Sermon preached by Peter Thompson, Seminarian
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 15, 2013
Take our lives and let them be
Consecrated, Lord to thee.
Take our moments and our days,
Let them flow in ceaseless praise. Amen.
Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. I have to admit that my first reaction to this statement is one of fear. I think of movies like Saved! and Jesus Camp, in which the saving love of Jesus comes with conditions. You can be saved, but only if you disown the person you were before and adhere to very specific ideas of behavior and belief. Being “saved” sounds like a not-so-very-pleasant experience. It also seems to necessarily exclude some people. The series of books and movies called Left Behind imagines those who are not saved being left behind on earth when the rapture comes.
But looking at God’s saving work in this way distorts what Paul is actually saying in 1 Timothy. Paul’s message is primarily one of hope, not of fear. If Jesus came to save, his goal was not condemnation but assistance. If Jesus came to save sinners, his focus was not on those who were perfect—on those who lived up to a certain standard—but precisely on those who didn’t measure up—the flawed, the devious, the lost.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus underscores God’s concern for the outsider. The God Jesus describes is more than merely liberal or forgiving in his approach to sinners; Jesus’ God is persistent and all-encompassing. God seeks after the one lost sheep even though he has 99 sheep at his side; God searches the house high and low for the one lost coin even though she has nine others in her possession. God does not settle for approximate success, for only saving most people. God will not rest until every sheep is back in his fold and every coin is back in her hands. God is willing to do whatever God must to make God’s community complete.
What’s so impressive about Jesus’ vision is that he not only outlines it but also enacts it. He starts telling the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin after he hears complaints from the Pharisees of his eating with tax collectors and sinners. These were the people thought to be wicked and irredeemable for flouting God’s law. In the case of tax collectors, they exploited others in the service of foreign rule and for their own gain. But whatever everyone else thinks, Jesus does not give up on the tax collectors and sinners. Just as God seeks after the lost sheep and the lost coin, so too does Jesus seek out those most shunned and written-off by the world. By choosing to sit and eat with them, he validates their identities and includes them. He may not agree with them or endorse the way they live, but he nonetheless listens to them and, by doing so, respects them.
We are so used to talk of inclusion and acceptance both in our culture and in our church that I sometimes wonder if we have forgotten what it really means to welcome all people. It is wonderful that we seek a place at the table for people of all sexual orientations and gender identities, and for people of differing racial, ethnic and social backgrounds. These are certainly still important tasks for us to undertake, both here and in other places of the world. But if we take Jesus’ approach in today’s Gospel as paradigmatic, it seems to me that our most significant challenge is not to concern ourselves with those whom we identify as lost and marginalized, but rather to focus on those whom we ourselves marginalize—the people we find most distasteful and odious, the people we are quite happy to keep out of the fold or hidden away in some dusty corner. There are good reasons to exclude the tax collectors and sinners, but Jesus includes them anyway. Are we truly being inclusive enough if—however justified we feel—we are quite happy to keep some sheep out of the fold or to leave some coins under the dresser? What would it mean if we sought out every last person for the Kingdom of God—not just the people we want in it but also the people we don’t really want at all?
Of course, sitting down to eat with tax collectors and sinners requires recognizing and accepting the tax collectors and sinners within ourselves, the parts of ourselves we are most likely to forget about, ignore or deny. Modeling this, Paul acknowledges that he is the “foremost” of the sinners Jesus came to save and finds it important to call attention to his former life as “a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence.” For Paul, admitting with vulnerability his own flaws and dark places is a prerequisite to proclaiming the Gospel. Similarly, inclusion and recognition of every part of ourselves—every wayward sheep in our souls, every lost coin in our hearts—seems necessary before we can reach out to include and recognize others. Both Freud and Jung wrote of the importance of uncovering and integrating the unnoticed and undesired aspects of one’s psyche. In psychoanalysis as in today’s Gospel, nothing is left untouched: everything left forgotten or undesired on the fringes must be brought back, named and grappled with. Nothing is discarded; nothing is left behind.
At the core of Paul’s letter to Timothy and of Jesus’ message to the Pharisees is a faith that every part of our individual and communal existence is important and meaningful. We perhaps need to be reminded of this most when we encounter painful and challenging moments in our lives. I love the way Rainer Maria Rilke, in Letters to a Young Poet, encourages readers to appreciate such moments regardless of the distress they cause. He writes: “We have no reason to harbor any mistrust against our world, for it is not against us. If it has terrors, they are our terrors; if it has abysses, these abysses belong to us; if there are dangers, we must try to love them. And if only we arrange our life in accordance with the principle which tells us that we must always trust in the difficult, then what now appears to us as the most alien will become our most intimate and trusted experience…Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.” Rilke beautifully captures how even the worst of what we experience is something we must come to accept and cherish.
It is not easy, certainly, to seek out and love what is dangerous and lost in ourselves and in our communities. We let things remain lost for a reason: we don’t want to acknowledge or deal with them. We call them “tax collectors and sinners” so we don’t have to face them. They give us insights we don’t want to have and push buttons in us that we don’t want pushed. But as it hard as it is to search for and face what is lost, disregarded or forgotten, we must—because God speaks through everything we think and experience, and every person we encounter. And God leaves nothing—and no one—behind.