Foolish advice

The following sermon is adapted from one preached by The Rev. Dawn Hutchings of Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Newmarket, Ontario. You can read her excellent sermon on pastordawn.com. In her introduction she thanks a couple of professors from whom we both learned — Eduard Riegert and Donna Seamone. Dawn writes that preachers today stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before; today, I will add that we also lean on each other as we journey together in the ministry of preaching! 

The ‘fool’ isn’t normally taken very seriously. In period books and films set in Medieval times especially, the court jester is the character to whom nobody pays attention beyond their ability to make people laugh. These are the fools we relegate to the realms of distraction and mindless entertainment. And then they are dismissed with an impatient wave of the hand.

Who are fools in our day and age? Who do we pay lip service to, or not take seriously? Who do we seek for a little distraction for entertainment purposes — but whose advice or thoughts or words we do not heed? Because they are fools!

In the recent home release of the film, “Now You See Me 2” starring Morgan Freeman, Mark Ruffalo and Woody Harrelson, the main characters reflect on the role of “the fool” symbolized on a playing card which figures significantly in the plot of the movie. No spoilers; you have to see it!

The whole movie is structured around the power of perspective. By the end of the movie, we are dazzled by how the same words spoken at the beginning of the movie can mean the total opposite by the end. At the end of the movie, here is what they say about “the fool” (I paraphrase): “The fool starts with a blank slate. Therefore, for the fool it’s not about who they are, it’s about who they are becoming.”

Let’s turn to the Gospel reading for today in Luke 15:1-10. Among the teachings of Jesus, the parables of the lost and found are so well known, so familiar that we are in peril of failing to hear the foolishness they advocate.

Today, we just focus on the lost sheep (but the parables of the lost coin and lost sons which follow in chapter 15 of Luke can also be understood in the same way — as foolish advice!): Whether we are relating to co-workers, clients, customers, students, friends, or children none but the foolish among us would leave ninety-nine to the perils and dangers of the wilderness in order to go looking for one idiot who’d been stupid enough to get themselves lost.

These parables of the lost and found are outrageous. None of us would get very far in life if we lived by these teachings. Because we live by a different code; you know it: It is better to put the welfare of the many above the needs of one. Sometimes its better to cut your losses and move on.

The wisdom of the world lurks in us down to every last maxim: – charity begins at home. – God helps those who help themselves. – Count the cost or pay the price. – “They should just pull themselves up, by the bootstraps.” You fill in the rest…

And yet along comes Jesus, spouting such foolishness that even we who are predisposed to agree with him, even we can sympathize with the self-righteous and wonder how anyone could be expected to live like this. The chaos that would ensue if we followed the teaching of these parables as law would be horrendous. What Jesus is advocating is foolishness itself. It makes no earthly sense.  

And so the foolishness that Jesus advocates remains on the pages of our Bibles, or in the sanctuaries of our churches, or in the halls of the academies where they busy themselves arguing of the historical minutia and we smile as the familiarity of the text washes over us from time to time.

But we know full well that this is not the way for any self-respecting, 21st century person to live in the world. These are just parables after all and we can’t be expected to live by them. We’d be fools to try. After all we are not Jesus! And anyway look what happened to him! So, the foolishness that Jesus taught is reasoned into irrelevance and confined to the recesses of our consciousness. 

But what if we didn’t approach these parables with the idea of pinning down their meaning. What if we approached these parables without feeling the need to wrestle the wisdom they contain to the ground so that we can extract from them rules to live by. 

What if we allowed these parables to simply touch us? What might the foolishness they prescribe evoke in us? How might we respond to their touch? In brushing up against these parables of the lost might we feel the touch of the ONE to whom they point?

I have come to believe that only those who have known the fear, the pain and the joy of losing and finding can really feel the touch the parables of the lost. But then again, I’ve come to know that it is impossible to go through life without knowing the fear, the pain and the joy of loosing and finding again and again and again. 

Jesus came teaching in parables. The parables of Jesus come to us to “show” us what God is like and to call us to a way of being in the world. These parables, simply, have about them a “ring” of foolishness.

Because not only would a fool leave ninety-nine sheep to look for the one lost. Not only would a fool leave the ninety-nine unguarded to wander aimlessly, to be ravaged by some unknown predator, to fall prey to God knows what. Not only would a fool leave to search for the stray who might be wounded, damaged, dying, not interested in being rescued. And not only would a fool risk a reputation as a wise shepherd, a careful guardian of the known and secure, to seek one lone sheep. 

But a fool would also find, restore, and be foolish to care enough to save the lost, the wandering, the lonely, the one outside the bounds of the flock. Jesus teaches by showing us in these parables: in such foolishness this God has broken into our world and does so again and again. 

The parable of the lost sheep points us in a direction of foolish and passionate abandon. The seeking shepherd who rushes off to find one sheep shows us the God who cares for us so much that the safety of the secure flock is risked so that the stray might be brought home. The mark of the reign of God will be foolishness such as this.

In the time of God’s reign shepherds will care less about flock security and principles of good management, and more about the vulnerability of the odd one out. In the time of God’s reign everyone will counted valuable enough to be cared for. In the time of God’s reign every stone, every clump of dirt, every thing, every one will be counted as valuable.

Today, as we do every Sunday, in worship, we gather in thanksgiving for the reign of God. In the retelling of the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin we are called to a holy foolishness. To live toward the reign of God is, in some ways, to heed a call to reckless love that gives itself away for the sheer joy of loving. If only our lives could embody that spirit of abandoned self-giving and love.

In the telling of these parables, we remember that none of these stories is of the stuff of everyday fare. None of us can do this kind of relentless, reckless abandon constantly. But there are times, there are times when … The risk must be taken. The grasp on the known must be released to reach for, find and restore the lost the abandoned the wayward and yes even the self-righteous. Those we have every right to leave alone. 

In one frame of reference the shepherd should have been guarding the flock, faithful to home duties. But there is a moment that grips, a moment in which what might be choice is no choice. There is only abandon and care, compassion and joy… There is only a moment of foolishness; and then…. love.

These are not only words for individuals they are words for the collective, words for institutions and those of us who make up institutions. The parables were spoken to the Pharisees by Jesus whose comfort with the outcasts and sinners made those keepers of the gates of righteousness squirm in their holy seats. It was foolish action Jesus was about. 

The wisdom of the righteous was ossified righteousness. Theirs was the wisdom of those entrenched in their own role and task so deeply they could not see some new foolishness of God, as wisdom. These were people lost and in exile for most of their history over and over again called and delivered by God. These were the ones whose memory of deliverance could not release them to be deliverers. These people were very much like us.

The Apostle Paul tells us that God has chosen what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong (1 Corinthians 1:20-27). These parables challenge us to be reckless and relentless in our loving and in our witness.

We are called to be vulnerable in our ministry, vulnerable to those outside the boundaries of our private lives and our community of faith: to give with no expectation of reward, to love without demand for return, to reach out to those in need with unrelenting care, to release preoccupation with the cares and concerns of our own lives (or perhaps through these cares) to reach out in love to those who are not easy to love. We are called to do all this in delight and with joy and in so doing we mirror the foolishness of God. 

St Paul tells us that God has chosen what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong. By God’s grace we are the weak and the foolish. We are ‘the fool’; starting over again with a clean slate, becoming who God created us to be.

In the retelling of the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin we are called to a holy foolishness. To live toward the reign of God is, in some ways, to heed a call to reckless love that gives itself away for the sheer joy of loving. We pray that our various ministries in the worlds in which we live will embody that spirit of abandoned self-giving and love. 

May we declare the foolishness of God by reaching out in love recklessly, and with great joy. Moment by moment….let it be so!

Of fig trees and lottery tickets

Some time towards the end of the nineteenth century, a man named Huxley who was intelligent, quick of mind, and never lost an argument, attended a house party at a grand, country estate on a Saturday night. When Sunday morning rolled around, many of the guests who stayed the night prepared to go to church.

As one who was naturally skeptical, Huxley did not propose to go. In fact, he was somewhat irate at his fellow party-goers at their sudden righteous intent. Given what all had happened the night before, Huxley could not believe they still wanted to go to church.

“Suppose you don’t go to church today,” he challenged his friend who he knew to have a simple yet radiant Christian faith. “Suppose you stay at here with me and tell me what your Christian faith means to you this morning, and why you are a Christian.”

“But,” said the man, “you could demolish my arguments in an instant. I’m not clever enough to argue with you.”

“I don’t want to argue with you,” Huxley said, gently. “I just want you to tell me simply what this Christ means to you.” So, his friend stayed with Huxley at home Sunday morning and told him most simply of his faith. When he had finished there were tears in Huxley’s eyes. “If only I could believe that,” he said. (adapted from William Barclay, “The Gospel of John” Volume 1 – The Daily Study Bible Series – Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1975, p.92)

Huxley’s response speaks to an aspect of our faith that sometimes gets crowded out because of our compulsion to be rational, persuasive and argumentative. And yet, this more heart-felt dimension is what, I believe, ultimately defines, motivates and describes our faith at its core. Because it’s more about a personal experience of Jesus rather than clever argument, persuasive logic and rational explanation.

Prior to Nathanael’s life-changing encounter with Jesus — as described in the Gospel for today (John 1:32-51), Nathanael was skeptical about his friend Philip’s proposition that they had found the Messiah: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (v.46) — Jesus’ hometown. A Roman garrison was stationed there, so people living in this small, insignificant hovel of a town were associated with the hated Roman occupation of Palestine. The notion that the one who would save them from the Romans would come from Nazareth — which, moreover, was nowhere mentioned in any biblical prophecy — was unbelievable, un-credible.

Then, when Nathanael goes with Philip to see Jesus, and Jesus says that in Nathanael there is no deceit nor guile (v.47), Nathanael questions Jesus’ integrity: “Where did you get to know me?” Nathanael was skeptical that anyone could give a verdict like that on so short an acquaintance. I think we can relate: How can you say anything about me when you even don’t know me! Who do you think you are?!

In short, this encounter with Jesus starts off on rocky ground. It doesn’t look good from the standpoint of trying to start a good relationship with someone. How often do we know of friends or family — even ourselves — who have given up on faith, the church, God, all because we felt put off, even offended, initially by something that is said or done. Or, how often have we given up on a spiritual practice after just trying it once? I think we can sympathize with Nathanael’s initial objections.

But then, something changes. How does he move from cynicism to belief, from questioning and doubt, to praise and confession? What happens?

It’s the fig tree. The turning point happens when Jesus speaks to Nathanael’s heart, not so much his mind: “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you” (v.48), says Jesus. These simple words turned Nathanael’s heart from suspicious questioning to confessing Jesus as the Son of God.

The fig tree in the bible stood for peace (1 Kings 4:25; Micah 4:4). In ancient Israel, this was a place on one’s property where one could go to be undisturbed, to find quiet. Because the fig tree was leafy and shady, it was the custom in the arid, Mediterranean heat of the day to sit and meditate under the roof of its branches. Perhaps this is what Nathanael had been doing on a regular basis — sitting under his fig tree, praying for the day when God’s Chosen One should come, and meditating on the promises of God.

When Jesus speaks those words, “I saw you under the fig tree…” Nathanael must have felt that Jesus had seen into the very depths of his heart, and read the thoughts of his inmost being. Nathanael must have said to himself, “Here is the man who understands my dreams! Here is the man who knows my prayers! Here is the man who has seen into my most intimate and secret longings, longings which I have never even dared put into words! Here is the man who can translate the inarticulate sigh of my soul!” (ibid., p.93)

It’s the fig tree. What can we say about finding our own fig tree? What are the qualities that describe this place where we meet with God? And where God convicts our hearts?

First, you will notice, Nathanael’s fig tree is not “Sunday morning”, so to speak, where the formal liturgies are practised. It is not to say temple worship was unimportant, even vital, as a place of communal gathering where faith was nurtured, sustained and grown.

But what we are talking about here is where personal, daily faith is nurtured, sustained and grown. Jesus said, “Pick up your cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). We are not talking here about going to church every Sunday. We are talking about our intentional, discipline of prayer and meditation from Monday through Saturday. This Gospel suggests that a daily practice is critical in preparing the heart to recognize God’s love for you.

Preparation and practice is important in our faith. Philip and Nathanael had studied the scriptures and anticipated in their regular prayer the coming of God’s Chosen One. They were, in a sense, ready to receive Jesus. Those of us brave souls who went to a Yoga for Christians class the other night must have walked away with the strong impression, as I did, that regular practice is so important. Because those of us who don’t, still feel it today!

As with any exercise, spiritual or otherwise, you can’t simply snap your fingers to be an expert. With Christian meditation, for example, you can’t just go once and decide whether it’s for you or not; it’s about a long-term vision of practice and intention and discipline. It’s like tending a garden.

Where is the place you go daily to be under your fig tree? Is it a special chair in your living room? Is it a spot on your front or back deck? Is it in the forest on your back-50? Is it a rock on the river-side? Is it connecting with the expansive outdoors? Is it doing a certain physical exercise? Is it some object that you hold or look at to remind you of something or someone precious? Where is your fig tree?

And if you will look for one — It is a place where hopes and dreams are nurtured in your heart. It is a place where the good promises of God are given shape and sustenance. It is a place where faith then begins to affect your decisions in daily life, with joyful anticipation of God’s presence everywhere.

Canadian radio broadcaster Stuart McLean wonderfully tells the story of the “Lottery Ticket” (a necessarily paraphrased and adapted version follows here). Tommy gets a phone call telling him that his grandfather, Lewis, suddenly died. Shortly after the news of the death circulates among the family, the question of his un-scratched lottery ticket comes up. For over ten-years — longer than that, in some people’s minds — Grandpa Lewis kept his faded, un-dated lottery ticket in a box on the mantle, un-scratched. The prize, one million dollars.

“It’s a winner, it’s a winner!” he had often and regularly announced with deep conviction and belief. “It’d be more than that if you’d just scratch it!” rebutted his brother Lawrence. “Just think of the interest it would have made in all this time!”

“Or, I would have none!” argued Grandpa Lewis. “Know what happened to that lottery winner in Toronto, or that family from New Brunswick who won it big? Besides, I don’t need the money. It’s not about the money!

“But, tell me, what would you do with a million dollars?” he would always ask anyone who mentioned his un-scratched lottery ticket. “What is your heart’s desire?” Then he would listen very carefully, and ask, always: “Is that really what you would do?”

When the family gathered to plan the funeral, they argued about what to do with the lottery ticket since it wasn’t mentioned in the will. There were seven in the family, divided between the ‘scratchers’ and the ‘non-scratchers’, the believers and those who didn’t believe. Tommy counted himself as one who wanted to leave the ticket alone. But the ‘scratchers’ had the edge. “Just be done with it. Then we would know one way or another.”

They decided that after the funeral service, they would gather around the mantle upon which sat the box containing the lottery ticket. Silence shrouded the meeting. What would they do if in fact it was a winning ticket? What would they say, if it wasn’t?

When uncle Tony was delegated to open the box, he lifted it off the mantle, opened it, then slowly looked at everyone in the room. When he tipped open the box for all to see, they were surprised to find Grandpa’s Lewis’ lottery ticket missing. And in its place, seven newly purchased lottery tickets.

A week later, Tommy and his girl-friend, Stephanie, sat around their kitchen table. Stephanie asked, “I wonder what happened to the lottery ticket?”. Tommy confessed, “I buried it with Grandpa Lewis. I put it in his pocket before we closed the casket.”

“Why would you do that?” Stephanie asked, reflectively.

“That’s where it belonged. I wanted to trust him. Because I realized that throughout his life, Grandpa needed hope more than he needed money. To him, dreams were more important than a pile of money. Whenever he took out that lottery ticket and waved it in our faces, he could hang on to hope. And challenge us to think very deeply about our true heart’s desire.”

Both were surprised to learn, later, that everyone still had their lottery ticket, unscratched.

Not a prize to win but a gift to celebrate

When the lost sheep is found, and the lost coin is recovered, there is much rejoicing in heaven (Luke 15:1-10). God celebrates. God is pleased. God is honoured. And all are invited to the party.

The shepherd’s friends and neighbours are invited to the celebration. The woman calls her friends over to rejoice together. For what has been found is so precious to the one who finds.

A couple of months after I was married, my wife and I raced to the beach in Goderich Ontario at the end of the workday. Because the bluffs overlooking Lake Huron there are high, you can watch the sunset twice. First at the beach level; then, as soon as the sun sets you run up the stairs some fifty feet to the top of the bluff, turn around and see the sun go down again.

That evening, we arrived too late to watch it twice. The sun was setting from atop the bluff when we got there. But we didn’t drive all the way there not take a short walk along the beach. So, after the sun set, we descended the steps and walked onto the sand as the day’s light quickly dissipated.

Because it was getting dark, we decided not to walk far, but just to sit down on the sand and watch the amazing array of yellows, blues, reds, and orange in the sky. Not only was it getting dark, but the late summer temperatures quickly plummeted. And it was getting cold.

And when our hands get cold, the blood vessels restrict and our fingers narrow somewhat. After about 10 minutes of sky-gazing, we went to get up to go, and with shock and horror I realized my wedding band was no longer on my finger. It had slipped off.

At first we froze in indecision. What do we do? Give up? Accept the loss? After all, to find a ring in a 25 square foot area buried in soft sand full of pebbles and wood chips in the waning light of day seemed impossible. Despair began to creep into my heart.

We said to each other that rather than just give up, we should at least try. So with a stick we drew a square in the sand, and on our hands and knees raked with our fingers every square inch of that boxed area.

It was nearing pitch black as we approached the last corner of our ‘fenced’ area. Suddenly the tips of my fingers felt something cold and metallic. I scooped up my ring and we darted up those steps feeling giddy and light on our feet. The joy, the relief! All was not lost!

In Luke 15, Jesus responds to the Pharisees with stories whose climax is a party, a rejoicing, a celebration. The upshot of the these parables is an invitation to all people, including the sinners and the tax collectors to join together in the celebration of God’s kingdom.

But what about the Pharisees? Are they included, too? I wonder about the 99 sheep left behind.

I wonder what the 99 sheep must have felt, when the shepherd leaves them alone to go after the one who has broken all the rules? What is the shepherd thinking? A crazy risk, wouldn’t you say? 99% of the shepherd’s assets are left unprotected, vulnerable. And, for what? One, lost, misguided, rebellious lamb?

I see a similar dynamic here to the elder son in the story of the Prodigal Son which immediately follows these ones in Luke 15. The elder son who has faithfully remained and worked on his father’s land resents his brother who is shown so much love and attention. And, for what? For running away, squandering his father’s inheritance, shaming the family only to return to the biggest party ever thrown? For him? How fair is that?

We see here that God’s economy is not based on merit, but on mercy. God’s economy is upside down. While our culture is built on merit, God’s kingdom is built on grace. For, God is merciful, gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love (Psalm 103:8).

What Jesus is saying to the Pharisees is that the sheepfold – the family of God – exists primarily for those who are not yet members of it – especially those we would consider ‘lost’.

Here we see some values that emerge from a focus on God’s character, values that we would do well to consider in the church.

Let’s say we are the sheepfold, the flock whose Savior is Jesus, the great Shepherd. Where do you think Jesus will be found? Based on this scripture, I’m thinking the attention of our Lord is focused, relentlessly, on those who are not yet here.

By implication then, whatever we decide to do in the church, we would do well to ask this question: Whose purposes does a certain action serve? Ourselves? Whom are we serving, in all our work in the church? Do we make decisions on programs and worship practices that serve our needs? Or, do we see things from the perspective of those who are not here every Sunday? — who are on the fringes of the community, who are somehow distant? What would benefit them?

Because that’s where Jesus is. He’s out there. Looking. Searching. And we know the end of the story: He invites everyone to the table for a celebration. Even the religious types.

When Jesus leaves the 99 in order to search out the one, when you think about it, the shepherd must be putting a whole lot of trust and faith in those 99. He wouldn’t leave them for a while without believing in his flock, believing they had the ability and the resources to do what they had to do during his absence.

God has faith in us all. God believes in each one of us. And God will have faith in anyone who returns home to live in loving relationship with Jesus – whether the sinners, the tax collectors, the Pharisees …. [complete the list]

Because it is a gathering for everyone to celebrate not a prize won, but a gift given by an all-inclusive God whose sights are set beyond the pen, beyond the borders of safety, beyond the walls of any church.