Something worth celebrating

May 23rd, 2011
Image via Flickr/Kowitz | Used under Creative Commons license

A sermon on Luke 15:1-10

I recall growing up and hearing my parents talk about a fellow my dad worked with. The man worked hard. He was always at the job on time, rarely took days off, and accepted every offer of overtime work. He went to church faithfully, paid his taxes, and worked hard so his children could have the necessary things for school in order to succeed. But he had a problem. He was an alcoholic who took his anger out on his family, violently and abusively. The community was shocked when this family’s problem was exposed. It seemed a foregone conclusion that his wife would divorce him and take the children, or that the family would just move as far away as possible to avoid ridicule, embarrassment, and isolation.

But something extraordinary happened. The man began the journey of recovery. In those days alcoholism wasn’t seen as the illness it is known to be today. Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) was basically unknown and only slightly supported in our hometown. But the man got on board with AA and the results were amazing. No more drunken displays of violence, no more hiding from the problem but accepting it as something to work through. Everyone in town who knew the family was overwhelmed by the changes. The man’s countenance and carriage all demonstrated that a major life-changing experience had taken place. His closest friends, coworkers, and church members all celebrated his new life direction. As he put it on one occasion, “My life has been saved.”

In 1985, when my wife and I were in seminary, my parents made their first visit to Louisville, Kentucky. During their stay, my wife planned a shopping excursion to downtown Louisville. Our entourage of about ten people, including our toddler daughter, arrived at the downtown mall and began what we thought would be a simple outing. Our daughter would prove otherwise. In one of the huge department stores, we split into two groups and agreed to rendezvous at the store’s rear entrance in precisely one hour. We all completed our shopping and met up at the store exit— everyone but our four-year-old daughter. Each group thought that she had been with the other group.

Frantically we began our search. An all-points bulletin had been sounded throughout the store, even out in the mall area. Running down each and every aisle proved unproductive. She was nowhere to be found.

We stopped person after person, showed them her picture, and asked if they had seen our daughter. By this time, a few of us were in tears. Then, as several of us stayed put in the middle of the store, to intercept her should she come through the store, a little hand reached out and touched me on the kneecap. She had been hiding for more than a half hour under a carousel of children’s dresses. She peeked out and laughed. Well, you can imagine our response. No one could keep their hands off of her. We had found her at last. Our worst fears had not happened. A huge roar of applause and adulation filled the department store over the recovery.

Some may be quick (and correct) to point out how easy it is to celebrate those we love, especially when they have been lost or in trouble, but what about those whom we don’t especially love? How do we celebrate them?

According to the parable in Luke, Jesus has no problem eating with those the writer describes as “tax collectors and sinners” (Luke 15:1), the unlovable of their day. I believe Luke wants us to see something truly extraordinary about those with whom God keeps company and about God through Jesus’ life. So we have to ask, whom would Jesus welcome in our own day and time? Who are the hated and despised among us today?

Terrorists? People of other religions? People different from us? I suspect that many of us would be just as shocked as the Pharisees to discover whom Jesus would befriend. If Jesus’ life is the model for our lives, and if the central purpose of the church is to welcome sinners and eat with them, then how prepared are we to live the life of faith?

What happened in my dad’s friend’s life and losing our daughter on a shopping trip are not just personal stories about losing something or someone precious to us. They, like the parables, speak to a much larger concern. Such episodes happen all over the world each day. Has a false security—that nothing like that can happen to us—prevented us from seeing the value of finding people where they are in life and joining God’s search party? Real people, the good and the bad, still get lost or lose their way in this life. How do we know this? We have only to visit our own lives to know this truth.

One of the best ways I’ve heard of describing the church’s central purpose of joining God’s search is a story about a little girl who was lost. In her book Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott tells how the little girl was frightened, but a policeman stopped to help her. He put her in his car and drove around the neighborhood until she finally saw her church. “You could let me out now. This is my church, and I can always find my way home from here.” Lamott concludes, “And that is why I have stayed so close to mine—because no matter how bad I am feeling, how lost or lonely or frightened, when I see the faces of the people at my church . . . I can always find my way home” (Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies [New York: Random House, 2000], 55).

May God give us the strength, the insight and foresight, and the faith, to join God’s search and not exclude any person in our daily living. In our sometimes frantic, anxious, even selfish moments of living, may we be reminded of those around us like the man in my hometown, our daughter lost on a shopping trip, or the little girl needing a policeman’s help.

May we stop, turn, and remember that there are those who are being left behind or forgotten, and may we hear God calling us to go back and find them where they are. This will be something worth celebrating!

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