Sermon on Luke 15. 1-10
So we are at a point in the story today in St. Luke’s Gospel where Jesus is on the road to Jerusalem to be crucified and on the third day rise again. His ministry moves between blocks of teaching on what it means to follow Him, in the way of the Cross, and responding to the mounting opposition and criticism from the religious leaders, who are becoming increasingly disturbed and alarmed by the things Jesus is saying-. and doing.
Our Gospel lesson today is an attempt on Jesus’ part to explain Himself to the religious leaders in the hope of changing their hearts, to stop their complaining and join the celebration, which of course is something He failed to do.
Mind you, after He rose from the dead, Jesus won a spectacular victory among the religious establishment when St. Paul – in his own words – was a “blasphemer, a persecutor of the Church, and a violent, ignorant, and unbelieving man” (and he was at the same time an incredibly religious man) had this overwhelming experience of the mercy, grace, faith and love that is Christ Jesus. And it changed his life. He became a Christian, and joined the celebration, and took up His Cross and followed Jesus.
When I think about why it is we come to church, is not that we might experience something of what Paul experienced, and to have our lives changed?
So what exactly was the reason behind the opposition and hostility of the religious leaders towards. Today, it wasn’t so much anything He was said, but what He did and what He did was “welcome sinners and eat with them.”
Just a few words of explanation with regard to the words “sinner”, “welcome,” and “eating.”
Theologically speaking all of us are sinners, which is to say that all of us, I don’t care who you, and what have done, good or bad, are in need of God’s mercy and grace.
But practically speaking we tend to categorize people, rank and judge people according to some moral standard.
During my time in England I accompanied a Chaplain friend of mine on a pastoral visit to the prison. He told me, “First of all we will go and visit the thieves. Then the fraudsters, the white collar criminals. Then we will go and visit the murderers. And finally we will go and visit the sex offenders.
“Welcome to my parish.”
The sex offenders, of course, were way off in a secure wing on the other side of what had once been the execution chamber, which had now been turned into the chapel.
Nice touch, don’t you think? Mercy triumphs over judgment.
But had any these criminals we visited come to the point of turning away from their evil ways, and to in faith to Jesus Christ and to obedience to His commandments? I did meet one that night, and he was in tears, because his parole was coming up, and his fellow inmates were provoking him in the hopes, we would do something violent and parole. But what about the rest? There is a big difference between being sorry for what you did, and sorry you got caught.
These moral disgraces and public outcasts, what some people might call “losers” or “lost causes” and “perverts,” are not the kind of people decent and respectable folk like you and would be seen with in public with. But they were exactly the kind of folk that Jesus was welcoming, sitting down and sharing a meal with.
To their credit, they were drawing near to Jesus to listen Him, which Jesus declared was the principle qualification to be a disciple.
“He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
That word “welcome” is way more than a, “Hi how are you?” It has this sense of taking someone into your arms. Jesus was not openly embracing these folk, he was eating with them, an act which implies camaraderie, friendship, and a deep and abiding acceptance.
So we can understand the consternation of religious leaders, because as yet, these people had yet to clean up their act, as we like to say, but Jesus is treating them as if they had. Not once do we have Jesus pointing the finger and lecturing them.
And so by way of explanation Jesus tells this trio of parables: the first, the parable of the lost sheep, the second, the parable of the lost coin, which serve as a set up for the third, and perhaps most famous of the parables, the parable of the prodigal son, which is not part of our Gospel lesson today.
As with all the parables He told, Jesus is really messing with our minds, and our accustomed ways of thinking, believing, and behaving.
“Which of you,” says Jesus, “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?”
The answer of course is none of us would. I mean, put the whole flock at risk in danger of being devoured by predators, for the sake of rescuing the one? Jesus, are you crazy? Anybody who knows anything knows this is the cost of doing business. It’s a write off. Claim it on your taxes.
Not only that, but since shepherds belonged to this group called “sinners”, by putting the morally upright religious leaders in the sandals of a shepherd, Jesus was inviting them to identify with the lost sheep with whom he was eating. This is Christian leadership, it’s where you identify with the those who morally speaking don’t know their hand from the left.
“And when he has found it” Jesus says, “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 the sheep that was lost.”
Isn’t this a little over the top? What’s the big deal here?
Well, it seems that this shepherd is just overjoyed having found something of his that was lost, however insignificant, and he wants others to share in the joy!
Makes we wonder…Have we misnamed this parable? It’s not really about the lost sheep, so much as it is the joyful shepherd.
In the parable of the lost coin (or is it the parable of the joyful woman?) we have a woman turning the house upside down in search of the lost coin, which represents 10% of her portfolio. So we can understand her anxiety. For those of you with investments, a loss of 10% is not the end of the world, but this obviously cannot continue. So off this woman goes with her lamp and her broom to recover her loss. And what does she do when she finds the coin? Like the shepherd, she invites all of her friends and neighbors over for a party. What do you think that part cost her? This parable, like the previous one, makes no financial sense whatsoever.
All of which is to say, the driving force in the plot in these parables is simply the deep desire on the part Of the shepherd and the woman to recover what was lost, and over whelming joy they experience in finding what was lost, and the desire to share that joy.
So who exactly is this crazy shepherd and this crazy woman?
That would be Jesus.
And who is Jesus?
He is God in the flesh.
The picture that emerges here is of an impossible God, who does impossible things, with impossible people. It is the God who says, “Out of my great love for you, I am leaving everything behind and I am going to come looking for you, and I will not rest until I find you, and when I find you, I will bring you home to celebrate your recovery.”
What a contrast to this image of God that many people have, the God who says “Shape up or ship out!”
So if the shepherd and the woman are a stand in Jesus, who would is being represented by the lost sheep and the lost coin?
Your answer to the question depends for whose benefit Jesus was telling the story. Was it the tax collectors and sinners with whom Jesus was eating, or the scribes and Pharisees who were criticizing Him?
I think the answer to the question is both.
The tax collectors and sinners would have understood that while everybody else may have regarded them as a lost cause and a hopeless case. For God, there are no lost causes.There are no hopeless cases. Just lost and despairing people waiting to be found, and God had come looking for them.
But the scribes and the Pharisees? It’s is easy to talk about people who have committed crimes and landed in prison as those who have lost their way in life.
But you know there is more than one way to be lost. You can have spent your life in the church and be just as lost as the person who has spent their life in prison.
Well, it happens when you lose your sense of belonging, or sense of purpose, or your sense of joy in the Gospel. You lose the experience of God’s felt presence, and the will to persevere. But maybe it’s the loss of someone you loved, a friend, a spouse, a child, or you lost in the throes of some addiction
You don’t know where you are anymore, what to do, and where to turn.
Being lost isn’t just about people out there would have made a mess of their lives.
It’s about an inner state of disconnection, disorientation, and confusion, which is just part the condition of being human.
The moral of the story is?
Jesus tells us not once but twice, “Just so I tell you, there is more joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
So what does it mean for the sinner to repent? In terms of this story, repentance means doing what the tax collectors and sinners did. They came near to Jesus to listen Him, and then entered into the experience of being found by the One who was looking for them through the act of eating and drinking.
But what about their bad behavior?
What about all their lying and cheating and stealing?
What about it?
While repentance does include a mending of ways and moral reform, it’s chief characteristic consists in turning around, a change of perspective, a recognition of who I am in relation to God, which is to say that I am a sinner, someone who, despite all of my attempts to work hard, do the right thing, show up for church on time, am someone still someone who desperately needs God. This is the repentance that sets heaven rejoicing. It applies equally to the religious, and irreligious, saint and the sinner. This is what happened to St. Paul and it is something that happens to us when we come close enough to listen.”He who has ears to hear, let Him hear, ” and let the celebration begin.