Sunday, 11 September 2016

Trinity 15 A reason to party?

Luke 15.1-10, 1 Timothy 1.12-17 & Exodus 32.7-14
The weather is just starting to turn a little autumnal, the first leaves are parting company with the trees, school and work are back in full swing. Well, at least this was preceded by a few weeks of fine sunny weather and it was during this time that I asked a friend ‘how was your weekend?’ She told me that the great weather resulted in her throwing a spontaneous party in the garden to celebrate and enjoy the warmth, share it with friends, have a BBQ with music and dancing into the early hours of the morning. ‘Sounds great’ I said, ‘well some neighbours didn’t seem to think so’ she replied, ‘after complaining once they returned to tell us they were calling the police.’ They obviously couldn’t understand the need for this outpouring of joy and celebration because summer had finally arrived in England. Or more likely they just had work to do or children who needed to sleep. I can remember my late uncle telling me that the first flat he ever lived in was below a man that loved to play loud reggae music into the early hours of the morning. He finally had enough and went to ask the man why he did this to which he received the disarming reply ‘it’s coz I love you man, I don’t just share my music with anybody!’ It might sometimes be inconvenient to us but we often don’t appreciate why people feel the need to party.

In our gospel reading today Jesus tells us of a man who leaves his 99 sheep to find 1 sheep lost in the wilderness. When he finds the sheep he ‘comes home, calls together his friends and neighbours, saying to them rejoice with me for I have just found my sheep that was lost’. You can cut the tension with a knife between the groups of people listening to Jesus tell this parable. ‘This isn’t how it works’ the Pharisees and temple legal experts are thinking, if a sheep is stupid enough to wander off into the wilderness it brings the consequences that follow upon itself. Many had a similar attitude to those who were outcasts and homeless, forced into begging and prostitution to survive, they brought this upon themselves. But to the others, including tax collectors hated by most because they collected money for the occupying Roman army and sinners, including people labelled as such because they couldn’t keep the countless laws around ritual washing, there is a message of great hope to be heard. Their ears prick up and we are told that they ‘were coming near to listen to Jesus’.

 Jesus is telling both groups that there is hope for them but a bit like people who can’t see the reason for a party, who like consistent order and predictability, the Pharisees don’t want to know. They think that they already know God and this was a direct challenge to their established system of sacrificing animals to him in the temple to atone for sins, their mistaken belief was that surely God wants something in return. By thinking in this way the Jews made God small, tidy and contained. Jesus came to tell all willing to listen that God isn’t like this, he’s bigger than we can understand, his love for us is unconditional, extravagant, and some might even say crazy. Yet if we will simply accept the love he offers there is much rejoicing in heaven. We too can be mean minded and guilty of trying to restrict his love sometimes because of what we are often brought up to perceive as fair play.

If we were in a class at school and had all worked hard to get our homework in on time we might be a bit peeved if we are left sitting in the classroom while the teacher goes off to find the child who is playing truant and gently guides him back. If we’ve spent all our lives praying, worshipping, being people that belong to a church it’s important that we help people who do none of these things to know that God is just as interested in them as us. People often feel unworthy turning to God only when their lives go ‘belly up’, perhaps facing bereavement, ill health or having exhausted all the other things that they hoped would make their lives meaningful. They might have a sense that God won’t want them now, that they are trying to sneak in through the back door, but they are met with a God who welcomes them with open arms and proclaims ‘ you come in through any door you want, even climb in through a window if you like but just make sure you do come. God loves his entire creation, every single person matters.

We become conditioned to accept that there is always a certain percentage of wastage. Supermarkets accept that a certain amount of food will never be sold and therefore wasted and tragically nations can even come to accept that a certain amount of civilians will be accidentally killed during wartime bombing campaigns. God is not like this, his love extends to everyone, including the Pharisees but the problem is that they don’t want to explore a relationship with God beyond the confines of their system.

Some here will know that to carry a small child can be more than a matter of simple transportation, it can be an expression of love and a feeling of joy. Though there are also occasions when you might retrieve the child because it has done something bad, small children often emit unpleasant smells and have been known to wriggle, kick and embarrass adults by screaming out loud in public places as if they were being tortured. I don’t know if you can remember being carried as a child yourself. Several people have said to me that they would pretend to be asleep after arriving back home at night in the car in order to be carried to their bed by their loving parent, enjoying a sense of warmth and protection. To me there’s a hint of this in the parable, if you can allow yourself to imagine it, God the mother or father is prepared to lay us his children across his shoulders and bring us home. Even if we’ve been bad, even if we’re smelly and horrible there’s no sense that he wants to come and kick our backsides, make his forgiveness conditional upon future behaviour, He just wants us back with him. The second parable we heard was about the woman who lost a coin. Oh well, she had 9 others just like it. Those hearing the story may well have immediately related to the 10 silver coins which traditionally comprised a Jewish girl’s dowry so this wasn’t the equivalent of losing a pound coin down the back of the sofa. In Jewish marriage it was considered that the family of the groom gained, and the family of the bride lost, a valuable member who helped with all household tasks. It therefore seemed reasonable that the father of the groom should pay the father of the bride the equivalent of her value. Over time the dowry lost its original meaning as a purchase price paid to the father for his daughter and became a gift to the relatives of the bride, a kind father would give the dowry to his daughter. So you can see that those hearing the story would have been anxious for her to keep the precious gift whole and they would have appreciated the joy and relief when felt when the coin was found.The process of patient and methodical searching for the coin suggests that God is prepared to devote endless energy into finding one of his which has gone astray, shining light into dark places to find what he is looking for.

In Paul’s letter to Timothy he aligns himself with the lost sheep as he tells of his personal experience of God’s ridiculously generous grace to him, a man who was previously a violent persecutor of Christian’s. In the knowledge that Jesus came to save people just like him and us his reaction is also an outpouring of joy and praise. It all sounds like neat and overly simple evangelism on the face of it, but there is a hint of the complicated messy reality that is experienced by many of us when Paul refers to the fact that ‘Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience’. As we look at ourselves I expect we think that he’s going to need every ounce.

If we read on in Luke we would immediately come to the story of the Prodigal Son completing a trilogy proclaiming aspects of God, to be found in a searching shepherd, a searching woman and a loving father. Often studying the bible results in us sensing a call to take practical action but it’s equally important to appreciate that sometimes we are called to inaction. God just wants us to sit quietly for a moment and acknowledge who he is, what he has done for us and how much each one of us is loved. That’s it, no catch, no conditions. If that happens to result in an outpouring of praise in the next hymn or any other time, we can be sure that God is there ready and waiting to get the party started.

Kevin Bright 11th September 2016

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