God Seeks Sinners, not Saints: A Sermon for Proper 19, Year C

The Rev. Thomas Ferguson, Dean of Bexley Seabury, an Episcopal educational center in the Midwest, preached this morning at Grace Church. Here’s what he said.

It’s a pleasure to be back in the great city of Madison, which my wife and I called home for five wonderful years.  My wife Shannon served as director of Christian formation for the diocese of Milwaukee, including running summer camps at camp webb, and I was interim chaplain for a time at St Francis House, the chaplaincy at UW Madison.

I’m delighted to be back on this weekend where we will rededicate St Francis House, and the celebration of the new ministry of the chaplain, Jonathan Melton.  Since I was going to be in town, I volunteered to Fr Jonathan to preach this Sunday, always looking to help out a fellow clergyperson.  I might have thought to check the readings assigned for given Sunday first.  You would think after 20 years of preaching I would’ve learned that by now.

I might have thought to check because, well, these aren’t the snappiest set of readings:  God threatening to destroy the Israelites for turning away and worshipping the Golden Calf.  A Psalm where the author rejoices the bones that God has broken might rejoice.  The author of the letter to Timothy recounting his previous life as a sinner, persecutor, blasphemer, and person of violence.  

I will admit I looked over the readings and groaned, “Oh no, not the Golden Calf!” There’s something unsettling about God threatening to destroy the very people he just delivered from slavery, perhaps even more unsettled that Moses engages in some hostage-negotiations like bargaining to walk God back from the edge.  But taken together, there seemed to be a clear yet challenging message emerging from the Scriptures this morning.

God seeks sinners, not saints.

This may seem counterintuitive as first, given some of the understandings of church that we may have received.  I mean, I for one know I always thought church was a place where the good people went, not the bad people.   My parents took me to church because that’s where you went to show you weren’t a sinner!  We went to church so I could learn about Jesus and learn some values in the hope that it would somehow make me a better person.  I’m not saying teaching those things aren’t important, that’s certainly part of what the church should be about, but the Scriptures for today seem pretty clear that a big part of God’s call to us is not about making already decent people better.  It’s about seeking out the fallen in this world and rejoicing over their inclusion.

In 1 Timothy, the author is quite clear:  Paul was a sinner, a blasphemer, and a persecutor.  Yet Christ came into the world to save sinners; and God was able work through even someone as sinful as Paul.

Jesus’ two stories that he tells in today’s gospel from Luke’s gospel say much the same:  God has come into the world to seek the lost.   Jesus tells these two stories in direct response to the Pharisees, who are grumbling that Jesus consorts with tax collectors and sinners.  There’s a shame factor here, to be sure in the Pharisees’ grumbling – shouldn’t Jesus be embarrassed with the company he keeps?  What does it say about him if these are the people he consorts with? But there’s something deeper as well.   Judaism, Islam, and many religious traditions hold to understandings of purity and defilement:  you can make yourself ritually impure or unclean by doing certain things, eating the wrong foods, and whatnot.  You can be made ritually impure by touching a dead body, for instance, or getting blood on yourselves.  Association with people who may do things that are ritually impure can also make you ritually impure – so not only is their the harrumphing about the company Jesus keeps, there is a very real spiritual and religious concern that he may, in turn, be making himself impure and unclean.  Kind of like a ritualistic version of lying down with dogs and waking up with fleas, or ritual impurity being a kind of cooties one can catch.

In response, Jesus tells two stories that reinforce the message in today’s scriptures that God seeks sinners, not saints.  Which of you, having 100 sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the 99 in the wilderness and go after the one which is lost until he finds it?  Similarly, if you have 10 coins and lose one of them, do you not do everything you can – light a lamp, sweep the house, search carefully, leave no stone unturned – until you find it?

That’s what we’re called to do: to seek out the lost.  But that’s not always the easiest thing to do.

I spent a year as a hospital chaplain, nearly twenty years ago.  I had been in school for a long time and decided I need to get away from it all and do something different, to actually try to do some good and help people.  This was in the mid-1990s, and one of the floors I was assigned to contained adult cancer patients and adult AIDS/HIV patients.  AIDS patients were grouped on the same floor as adult cancer patients since AIDS patients also are prone to developing certain very specific kinds of cancers; in facts, that was one of the defining ways to make a diagnosis of full-blown AIDS, if one of a small group of cancers was present.

Remember, in the mid 1990s, before retrorvirals and advances in treatment, AIDS was a death sentence – and a particularly gruesome one, as patients died long, slow, painful, wasting deaths, often descending into dementia as well.  Now, of course, one just doesn’t catch AIDS – at that time it was almost exclusively through sexual contact, intravenous drug use, or, on a much smaller basis, through blood transfusions from a time when the blood supply had not been secured.

The social workers at the hospital and I had thing going as we worked with these AIDS patients – noting what a shocking coincidence it was that almost all of them seemed to have caught it through blood transfusions.  Now, of course, the incidents of people getting it through blood transfusions was very low; the reality was people were ashamed to admit how they actually came down with HIV, so many people would not tell us the real reason they came down with HIV.  As a chaplain, talking with patients, it would sometimes be weeks before they would ever tell me how they actually caught it, if at all.

I came in to see a patient, whom I had visited a number of times, and noticed he had a particularly melancholy look on his face.  I asked what was wrong, and he said he knew the end was coming, he could feel the AIDS-related dementia beginning to set it, and he wasn’t sure how much longer he would be in his right mind.  He wanted to talk to me – and he told me the story of how he contracted AIDS.   He had been an intravenous drug user for years, a heroin and morphine user, and had caught it through sharing needles.   As he finished telling me his story, he said he had two things he wanted to ask of me.  One was whether God was punishing him for being a drug addict by giving him AIDS.  No, I said, I didn’t believe in a God who would do something like that – that kind of God would be a monster.  The second thing he told me was that he was sorry for what he had done with his life, he wanted to try to make amends, to try to help those still caught in that cycle of addiction, give them a chance to try to come clean before they came down with HIV.  When his parents came in another week or so, he said, the dementia might have set in. You’ve got to tell them I want a quarter of my estate to go to needle exchange programs.  The city of Providence, Rhode Island, where I was serving as chaplain, had just begun pilot projects with needle exchange programs, to give intravenous drug users clean needles to reduce the risk of transmitting AIDS.  The state and city would have nothing to do with these pilot programs, wouldn’t give any funding, so the pilot projects were neighborhood non-profits trying to raise money through donations and grants.  This guy wasn’t a poor man – he’d been a high-functioning heroin user – and said his money could be crucial to helping get the program off the ground.  I said I would speak to his parents if he was unable to make his wishes known.

I had been talking with him for nearly an hour, while he told me his story and made his request for me to make sure his wishes were known.  As we finished talking, I walked towards the door.  There were two patients in the room, his bed had been nearest the window, and as I was getting ready to leave I noticed the patient in the other bed, on the other side of curtain, had woken up.  I looked in his direction, nodded, and started to walk over to say hello.

“You keep going,” the patient said curtly.  He looked me straight in the eye and said, “I want no part of a pastor like you who coddles drug addicts.  I don’t even want to be in the same room as him.”  Then he added, “I’m a Christian.  You should be asking him to repent and ask Jesus for forgiveness.”

I thought he did, I said to myself as I walked out the door.

Despite being a self-professed Christian, he couldn’t understand that I needed to be there for his roommate, perhaps even more than I needed to be there for him – and that maybe, as a Christian, he needed to be in the same room with him, despite his protest.  I tell you, there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.  Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.

The Scriptures are clear:  God has come to seek out the least and the lost in our society.  Yet, while it’s easy to summarize the message from the Scriptures today, we also need to note something else:  It’s hard. It’s counter-intuitive.  I mean, I find myself thinking, “Is it worth all that effort to find that one sheep if we have 99 perfectly good ones?  At what point is it worth more effort to keep looking for that one coin when you have 9 other ones?”  I lost my parking ticket at the airport garage and spent 30 minutes scouring my car looking for it, and in the end gave up and just paid the maximum amount because I was frustrated of looking for it.

It’s hard.  It’s risky.  But it’s what God wants us to do.

I know you here at Grace Church know this risk.  You have stepped up in this community for nearly 30 years now to provide a place for many whom this society considers the least and the lost, with your drop-in homeless shelter.  In my mind one of the great sins of this fine city of Madison, routinely listed as such a wonderful place to live, lauded as a foodie paradise, still refuses to consider any kind of comprehensive solution to its homeless problem. And, at times, even blames those who are trying to reach out to the lost and the least for its homeless.  At times this great city bends towards the 99, not the 1.

 

Seeking out the lost and the least, making the church more than just a mutual affirmation society for those who are perfectly OK, is a central part of the Gospel message.  It’s counterintuitive.  And it’s risky.  After all, the shepherd leaves the 99 sheep in the wilderness, unprotected, to go look for the one lost sheep.  It’s risky because we are to call on God to watch over the 99 while we seek the lost.  May we trust in a God who will watch out for the 99 while we look for the 1.  Continue to take that risk, Grace Church, while we trust that God will continue to watch over you.

 

 

 

 

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