Wednesday, September 22, 2010

A Church Where Labels Don't Work Anymore

Sermon preached at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene, Rochester, NY on the 16th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 19C), September 12, 2010: Luke 15:1-10

Just so I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.

I have a Facebook friend (which means that I’m not sure if I’ve ever actually met him) who is a priest in Baltimore. He posted on Facebook this week the highlights of his church’s fall schedule. For them today is “Homecoming Sunday” and he promised “anointed preaching and Gospel singing.”

It’s funny, I thought, how we use language to distinguish ourselves from one another, sometimes, perhaps often, in ways that are not particularly helpful. I know what he meant by “Gospel singing,” but I’ll be perfectly honest and say that I’ve always been a little put out by the use of the word “Gospel” to describe just one way of Christian singing as if all the other ways were not Gospel, that is, bad news. I love the music we are singing today, but I also love most of the music in our fairly traditional Hymnal 1982. Those hymns are Gospel to me.

I also think I know what he means by “anointed preaching,” although I’m less sure about that. I suppose that it’s preaching that the Holy Spirit has anointed, and I would guess that most of you would think of it as high energy and volume that calls forth an emotional response from the congregation. That doesn’t really describe my preaching, but is my preaching really any less anointed? Does not the Holy Spirit inspire meek and mild me too?

I don’t mean to pick on a particular tradition, it’s just the example that came before my eyes this week. My point is about how we use labels to try to define ourselves and our use of them inevitably takes place in such a way that I prove to myself that my way of being or doing is better than your way of being or doing.

By the time of the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, a very powerful label had developed. Tracing the history of its development is very interesting but I won’t go into it. The label was in Greek αμαρτωλος (amartolos): sinner. One of the Greek words for “sin” is αμαρτία (amartia).

The use of the label had evolved so that by Jesus’ day it no longer meant simply someone who had broken the Law, committed a sin. It meant everyone who was ritually unpure, unclean. That meant all Gentiles were sinners, no matter their behavior. People with certain diseases that made them unclean were sinners. And yes, those who transgressed the Law were labeled sinners, which you might expect, but once you got the label it stuck with you. Once a sinner, always a sinner.

In this morning’s Gospel reading, the Pharisees are upset that Jesus welcomes and eats with “tax collectors and sinners.” He risked being labeled a sinner himself by doing so. He risked his credibility as a religious teacher by doing so, at least he risked his credibility with the religious authorities and the pious.

Jesus answers this upset by telling three stories, the two we just heard and the well known Prodigal Son, which we read back in Lent. But here we have a story about a shepherd and a housekeeper. Notice I didn’t say we had a story about a lost sheep and a lost coin. The important part of both stories is what the main character does.

And, simply put, the main character—the shepherd and the housekeeper—searches. They search, they find, they rejoice with their friends and neighbors. They do not necessarily set good examples. Is it such a good idea to leave the 99 sheep by themselves to go off searching for one? No, not really. And the woman, well today we would probably diagnose her as having Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Let it go, it’s just a coin.

But the main characters are not just anybody. They, of course, are God. And this is what God does with us, Jesus is saying. This is how diligently God will stick with someone even if they have been labeled a sinner. So Jesus says

Just so I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.

At first glance it may seem that by saying that Jesus is just going back to playing the same game as the Pharisees. But that isn’t true. By this time he has undone them. He’s taken the power out of the label “sinner” by saying that one can recover from it—and at God’s initiative! And when is the moment of repentance in the stories? If you blink, you’ll miss it. It is, I think, when the sheep knows it has been found and decides not to run any more, but accepts the shepherd’s lifting it up and carrying it home.

We usually think of repentance as some kind of awful, prolonged groveling, confession, self-abasement, solemn promises of reform, etc. No. It is simply saying, “Thank you for finding me. You can carry me home now.”

Jesus, and later Paul, turn the label “sinner” into a universal. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” Paul says in Romans (3:23). And Paul, interestingly enough, never calls anyone a sinner unless he is talking about absolutely everybody or simply himself. And in the Acts of the Apostles, the biblical story of the early Christian movement, the word “sinner” is never spoken.

It seems that early Christians gave up the label. Unfortunately, over time, it came back with a vengeance and we out-Phariseed the Pharisees. I’ve been called a “sinner” a time or two. I’ve had people refuse to receive Communion with me because I am a sinner. But I never have understood why I am more of sinner than those people. Paul also said in Romans, “There is no one who is righteous, not even one” (3:10). Doesn’t that mean we are all on a level playing field when it comes to sin? Or maybe I just don’t understand the Bible? Seems to me Paul said it, I believe it, that settles it J.

The truth is labels of any kind do not work well if you are going truly to love people, which is what Jesus said was the point of the whole enterprise. “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34). We can’t entirely live without labels. We do have to use them to describe ourselves, but the older I get the less and less inclined I am to do so.

Let me tell you my vision of this parish. It’s my vision so you don’t have to agree with it. But I wonder if we could be the church where labels don’t work anymore. We haven’t banned their use, but we take great care when we must use them not to do so in any way that implies the denigration of another. To do so would be taking seriously the vow of our baptismal covenant, “We will respect the dignity of every human being.”

“The Church where labels don’t work anymore.” Mull that over. Pray over it, and tell me what you think.

In the meantime let us rejoice because when we are lost we are found. Let us, by coming to this Table, say to God, “Thank you, now take me home.”

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