September 15, 2013

17th Week after Pentecost

When I read today’s Gospel lesson, I hear Jesus saying, "Can you imagine a God like this?"

The Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling because Jesus was hanging out with the wrong crowd. Jesus who never missed a party. Jesus who touched lepers and welcomed women and children. Jesus who didn’t care how poor someone was or whether or not they picked grain on the Sabbath.

It’s not that the Pharisees and scribes were such bad people. The Pharisees were the religious leaders. The scribes were the professors of their day. The Pharisees and the scribes, along with the Sadducees and the Essenes, developed their thinking about God after the Babylonian exile. They asked themselves the question: "How did we end up in Exile? What did we do wrong? How can we keep that from happening again?" And trying to be the good people of God, the Pharisees and the scribes developed what was called "the oral tradition." Basically it was how to earn God’s good favor. They spent their time trying to please God so as not to find themselves in exile again.

It’s interesting that on this occasion, Jesus didn’t criticize these good folks who stood around grumbling. He didn’t tell them that they had it all wrong. Rather, Jesus came into their circle asking them a question: "Can you imagine what God is like?"

And when we follow Jesus into the text of the Gospel lesson today, our own concepts about God will be challenged. We don’t have to have be very familiar with the gospel to have our mind’s eye filled with a beautiful picture as we read the story of the lost sheep. We can imagine ourselves held by the Good Shepherd, as we play the part of the lamb, rescued from whatever it was that entrapped us. It is a lovely picture of ourselves as God’s children, certainly a wonderful picture of God’s love for us.

But there is more. Peel off the image of the shepherd, and we now have the shocking image of a grubby sheepherder who has gone months in the hot summer heat without a bath. A shaggy beard, a huge mane of matted hair…maybe a few lice. Hands that have never experienced the type of daily ritual washing required by the Pharisees. This shepherd was a person who couldn’t be trusted as a witness in the courts because he had so little regard for the property of others and the rules of society. It looks as if this shepherd has lost more than sheep. Maybe he’s lost his wits too. Just watch this shockingly dirty, smelly shepherd abandon 99 good and wonderful sheep alone in the wilderness. Out in the middle of some God-forsaken place where anything could happen to them. Just look at him walking off, numb to the brambles and the thorns that tear at his legs and his arms while he stumbles and trips his way down the hill into the ravine. Hear the bleats of the lost sheep as a lion crouches nearby and vultures circle overhead. Silly shepherd. Doesn’t he care for his own safety, much less that of the sheep.

Imagine Jesus, with a grin on his face, walking around the deadly serious group of religious leaders, proposing that God is like this outrageous and foolish shepherd. And imagine Jesus, who doesn’t stop there, but goes on to paint this picture of God with even bolder strokes.

Jesus, with a twinkle in his eyes, as he dares to compare God to a woman. Not just any woman, but a peasant woman, who turns her house upside down looking for a lost dime when her purse has more than enough to get her through the next pay day. A woman who pushes her broom with a fury, who goes after the cobwebs in the corner with a vengeance, who flings the sofa cushions every which way in her hurry to locate the lost coin. A woman who searches long after the day’s light fades, her house lit only by the lamp she barely has money to buy oil for. A woman whose delight at finding the coin is so extravagant, she spends the coin and then some to throw a party for her neighbors and friends.

There is no judgment, no sweeping hot desert wind out of the mouth of Jesus this day in dealing with the Pharisees and the scribes. Only the playful words which must have danced through their minds for the rest of their lives: "Can you imagine a God such as this?"

But what about us? What if we should dare to let these images of God dance across our own minds today? What if we should dare to listen to the playful Jesus of these stories, and to imagine a God such as this?

Then we will understand a truth about God that is beyond our wildest dreams. For we will see that while we’ve been sitting here in our pews looking for God, it is God who is looking for us.

It is God who throws caution to the winds, who wanders through our world and down the aisles of our churches and into our homes today. There are no brambles, no thorny bushes, no deep ravines, no alleyways or hidden corners or closets into which the Good Shepherd will not go to find those who are lost. There is no dirt or dust, no cobwebs that will hold up to the broom of God the Good Housekeeper.

And perhaps, one day as we look upon the face of one of the lost ones—you know, the ones we call "sinners," those who’ve committed one of "the big sins"—instead of seeing the face of one who is beyond all hope, we will see instead our own faces.

And it may just be that one day, we will follow God the Good Housekeeper into the dark and dusty places in our lives. As the cobwebs come down, and the smudges get washed off the windows, and that persistent broom keeps sweeping, sweeping, sweeping—it may be that we shall see that there are different ways of being lost. We will look at those who don’t fit in with us and maybe we’ll see the face of Jesus.

A playful Jesus dances through this church today and into our lives. He dances around us, tugging at our sleeves. He dares us to understand the truth that God will leave no stone unturned, that there is no lostness that is too much for this Good Shepherd God. And, with a twinkle in his eye, this Jesus invites us to understand the more shocking truth: that there are different ways of being lost, but God is always finding us.