Sunday, September 15, 2019
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Has anyone here ever heard of the board game Betrayal at House on the Hill? I’ve been a little bit obsessed with this game lately – it’s really fun! It’s a game for 3-6 people; you play different characters who are exploring a haunted house together. You randomly flip over tiles to “discover” different rooms, so the house and the game itself are totally different every time you play.
At some point during the game, one of the players will trigger the second stage of the game, which is called the “haunt.” Depending on how the haunt gets triggered, you then play out one of 50 possible scenarios – you might find yourself in a house overrun with zombies or on the run from a supernatural serial killer, or even facing off in a chess match with death itself!
But what is really unique about Betrayal is that in almost every scenario, one of the players will become a traitor. Whoever that person is receives their own separate set of instructions – and from that point forward, they actively work against all the other players in the game.
It is a really fun and engaging game. But it can also be really frustrating sometimes. Since the game is so different every time you play, there’s always the danger that it will be really skewed in favor of either the heroes or the villain. And even on top of that, I have played scenarios in which I was the traitor and part of my instructions literally told me to cheat. Because of these things, the game can sometimes get a little heated – tempers can start to rise when players feel like the game is treating them unfairly.
It’s just part of the way that humans seem to be wired. We have this deep-seated idea of fairness. We tend to believe that everyone should get what they deserve – no more, no less. And when it seems like that’s not happening – when the game seems rigged – we can all get a little hot under the collar. We get frustrated and even angry when we see someone else getting more than we think they deserve, or when we feel like we aren’t getting what we deserve.
That’s where I think the Pharisees and scribes are coming from in our gospel reading for this morning. They were good and godly people; they had dedicated themselves to trying to live in righteous ways that would be pleasing to God. They were the sort of people that Jesus should be hanging out with – the sort of people whose good opinion he should care about having. And yet, here is Jesus spending time with tax collectors and sinners! Everyone knew that tax collectors were cheats working on behalf of Rome. And sinners were, well, sinners! It’s like they weren’t even trying to be good, holy people like the scribes and Pharisees! They didn’t deserve to receive so much attention from this well-known and influential rabbi.
In response to all this crotchetiness and grumbling, Jesus tells them a couple of parables. In the first story, a shepherd realizes that one of his sheep is missing, so he goes out and searches high and low until he finds it. When he finds it, he calls together his friends and neighbors and they all celebrate. In the second story, a woman realizes that one of her coins is missing, so she searches her house high and low until she finds it. When she finds it, she calls together her friends and neighbors and they all celebrate.
We call these stories the parable of the lost sheep and the parable of the lost coin. But in reality, neither of these stories is about sheep or coins. The focus of these stories is on the people who are searching and finding, not on the things that have been lost or found. And both stories end with the person celebrating because they have found what they had lost.
There is actually a third parable that Jesus tells after he tells these two. We read it back in Lent, and it’s one you probably know pretty well: the parable of the prodigal son. How does that story go? Who can tell me?
[A man has two sons. The younger son asks his father to give him his inheritance – while his dad is still alive! The father gives it to him and the son runs off to another country and blows his entire fortune on wild and crazy living. He ends up completely broke and suffering during a famine in this other country. He starts thinking longingly of his father and home and decides that he will go back and beg his father to take him back as a lowly servant. The son goes back, and before he even gets to the house, his father runs out to greet him and shouts out instructions for there to be a party. The older son is furious about all the hubbub for this younger son who was so disrespectful and irresponsible. The father reminds him that he loves both his sons immensely and that everything he has is theirs. And that’s where the story ends.]
This is the kind of parable that can really make your blood boil. The so-called prodigal son is deeply disrespectful to his father. He behaves selfishly and irresponsibly. But at the end of the story, his slate is wiped totally clean by his father. We have no idea whether he even truly repents of his bad actions – Jesus simply doesn’t tell us. And he doesn’t tell us because, like the first two parables, the story isn’t really about a lost son, any more than it is about a lost sheep or a lost coin. This story is about a loving father who has never given up the hope of being reunited with his wayward child.
Jesus tells these parables to tell us about who he is, about who God is. Jesus is the one continually seeking us out. He searches out tax collectors and sinners – and, yes, even scribes and pharisees – much like the people in his stories searched for the things they had lost. He shows that God’s choice to be eternally gracious and merciful and loving has nothing whatsoever to do with whether we deserve it. Instead, God’s grace and mercy and love has everything to do with who God is.
This is the good news for all of us – but it is also a challenging word. God’s grace is indeed amazing, but it can also be downright offensive.
It’s amazing grace because, like Timothy writes in our second reading, we recognize the fact that we have a desperate need for grace, and we know that God gives it freely. Timothy writes:
I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners–of whom I am the foremost.
Especially as Lutherans, we believe and confess that we have been saved and redeemed through God’s action, through God’s grace, and not through any action or particular quality of our own.
This is good news – but it can also be challenging news. It forces us to grapple with the reality that God’s grace and God’s love are not just for us. All people are created in God’s image and therefore – in God’s eyes – all are loved and worthy of grace and redemption.
That means that God’s grace and love are not just for the people who we think deserve it. Grace is also for the cheaters and the rule-breakers and the sinners. God’s grace is for the people who cut you off in traffic or the people who try to go through the express lane at the store with way more than 12 items. God’s grace is for the public figures and the politicians who make your blood boil. God’s grace is for the people who make you angriest, whoever that may be: criminals, billionaires, undocumented immigrants, racists, anti-vaxxers, vegans, Democrats, Republicans, whoever it may be. You know exactly who those people are for you. God knows I know exactly who they are for me.
In God’s eyes, none of those distinctions matter. None of them. God’s love and grace do not depend on who we or anyone else decides deserves it. God’s grace is for everyone – which is what makes it amazing, but also what makes it deeply offensive.
This is where the pharisees struggled in our gospel reading. As religious insiders, they thought they had the market cornered on who merited God’s salvation, on who deserved the attention of this popular, well-known rabbi. But Jesus tells them – just as he still tells us – at the end of the day, it’s not about you. Grace is all about God
This is the gift and the challenge of being church together. It’s a challenge because we are called together to be the body of Christ with people with whom we profoundly disagree, with people who we might wish would just go somewhere else. We are called to imitate Christ’s all-encompassing love – and that is hard because we are limited and human and, frankly, other humans just really suck sometimes.
But the gift is that we are loved and welcomed by God so that we may love and welcome others. We live in a world that seems to grow more and more deeply divided and hostile with each passing day – and, in that world, it is a profound witness to the gospel that we choose to be together. We choose to do our best to love each other and to love our neighbor, even when it’s really hard.
As people of God, I invite all of us to lean into this challenge. Think of the people – or the groups of people – that make you angriest, that you wish Jesus would just send away, and pray for them. Remember that they, too, are made in God’s image and loved by God, no matter who they are. And remember that you are called to love them too. I will also continue to challenge myself to do this.
It’s not easy. In fact, it’s an immense challenge to try to imitate the love of Christ in our own lives. But we can rest assured that whether we succeed or fail has no bearing on how God feels about us. We are loved beyond measure. And we are made new every single day through God’s amazing, and sometimes offensive, grace.