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Sunday, September 11, 2016 | 8:00 a.m.

God of Grace

Victoria G. Curtiss
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 139:1–12
1 Timothy 1:12–17
Luke 15:1–10

You sweep the streets of the world to uncover the brother we consider to be trash.
You shine your grace into sin’s shadows to find us when we have lost our way.
You would leave us to go find the sister we left behind. Jesus, you are our Joy.

Thom M. Shuman

Cartoonist Charles Schultz drew a wonderful Peanuts strip in which Lucy comes up to her brother Linus and says, “You, a doctor! Ha! That’s a big laugh! You could never be a doctor! You know why? Because you don’t love mankind.” And off she goes, jumping rope. Linus shouts after her, “I love mankind! It’s people I can’t stand.”

The Pharisees and scribes were like Linus. They cared about pleasing God but couldn’t stand that God cared about all people. They rejoiced over a sinner who repents but objected to Jesus hanging out with sinners. Jesus offended their sensibilities with his “promiscuous meal sharing” with outcasts. After all, the Pharisee and scribes were the proper people, religious insiders, who abided by the rules and drew the boundaries. They believed one is known by the company one keeps. Instead of associating with people they thought did bad things, the scribes and Pharisees pointed them out, ridiculed and shunned them. They could have said, like Linus, “I love my neighbor. It’s ‘those’ people I can’t stand.”

It’s not that the Pharisees and scribes were bad people. They actually were doing what they thought was right in the eyes of God. The problem was they got their religion all wrong. They thought it was up to them to earn God’s acceptance. They thought their salvation depended on their worthiness based on good behavior. They believed some were outside God’s favor. They protected their good reputations by refusing to keep company with people they considered trash. Their image of God seemed to be of a distant, harsh deity whose arms were crossed over his chest, fists clenched, meting out acceptance sparingly only to those who fulfilled certain religious obligations.

Jesus embodied a direct challenge to their beliefs and behavior. He knew tax collectors made their money by extracting taxes for the occupying government and jacking up the fees so they could pocket some money for themselves. And Jesus knew that “sinners” were primarily poor, common folk who were so concerned with figuring out where their next meal would come from that they didn’t have time or money for religious obligations.

These were the folks who would not be invited for dinner. Sharing a meal in Jesus’ day was significant. Breaking bread with another extended honor, peace, and friendship to the guests. Giving hospitality was a loaded action–sociologically, politically, and theologically. By his actions, Jesus revealed a different God, a radically inclusive, loving God. Jesus sought out people who were marginalized and welcomed them. He took the initiative and forgave them, even before they repented. He treated all people with respect and dignity, as full human beings. He intentionally reversed the esteemed positions, and the Pharisees and scribes who got bumped noticed big time. They murmured, “He welcomes sinners.” They grumbled, “He eats with them.” They wondered, “Who is this guy?” “What kind of religion does he follow?”

Noted American evangelist Tony Campolo tells of visiting an all-night diner in Hawaii while suffering from jet lag, unable to sleep. From his booth he overheard a conversation among several “ladies of the night.” One said that the next day would be her thirty-ninth birthday. Sadly she confessed that she had never in her life had a birthday party. Tony secretly arranged with the manager of the diner to throw a surprise party for the woman. The next night the woman and her friends were stunned and thrilled, and Tony led the group in prayer. Later the diner manager asked Tony, “What kind of church do you belong to?” He replied, “I belong to the kind of church that throws birthday parties for whores at 3:30 in the morning.”

That was Jesus’ kind of church.

Some people ask, “Aren’t all religions alike? What makes Christianity distinctive?” Not miracles, nor virgin births, not even incarnation nor resurrection—all these can be found in other religions. Not the ethical, beautiful teachings of Jesus, like love your neighbor and forgive your enemy. Those are based on Jewish ethics. Other religions also hold that God is love. Much of what Christians believe is universally shared by people all over the world.

There is something distinctive in Christianity. Hugh Montifiore, a Jewish biblical scholar, said what is unique is this one affirmation: that God seeks us and finds us (Mark Trotter, “God Never Gives Up,” 13 September 1998 sermon). Christian theologian C. S. Lewis said what is unique is God’s grace. No other world religion has ever made the ultimate acceptance by God so absolutely unconditional. God’s grace embraces us all (P.C. Enniss, “Theology Matters,” The Reformed Church Pulpit, vol. XIV, no. 1). Jesus Christ reveals God as a radically inclusive, loving God, the God of grace, who persistently pursues us with amazing love no matter how much we mess up.

Jesus told three parables that use thought-provoking metaphors for God. The most familiar is the father of the prodigal son. The others are a shepherd and a woman. Back then shepherds experienced some disdain. Women were treated as second-class citizens. These are two of the images Jesus chose to reveal who God is and how God loves.

In spite of—or perhaps because of—their low standing in society, these two types of people were perfect metaphors for God. That is because of what they did. When the shepherd discovered one of his flock was missing, he immediately left ninety-nine of his sheep to go find the one that was lost, not stopping his search until the sheep was found. When the woman realized she lost one of her few precious coins, she immediately started cleaning her house, searching anywhere and everywhere and didn’t stop until she found it. Both were filled with joy when they found what was lost.

I imagine we have all lost something precious. Remember how it felt? Remember what you did? You retraced your steps, dumped out your purse, searched all your pockets, went through all your luggage or your laundry or drawers, sifted through wastebaskets, made phone calls, got others involved in the search. You didn’t stop until you finally found what you had lost or exhausted all possibilities. And then, if you found it—what a relief and joy. You tell others your good news, and they celebrate with you. Rejoicing is what God does after finding lost children and bringing them home.

The Syria Civil Defense, also known as the White Helmets, is a group of dedicated volunteers in Syria who risk bombs, chemical attacks, and sniper fire every day to rescue civilians. They dig through the rubble of destroyed buildings, searching for trapped children and adults. Knowing that each hour that passes increases the likelihood of death for any survivors, they work without a break, hour after hour, digging through slabs of concrete, piles of rock, and sharp debris. More than once they have given all they had in pursuit of one tiny baby whose small whimper had been heard hours before. Even though more than 500,000 have been killed and wounded by the atrocious bombing we pray will end with the ceasefire tomorrow, they honor the life of one person. What celebration, what incredible relief and joy and gratitude they express when they recover the child, still alive. That’s how much God gives of God’s self to find us. That’s how precious we are in God’s sight. God rejoices in our well-being. God loves us personally and intimately, even though each of us is but one among billions of people.

There are many ways we can be lost. Sometimes being lost is imposed on people by society. African American youth in Chicago, especially males, have been called the “lost generation” as too many are traumatized, wounded, and killed by gun violence. Lostness occurs when people abuse one another, leaving victims with physical and emotional scars.

Lostness can be self-imposed, as when we pursue the false path of living only for ourselves. We can also feel lost in the midst of intense suffering and physical pain. We may feel lost after the death of someone we dearly love or the rupture of any relationship that grounds you and helps you know who you are. You may feel lost when the dreams you long carried are not becoming reality. Being lost—feeling isolated or uncertain, aimlessly drifting, taking the wrong turn—is an experience many of us have known.

And usually when we are lost, we cannot find our way home by ourselves. We need another to find us.

In Jesus’ parables, neither the lost sheep nor the coin could do anything to get found. A lost sheep that is able to bleat out in distress often will not do so, out of fear. Instead it will curl up and lie down in the wild brush, hiding from predators. It is so fearful in its seclusion that it cannot help in its own rescue. With the sheep immobilized, the shepherd must bear the full weight to bring it home. Similarly the lost coin cannot roll itself into a more visible place or shine more brightly to attract attention to itself. Its rescue is totally dependent upon the woman’s diligence. When we are lost, we often need God to find us.

The good news is that God comes looking for you. God doesn’t wait for you to do anything but comes searching for you, picking you up, carrying you home, restoring your life. How and where does that happen? It depends on where we are lost.

Years ago, our former pastor John Buchanan preached

“I believe God finds us sometimes . . .
in the experience of a troubled conscience
in anger over injustice
in impatience with ourselves.

I think God finds us
in experiences of intense passionate love
in deep and profound grief
in experiences of breathtaking and heart shattering beauty.

I think God finds us
in moments of insight when we know our own mortality,
our smallness, our weaknesses, our lostness.
(John Buchanan, “Lost and Found,” 5 November 1989 sermon)

Maya Angelou told a wonderful story about herself when she first came to San Francisco as a young woman and became sophisticated. She thought part of being sophisticated was to be agnostic. It wasn’t that she stopped believing in God, just that God no longer frequented the neighborhoods that she frequented.

She was taking voice lessons at the time. Her teacher gave her an exercise where she was to read from some religious pamphlet. The reading ended with these words: “God loves me.” She finished the reading and put the pamphlet down. The teacher said, “I want you to read that last sentence again.” So she picked it up and read it again, this time somewhat sarcastically, then put it down again. The teacher said, “Read it again.” She read it again. Then Maya described what happened: “After about the seventh repetition I began to sense there might be some truth in this statement. That there was a possibility that God really loves me, Maya Angelou. I suddenly began to cry at the grandness of it all. I knew if God loved me, I could do wonderful things. I could do great things. I could learn anything. I could achieve anything. For what could stand against me with God, since one person, any person, with God form a majority now” (Mark Trotter, “God Never Gives Up,” 13 September 1998 sermon).

God finds us. That’s the unique message of the Christian faith. God seeks you and finds you. Do you want to know who you are? You are a beloved child of God. Do you know who God is? God is the God of grace. God loves humankind. And as for people—God loves all people, too. Go and do likewise. Amen.