I’ve been in Kansas City over a month now–hooray! The kids at the school have figured out who I am, though the younger ones can’t pronounce my last name. On one of the early attempts, a kindergartner called me “Chaplain Chocolate” and that stuck–and even produced several drawings of a happy giant chocolate bar, clutching a cross, and holding the hands of children.
My apartment is nearly all unpacked. I have managed, several times, to get places without the aid of my GPS. I have even found good Thai, Indian, Middle Eastern, and BBQ places (though that last wasn’t hard at all).*
So as fall begins (and I had almost forgotten what Fall+Humidity felt like), Kansas City is feeling more like home.
Here’s what I said on Sunday.
September 15, 2013
Ordinary Time, Proper 14, Year C
My mother tells this story about the first time she met my father’s family. They had gone out for pizza at some local Italian restaurant, my father, my grandfather, who was a renowned chemistry professor, and my two uncles, and they were trying to decide what to order–a pizza to share, or several slices each? They asked the waitress, she had no opinion. Grandpa was perplexed. “Look,” he said, “It”s a simple math equation. What’s the price per square inch of pizza for each option? We need to maximize the value!”
My father nodded solemnly, and handed him a pen, and together, they bent over the cloth covering the table, and began to scribble equations for area and circumference on the tablecloth and menus. The waitress looked on, astonished.
And my mother, in telling the story, would pause here, and sigh. “And that was your grandfather. He WROTE on the TABLECLOTH.”
That was her takeaway from that story. Not so much that he committed a fauxpas, but that my grandfather was singleminded enough to write with a pen on the tablecloth in a restaurant.
This is not an inaccurate lesson to be learned from this story. My grandfather did do that.
But there’s other stuff in there too.
Things like Grandpa’s socially-awkward use of math. Or my father’s clear admiration of this quality. Or Grandpa’s insistence in showing his work to the the college-aged waitress, so she could learn too. (Because, as he put it, she worked there! She should know how much the pizza cost!)
People are complicated creatures. When we tell stories about them, the entirety of who a person is can’t be conveyed in a single reading of a story…which is why stories work so nicely. Each time you hear a story, more and more unfolds. More and more depths are there.
And if people are complicated…how much more complicated is God? If people are tough to adequately convey in soundbites, God is impossible.
So we should probably approach these parables today with some caution. Because parables are stories Jesus tells to explain God, and how God operates.
And because God is complicated, and..well, God, the parables aren’t just simple stories. They’re always a little bit odd. They’re like really short episodes of the Twilight Zone–if they make perfect sense to us, we’ve probably missed something, because there’s always a catch. Parables explain God in human terms…but they also explain how different God is from us. How other God is.
For example, how many among you, Jesus asks, having a flock of 100 sheep, and losing one, does not immediately leave the 99 in the wilderness to go hunt for the one lost sheep?
No one. The answer is no one would do that.
No shepherd in his right mind would leave 99 sheep to fend for themselves in the wilderness, not if he wanted to still have 99 sheep when he got back. You didn’t go chase the one sheep that was dumb enough to have wandered off in the first place; you double-checked the 99 sheep you still had.
Likewise, if you’ve only got 10 coins to begin with, and you lose one. You will search for the one you’ve lost, but you will probably wait til morning, and not waste expensive oil in your lamp. And, chances are, when you find it, you will not immediately throw an expensive party for all your friends in celebration. That’s only going to land you back on the street, with no coins. If you lose one of your 10 coins, you’re going to curse your luck, and lock up your remaining 9.
That’s the human response. But that’s not God’s response. God’s response, in Jesus’s telling, is to charge headlong after each and every one of us, regardless of the costs, regardless of the risk.
God comes after us, until we are back again, surrounded and convinced of the love of God. No matter what it takes. No matter the risk.
God is extravagant. Beyond what human logic says is prudent, God’s love is extravagant in these stories of Jesus. And that’s one thing we hear. God goes where humans dare not.
But another thing we hear is that God ends up in places that aren’t always safe. Aren’t respectable.
In both these parables, Jesus compares God to unusual, unpopular folks. No one liked shepherds. They didn’t get invited to dinner parties. They smelled bad, on account of the sheep they hung out with, and they were viewed with suspicion because who knew what they did all day, wandering around in the desert with wild animals? Shepherds were low class–the janitors, the fast food workers of the ancient world.
And women were women. Pretty much second class citizens with some rare exceptions that proved the rule.
And yet, this is the story Jesus tells about God. God is an extravagant shepherd who risks everything for a sheep. God is a poor woman who celebrates wildly upon finding a coin.
Instead of being distant and safe from humanity, instead of sitting in judgment from a safe distance from us, Jesus paints a picture of God who is immediately involved in the muck of our lives, in our world. A God who is intimately involved to the point of risk, to the point of suffering and loss, as a result of it.
And this is the God of the incarnation, after all. This is the God who so wanted to be with humanity, so wanted to partner with us, that God became human, lived a life on earth with us in the person of Jesus. Even when that choice meant bearing the worst of human misunderstanding, fear and violence. God doesn’t stand apart from the worst of us–God plunges right into the midst of it.
That’s what God does. God chases after us. Time and again. In ways that are surprising, and extravagant and that don’t quite make logical sense to us, God comes after us. In ways large and small. Collectively and individually, God comes after us. To be with us. To help us find our way back to the goodness we were created to be.
God dwells with us. In our ordinariness,in our plainness, and in our brokenness, God dwells with us in order to call us back to the creation we were made to be. In all it’s goodness and dignity of the image of God.
So no matter where our stories take us, however complex and complicated they get, no matter how broken or dark they end up–God always follows us. No matter where we are.
So no matter our story, the ending is always the same. Amen.
*I am still looking for a good Mexican place. Each time I try some place new, I discover ‘cheese sauce’ on a taco, and must restrain myself from calling down fire from the sky to consume this heresy against all right-thinking humans. However, good street tacos can be got in Westport, I discovered…just no mole. My search continues.