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United Church of Christ

533 Route 28, Harwich Port, MA 02646 | Phone: 508-432-1668

What Kind of God is This?

Luke 15: 1-10

What Kind of God is This?

Sunday February 12, 2017

Rev. Dr. Susan Cartmell

Pilgrim Congregational Church, Harwich Port


During the month of February our sermons will be about God. Now perhaps you are wondering why we need to spend time thinking about God. Don’t we basically talk about God every week? Aren’t all our prayers directed to God? Isn’t the Bible and every story in it about God?  Why do we need to do a series of sermons on God?

            But for all our talk about God in church most of us still have questions about God. We wonder if God hears prayers, or notices us. We wonder if God critiques our deeds and misdeeds. We worry that God is not on our side. Unconsciously we may fear that God is more like a harsh parent than a benevolent one. The truth is in the absence of enough information about God we make stuff up.  

            When I was a child I attended a church with a huge round stained glass window over the altar. It depicted a man in robes sitting in a chair with an angel on the right and another one on the left. As a child, I just assumed this had to be God. I understood that this was God’s house so it made sense that he was sitting there. So when I went to seminary and read about all the images of God in the Bible – places where God is depicted as an eagle or a mother bear, a potter or jealous husband the poetry of these scripture passages was hard to fully absorb because I carried my childhood image with me for many years – of a white man sitting on a throne. To be fair, no one ever told me this was what God looked like and in later years I have to assume the window was meant to depict Jesus but we all do that. No one has enough information about God, so we all make lots of stuff up.

            We assume that God is aloof because it is hard to hear God’s voice. We assume God is an angry or impervious to human pain because we have no explanation for earthquakes and tsunamis. We decide that God must be far away residing in the distant clouds because we cannot see God. We assume God is too busy for our problems because none of us has the capacity to keep track of earth’s problems. The trouble with all our assumptions about God is that we forget that we are made in God’s image; God is not made in our image. The truth is that most of us cannot really imagine God, but we can know God.

            The one person who came to tell us about God is Jesus. In fact, his sole mission in life was to illustrate God’s true nature. He came to bridge the gap between our worst fears and what we were making up and who God really is.

            In the 15th chapter of Luke’s gospel Jesus’ tells stories that depict God’s personality and explain God’s nature. Jesus compares God to a shepherd who has one hundred sheep and worries about each one individually. Jesus compares God to a poor woman who loses a coin and cannot rest until it is found. What do these parables tell us about God and what difference does this God make in our lives today?

In the first place, God is committed to us. Both of these stories illustrate someone who cares deeply. Most of us realize that God expects us to be committed. Many of us feel nervous that we may not been faithful enough over the years. But Jesus says that the important thing to know is that irrespective of your faith in God – God has faith in you.

            Many of us develop a view of God which is like an anchor at a political convention. We assume that God is up in the galleries of the auditorium with a full view of the activities on the floor but with a dispassionate analysis. We think of God as Brooks and Shield, or Anderson Cooper, aloof, analytical, somewhat disdainful. But Jesus paints this picture of a shepherd who acts like a parent with these sheep more than a rancher. This God does not weigh the consequences of deserting 99 sheep; this parent is a frenzied mother or a heartsick father who won’t rest until all their children are safe at home.

            God feels more than responsibility. This is personal for God. It is not a logical connection or a rational link. It is an emotional vulnerability. When we think about God we get confused because we are connected to God through our hearts and souls. We feel God before we know God. Our desire for God is deep in our DNA and Jesus tells us that God is just as passionate about us. That is why Jesus compares God to a woman who won’t rest, because she cares so much about finding this coin that looks like nothing to the world but to her is precious beyond measure.

In the second-place God is committed to us individually. No seasoned rancher leaves 99 sheep to chase after one. Everyone in Christ’s audience understood how foolish it would be to leave a flock to seek out one sheep. It is absurd; you would risk endangering the whole flock. The rest could get lost or come under attack or be stolen. Any number of calamities might befall them. But Jesus pushes the envelope to remind us that God see us individually. God appreciates our unique value. Jesus says you matter to God.

            When Fred Rogers was ordained as a Presbyterian minister he told the Presbytery in Pittsburgh that he wanted to minister to children using puppets on television. Most people could not imagine what he had in mind or how it could resonate. Somehow Mr. Rogers found the sweet spot, the place in our hearts where we are hungry for approval and recognition. One reviewer called him a singing psychiatrist, but this was a faith journey for him. He was a prophet who came to show us God’s face. When he sang to our children he healed us all… “It’s you I like, it’s not the things you wear. Its not the way you do your hair but it’s you I like. The way you are right now, the way down deep inside you, not the things that hide you, not your toys – they’re just beside you.

It’s you I like.  every part of you, your skin, your eyes, your feelings, whether old or new. I hope that you’ll remember even when you’re feeling blue that it’s you I like. It’s you I like.”  What made his show revolutionary was that he figured out that the child in all of us was hungry for his message of unique and individual acceptance, and craving it.

Finally, Jesus tells us that when God created us God was hoping to create a world where people care about each other the same way that a good shepherd cares for the sheep. Jesus came to earth to remind us that God is passionate for the lost sheep. That is good news for everyone.

Congressman Bill Keating spoke in Hyannis yesterday morning. He tells a story about his grandparents who were Irish Catholic and immigrated to this country settling in Stoughton. They rent a small house and worked very hard so they could buy. Even though that worked night and day to make the down payment, several neighbors raised money to make a counter offer because these neighbors did not want Irish Catholics living there. With gritty determination, the Keatings prevailed and purchased their home. Not long afterwards the same neighbors got wind of a group hoping to start a synagogue in Stoughton and they approached congressman Keating’s grandmother to enlist her to help them stop their Jewish neighbors from getting a foothold. Grandma Keating remembered what they had done to her and refused to help them keep out the Jews. When everyone gangs up on the newest wash ashore, we all stand to lose our heritage, because most of us descended from someone who came through Ellis Island and had a hard start and needed help. We have all felt lost or least.

In the Old Testament, the Jewish laws demanded that people who were harvesting had to leave extra wheat along the edge of the field so that the widows who lost their land along with their husbands could gather grain and survive. Why was the law so explicit?  Because God cares about the poor and the widow, the orphan and the prisoner.

In a highly unusual move, conservative evangelical leaders took out a full-page advertisement in Wednesday’s Washington Post to denounce the President’s executive order temporarily banning refugees, saying they are “deeply concerned.” The ad includes the signatures of several well-known leaders like the pastors of Park Street Church in Boston, Willow Creek in Indiana, and the former president of Fuller Seminary. This is not a group of progressive religious leaders, but prominent evangelicals who care about refugees… and have compassion especially for Syrian refugees. Motivated by their understanding of the Bible they argue for accepting these immigrants. They wrote, “Compassion and security can coexist, as they have for decades. For the persecuted and suffering, every day matters; every delay is a crushing blow to hope.”

Last week I learned from several UCC colleagues in Massachusetts and as far away as Nebraska that they were putting signs up in front of their sanctuaries. Now these churches were in Massachusetts and Nebraska and everything in between. The message written on these banners in Spanish, Arabic and English said, “Wherever you have come from we are glad that you are our neighbor.” This week we added one of these signs to the front of our church as a way to make our hospitality known to this community. I decided that this would be a good way to communicate that our biblical faith urges us to try to reach out to the least and lost, to communicate our belief that the love of God which we experience as a safety net, is a safety net for all people.  

Posted: Sunday February 12, 2017