September 11, 2016
Pentecost 17, 2016
Donna G. Joy
Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28: Psalm 14: 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10
There is a story about a girl in her teens who was deeply troubled. She had become rebellious - a very particular kind of lost. Her mom and dad were extremely worried about her and had run out of things to do that seemed to be effective. Late one night the police arrested her for drunk driving and her mom had to go to the police station to pick her up. The condition she was in when her mom found her broke her mom’s heart.
They didn’t even speak until the next afternoon, but her mom broke the tension by giving her troubled, lost, daughter a small gift wrapped box. The daughter nonchalantly opened it. And when she discovered a little rock inside, she rolled her eyes, and with more than a little attitude asked her mother why on earth she was giving her this ridiculous rock. When the girl's mother urged her to read the card, her daughter took it out of the envelope, and as she read it tears began to trickle down her cheeks. She got up and threw her arms around her mom as the card fell to the floor. On the card were these words, “This rock is 200 million years old. That is how long it will take before I give up on finding you when you are lost.”
This story is a wonderful example of the kind of love that God has for us. The one who created us never gives up on us, not in 200 million years; not ever. God keeps searching and searching and searching until we are found. And God does this because each and every one of us is precious. Each and every one of us is forever loved. Eternally. Always.
I think the best hymn ever written to epitomize this central theological truth is Amazing Grace, because the circumstances in which it was written involved a man who was lost, but at the same time found, and saved by God in a way that changed his life forever. John Newton was the captain of a ship which transported people from Africa to N.A. where they were sold as slaves. One day, as he was transporting a boat full of people God found him, and through the gift of grace he realized that what he was doing was wrong. He turned the boat around. Returned the people to their homeland. And never again served as the captain of a slave ship.
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
that saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found;
was blind but now I see.
This, of course, is the theme we find in each of our readings this morning.
Our reading from Jeremiah speaks of a time when the Israelite people have become about as lost as a people can become. And God sends the Prophet Jeremiah to find those who are lost. And even in the midst of such a lost and sinful people, God calls them ‘my people.’ God is intimately bound to God’s people. God will never abandon God’s people, no matter how lost they become / we become. God is willing (time and time again) to continue to search for those who are lost, call them to repentance and give them an opportunity to change - to turn around.
Our psalm reinforces this theme as the psalmist acknowledges the sinfulness of the people, “All are corrupt and commit abominable acts; there is none who does any good." Not a very cheerful view of humanity, that's for sure. But despite this, the psalmist offers hope for this wayward, lost people. The psalmist points to a God who keeps an eye on everyone; a God who restores the fortunes of his people. A God who searches for the lost, and rejoices when they are found. As Christians, we believe that Jesus is the great shepherd who has found us, and when we wander off into less desirable places, he searches for us, finds us, and leads us home.
In our gospel reading this morning we hear the Pharisees and the scribes (those who were perceived as righteous) grumbling because Jesus is not only welcoming sinners, as if that wasn’t bad enough, but he is actually eating with them. And by eating with them, this doesn’t simply mean catching a quick bite at the local coffee shop, or going through the nearest drive through. Eating here is a mark of the building of relationships. It is an act of welcoming, embracing, accepting and befriending. There is a kind of societal intimacy that comes with sitting down and sharing a meal. So in eating with the most despised members of the community (tax collectors and sinners) Jesus is demonstrating a deep and abiding acceptance of those people society has identified as morally corrupt and therefore worthy of nothing more than living on the margins. To eat with these despised characters is seen as associating with them and somehow condoning their behaviour. Jesus’ critics are partly right: he is associating with them – even welcoming, embracing, accepting and befriending them. But he is not in any way condoning their behaviour. In searching for these otherwise despised individuals, and eating with them, Jesus is inviting them into relationship, and making the point that no matter how far they may stray, he will ALWAYS search for them, and he will NEVER give up.
This is the context in which this morning’s stories are told: the story of the lost sheep and the lost coin. In other words, maybe the folks with whom he is sharing meals are perceived as ‘lost sinners’ in the eyes of those who are perceived as ‘righteous’ but Jesus has come to find those who are lost and to rejoice. And, interestingly, since Jesus was the only person who has ever been without sin, it seems obvious that the rest of us are, in fact, sinners. Those who see themselves as righteous are also sinners, but unaware of their particular brand of sin.
So in order to make this point, Jesus (as is his way) tells a couple of stories (parables). The first is the parable of the lost sheep, in which one of ninety-sheep becomes lost. When the sheep goes missing the shepherd goes into the wilderness in order to find him. Imagine that, risking all sorts of dangers, he goes into the wilderness in order to find him. Not only does that shepherd find the lost sheep, and return it to the fold, but he carries it on his shoulders, and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbours, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’
“Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” And let’s make note here that this would not have scored him any points with his current critics. It is – indeed - a bit of a kick in the head to those who see themselves as righteous.
The second parable tells the story of a woman with a lost coin, who lights a lamp, sweeps the house and searches carefully until it is found – and then calls together her friends and neighbours, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ “Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
The shepherd and the woman in these stories are intended to help identify the very nature/character of God; and in particular, the character of God made known in Jesus. That is: The God we worship is one who not only actively seeks out individuals who are lost, but also rejoices when they are found – when we are found. This God is not a tyrant, but One who actively longs for and seeks restoration.
An important question here is: who are the lost that God is seeking to find? I think it is easy to identify the obvious . . . such as tax collectors and sinners. Prison inmates, for example, doing time for any number of heinous crimes – while there is nothing in either of these stories to condone this behaviour, Jesus invites and welcomes these folks into fellowship at the table. But the Pharisees and the scribes (that is, those who see themselves as righteous) in effect claim that this is not fair. How is it fair that they are not seen in a more privileged place considering their ‘perceived’ elevated moral conduct?
So here’s the clincher. To focus on these stories in terms of categories such as ‘sinner’ vs. ‘righteous’ is to completely miss the point, because this defines us according to what we have done, or perhaps, left undone. When, in fact, we are (all) called to understand ourselves as lost and found – this is who we are. Within the frailty of our human condition we all become lost, and the God we worship searches for us, finds us and rejoices each and every time. Those who know they are lost are actually closer to experiencing and accepting the transformation that comes with God finding them. But those who see themselves as righteous don’t recognize that they – too – are lost and need to be found.
So, how might those who are seen in society and throughout the church as righteous also be terribly lost? Might the parents who want their children to succeed so much that they push their children into places they are not called to be... be lost? Might the career minded woman or man who has made moving up the corporate ladder the one and only priority... be lost?
Harry Chapin – Cat’s in the Cradle
My child arrived just the other day
He came to the world in the usual way
But there were planes to catch and bills to pay
He learned to walk while I was away
And he was talkin’ ‘fore I knew it, and as he grew
He’d say “I’m gonna be like you, Dad
You know I’m gonna be like you”
And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon
Little boy blue and the man on the moon
When you comin’ home, Dad
I don’t know when, but we’ll get together then
You know we’ll have a good time then
For Harry Chapin this was the story of a dad who sacrifices a relationship with his son in favour of moving up the corporate ladder. I also see it as a story of a man who is lost; a man for whom God searches.
- Might the folks who work around the clock in order to give their family things way beyond what they need... be lost?
- Might the senior who has a great pension plan but little sense of meaning since retirement... be lost?
- Might the child, youth or adult who works so hard striving for perfection even so far as to sacrifice a sense of integrity... be lost?
- Might the earnest Christian who is constantly asking whether people have accepted Jesus into their hearts... be lost?
- Might our inability to love others as God loves us - forgive others as God forgives us - render us lost?
- Might the one who engages in gossip that is hurtful to others, be lost?
- Might a relatively comfortable Canadian culture that creates obstacles to welcoming and embracing refugees... be lost?
In our own individual ways, we are all lost. We may not be serving time in prison, or engaging in any of the public sins that are socially taboo, but in our own individual ways, we all know what it is to be lost. And we will only be receptive to the transformation that comes with God finding us when we acknowledge that we are lost.
Each time we say together the confession, we are acknowledging that we are lost and the God of mercy (through Jesus) has found us. Today, as we say this confession together, I encourage each of us to think long and hard about how and where we are lost, be open to God finding us however far we may have strayed, and then as we celebrate the Eucharist together – let us hear and experience the sense of rejoicing as we share this banquet with Jesus as our host.
Let us hear God’s voice as He says, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found him / I have found her, whom I had lost.’