Thursday, September 13, 2007

Luke 15:8-10 - “Sweeping”

16th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 19)
(Year C - Lutheran Service Book Readings)
Thursday, September 13, 2007

Bring out a garbage can on wheels which has numerous brooms in it.

The parable that Jesus tells about the woman searching her house for her lost coin, it says that she swept the house looking for the coin. I brought out these brooms tonight, because that image of the woman sweeping, it tells us a lot about our God and so it also tells us a lot about us as His people.

First, though, perhaps the woman’s action don’t seem noteworthy if you’re thinking she’s sweeping a floor like you’d find in one of our houses. I mean, even here in this big sanctuary, it might take us awhile to find a dime if we dropped it on the floor, but brooms wouldn’t really be necessary. We’d just scan the carpet, look for something shiny to catch our eye. If necessary, we could even get down on our hands and knees, get eye-level with the floor, and try to see where there was something laying on the floor. It would take awhile, but whether here or at home, it wouldn’t be that hard, and brooms certainly wouldn’t be required.

If that’s the image from this parable, well, it wouldn’t be all that impressive. If Jesus is saying that God looks for us lost sinners like a woman scanning a carpet, well, it shows God cares—but does He really work very hard at looking for us?

Except when Jesus told this parable, He wasn’t living in a world of carpeted rooms. Sure, the woman probably lived in a house smaller than the size of a one-car garage, a much smaller floor to search than say looking for a dime in this sanctuary, but listen to what else we can guess about what the woman’s house was liked. This description is from Kenneth Bailey’s book, Finding the Lost: Cultural Keys to Luke 15:

The building material around the northern end of the sea of Galilee [where Jesus spent a lot of time teaching] is a beautiful very black basalt. [Archaeologists have found that] the buildings are almost exclusively constructed of the local black rock….The windows…[were] about six inches high and placed in the wall about seven feet above the ground. They are little more than slits. The ancient building techniques produced ceilings from slabs of the same black basalt….[T]he floors…were covered with flat basalt stones taken from the lake. Cracks between the stones are naturally wide….“[T]he rather deep [cracks] between the stones are filled up with earth….” (Bailey, 101).

Now do you see? When Jesus says that the woman lit a lamp, swept the floor, and made a diligent search, she was searching a very small house, but she was working in very dark conditions, carefully sweeping away whatever filled the cracks in the floors, looking for where that coin may have gone to be covered over by more dirt. Against these very difficult circumstances, the woman is focused on finding that coin, worth a day’s wages, worth so much to her family but worth nothing if it remains lost in a crack in the floor.

Now this image of a woman sweeping searching for her lost coin, now this starts to reveal who our God really is. He is making a diligent search for all the lost ones. He made a diligent search and found you. He rejoiced when He found you among the dark places of this world, hidden in a forgotten crack underneath the dirt, lost because of your sin. He shined His light into this dark world, swept the floor until He found you. The angels in heaven rejoiced when you were found and given the promise of eternal life.

Far from an image of our God looking for us as a matter of course, searching like a simple household cleaning task, instead this parable shows us that God searches for all people, for all His lost ones like one who is up against a difficult task but who works at it with great diligence. God isn’t just doing a little surface search; He is sweeping away the dirt covered each crack. He will not stop until He discovers the lost coin, until He discovers His lost ones who need the Word of salvation.

Ah, but that brings us back to this bin of brooms. I suppose all of these brooms could show that God will use as many tools as He needs in order to find people who need to know about His love and forgiveness. That could be a reason for having so many brooms, but there’s another reason I have for having so many brooms: they represent us. We are called to go out sweeping for the Lord.

As much as this parable tells us about God’s heart, how in His heart of hearts God wants all people to be saved so He is on a very diligent search for each lost person, as much as this parable shows us who our God is, it also tells us who we are called to be.

As followers of Christ, we are called to reflect Him, to shine with His characteristics, to embody His love and forgiveness and. . .diligent search. If it is God’s desire to search for the lost ones with a passion like a woman searching for a small coin in a very dark room where there are deep cracks for a coin to hide, well, then we, too, are to have that same passion for searching.

We are called to go out sweeping for the Lord, called to go out searching for the lost with the same diligence, focus, care, love, and joy.

But what kind of searching are we doing? Will the kind of sweeping we’re doing now ever reveal the lost coin, or are we just doing a surface cleaning which will never find the lost coin in a deep crack underneath the dirt?

In other words, are we as a congregation focused on doing whatever it takes to reach out to people who don’t know Jesus, people who have fallen away from their faith, people who can’t see what Jesus has to do with their daily lives, people who need hope beyond the troubles of their lives? Are we diligently grabbing the broom and sweeping until we find these lost ones?

A couple of weeks ago when I announced our Executive Board’s decision to try keeping worship on Thursday rather than on Saturday, I explained that we’re doing it on a trial basis, that you should pass on your thoughts to an Executive Board member, and that they’re asking you to keep an open mind to see how this might work for us as a congregation.

Now I don’t really know what the answer is to when we should have our worship services, but I want you to think about it from next to this can of brooms. I want you to ask questions about what we need to do as a congregation to be sweeping, to be searching, to be doing whatever it takes to reach out to people who are not here receiving God’s Good News.

In other words, as we think about when to have worship services, it’s not just about what is good for you. The question is about missions, about outreach, about what will make it possible for us to find the lost ones in our community. We’re looking for the right kind of broom for the job. We’re not just looking for your favorite broom or someone else’s favorite broom. We’re looking for the broom that will make it possible for more and more people to come, hear God’s Word, and trust in Him for salvation.

Again, I don’t know what broom we need. I don’t know when we should have worship services in order to serve the people around us. All I am asking based on the Parable of the Lost Coin is that we think about questions like this from a mission perspective: what do we need to do to be diligently searching for the lost ones?

It’s the same question we should be asking about all of the other decisions we need to be making—what are our goals as a congregation, what is our long-range plan, what short-range needs are most important, do we need to expand our building, what is our role in the community?

It’s not enough to just ask what we want, what we like, because that’s only a surface search, that’s only looking for the coins that we already have, that’s just about serving the people who are already here. That kind of approach is like saying, “Well, our doors are open. If people wanted to come to church, they’d come.”

Instead, behind all of our decisions as a congregation, we need to be sweeping the floor, digging out the dirt in each crack, looking for the right tools to discover the lost coins. We need to make decisions based on reaching out to the people who aren’t already in church. What do they need, what will help them come and hear God’s Word? We need to diligently search, look for the people who aren’t already here. That kind approach is shown when we say, “Well, what do we need to do to find people who aren’t in a church? What are we doing now that isn’t helpful to people outside the church? What could we change to make it easier for people to come and hear God’s Word?”

Of course, the only way we can shift our way of thinking, the only way we can pick up the broom for a diligent search, the only way we can set aside of our selfish questions and focus on making decisions based on searching for the lost, the only way that can happen is through the Holy Spirit working in our hearts.

Knowing Christ means knowing that He saved you. Knowing Christ means knowing that all people need Jesus for salvation. Knowing Christ means having that broom in your heart.

In thankful response to God saving you, take up your broom. Sweep the world around, searching for the lost coins, trying to find the people who need to know Jesus.

Show them your heart. Show them the broom. Show them that God swept the floor looking for them.

Here’s where I left behind my notes and tried to really drive home that vision of God putting the broom in our hearts. Since God has saved us, we have a broom in our hearts, the reminder that He did so much to save us. We take that broom and go out sweeping for others. Searching for the lost doesn’t come from some idea of trying to prove our worthiness. Rather, it is because of who God has made us to be: people with brooms in our hearts.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Jonah 1:1-17 - “The Ironic, Jonah Mission”

Opening of the Education Year
Thursday, September 6, and Sunday, September 9, 2007

When you entered church today, you were covered in whale slime. You were covered in seaweed, fish goo, algae, saltwater, squid pieces, and zooplankton.

You stunk with the sin of not living up to expectations. You are not the disciples you are meant to be. It seems strange to start the Education Year with you, because we say we want you to be faithful followers of Jesus who are studying His Word, but ironically, your actions don’t look like that.

It’s strange to be getting all of our Bible studies, Sunday School, choirs, and activities started when we’re covered with whale slime, the mess of sins that shows we’re not focused on God’s mission. We’re not studying the Bible, we’re not mission-focused in our actions, we’re not committing to being here regularly and being a part of the team. Ironically, being trained as followers of Jesus may be the furthest thing from our minds.

It’s the same kind of irony, the same kind of pattern we see in the actions of Jonah from the Old Testament, the guy who was really covered in whale slime.

In his commentary about Jonah, Dr. Reed Lessing from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, explains that “Irony is a figure of speech in which. . .an event or statement occurs or is used in a way that is just the opposite of what would be expected….Irony serves to point out inconsistencies in a situation between what is and what ought to be,” (23).

There are many places in the book of Jonah where Jonah’s actions and words are just the opposite of what we’d expect, where Jonah the prophet is less faithful to the Lord than the heathen around him.

On the insert in your bulletins, you have the first chapter of Jonah printed out so that we can take a brief look at these ironies. And just as Dr. Lessing says, these ironies will serve to point out the inconsistencies we ourselves have in our words and actions.

Looking then at Jonah, it begins:

Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, [2] "Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me." IRONY [3] But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. So he paid the fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord.

God tells Jonah to go and preach in Nineveh, and Jonah does the exact opposite of what is expected of a prophet. Nineveh is east, so Jonah gets on a boat and goes as far west as he possibly can.

But God has His own ironic action. Verse 4:

IRONY [4] But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up. [5] Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried out to his god. And they hurled the cargo that was in the ship into the sea to lighten it for them.

Expecting fair sailing all the way to Tarshish, Jonah now faces a huge storm sent by God. Ironically, God is calling Jonah again, reminding Jonah that he’s going the wrong way.

But Jonah’s not done doing the opposite of what is expected; Jonah’s not listening to the storm. Verse 5 continues ironically:

IRONY But Jonah had gone down into the inner part of the ship and had lain down and was fast asleep.

Jonah is still trying to ignore God’s call, but again, there’s great irony in the fact that now God uses the unbelieving sailors to remind Jonah of his duty as a prophet of the Lord. Verse 6:

IRONY [6] So the captain came and said to him, "What do you mean, you sleeper? Arise, call out to your god! Perhaps the god will give a thought to us, that we may not perish."

Jonah says he believes in God. As an Israelite, as a follower of God, Jonah knows that he should pray in times of trouble, but he’s sleeping. It’s the captain who tells Jonah to pray, the captain who doesn’t know the true God. Jonah must have been slow moving, so the captain and sailors try to take matters into their own hands in verse 7:

IRONY [7] And they said to one another, "Come, let us cast lots, that we may know on whose account this evil has come upon us." So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah.

Jonah knows that he is the cause of the trouble; Jonah knows that he’s running away from God’s call, and yet, it takes the sailors and casting lots to really point out the truth. As a prophet, Jonah is to be a truth-speaker, but when the sailors come saying they know that the storm is due to Jonah’s sin, they are the true truth-speakers in the boat. Ah, by ironically, Jonah still holds onto his righteous confession. Verse 8:

[8] Then they said to him, "Tell us on whose account this evil has come upon us. What is your occupation? And where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?" IRONY [9] And he said to them, "I am a Hebrew, and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land."

Jonah has denied his God by most of his actions in the story already, but here he doesn’t show any sign of how ironic it is to say that he believes in the Lord. The sailors certainly hadn’t seen Jonah acting like a man devoted to the Lord. Again, the prophet doesn’t lead, but rather, he lets the sailors guide the next step. Verse 10:

[10] Then the men were exceedingly afraid and said to him, "What is this that you have done!" For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them.

[11] Then they said to him, "What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?" For the sea grew more and more tempestuous. IRONY [12] He said to them, "Pick me up and hurl me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you, for I know it is because of me that this great tempest has come upon you."

Jonah knows to repent, turn away from his sin, to confess and ask for forgiveness. Jonah knows that repentance is the only action required of a believer who is caught in sin. Yet, he tells the sailors to throw him overboard. Of course, the sailors don’t act as expected; they’re more righteous than that. Verse 13:

IRONY [13] Nevertheless, the men rowed hard to get back to dry land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more tempestuous against them.

They know that Jonah is the cause of the terrible storm, but they still try so hard to save his life. Ironically, they put their lives at risk for Jonah who by his actions is threatening their lives. Verse 14:

[14] Therefore they called out to the Lord, "O Lord, let us not perish for this man's life, and lay not on us innocent blood, for you, O Lord, have done as it pleased you." [15] So they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging. [16] Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows. IRONY

[17] And the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.

As far as we know, Jonah never prays during his time on the boat. He hasn’t told the sailors anything about the true God, but ironically, through this reluctant prophet, the sailors turn to offer their own prayers to the Lord. They have been convinced of the truth of God, but ironically, that comes through Jonah’s silence, misery, selfishness, and resistance of God’s call. God has ironically used the whole situation to bring the ship’s crew into His Kingdom.

If you read the rest of the book of Jonah, Jonah never admits all of these ironies in his actions. Instead, what becomes very clear is that Jonah’s mission, the Ironic, Jonah Mission is God’s mission. God is the One who uses every ironic twist and turn for His purposes. God never accepts lets Jonah put a stop to the mission. Instead, the whale spits Jonah onto the beach. God wipes the whale slime off of Jonah and sends him again to do the mission of bringing others to the kingdom of God.

As we begin our Education Year, it isn’t so important to point out all of our accomplishments, our shining moments when we were successful as part of God’s mission. It’s better to first see the Ironic, Jonah Mission among us, to see the ironies we have in our words and actions, to see the ways we do the opposite of what is expected of Christians who are called to share the Gospel with the world. . .AND to see how it is still God’s mission, how our actions don’t stop His mission, how God wipes the whale slime off of us and sends us again this fall to work together to tell others about His love.

I walked around the building earlier this week, remembering what it is that we do here together, and it didn’t take long to smell our whale slime, to smell the scent of irony. Think about these ironies I’ve seen in our actions, think about which ironies are present in your life,

  • You want your children or grandchildren to learn the Bible (through Sunday School and Confirmation), but you don’t go to Bible study yourself.
  • You want more people to come to your congregation, but you don’t introduce yourself to visitors.
  • You want visitors to feel welcome, but then act as if everyone should know how we do things at Redeemer.
  • You want younger families to be in worship services, but you complain when a baby cries.
  • You want worship services to be meditative and reverent, but you chat with the people near you up until the opening hymn.
  • You come to tell the pastors about the sins of others, but you don’t come to confess your own sins.

I know it’s not easy to have your ironies pointed out—your individual, ironic actions and the ironic actions of our entire congregation. It feels like you’ve just been swallowed up by a whale. You were running away from God’s gracious presence, and now you’re in the belly of the whale. It’s what we call God’s Law, experiencing His anger over your sin, seeing how you’ve separated yourself from God.

Yet, that’s not where the story ends, does it? Jonah doesn’t stay in the belly of the whale. Three days later God causes that whale to spit him up onto shore. Jonah lands on the beach, probably covered in a stinky, messy reminder of the pit he was in, but he is alive and free and sent again to do God’s mission. Jonah will fail again, but still when that whale spits him onto shore, that’s a clue that God forgives Jonah, loves Jonah, restores Jonah, still wants to use Jonah as a prophet.

Well, if by naming these ironies I have sent you to the belly of the whale, get ready to land on the beach.

You are alive and free. Forgiven, God’s still ready to use you in His mission. God is wiping off that whale slime covering you even as we speak.

You don’t go to Bible study even though you make your children go? Ironically, God has still been using you to bring your children into His presence. You’re on the beach now with God sending you on His mission again.

You haven’t introduced yourself to visitors? People still are coming to Redeemer and saying they feel so welcome here. People have still found God’s gracious presence here. So let God wipe off the whale slime that’s covering you, because God wants to use you to bring others into His presence.

You act like new people should know how we do things? Don’t worry; it hasn’t chased all the new people away. So start now, clean and fresh from God’s forgiveness, and help people get to know how our congregation works.

You complain when a baby cries in worship? Well, babies don’t keep track of things like that. They’ll just smile at you again, seeing you as that nice person from the beach who once was in the whale. God sends you again to find ways to make families feel as if they can be a part of things here.

You chat with people during the whole worship service? With the irony pointed out in your action, God is calling on you to be the person He wants you to be, meditative and reverent showing others why we worship the Lord.

You point out the sins of others, but you don’t confess your own sins? Look back, see the trail of whale slime behind you, see how your actions are just as ironic and sinful as anyone else, and that God promises to wipe the whale slime off of all people.

You see, your ironies, your Ironic, Jonah Mission, that’s not where the story ends, does it? Just as Jonah didn’t stay in the belly of the whale, but was spit up on shore after three days, so Jesus didn’t stay in the tomb but rose again after three days. Because of the resurrection, because of believing in Christ, you land on the beach, still covered in stinky, messy reminders of your sins, but you are alive and free and sent again to do God’s mission.

The Education Year is about the beach. Studying God’s Word is about seeing how God saved you from the belly of the whale. Worship services are focused on receiving God’s forgiveness, washing away the stink and slime of your sins.

That’s why I’m excited for our new Education Year, because I love seeing God take whale slime covered people, make you clean, and then use you in His mission. The whale has spit you onto shore; God forgives you, loves you, restores you, still wants to use you in His mission.