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Lost and Found

Scripture: Luke 15:1-10

When I was about 5 years old, my parents had to do some shopping in the city near where we lived, and so they took me with them to a large department store. My dad needed to go to one side of the store to pick up some things, and my mom needed to go to the other. And in the confusion of the moment, my mom assumed that little 5 year old Nathan, cute as can be, had gone with my father - and my dad assumed that little 5 year old Nathan, cute as can be, had gone with my mother.

After they had finished picking up the items they needed, my mom and dad found each other and quickly discovered that their youngest son was lost.

No sooner had they begun to point fingers and panic, as any normal parent might do in this situation, the intercom came on over the store, and a voice called out - “Would the parents of Nathan Hill please come to the front of the store. YOU ARE LOST.”

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This morning, I want to claim the good news that Jesus is calling out across the intercom of life to all people, “YOU ARE LOST.”

Calling out to those who are lost in unfulfilling work
    calling out to those who are lost in regret and shame because actions that have hurt others
        calling out to those who are lost in fear and despair in this world of violence, terror, and injustice
            calling out to those who are lost in their search for truth, love, and purpose

Jesus knew lost people well and it often got him into trouble.

In our scripture this morning, the Pharisees and scribes criticize Jesus for spending too much time with the lost, with the wrong kind of people, with sinners and tax collectors. Now, I know some of you in here may have worked for the Internal Revenue Service as a contractor, but tax collectors in Jesus’ day were not like tax professionals in our day (I hope). They were known as cheats, as people without integrity, who would take a little extra for themselves to benefit an unjust system.

Likewise, “sinners” is a broad term, but it means Jesus was hanging out with the people better left to the Lost & Found box. People who deserved to be lost. The kind of people you didn’t invite over for dinner, and you didn’t trust.

According to the wisdom of the day, you became like the company you would keep, so the more Jesus hung out with these good for nothings, the more it seemed to reflect on Jesus’ lack of character, at least according to the Pharisees and scribes. If Jesus was truly righteous, he would hang out with other holy people, not those dropouts or gang members or Wall Street bankers or Dallas Cowboy fans or whoever.

Jesus hears this criticism and decides to push back by telling a couple of stories. These stories are unusual stories - we call them parables. Parable sounds like a fancy word, but it means a story with meaning, a story that offers us a glimpse of the character of God. Our Children’s Worship & Wonder curriculum teach our kids that parables have lids - they need to be opened to discover their meaning. Writer Richard Beck makes a case that parables tell us who God is and what the God’s community looks like. These are stories that can change us if we aren’t careful.

In both stories, Jesus talks about things that are lost.

In the first parable, Jesus describes a peculiar shepherd with a herd of 100 sheep who leaves the 99 that are safe and accounted for to go out and search high and low for one sheep that goes missing. If any of you have ever worked in retail business, you know that most businesses expect that some products get damaged or go missing - you account for it. But this shepherd wasn’t having any of that - he didn’t give up until he found that one wayward sheep. When he found it, he placed that sheep on his shoulders and came dancing home, calling to all of his friends, inviting them to celebrate the good news that this sheep that was lost is now found.

In the second parable, Jesus talks of a widow with ten coins who loses one. Relentlessly, she sweeps and scours her house, looking in the deep dark corners of her couch and between the seats of her car until she finds it. A more rational person might have shrugged their shoulders and expected a single coin to turn up in the laundry, but this widow doesn’t rest until the wayward coin is accounted for. When she finds it, she calls to her neighbors and throws a wild party for what was lost is now found.

In both parables, Jesus makes this point - God and all the angels in heaven throw a party when one sinner who was lost turns their life around. God’s agenda of grace isn’t about rewarding those who have it all together. God’s agenda is about relentlessly pursuing and searching for those who have been abandoned, forgotten, and shuffled off in the Lost & Found boxes of our world.

Earlier in his ministry in Luke 5:32, Jesus tells the same critics, the same Pharisees and scribes, “I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.”

Deeper than that, Jesus challenges those same Pharisees and scribes - and challenges us - to understand the depths of God’s love for this hurting world. Are we going to stand there grumbling and judging, or will we join in the celebration when someone who was lost finds their way home? Do we get excited when one who has made a mess of their lives turns to God and turns their life around?

These parables remind us that God is love, and when God sent Jesus into this world, that love became flesh. And Jesus spent almost all of his time with people who were considered lost and rejected, over and over again reminding them and telling them that they are loved. They are worthy. That someone is calling their name.

Scripture doesn’t tell us what happened to these grumbling Pharisees and scribes, but maybe a few of them began to rethink things. Maybe that day the alternative wisdom of Jesus’ parables pierced their hardened hearts and they began to realize that they were more like those tax collectors and sinners than they first realized. Though they knew scripture and saw themselves as faithful believers, maybe they realized they were missing something.

The Apostle Paul in Romans 3:23 makes the bold claim that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”

Paul’s profound theological statement isn’t to condemn us as awful and worthless - but remind us that we all know what it is like to be lost. We all know what it is to sin. We all know what it is to fall short. We all know what it is like, in some way, to be placed into this world’s Lost & Found box.

Paul’s statement instead affirms that all of us need Jesus.

Even the scribes and Pharisees.

Especially those who think they’ve got God figured out.

My colleague Rev. Nathan Day Wilson said it this way on Twitter recently, “If you want to be assured of being wrong, try to determine the boundaries of God’s grace.”

Our spiritual journeys should always begin and end in humility, aware of our need to be found, aware that there is so much more of God’s love available than we can imagine.

Psalm 136 says, “O, give thanks to the Lord, for God is good, and God’s mercy endures forever.”

Our invitation as a church and as people is to proclaim and join in with this divine mercy that endures the scandals and brokenness of our world and lives.

Can we live with more humble gratitude for those we encounter, putting away our self-righteousness and seeing the image of God even in those who we think have chosen the wrong paths in life?

Can we be the kind of a church that doesn’t go looking for respectable people with good resumes and spiritual lives that are neat and tidy but delights in hanging out with all the wrong kinds of folks in hopes that God might turn their life and our lives around?

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I heard a story from a pastor recently about a moment of transformation in his life. He was in college, studying to be an engineer, and things were good. He was interning for a large government contractor, making electronic components. The company was offering him a job. He would make more money than his parents ever had. But something wasn’t right - he learned, for instance, that the components he would make were going on smart bombs and that didn’t exactly sit well with his Christian values to love your neighbor. But it more than that - something was missing in his life.

One day, he was walking past campus on a street lined with bars, when a stranger called out to him, asking for help. This stranger looked like he had just blown in from out of town with a few belongings to his name, the smell of alcohol on his breath. This college kid instantly thought - oh no, he’s going to ask me for something. He’s going to scam me.

But by some compassion, the student began an exchange with this stranger who was trying to figure out how to get to a halfway house. He had just been released from prison, and he wanted to get his life back on track. The two sat and talked for a long while, sharing a little bit of their stories, opening up to each other. The longer they talked, the more comfortable they got. Finally, as the conversation began to wind down and the evening turned to night, the stranger asked this young man to pray for him. And he did, offering the best prayer he could come up with as he clasped this stranger’s hands. As they parted ways, this college kid took his last $20 in his pocket and handed it to this man to help him on his way.

The pastor realized in that moment, that he had met someone who by all accounts the world would regard as lost, someone who had done wrong and should be distrusted and kept at arm’s length - but in that exchange, the two realized how much they had in common. Two lost human beings created in the image of God, looking for help to find a way home, a way to hope, a way to wholeness.

That college kid would go on to turn down that job offer and enroll in seminary to serve a God who loves the lost.

I don’t know if you came to worship today expecting to be told that you are lost, but God is calling out over the intercom of this world and your life. “Would you come down to the front? YOU ARE LOST.”

And even more scandalous, would you join our Living God in creating a world where no one is lost, where all human beings, all colors, backgrounds, and stories, are loved and affirmed?

Will you join in the heavenly celebration when even one of God’s children finds their way home?
 

(posted September 15, 2019)

Does God have your back?

Scripture: Psalm 71:1-6

This week has felt like a week of storms.

- Hurricane Dorian is turning towards Georgia and the Carolinas.
- More gun violence in west Texas and in communities close to home
- Continued protests in Hong Kong
- Political scandals, a burning Amazon…

And here we are, caught up in the midst of these storms, desperately looking for something to hold on to, sometimes wondering who has our back in these difficult days.

About twenty years ago, the Hollywood blockbuster Twister came to theaters, detailing the risky lives of tornado chasers in Oklahoma, scientists who go toward twisters to try to understand them in the name of science. In the climactic scene of the film, the two main characters are stuck just as a tornado turns in their direction, so they manage to run into a well shed, tie themselves to the pipes from the well, and hang on as the tornado blows right over them.

And literally, the final scene is them holding on for dear life.

Like any Hollywood movie, there is truth to the fiction. I grew up in Oklahoma, and we were taught that going to a room in your house with plumbing, where the pipes were embedded into the ground, gave you a better chance of surviving a tornado. Because the house there was a little more fixed in the ground. Connected to something solid.

Right now, with everything going on in our world and our lives, too many days can feel like we are desperately holding on to anything as the storms of turmoil and conflict threaten to engulf us. Some of you have shown up for worship this morning because there is a tragedy or crisis in your family, and you don’t know where else to turn. Some of you might feel like this country or this world is on sinking sand. Maybe it’s your faith in God, that hope persists in all the madness.

What do we hold on to when the storm blows past us?

Who will we cling to when the world shakes?

Who has our back?

Psalm 71 makes clear - God has our back.

Psalms are the ancient hymnal of the Jewish faith. What makes them so special is their complete honesty as they talk about and to God. Some Psalms are prayers of joy and celebration and gratitude, and some are angry laments for when life has gone horribly wrong. Often, many Psalms demand God show up in desperate situations or ask God to be there, like a rock, when life seems uncertain.

Don’t ever let anyone shame you if you need to cuss out God or demand something of God - the Psalmists did it way before you!

Psalm 71, which we reflect on today, follows a repeated pattern through the whole passage - asking for help from God and then an expression of trust in God. Help then trust. Help me, God, but I do trust in you.

The key image is one woven throughout all of the Bible - God is our rock.

God as a rock is kind of a puzzling thought, but for these ancient Hebrew people, rocks were the primary feature of their terrain. Rocks shaped their landscape. Rocks served as guide points and hazards. Rocks could be hiding places and resting places. Rocks could be a shelter in the midst of a storm. Rocks could provide shade and boundaries and permanence in a world that changed rapidly around them.

So when the Psalmist asks God for help - help against shame and turmoil - help while enemies seem out to get them - a rock seems a fitting image. A rock is stronger and longer lasting than the short term violence of this day. A rock can get in between an enemy and their target. A rock is a sign of strength and majesty.

Hear verse 3 again:

“Be to me a rock of refuge,
a strong fortress, to save me,
for you are my rock and my fortress.”

God as a rock, likewise, points to the Divine’s strength. God is majestic. God is long lasting. God is prepared to step in even the mightiest storms and provide shelter amidst 150 mph winds and earthquakes and fire. God is prepared to save the weary traveler from bandits and wolves. God is ready to back up those who feel abandoned and alone, serving as a sure foundation when all else seems out of control.

What the Palmist gets right is that life is hard. And life is hard even for those who believe in God. The storms of life, tornadoes, hurricanes, chaos, scandals, and disruption, bring uncertainty and pain. Too often, churches paint faith as a step from a hard life to an easy one - or one where everything is chaotic to one where everything has order, but the Psalmist is not telling lies here. Following God can be difficult.

Sometimes, by loving who God loves, by living the way God would have us live, by trying to live lives of justice, we go into the eye of storm and not away from them.

We become storm chasers in our pursuit and worship of God.

God becomes our rock, our firm foundation, to anchor us in the midst of chaos, violence, and confusion.

If you read the whole of Psalm 71, you see all the situations where God is prepared and has backed up those who love and seek God.

God backs us up when enemies choose to hurl harsh words or take revenge. God backs us up when we get things wrong and stumble about. God backs us up when we feel alone and afraid. God backs us up when we are ensnared in systems of injustice, when nothing seems to be going right. God backs us up when we are young - God backs us up even when our hair is grey, when our bodies get old and weary.

Psalm 71 reminds us that we can call God our rock because our Creator is worthy to be trusted.

One definition of trust that I read recently is - “feeling safe when vulnerable”.

One of my mentors, our former regional minister, Rev. Lari Grubbs, would always say that the opposite of faith is not doubt. We all doubt our faith from time to time.  We all struggle. The opposite of faith is mistrust. Faith then is placing our trust in God. The Psalmist in our scripture is telling us that placing your trust in God is worth it - God is there even when the storms rage and you are holding on for dear life.

God can be counted on.

God is the rock we grip onto when the storms of this world are threatening to overwhelm and snatch us away.

In God, we discover an incredible care even when everything else seems uncertain.

When we are able to trust in God - even when that is really hard, God is there - God has our back.

Perhaps in your life right now, you are struggling to place your trust in God. You see the storms, and you feel an urge to dash into their midst to be the hands and feet of Christ. But you aren’t sure. Maybe you have experienced failure. Maybe life and work and family are not going as smoothly as you hoped they might. Maybe there are simply too many storms. 

How do we restore our trust in God?

One strategy might be to go to God with our vulnerability and express, like the Psalmist does, our need of help, our frustration, and our hope for how God might show up. To speak our own prayer of help and trust, help and trust.

God, I’m not sure you really are calling me to do this. Will you help me? You are my rock and my salvation.

God, my family is a hot mess at the moment, and I don’t know what to say or do. Save me! In you, I trust I will find the words.

This world is burning God. We can’t breathe. Too many people are hurting. How can I hope? Creator of All Things, I praise you even in this storm, for You are the shelter we need.

Pray like the Psalmist here - pray for help and pray for God to be your rock, to continue to back you up.

In verse 6, the Psalmist recognizes that God has been there all the days of their life - even from the womb, even from birth. We are encouraged to think of God’s presence - not just in hard times or not just good times - but in all moments, God waiting to back us up and get us through.

As a church, our mission too is to go out this week and back other people up with this good news.

I don’t ever want us to take for granted the work we do as a church - caring for our children and youth - caring for neighbors in need through the Day Center or Community Place Cafe - being partners with amazing people and organizations in our neighborhood. When we do this work of compassion and action, we are letting people know that we are backing them up in the midst of their storms. We are making known a God who is not just our rock - but the rock for all people.

Think of the number of college students this week who are going to face hard and lonely moments in their journey. Think of the people in our own community facing difficulty paying bills. Think of our teachers who are going to face crowds of students and hope they can help those young people grow. Think of those who will face a personal crisis this week - a hospital trip, a death, a job loss.

And our work isn’t confined to this neighborhood but to the world. How do we back up a hurting world?

Is our mission as a church just to stay here in this nice sanctuary, in the shadow of the Almighty Rock, or are we to go into the eyes of those storms and bring the good news that the world needs to hear?

Be our rock, O God. Save us. Save this world.

Thanks be to God.

(posted September 3, 2019)

New Series: Stories that Change Us

Hey Jesus, tell me a story.

Clearly according to the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, Jesus was a storyteller.

Sure, he healed people, did remarkable actions of compassion and protest, and mystified his followers - but he also told wonderful, frustrating, bizarre, and life-changing stories. We call them parables. More than just stories and good yarns, these nuggets offered their hearers alternative ways of understanding God, mercy, compassion, justice, and our world.

Sometimes, Jesus said it plainly, like when he said, “Love your enemies.”

But sometimes, it seemed that Jesus needed to tell a story to get his point across, so the parable of the Good Samaritan exemplified that even our enemies or those people we think are awful can embody neighborly love in ways that those who are holy or righteous don’t get.

Jesus’ parables challenge those who hear and read them - do you get it? Do you get what kind of community Jesus is building? Do you get what it means to follow and live the way of Christ? They challenge us to go deeper, to go beyond the surface, and to try to understand what Jesus and God are up to in our world.

Starting on September 15, we are embarking on a short series to explore a few of these parables that are life-changing:

September 15 - Luke 15:1-10 - The Parable of the Lost Sheep
September 22 - Luke 16:1-13 - The Parable of the Dishonest Manager
September 29 - Luke 16:19-31 - The Rich Man and Lazarus

In addition to our series in worship, we’ll study of these parables during our Discussion Hour at 9:30 AM. Come enjoy some coffee, and ask questions as we think about the stories that change us and help us be better neighbors. I’ll be inviting a few of you to share some of your own life-changing stories that shape who you are. I especially hope we can pay attention to the various stories that our cultures give us that define us. How do Jesus’ story differ or challenge some of our cultural stories?

One of the most important stories of our church comes from Jesus’ command to Peter to “build my church”. Those words are the same command that founders of University Christian Church took to heart over 60 years to dream of and launch our community of faith. Because they pursued the story that God was prepared to do something wonderful in this community, we have been able to share the way of Jesus to so many individuals, families, youth, and neighbors in need. 

Join us this fall as we continue to live that good news out in our neighborhood. And invite a friend!

— Rev. Nathan Hill

(posted August 30, 2019)

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