... Ecclesiastes 2:26 ...
Cast your bread upon the waters,
for you will find it after many days.

Pentecost 17 Year C, Message September 15th, 2013

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly!

Text: Jeremiah 4:11-21,22-28; Psalm 14; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10

With apologies to Clint Eastwood and all cowboy genre movie fans, I have entitled my sermon today, “The Good, the Bad and the ugly!” In fact as we listen to the four readings it cannot be denied that the title aptly describes the various situations, people and circumstances.

In Jeremiah's time the people had turned far from God to the point of no longer being amenable to a chastising word or a corrective action. They had gone to the very brink of self-destruction. God accuses the children of Israel of being skilled only in doing evil. They have become foolish stupid children bent only on egocentric gratification. Corrective measures, sorting of good from bad, warnings of punishment have long since passed. The judgement has been issued and the penalty is about to engulf the nation. This will be no breeze, not even a storm! This will be the hurricane winds and the tornadoes which will destroy all in the path!

Likewise in the psalm the author declares the listeners to be fools who go about their lives as if there were no God. While there are always those who deny the existence of God, the psalmist is addressing his audience as those who know God but who choose to act as if there would be no reckoning for their deeds. Again the people have strayed from the paths of righteousness; they have been living in perverse ways, paying no heed to the plight of the poor or the desolate; they have lived as if there was no-one but self. Humanity has forgotten their relationship with God and have followed the paths of the evil one.

Yet all is not lost! Despite the total despair both Jeremiah and the psalmist pronounce there is the hint that God in Divine mercy and goodness will not un-create the universe but will spare it and make anew another covenant. God the good will overcome humanity, the bad.

This is the witness of Paul in his letter to Timothy. Paul, who had seen himself as the epitome of Pharisaic righteousness himself confesses his ignorance and his unbelief. He had been one of the bad – no! One of the ugly. He confides that but for the Grace of God and the faith and love that are Christ Jesus, he would have remained as such. God’s love and goodness altered his path and he now professes his unwavering acceptance of what God has accomplished in him as an apostle to the Gentiles and an example of Divine design for humanity.

While on the surface the Gospel parables do not appear to be more than Jesus’ telling of the Goodness of God’s nature, a closer look reveals a great deal more. True, the last sheep and the coin do represent the sinners and tax collectors and in a way Jesus’ ministry to them as the shepherd or woman. On another level however Jesus sees the scenario wherein God is the shepherd and the woman searching for the lost sheep or coin and that he himself is but the messenger or implement of that search. Upon still deeper examination one can see another tale – a story of the good the bad and the ugly.

In the past several weeks we have been witness to Jesus’ confrontation with the religious leaders of his day and how he has been trying to open their minds to see beyond the constraints of institutionalized religion. Again this week we witness to the same setting. The circumstances are slightly different but the basics are similar.

Jesus this week is teaching and the common folk – those whom many would deem to be at the bottom of society’s ladder of desirables – have come to listen. The Pharisees and scribes are also present and, like the elite of every social group, begin to complain about the audacity of cross social class integration. And so Jesus tells them a parable. No longer is the audience the common people – now the object of the lesson is the elite. We are directed to look no longer at the state of humanity but rather the picture of the elite. Drawing these religious leaders in by asking them, “which one of you…?” Jesus forces them into the parable. They are no longer voyeurs. They cannot stand on the side line and quip about Jesus’ ministry and God’s desire to approach the common people. They are now in it up to their necks. And the scene is not pretty!

Yes, it is true that by the very nature of the setting we are bidden to see the tax collectors and sinners as the lost sheep or the lost coin and that Jesus is the messenger of God’s design. Thus there is the natural tendency to extrapolate the lostness of human nature over against the Good of God. What we forget and overlook is our knee jerk understanding as the audience of the parable – the in crowd – the religious leaders, the ones who deem themselves the spiritual keepers of the law. By the very artful story telling Jesus has drawn these leaders into the reality of the world and then abruptly cuts the legs out from under them. Not only does he confront them with their own hypocrisy but accuses them of being ugly – all it seems without their realization that he has done so!

Twice we see that the Pharisees are compared with the angels of heaven or the neighbours in the cause. Unlike the angels and neighbours who rejoice and celebrate at the finding of that which was lost, the Pharisees and scribes are seen to grumble. The very ones who delight in their position as keepers of the law, who purport themselves as the elite of spiritual excellence and who trumpet their ideals of covenant keepers are exposed as the very barriers to God’s will and design. Not only are they equally as bad as the ordinary fold – their hypocrisy and their blockade of Jesus’ ministry is to be seen as ugly.

And so we have the good the bad and the ugly. I cannot speak for any of you but for myself. As I read and re-read this lesson for today, I like to see myself among the redeemed. Yet the realization strikes me that I am still among the bad and even more disturbing is that I fear that I can often be numbered among the ugly. Not very comfortable! But all is not lost; there is hope and there is good news. The good news is that God is still active; the scriptures still speak to us opening our minds and souls to realities we might never have otherwise dreamt of. In so doing we are called to see ourselves to contemplate our ways and to repent or turn back; and in turning back to God, journey from the ugly to the bad and from the bad to the redeemed; to once again live in covenant and be the cause of such celebration and joy among the angels and the heavenly courts.

May we never become the obstacles to God’s will or design; may we see our faults and may we ever be found by the shepherd of our salvation.