Lost and found, by Pastor Noel

September 15, 2019       Proper 19, C

 

      This gospel makes me think of “Amazing Grace.”

      I love that hymn, but I think we’ve lost the power of John Newton’s words. He was a slave trader who fell off his ship and was sure he was dead. When he was pulled from the ocean, nearly dead, he realized the mistakes he’d made, and helped to abolish slavery. It’s a great hymn, but I think we’ve “prettied it up” too much.

      We can do the same with the gospel reading for today. When we hear of someone being “lost” we might think, well, get a map, or turn on your GPS.

      In these parables of the sheep and the coin, Jesus is turning the idea of being lost upside down. Actually, we have to include the next passage, the story of the lost son (we usually call it the Prodigal Son, but it really is the story of a father who had two lost sons.)

      In these parables Jesus is showing us that “lost” is really “dead.” But the good news about that comes from a young boy whose teacher asked, “What do you have to do to get to heaven?” and he replied, “You gotta be dead!”

      Jesus is at dinner with “tax collectors and sinners” and the Pharisees are complaining about his improper behavior. The Pharisees were ultra righteous and considered their behavior so good that they must be “saved.” So Jesus tells these three stories.

      Jesus says that God saves us when we are lost…  “dead.”

      Parables always tell us “the kingdom of heaven is like…” The kingdom of heaven is like a sheep that has strayed from its flock and the shepherd leaves the other 99 to find it!

      There’s a farm with sheep that I pass driving to Wakefield. The sheep are in a nice field, behind a low wall, and I love to see them as I go by. If one of them got loose, I am sure the shepherd would run out into the road to save it.             But Jesus is saying that all the sheep are in the road, and one of them is missing.

      What shepherd in his right mind would leave 99 sheep in the wilderness, unprotected, to find one lost one? What shepherd would take that risk? The Good Shepherd – Jesus.

      Even using a shepherd in a story would have insulted the Pharisees. Not to mention the story about a woman!

      Shepherds were in the same category as “tax collectors and sinners.” They were outcasts, loners, not the ones to have dinner with! Maybe Jesus wanted the Pharisees to remember that God chose David to be Israel’s king when he was but a shepherd.

      Pharisees lived by the Old Covenant which was a lot about keeping laws and following rules. It was the way they decided was best to be God’s people.          

      The New Covenant, which we celebrate in our Eucharist, is brought to life in Jesus. It is God’s gift of grace that offers forgiveness and salvation for us. To accept it we first have to admit that we need forgiveness, repentance, and that only God can give it.

      So Jesus turns the idea of repentance upside down. He says that repentance is when we let God find us in our lostness.

      Like John Newton, our gratitude leads us to change our minds (repent) about how we live, and so we live with the new covenant, and rejoice that God has found us.

      The sheep and coin do nothing to be found, except to get lost, and God finds them. God always finds us when we are lost, and it’s up to us to accept being found. Repentance is the acceptance of being found – a lifelong journey.

      And “those 99 righteous who need no repentance”?

      Jesus was using thick sarcasm!

      Righteousness comes only from God, and we can receive a measure of God’s righteousness from time to time. 

      We don’t become righteous by trying, but by recognizing our lostness and letting God find us and sharing his righteousness with us.

      The stories are also about rejoicing! The shepherd calls his friends and has a party over finding the lost sheep. The woman throws a party when she finds her coin, which was worth about a day’s wages. The father throws a feast for his son’s return.

      Others are invited to share in the joy of finding and being found – but not everyone wants to rejoice. The older son did not join the party, and Pharisees would not have rejoiced with these stories. They didn’t know that they were lost.

      In the New Interpreter’s Bible, Culpepper writes, “Whether or not one joins in the celebration is important – it reveals if we think our relationships are based on merit or mercy. If we find God’s mercy offensive, we cannot celebrate with “angels in heaven when a sinner is found” and “only those who celebrate God’s grace to others can experience that mercy themselves.”

      A man I knew years ago never received communion, even though the rest of his family did. When I asked him why, he said, “I know all those folks, they are hypocrites. I don’t want to receive with them!” He lived by merit, not mercy. He did not accept his lostness, just the lostness of everyone else.

      One definition of a sinner that fits these stories is “outcast, unwanted.” Jesus was eating with the ones considered outcasts and unwanted in their culture. Jesus invites us to find folks like that in our culture, and invite them to the feast.

      The Pharisees said, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them!” And St. Paul tells us, “we are all sinners, all fall short of the glory of God.”

      AND Paul adds, “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

      It may be helpful to see that in these stories the shepherd, the woman and the father are all God figures. We are the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost son, and God is always searching for us and inviting us to be found. Are we willing to admit that we are lost and let ourselves be found by God?

      We take risks when we reach out to find someone – they can always say “no thanks.” And we take risks when we let ourselves be found, because our life changes. It is a marvelous, wonderful transformation, but it is change, and how we resist that! Are we willing to take those risks, for ourselves? For the parish?

      How do we reach out to the “lost”? And who are they, anyway? If, for example, we consider Muslims lost and they consider us lost—where is the truth? Or those who want to burn mosques, or synagogues, or black churches, are they lost, or found?

      What do we offer the lost? Those who come seeking financial help or spiritual nurture? Do we see them as sinners, lost, while we think that we are saved and found?

      The other night a team of us read through the Charities grant applications to decide who will get funding. There are so many worthy and wonderful programs reaching out to those who are lost in poverty or in illness. I wish I could give much more to help us help them.

      If you haven’t given to Charities this year, or if you can give more, think of those lost. Our support through financial help is a big step towards their being found and able to rejoice.

      Jesus still eats with sinners. He seeks out the lost to bring us back into the fold, to  rejoice and know that we are loved and included. Here’s his table right behind me, and we are all invited.

 

     

 

The Rev. Noel Bailey

The Reverend Noel Bailey was born in Providence, is now back in RI for the 4th time, and hopes that this stay is longer than some of the others. She was ordained Priest at St. Michael's, Bristol, in May 1988, More details