1 TIMOTHY 1: 12-17 AND LUKE 15: 1-10
Reverend Marguerite Sheehan
Scripture: 1 Timothy 1: 12-17 and Luke 15: 1-10
The poet Mary Oliver writes about her spiritual life in the poem Wild Geese. She says, “You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” The first line of that stanza, “You do not have to be good” has stayed with me for years because it says, in stark and declarative language, the exact opposite of what I was taught as a child. Again and again I heard “Be good and smile like a good American girl.” Of course I was brought up post World War II and smiling about being an American was the thing to do. Be good and smile. I was taught by words and actions that I was supposed to show a face of goodness and happiness; to my family, to the church, to my teachers, and I guess ultimately to the world. And then Mary Oliver has the chutzpah to say the opposite. “You do not have to be good.”
The older I get the more I lean toward Oliver and in doing so I am finding myself leaning toward the Apostle Paul and the Good Shepherd. Being good is a fine idea and one that I will never really get out of my system, but Oliver and Paul and Jesus all point to a different and more fundamentally true reality, which is that none of us are rock bottom good. Jesus once even denied his own perceived goodness. A rich young man called him “Good Teacher” and Jesus replied “There is only one who is good.” Goodness is not really the issue.
Timothy was a young pastor, trying to spread the message of Jesus in the region of Ephesus. His mentor was Paul, who by letter and visits, summoned Timothy to not over focus on goodness but rather on the saving grace and life work of Jesus. Paul taught that Jesus judged him to be of the faithful not because of his good nature or good works. “I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I acted ignorantly in unbelief.” In other words, Paul received the mercy of God not because he was good but because he was an ignorant fool. Or, as he later says, “Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the foremost.” Not who wasthe foremost but who is the foremost. Being good did not get Paul knocked off his horse. Being an ignorant human did.
The Pharisees and the scribes (Paul could even have been among them) were grumbling about the teacher who not only said that “no one is good” but hung around eating with sinners. “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Jesus taught them a parable so that they could see themselves in their own actions and reflect on what even they knew in their hearts was the core of a deep spiritual life. In the parable he said “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?” Which one of us does not leave all that business of goodness and smiling in the dust and run out into the road to grab our foolish child who has wandered into the traffic?
The lesson continues. “When he has found the one that is lost 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.” Which one of us would not drop everything and gather up what is most precious to us, hoist it up on our shoulders and carry it home to a party, with friends and neighbors, saints and sinners; home to rejoice.
We do not have to be good in order to be loved and saved from our own foolish and ignorant selves. You do not have to stay in the wilderness with the 99 sheep that seem to know what to do and how to do it. You might instead find yourself lost and bleating or as the next parable suggests, swept under the rug. You might not identify as Paul did with being a blasphemer, a persecutor or a person of violence. Maybe your foolhardy self takes another form. But here is the great thing about life. Everyone is invited to the party – the lost, the found, the friends, the strangers, the sinners, the saints, the good, the bad and the ugly. The message is not “Be good and smile like good Americans, or Iranians, or Ephesians or Kenyans or any other world citizen girls or boys.” The message is that it is right and good and glorious to life a full life. Leave everything behind and search until we find or are found, and then go out and really live! As Oliver says “let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” And know that you are loved, no matter what.
Gracious and Merciful God; you who search and find us wherever we are hiding, thank you for the invitation to join into the party of life. We set our sights too low when we over focus on our personal goodness or sinfulness. Instead, help us to call out to you, the One Who Is Good, and bring us back into loving relationship. Teach us that it is in searching that we are found. Amen and Blessed Be.