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Coming Near

A sermon preached the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 19: September 15, 2013)

The Rev. John Ohmer, Rector

The Falls Church Episcopal

The Old Testament Lesson: The LORD said to Moses, "Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, `These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!'" The LORD said to Moses, "I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation."

But Moses implored the LORD his God, and said, "O LORD, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, `It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth'? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, `I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.'" And the LORD changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people. (Exodus 32:7-14)

The Gospel: All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them."

So he told them this parable: "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. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, `Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.' Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

"Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, `Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.' Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents." (Luke 15:1-10) 

The stories that Jesus tells in the Gospel today -- one about a shepherd seeking out a lost sheep, another about a woman seeking out a lost coin – are both told as examples, or metaphors, for the way God seeks us out.

And both stories are told in response to criticism: criticism that Jesus receives from religious insiders who witness, and object to, the radical hospitality that Jesus offers.  

And so it is very interesting, and telling, that at the beginning of the story, we hear the little phrase, “coming near.” The religious authorities objected to the fact that tax collectors and sinners were “coming near.”[1] 

Here are people at the periphery of that culture and time “coming near” to Jesus. I suppose the religious authorities would have been fine if those people – those who were at the periphery – were to have stayed at the periphery. What offends them is the way they come near, enter the inner circle.

The Episcopal Church has gotten criticized quite a lot lately because we don’t think that being gay should keep you from becoming ordained, and we don’t think that being openly gay or being a female should keep you from becoming a bishop.

Now here’s what I find interesting: arguably there have been gay clergy and bishops as long as there have been clergy and bishops; there have been women ordained to the priesthood in our church since the mid to late 1970’s, and there have been women elected as bishops in the Episcopal Church since 1989.

So why wasn’t it until the 2003-2006 timeframe that all the brouhaha really started? Because that’s when we, as a denomination, agreed to allow a diocese to elect an openly gay man into the House of Bishops, and that’s when we elected a woman as our Presiding Bishop. I have long thought, “this controversy isn’t so much about sexuality, or gender, or even about the way we interpret scripture: it’s about power. It’s about who is comfortable having whom in the inner circle and who wants to keep whom at the periphery.”

And I mean this to be descriptive, not critical, because I know as well as anyone that when we point a finger at someone, we have three fingers pointing right back at us. And so let me be clear: the dynamic I’m describing here – the tendency to resist others coming into our power circle – is a human tendency, not a conservative tendency or a liberal tendency. It’s human nature.

At least it’s my human nature: years ago, I worked for a United States Senator, and after I had been on his staff for a few years, he ran for president. All of a sudden, the relatively easy access we staffers enjoyed was gone. Others had the access we once had. And when he reached the point where he was entitled to Secret Service protection, all of a sudden there buttons indicating what kind of access you had, and in what places and at what times.

At one level I was excited to be working in this environment, but at another level, I was jealous, and even a little resentful. I was a low-level staffer without a lot of power, but when you feel even the little amount of power you have slipping away, it’s not a pleasant feeling.

One day the Chief of Staff pulled all us Senate staffers aside and said something useful, something like, “In politics, in a Presidential campaign, there is no one ‘inner circle.’ There’s the candidate, acting kind of like the Sun, and there is everyone else, acting kind of like planets in various orbits around the candidate…at times, some appear to be closer, but wait just a little while, and they’ll be far away, and others will be closer.”   

That helped.

A little.

But, if I’m honest about it, what really helped is when the candidate himself sought us out, made a point of thanking or acknowledging us and our history and our contributions.

Returning to the parables Jesus tells, keep in mind the farmer goes after, pursues the one who is lost, the woman “searches carefully” for the lost coin. When we were sought out, it was more than having our ego needs me. There’s a deep psychological or even spiritual need being addressed here – that of being sought out, searched after.

And THAT is the point, or at least the power of these parables: God is a God who searches out…this Gospel is about the long, loving reach of God.

When our children were little, one of our favorite books to read to them was The Runaway Bunny.

At one level, the story is about a little bunny rabbit that keeps running away from its mother, and all the things his mother does to bring him back to her.

Once there was a little bunny who wanted to run away.
So he said to his mother, “I am running away.”
“If you run away,” said his mother, “I will run after you.
For you are my little bunny.”

“If you run after me,” said the little bunny,
I will become a fish in a trout stream

and I will swim away from you.”

“If you become a fish in a trout stream,” said his mother,
“I will become a fisherman and I will fish for you.” 

“If you become a fisherman,” said the little bunny,
“I will become a rock on the mountain, high above you.”

"If you become a rock on the mountain high above me,”
said his mother, “I will become a mountain climber,
and I will climb to where you are.

But the story is about something else, too. It’s not just a children’s story about a rabbit and his mother. 

Surely it is a story about God, and all the different ways we human beings try to run away from God, and the things God does to bring us back to him. 

Scripture teaches us that “God is love.” (1 John 4:8).

It’s not just that God loves: God really is love…

God is so much love that God just couldn’t keep it to himself.

So that is at least part of the reason God created the world – not just any world, but this world, this beautiful world – the sky and the seas, fish and birds – and plants – God created those things as a way of expressing his love for us. That’s why we feel close to God while, say, on a hike or gardening: nature is a love note from God, meant to draw us closer to God.

But like the rabbit in that story, from the very beginning, we have tried to run away from God’s love in creation.

So God says, in effect, “if you, humanity, run away from me in creation, then I’ll bring you back through my special people – Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, and Moses. I will send you laws, Ten Commandments, to live by, so you’ll know how to love me and love each other.”

But as heard in the Old Testament lesson today, we (as humanity) rejected God’s love “made known to us in the calling of Israel to be his people.” We said, in effect, “yeah, well, okay, God, you delivered us from slavery in Egypt, but now that we’re free, and now that we haven’t heard from Moses in a while, we’ll make these small-g gods and give them credit for our freedom, and worship them. If you send Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and Moses, we won’t listen to them, and we’ll forget your laws.”

“If you forget my laws,” God effectively says, “then I’ll send prophets to remind you, remind you how much I love you and how you should love each other.”

“If you send prophets to remind us,” we effectively said, “we’ll ignore them – we won’t listen to them.”

“If you won’t listen to my prophets,” (God said), “then I’ll become one of you…a human. I’ll show you myself how to love one another and me.”

And so God became one of us.

This is the kind of love we’re talking about: God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son…he loved us so much he became flesh, one of us, a human, in Jesus.

And what did God-made-human say when he was with us?

He said “Love. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and with all your strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.

“There is no law…no commandment greater, or more important than that.”

And this love-made-incarnate, when he walked the face of the earth, sought out – didn’t just welcome, but sought out those on the periphery and made them part of his inner circle…

…or more accurately, he destroyed the whole notion of an inner circle by stretching out his arms of love so wide everyone, everyone, everyone comes within their saving and loving embrace.

Humanity ran away from that love – humanity did more than run away from it: we crucified it. 

(Humanity cannot run any further away from God’s love than that.)

And what was God’s response when humanity ran away as far as humanly possible? Did God’s wrath burn against humanity?

No: God resurrects Jesus sends him right back to humanity…forgiving Peter and the rest of humanity.

I will fish for you,

climb for you,

dig for you,

move you,

stretch out my arms of love

                                                         take everything you have to offer

But I WILL catch you in my arms and love you.

And here’s the thing: created in the image of that God, THAT is the kind of people you and I are called to be, and THAT is the kind of faith community we are called to be:

A people and a place of not only welcome…but invitation…

Not only invitation, but actively searching and diligently seeking out, sweeping and searching…a people and a place who, like the shepherd and the woman – like God – who rejoice, celebrate, and are joy-full. “Rejoice with me!” the shepherd says, “rejoice with me!” the woman says, “rejoice with me!” God says…

…because it really doesn’t make any difference how far you’ve wandered or strayed, how lost you feel, how much outside the care and love and reach of God you consider yourself: Gods’ love and God’s people, in that Love, welcome, and not only welcome but invite, and not only invite but search and find, until all of us and every part of us are brought into God’s loving embrace.


[1] I owe this insight to G. Penny Nixon, Feasting on the Word, pg. 71.   


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