The service I used was based in Connecticut and many of the drivers were retired executives themselves and they often had interesting stories. There was one man who had such a stately demeanor, one of real power, yet he was taciturn and officious except for one late night... I got in the car at Newark Airport, hoping to sleep on the hour long drive to my home, but he wanted to talk that night.
As it happens, he told me a story of his two sons, both were successful architects. One son was gay however and this man found that out, when the son was in college. The man believed that this was a sin against God and Church (he was Catholic) and affront to what his own family stood for. However, 15 years on, he regretted his outburst and wanted to reconcile with his son. He was afraid to make the first move.
Honestly, I thought that he was going to weep as he steered the black Lincoln Town Car along the New Jersey Turnpike. It was very sad to hear and I was not really sure of what to say.
So what does that have to do with this Sunday's readings? Well, in today's readings we encounter a God who seeks and pursues us with loving, persistent vigilance. It is all very unlikely. I mean, aren't we supposed to seek God? Is it really a two way street? What would God want with us?
How about everything.
In the first reading, from Exodus, we hear about how God tells Moses to get back down the mountain and set the people right. Well actually, God was pretty ticked off, but Moses - being Moses (and what a good zayde image Moses presents here) reminds God that God has pursued his people, why burn them up? God then relents and Moses sets off to turn the people back to God. It is all very unlikely, isn't it?
In our second reading from St. Paul in a letter to Timothy, we hear some of Paul's most compelling words, in my opinion.
I am grateful to him who has strengthened me, Christ Jesus our Lord,
because he considered me trustworthy
in appointing me to the ministry.
I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and arrogant,
but I have been mercifully treated
because I acted out of ignorance in my unbelief.
He is very clear about the source of strength, it is Jesus! I actually think of the car service drive when I read the last 3 lines shown above. Then he goes on to add:
Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.
Of these I am the foremost.
But for that reason I was mercifully treated,
so that in me, as the foremost,
Christ Jesus might display all his patience as an example
for those who would come to believe in him for everlasting life.
The essential words... Of these I am the foremost. Paul does not hesitate to name himself clearly and to say how that is a display of what is possible and in fact how it works for all of us. We are all perhaps, the foremost sinner and we are all mercifully treated. It seems so unlikely, yet that is what happened and what continues to happen.
Depending on where you went to church, you might have heard the long or the short form of the Gospel for today, from Luke. What I offer you today is based on the long form, so you might want to read it through before proceding.
The Gospel begins with:
Tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to Jesus,
but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain, saying,
"This man welcomes sinners and eats with them."
We are given three stories of ardent pursuit. The first is the image of one missing sheep and the shepherd that will leave the 99 in order to find the one that he must bring home. We hear about a woman who has 10 coins, but loses one. She expends money, via lamp oil and her time, via the search, to find that one coin. Ultimately we hear the familiar and powerful story of the Prodigal Son. Off he goes to pursue his wanton ways but when he returns, hoping only for scraps from his father's pigs, he is welcomed as a king.
Shepherd. Woman. Wayward son. This man welcomes sinners and he eats with them, is what our Gospel tells us. Well, if there were some unlikely (translation: sinners) characters to make an issue of it would be shepherds, women and wayward sons.
Unlikely in what way, you may ask. When we read the Gospel we must always try to see it through how it would have been understood at Jesus' time as well as in our own.
In Jesus' time the lines of social conventions were drawn quite clearly. You were either "in" or "out." Tax collectors and sinners meant the worst sort of people of that time. Today we see different people marginalized... It could be Muslims, it could be undocumented immigrants, it could be labor unions, it could be LGBT folk, it could be anyone.
If you think about it, whoever we as individuals or groups want to reject - be it a person or a group, that person or group is marginalized in some way.
It could also be our own selves as we reject the people we have become and inflict harm upon ourselves. Or worse yet, we could ignore the plank in our own eye and project that harm out onto others. (Hint: Find the person that annoys you the most. They offer you a gift through the invitation to see what might be the most annoying thing about yourself.)
Jesus has come to reconcile all unto God. All means all. Just as God did not really want to blaze his people who created the Golden Calf, just as God did not reject Saul but rather transformed him into Paul - we find countless examples of transformations of the unlikely.
Yes, that is just it, transformation of the unlikely. We are all the transformation of the unlikely, aren't we? No one person is to be excluded, we must search for our sheep, our coin, our child or whatever is missing just as God searches, no matter how unlikely, for each of us.
No, I have no idea what happened to that man who drove the car and if he ever got to reconcile with his son. I had urged him to reach out at that time, but who knows.
Well, this is what we do know - as unlikely as it all is, God pursues and seeks us with tremendous ardency and love. This is what transforms us from lost to found and what should impel us to pursue with the same ardency and love.
Unlikely - yes, but so very real. Is there a lost coin, a lost sheep or a wayward person in your life? Well, if so - start looking now.