Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Lost Sheep: Where are we in this parable

Luke 15:1-10
Where do we see ourselves in today’s parable of the lost sheep?
Are we the shepherd?
His sheep are his livelihood, and he takes pride in his flock, all of his time is devoted to their care and protection.  They are the reason he is out there at all.  So he is shocked to discover that one of his sheep has gone missing.  He is at a loss as to what to do.  The Shepherd looks at his flock and thinks, “I have the rest of my sheep, I don’t want to lose any more of them, if I go to look for the lost sheep I will be leaving the whole flock unprotected, perhaps it would be best to cut my losses, accept that the sheep is gone and move on…” that would certainly be the sensible thing to do. But he cannot shake his anxiety over that lost sheep.  He knows that he is risking a lot by leaving the flock, but he can’t soothe that ache inside, that feeling of total loss at the absence of that one sheep.  He imagines how scared that sheep must be, and he just can’t let it stay out there in the wilderness by itself, it will not survive on its own.  So he makes up his mind and heads off to look for his sheep.
Or are we the lost sheep?
When I picture the parable of the lost sheep, it is not the meek little lamb who I imagine as the one who gets lost.  No, the lost sheep is the one who wasn’t paying attention, the daydreamer or maybe even the bad seed of the flock. I imagine this particular sheep wandering about, getting distracted by something shiny, spending more time in her own head rather than on the world in front of her, and so she doesn’t even notice that she is suddenly all alone.  Or perhaps she is the sheep who thinks “I don’t need a shepherd, I don’t need a flock, I am just fine on my own.”  So she goes off by herself and maybe for a while this sheep is fine, she is having fun exploring all the different tastes and smells out there in the world.  
She is enjoying the freedom, the autonomy of being a lone sheep.  But eventually it starts to get cold, and dark and all the noises are unfamiliar and she starts to think about all the things she took for granted, the warmth of her fellow sheep and the comforting sounds of her shepherd, the security of knowing that she will be led to water and grass, that she is protected from predators, all these things that never meant anything to the sheep start to mean everything.   She lays down, scared, and alone, perhaps she is resentful of the flock, feeling sadly justified in all her suspicions that the shepherd never really cared about her, that she didn’t really belong with that flock at all, perhaps she started to think she deserves to die all alone in the wilderness, she thinks that no one would miss her, anyway.  And then she hears that all too familiar whistle, the sound of her shepherd, her guide and guardian.  But she is paralyzed with fear, with despair, and cannot cry out, cannot run to him.  But suddenly he is there next to her.  He is smiling, and tears are running down his face, and he whispers to her comfortingly.  And she finds herself being lifted up over his shoulders as he carries her home. 
Perhaps we the flock of 99 sheep who are left behind…
As they watch their Shepherd walk off into the wilderness are they resentful of that troublesome little sheep?   Or do they know that one of their own has gone missing?  Or perhaps all they know is the anxiety of being without their shepherd, so they huddle together, taking comfort in each other and they wait. And when they see the shepherd approach do they resent the shepherd for leaving and scorn the sheep who wandered off?  Or do they rejoice at their return and know that if they too were ever lost the shepherd would not hesitate to come after them as well?
So where do we see ourselves in this parable?
When I think about where I see myself in the parable of the lost sheep, my first instinct is to assume I am one of the 99 who are not lost, after all, here I am trying to be a leader in a Christian community, here we all are, where we should be on a Sunday morning worshiping God among other Christians praying for the world, doing our best to live a life centered on Christ.  But as I say that, I am instantly stung by the thought that if I am one of the 99, it is in a Pharisaical way.  After all, how often do I forget that the lost are actually part of the flock as well, and that it is my job to rejoice when they are found?
I suppose that means I am actually one of the lost, I am that obstinate and obstreperous little sheep who is constantly wandering off, or running away from my shepherd.   In the passage from Exodus we hear about God’s own people that he rescued out of Egypt, they were God’s chosen people, but they too were lost.  When we find ourselves in a group of likeminded folk we try to convince ourselves that we have found where we belong, that we know exactly where we are, but I fear the reality is that we are constantly wandering off and in need of rescuing.
It is pretty obvious that God is the Shepherd in this parable, but if we can see ourselves as part of the 99 and we can see ourselves as the lost sheep, can we see ourselves as the shepherd as well?  Jesus asks the Pharisees “which one 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?”  We know what the answer should be, “of course we would go and look for the lost sheep” but the reality is that reason tells us not to risk losing the entire flock by leaving them to search for the one. To do so would be totally illogical.  All reason says that the good of the one does not outweigh the good of the many, that you do not risk the well being of the 99 to save just one. 
But love is not reasonable and God’s love for us is particularly lacking in logic.  There is a saying in the Talmud “if you save one life you save the world,” God is like that, we each mean that much to God, we see that love in the incarnation and in the cross.  God mourns our loss and aches for our return and risks everything to have us with him.  Do we have it in ourselves to do the same?  Can we risk everything for love of another?  Can we display that unreasonable, illogical kind of love in our own lives by walking into the wilderness to search for the lost, no matter who the lost one is?  To go back into the wilderness to search for the lost, means having complete faith in God’s love for us.  It means knowing that we are indeed sought and looked after by God and that if we get lost too we will not be lost for long. 

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Humility: The Root of all Righteousness

Text: Luke 14:1, 7-14
Yet again we find Jesus at the home of a Pharisee eating a Sabbath meal.  And while the Gospel says that “they were watching him closely” it becomes pretty clear that Jesus was watching them closely as well.  

You may notice there are some verses missing from the Gospel lesson this morning.  In that gap Jesus performs a healing, and not unlike last week’s Gospel, Jesus challenges the lawyers and the Pharisees about the way they keep Sabbath, and how they treat the less fortunate.  While the lectionary chooses to leave this section out, it is not completely unrelated to the rest of the passage.  Jesus sees their disapproval of his healing, then notices them scrambling for seats, and he sees rather clearly that while they may be the religious leaders of the community, they are far more interested in gaining earthly honors than they are in showing mercy, or honoring God.  The same can be said for the host who only invites people who can repay him, his ideas about who is acceptable to eat with is determined by his pride.

As the guests vie for the best seats in the house, Jesus tells them a parable loosely based on Proverbs 25:6-7.  On the surface this parable seems to be about avoiding public embarrassment in a social gathering by acting in a humble manner so that they may be honored in front of their peers.  By itself this seems to promote the very hypocrisy of false humility that Jesus is known for criticizing.
But that is not what he is doing. He is not trying to teach this group a how to gain honor without risking the humiliation of rejection.  He is not trying to teach them “pride that apes humility,”[1] the parable he tells exposes their ridiculous behavior for the self indulgent display of pride that it truly is.  Jesus is well aware of their strategies for social living.  He is well aware of how they twist scripture into prideful games of status.  We see it over and over again in the Gospels, the way they make spectacles of themselves in prayer and fasting so that everyone can see how pious they are, they tithe out of their abundance but they use the Sabbath and cleanliness laws as excuses not to show kindness and mercy to others, all their focus is on looking as if they are pious and God fearing, while inside they are consumed with pride and selfishness. 

So Jesus tells them, “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”  

There is a distinction made here between ‘being humbled’ and ‘humbling yourself.’  The connotation made by the parable is that one leads to humiliation while the other leads to humility.

We all probably know humiliation pretty well, even the slightest act of humiliation can feel devastating, and we are quick to learn to avoid it at all costs.  We often employ our pride to keep humiliation at bay, but what we fail to realize is the only true antidote to humiliation, is humility. 
So what does humility really look like?

The most obvious place to look for an example is at Jesus.  God became incarnate in the world, lowering himself more than we could ever lower ourselves.  Becoming human, God, shows us what it truly means to be humble.  In Christ God reached down towards us and became what we are in order to save us, in order to be a blessing to the entire world.  In Christ’s life we see true humility in action.  There is no guile in his words or deeds, he does not seek status or personal gain, instead he focuses his attention outward, toward those in need. Towards us.
Of course we can never match Christ in his perfection, but we can at least see in him the honest sense of self, and genuine altruism, that make up a humble nature.  Jesus is free of petty disputes and unimportant concerns that are fueled by pride and a desire for status or personal recognition. 
We don’t know where Jesus was sitting at the banquet table, and honestly I don’t think Jesus cared.  He would not feel the sting of shame at being asked to move down, or the exultation at being asked to move higher up.  He was not concerned with such trifles.  He was not embarrassed by the company he kept or by the scorn and derision of his detractors.  There is no pride in him to get wounded.
But I think we are often more like the Pharisees than we are like Jesus.  We want to be noticed and respected.  We want to spend time with ‘acceptable’ people, even if we choose not to admit it we ARE prideful.  But even more than that, we far, far too often we mistake self-hatred for humility.   If humility is thinking less of yourself then there are many of us who feel as if we couldn’t get more humble.

But, self-hatred is a poor imitation of true humility and, while it may not seem like it, it is actually just another form of pride.  Self aggrandizement and self-loathing are really just two sides of the same coin.  Just like self exultation, self loathing is focused on the self in an unrealistic way, we cannot truly be humble if we don’t possess a true sense of ourselves.

Thomas Merton, who says quite a lot about humility, writes, “A humble person can do great things with an uncommon perfection because he is no longer concerned about incidentals, like his own interests and his own reputation, and therefore he no longer needs to waste his efforts in defending them.” Humility frees us from constantly having to grasp outside of ourselves for validation.  When we let ourselves believe that we are loved by God, then we no longer have to pretend to be something we are not.  We can be who God made us to be.  When we are no longer constantly distracted by the anxiety of keeping up appearances, then we are truly free to live with joy and conviction. 
This is what humility allows for us.

You probably have heard the saying that “pride is the root of all evil.”  Well, I tend to believe that is true.  And the opposite seems equally true.  Humility is the root of all righteousness. It is humility that allows us to be truly present for another, to have compassion and mercy.  It is humility that allows us to truly love each other without reserve, and to be a blessing to each other, just as Christ is a blessing to the world.  

[1] Coleridge, Samuel Taylor “The Devil’s Thoughts.”