Cost and Value
2010-09-09 by Stephanie Sorge Wing

Do you ever set out writing one sermon and finish with another?  I'm still in writing/draft mode, but was surprised to find myself writing about "lost and found economics" - when the value of what is found far exceeds the actual cost.

It is budget time at our church, and I know we're not alone in having to make some difficult decisions.  While we need to cut, we are also adding a youth program and bringing back a real and active mission focus - areas that are easy to cut in the budget, particularly because there is little return on investment.  But all risks were taken, and no expense spared when the lost sheep and coin were sought.  The celebrations that ensued likely cost more to put on than the value of either the coin or the sheep - hence, lost and found economics.

It might end up being a tangent that winds up on the editing room floor, but it is at least food for thought.

Focusing on Luke
2010-09-09 by Stephanie Sorge Wing

In our service, we typically have two readings before the sermon.  I have chosen to use the readings from 1Timothy and Luke.  I usually try to include an Old Testament Passage, but decided this morning to focus on the Epistle, and primarily the Gospel reading.  The title I have given for my sermon in the bulletin is "A Good Excuse to Party!"  I am really drawn to the images of extravagance and celebration in these two parables, and want to highlight that.  Thinking of my local context, we also will have those celebrating a 50th reunion of a high school class, and the celebration of welcoming new members into the church.  Yesterday we also observed a celebration of the life of the husband of our of our church members - a celebration of different sorts, but a celebration nonetheless.  He had been on dialysis for 14 years, but passed away rather suddenly following emergency surgery for appendicitis.  Family and friends gathered from across the country, and after the graveside service, we all went back to the family farm, where there was more food laid out than I have ever seen at one time.  It filled four rooms of the house!  Just a foretaste of the heavenly banquet...

Charles Cousar reminds us of the context in which our Luke passage appears.  The last few weeks, we have read in Luke calls to repentance and the cost of discipleship.  The stories of the lost sheep, lost coin, and Prodigal Son (not included in the Lectionary pericope) almost throw the weight the other way, reminding us again of God's extravagant mercy.  Though mention is made about the joy in heaven "over one sinner who repents," Cousar points out:: "the stories are not primarily calls to repentance.  Sheep and coins can't repent.  The image of a merciful and joyful God completely overshadows any interest in the behavior or remorse of the lost creatures."  (Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV, eds. Charles B. Cousar, Bevery R. Gaventa, J. Clinton McCann, James D. Newsome, Westminster John Knox, 1994).

In each of these 3 stories (sheep, coin, son), the God character engages in some risky and foolish (according to some standards) behavior.  The shepherd leaves 99 sheep alone in the wilderness in order to find just one - that's a big gamble.  I wonder about the value of the lamp oil used by the woman to find the coin compared to the value of the coin itself.  The celebrations over finding the lost coin and lost sheep probably cost considerably more than either the sheep or the coin were worth.  Can you imagine the reaction of the friends and neighbors, being invited to such a celebration?  So, you found a sheep - you endangered 99!  So you found a coin, which you probably would have found eventually, anyways.  It seems silly, and foolish.  Thinking back to the passages from Jeremiah 4 and Psalm 14, the apparent foolishness is indeed true wisdom - God's wisdom, that celebrates when relationships are made right, and when we are reconciled once again to our creator.

God n' Me
2010-09-08 by Stephen Schuette

There is a possible parallel between grumbling in the wilderness and the grumbling of the Pharisees at Jesus.  In both cases there is a persistent resistance to what is unfamiliar and a seeking of false security.  God is simply too free in being God, in being God’s own self to be comfortable.  So a settled, domesticated, manufactured God is more manageable.  The radical forgiveness of 1 Timothy also shows a God who is free to choose to forgive, even as in Exodus this God is also free to judge.  Either way, it’s not a God that we made.

For if we did make a God we could make it adaptable to our personal needs and wants.  This personal God would be consistent, would judge and forgive according to my own sense of right, and would bend mostly toward me and my perspective and away from those who challenge my own life-assumptions.  It would be a God with whom I could be cozy in a challenging world….God n' me…

And, wonder of wonders, the real God even offers to be that God for Moses!  Or was it just in Moses’ imagination?  Either way, Moses ultimately resists the temptation and instead remembers the promise.

The push of all three texts is larger than “God n' Me” and toward community.  Moses intercedes on behalf of God’s own people, recalling before God a covenant promise that is not logical but was made, nevertheless, and has moved the story forward all along.  And Paul was not a forgiven sinner for himself and his own relationship with God but on behalf of a whole community of sinners for whom Paul would be an example.

And at the close of each of the parables is a party!  Friends and neighbors are called to hear the story and to celebrate along with the one who has recovered what was lost.  Perhaps this is the point within the point, the first point being that Jesus came to save the lost.  The second point is that when the lost are found there is a sense of community that those who were never lost, those stuck in a “God n' Me” world will never know because their coziness with their God allows them the illusion that they need no one else.

The eating-and-drinking Jesus, to the Pharisees and scribes, is disturbing to a settled “God n’ Me” world.  Some parties have guest lists, bouncers, and are invitation only.  Jesus’ parties don’t follow this etiquette.  They are serendipitous, uncontrived, and grounded in real life…and a real God.

Parts of the Liturgy
2010-09-08 by Stephanie Sorge Wing

As I continue to think about the Scriptures for the week, working on the liturgy further helps to solidify a theme.  Here is some of the liturgy that I have prepared for this Sunday, based on the texts.


Call to Worship                                 From Psalm 14

L: Fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.”  The Lord looks down from heaven on humankind to see if there are any who are wise, who seek after God.
C:  Have they no knowledge, do they not call upon the Lord?
L:  There they shall be in great terror, for God is with the company of the righteous.
C: You would confound the plans of the poor, but the Lord is their refuge.
L: O that deliverance for Israel would come from Zion! When the Lord restores the fortunes of his people, Jacob will rejoice;

C: Israel will be glad.


Opening Prayer

God of all Wisdom, you have called us together this day to worship you.  As we join in community as the Body of Christ, draw our hearts ever closer to you, that we would seek first after you, and find our hope, our refuge, and our strength in you alone.  As we worship, by your Spirit strengthen and renew us for lives of faithful discipleship, following Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray, Amen.


Call to Confession                    based on Luke 15     

Like a shepherd who leaves ninety-nine sheep to find the one that is lost, like a woman who will not rest until she has found her lost coin, God continues to seek after us with love, mercy, and compassion.  Assured already of God’s mercy through Jesus Christ, let us together approach the throne of grace and confess our sin to God.


Unison Prayer of Confession   based on Psalm 14 and Luke 15

God, our Creator, you made us in your image, and made us to seek after you.  Too often we reject your wisdom in favor of the wisdom of the world.  We think that we can find our own way through the wilderness, but we are like lost sheep in need of our shepherd.  Forgive us for the many ways we go astray.  Forgive us for the evil that we do to each other, both in our actions and in our silence.  Forgive us for the ways we turn away from you, our hope and Redeemer.  Reconcile us once again to you, and to each other, in Jesus’ name, Amen.


Assurance of Pardon       based on 1 Timothy 1:15    

The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.  Hear the good news – we have been forgiven through Jesus Christ!


Prayer For Illumination

Let us pray.  Lord, through your Holy Spirit, lead us into the wisdom that draws us closer to you.  As the scriptures are read and your Word is proclaimed, open our hearts to hear with joy what you say to us today.  In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Thoughts on the Texts
2010-09-07 by Stephanie Sorge Wing

I have looked through the Scripture passages a few times, letting them all ruminate together in my head.  Rather than immediately choosing a passage for focus, I often look for the ways in which the passages converse with one another, and that helps me begin to formulate a theme of sorts. 

Jeremiah 4 and Psalm 14

Jeremiah and the Psalmist both invoke the categories of wisdom and foolishness.  Fools say there is no God, and the foolish people do not know God.  The verb used in Jeremiah, y'ada, is to know in the relational sense.  True wisdom is right relationship with God, which leads to right relationship with others and a path of righteousness.  Fools follow their own way, which leads to destruction.  Jeremiah envisions the whole ordered creation laid in ruins.  Knowing God, being in right relationship with God, and living a life faithful to that relationship, leads to abundant life - for all of creation.  Corruption, evil, and injustice can only lead to destruction.

1 Timothy 1

If Jeremiah and the Psalmist give us a general view of foolishness and wisdom, our passage from 1st Timothy uses Paul as an example of a life lived on both paths.  In Paul's ignorance and unbelief - in his lack of right relationship with God - he was a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence.  Once he begins to learn - through God's self-revelation - he becomes wise, seeking after God, and serving as an example and a witness to God's transforming grace. 

The Feasting on the Word series has become my first go-to commentary.  Commentary from Jane Anne Ferguson and William "Matt" Matthews on this passage both point to the importance of the testimony of personal experience found in this salutation.  Readers or listeners are often able to connect with the "before" picture - doing the things we wish we would not do.  More importantly, we are hungry for the "after."  We still need to hear personal testimonies that speak to the transforming power of God's grace through Jesus Christ in our lives today. 

To those who are walking rocky paths and seeking a better way, testimony of God's transforming grace could be music to their ears.  No matter how familiar the faces in the congregation, or how "together" people look, we might be surprised by those who are struggling on their path in silence.  If your church is like ours, where perhaps half of the active members are also ordained Elders, this can also be an important reminder or encouragement for leaders.  If you are questioning your own preparedness for the task, you are not alone, and you are right to do so!  It is only through the grace of God that we can be examples and witnesses to others.  In some situations, personal testimony might be especially appropriate on this Sunday.

Luke 15

Turning now to the Gospel reading, we see the welcome party that God is just waiting to throw to those sinners who turn to the path of wisdom, desiring to know God through Jesus Christ.  Back in March, John Bell lectured and preached at Louisville Presbyterian Seminary (my alma mater), and Andy and I went to hear him.  His sermon texts included this passage from Luke, along with Psalm 23.  Psalm 23 was recited dramatically by a student with a rich, deep baritone voice, who made his way slowly from the back of the chapel to the chancel while reciting this often too-familiar Psalm.  We worshipers in the pews were surprised by the start of the reading behind us, and turned to see this student, legally blind, making his way down the aisle without any assistance beyond his cane.  It was utterly stunning, and I will never hear or read the 23rd Psalm the same way again.

John Bell asked us to discuss amongst ourselves the similarities between the 23rd Psalm and Luke 15:1-10.  An obvious similarity is the shepherd imagery, but Bell also pointed to the extravagance of the celebrations - cups overflowing, neighbors and friends who are roused from their routines to celebrate together the finding of what was lost.  That extravagant imagery should not be lost on us.  Especially when we read such vivid language of destruction and desolation as we find in our reading from Jeremiah, we need to be reminded that God's passion for us is just as vividly displayed when we return to relationship with our Creator.

Bell also pointed out that while we have no problem seeing Jesus as the shepherd who goes to all ends to rescue the lost sheep, we probably don't often see Jesus in the woman who sweeps her home clean, uses precious oil for her lamp, and searches until she finds the one lost coin.  What are we missing when we fail to recognize our Savior in both persons?

I have not yet decided where to go specifically with the sermon, but there are certainly themes of the call to follow God, to repent and turn from the things that lead to destruction and lead us away from God's life-giving grace, and the extravagance of God's love and mercy, especially to all of us "sinners" out there.  "There's a Wideness in God's Mercy" comes to mind as a possible Hymn of Response (#298 in the Presbyterian Hymnal), but we shall see!

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