“All in One” by Rev. Dr. Larry Bethune

Listen to the sermon from Sunday, September 11, 2016 titled “All in One” by Rev. Dr. Larry Bethune.

Back in my seminary days I signed up for a clinical trial of a new blood pressure medication sponsored by Squibb Pharmaceuticals in Princeton.  They paid $600 for me to stay in a clinic over a long weekend, take a pill, and have twelve blood draws over three days.  I was between classes, and while the needles were no fun, what student couldn’t use $600?

Worst part was, there was nothing to do.  I didn’t want to watch what the other patients chose on the one television, and I forgot to bring anything to read.  So I found a 2,000 piece jigsaw puzzle and set to work.

It took me all weekend to do it, and when I got to the end – you guessed it – one piece was missing.  I was so frustrated!  It may seem like no big deal to you, but after all the time I invested, I wanted a complete picture, you know?

I hunted high and low for the missing piece.  I cleaned out their game cabinet, rummaged through the scattered pieces of two other puzzles, even lifted the cabinet to see if it had fallen underneath.  All the time I was thinking how that one missing piece was useless by itself and rendered the all the other pieces useless, too.

In Luke 15 when the uptight uprights complain that Jesus “welcomes sinners and eats with them,” he tells three parables about searching for what’s missing.  Typical of his parables, they offer strange images of God and deconstruct our ordinary religious thinking.

A shepherd has a hundred sheep.  (Don’t try to count them; you’ll fall asleep!)

One goes missing.  So he leaves the ninety-nine behind to seek the one lost sheep.  Actually, it’s not something an experienced shepherd would do.  You have to protect the majority and cut your losses. It deconstructs the idea of doing what’s best for the most.  But that one missing sheep becomes his priority.  Strange image: God as an inept shepherd.

It also deconstructs the image of God as “the Good Shepherd” – unless, of course, you are that missing sheep!

Again, God is a woman who has ten silver coins.  One is missing, and she turns her house upside down to find it.

We all lose stuff from time to time.  It gets worse as you age because you can’t get those missing brain cells back.  But we all know the joy of finding what we’ve lost.  Still, God as a woman would have been jarring to people in that day.  And God as a sloppy housekeeper?  Strange!

We didn’t read the third long parable in the series, but we all know it: “the Prodigal Son.”  Actually it’s the story of two prodigal sons, the younger who demands his inheritance early and runs away to waste it and the older who is lost in place because he cannot experience the love his Dad has for him.  He is too bound to a work/reward system to understand grace and love.  But this parable follows the other two, including the strange image of God as an overindulgent Dad.

Three parables about the missing piece.  Three parables about the lost and the found.  What do they want to tell us?

First, they tell us about the priority of the search.  We often have that feeling that something is missing, but rather than seeking it out with any spiritual urgency, we choose to seek things of little lasting value instead.  And what about the people who are missing?  Broken relationships, friends gone AWOL, isolated lonely souls – why aren’t we searching for the people missing from our lives and communities?

Second, these parables emphasize the importance of the individual to God.  We can trace the rise of individualism from the Renaissance to Descartes to the Enlightenment, the advent of Humanism and democracy and so on.  In fact we have emphasized the individual to the point of selfie narcissism in Western Culture.  So it comes as no surprise to us to hear God cares about each and every person.  You are important to God.  God cares about you and seeks you out.

In American Christianity we talk more about personal salvation than about community wholeness.  But we have to remember, the idea that God cares about each person, that God cares about you, was news to the people of Jesus’ day, when salvation was for the people of Israel and the individual only mattered as a part of the whole.

Our emphasis on the individual and personal salvation blinds us to the deeper point of these three parables:  the individuals need salvation because they are missing from the whole.  And the flock, the coin collection, the family is not whole when one member is missing.  All are affected by the one.  The one is incomplete without the all.  If you are missing, we all miss out.

In the third century, an African bishop named Cyprian wrote, extra Ecclesiam nulla salus, – “Outside the church, there is no salvation.”  The Bible would agree, not in the sense of the church as an institution or even participation in its rituals, but in the sense that salvation is never entirely personal in the Bible.  Salvation is about personal healing, but also about the healing of the community, the healing of the nation, the healing of the world.  Jesus always invites the individual to join the community of disciples, to restore relationships, to become part of the whole.  Jesus urges us “to love one another” because that is our salvation.

Writes my friend, Kyle Childress:

All week long, by hurt, frantic busy-ness, fear, illness, and on and on, the world does its best to dis-member us from the body of Christ. We often find ourselves exhausted and isolated, worn-out, worn-down and alone. But on Sunday morning, we gather in God’s presence, and by singing hymns, reading and hearing the word, praying and often sharing the Lord’s Supper, we are re-membered into the body of Christ. We are one, once again.

So we invite you today, to re-member the Body of Christ by joining in the sacred supper by which we seek the grace to be joined to one another in God.  Communion remembers Christ’s self-sacrificial love for each of us.  It also celebrates how he connects us to one another and to all the people God loves, which is all people.  And it calls us to the salvation he provides in creating a beloved community of reconciliation, wholeness, and peace.  Come to this table and find your salvation not as a lone individual, but as part of the new creation of God.  And then, let us continue our urgent search for the lost, the lonely, the looked over, and the left out.  Because if one is missing, we all miss out.  Amen.  May we pray?

Lord you save us.  You save us from ourselves by rejoining us to the beloved community.  You push us to reconcile and learn how to love you by loving one another.  We are slow healers in this regard.  So join us again to you today by joining us to one another in sacred friendship.  And let our communion with you and each other draw others to join the community of Christ that they and we might be closer to complete in the name of Christ.  Amen.

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