The following was preached at the First Presbyterian Church of Washingtonville, NY on Sunday, September 12, 2010. The primary scripture lesson was Luke 15:1-10.
When we meet up with Jesus in our Gospel lesson this morning, he has gathered quite the variety of people around him. Townspeople, ordinary folks, religious leaders, Pharisees and scribes, and sinners and tax collectors. Of course, we're used to seeing Jesus with that latter bunch of folks - the sinners and tax collectors. But, the Pharisees and scribes are apparently a little taken aback by the company that Jesus keeps. And so we hear the Pharisees and scribes "grumbling". (They just never seem to be in a good mood, do they?)
"This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them!" The religious leaders are disgusted. And, they are full of themselves... You can hear the disdain and contempt just dripping from every word. "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them!" These "sinners" aren't worth it, they think. These "creatures" are hopeless. Why would anyone worth anything - which Jesus claims to be, saying that he is the very Son of God - why would he waste his time with those kinds of people?
Of course, Jesus hears what they have to say. Most likely, everyone hears what they have to say. Rather like hot-headed people threatening to burn religious texts... or like loud-mouthed, hateful protesters at a military funeral... Everyone hears what the Pharisees and scribes have to say - they make sure of that. And Jesus responds. Not by chastising them. Not by yelling or reprimanding or turning over tables. Jesus responds by telling a story - a parable. He tells 3 parables, actually - though our scripture lesson today only includes 2 of the 3.
Jesus asks all of the people who are present: "Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the 99 in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?...And 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?..."
Who among us is like that? Which one of us would do these things? Jesus asks these questions in such a way that they seem to beg us to respond "Well duh...we would," as if it is obvious that all of us would do those things without a thought. But, of course, it really isn't that obvious - it really isn't that way at all! Most likely, if we are honest with ourselves, none of us would do those things. Instead, we would cut our losses. We'd be crazy to risk the safety of 99 sheep - leaving them in the wilderness - to search for just one that is lost! It would be foolish to lose an entire day's work - or longer - to search for one list coin, when there are 9 other coins safely tucked away in our wallet already.
But Jesus, the asker of the questions and the teller of the stories, says: "Just what makes you think that these stories are about you? These aren't stories about how you behave - these are about how God behaves!"
If the Pharisees and scribes were grumbling before Jesus told these stories, they must have been fuming afterward. You see, the Pharisees believed that they had God all figured out. God was safe. God was predictable. God looked after the righteous and God damned the unrighteous. Everything was black and white. God had created us, given us rules to follow, and was now out there in the great beyond, waiting for us to obey. And only then - if we obeyed - would God welcome us. Anyone who dared to step off the path that they Pharisees knew and guarded so carefully were cursed. That was how God worked, they thought. And so, religion was all about separating the good from the bad. It was all about being righteous and staying as far away as possible from anything thought to be sinful, lest the righteous be "tainted" in any way...
Does anyone get the feeling that the Pharisees would have gotten along with Fred Phelps and Terry Jones?
Jesus tells a very different story. He paints a very different picture of God. Jesus describes God as a devoted, seeking shepherd. Jesus describes God as a persistent, searching woman. As Jesus describes, God is not some distant, hands-off rule-maker or taskmaster. God is closer than we think. God is relentlessly pursuing us! God values the "lost" just as much (and perhaps, even more so) as the not-so-lost. So, there is never even a question of God's simply cutting any losses and just shrugging off the lost - that sort of behaviour isn't even on God's radar. Regardless of any risks, God searches for us until we are found. It isn't a matter of "if" - it is always a "when".
Now, it is common to hear people say that they are "looking for something" when they come to church. Likely, we have all said it or thought it at some point ourselves. And, I suppose that the lost sheep in the parable was "looking for something", too. Yes, we like to think that we are here because we are looking for something - that we're searching for answers - that we're looking for God. And that's fine. There isn't really anything all that wrong with our thinking that. But, our scriptures describes something else. Time and time again, our scriptures describe sheep - people just like you and me. But we don't read about how these sheep go searching for and find a shepherd. We don't read about coins who search for and find an owner. No! We read and learn about a shepherd who searches non-stop for the sheep until they are found. We read and learn about a woman who turns the whole house upside-down for one coin until it is found.
Jesus tells these parables while he is sitting with sinners, and the Pharisees grumble about it. And, in effect, Jesus demonstrates with his actions - by his dining with the outcasts - the same amazing grace and love that God shows through the actions of the seeking shepherd and the searching woman. Jesus says to the Pharisees and scribes - to all those who want to put up walls and make distinctions between "us" and "them" - that he is exactly where he needs to be. Jesus says to those who grumble about his actions, "I came to seek and save the lost...why are you here?"
Father Robert Capon - an Episcopalian priest and scholar - said this of these parables in Luke's gospel: "The point is that what these two parables put together says is that what governs God's behavior to us is not our sins. It's not our problems. It's his need to find us. These parables go by the need of the finder to find, not about the need of the lost to be found... the universe is driven by the need of the finder to find all of us in our lostness."
God, the Finder, needs to find us - all of us. Now that is good news! No matter who we are, no matter where we are, no matter what we've done, no matter what we'll do, no matter what kind of "lostness" we are wrapped up in, and no matter whether we even realize that we're lost or not - God the Finder is searching non-stop for each of us. And God won't stop searching for us until we are found. And, when we get lost again... God will search again...
And every time we are found...scriptures tell us that the heavens will rejoice! There's a party like we can't even imagine every time we are found...
May God, the Almighty and Eternal Finder, find each of us - again and again. And may we all take a lesson from Christ, learning to dine in peace with our fellow "lost", resting in the knowledge that God will never give up on searching for each and every one of us...