Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
3So he told them this parable: 4Which 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? 5When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6And 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.’ 7Just 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.
8Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? 9When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ 10Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
Pray with me:
May you find us today.
And in doing so, help us
To find ourselves.
It’s really nice to be here today. Thank you for the invitation. I’ve married, and unfortunately, buried a few people in these hallowed halls. The Chapel of the Resurrection-and you’ll know this when you leave and, after a while, come back-the Chapel of the Resurrection has a distinctive smell. It is the smell of old wax, lemonade, books, and the potpourri of perfumes and colognes and suit jackets and tobacco and tears, and yes, the smell of laughter…which makes no sense except, it’s just true. Remember, we serve a God who died and rose again…which makes no sense.
Smell is, of course, one of the most memory-jarring senses that we have, even over and against sight and sound. I smell my grandmother into being quite often. The woman smoked since she was 16, and even though she has long since died and been sainted, I smell her into being often enough.
Anytime someone is smoking her brand of cigarettes near me, I don’t find myself shying away, but moving closer to them, making her real again for just a moment. I remember when I got my first tattoo, in college mind you, right up the street at a parlor that’s still here, and I come home and she’s visiting, and I say to her, “Grandma, I have a tattoo now!” And she had a cigarette in one hand and a bourbon Manhattan in the other (her drink of choice that she’d make a double), and she looked at me and, in her raspy voice said, “I don’t know why anyone would do that to their body…”
I don’t see her anymore, but I find her still…by smell. I find her, in all her imperfections, with her bawdy mouth and tendency to gossip, and in her perfections, the way she gave money away with abandon to those who needed it. I smell her into being, even though I’ve lost her, and in those brief moments I’m able to love her again.
It turns out the song is true: love stinks.
That’s an appropriate phrase to repeat in light of a Gospel text that brings up repentance. Repentance is turning away from all of those things that have stunk up our lives…that continue to stink up our lives. And I think it’s worth noting that I’m not one who believes that God loves us despite our sins, as heretical as I may now sound. I do not believe God loves sin by any means, but God certainly must love sinners: us with our bawdy mouths and tendency to gossip. We who shove needles in our veins to feel something, and contemplate taking our lives because we’re not sure we feel anything anymore…or deserve to. We who cheat on our spouses and cheat on our tests (despite the honor code) and cheat on our taxes and cheat death in many and various ways. We, the mix of perfection and imperfection are still most perfectly loved by a God who must love the totality of us if God can love any of us.
Love stinks. Or, more rightly, God loves stinky things, like free-range sheep and dusty coins in couch cushions and you and me who smell of both honesty and tragedy and cover it up with Hugo Boss’s latest offering.
This is, of course, something that the Pharisees and scribes couldn’t wrap their minds around. And, of course, this is still something that much of the religious world can’t really wrap their minds around. We don’t like embracing the stinky parts of our lives in the halls of religion, by and large. We’d instead like to take un-stinky parts and call them stinky to divert our attention.
Like bodies. We have an enfleshed God, but the way that the church talks about the flesh would make you think that God would have been better off not being embodied at all. We still argue too much about sex, imagining that what people do with their bodies is somehow more important than arguing about the easy access to guns in this country that actually take bodies.
To talk about such things if you wear a funny collar like me can seem dangerous because people get mad and then send you emails, and my response to that fear-based quietism is that love stinks. It stinks to have to talk about hard things, but I love you, by God. And notice, there’s no email address for me in your bulletin…
And could it not be that we are lost as a people when we believe that pieces of metal are more important than babies shopping in a Walmart?
Could it not be that we are lost and God, the perpetual bloodhound, is hot on our trail with words of wisdom and love dripping from the Divine lips that say something like, “Love one another, as I have loved you,” or “the last shall be first and the first shall be last,” or, as Jesus said to Lazarus caught in his tomb of death, “Come out!”
Come out, leave the tombs where you live. The tombs of addiction…and we’re all, every one of us, addicted to something, Beloved. The tombs of self-righteousness, and that is certainly not an issue for students on this campus, right? The tombs of homophobism which, in my time as a student here, plagued us quite mightily…and those of us in the ally movement were accompanying students back to dorms at night because we feared they’d be hurt. The tombs of racism which have presented themselves with more overt force in recent years. We are lost in the stench of xenophobism…
And there is a difference between confession and repentance, Beloved. And these are things we must repent of, not just confess!
We are lost, Beloved, in many and various ways. And being lost stinks.
But God loves stinky things. Love stinks.
I remind you, and myself, that God loves stinky things because it’s easy to get lost in something else in these days, too: hopelessness. Sometimes the stench of all that is rotting in this world, or even in our own lives, can make us despair.
And yet we’d be wise to remember what the bald and beautiful Reverend William Sloane Coffin, pastor of Riverside Church in New York once noted: that the most powerful statements in scripture, the ones where God gives the greatest mic drops, are in the indicative, not the imperative. For all you non-English majors out there, what I mean by that is that the greatest statements of scripture are not the ones where God what to do, but reminds us of what God has already done for us.
The basis of our faith is on what God has done, not what we should do.
And really, if there’s something that religion as a whole should repent of, it’s for messing that up for so many in this world.
Because if this faith-life is all about what we should do rather than what God has done for us, this parable, Beloved, doesn’t work at all.
The whole thing would have to be about how the sheep found its way back into the fold, or about how the coin found its way back into the purse.
But that’s not the parable, or the story of scripture. The stories of God are not the stories of people returning to God, but of God, the faithful bloodhound, seeking out God’s people in the places they’ve wandered off to, sniffing them out, and loving them into being. It is the story told in church basements at AA and NA meetings, but so rarely told in church sanctuaries. It’s the story told in online blogs, but so rarely found in bulletins.
We’ve found too many ways to put perfume on the honest things that stink in our lives. The perfumes of quietism, manners, decorum, or even just plain “If I don’t acknowledge it, it’s not true.”
The God found in scriptures cares nothing for manners; he eats with sinners and tax collectors. The Christ who flips tables could care less about decorum. The God who speaks the world into being has no patience for quietism. And the God who calls the fisherman, the outcasts, the woman at the well, who calls them by all name, has no stomach for not acknowledging things properly.
The story of scripture is about a God who, because of a deep love for things that are a mix of perfection and imperfection, a mix of sweet smell and stink, a mix of holy and hellish, makes a way through the cosmos to show humanity and all creation just how far God will go to be with them.
God loves us to death. Literally.
And if we’re honest we kind of hate that story. Because we like earning things. We don’t like acknowledging we’re lost. We like making amends and making things right and being worthy through work. Our own Blessed Martin Luther said that we “suffer the grace of God upon us,” and it is suffering, because we don’t like grace, we’d rather deal in merit. We like a world where we’ll just do better tomorrow, and while that might be true, it just never feels enough if we’re honest…
And to all of you who feel that way, and to all the parts of me that want to earn my salvation, I say: yeah, it stinks.
But love stinks, by God.
And, Beloved, in realizing how much God has been lost in love with us, we might just find ourselves found, whole, able to acknowledge tough, smelly truths, and free in ways we didn’t think possible. We might find ourselves wrapped in grace instead of gritting our teeth trying to prove our worth.
And that sounds an awful lot like repentance: where you acknowledge the stench in the room and find some windows in your soul opened to let in the light that outshines the shadows and the breath of God that hovers over the void of our various shames and turn it into things that teem with life.
And while Jesus says God and the angels rejoice at such a thing, as with most things when it comes to encounters with God, we’re the ones who rejoice in the end at being so honest and free, stinky and all, in the presence of a God who will have it no other way.
Love stinks. And God loves things that stink. Thank God.