Sunday, September 15, 2013

Finding God

One of my favorite cartoons has several variations on the same theme.  My very favorite is an old New Yorker cartoon.  The setting is a living room, with the outline of a person, who can only be Jesus, hiding behind the drapes.  A woman has just opened the front door, where two men in white shirt and tie are standing on the porch.  They ask her, “Have you found Jesus?”

The setting is a street corner, and a man is passing out pamphlets to passers-by and shouting, “Have you found Jesus?  Have you found Jesus?”  A guy stops, scans the pamphlet and replies, “I didn’t realize he was lost.”  In another version, people keep ignoring the man on the street corner, as he cries out in an increasingly frantic tone, “Have you found Jesus?” Until a kind woman finally stops, places her hands on his shoulders and says consolingly, “Don’t worry, we’ll find him.”

Clearly, these cartoonists have read Luke’s Gospel.  They get the absurdity of “finding Jesus.”  We do not have to anxiously search for God.  It is God who seeks us out.  The question is not, “Will you find God,” but rather, “How will you respond to God when She finds you?”

Putting the question in this way undermines all our attempts to make God into an object over which we have some purchase.  God can’t be made into a project, another item on our to do list, or some kind of cosmic game of hide and seek.  The initiative is all on God’s side. 

God is like grits with breakfast in a Southern restaurant.  You don’t have to order it.  It just comes.  This is what Jesus tries to make clear to folks.  God’s kingdom is always already at hand, within you and around you.  You’ve been found!  That is what the mercy of God is like.  God just shows up for no good reason; at least, none for which you can claim credit.  Now what are you going to do about it? 

This finding God – this God who finds us – completely destabilizes the comforting categories we construct to distinguish between those who have found God (righteous people) and those who have not (sinners).  Luke’s Gospel makes a big deal out this destabilization. Jesus, who is God-coming-to-find-us, confuses these categories all the time: usually over dinner.   He seems a bit dense about the difference between “Pharisees and scribes” (righteous people) and “tax collectors and sinners” (notorious, public sinners, just to be clear).

Jesus addresses tax collectors like Levi[1] and Zaccheus[2] and even eats with them at their homes.  Once, while dining at the home of a Pharisee, a sinful woman crashed the party and started massaging Jesus’ feet.  He didn’t even blink and eye.[3]  Jesus tells a parable about two men who go up to the Temple to pray.  One, a Pharisee says, “Thank God I’m not like these other people here!”  The other, a tax collector, beats his breast and begs, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”[4]

One thinks he has found God.  The other thinks he is lost.  Jesus knows that God has found them both, and demonstrates this by sharing table fellowship indiscriminately.  God’s mercy just comes.

Of course, this lack of distinction, this destabilization of boundaries between righteous and sinner, could make a person angry:  Especially if that person has worked awfully hard to find God, only to discover that God just comes and finds us.  So we are told that the Pharisees and scribes are grumbling, because Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with them.  Jesus, in his defense, tells three parables to illustrate that he is only doing what God does.  God finds us: like a stray sheep, a lost coin, or a wayward son.[5]  God’s property is always to have mercy.

Please notice something about these parables.  They do not focus on the distinction between righteous and sinners.   They turn our attention away from preoccupation with what we have done or not done, whether we are worthy or unworthy, and toward the God who delights in finding us and bringing us home.  All three parables end with a meal – a party – a celebration of the reunion of the lost that restores wholeness, makes complete, and fosters sheer joy. 

These are crazy stories.  Nobody in his right mind leave 99 sheep in the wilderness to find one lost lamb.  Really, risk all the rest just to recover one?  The cost/benefit just doesn’t make any sense!  Why turn the whole house upside down to find one coin, just to spend it on throwing a party to celebrate finding it?  Is it really fair to treat your deadbeat son the same as your dutiful son?  How does that promote good character?

Well, God is a little crazy.  Crazy enough to realize that the other sheep, the set of coins, the entire family is incomplete, missing something vital, until She finds the lost and brings them home.  She does it for the sheer joy of finding them.  Rejoicing with one sinner who repents is way more fun that hanging out with the righteous people who don’t even realize how incomplete they are without the “sinner” – both the sinner who is one of “those people,” and the sinner within who is despised and denied.

God is a little crazy about this finding business.   We have all, already, been found.  God just comes.  The distinction isn’t between righteous people and sinners.  They distinction is between those who know they’ve been found, and those who think they are the finders: between the sinner who repents and the righteous who need no repentance.  The distinction is not between two types of people, but rather between two different responses to being found. 

As Andrew Prior notes,

Luke is pointing us toward a fundamental mind shift in our understanding of God.  Although we say God is a God of love, we tend to make that love conditional.  It is conditional on our repentance; it depends on our keeping the rules, rules which are too often somewhat arbitrary habits that support our local prejudices.  We use the rules to bolster our status and position.

This sense of conditional love leads us towards, or allows us to live in, a mindset of disapproval.  Fundamentally, we think, God disapproves of us and loves us only when we fit in with what we imagine to be God’s expectations; expectations that have an alarming correlation with our own social expectations of what is acceptable.  Our imagining of God determines the way we treat others.[6] 

Jesus gives us these parables to disrupt our usual way of thinking about God.  It really isn’t about whether we are worthy or unworthy.  It really isn’t about whether we deserve mercy.  God just comes.  You already have been found.  God has found you, and you, and you – all of you!  She already is rejoicing.  She has set a table, prepared a banquet, invited everybody: including those who think they are “somebody” and those who think they are “nobody.” 

You haven’t just been invited to the party.  You are the reason for the party.  It can’t really get started without you.  Once you understand that, everything changes.  The scales fall from your eyes and you discover mercy flowing everywhere.  The God you’ve been looking for was there all along.  She found you before you even knew you were lost.  And She will never let you go.

[1] Luke 5:27-39
[2] Luke 19:1-10
[3] Luke 7:36-50
[4] Luke 18:10-13
[5] Luke 15

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