Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 15, 2013
Last Monday was a day of great celebration in the church around the world. Last Monday was “International Buy Your Priest a Beer Day.” Don’t worry that you forgot this – because everybody did.
So here’s the deal, since you forgot – do me one favor. If you own a car, please refrain from putting up a bumper sticker with some hokie saying about Jesus. If you are one Facebook, please, please, don’t post any pictures with some sappy religious sentiment. I am not saying that any of you have, but do me one favor and really think about what you are saying.
Because just about every bit of bumper sticker theology is bad theology. Things like, “God is my co-pilot.” Hold on, so that means you’re in charge? Or, “Honk if you love Jesus.” Don’t put that on your car, that’s just a public safety issue. But the worst, the worst bumper sticker saying is this: “God helps those who help themselves.”
I cannot tell you how many times I’ve seen that and have had to physically restrain myself from going ballistic. That saying, “God helps those who help themselves,” is contrary to everything we know about Jesus. And I might be bursting your bubble, it’s not in the Bible. Anywhere.
I think this saying has captured us because it fits nicely into our good American Protestant work ethic. On the surface it sounds great – that if we work hard, then God will be happy with us, and if God’s happy with us, then God will give us a hand when we need it.
But this saying, this little bit of bumper sticker theology, does not stand up to the words of Jesus. Jesus riddles the Pharisees with a couple of parables, a couple of stories about God. Suppose God has one hundred sheep, and one of them wanders off. Guess what? God is going to search high and low for the lost sheep until God finds it. Or suppose God has ten coins and one of them becomes lost. Guess what? God is going to tear the house apart looking for that one coin.
Notice what God does not do. God does not sit back and say, “Well, I’ll only help that one lost sheep if he starts walking back towards me. The only way I’m going to help that sheep is if that sheep helps himself.” Or, “Well, I bet that coin doesn’t even want to be found because that coin is still hidden.” God doesn’t say any of that.
God searches out and finds the lost sheep. God sweeps the house, turns over the mattresses looking for that one coin; because that sheep and that coin already belong to God. And that sheep and that coin are precious to God. You and I would probably shrug our shoulders and give up if we couldn’t find that one coin, or that one sheep. But not with God. God helps those whom everybody else would give up on. God doesn’t necessarily help those who help themselves. God simply helps.
This is the one of the reasons that we baptize children. I know, many of you were raised believing that baptism is for adults. There are many Christians, our brothers and sisters, who believe that a person must have a mature faith before they are baptized. To me, this comes dangerously close to saying that God only helps those who help themselves. It’s like saying that you have to earn God’s grace; when we know that there is nothing we can do to make God love us any more or any less than God already does. The point of these parables is that Jesus goes and helps those who cannot help themselves – the lost coin and the lost sheep. Those who cannot help themselves.
This morning we are baptizing Audrey Alvarez. And she is just a small baby. And not to mention, insanely cute. But Audrey is not able to help herself at all. As a soon to be father, I am slowly realizing just how helpless babies are. Audrey’s parents, Christopher and Elizabeth have to feed Audrey, clothe her, change her diapers. There is nothing Audrey can do to help herself. Despite that, in baptism, God is reaching out to Audrey and claiming her as his own. Even though Audrey can’t even walk or talk.
This is perhaps the greatest sign of God’s love for us. Even if we are babies who can’t even use a toilet, even if we wander far off, we belong to God. And God comes looking for us when we are in some far distant pasture of loneliness, or addiction, or anxiety. God tears the house apart when we have slipped under the mattress of hatred, or have hidden ourselves under the rug of egotism. When we have abandoned God; when we have turned our backs on the Church, God comes looking for us.
That is the good news of Jesus Christ. That no matter how many times we leave God, God does not leave us. Because God loves us.
And if that wasn’t good enough, it gets better. Yes, God sits down and eats with sinners. Yes, God looks everywhere for the one who has forgotten their faith. Yes, God blesses even the smallest children who are totally dependent on their parents. But this is what is truly amazing – when God finds the lost, when God finds the helpless, God throws a party. In these parables, when the sheep is brought home and when the coin is found, God invites everybody he knows to celebrate.
Too often we think of a God who is angry with us because we have done something wrong. This only drives us from God. As the Church, we have only reinforced that. You hear pastors pounding their pulpits with hellfire and brimstone. You hear street preachers trying to convince people that God wants to punish them.
Nothing could be further from the truth. God does not want to punish. God wants to celebrate. If you remember anything from this sermon, remember that. God is not about punishing you for your sins. God would much rather throw a party for you. God searches high and low for the lost sheep not to scold us, but to carry us back home; not to punish for sinning, but to love us.
Today, this baptism, is God’s first party for Audrey. Jesus Christ will be rejoicing for her when she is washed in those waters and sealed with that oil. Jesus will be celebrating because Audrey was helpless, and now she is being helped. And no matter where Audrey goes in this life, no matter how far off she wanders or how close to home she stays, God will not forget this day. God will not forget the promise made, that God will always love her.
This is the good news of Jesus Christ. And it may be the most startling thing you have ever encountered. God does not have qualifications or requirements for those whom God wishes to love. There is nothing we can or cannot do that will change God’s mind about us, because God is crazy for us. I do not know into what pastures you have wandered, I do not know where you were hidden. Or if you are still there. If you are helping yourself or if you are without help, the message is this same. What I tell you this morning is good news – God is looking for you. God wants throw throw a party. For you.