A former Lutheran pastor sharing thoughts on faith and life. Please join the conversation! I love your comments!

Monday, June 11, 2012

Our ever seeking, ever patient, house-cleaning God

A couple summers ago, our neighbors asked my young children to do chores for them while they were away at their son’s wedding. Jonathan and Becca’s first paying job! They couldn’t wait to get started. A few weeks later, we headed over to the Wilcox house to water flowers, feed the dog, cats and horses and collect eggs from their small motley crew of chickens. All went well and it was clear egg collecting was going to be a big hit. The next day, unable to restrain their impatience, the kids got to the chicken bin before me, opened the door and watched as the chickens all made a mad dash for freedom. For a few seconds anyway, I hoped they might be easily corralled and march single file back to their home. My false optimism quickly gave way to frustrated anger - at the children, at the chickens, at the ridiculous situation that found me running heedless in good clothes through overgrown grass in a futile attempt to run the biddies down. It was not my finest moment. In the end, we chased five of the eight chickens back into their enclosure before time and schedule demanded we leave the remaining three chickens to dine on the free range for a day. Late that evening, on my way home from church, I stopped to see if I could catch the three escaped inmates roosting in the trees. I tripped around in the dark trying out my best imitation chicken cluck in an attempt to lure the fugitives back to their home. No luck. I had a hard time sleeping that night, imagining coyotes on the prowl. The next morning, the kids and I tried again. And again, no luck. That evening Becca and I returned and tried a new strategy that almost worked until one stray movement betrayed our presence. Another sleepless night. Finally, the next evening, Becca and I tasted sweet success, coaxing the three confused hens through their open door. We were jubilant. We gave each other high fives and returned home in a celebratory mood. I slept well.

In the gospel of Luke, chapter 15, we find two parables, one in which a shepherd leaves his 99 sheep to set off in search of the lost 100th and the other about a woman who spends the night ransacking her house in search of a lost silver coin. In some ways, these two stories are really easy to relate to, which was Jesus’ point. We’ve all spent large portions of time looking for misplaced wallets, keys, pets who have strayed, vaporized cash, important documents, the list goes on. And everyone listening to Jesus that day could also relate. Everyone there knew exactly what it was like to lose something important and then spend an inordinate amount of time looking for it. This is the parable’s hook. That’s the neat thing about parables. They snag you with something you can relate to and then they take you for a ride at the end of which you emerge wiser, understanding and appreciating yourself, or life, or God on a new and/or deeper level. These parables, however, are about God. And that makes them unique. Most parables aim to teach us something about ourselves. What do we learn about God here? While we can relate to these stories, there is a difference between the shepherd and the woman with the broom as opposed to ourselves.

Well known Methodist minister and author, William Willimon writes, "'Which one of you shepherds,’ Jesus asked, ‘has a lost sheep? Would you not leave the ninety-nine sheep in the wilderness and go beat the bushes for that one lost sheep? And when you find that lost sheep, which one of you would not put that sheep on your shoulders and take the sheep back to your friends and say, ‘Come party with me. I found my lost sheep!’

“‘Which one of you women, if you lose a coin, would you not rip all the carpet up off the floor of your home and move all the heavy appliances out in the yard, move all the furniture out on the porch? And when you have found that lost coin, which one of you would not run out into the street and say to your neighbors, ‘Come party with me. I found my lost quarter!’ Now, which one of you would not do that?’

“Well, of course, the answer is none of us would do that! That’s crazy! And then Jesus, the teller of these stories says, ‘Excuse me, these are not stories about the way you behave. These are stories about the way God behaves. Get it?’ God is the seeking shepherd; the searching woman.”

As worried as I was about those chickens as night fell, I didn’t think too much about them during the day as I went about my business and I certainly wasn’t over there in the July heat trying to find and catch them. At some point, when lost keys don’t turn up, we go get new keys made. When a pet wanders away, we may spend days, even weeks, walking around trying to track them down. But eventually we will wrap our search up and hope they found a new home. There is a limit to our persistence. There is no limit to God’s.

For all the Bible’s talk about God, it doesn’t really spend a lot of time describing God. I like that about the Bible. But the Bible does use images, a lot of them in fact, in an attempt to reveal just hints about God’s nature. Images we can understand as opposed to God whom we really don’t understand. In this way, images are very powerful. The most popular image for God in the Bible is, “God the Father”. And in more recent years we’ve rightly expanded that to include Mother God or Parent God. Other Biblical images for God would be mother eagle (Deut. 32), fire, wind, light, lion, master, lord, king, mother hen, pregnant woman in labor (Is. 42:14), rock. Our passage today adds two more images. Interesting how one of these images, the masculine one, is a beloved image for God in Jesus, the image of the shepherd. But the other image, the feminine one, has been entirely neglected. (Why would that be?!) Yet here it is in Luke 15:8-10, God is like a woman cleaning her house. I do hope it is evident at this point that God really isn’t male or female but reflects attributes of both. In “The Song of Three Children”, musician Brian Wren writes,

God is not a she, God is not a he,
God is not an it
or a maybe.
God is a moving,
loving, doing,
knowing, growing

You see what Wren does here? He shifts the emphasis away from who God is, because ultimately God is mystery, and instead focuses on what God does. God moves, God loves, God knows. After looking at our gospel passage for today we add another verb to the list. God seeks.

And let me tell you, God is relentless. Psalm 139 comes to mind. “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.” God truly is inescapable.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried to slip away from God’s grasp, but God is always there, right behind me and in front of me. God never lets me go. And though we all interpret this Presence a little differently, I believe God seeks out every single person on this earth. And then God waits. God is just as relentless in waiting as God is in seeking. Even if we make our bed in Sheol, God is there.

How does God go about seeking and then waiting for that lost coin? My guess is God uses us a lot of the time. A popular benediction in my church is, “Christ has no body now on earth but yours; yours are the only hands with which Christ can do his work, yours are the only feet with which Christ can go about the world, yours are the only eyes through which Christ’s compassion can shine forth upon a troubled world. Christ has no body on earth now but yours.”

I came across a rather dramatic illustration of this point in an online article entitled, “Jesus loves porn stars” (CNN). I have rather strong opinions about pornography. That’s a pretty black and white issue in my book. Pornography is wrong, is immoral, is evil. I hate it. At the same time, of course Jesus would have loved porn stars, Jesus actively loved everyone on the margins of society. Curious, I read the article and learned about a pastor named Craig Gross who founded an online church called triple Xchurch. He is known as “The Porn Pastor” and for a time he participated in a bus tour with his good friend, Ron Jeremy. Ron is one of the biggest porn stars in the world having made around 2,000 adult videos. On this tour, Craig and Ron traveled around the country debating on the issue of pornography. Universities and nightclubs typically hosted these debates, but they had a really hard time finding churches willing to invite Ron Jeremy in their doors.

In an article from 2010, Craig writes, “The great thing about the debate is it is fair. I speak for 20 minutes, then Ron for 20 minutes then we do an hour of questions and answers. Why is the church so afraid to hear the other side? I think it would be a great outreach to bring the debate to a church but every time I pitch it to a church or Christian college they say, 'We could never let him on stage at church.' I don't get it. But then again, these are often the same people who say I should not even be friends with him, let alone on a tour bus with him. I know Zacchaeus was a short dude in the Bible but how can we overlook that story and not see the example Jesus set for us to go after people?

“Ron does not claim to be a Christian. Why share a church stage with someone that does not claim to be a Christian? What can we possibly learn from that? A whole lot I believe. I believe if Christians and others would listen to more people who are not just like us, and give them opportunities in our environments, we both might experience change. What do you think?”

I think....yes!  God is relentlessly pursuing Ron Jeremy along with a lot of other people in the pornography industry through the person of Craig Gross. But it’s not a one-way street here either. God is seeking, teaching, encouraging, and loving Craig through his friendship with Ron. In a beautiful God twist, the lost coin has a lot to offer the nine silver coins resting secure in the purse, not the least of which is wholeness.

Neither is life so clear cut most of the time. I am the found and the lost all at the same time. I might have found a lot of answers along the way, but it’s almost certain, some of those answers aren’t correct. So I sit by myself, or in the company of many others, blissfully unaware of the fact that in this slice of life anyway, I’m lost. I suspect I need God working through people who are lost in other ways to help restore me to the change purse. But I rest in faith, trusting God seeks and waits forever, moving around furniture, sweeping out long forgotten nooks and crannies, uncovering overlooked keys of hope and coins of grace in the most unlikely forms imaginable.

And God will keep waiting…..until the chickens come home!

I hear and behold God in every object, yet understand God not in the least.
Nor do I understand who there can be more wonderful than myself.
Why should I wish to see God better than this day.
I see something of God each hour of the twenty-four, and each moment then,
In the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own face in the glass.
I find letters from God dropped in the street -- and everyone is signed by God's name,
And I leave them where they are, for I know that others will punctually come forever and ever.
Walt Whitman

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