This sermon is by Jason Micheli at Aldersgate UMC in Alexandra, VA:
Learning the Gospel from My Children
This week I did something I never do. I reread all the old sermons I’ve written on today’s text. If the files on my floppy disks and USB drives are correct, then this is the fourth time I’ve had to preach on these parables from Luke 15.
The first time was in Charlottesville, at a small Methodist church behind the Downtown Mall. The church was only a few miles from my dorm but it could not have been further away from the life I knew on campus. It was literally on the other side of the tracks, near the public housing complex and the salvation army kitchen.
It was the kind of church that was always an offering plate or two away from financial ruin, where the janitor’s first duty every morning was to paint over a fresh coat of vandalism and where the sanctuary smelled of varnish and black mold.
The outside stairwell of the church smelled of booze and piss. Homeless men slept in the stairs at night, and dealers lingered by the stairs during the day.
It was the kind of church where on Sunday mornings undocumented workers and welfare mothers and poor whites would sit alongside the few remaining blue-haired matriarchs who’d founded the church.
I was still a college student then, 19 or 20. I knew the pastor, Edward, from a summer camp where I had worked. He often guilted me into attending worship at Hinton.
One spring Edward asked me to fill in for him in the pulpit. Without really knowing what I was doing, I did.
Now, I was still a new Christian at that point; it had been only recently that faith had ‘found’ me. It hadn’t been that long ago that I’d been steeped in doubts and questions. I could remember what it was like to have life blow past me because I was trying so hard to run away from God. I knew what it felt like: to feel pain where others said they felt the presence of God. I knew what it felt like: to be lost.
And so did everyone in that congregation.
So back then, the first time I stepped into the pulpit armed with this scripture- with who I was and who they were- it was good news all the way.
When they heard the Pharisees grumble about how Jesus chose to spend all his time with sinners and outcasts, they smiled and they nodded their heads and they said ‘amen’ because that meant them.
When we heard the parable of the lost sheep, it was each one of us. I was the poor, tuckered out lamb, draped across my redeemer’s shoulders.
I was the one so full of gratitude and relief that I’d been found that I vowed to never wander from him again.
I was the silver coin lying in some dark corner of my life until the good woman who will not give up on me sweeps me into the light.
They were stories about me. They were stories about each one of us there than morning, and they were good news.
We sang ‘Amazing Grace’ to close out the service, and we sang it with gusto. Some cried. Some men, normally too cool to sing along, sang it with the quiet plaintiveness of Ralph Stanley. Some women raised their arms to heaven and praised God in spanish and others knelt over the altar rail as if they were falling safely into their own beds.
And as they left that morning one man even told me that if it wasn’t for my earring and unruly beard I could be a preacher some day.
It was different the second time.
The second time I carried these parables into the pulpit it was at a small Methodist church in Jersey. I was older. I was no longer a new Christian, and my ‘lost’ years were further behind me.
Rather than a one-shot deal, I preached at this church every week. Instead of being a guest preacher, I was the one who wore the robe. They were the first people to call me ‘pastor’ and they referred to themselves as my ‘flock.’
They were good people. There were only about 40 of them, but they kept that tiny church going even though the odds were against them. The bills were always paid. Vacation Bible School was always offered to the community. Repairs were never put off.
And because they were my flock, I knew them.
I knew who read scripture to the shut-ins on Mondays. I knew who taught bible study at the prison on Friday afternoons. I knew who took in foster kids, who cashed in a chunk of their retirement to replace the roof and who volunteered at the AIDS clinic in Trenton. I knew who responded faster than the EMTs when there was a death in the congregation.
They were good people. They were faithful and devoted and they cared about their church. And I cared about them. I think that’s why I didn’t much like these parables the second time around.
Of course, I could’ve just dusted it off, printed it out and preached that same sermon from Charlottesville. But there wasn’t a lost sheep or a lost coin or a lost son in that congregation. They were the flock.
They were the ones who’d never wandered off and gotten themselves lost. They’d never strayed very far. They didn’t need finding because they loved their Shepherd and they always had and they had always worked to stay close to him.
The second time around I read this scripture in a whole new way, and I didn’t like it. I mean…this is no way to shepherd a flock, abandoning the 99 to fend for themselves while you chase after the one who keeps straying and pursuing their own whims and may not even want to be found.
What was I supposed to say?
Look- I know you all make sacrifices to be here every Sunday. You’re faithful in your giving. You make sure the soup kitchen’s never without volunteers, but the fact is all that rates less in heaven than one prodigal being dragged back to the flock. We call that grace. Isn’t that wonderful?
Or: I know you all love God and you study your bible and your deliberate in your prayer life, but the fact is if Jesus were here today he’d rather be with somebody else.
In seminary we referred to that as “the scandal of the gospel,’ and in the comfortable confines of a classroom it sounded provocative. But within a congregation, to a flock, it just sounds insulting. It trivializes their devotion.
Why should they bother? Why should they bother if what would make God really happy would be for them to run off and follow their own desires and then one day, eventually, come back to the fold?
That second go-round I hewed to the shock of Jesus’ message instead of the sentiment.
We closed that service too by singing ‘Amazing Grace’ but, I noticed, it was like the words got stuck in the congregation’s throat, like we were all singing a song that didn’t belong to us.
And on the way out that morning, no one in my flock said so but I’m sure they all felt like I’d told them to get lost.
If the files on my USB are correct, then my third stab at these parables came about two years ago. In this pulpit.
Don’t worry, if I were you I wouldn’t remember it either.
It was fine, I suppose. No more than the usual people fell asleep.
That third time around with these parables, I was more interested in mobilizing you as a congregation, getting you out of the pews and beyond these walls. So instead of focusing on the coin or the sheep or the son, I pointed to the shepherd, to the woman.
“That’s who we are in the story,’ I preached.
‘We’re not called to forever rejoice in our found-ness. We’re not meant to stay gathered here with the rest of the flock and do nothing until the Shepherd comes back. We’re meant to do the searching, the finding, the looking for what is lost and precious to God.’
Like I said, it was fine. Probably, we sang ‘Amazing Grace’ that day too. And afterwards, on her way out, Charlotte Rexroad probably told me it was a wonderful sermon and he-who-will-not-be-named probably told me something quite different.
Reading through those old sermons this past week, here’s what I noticed: they’re all about me. About you. Us.
I’m the lost sheep.
We’re the flock of 99.
You’re the coin that causes much searching and rejoicing.
We’re either the prodigal son or the resentful brother.
Our first impulse is to cast ourselves somewhere in the story.
By my count, this is my fourth attempt preaching these parables from Luke 15.
But it’s my first time as a father.
This is the first time I’ve read about the woman who searches every corner of her house for that lost coin- it’s the first time I’ve read that story, knowing what it feels like that when I lock the doors at night and turn off the lights what I treasure most in the world is tucked in bed beneath posters of Spiderman and Superman.
This is the first time I’ve read about the lost sheep knowing what that charge of panic feels like when Gabriel gets lost in the crowds and commotion at Tyson’s Corner.
This is the first time I’ve read about that father with two sons, knowing that no matter where my boys go in life, I will never let go of them.
This is the first time I’ve read these parables as a father. Here’s what I noticed: these parables, they’re about God.
Jesus isn’t asking us to decide if we’re the wayward sheep or an obedient member of the flock. He’s inviting us to imagine what God is like.
I’m a father with two sons.
My son Alexander is ten years old. By most ways of counting that makes him our oldest son, yet, because he only came to live with us when was already nearly six, in an odd way he’s both our oldest and our youngest son.
Alexander joined our family on a Labor Day weekend just before his 6th birthday. I haven’t told you all much about that time. It’s his story, and he should get to decide how to tell it. But I want to share a bit of it though because it’s determined how I read and understand today’s scripture.
When Alexander first came to us he’d already experienced more upheaval and loss and grief than any kid deserves. ‘Permanence’ is not a word he would’ve used to describe ‘family’ or ‘home.’
When he first came to us, he had no reason to trust that it would be forever.
In those first weeks and months, Ali and I had to work to reassure him of the unconditionality of our love.
Alexander had to know that we weren’t auditioning him first to see how good he was before we committed our love to him.
He had to know that there wasn’t any rule that if he broke it all bets were off.
And I’m sure, in his way, in ways we didn’t even notice at the time, he tried to reject us in those weeks, to push us away before we could tell him to get lost.
Bedtimes were the hardest time. I even made up a song to reassure him. You don’t get to hear that.
There was one bedtime last year when the emotions swelled up in him and the routine of reassurances wasn’t working and my song failed to soothe.
And I remember holding him on my lap in his reading chair. The glow of his nightlight made his tears look orange and burnt onto his face. And I made him look at me, and I told him:
‘There’s nothing you can do to make me love you more.
And there’s nothing you can do to make me love you less.’
And I didn’t think about it at the time, I didn’t think about it until I read Jesus’ parables again this week but I’d just taught him the Gospel.
Jason Micheli www.tamedcynic.org