The Utmost for the Foremose

September 15, 2013   1 Timothy 1: 12-17   Luke 15: 1-7

Rev. Catherine Purves


     I don’t expect that any of us would rank ourselves among the foremost of sinners.  We all probably assume that we are around the middle of the pack when it comes to sin.  Surely, it is the murderers and the terrorists who should be considered the foremost of sinners.  The least sinful are the saints and martyrs.  So, there are probably a whole lot worse than we are, and probably a whole lot who are better.  That’s why I find it so surprising that Paul – that singular apostle who helped to spread the gospel throughout the Mediterranean world and who would eventually give up his life as a martyr in Rome – that’s why it’s astonishing that Paul would insist that he was the foremost sinner.  But that is what he did, and not only once, but several times in his writings.

     Perhaps he was just exaggerating to make a point.  Ironically, that would sort of make him a liar, which, of course, is a sin.  But what he wrote in his first letter to Timothy doesn’t sound disingenuous, as if he is being falsely modest in order to strengthen his argument.  I think we need to assume that Paul believed that what he was saying was true.  He really was a straight-talking, what you see is what you get kind of guy.  He doesn’t sugar-coat tough stuff or overstate his argument in order to convince doubters.  Paul is clever, but he isn’t manipulative in that way.  Even in this instance, when it’s hard for us to understand why he would call himself the foremost sinner, I think we need to take him at his word.

     Some of you know that I am currently auditing a course at the Seminary on American Church History.  Having completed my own ministerial training in Scotland, this is a real gap in my education.  I know a fair bit about the Reformation and the history of the church in Scotland, but I know very little about what was going on in “the colonies.”  When I discovered that a course was being offered that would use biographies to help us understand the history of the church in this country, I signed up right away.  The first book that we’re reading is about a woman who lived in New England before the American Revolution.  Her name was Sarah Osborn, and her biography is based on her diaries and a memoir that she wrote in 1743.

     The reason why our text from 1st Timothy made me think of Sarah Osborn is this:  she could have written exactly what Paul wrote.  In fact, she did.  Page after page of her memoir is filled with laments over how sinful she is.  Those things that, in her mind, made her the foremost of sinners included card playing, dancing, and associating with a bad class of people.  Even as a young child she was convinced that she was a “vile sinner.”  You may think that is ridiculous.  These are not sins that we need to lose sleep over, and surely God doesn’t regard young children as “vile”.  Sarah Osborn must be exaggerating for some reason. 

     But I assure you that, like Paul, she was being deadly serious.  After reading only half of the book, I am convinced of that.  And also like Paul, Sarah Osborn’s sense that she was the foremost of sinners is directly related to her awareness of all that God had done to save her.  God had given the utmost, his own Son Jesus, in order to save her, the foremost sinner.  The utmost for the foremost. 

     It seems that there is a clear connection here.  The more we are aware of the magnitude of God’s grace, expressed in the life, death, resurrection, and reign of Jesus Christ, the more we recognize that we are unworthy sinners.  Perhaps we could state that the other way around as well.  The less we appreciate the depth and determination of the love of God, expressed in Jesus Christ and his sacrifice, then the less we are really bothered by our own sin.  There is a reason why Paul and Sarah Osborn would label themselves as the foremost of sinners.  And there may be a reason why we tend to think of ourselves as only moderately sinful.

     To ponder this further, let’s shift over to our other Scripture reading for this morning, the parable of the lost sheep.  I remember the last time this passage was one of the lectionary readings for the day.  Some of you may remember it too.  For the Children’s Message I foolishly decided that I would cut out 100 paper sheep so that I could impress upon the children how important even one lost sheep would be to Jesus.  After cutting out sheep for well over an hour I, the blisters on my hand from the scissors were really quite tender.  I don’t know if it made an impression on the children, but it certainly made an impression on me.  I’ll never read that parable the same way again.

     But before I mutilated myself trying to illustrate it, I read that familiar parable as a gentle pastoral statement about the love and forgiveness of God.  I think that all of us skate over the surface of a lot of what the Bible tells us without truly recognizing that God really has given the utmost for us, and for each one of us.  I ended up with blisters; Jesus ended up on the cross.  Every lost sinner, each wayward sheep is sought and found by Jesus, and he gave himself for each and every one of them, for each and every one of us.  That one miserable sheep was not worth such a sacrifice…not from our perspective.  But from God’s perspective… it is of God’s very nature to give the utmost, even for the foremost of sinners.

     Now, getting back to Paul and Sarah, we can see that each of them thought of themselves as that one lost sheep, the one that didn’t deserve to be saved, the one that Jesus really had to hunt for, as the Good Shepherd.  They each thought of themselves as the one out of the hundred, the foremost sinner.  When we consider ourselves only moderately sinful, are we assuming that we are really still hanging around with the ninety-nine?  We might put a step wrong now and again, and we might even be living near the edge of the flock, pushing the envelope a bit in terms of sinfulness.  But if we don’t recognize ourselves as the lost sheep, then how can we see and understand the deep commitment and sacrifice of the Good Shepherd for us?  On the other hand, when we realize how really good the Good Shepherd is – that he has given his utmost – then it becomes far more obvious that he has done that for the foremost sinner, for me. 

     I have to confess that I got a little bit bogged down in my reading of Sarah Osborn’s biography.  She does go on a bit about her wretched sinfulness.  One might even say that she tortured herself with her excessively self-critical thoughts.  I was saddened to read that at more than one point in her life she seriously considered suicide because she was overwhelmed by her own worthlessness. 

     But this is not the point of Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep, to make us feel bad about ourselves.  And this wasn’t Paul’s point in his letter to Timothy.  The parable of the lost sheep is a story of celebration.  “Rejoice with me,” the Shepherd says, “for I have found my sheep that was lost.”  Paul begins this section of his letter by saying, “I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord,” and he ends with an ascription of praise, “To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever.  Amen.”   I’m happy to report too that Sarah Osborn was eventually brought to an assurance of her salvation, and that (for the most part) from then on, her memoir is an expression of pure joy over what God has done for her.

     So these two things do seem to go together.  When we realize that God has given the utmost, we suddenly become aware that we are among the foremost.  When we discover that we really are the one lost sheep, then we are truly grateful for the determination and sacrifice of our Good Shepherd.  And when the utmost is given for the foremost, then there is joy in heaven and on earth.  “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me!  I once was lost, but now I’m found, was blind, but now, I see.”  Do you see – the way Paul saw, the way Sarah Osborn saw – the amazing grace of God?  God gave the utmost for us the foremost, and saved a wretch, like me.