Holy Vessels: Safe Keeping, Luke 15:1-10
First United Methodist Church, March 17, 2019
Pastor Toni Carmer
Each of us has been lost at some point in our life—unless you’re a guy and we’re talking specifically about driving. Then you just call it taking the scenic route.
If I were to ask you to think about a time when you were lost, or when someone else was lost, you might point to that time when you made the wrong turn while traveling and it took a while to figure out where you were and how to get back on course. You might remember that time when your grandchild got lost in the crowd at Epcot after dark as the fireworks were blasting across the sky and how frightening that was for all of you, or how it felt when that subway door closed before the whole family could get out. There you stood, looking at your children from opposite sides of the door in a big city as the subway began to move on to its next destination. Or maybe when you think of being lost, you go straight to that dark time when tragedy crashed into your life, and you were lost…your heart and mind were so devastated that you lost your footing for a time…or when you because so disappointed or distracted or discouraged you were lost for a time…from your family…from your life…from God.
At some point, in some way, we’ve all been lost…and when we think back on that time, we know it wasn’t a good place to be. It wasn’t a place we’d ever want to go back to. It frightens us even today.
Today, in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus talks about being lost and as he does this, he paints us a vivid picture of God: of who God is and how God acts. His parables/his stories/these pictures of God invite us in and offer us the possibility of seeing and better understanding who God is, that we might find some comfort, peace or encouragement in our lives. But their purpose goes beyond that…when we dare to truly take them in, we can actually become a part of the story/a part of the picture. Our lives begin to be shaped and formed into the image of the one they represent. We start becoming more like him.
As the Pharisees and the Scribes, the leaders in the church, the teachers of the law—the fine, upstanding religious folks in the community, come to listen to Jesus, they are appalled to see the others who have gathered around him, as well. They think about the people he sits down and eats with…who he talks to, who he apparently cares about. Come SINNER to the Gospel feast? Really? Why in the world would I want to sit down with someone like that? Eww.
Barbara Brown Taylor paints us a picture of what the table fellowship of Jesus might look like today. She pictures an abortion doctor, an arms dealer, a garbage collector, a young man with AIDS, a Laotian chicken-plucker, a teenage meth addict, and an unmarried woman on welfare with her 5 children by 3 different fathers in tow. Sitting at the head of the table, Jesus asks the young man to hand him a roll and then offers the doctor one more cup of coffee before she heads back to the clinic.
But the scene doesn’t end there. In comes some pastors from the local ministerial association. They plop themselves down in a booth across from the sinners. These pastors all have good teeth and well-groomed fingernails. When their food comes, they hold hands to pray. They’re all perfectly nice people. But they can hardly stomach their sandwiches at the sight of the strange crowd in the far booth.
The chicken-plucker is still wearing her white hair net. The garbage collector smells like spoiled meat. The addict can barely bring spoon to mouth. But the heartbreaker (for them) is Jesus, sitting there as if everything is just dandy. Doesn’t he know what kind of message he’s sending?
Jesus answers his critics by pulling out his sketchbook and drawing a shepherd who wanders off in worry, leaving his flock to find one little lost sheep. And when he finds it, he throws it over his shoulder, calling together his friends and saying, “Let’s celebrate!”
And then, Jesus flips the page and produces another sketch, a poor woman who sweeps madly to find one misplaced coin. When she does, she throws a big bash.
“That’s what God is like,” says Jesus.
That’s what God is like.
God searches for us when we’re lost. God finds us and carries us back home. And even the angels celebrate—all the angels in heaven celebrate because the one who is lost has been found.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this parable this past week: about the lost. I’ve been thinking about how Jesus paints this picture of God, going out—seeking, finding, carrying the lost home. And I’ve been thinking about the church, and about how we as individual Christians claim—and profoundly believe—that we want to be like him, that we want to be formed in his image. And yet, so often, we wait for the lost to come to us. We might do some advertising, we may work to create a culture of hospitality—or not—but what we say is, come to us. Come here where we are. Dress like us, be like us, talk like us, sing like us, worship like us, be like us.
Now, there’s not a thing wrong with being us. I love us. We’re good people. We’re a loving people. We’re blessed. And we’re each very different. We have different backgrounds and experiences that have formed us into the people we are. We’re holy vessels, treasures, each beautiful in our own way. And we’re surrounded on all sides by other treasures, who may be lost, who may not know how beloved and treasured they are.
I think of all those interesting people Barbara Brown Taylor gathered around the table with Jesus. The guests gathered around the table she described was only a few years ago, but today I might set it with a little different group of folks. There’s the Donald Trump supporter sitting next to the Hilary Clinton supporter. Would you pass the gravy, please? There’s the gay man sitting across from the member of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, the group whose work helped to pass the Traditional Plan at GC2019. They’re engaged in conversation about their children, and how they want them to grow up in a world where they’re loved and accepted. There’s an illegal immigrant sitting across from the ICE agent: will you pass the mashed potatoes? Those are amazing!
That’s what the Kingdom of God looks like, what it will be, but it’s also the image of the church, as we live out being Christ’s Body on earth. The church is to be a place where all people are welcome, where people feel safe and loved. Where lost people can find a home, where people who have no people can find some people, to be loved and cared for by a community whose arms are open and ready to receive them. Here in this place it may not be necessary to turn our pews into beds, but if that were needed, I trust we would do it. In the meantime, we can feed the hungry, we can reach out, we can care for, we can offer our love, we can offer grace and hope. We can be who God calls us to be right here, right now.
Because it’s a big world out there. It’s a place where people get lost. Where people sometimes need help finding their way back home.
H. H. Staton in his book, A Guide to the Parables of Jesus tells of being on an ocean liner headed to the Middle East. Nine hundred miles out to sea a sail was sighted on the horizon. As the liner drew closer, the passengers saw that the boat—a sloop—a sailboat with a single mast flying a Turkish flag—had run up a distress signal and other flags asking for its position at sea. Either a chronometer wasn’t working, or thru poor navigation, its occupants were lost.
For nearly an hour, the liner circled the little boat, giving its crew correct latitude and longitude. Obviously there was a lot of interest on board the liner; passengers were lined up across the deck watching. A little boy was standing next to the author and said out loud to himself: It’s a big ocean to be lost in.
It’s a big world to be lost in.
May we be willing to offer a safe-place, a hope-filled place, a loving place, where Christ’s love is known and shared.
In Jesus’ name. Amen.