The Brits sent two Czech partisans to Prague with instructions to kill him. They successfully ambushed his motorcade, but impossibly, both their machine guns jammed. So as the car passed, in desperation, one of them threw a hand grenade. It exploded under the car, shattered Heydrich’s spine, and actually injected horse hairs from the seat into the wound. He died in agony, and it took six hours.
Good, right? If anyone ever deserved a miserable death, it was Heydrich. And he had worse waiting for him after he died, too, right?
We continue our sermon series, “God is(n’t) today. We’ve been discussing how the Bible reveals to us the character and characteristics of God. And our focus for today is “God is reckless.” God’s love for you and for me in Christ Jesus is so reckless that God abandons rules, what appears to be just, and instead, pursues all people as God’s children relentlessly- recklessly…
Our text is Luke, Chapter 15, with three of the most famous parables of Jesus. And for most of us, at one point or another in our lives, it is either the most wonderful or most annoying chapter in all of the Gospels- that’s a wonderful thing about Jesus’ words- they both comfort and challenge those who are listening- those who are hearing the stories.
The context sets the parables up: The tax collectors and sinners are surrounding Jesus. And the good folks are annoyed that this alleged rabbi would not only let these people close to him but seem to enjoy spending time with them…Grumble, grumble, what’s the deal, what about us???
And then the parables follow. Let’s quickly go through them.
First, the lost sheep: Let me ask some questions: how did the sheep get lost in the first place? We don’t know, and it apparently doesn’t matter.
When the shepherd finally finds the sheep, does he ask questions about the sheep’s behavior? Questions like: Obviously, you’re a bad sheep to be lost. If I take you back, will you stop being bad, whatever it means to “be bad?”
Or, OK, you’re found- can you demonstrate that you have been found by taking one step in my direction before I pick you up?
Or yet again, I’ve found you, but before I take you back to the flock, will you agree to a particular way of being my sheep, assent to a particular set of intellectual propositions that define my relationship with you as shepherd?
And clearly, the answer is “no.” The sheep is lost; the shepherd finds it, picks it up and carries it home on his shoulders. No questions, no conditions, just wondrous joy on the shepherd’s part that the sheep has been found. (Actually, we don’t even know if the sheep wanted to be found, or wants to come home!)
Then there is the matter of the shepherd’s behavior itself. Did any of you note that? Let me go back to the beginning: “which of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?”
Now look at me: NO ONE DOES- NADA- ZIP! Are you kidding? You’re talking about sheep. Sheep make new sheep! And to leave them in the wilderness is to invite losing the entire flock! Did you know that when sheep are attacked, they bunch closer together, so the wolves don’t have to chase them down? You lose one, too bad; keep the flock together, and that one will be replaced soon enough.
But in Jesus’ story, the shepherd leaves! He actually puts the rest of the flock at risk- finds the lost one and carries it home, and THEN throws a party!
That element of what you might call “counter-intuitiveness,” continues in the second parable: that is, just as no shepherd would leave the flock to go looking for the one, nobody would take all day to clean the house looking for what is essentially a dime, in terms of today’s money, and then spend far more than the coin is worth to have a party with friends and neighbors to celebrate her finding of the coin… It’s reckless behavior!
Jesus got the Pharisees’ and scribes’ attention by using sheep and a coin: they let the message begin to sink in, without it being too personal, without it raising their defenses so high that they would be unable to hear his message. Then he told the last parable about people- the one we call “The Prodigal Son.”
The younger of two sons comes to his father and asks for his portion of the inheritance. This is simply horrible- he’s telling his father to essentially, “Drop dead- let me have the goodies before you’re gone…” And then he leaves home, travels to a far country, and (I love this!) “…squandered his property in dissolute living…” HOW POLITE- he partied and wasted everything! He has nothing left, there is a famine, he winds up feeding pigs- a fate worse than death for a Jew (and which he richly deserves)…
The text says “he would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating, and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself, he said ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father and say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands… (and feed me!)
Let me suggest to you that the son’s motivation was selfish- it was personal- he was starving!
SO he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him… and in verse 21, the son confesses (no doubt well-rehearsed on the walk home, but in verse 22 we read, “BUT the father said to his slaves…”
The use of the word “BUT,” not once but twice tells us the father doesn’t care how or why his younger son came home. He doesn’t hear or care about the younger son’s confession!
The father sees him from a distance. (Do you see he doesn’t make the son walk into the house- he meets him on the path- outside!) The father is hugging, kissing, ordering clothes, a ring and the slaughter of the fatted calf before the boy is even in the yard.
Once again, it is clear that God doesn’t care WHY someone returns to him: God welcomes the sinner- every sinner with open arms, no preconditions, undeserved as it always is, just flat “WELCOME HOME!” And actually, as we saw, God doesn’t wait for the sinner to get home (wherever or whatever that might be), God runs out and welcomes us on the street- still outside!
So we see that God’s grace, God’s acceptance is something offered freely, unconditionally, recklessly… It is offered to you and to me even if we’re NOT sorry for what we’ve done- just that we see that life that we have been experiencing doesn’t work for us anymore, and we’re wanting to try something new because it CAN’T be as bad as what we have known. And God is right there- YES, God says, COME ON- LET’S TALK- LET’S HAVE A PARTY! WELCOME HOME!
But even as the party starts, we can’t forget the second half of the parable, and here, I must say, I am very sympathetic to the older brother in the story.
Like I would, HE doesn’t tell his father to “drop dead,” and give the inheritance before he dies… HE doesn’t squander any money in “dissolute living…” Like I would, He stays at home, works hard, honors his father, is obedient, and his father never even gives him a crummy goat to have a party with his friends…
Yet, when the creep of a little brother comes home, it’s the Older Brother who gets in trouble for not rushing to welcome him (I love it- the older brother doesn’t even call him his brother- he says to his father “This son of yours…”).
There’s a story about a preacher who once paraphrased the end of the Prodigal Son by having the Father kill the fatted calf for the good elder brother. A woman yelled from the back “That’s how it should have ended in the first place!
So if I have these parables right, God loves and cares for everybody, even the most irresponsible, rotten greedy sinner, and if, as a good person who tries to good (and succeeds most of the time!), I object and argue at least for probation, I’m wrong. Even worse, I am outside the Kingdom by my choosing- my separation from God is MY fault?!!? Is that unfair, or what?
Reynard Heydrich lay dying in agony. And as he lay dying, he apparently contemplated all the evil he had done, and how he had wasted his life. Heydrich, who was brought up as a Roman Catholic, then asked for a priest. He confessed of all his sins. The priest announced the forgiveness we all receive in Christ Jesus and then gave him communion- the first time he had received the sacrament in decades- and the last…
Then he died, a sheep, a coin, a son who had been lost, and was found, part of God’s own family.
God wants you and me to celebrate that? To come to a party in his honor? When we come into the fullness of God’s presence, we could run into him? Are you serious?
And the answer, of course, is “Yes…” And Jesus calls us to rejoice in the fact that he was found, and tells us that there is joy in the presence of the angels of God, even, as I am sure, there was weeping for all the victims, for all the damage he had done with his wasted life.
We’re invited to the party because we are a part of the family of God; we KNOW the finder of the lost because we know he found us! I wonder if the longer we’re in the family tempts us to forget that we’re forgiven sinners, too, and in God’s economy, sinners are sinners, there aren’t degrees of sinners- we all need forgiveness.
Because if God’s grace isn’t real- isn’t big enough for someone like Heydrich- someone as lost as there has ever been, it might not be big enough for you and for me…
The question we face is, do we take the joy and peace we have been given in that relationship with Jesus, and share it with others- the newcomers, and the ones we KNOW aren’t deserving- the “tax collectors and sinners of our own time…?”
When we don’t, we wind up as heartless, rigid and as self-righteous as the original hearers of the parables. We all know people who claim to follow Christ who are like that, and the damage done in Christ’s name is incalculable… We wind up driving people even further away from God, and that makes the angels- it makes Jesus weep.
So I have some difficult homework for you this week.
I want you to think of the biggest sinner you know personally- preferably one who drives you just nuts- whose presence you can barely stand. (They must be sinners, right, otherwise, they wouldn’t make you so crazy, whether they go to church, or not!)
First I want you to pray for them- that God would open their heart to the presence of the Holy Spirit. (You can pray it just like that!) And then, that God would find them, no matter how long it takes. In fact, I would have you pray that God uses YOU to help find them!
And finally, that you will delight in coming to the party that will happen- NOT begrudgingly, but joyfully- with the joy of the angels! Because that is the promise Jesus makes- in the finding of the lost there is a great joy- and it comes from heaven right into your heart.
As you pray, God will open your eyes and help you know that the one for whom you are praying is more than just a sinner who makes you crazy. He or she is a human being, created in God’s own image, and one for whom Christ came- for whom Christ lived, died and was raised from the dead- in short, someone not all that different than you…
Will you bow your heads and pray with me: In the finding and the welcoming of those who have been lost, we see your reckless, beautiful love, and you offer us the joy of the angels. Help us to celebrate with them and with you. And then send us out, to see you at work in our world, and to share in the joy of people experiencing your love through us, whether it’s the first or 500th time! We ask in the name of the one who found us, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.