‘…it’s who we are’
September 15, 2019
Scripture: Luke 15:1-10
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 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.”
What is the church? It is the living story of a family gathered together, all seeking to do will of our God of love. We are the church, there for each other, and there for whoever happens to wander into our life. Either individually, or as a group, we represent the calling we have accepted to love one another, every one another the Lord sends our way. And at the outset, it is important to note that love casts out fear…genuine holy love has no room for fear or worry. So, as much as some might fret about the costs or the responsibility of acting on behalf of our Lord, true faithful living as the church of our Lord is not about worry whatsoever, but rather simply about accepting the tasks set before each one of us, trusting in God to provide the means to do the work we have been given.
The true church of our Lord and of our faith, both when it was instituted in the early days following the resurrection, as well, perhaps more importantly, as today, is a community gathered around a commitment to be one, while at the same time steadfastly standing in contrast to the ways and goals of the world. We are called to be one, but we are not called to be conformed to the ways of the world, but rather to be a contrast community…both of these characteristics must be present for the Spirit to truly flourish and for it be able to inspire and create the will of God incarnate within community. In addition, the church of our faith at its heart is supposed to be a Spirit-gathered collection. If it is not a gathering explicitly called by the Holy Spirit, then it is may not in fact be among those actually called by our Lord to serve him and only him.
The true church is first and foremost a collection, an assembly of those who realize their need and who have sought out the community, as well as those whom the fellowshipping community has reached out to, ‘found’, and then welcomed in to their circle of care and concern. It is at its heart an organic and fluid collection, never dependent on one person or one group of individuals, but rather consists of the present ecclesia or holy community called into action and purpose by the Spirit. Some will come in, others may go, but the fellowship will remain for as long as the Spirit has use of their presence and witness in the place to which they have been called. It will be there as long as the Spirit decides.
On the other hand, worry or energy expended in seeking to ‘keep the Church doors open’ or to preserve a certain character of faith belief or practice, or to keep a particular core of, or to create an increased number of members as a way of seeking to insure the longevity of the community is pretty much always unnecessary and pretty much always a fools errand. For it is God and God alone who calls a community into being and the Spirit who sustains a community that is dedicated to holy pursuits and purposes. The Spirit will always provide a way for a community called to holiness to do the work and to bear witness of God’s love. Any energy spent on, or worrisome concern for self-sustaining by members of the fellowship is not a valid exercise of faithful life or worship.
In short, the church of our Lord is not to be an inwardly focused cult concerned only with self-preservation of either a particular physical property, or a fixed and rigid set of beliefs or practices. For the former reveals a lack of faith and perhaps vision, and the latter is the same cloth as the faithless legalism that Jesus so opposed and which is in truth, an anathema to the Holy Spirit.
No, the living and vital God-led and Spirit-purposed church for today is called to be a visible daily reflection of God’s love in saving and life-giving action, bringing hope and light into places of darkness, and to souls in need.
And to be completely truthful, all souls are broken somehow or somewhere, some just hide it better than others. In addition, the true called church of today has a table large enough for all…large and inclusive enough for all levels of belief or even unbelief, giving room, space, and welcome for all expressions of faith or faithlessness. There is a place at the table for every single image-reflection of our Lord. The table hosting the gathered fellowship of the faith is a place of justice and righteousness, lifting up those who are sore oppressed as it also works tirelessly to root out and stand against all that gives birth or life to injustice.
Which brings us to our scripture passage for today. The story of the shepherd who leaves behind the ninety-nine to go off and search for the one sheep who is lost, is the story of the church of our Lord in total, as well as a guide for the daily life and practice of every believer. We, as individuals and as the church of our Lord are each called to be the ‘shepherd’ in our story, to be in the business of search and rescue…to share and to be the love that has been given us, such that its action in the world, is that of overflowing and ever-extending. Our love and concern for others must be extended outward and must always be genuine and Spirit-led…meaning as the Spirit calls for and as the Spirit directs it in each individual situation.
This is a critical point, and one on which many fellowships stumble and lose their blessing, for there is no one-size-fits-all way of extending God’s love when it comes to how the Spirit wants to work through us to reach a particular soul in need. Every person is unique, special, and precious in God’s eyes and each as well, has their own story known fully only to God and themselves. So, as emissaries of the love we have been given to share, we need to be extremely sensitive to the urgings and guidance of the Spirit in how we are to show God’s love to them, in order to be sure that we are drawing them into the fellowship and not pushing them away.
And that brings out another critical aspect of this shepherd-work of seeking and finding the lost in order to love them with the love of our Lord. And that is, that you can’t share God’s love unless you are willing to first receive it yourself, and then turn it around. You’ve got to be in the flow of the Holy Spirit, letting it blow through you and guiding you in seeking out, reaching, and finding the one God has placed in your pathway, in order to share the portion of holy love and promise that was meant specifically for them.
In Matthew 7, verses 16-17, Jesus tells us, ‘You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit’. A good tree will be known by the fruit it bears. A healthy and Spirit-led fellowship will bear good and holy fruit, people’s lives will truly be made better, they shall come to know the power of love as it is shared with them, and they shall find hope they can lean on as it is given to them by living, breathing brothers and sisters, not just by way of ethereal promises or holy words or hopes. People in need of the love of our God need real live shepherds to find them, who can then share that love in real and concrete ways. That is the action of the living church of our Lord, that is the unrelenting and uncompromising call we have been given…to share our lives, not just our beliefs and formulas! By their fruits shall they be known…not by any other way.
My friends, we have a healthy and productive orchard. The small gathering of faithful and faith-filled individuals here in this room is constantly being blessed as we do our best to share all that we have been given, as we seek out the one sheep that has been lost out on the hillside, trusting God for the ‘ninety-nine’ who are back here in the fellowship. There is so much evidence of God’s work among us, in all of our varied ministries, in our Sunday morning worship and welcome-in, in our food pantry and thrift shop who together minister directly to so many in need as well as provide a safe-haven for those seeking out a place of hope or community, in our many ways of reaching out directly to the community including our community events, our fundraisers, and our church garden. All of these together show unmistakable evidence to our community that there is something of God going on here…that our life together is a witness of grace to those who are still seeking. God can be seen in our life together, or as our Lord himself put it in the gospel of John Chapter 13, ‘If you have love for one another, then everyone will know that you are my disciples.’ There are truly so many God Sightings out there every week for anyone with believing eyes…and so many unfinished works of love as well.
All that we need to do, other than continue to receive the love God has given us for one another, is to keep our eyes and ears open for the guidance of the Spirit in ways we can further extend that love into our community or to those in need who cross our path. For surely those opportunities will come to the exact extent of our willingness to receive them.
Many are the stories of people who have found hope or some other intangible benefit just by coming through the doors, either here on Sunday morning or on another day at the Thrift Shop or Food Pantry. And just this past Monday it happened again as I was out tending to the gardens across the street. A woman approached me, whom I have known for a number of years as she was a member of the farm co-op at both Holmes and Cascade Farm. She told me she had stopped by as she had some donations for the Thrift Shop. I told her I could open the door for her and went to the truck to get my keys. At that point she asked me when the farm stand was open because she had a friend who was in dire need. I told her she could take some produce with her if she wanted to and that I would help her get some as soon as we put the donations in the Thrift Shop. She said her friend was in the car and that due to a bitter custody battle her husband was trying to starve her and her kids in order to obtain custody of the children. I went around to her car and met the woman who was obviously broken and in great need. And as I took the donations into the Thrift Shop I told my friend that we also had frozen meat and bread in the Fellowship hall that was available if the woman needed it. The woman was profoundly moved, even to tears as she thanked me over and over again, even as I sought to explain that giving and sharing the blessings we had received was the reason we were here and why we had the food in the first place. After getting some meat and bread I took her around to the produce cooler where she was able to take some fresh vegetables home as well. And before she left, I made sure she understood that she was welcome back anytime she had need.
Folks, this is how our God works…always faithful to provide the means for us to do holy work, if we are open and willing to hear and to respond. I told the young woman who by now was so grateful, that she and her children would not go hungry on our watch. And later on, my friend confided in me that her only question was, ‘How do you know people who are this kind?’ And she answered as I would have if she had asked me, ‘It is how we are supposed to be, it is what we are called to do’.
We are called to imitate, to follow after, and to do just as our Good Shepherd has shown us…and we are called to do so from a position of openness and willingness to allow the Spirit of Grace to work through us to help others.
There is always going to be another one out on the hills, lost and alone…may we have the heart to hear their cry, to go to them, and to bring them home…it’s who we are…