The problem with “religious people” – like us – is that we can become judgmental. We value our belief in and relationship with God. We treasure the forms of worship and service which we believe have nurtured that relationship. And we just can’t understand why those “other people” don’t join us in all that.
Now that’s OK as long as it simply becomes a motivation to share our faith with others and even seek to persuade them that there is something unique in the Christian faith which might be good for them and make their lives richer and fuller and help them face the difficulties of living (and dying) with greater courage and comfort.
The problem is, our zeal can become judgmental, if we are not careful. And we can pretty quickly turn into people like those Pharisees and scribes in today’s Gospel who criticize Jesus for hanging around with some of those “other people” by saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and (even) eats with them!” (Luke 15)
Or we can find ourselves – like the Psalmist today – calling those “other people” who do not share our faith names. “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God’”—says today’s Psalm…”Everyone has proved faithless; all alike have turned bad; there is none who does good; no, not one!” (Psalm 14). Well, that’s seems a little strong! EVERY ONE is faithless? NO ONE does good? Come now!
Jeremiah can even find a way to put words like that on God’s lips in our First Lesson today. “For my people are foolish, they do not know me; they are stupid children, they have no understanding.” (Jeremiah 4) Does that sound like the God you have come to know in Jesus Christ? I don’t think so. And here’s why:
Because Jesus answers those judgmental Pharisees and scribes by telling a little story: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost,’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”
No judgmentalism there, is there? Not even any apparent anger or frustration about that little lamb which wandered off and probably endangered the others when the shepherd went off to look for him. Just joy that what had been lost was now found!
Well, we know at least one person in the earliest days of the Church’s life who knew just exactly how that little lamb must have felt. His name was Saul. And he had been chief among the Pharisees and the scribes and the “holier than thou” religious types so quick to find fault with those who disagreed with him.
So ready was he to condemn the outcasts and sinners with whom Jesus ate that he held the coats of the men who stoned Stephen to death for trying to follow this same Jesus. So quick was Saul to agree with the Psalmist that those who didn’t seem to believe in God the way he did were “fools” that he dragged Christians out of their house churches and had them arrested.
So ready was he to assume these new Christians were “stupid children” who had no understanding that he was riding toward the city of Damascus to continue his murderous rampage when he was knocked off his horse by a vision of the Risen Christ who said, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? He asked ‘who are you, Lord’ and the reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” (Acts 9:4-6)
Decades later, this same man, now known as Paul was given credit for these words, “I am (so) grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence.”
“ But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the foremost. But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, make me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life.” (I Timothy1:12 ff)
Dear friends, that is the attitude, the perspective, the self-image Christians are to have! Not to criticize others. Not to call them names and assume the worst in them. Not to be so sure that we are absolutely right and they are absolutely wrong in everything. But – like Paul – to be “grateful.” Grateful that God cared enough about us to leave the ninety-nine, to find us, and to bring us home!
Grateful that he has called us – no matter who we are, or what we may have done in this life – to be disciples and to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. Grateful that even though we are sinners (perhaps even, in the words of Paul, “foremost among them”) God is merciful…and patient…and infinitely forgiving. Because “gratitude” is the strongest motivator in the world for a life of genuine commitment and perfect service to the God we have come to know in Jesus Christ.
And just in case you’re having a hard time today thinking of anything to be grateful for, I’d like to close with one of my favorite contemporary prayers right out of our Book of Common Prayer. In fact, I’d like to have you pray it with me. Please turn to page 836 in the Prayer Book…stand…and let’s pray together
Accept, O Lord, our thanks and praise for all that you have done for us. We thank you for the splendor of the whole creation, for the beauty of this world, for the wonder of life, and for the mystery of love.
We thank you for the blessing of family and friends, and for the loving care which surrounds us on every side.
We thank you for setting us at tasks which demand our best efforts, and for leading us to accomplishments which satisfy and delight us.
We thank you also for those disappointments and failures that lead us to acknowledge our dependence on you alone.
Above all, we thank you for your Son Jesus Christ; for the truth of his Word and the example of his life; for his steadfast obedience, by which he overcame temptation; for his dying, through which he overcame death; and for his rising to life again, in which we are raised to the life of your kingdom.
Grant us the gift of your Spirit, that we may know Christ and make him known; and through him, at all times and in all places, may give thanks to you in all things. Amen.