Monday, September 13, 2010

Sermon for Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, "One of One Hundred"

Sermon 9/12/10
Luke 15:1-10

Parables of Jesus: One of One Hundred


            Have you ever been lost? I’ve told you before that my mother has a horrible sense of direction. This has resulted in many stories over the years of her being totally and utterly lost. For example, there was the time when she was driving home from visiting me in New Jersey, and she accidentally ended up in Massachusetts. Or, how whenever she was trying to go someplace in the greater Utica area, she would always end up at Hapanowicz’s meat market. When she used to come visit me at college, I would simply have her meet me at the campus center, because it had a bright green roof that you could see from anywhere in town. I knew she couldn’t get lost, but that she would never make it to my dorm if I tried to steer her there directly.
            Have you ever lost something or someone? When I was a child, I had an experience where I didn’t think I was lost, but my mother thought she had lost me! I had gone to deliver my newspapers – I had a small share in my older brother’s paper route, and then I had gone to ride my bike in the cemetery next door to my house – it was a popular bike-riding location in the little town of Westernville. I’d told my mom of my plans, but she’d thought I would stop home in between, and then she saw a little girl in a van that drove by the house that looked like me. She thought I’d been kidnapped. She, of course, freaked out, making calls, and generally panicking. Meanwhile, my big brother rode his bike into the cemetery, looking for me. To this day, I can exactly picture the expression of urgency and alarm on his face as he approached me. We raced back to the house, and all was well, when my mother realized I was safe.
Our gospel lesson today is about losing things too. Jesus shares two parables with the scribes and the Pharisees, one about losing a sheep, one about losing a coin – two parables that are probably fairly familiar to you. Jesus describes a shepherd who has a hundred sheep, and discovers that one has gone astray. He searches for and finds the lost sheep, rejoices, and lays it on his shoulders to carry home. Arriving home, the shepherd calls friends and neighbors together so that they too can rejoice in his good news – “I have found my sheep that was lost.” In the second parable, a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. She lights a lamp, sweeps the house, and searches carefully until she finds the lost coin. She, like the shepherd, Jesus says, would rejoice at her find, calling together friends and neighbors to rejoice that she has found the coin that was lost. In both of these instances, Jesus says the parables – the rejoicing that takes place by all involved in each story – are like what happens when one sinner repents and is found by God who is searching and seeking.
Have you ever been lost? Do you remember what it felt like to be lost – really lost? Jesus, in his teaching of these parables, is not only trying to get us to see how much our loving God will seek us out, but he’s also trying to show us how painful and scary and alone it can feel to feel like you are lost from God’s sight, wandering on your own path, turned away from where God wants to lead you. How many times in your faith journey have you wandered away from God? How often do you feel like you are just going through the motions of life, living each day without a particular purpose or direction? These parables are for us, to comfort us, to remind us that God never stops looking for us, and to remind us that we can, should, always seek our way home again.
            But beyond knowing that God always seeks for us, beyond knowing that we can be found by God even when we feel completely lost, Jesus actually tells this parable primarily for another reason. This isn’t a parable about being lost as much as it is a parable about losing things. We have to go back to the text and remember why Jesus is telling these parables in the first place. What made him tell these stories? When he sets the scene to tell these parables, Jesus is responding to the grumbling of the Pharisee and scribes. They’re upset with Jesus, because everywhere Jesus goes tax collectors and sinners seem to surround Jesus. And not only do these sorts follow Jesus, but Jesus even sits and eats with them – he welcomes them, makes them feel important. In Jesus’ day, the act of sharing a meal with someone was a personal, intimate event. You wouldn’t eat with just anyone, and the scribes and Pharisees, religious leaders in the community, certainly wouldn’t want to be seen eating with tax collectors and other known sinners. And let’s face it: even today, we’re not so different. How many meals do you share with those who are not part of your family, your workplace, or your place of worship?  
When we read the gospels, I think we should always remember that Jesus is talking to us. But in this case, I think we can get confused. Jesus isn’t leading us to see ourselves as the ones who are lost. Instead, Jesus is asking us to move ourselves as the one who has lost something. So Jesus uses one of his favorite tactics in the teaching of this lesson. When he describes the woman and her lost coin, the shepherd and the lost sheep, he begins with a tone that says, “who would not do it this way? Who would not react like this?” “Which one of you would not,” he begins. He sets us up to feel that if we don’t react like he has indicated, that we’re not acting as a normal person would respond. In this situation, Jesus says: who wouldn’t go out and have a search party for a lost sheep? Who would let the poor sheep wander lost and alone? Who wouldn’t rejoice at this sheep being found, and call up friends and family to let them in on the good news? Well, the answer is: we wouldn’t, his audience wouldn’t have, shepherds probably wouldn’t have! What shepherd would have left the 99 sheep open to attack just to seek out one stray? He says, “who wouldn’t call together friends and neighbors to rejoice over a coin that was lost but is now found?” The answer is: we wouldn’t! We wouldn’t be so excited; we wouldn’t bother our neighbors with this kind of news. But Jesus challenges us to set a new norm. The old norm is to reject people when they stray or when they behave differently than the rest of the fold. The new norm is to seek out those who are lost and alone, and to welcome them back with open arms, with celebration. We tend to see ourselves as the lost victim at the center of all these stories – it always us that God is seeking after. But Jesus wants us to be filled with the sense of loss at not having those who are thought of as less-than as part of our lives. Jesus is implying that when we don’t widen our circles to include everyone, we are missing out. We’ve lost something essential, worth seeking with all our energy.
Jesus, by directing his story at the Pharisees and scribes, he is talking to people who already consider themselves faithful, who already see themselves at the center of the fold. If he was telling the parable today, he’d be talking to us – the church regulars, the people who have already been ‘found’ or who never strayed from the fold to begin with. He’s not talking to the lost sheep – it is the very people the scribes and Pharisees look down on that are the lost ones Jesus seeks after. Our presence here today, for most of us, signifies that we are more like part of the 99 sheep than like the lost one.
The real question Jesus wants to push on in these parables is not a question of why or how we stray from God, but of how we respond when others find themselves outside of the sheepfold. How does Jesus respond? In the gospels, he simply goes where the lost sheep are, and settles in. Notice that Jesus isn’t trying to convert the lost sheep or tell them how sinful they are. In fact, Jesus’ teaching and preaching: he directs most of that at those who already claim that they’re in the know. Jesus has to spend most of his time preaching and teaching to the religious folk who are already supposed to know how to treat one another. Jesus doesn’t spend so much time preaching to those who have found themselves outside the acceptable places. Instead, he heals, forgives, love, and simply builds relationships with those no one else even wants to see. Jesus says that there are sheep lost from the fold that should create a void so deep in our lives that we cannot rest until we’ve found them. We’re not the lost. We’re the ones who are losing out, every time we exclude someone, overlook someone, or judge someone.
“And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’”
Amen.


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