Sermon–September 11, 2016


17 Pentecost—19-C-Track 2

September 11, 2016

William Bradbury

Exodus 32:7-14, Psalm 51:1-11, 1 Timothy 1:12-17, Luke 15:1-10

A shepherd looks high and low for a lost sheep. A poor widow tears the house apart looking for a lost coin. In these images we meet the God with which we have to deal: this God is a searching, seeking, God, who is always looking for the broken one who isn’t in church or is in church but not enjoying fellowship with Triune God. 

Of course this shocks the Pharisees and the Bible scholars because their image of God is a god who stays with the 99 sheep and is content with the 9 coins. Their God spends all the time with those who are in church, who are living well, who are full of vitality and faith. For this God it is up to the lost sheep and the lost coin to find their way back to where they belong.

This view is also widespread in churches today, where people say, “of course broken people are welcome to attend our church, in fact, everyone is welcome, but it’s certainly not up to us to go looking for such people, it’s up to them to find their way here. After all, doesn’t the Bible say, God helps those who help themselves?”

Well, no the Bible doesn’t say that, but rather says that we, like Lazarus, are dead in the grave, when Christ comes to save us. That when we are unable to help ourselves, the Good Shepherd shows up where we are to take us home.

But take us home for what purpose?

Well, first of all for a party—the whole neighborhood of heaven is invited to celebrate the return of someone who is the apple of God’s eye.

But finally the party is over and then what? As hopefully we all learned in college, there has to be a purpose to your life after the party is over, cause 24/7 partying may seem like fun at the time, until you fall apart and flunk out.

So the good shepherd doesn’t leave us alone to sit around all day. The widow doesn’t just put the found coin in a book and then into a drawer.

Of course not! The lost sheep is brought back, not to keep sitting on its fleece, but to learn how to be useful for the shepherd.

The coin is found in order to give life to the widow.

The way Jesus puts it is to say: “I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”

Repentance doesn’t just mean to be sorry for having gotten lost—it means that but also much more than that: it means making the decision to follow Jesus and his way of living in the Kingdom.

God searches for you and me in order that we would also learn from Jesus how to love as Jesus loves, to let Jesus love through us, just as Jesus let God love through him.

When Jesus called Peter, Andrew, James, and John from their fishing boats, he didn’t say, “follow me and I’ll make you famous”, though they and the other apostles talked a lot about which of this was the greatest.

Rather, Jesus said, “follow me and I will make you fishers of men and women”, and he spent the next three years teaching them how to live and love in the kingdom of God

In other words we are brought back by Jesus to be his apprentices, to learn from him how to live in the reality of God’s kingdom. Jesus doesn’t teach us how to be religious, or how to be more spiritual. He teaches us how to live and how to be more human.


Dallas Willard points out that in the New Testament the word disciple is used 269 times, while the word Christian is only used 3 times. But most of us are more comfortable being called a Christian than  a disciple. After all the 12 apostles, Mary Magdalene, Mary and Martha of Bethany are superstars at following Jesus.

I don’t like the word disciple because it sounds pious and unreal.

But lately I have been taken with the word “apprentice”: it’s a secular word we all understand. As a child in Atlanta I was in awe of tall brick buildings, like Grady Memorial Hospital, the largest hospital in Georgia, that is this massive 16 story complex built with hundreds of thousands of yellow bricks. And I’d wonder how bricklayers could build such a thing.

When I worked construction the summer after high school, I found out how it was done: Those who had spent years learning from master bricklayers passed on their knowledge and expertise to apprentices, who watch and listen and obey the instructions of the masters-day by day, year by year.

Jesus didn’t call women and men who were already spiritual superstars. He called ordinary broken down women and men and taught them day by day how to live in the presence of the unconditional love of God—to be peacemakers and healers.

One big distinction here that I’ve learned recently from John Ortberg is the difference between trying and training.

If I were to ask: raise your hand if next Saturday you could run, and not walk, a marathon? how many would raise your hand?

What if I asked you to go out next Saturday and try really, really hard to run a marathon, how many think you could run the whole 26.2 miles?

This is how we often think of the spiritual life: we are supposed to go out and try really hard to do what Jesus tells us to do. So we might try to show more compassion, try to reach out to the down and out, and of course we regularly fail, get discouraged, and decide being a disciple is for only the super holy, like the new Saint Theresa of Calcutta.

But what if I said: how many of you, if you started working with a running coach who would train you every day for two years could run a marathon? A lot more!

I could try as hard as I can and never do it.

But if I’m trained week by week I could do it.

Jesus brings us back to the flock in order to train us how to live in God’s reality as peacemakers and bridge builders and healers—how to seek and serve the last the least, and the lost.

The whole wilderness journey of the children of Israel is not about trying to be faithful, but training over 40 years to be God’s people, and as our lesson today shows, they had a lot of training to do to move from the golden calf to the Promised Land

We hear in 1 Timothy how God takes a chief sinner like Saul of Tarsus and trains him day by day to renounce violence and to embrace the compassion of Christ, not just for Jews, but for every human being, both Jew and Greek, rich and poor, male and female, slave and free.

This was not the work of trying but the work of training in the grace and power Holy Spirit.

Not our working alone, but God’s working in us with our cooperation.

They say you can’t catch a runaway donkey by chasing it, but they also say the only ones who catch the donkey are the ones who chase it.

I want to suggest as we start this church year we think less about trying to be more religious and think more about training with Master Jesus to be more human.