Year C; Proper 19; 9.15.2019
One of the most consoling prayers I pray with a dying person is to ask God to bring the dying person into the nearer presence of God as their life ends. It is a prayer of hope for nearness to our loving Being who brought us into the world in the first place. Being drawn into the “nearer presence of God” is something Christians hope for. I believe God creates us to desire to be near, connected and as close to God as possible. And I also believe that life and the world as it is interferes with that desire from time to time.
I do love the phrase, “nearer presence” and the word “near.” Its root is shared with the word “neighbor.” Neighbor is one who is near, one who is nigh. I love that the first sentence of the gospel reading for today has the word “near” in it. “Now all, ALL (Not just some, but ALL) the tax collectors and sinners were coming near, NEAR to listen to Jesus.”
Talk about drawn into the nearer presence of God! They must have somehow known in Jesus, there was a nearness to God – something consoling and good. They were the people on the fringes, definitely not at the center of the culture or the faith. Yet they dared to come near to Jesus, and near to those insiders also standing near to Jesus who might ridicule them.
What drew them near? What was so compelling that they risked ridicule by the leaders, the “insiders?” Sometimes, there is the paradox that in the most estranged condition, humans can sometimes feel the deepest desire for God. And so the tax collectors and sinners came near to him perhaps out of deep desire.
The leaders standing near to Jesus began to grumble that he ate with those people, the “wrong kind of people.” “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” That’s right! That’s exactly the teaching Jesus wanted them to learn, that God welcomes sinners and sits down to a meal with them. And to demonstrate that those who are lost are never lost by God he told parables that the character of God is to search and search for all the lost until they are found.
The true character of God is in the shepherd who sacrifices the 99 sheep to find the one that is lost. The character of God is in the woman – surely the crowd would have been surprised that Jesus characterized God as a woman – the woman sweeping the house over and over again to find her lost coin. And when she finds her coin, she shares with the neighbors to rejoice and celebrate.
It’s easy for me to stand here and say, “God loves you so much that God will search and search for you until God finds you.” It’s also easy for me to counsel those who have strayed away to “Just turn, repent, change your ways and you will be in the nearer presence of God.” But to believe that when we feel distance from God, is not easy at all. I imagine that each and every one of us either has felt estranged from God, far from God, adrift, broken off completely at some point in our lives.
Sometimes, we might even suffer the pain of wondering if being near to God is ever meant for me. I may be the lost sheep or the lost coin, but do I really believe there is a God that searches so endlessly for one person, me? Can I really believe those parables are for me?
When John Newton wrote that first verse of “Amazing Grace,” “I once was lost…” how hopelessly lost did he feel? Is that why “being found” was so life-changing? He thought he was lost for ever…and then the saving, amazing grace found him. Could it really be that God finds us in our darkest, most despairing separation?
I was moved this week by reading one theologian’s hopeful interpretation of being lost and found in the depths. He writes, “…these parables Jesus tells whisper to us that losing faith…is to have wandered into the place where one can be found.” “…losing faith…is to have wandered into the place where one can be found.” (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 4, Scott Bader-Saye) By God’s grace we are never lost for ever.
One of our Eucharistic Prayers from the new approved Episcopal liturgies reminds us of the saving character of Jesus. We say, “Living among us, Jesus loved us. He broke bread with outcasts and sinners, healed the sick, and proclaimed good news to the poor. He yearned to draw all the world to himself….”
Tax collectors and sinners weren’t the only outcasts Jesus yearned to draw to himself. There were lepers, prostitutes, children, blind people, crippled people, older women who had a problem with bleeding, widows, orphans – anyone the culture deemed a lost cause, a nuisance or unclean. All people, no exceptions.
On Thursday I was a guest of a group of people that many in our culture might wish to ignore, and indeed, not too many decades ago were put away in institutions; the intellectually disabled. Most horrifying, in Nazi Germany, they were deemed “useless” to society and were sent off to be killed.
Ray Nagel the Executive Director of Independence Association invited me to attend their Annual Awards ceremony and banquet on Thursday. Fifty-three years ago, a few parents of intellectually disabled children and adults came together, started meeting in our very own St. Paul’s Codman Hall and founded Independence Association to “celebrate the abilities of their intellectually disabled loved ones in order to live as valued, contributing members of the community.” This is their mission. To this day, our St. Paul’s weekly birthday prayer offering is collected and given to Independence Association.
Last Thursday evening, as I entered Crooker Auditorium in Brunswick High School, I felt an air of joy and anticipation. The staff, volunteers, intellectually disabled members, board of directors and families were chatting energetically before the program began. There was joyful camaraderie. My friend Billy was there and we greeted each other. My artist friend Anna from whom I have bought several ceramic works was there.
Now, I’ve been to several lovely concerts in that auditorium. The audience claps politely after the performances. Sometimes there is even a standing ovation. I’ve also been to student plays and lectures there. If someone makes a shout out, they are quickly “shushed.”
Not so on Thursday evening! During every single award presentation someone from the audience – folks who by nature of their disability have little control of their impulses to clap or cheer, either shouted a cheer or clapped loudly for an extended period of time.
And the speakers smiled and laughed along. I could see that everyone in the audience loved all of it. Not a single soul scowled. There was not one “shush!” Not a single soul “grumbled.” There was joy and celebration throughout the presentations.
The evening with the Independence Association was its own parable for me of being found. Having come to the end of the day of a long week, I went, honestly, hoping to sneak out early. But I stayed. I was caught up in the joy, the smiles, the relaxed feeling – no one was up tight or complaining or unhappy. Truly, I wandered into the place where I could be found. And God’s love was palpable.
This is the kind of joyful, welcoming community Jesus calls his Church to be.
Where you and me and the lost and outcast and hated and feared wander in and are found.