Our theme today is “courageously respond.” But this raises so many questions in my mind. WHAT does it look like to “courageously respond?” Courage implies dangers, and risks. As our sixteen year old says, “Danger Will Robinson!” But what might those dangers even be?
President Veazey, and the prophetic voice, has consistently called us into mission, inspired by Jesus’ words as presented in the Gospel of Luke, in the story of his visit to the synagogue in Nazareth. Today I’m thinking about Luke again. Apparently Jesus needed courage to even make his declaration of mission, because it led to him being attacked by the religious people who heard him.
This morning I’m drawn back to another chapter in Luke, Luke chapter 15, and stories that were at the heart of my message to the Canada West Mission Centre conference a few weeks ago. It’s an important chapter. A good friend of ours, Matt Frizzell even has “Luke 15” tattooed on his forearm!
All these texts have one thing in common: religious people were grumbling and upset. Sometimes, it seems to me, that the biggest danger we face is from our own religious community.
In Luke 15 the narrator sets the scene with the religious authorities complaining, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ Jesus responded with a series of three stories. There’s a shepherd with a hundred sheep and one gets lost. There’s a woman with ten coins and one gets lost. There’s a man with two sons and one gets lost.
Among the ironies in these stories is that sheep do not, and much less coins, sin. Nor do they repent. A coin doesn’t even lose itself. The reality is, in this set of three stories, that the real sin to worry about is prideful grumbling, and not anything that the lost ones have done. Sometimes we religious people, rather than responding courageously, respond with grumbling.
In Canada right now, we’re working on identifying our strategic plan for the journey ahead. Maybe the biggest challenge we’ll face as a community, in this time, is that our own religious grumbling keeps us from responding courageously in the likeness of Jesus. May we courageously imitate God’s love and God’s generosity. May our courageous response to God lead us to become less proud, less self righteous and less grumbly.
Jesus tells these stories because the religious people are grumbling. Jesus was accused of spending too much time with the tax-collectors and sinners. If he were a truly religious person, the safe, less risky path for him would be to spend more time in and with the religious community.
It is a little paradoxical. We cherish our community. Blessings of Community is one of our Enduring Principles. But our courageous response will send us away from the safety of our faith community, and may even cause that community to turn on us.
In an increasingly secular world, we stand out as the most religious. We are a lot like the oldest son in the last story or maybe like the Scribes and Pharisees. We’ve persevered in this “religious thing” while so many around us have dropped out, becoming “nones” or “dones.”
What would a courageous response look like for our day and age? Is the most courageous response to dig in and persevere? Are we to courageously risk becoming more dedicated to our church, to grow in our religiosity? Are we to be bolder and more assertive in policing the boundaries of our religious tradition, further promoting spirituality so that our ever shrinking tribe might at least become spiritually purer or stronger? Will we be caught grumbling our displeasure at those who wander off from the orthodoxy, or who haven’t dedicated themselves to the faith community as much as we have?
With a religious community under threat, whether it’s by Roman occupation or a decline in numbers and the press of secularism, we religious folk might relate best to the Pharisees and Scribes. Jesus tells them stories:
The stories are absurd sounding. What woman having lost one of her ten coins wouldn’t light a lamp and search for it all night long? Well, no woman would do this. In the story, she would have spent more on oil burning in her lamp than the lost coin was even worth. And then, when the coin is found, she calls a celebration. By the time she had purchased a cake from Costco, she’d have spent way more than that little coin was ever worth.
And no self respecting shepherd would ever abandon the 99 sheep, risking everything, to find 1 that had wandered off. But the story continues similarly. The sheep is recovered and there’s a celebration. What would the party look like? Roasted sheep! I imagine.
Absurd stories, but the stories are told to help the grumblers understand that from God’s perspective, when anyone is missing, or excluded, whether it’s just one in a hundred, or one in ten, or one half, it’s profoundly wrong in Heaven.
So when we talk about courageously responding, we need to be careful. We’re a little religious community in decline. Faced with challenges related to that decline, we might be tempted to circle the wagons and to focus on each other, and on covering the apparently necessary tasks required for running a religion. After all, maybe if we can strengthen ourselves, get better at what we do, then others might want to join us again. Surely one of our greatest strengths is the way we love one another, the way we can count on each other to always make other members of our community feel at home.
But what I take from this 15th chapter, at the heart of Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel according to Luke, is that our courageous response must be largely focused on noticing the ones who are missing.
Courage, for this time, means being able to look away from our religious tribe, becoming keenly aware of those who are not here. When one of the two sons had gone off with half of the inheritance, it was obvious he was gone. With the woman, it was one tenth of what she had that went missing. With the shepherd, it was one out of a hundred.
We grow in our awareness and sensitivity towards the lost. We expand our courage to prioritise them, not us, and we celebrate when we get to be together.
The paradox is that, from the perspective of these gospel stories, and maybe for our context too, courage is most required, not for anything we’ll experience out there in our searches. Our response needs to be courageous to withstand the critiques of our fellow religious people who resent the shift in focus or who are just genuinely worried about trying to keep the religious community afloat.
We’re so dedicated to our responsibilities, to our Sunday service, to our building, to our community that it really does require a great deal of courage to shift our focus to growing our ability to notice those who are missing and our ability to focus on them without religious or righteous grumbling.
In places where we’re engaged in this kind of courageous response, all sorts of things we do as a people start to take on new meaning. Every month when we share in communion. It’s a community meal. You know how it feels when you sit down to eat with your family, and someone’s missing who was expected to be there? They’re supposed to arrive at any moment, and nobody wants to start because it just feels wrong? As we go down this path, our sharing in communion becomes that uncomfortable. In our eating and our drinking we are acutely aware of who’s missing.
Yesterday at our mission centre conference business meeting, we considered the call of Dawn Dawson to serve as a new Seventy. As we ordain new seventies as mentors and models for us in responding courageously, we can think of them as ministers called and ordained for noticing who’s missing, and for helping us to notice.
The scriptures talk about the dangers that the Seventy will face. Those risks are out there and also back at home. It’s risky work. All around the church, in our little communities, getting smaller all the time, we can ill afford, it would seem, to have some of our best ministers off focusing elsewhere; focusing on those who aren’t even religious. Building relationships with immigrants and with the LGBTQ community, visiting prisons, working with people with special needs. They aren’t the ones paying the bills. We’re not too sure we really want our little community to be dominated by those people anyway.
It is risky work that Dawn is called to. But If she does it right, there may be grumbling. Today, my dream is that we’ll have the courage to follow. I trust in God’s ability to help the church be transformed, even into something new and unfamiliar, shaped by those who aren’t with us now.
May we courageously respond!