Lost in God's Mercy

Statistics have it that there are more than 105 million parking spaces in America. And Disney World alone has 46,000 of them. Now imagine arriving with your family in a rental car and hurriedly boarding the shuttle bus that takes you to your fantasy day. Late in the evening, tired, you arrive back to the transport area only to realize you don't remember where you parked the car - you don't have a clue what lot. The car is lost and you are stranded. But wait! Disney has an entire crew trained and ready to help reunite you with your vehicle. They will use every means imaginable in their task from calling your OnStar global positioning system to systematically driving up and down every aisle while you relentlessly push the panic button on the key chain hoping to hear the car go off. It may take minutes, or hours, but the reward is one exhausted, but joyously relieved family. Ready to party, probably not, but the fruit of the search is a happy continuation of a hard-earned vacation.

Now maybe that is not really a personal story for you, but you no doubt have lost and found stories that are particularly memorable in your life. Perhaps a momentarily lost child in a department store or while camping. Maybe you lost your wedding ring or stock certificates or that winning lottery ticket! But whatever your story, get in touch with and hang on to that sinking, hollow, empty feeling that accompanies such a loss. And, then transfer that feeling to God. God aches to find you - the real you - again.

Now, the question to ask is, why after all the millions and millions of human beings that God has brought into existence over the centuries would one - one more person matter so much? But that is the whole point of the scripture passage, isn't it? That kind of compassion is a God thing. The range of human caring is rather narrow, when you think about it. Thanks to the abundant coverage by the media, we have become a bit callous to suffering outside the US. And when violence is occurring in another city, we breathe a sigh of relief that it isn't happening here. And when it is happening here, we pray that it isn't someone we know.

I'm not saying this to put my fellow men and women to shame. Instead I'm saying, our hearts were not created to be that big. For one of us to care with the same depth of feeling for all the people in Venezuela, Trinidad, Russia, China, Alaska, etc. as we do our own brother or son would require an amazing amount of energy. In the movie, Jesus Christ Superstar, there is a scene where the sick and injured are so crowded around Jesus hoping to be touched that Jesus himself cries out, "There's not enough of me." But as we know there was and his whole life was given in the process.

So, what the writers of 1 Timothy, Luke, and the Psalm are trying to convey to us is God's amazing capacity for love. Paul used the word patience in describing that love. He is never afraid to tell about the kind of person he once was - about the anger, hatred, and violence that once came from him. How long it took for God to get through that misdirected passion. It wasn't that people hadn't told him about the cross and resurrection and witnessed to him about repentance and forgiveness. It was those very ideas that incited him to do such horrible things to the earliest Christians. What it took was the perseverance of the Father who had the patience to keep at it until he found the Paul underneath. You see, from the very beginning God created all of us so that he might enjoy our company. Revelation 4:11 says, You have created all things, and for your pleasure they are and were created. Even the prophet Isaiah talks about the people that God formed for himself that they might declare his praise.

This is what Jesus means when he describes the commitment of the shepherd and the woman seeking what is lost. God will go to great lengths to find you again. God longs for your presence at the dinner table. The interesting thing about the situation which prompts Jesus to tell these parables is that Jesus is telling them to people whose job, whose life's work was supposed to be caring for those who were lost. And, yet it was these very servants of God that had lost sight of their calling. Those very people were grumbling because Jesus was welcoming sinners into his presence and sharing a meal at their home. And, yet in each of these parables the finder asks those who are nearby to rejoice with them. Even the angels in heaven have joy when just one individual turns toward God.

This illustrates a human characteristic that can well be described as "self-serving greed." Let's look at the Psalm. If I counted correctly, words that describe the self are used about 21 times. Have mercy on me, wash me, cleanse me, purge me, create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. This is where it begins - with the one. With the individual who longs to get right with God and for whom God welcomes home with loving arms. With the person who finally recognizes their complicity with what is wrong in the world today. Who sees the layers of sadness, resentment, grief, anger and despair life has painted upon them. Who understand that there is something of great value deep down inside of them worthy of nurturing. The door is open, work on me God. And God does! Amen!

But then sin creeps back in disguise. Sin convinces us that God's forgiveness is conditional or exclusionary and suddenly the doors of grace are not as wide open as Jesus would have them be. The generations of Pharisaic responsibility had emerged in time to mean privilege and that was something to be guarded and protected instead of rejoiced over and shared. As religious authorities they recognized that allowing sinners and corrupt individuals into their midst was placing themselves and their community at risk and in danger. So, the obvious solution is to reject and exclude them for the community's own protection. But Jesus' solution was always to include sinners to restore and transform them to their place in God's family.

There's a Jewish story that I believe exemplifies this point. It tells of the good fortune of a hardworking farmer. The Lord appeared to this farmer and granted him three wishes, but with the condition that whatever the Lord did for the farmer would be given double to his neighbor. The farmer, scarcely believing his good fortune, wished for a hundred cattle. Immediately he received a hundred cattle, and he was overjoyed until he saw that his neighbor had two hundred. So he wished for a hundred acres of land, and again he was filled with joy until he saw that his neighbor had two hundred acres of land. Rather than celebrating God's goodness, the farmer could not escape feeling jealous and slighted because his neighbor had received more than he had. Finally, he stated his third wish: that God would strike him blind in one eye. And God wept.

What is it about some of us that we are not able to grant to others the same measure of joy in the Lord unless they have gone through the same process that we have? What is it about human nature that doesn't like it when someone else gets more than us, even though we have been blessed? The Pharisees had it all but they couldn't stand it when Jesus associated with the undesirables of Israelite society of 30 AD. Tax Collectors, demon possessed, lepers, poor people, women, even shepherds in New Testament times had a stigma of low class associated with them. But Jesus could sit and laugh with them and talk about God's kingdom having come among them even now. He asked them to proclaim God's mercy even though by law they were still sinners. These stories ask us to look at our world today and ask who it is that is not receiving the fullness of God's love, the fullness of life experiences ordained by God at creation, the fullness of mercy. Is it because society does not understand their situation, or because we fear what we have not experienced ourselves, or we are afraid of losing the person we have built ourselves into by learning something new about what it means to be alive or to be loved by God? These parables are NOT encouraging us to repent of our sins, but for the righteous to join the celebration when someone who is lost has turned their eyes toward God.

These parables ask us to examine our motives for any of our relationships. Are they based on merit or mercy? If we find it offensive that God would call the sinner into his fold because of mercy, then we are not able to celebrate with the angels. The parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin expose the grudging spirit that prevents many of us from receiving and enjoying God's mercy. Only those who can celebrate God's grace to others can experience that mercy themselves.

God seeks to peel back the layers and layers of human conditioning that covers our hearts so that we can understand the wideness of God's mercy that not only includes you and me, but the lost who have not yet been restored and returned to God's waiting embrace. Look around us and see who God is calling and open your hearts to new understanding.


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