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Of Great Value

Luke 15: whole chapter

Georges grew up, the only boy in a sea of sisters. His father was alcoholic and abusive to his mom. Each time his dad beat on his mom, Georges wanted to stop him. He tried to cry out, but his 4-year-old voice froze in his throat. One time when he was 7, and his dad started in on his mom, he tackled his dad and pounded his fists on his back. Then his dad turned on him, first with the cutting words he was so familiar with. Then with his fists. He was left with bruises, a broken arm, a bloody lip, a black eye; But it was what it took for his mom to finally throw his dad out of the house and get a restraining order.

20 years later, she now works to heal other women caught in this web of violence. She helps get other women to safety and to new beginnings. She tries to help them understand that they are of great value; something it took her a long time to learn for herself. One of the places she learned this was in the United church I served in Ottawa where she came as part of her healing journey.

She brought Georges when he was in his 20’s. One day I was preaching on this scripture of being lost and being found/ a lost sheep/ a lost coin/ a lost son/ and Georges had a powerful epiphany. He still had these tapes of his father’s voice playing in his head, “You’re useless; a poor excuse for a man; a weakling; you¹ll never make anything of himself”; But that day he heard a new message…..that even though he felt lost an over the edge… He was precious in God’s sight; God was searching for him; he was of great value to God; God loved him. He heard that this church was a place where he could be loved, accepted, valued, treasured as a precious child of God.

Somehow the words didn’t seem like empty platitudes, like hallmark theology, at least not that day. The Spirit lifted those words out of the preacher’s mouth and took them deep inside till they touched his centre where he held his core beliefs about himself… He knew he would dare to risk belonging; risk being loved.

Because that congregation not only used language of love, but lived that love, Georges found the words embodied in the people. He embarked on a profound healing journey. When he became an elder of the congregation he told me what a difference the church had made to him. “Instead of there being an dark, empty scary hole in the centre of my life,” he said, “God is there. I know that I am a child of God.”

I saw him last spring when I went up to Ottawa to preach. He is now married; the loving father of a little girl whom he assures me will always know she is deeply loved; by him…..and by God. She, like he, is of great value…….

The message of this gospel about what God is like is profound. The message of this gospel about what we need to be like as followers of Jesus is profound.

Luke strings together three stories of loss–a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son. This is the only example in the New Testament in which three stories with the same meaning are stuck together in this fashion. Brother Jesus is trying to make a point. And it is such an important point, he makes it 3 times….. in case you didn¹t pick it up the first time around! He so badly wants us to understand that when we are lost, when no way forward seems possible, when every path seems a dead end, still there waits for us a home where God lives, a safe place where we are loved.

The chapter begins with grumbling by religious leaders of the community. They are upset that Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with them. They were certain God would be scandalized by what they are seeing. This Jesus showed no respect for God’s purity laws! Jesus does not shrivel under their piety. Rather he strikes the hard rock of their souls with three stories, unlocking living water of God¹s grace too long kept locked in rigid prisons. Water that could flow for all; the unjust; the unclean; the lost, the found, and even for them!

You have a sheep who nibbles away from one patch of grass to another, and aimlessly wonders from the flock, until it finds itself lost in the harsh wilderness, bleating in terror, perhaps fallen over a ledge, or caught on thorns. Which one of you would not leave the 99 sheep to search for the one who has become lost in the wilderness? And then you would come home calling friends and neighbours to rejoice! for you have found the sheep that was lost! God weeps for the lost, searches for them and is party and rejoicing when the lost comes home.

Or what women having 10 silver coins given for her dowry, if she loses one coin, does not turn the house upside down searching until she finds it and then calls all her friends and neighbours to rejoice , to celebrate with her over what has been found. God is like that says Jesus. Like a woman grieving, searching, finding and rejoicing!

The third story is of the father’s prodigal joy at the return of his lost child who came home after losing all his inheritance foolishly. That story is also the story of the good elder brother who has not allowed himself to be found though he has done all the right things. He has no party in his heart or welcome in this soul for the one who has come home. God is forgiveness. God is welcome. God is rejoicing when the lost comes home.

These parables crack open a glimpse of how radically God acts, and it can be disturbing. We expect God to reward those who are good, and to punish those who are bad, exactly the way we would if we had all that power. Surely the good of the whole flock is more important than one single lamb who has wandered away. 1% loss is a pretty good margin if you are trying to run a livestock business. Who turns their whole house upside down, and lights a lamp, using up precious oil, to search for a small amount of money and then, when it is found, throws a party? No one! It makes no sense to spend so much for such a small return. And what self-respecting father would lose his dignity in the community and make a public spectacle of himself, hoisting his robes running out to meet a returned rebellious brat. The God of Jesus seems not to share our utilitarian approach or our sense of fair play.

Even more shocking for listeners in Jesus’ day….God is cast in the role of outcasts, a shepherd, a class of labourers held in low esteem in that culture; a woman, the least powerful group in that culture; a father who breaks the patriarchical rules of the culture, and therefore becomes a laughing stock. Jesus makes it clear that God loves and weeps for and searches for those whom society deems lost and worthless, and there is great rejoicing over the “least of these” who is found.

Jesus didn’t buy Little Bopeep’s theory about lost sheep (“leave them alone, and they’ll come home”)! He went out into the places where people were hurting, feeling cut off from God. He told them they were of great value to God. He gave a clear message of God’s love. And he didn’t just say words. He embodied this God–love by meeting and welcoming such men and women where they were–as beloved brothers and sisters, children of God. He did this BEFORE there was any change or movement on their part. And this reconciling costly outreaching love transformed lives and changed behaviour.

As followers of Jesus, I believe that this is what we as a congregation are called to be. We are to be that safe place where the love of God is so real, so powerful, so sure that no matter how broken lost or afraid folks may be when they come to this place, they experience here a welcome, an embrace, a love so gracious and full that they know it is the love of God.

We can succeed at everything else we do as a church. We can run great programs. We can sing great music. We can raise lots of money. But if we fail at this, we fail at everything. This is our task. It is our reason to be. If we are nothing else, we must be a place where lost ones, broken ones, frightened ones, hurting ones can come and know they are safe, know they are loved by God as they are loved by us.

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