Sunday, September 15, 2013

Sermon, Proper 19C, Exodus 32:7-14 & Luke 15:1-10

What connections did you hear between the first lesson and the gospel?  What connection can we make between idolatry, an angry God and a debate, and a story of lost sheep and coins?  Some connections might be repentance, forgiveness, relationships and celebration.  These and other connections mentioned are certainly valid.

As I worked with these two lessons and searched for not only a connection but for something that grabbed my attention as a sermon topic, I stumbled upon the idea of value.  I think these two stories provide us with a vision of value that we would do well to pay attention.

In today’s story from Exodus, we hear of Israel’s greatest failure in their history.  In Judges we read of the ebb and flow of their relationship with God.  Over and over again we hear that the Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the Lord; over and over again we hear of God giving them into the hands of their enemy; over and over again we hear the Israelites cry out for help and the Lord answers their pleas for deliverance.  But on the whole, God never abandons them, and they always returned to God.

Today, though, they had been free from Egypt for a short amount of time; tradition says it was 50 days from the time of the first Passover to when Moses was given the Law.  The ten plagues, the pillar of fire, the parting of the sea . . . all these things were fresh in their memory.  Even so, as soon as their leader is out of sight, they forge a golden calf to worship.

God finds out about this and tells Moses to get out of his way so he can kill them all and start again with Moses.  But Moses doesn’t get out of his way.  He reminds God that they are his people.  He reminds God of his promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  He reminds God that it was he, not Moses, who led the people out of Egypt.  And, very cunningly, he points out that God will do nothing but cause embarrassment to his name if he goes through with this.

God rescued this group of people from a life lost to slavery.  God would be with them while they were lost in the desert.  And even though this group of people in particular, and humans in general, cause God grief and suffering, God does not give up.  God continues to reach out to, search for and pursue those who are lost.  God does this because he values those who are lost as much as those who remain faithful.

Today’s gospel has this same theme of value running through it.  This chapter is made up of three parables: the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son.  In all three parables what was lost is found and there is great rejoicing.  In all three parables, what was lost has value: value to the shepherd, value to the widow, value to the father and, ultimately, value to God.

Unfortunately this idea of value can be vague to people who hear these parables.  In one sense the value is obvious.  A lost sheep is valuable because that sheep is potential income.  A lost coin is also valuable.  Have you ever lost $20?  It’s not enough to send you to bankruptcy, but it’s not small change either.  Coming from Montana, I understand the joy at finding a lost calf; and there is certainly a sense of joy when you find that $20 in the dryer.  But there is a deeper value that Jesus is getting at.

At the beginning of this passage, Luke writes that the Pharisees and scribes were grumbling that Jesus welcomed and ate with tax collectors and sinners.  Their view of Those People was one of disdain and contempt.  In their mindset, Those People were to be avoided because they might cause contamination.  Or maybe they were afraid that if God saw them with Those People, they would be found guilty by association.

Jesus challenges that assumption.  They could see the value in a lost sheep and lost coin – those things have a value attached to them.  In these parables Jesus is equating tax collectors and sinners with lost sheep and coins; he is giving them value.  The scribes and Pharisees worried that they would be devalued by association.  Jesus is saying it is through that very association that Those People have value added.

Value, though, is a relative term.  One hundred dollars has more value to someone struggling financially than it does to someone with a name like Gates, Pickens or Branson.  Gold would have no value if every beach in the world was made up of it.  We place value on things we treasure or things we can use.  The scribes and Pharisees saw no value in sinners because Those People weren’t treasured, nor did they have a use.

Jesus is telling the scribes and Pharisees that Those People have value simply because they are people.  It doesn’t matter that they are unclean sinners.  What matters is that they are lost and we should search for them until we find them because, in God’s eyes, they are valuable.

The religious people of Jesus’ day had a sense of not valuing Those People unless they repented of unacceptable sins.  The reason for this, I think, and what I mentioned above, was due to the belief that Those People might devalue the religious people.  The religious people might become contaminated and be found guilty by association.

But it wasn’t just the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day that he was talking to.  He is also talking to us.  Who in our society do we see as sinners with no value?  Or which sinners are we afraid to offer equal access because we either deem their sins worse than ours or we are afraid God will find us guilty by association?

Go back and re-read these parables with an eye toward value.  Who do you value?  Who do you not value?  On what basis do you find Those People as less deserving of value than yourself?  And, most importantly, whose responsibility is it to give a person value?  Because if you believe that Those People who are lost must get themselves found without help, you’ve got it wrong.



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