Sermon for Sunday, September 11, 2016 || Proper 19C || Luke 15:1-10
The unsavory elements of society come to listen to Jesus, and he does not send them away. The scribes and Pharisees watch from a distance so as not to rub shoulders with such disreputable people, and at every turn Jesus’ behavior confirms their opinion of him. Either he does not understand the basic tenets of society, which force the unsavory elements to the margins where upstanding folks can ignore them. Or he does not care that he risks his own reputation by welcoming them into his presence. Either way, his behavior allows the scribes and Pharisees to write him off.
But there’s a third option that I doubt ever enters their tightly closed minds. Maybe, just maybe, Jesus knows exactly what he’s doing. Maybe he does care; maybe he cares about the people and not about his reputation. Perhaps the reason he welcomes those on the margins is that he has accepted his life’s mission, and he is living that mission to the fullest.
Indeed, his opponents neatly package his mission in the form of an accusation, grumbled loudly from the sidelines. “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them!” I imagine Jesus nodding his head, smiling, drawing for a minute in the dirt while he tries to come up with a way to reach these hard-hearted people. How could he explain his mission in a way they could understand, maybe even accept?
He looks out into the fields and sees the shepherds corralling their sheep, and inspiration strikes. “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices.”
By bringing his opponents into the parable, Jesus attempts to get them to step into his shoes. The subtext of the story yearns to come to light. In effect, Jesus says: “This is my mission, to bring the lost back home. And you scribes and Pharisees, you who are burdened by so much spiritual red tape, it can be your mission too, if you just trust me.”
A few did: Nicodemus, Paul a while later. But for most of the scribes and Pharisees, they could not square Jesus’ vision of God’s mission with the atrophied tradition they had received from their forefathers. Like Jesus, the prophets of old had railed against the misappropriation of God’s mission. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Hosea, the rest – they came back time and time again to a mission focused on widows and orphans, which was their shorthand for people on the margins. When Jesus spoke about finding that lost sheep, he echoed the prophets’ mission, but his opponents were pitiably deaf to his words.
Thankfully, those on the margins heard Jesus loud and clear: “I’m that lost sheep, and he’s bringing me back home.” Such was the power of Jesus’ mission of seeking, finding, and retrieving the lost that the earliest Christians used as their focal image Jesus carrying a sheep on his shoulders. Not the Crucifix. Not the Sacred Heart. Not Christ enthroned in heaven. No. Jesus carrying a sheep on his shoulders. Such an image spoke his mission loud and clear: “I’m bringing the lost back home.”
As we begin a new program year at St. Mark’s, I’d like to invite us to take ownership of our collective mission. I’ve never been a fan of church mission statements because no one ever seems to know what they say. And if you don’t know what your mission statement says, then it’s not your mission. This is a thorny problem: you want visionary words around which to coalesce, but they need to be simple enough to be memorable. Tricky.
Fully a year ago, I started pondering this thorny problem, and then our congregation gave me a gift, which broke the challenge wide open. Our first series of adult forum hours examined three prayers we pray every week: the gloria, the confession of sin, and the postcommunion prayer. For each prayer, the group underlined the phrases that meant the most to them, that really got their blood flowing. Well, when we got to the postcommunion prayer in week three, every word ended up underlined, and the excitement in the room was palpable. And I realized that our mission – our collective calling into creative partnership with God – had been hiding in plain sight all these years, had been forming us without fanfare into followers.
Indeed, we’ve been praying our mission all along, and now it’s time to claim ownership of it. The first half of the prayer sets up welcome and nourishment:
Eternal God, heavenly Father, you have graciously accepted us as living members of your Son our Savior Jesus Christ, and you have fed us with spiritual food in the Sacrament of his Body and Blood.
With these words, we remember that Jesus Christ has brought us, some of God’s lost sheep, back home. And we step into his shoes to welcome all who are lost in the obscurity of the margins. We also claim the sustenance of the Holy Communion, the presence of the Body of Christ, which animates the collective Body of Christ. Animated for what? That’s the second half of the prayer. That’s the mission:
Send us now into the world in peace, and grant us strength and courage to love and serve you with gladness and singleness of heart; through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Early this summer, I preached about the word “apostle.” Does anyone remember what it means? Yes, it means to be “sent out.” Our mission exists not just in the safety of this place, but out beyond those doors. We practice passing peace between these walls, and then we bring peace with us into our neighborhoods. We ask for strength and courage to see what God is up to in those neighborhoods, to see how we can love and serve God where God has already been active. We love and serve God with gladness because participating authentically in God’s mission sends us to where our deep gladness meets the world’s deep hunger.* And we love and serve with singleness of heart because God uses our missions to heal our own brokenness. God blesses us with singleness of heart in order to piece our broken hearts back together.
You can probably tell that I’m a little more excited than normal. That’s because we’ve been living this mission. This prayer for mission has formed us without fanfare into followers. And it will continue to form us into even more deeply committed disciples and apostles once we claim it as our mission. The problem with mission statements is that no one ever seems to know what they say. But we do. We say ours every week, and then, just in case we weren’t paying attention, we reiterate it as the last words of the service. “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord. Alleluia. Alleluia!”
Jesus shares his mission in his parable of the lost sheep. He came here to bring the lost back home with him. His mission spurs ours as we go out into the world in peace, strengthened and encouraged, to love and serve the Lord with gladness and singleness of heart. And just in case we forget that God invites us to claim this mission every single day, just look at what page the postcommunion prayer is on. That’s right. 365.
*Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking