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Sermon – “Lost and Found” – March 10, 2013

Sermon for March 10, 2013                                           The First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

 

Lost and Found

Psalm 32;  2 Corinthians 5:  16 -21;  Luke  15:  1-3, 11b-32

We have our origins in relationships.  We are reared in some kind of family circumstance, schooled with classmates, play with playmates, kill time with one or more companions, and many of us have a work life which includes coworkers.  That’s not to mention the friendships we make around common interests or circumstances, or the other sorts of human connections we experience in romantic love or family life.  So on the one hand we are very social creatures.

On the other hand, ours is an individualistic culture.  We are living out the legacy of what influential writers of forty years ago called the “Me Generation” and “The Culture of Narcissism.”  People’s instincts are that they can acquire and discard elements in their lives to suit themselves, based less on other people’s expectations and traditions and more on their own contentment and desire.  The reality television that we watch because we find other human beings more interesting than we find anything else are peopled with individuals who are abrasive, egotistical, and superficial.  Kindness and cooperation, two of the essential ingredients for life in relationships, are not emphasized in our popular entertainment as much as are criticism and competition.

Americans have a split personality.  We are born requiring attention from others in order to develop healthy minds and hearts.  Our economic system’s reliance on competition produces material benefits but can lead to a winners and losers mentality, which undermines the sympathy and openness which makes it possible for people to communicate.  People who propagandize for competing political visions intensify the problem.

The scriptures we have today all relate to the human need for someone to talk to.  When we meet on the street and say “How are you?” it’s a shorthand way of saying “You matter.”  We might even be willing to listen, if we were asked to stop and do so, to how the person really is.  One of the saddest things that people reply to the question of how they’re doing is to say, “No use to complain.  No one would listen anyway.”

Well, we have a limited capacity to listen to complaining.  That’s true.  Either it gets on our nerves that we can’t do anything to address the person’s problems or it gets on our nerves that in a world of trouble and trial they act like they’re a special case.  We can get to feeling one of those ways pretty quickly.

We shouldn’t, however, be there to start with.  People have troubles, and it does them good to get them off their chest, and it’s one of the everyday varieties of human kindness to offer a sympathetic ear.  I’m always surprised at how grateful the people who call the church office with financial problems are when I listen to them even when I can’t give them any practical help.  It seems to make a difference to them that somebody listens, even though it leaves their situation unchanged.

People with problems will instinctively seek a solution.  A fair number of people end up with addiction issues because they naively self-medicate– they try to deal with emotional or psychological pain by using alcohol or drugs.  The analogy between that and what we’re talking about today is that It is so important for one’s mental health to have someone listen to one that some persons with anxiety or esteem issues will turn to talk as a therapy for themselves.  They’ll resist permitting conversations to end because it is affirming to have attention.  Loneliness is a disease that each of us has the potential to catch.  It only requires the right circumstances.  What is welcome solitude can become unwelcome loneliness just by the lapse of time, and the opportunity for self-care and self-expression which time for ourselves provides can degenerate into tedium and alienation if our being on our own goes long enough.

I have said this before but I can’t help repeat it.  Every time somebody goes crazy and commits some horrible crime the local news puts a microphone in front of the neighbor and what does the neighbor always say?  “He was a quiet guy– he didn’t mix much–he kept to himself.”  Right in the story of Adam and Eve–right in the beginning of the Bible’s vision of what it is to be human–God says “It’s not good for a man to be alone.”  It isn’t.

It’s good for a person to be in a relationship, to be part of a dialogue.  That’s what the psalmist says.  There was something on the person’s mind whose psalm this is.  He had a bad conscience.  It got to him– he says, “When I declared not my sin, my body wasted away.”  Well, not directly, but bad feelings for some people lead to a loss of appetite.  Having something you have to get off your chest and you don’t get a chance weighs on you.  Most of us have experienced this.  We may not have thought of it as our sin, but it was something personal and painful that on the one had we wished to conceal and on the other hand we wished to get rid of.  Getting rid of it required some kind of sharing it, confessing it.  That’s the solution the person in the psalm finds– confession is good for the soul, the person unburdens himself, and rejoices in God’s mercy.

One of the wonders of religion is that we insist that people have a relationship no matter how much a loner life has made them.  We’re not all alone.  We live in the presence of the God who gave us life, and who cares for us.  There may be things we have bottled up inside of us–not just secrets, but worries or wistful hopes, things too foolish almost to admit to ourselves and certainly too silly to say to anyone else– but God is interested in who we are, and what we think and feel and fear and hope.

God’s perspective on who we are is different from other perspectives.  To God we’re a beloved child, to God we’re someone worthwhile.  Our failures and mishaps are cause for sympathy, our neediness prompts God’s offering love, forgiveness, purpose.

This is why what Paul writes to the Corinthians is so important.  Paul’s saying that we Christians no longer look at anybody from a human point of view.  We don’t see people in those judging terms that are a shorthand for how or whether we value one another.  We see people as transformed by what Christ has accomplished.  If anyone is in Christ, that person is a new creation–the old has passed away, the new has come.  God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself–restoring the connection, opening up a broken line of communication, reestablishing the dialogue.  God was, in Christ, repairing the “I’m interested in you and want you hear how you are” attitude of God toward you and me, and repairing the “you are my God and I count on you” character we have as humans.

The way that plays out in relationships among human beings Jesus shows by how he treats people.  He sees sinners the way God sees them, as worthy of attention, as redeemable.  His fellow religious leaders think he’s staining himself by being near them, that he’s being dragged down by the company he keeps.  He is lifting them up.

That’s why he tells the story of the Prodigal Son, the father, and the dutiful son who always has been home.  The Prodigal Son imagines that he can do without the relationships life has given him, that he can leave home and make a new life with his inheritance, and have things the way he wants.

Eventually he ends up alone.  He’s squandered his inheritance and been reduced to humiliating shifts to sustain himself, and he’s miserable.  Then he comes to himself.  He recognizes something true about what he needs and who he is.  He needs a place to belong, to be part of a relationship that has meaning.  He knows that being a slave on his father’s estate would be a better life than the life he has in exile.  He doesn’t deserve any better than that, and he knows it.  He knows his father is merciful, and thinks that in his mercy he’ll let the son come back as a slave.

The father does more than that.  The father rejoices in his return, and celebrates. The father reestablishes the son’s place in the family.

It’s a story about forgiveness and redemption.  Those things require relationship.  Relationships require those things.  Human nature imagines that selfishness will make life better, but it doesn’t.  What makes life good is good relationships.  That’s where love is, in the connections among people.  Once the son is back in the bosom of the family the older brother, the dutiful son, resents his being welcomed.  He resents the father forgiving everything.  He thinks it makes his own loyalty and respect seem unimportant.

That’s not the case.  Loyalty, reliability, unselfishness are the qualities which make that farm a happy place.  Those are the traits which make the generations live in love and peace and contentment together.  What the wiser son possesses has always been more valuable and wonderful than what the younger brother tried to get.  The feast is thrown because the return of the wayward brother is equivalent to a return from death– it’s a ruptured relationship renewed, an opportunity for love rekindled.  That, according to the loving father, is always a good thing.

It is a good thing, Jesus both shows us and tells us in this parable, which God always hopes for us and offers to us. It’s a good thing which God hopes for any and all of those others whose choices haven’t been as wise as ours, whose need for love and relationship God understands and longs to fulfill.

 

 

 

 

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