone in the wilderness while the shepherd is out looking for the lost sheep? Which one of us has gone to find a lost soul who has inflicted harm and pain to restore them to the flock? Which one of us as rejoiced and celebrated with the joy the restoration of the flock? Which one of us has passed judgment on the lost sheep and which one of us has repented? Under the scrutiny of our complex, dynamic and fluid world and the suspicious questions we ask, does the message of God’s unending love permeate our world? Let’s find out.
I invite you to look at this familiar parable anew. I invite you to spend some time theologically reflecting upon the complexity of life, the meaning of repentance, the depth of God’s love, and then we will return to the text again and my prayer is that we might find hope and a call together.
(deep breath here)
One of the cardinal rules of preaching is to preach from scars, not wounds. When preaching from wounds, the sermon can end up being therapy for the preacher, rather than a healing experience for all present, guided by the Holy Spirit. But I confess that today, I stand before you today preaching from a wound. It is a wound many of us share and the longer we wait for the scar to form, the more the wound festers and becomes infected. The scar will form only when we allow the kind of healing that itches and aches and pains and requires exposure to air and light. The wound from which I preach, the wound we are all reeling from in recent weeks and months and years, the wound we experience as a community is white supremacy, racism, and white privilege and we are all in need of the healing process of repentance.
So, it is from this place that I tell you this story – I confess my sin and ask God for grace to enter in to redeem. It is in this place, that I ask the Holy Spirit to reveal the Scripture to me and to help us all find comfort and hope and a call to back out into the world as co-creators of justice and peace with God.
Last week, nine Westerners journeyed to West Virginia to work with the Appalachia Service Project, which seeks to help make homes warmer, safer and drier. We sent two teams this
year – one team spent the week installing insulation and drywall in a living room while the team I was on removed a tub, vanities and flooring of a bathroom and then installed insulation and subflooring. The work we all did was challenging and hot and sweaty and rewarding. We all learned a new skill in construction. We all yelped at some point whether it was because we nearly fell through the floor or pinched a finger in the seam of the dry-wall. Each night, we went for ice cream and we laughed with abandon together. Our relationships among one another grew deeper. And, we all pondered a little more deeply what it really means to love our neighbor, as Christ commands.
One of my motivations for working with the Appalachia Service Project and bringing a group from this church to the region is to get us out of our comfort zone, to challenge our worldview. It is not difficult for many members of this congregation to travel around the world – to visit impoverished places in other countries, to see that God is at work in Asia and Africa, in Europe and the Middle East – these are places I imagine most of your would relish the opportunity to visit and learn from and share resources with. However, the Appalachian region presents a different neighbor for us to consider.
You see, the neighbor half of our team served was a woman named Angela. She has a daughter who is interested in going to beauty school and her home has been worked on by groups from ASP for over a year now. She has had her kitchen and living room floors redone, trenches dug around the house so that the flow of rainwater no longer rushes below the foundation, a front deck added on and we were there to repair the floor in her daughter’s bathroom. Angela was always kind and soft-spoken. She and her cousin mostly kept to themselves – watching TV, playing card games and such. She had family come and visit throughout the week and we spent 2 of our days working under the supervision of her twin grand-nephews who were 4 years old and were as cute and polite as could be – best bosses I’ve ever worked for, if I might be so bold! Our team had our preparation site on the new, front deck – it rained most of the week so we were grateful for an outside work space that was sheltered from the rain – and each of us walked from the front porch, through the dining room, through her daughter’s bedroom and into the bathroom a hundred times in a day. And, with each pass, we were acutely aware of the massive Confederate flag which hung on the bedroom wall, adorned with a small piece of rope fashioned into a noose, hanging just above it.
Take a minute and let that sink in.
I don’t know about you but whenever I see a Confederate flag, I tend to avert my eyes – physically move in the opposite direction. I look the other way out of disgust for what the flag symbolizes, out of fear for what the noose symbolizes. Now, don’t get me wrong – I understand that the Confederate flag has a place in history. It is acceptable to have it memorialized in a museum to teach the history of the Civil War in the US but, the commercial, mass-produced, bumper sticker, flying from cars, hanging on walls Confederate flag, in my mind, does not honor fallen soldiers of the South, nor teach lessons learned from war, but rather, it is a symbol used to intimidate, to assert vulgar power, and it is a symbol of racism and white supremacy. And, last week, this time, this flag, with the noose hanging from above, was in such a position that I could not avert my eyes, I could not look away. And, I was intimidated.
And this is what I need to confess: I remained silent.
Last week, one of our Co-Moderators of the PC(USA), Rev. Denise Anderson, put out a call to her white brothers and sisters in Christ to confess our own experience of white privilege so that we all might live more fully into God’s redemptive power. She lifted up the call alongside Black Lives Matter leaders, recognizing that the fight for racial justice in our country and in the world is not solely the responsibility of People of Color. To quote Frederick Douglass, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” And, therefore, we as white brothers and sisters have a responsibility to also take up the mantle. We have a role in this change – it is not solely up to People of Color to change the systemic racism that permeates our culture. We have a role to play too – we must confess. We must repent. And we must envision ourselves around the celebratory meal table with ALL of God’s children – truly, ALL of God’s children.
All week long, I wrestled with this. All week long, in West Virginia, my mind raced and bounced from thought to thought wondering: Should I say something? Should I ask a question about it? Is it possible for me to understand why she has it there? Should I give her a chance to explain herself? Should I let her know that I don’t agree with her? OR, do I remain silent and simply fulfill my duty by working to make her physical house warmer, safer and drier? The questions of whether or not it was my place to ask, whether it was fair for me to ask plagued my mind all week and I clung to the privilege of asking the questions in my own mind rather than asserting my privilege to ask them aloud. And, now, more than ever, I regret this.
And, it is through this lens, this experience, that I return to this morning’s text and I hear a new meaning of the parable of the lost sheep. You see, I spent the week in West Virginia believing that Angela was the one lost sheep, the sinner in need of repentance and God’s grace – the flag and the noose indicate to me that she is actively racist and her beliefs defy God’s desire for love and justice. I believed our group from Western was among the 99 sheep of Jesus’ flock. We were there to do God’s work, to care for God’s people. Yet my silence in the face of such blatant symbols of racism and hate meant that I too had wandered away from Jesus’s flock. And, each time one of us strays from the flock there is a sense of chaos and wilderness, a sense of fearsomeness and distress felt by the rest of the flock until all of us are restored.
Through this lens, through this text, I understand anew that the same God that offers grace to me is the same God that offers Angela grace, and this is the uncomfortable truth of God’s grace and love. It is uncomfortable because it means God’s grace extends to me in my silence and Angela in her bigotry. It is uncomfortable because it means that God’s grace and love does not discriminate. God’s grace and love seeks each one of us out–in the myriad ways we are broken–calls for repentance, and celebrates with joy and thanksgiving when each person is restored.
And though the truth may be uncomfortable, this is, indeed, the Good News our whole world needs. It is Good News because we can trust that we have one Shepherd in Christ whose grace demolishes all worldly categories which have been used to perpetuate divisions among God’s people. These categories, though important to our individual identities, they are also the platforms from which we have felt like we were righteous and among the 99 – that we are a part of the unequivocal good guys – or that someone else was a part of the one lost, the unequivocal bad guy – these categories being – racial identity, gender identity, sexual orientation, physical ability, religious affiliation, political affiliation – you name it. But, our text today, reminds us that each of us, created uniquely in the image of God, harboring layers of identities that make each one of us beautiful and good – we are all vulnerable of becoming the lost sheep, we are all vulnerable to pride and privilege, to greed and fear – and the Great Shepherd believes that we are still worthy and able to be restored to the flock.
Our responsibility, as people of faith, is to repent of the ways we have not lived into our calling to love God and love our neighbor. When it comes to racial justice in our world today, we are to confess of the ways which we have contributed to the splintering of the flock, to the unjust systems of prejudice that have been created in our county whether actively or through complicity. And, we need to have confidence that the Great Shepherd seeks out each of one of us and rejoices when we rejoin the flock to love God and love neighbor, working to co-create with God and usher in justice and people. None are excluded from Christ’s longing, from Christ’s grace. None are excluded from God’s work of love and restoration.
I want to point out here that the lost sheep that is found – at no point does the sheep become paralyzed by guilt or is shamed into nothingness. Rather, the lost sheep is slung across the shoulders of the Shepherd for the journey back to the flock and the end of this parable tells of a celebration – an experience of joy and rejoicing. Doesn’t that sound incredible? It sounds like something we need, doesn’t it? Now, more than ever. When our brows have been furrowed for so long, our hearts aching from tragedy, our minds scattered by anxiety and fear and sorrow – an experience of joy and rejoicing sounds almost fantastical, doesn’t it?
We live in a fearful and pain-filled world – there’s no denying this. But this pain and fear will not have the final word. There is still time for us to recognize that we are in a position to confess and to repent and to rejoice in God’s redeeming love which restores us all. And, we will not do this alone but we will work together. We will listen to the stories of one another; we will confess our sins to God and to one another; we will not be paralyzed by guilt or fear but we will be bold in our confidence of Christ’s assurance of pardon and we will do this over and over and over again until all of God’s children have gathered around the table of celebration and rejoicing.
Jacob wrestled with the angel all night long until a blessing was granted. The people of God wandered in the desert with the Promised Land before them for decades. The Psalmist walked in the valley of the shadow of death and the disciples experienced the plight of loneliness, hopelessness, fear and woe on Friday night and Saturday after Jesus was crucified. We are not the first generation to experience such fear and worry for the crazy world we live in and we must take heart, dear church, for we are not alone in our journey and we are on our way to the celebration. We have each other. We have a God who will not forget or forsake us. We have the purpose in life to love God and to love our neighbor and we are equipped with the skills of confession, skills of repentance, so that we might live into God’s amazing grace which releases us from the paralysis of guilt and fear and ushers us into joy and celebration. Dear church – which one of us will be bold to live accordingly? Which one of us?