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The sin of self-righteousness

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Theme: The sin of self-righteousness

Let us pray.

Most holy, Lord God, Jesus came to be with sinners and those in polite society with the religious authorities held them in contempt: help us see those who are marginalized in our time that we may welcome them as a sign of your love, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Yesterday, a small church of 50 people burned or tried to burn copies of the Quran. The pastor who is leading the charge of this act has never read the Quran. The evangelical pastors of Gainesville, Florida have urged him not to do this. Our generals have asked him not to do this, because it will place our troops in danger. The Pope, who I think Terry Jones has little regard for, asked him not to do this. Anyway, the list is long of those who have asked him to stop.

The Rev. Terry Jones said that God told him to do this. But he didn’t follow through with God’s direction, if it really did come form God. When asked if President Obama were to call him and ask him to not do this, he said no. He only respects former President George W. Bush. But even if George Bush called he would not relent. After a great deal of confusing statements and more publicity, Jones called off the book burning.

Obviously, I wrote this prior to the event happening so it may seem the future tense of something that happened yesterday. Why the uproar and why is this act wrong? First the secular argument. The first amendment to the constitution guarantees freedom of religion. It could be said that this act is un-American.

For the theological argument, Terry Jones claims that Jesus dictates his actions. But Jesus said that when struck, we should turn the other cheek. Jesus said we should forgive our enemies. But who are our enemies – all Muslims? We hear that Jesus associates with tax collectors and sinners. Would not Jesus welcome and eat with Muslims?

It turns out the Dove World Outreach Center (DWOC) is on the fringe of Christianity, not unlike militant Islam. The church has cult like tendencies such as: forbidding association with the opposite sex without permission, family members are to be cut out of members’ lives, including birthdays and holidays, students cannot eat in restaurants, and there are rules of personal hygiene.

This small church is now known in all the world. The pastor insists it is not a publicity stunt, but it sure has put this church on the map. Who said there is no such thing as bad publicity? We struggle to find ways to make Our Saviour more visible. Fahrenheit 451 anyone?

Is Terry Jones too self-righteous to discern that the voice telling him to burn copies of the Quran from God or from himself? The self-righteous always know the mind of God. Matthew calls them Pharisees.

Jesus was traveling along the countryside gathering large crowds anxious to hear him. Included in the crowd were tax collectors and sinners. And who is a sinner? In the Bible, a sinner is one who engages in idolatry, in other words one who worships something other than God. A sinner may also be one who is guilty of apostasy, which is denying the truth you already know.

The Pharisees were not pleased with the company that Jesus kept. After all, if Jesus wants to be one of them, he will have to stop hanging out with the less desirables. The scribes also joined the criticism saying Jesus not only welcomes sinners, but he will even eat with them! How disgusting! The Greek conveys the utter disdain they had for Jesus.

Jesus responds, as he often does to criticism, by telling them a parable. Let’s say you had 100 sheep. You discover that one is missing. Wouldn’t you leave the 99 others and go looking for the one that is missing and keep looking until you found it? What idiot would do such a thing? That must be what Jesus’ audience was thinking. Is Jesus really saying that you leave 99 sheep unprotected and go after a lost one? The height of stupidity! But then again, we are talking about shepherds.

Then when the shepherd finds it, he puts it on his shoulders and takes it home. He is elated! Still, the other 99 are still out there fending for themselves. Stupid shepherd. Still being elated, the shepherd calls and texts friends to come and celebrate. Then the shepherd thinks, what do I serve my friends when they come? “I know, I just found a sheep!”

So Jesus told them, it is the same way in heaven. There is more joy in heaven over one sinner who turns to God then 99 who do not need to. So, when you are heaven – don’t get lost! And stay away from barbeques! Oh, and don’t be too disappointed when no one cheers your deserved place in heaven.

In case they missed the point, Jesus told them another story. The previous one was more for men, so Jesus’ next story was for the women. What if a woman who has ten silver coins loses one? Won’t she light up the place, sweep the floor, and search in every conceivable space until she finds it?

Then when she finds it, she will call, text, and email everyone she knows, inviting them to a party to celebrate the finding of the lost coin. Then she will ask herself, “What will I serve my friends when they come over? I know, I just found a silver coin!”

A woman having ten silver coins in the ancient world would be a very wealthy woman. Was it an accident for Jesus to mention the woman’s wealth is evenly divisible in tenths? What she finds is one-tenth of what she has. What if she gave that coin away instead of spending it?

Jesus then says that the angels rejoice when even one person turns to God. What follows next in Luke, is one more lost story. That third story is more powerful than the other two and should really drive Jesus’ point home. That third story we heard earlier in the year, is the story of the Prodigal Son.

Jesus is giving us a picture of a God who cares for the lost. When we feel lost, when we feel God is distant or even gone, God will search for us. God will travel into the thicket of our being, of our soul, to bring us out. When we dig ourselves into a hole, God will pull us out.

God wants us to find our home and our home is with God. Lloyd J. Ogilvie had some clothes altered recently, in the course of which he met a Jewish-American tailor. The tailor told him about making a trip to Israel several years ago. The tailor said, “It’s a strange thing, pastor; I’ve never been there before. I’m not a religious man. I don’t go to the synagogue. But when I got off that plane in Israel, I said to my wife, ‘We have come home. We were meant to live in this place.’ Ever since then, I’ve been making plans to sell out and go there. I know I won’t live as well. I can’t make as much money and have as many comforts. But somehow, that’s home.” (In May, you can have your own experience of landing in Israel.)

The stories of a shepherd and of a woman are curious choices for Jesus. Both groups were held in low esteem in Jesus’ time. If the religious leaders object to Jesus’ company, then how much does God love a shepherd and a woman! Thousands of churches have stained glass images of the shepherd carrying the sheep over his shoulders. I’ll bet there are no churches with a woman holding a lost coin.

Jesus is inviting the Pharisees to accept the invitation to the party celebrating the finding of the lost. Jesus’ point is that in gathering sinners around him, we are joining the angels in their party in heaven. The prodigal’s older brother has the same contempt as the Pharisees do. Why would anyone refuse to celebrate with God? I think, only someone who is so sure of their own righteousness that God’s love and acceptance is unacceptable.

The sinners in this story are the ones who don’t consider themselves sinners. They are the ones who need their minds changed, who are in need of repentance. Rejoicing happens when a community or a parish is complete and there are no 99 and a one. Rejoicing happens when all are included and no one is lost. Jesus even has a male and female lead in each story. This is about people doing metanoia, turning from self to God.

Maybe Pastor Jones should invite Muslims to talk of their religion instead of burning books.

We now pray: Gracious God and giver of all good gifts, give us the gift of empathy and compassion, by which, we may come to learn and respect those we know little about, welcoming them and offering holy hospitality, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Text: Luke 15:1–10 (NRSV)

15 Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

3 So he told them this parable: 4 “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? 5 When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 7 Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

8 “Or what woman having ten silver coins,a if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? 9 When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ 10 Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

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