Sermon For Sunday, September 15, 2013

Luke 15:1-10

“Preferential Treatment Or Loving Discernment?”

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples Of Christ)

Cleveland, Ohio ~

Rev. Allen V. Harris, Pastor & Preacher

Blog:; Twitter: @FranklinCircle

To watch a video of this Sunday’s sermon, go online to:

Woman Watching Television with DogIsn’t it just like us to want our pets – our cats, dogs, birds, hamsters, even goldfish – to think and act just like us humans?  Isn’t it easier that way?  I mean, we know intuitively they don’t, but sometimes we really need them to have the same kind of emotions and human intelligence that we do… or, to be honest, better than we do!  How many times have you come home from school or work and, having had a bad day, immediately scoop up your dog or your cat and hug them?  It really feels like they know or understand instinctively the terrible, awful, no good mood you are in.  Or when you come home to a… shall we say “gift” in the middle of the living room and you shout out “bad dog!” we expect them to know what they did and repent and be baptized and never do it again!  We aren’t ever truly sure what they know or think or why they act they way they do, but it just seems to feel better if we presume, on some level, that they reason like we humans do.

That takes me back to the famous Far Side cartoon by Gary Larson in which the first panel of the cartoon has a man talking to his dog saying, “Well, Skippy, if you are a good dog you’ll get your favorite food today.  And if you’re really good, I’ll give you a treat!”  In the second panel it’s the exact same scene, only from the dog’s perspective, and the dialogue balloon has simply, “Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah FOOD. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, TREAT!”  If we were honest, we would realize our pets are animals and have very little of the character, moral reasoning, and agency we ascribe to them.  That doesn’t mean they can’t love and be loved, by any means!  But probably in a much less complex and reactive way than we think.

In the same way I think we attribute moral agency to the animals in Jesus’ story of the lost sheep in Luke 15.  When I think of this story I spend a lot of time in my mind pondering why that doggone one sheep wondered off, putting the shepherd and thus the rest of the sheepfold at risk.  Was it hungry and out looking for more food?  Was it feeling a bit amorous and out looking for a mate?  Was it curious and out looking for adventure?  Or, my most frequent evaluation, was it simply stupid and out making stupid decisions?  In any case, I ascribe motives to the sheep as if I were talking about my brother.

Patrick & Wesley Harris

Patrick & Wesley Harris

Which leads me to talk about my brother.  The poor guy… The longer I live and the more I preach the larger he becomes in the minds of my dear congregation.  May God bless Patrick Wesley Harris and his memory!  In any case, I have spent quite a bit of my adult life ascribing to my brother, who was quite often a case in contrast to me as a teen and young adult, particular motives.  Much like the one sheep in Jesus’ story, Pat “wondered off” time and time again, which necessitated my mother having to go and find him.  Central to the story – of course – is that I felt like the ninety nine who’d been left behind “at risk,” or so I felt.

Now, please don’t infer that I simplify my brother’s actions to those of a sheep or any other animal.  I am quite aware that my brother, like all of us, had perfectly intact moral reasoning and was actually a very smart man who knew the consequences of his actions.  But the older I get and the more decisions I have to make, the more and more I understand that morality isn’t the simple equation of 1+1=2.  Actually, understanding the rich complexities of human beings as mammals and part of the diverse fabric of life on this planet may help us understand human behaviors more fully.  This is one of the reasons why I shall never pit the sciences against theology or biblical interpretation.  They can inform each other!

What I have come to conclude is that I don’t know a damn thing about why my brother did what he did, and that it is simply a waste of my time and his memory to try to figure out why he might have wrecked this car or that motorcycle, why he got into this fight or yelled at that girlfriend, what put him into jail or caused him to go on such a terrible binge of drinking and drugging.  Like the sheep in Jesus’ story, I will never know why he did what he did.  But…

But… we are given a hint as to why the shepherd did what he did.  Jesus says, “When he has found it (the lost one), 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 persons who need no repentance.”  In the same way the shepherd rejoices… in the same way the woman who finds the lost coin rejoices… in the same way the father whose son has returned home rejoices… my mother rejoiced every time my brother, who was lost, was found.  Her emotions and moral compass are clear – the one who was in the most need required the most attention.  Pure and simple.

icon-of-the-good-shepherdNow the reason I spend so much time on the motives of the lost sheep and my lost brother is to point out how much time we spend on evaluating their motives AND the motives of those who go about seeking, finding, receiving, and rejoicing when they are lost.  Scripture does not, however, worry about why they were lost, why someone felt the need to seek them out, but only that they were found and great rejoicing ensued!!!  We cry out “preferential treatment,” “entitlement,” “welfare,” “waste,” and that most horrible of accusations known to those of us who wag our fingers so well, “coddling!!!”  We seem to have perfected in our human interactions the ability to not only assume, but know why people do the things they do, most especially if they are the recipient of help, aid, support, assistance, and – dare I say it – grace.

But in all three stories there is no time given nor ink spilled with Jesus’ worrying about the motives of the lost sheep, the lost coin (well, that’s an easy one!), or the lost son.  Only through the eyes of the stable, hard working, reliable, older brother do we get the sense of judgment and morality.  If we took scripture seriously, we would spend far more time expecting, celebrating, and “rejoicing,” when the lost are found than on worrying why they were lost in the first place!

Scripture is born in the understanding of human beings being created “imago dei,” “in the image of God.”  Therefore we must take Jesus’ descriptions of God – even if nestled deeply into parable and allegory – quite seriously as guides for our lives as God’s good creation.  Are there other places in scripture where God is portrayed as judgmental, morally demanding, and righteously expectant?  Yes, in both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures we find a very insistent divinity.  But here, here in the passionate words and images of Jesus, we have a generous and extravagantly loving God who clearly wants us to “go, and do the same.”

So what does this mean for our life together as a society and as a church?  Well, I would like to think it means we should have more parties!  Lots and lots more parties!  It may also mean that we should continue and even expand our judgment-free ministries of service that we do so well, with meals and clothing and groceries and programming for our community – no questions asked.  We would do well also to watch our language when people who have been away a while from church come back.  I’ve stopped the practice of joking about seeing someone again after a long time (“look, the ceiling didn’t fall in like you feared!”) which tends to draw out more shame and guilt, and simply celebrate they are here.

But I also think that this means we need to be leaven in the society around us.  We need to bring the attitude of gratitude, as they say, to our everyday lives.  When the person in front of us in the check-out counter uses food stamps to buy non-essential groceries, not only do we need to spend less time evaluating why they bought the steak or the twinkies and worry more about why our society has such huge gaps between people of poverty and people of wealth, we must also risk speaking up when the person behind us in line pipes up with a terrible disparaging remark afterwards.

hugIf we truly do believe God acts more out of a sense of discerning love and rarely, if ever, from a sense of preferential treatment, we need to be agents of grace in a world that is ever more populated with persons focused on critical attack.  Those of us who have enough should hear the words offered the older brother when his parent says, “all that I have is yours… but we had to celebrate and rejoice!”  This is a constitutionally different way of being and living in the world.  The joy of it is that when we are lost… and all of us will be lost at some point in our lives… we will benefit from just such an attitude of rejoicing when we are found, when we’ve come home.  This is the good news of the gospel:

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.  I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see.