Sermon delivered on Trinity 13C, Sunday, September 15, 2019 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.
If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.
Lectionary texts: Jeremiah 4:11–28; Psalm 14; 1 Timothy 1.12-17; Luke 15.1-10.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today we hold our quarterly healing service. But what is the basis for our healing? Obviously the power of God but are there other factors involved? Our lessons today give us some insight into this question and this is what I want us to look at this morning.
Our hard-to-hear OT and psalm lessons remind us in a graphic way that we are a sin-sick lot. God tells his prophet Jeremiah that his people Israel are stupid and lack understanding. Why? Because they are skilled at doing evil and do not know how to do good. Likewise the psalmist makes the stark observation that there is no one who does good, not one single person. To the contrary God sees that many increasingly refuse to believe that God even exists! The result? God’s people and the human race in general are alienated from God and ripe for God’s terrible judgment on our wickedness. This is tough stuff because it refers to you and me. Not only that, our rebellion against God’s perfect and good ways corrupts the land. God created us to care for his creation, land included, and when we refuse to reflect God’s goodness out into the world, the land suffers along with us (strip mining and pollution-caused catastrophes, anyone?), this on top of the fact that creation already suffers under God’s curse for the sin of our first ancestors.
Not only do our sins result in God’s judgment on them (if you haven’t figured it out yet, God detests any form of evil, even as he loves us), our sins make us sick: physically, emotionally, spiritually, and mentally because they separate us from our only source of life and health: God our Creator who sustains us. End our sin-caused alienation from God and every kind of illness, malady, and land corruption go away (new creation, anyone?). So today you get the punchline to the sermon’s title right away. Value added. You can nap in peace now and still pass the quiz at sermon’s end. But here’s the problem. If we believe the OT (which we should), we are powerless to heal our sin-sickness by ourselves. Our sin destines us to wander in the wasteland of the wilderness even as we live in our million dollar mansions and grow fat on our sumptuous diets and enjoy the glut of consumer goodies produced by our economy. Human knowledge and technological advancements may allow us to overcome the corruption of the land and to an extent heal many of our sicknesses, but we cannot cure the root cause of all illness: our alienation from God.
But it is to the glory of God our Father that the grim message about Sin contained in the OT is not the final word, that the OT was always a story awaiting its completion, and that final word is the coming of Jesus Christ, the only Son of God. To be sure, the human condition about which I have just spoken did not change from the OT to the NT periods. Neither has it changed today. We are more sophisticated in hiding, rationalizing, and dressing up our alienation from God, but the psalmist’s charge about the wickedness of the human race remains true and valid today. So what changed?
The Good News, of course, with its proclamation that God has fulfilled his promise to Abraham to address our sin-sickness and heal us through Abraham’s family. God has accomplished that in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God become human, to rescue us from our slavery to the power of Sin that has bound us ever since our original ancestors got booted out of paradise. We get a glimpse of the heart of God in our gospel lesson this morning and it is the key to our healing at the deepest level of our being. In response to his opponents’ criticism that he was always partying and hanging out with folks who were most despised in his culture, our Lord told two parables about the relentlessly loving heart God the Father has for his image-bearing creatures.
In the first parable, we see the shepherd (God through Christ) leaving his flock behind to search for the one lost sheep. What kind of sheep was that? Was it the cutest one? The one who nestled up to the shepherd to sleep? The one with the finest wool? No, the shepherd went after the sheep because it was lost. No prerequisites, no qualifications except disqualification (sin). No structure of personal piety, no good sense (it got lost), no obedience. This was the one that got a ride home on the shepherd’s shoulder. This one is you and me in all our inglorious chaos and vanity and baggage we carry around. The message here is that there is nothing we can do to get a ride home; it is entirely up to the Shepherd searching for and finding us, and the Shepherd is willing to search us out! And here we need to be clear about what this parable isn’t saying because too often it has been used to excuse ongoing sin which fosters ongoing alienation from God. Christ was not saying that God accepted the people he hung out with as they stood. Sinners must repent so that God can heal us. The sheep didn’t run away from the shepherd once found; it let the shepherd carry him back home. God searches for us and calls us to repentance, not because God hates us but because God loves us and wants to heal us. He searches for us as we are (rebellious and hostile toward him, skilled at doing evil and not knowing how to do good without the help of God), but God doesn’t expect us to stay as we are. The folks who hung around Jesus had to resolve to give up their lifestyles that made them sick so that God could thoroughly heal them. Likewise with us. The old Scottish preacher, George MacDonald, put it like this:
I thank you, Lord, for forgiving me, but I prefer staying in the darkness: forgive me that too.”
“No; that cannot be. The one thing that cannot be forgiven is the sin of choosing to be evil, of refusing deliverance. It is impossible to forgive that sin. It would be to take part in it. To side with wrong against right, with murder against life, cannot be forgiven. The thing that is past I pass, but he who goes on doing the same, annihilates this my forgiveness, makes it of no effect..Let a man have committed any sin whatever, I forgive him; but to choose to go on sinning—how can I forgive that? It would be to nourish and cherish evil! It would be to let my creation go to ruin.”
There is no excuse for this refusal. If we were punished for every fault, there would be no end, no respite; we should have no quiet wherein to repent; but God passes by all he can. He passes by and forgets a thousand sins, yea, tens of thousands, forgiving them all—only we must begin to be good, begin to do evil no more.
None of this negates the power of the parable in which our Lord tells us about the great love the Father has for us; in fact, it reinforces it. That is why there is rejoicing in heaven. God has brought another lost sheep back into the fold and the Father’s heart overflows with joy because he loves each and every one of us in all of our disarrayed glory! Imagine you are that lost sheep our Lord finds. What would be your reaction? Would it not be one of instant relief and healing? Would you not be rejoicing and want to please the One who loves you despite your hostility toward him and wants you to be his forever?
Elsewhere the NT tells us a definitively about the Father’s great love for us made known in Jesus Christ. We are washed clean by the blood of the Lamb shed for us. Our sins have been put away. God’s desire for justice and mercy has been accomplished on the cross so that we are spared of God’s terrible judgment on our sins because God took it on himself; and our slavery to the power of Sin has been broken. We know this because Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead and we have been given God’s Spirit to help us lead new lives when we have the good sense and humility to let the Shepherd carry us home on his whipped and crucified back.
So why aren’t we all healed? There are many reasons (as well as a great enigma surrounding it all), but I only have time to explore one of those reasons with all its complexity. Some of us are self-loathing. Like David in Psalm 51, we know our transgressions and our sin is ever before us. We can’t believe that a good and righteous God could ever love us, let alone have mercy on us. We read about God’s hatred of all things evil and we conclude that because of our sins, we too are evil and therefore outside of God’s love and mercy. The Good Shepherd would never come looking for us. We are beyond saving. But our self-loathing comes from the world, the flesh (usually from within ourselves), and the devil. It ignores the truth about the love and mercy of God made known in Jesus Christ and him crucified for our sins and for our sake. When our self-loathing prevents us from accepting God’s love for, and mercy upon us, we effectively run away from the Good Shepherd or refuse to let him put us on his shoulders to carry us home. Our self-loathing is a subtle form of pride and alienation against God, all dressed up in pietistic language and thinking, and it distinctly goes against the parable of the lost sheep, which is all about the love and mercy of the Shepherd, who seeks out the least, the lost, and the self-loathing. As a result, our alienation from God continues because we falsely believe God can’t and won’t love us and we never are open for the core healing that comes when we are reconciled to God our Father through Christ. If you are one of those self-loathers, STOP IT!!! STOP IT RIGHT NOW!!!! I plead with you to take this parable to heart and give your Father a chance to show his love for you. You will not be disappointed.
And here is where the parable of the lost coin comes into play because it speaks as much about God’s perseverance as it does about rejoicing over finding the lost. As we saw, Christ implicitly calls us to repentance in the parable of the lost sheep, and many of us consciously seek to repent but often find ourselves failing miserably. This is especially bad for you self-loathers; it just adds fuel to the fire. Does that mean we really haven’t repented and remain lost? The parable of the lost coins suggests otherwise. Repentance is not a one time deal or event. Neither is our relationship with God a one time event. We are a work in progress. St. Paul recognized this when he made the astonishing claim in Romans that we will share in a death and resurrection like Christ’s because we are baptized in him (Romans 6.3-5). He then immediately acknowledged that we are not done with sin until we die (Romans 6.6-7). That means we will sometimes fail to miss the mark but that in no way negates the power of the cross and Christ’s victory over Sin and Death for us. The cross is the eternal sign of God’s great and relentless love for us, that God is patient and perseveres in his pursuit of us, despite our flaws, weaknesses, self-loathing, and rebellion. This is because God created us for life and creation, not death and destruction. God’s love for us means the Father wants the best for us and has acted as only God could on our behalf to bring us safely home to him where there will be no more sickness or sighing or alienation or death.
St. Paul also serves as a poster child for this mind-boggling promise. He wasn’t just a lost sheep. He was a wolf who actively devoured the sheep by persecuting God’s reconstituted people in Christ out of a sincere but mistaken belief that Christ was not the real deal until Christ got a hold of him. St. Paul’s story reminds us that sincerely held beliefs about God, wrong as they can be when we do not humbly submit to God’s word, cannot rescue us. Only God can rescue us. St. Paul, chief of sinners because he actively persecuted God’s people in Christ, is saved by the One who pursued him relentlessly and patiently until he repented of his evil. The message? Nobody is beyond hope. Nobody is beyond the healing love and mercy of God. We simply have to accept the gift offered to us unconditionally. The extent to which you have accepted the gift is the extent you will find healing.
In a few moments we will invite you to come for intercessions and anointing to be healed. As you come forward, do so with a thankful and believing heart and mind, imperfect as both are. Your faith and resolve to follow Christ, however imperfectly you might live it, is evidence of God’s love for you and his willingness to heal you. Therefore, don’t be afraid. Continue to examine your heart and your life and resolve to ask the Lord Jesus to heal you of anything that causes you to remain alienated from God. Give thanks to the Great Shepherd, the one who pursues you relentlessly because he loves you beyond your ability to understand—not because of who you are or aren’t, but because of who God is—and let this God heal you to your very core. The Good News of Jesus Christ is this: You are created in the Father’s image to reflect his goodness and love, but you rebelled against that purpose. Despite your rebellion, God loves you and has acted on your behalf to end your stupidity and skill at doing evil so that you are freed to do what is truly human, good, and life affirming (i.e., it’s not about you, stupid, it’s about God). In giving you this great gift you will find both his peace and your healing, thanks be to God! To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.