Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

The Rev. Canon Donna Joy

Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28; Psalm 14; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10

Some of you may be aware that I often struggle with the inconvenience of losing my keys.It seems that part of the Sunday weekly routine here at St. Peter’s is to engage in worship from about 10:30 – 11:45, have some greeting time at the door as people file out of the church, and at about 12:00 or so, various people are scheduled to help the rector find her keys. Eventually someone finds them, at which time we call together all the neighbouring keys throughout the building, and we say, “Rejoice, for we have found the keys that were lost.” So, indeed, we know very well the experience of that which is lost being found.

There is a story about a girl 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. The 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 found a little rock inside. She rolled her eyes and said, “What’s this for?”

And her mom replied, “Read the card.”

Her daughter took the card out of the envelope and as she read it tears started 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. And this, of course, is the theme we find in each of our readings this morning.

Our reading from Jeremiah this morning speaks of a time when the Israelite people have become about as lost as a people can become. The sins of the people are so all pervasive that the entire cosmos is being affected. But 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.

Our psalm reinforces this theme as the psalmist acknowledges the sinfulness of the people, “every one has proved faithless; every one has turned bad; there is no one who does good; no, not one.” But despite this, the psalmist offers hope for this wayward, lost people. The psalmist points to a God who looks down from heaven upon us all; a God who will restore the fortunes of his people. A God who searches for the lost, and rejoices when they are found.

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 condoning their behaviour.

So 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, it may just be that they are all sinners. Maybe those perceived as righteous are sinners as well, 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: the parable of the lost sheep, in which one of ninety-sheep becoming lost. When the sheep goes missing the shepherd goes into the wilderness in order to find him. Not only does that shepherd return that lost sheep 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 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. A parent who abuses his or her child and then abandons that child only to replay the nightmare during those brief occasions when he or she returns. As painful and damaging as this scenario is, Jesus invites and welcomes this parent into fellowship at the table. Or prison inmates 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, the 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 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. When, in fact, we are all called to understand ourselves and 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 ladder the one and only priority be lost? Harry Chapin tells such a story in his song 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 and is willing to do just about anything to fit in be lost? Might the earnest Christian who is constantly asking whether people have accepted Jesus into their heart be 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 (and in particular as of late, Syrian 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 are all 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 have strayed, and then as we celebrate the Eucharist together – let us hear and experience the sense of rejoicing. 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.’

Lyrics © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc.