— A Sermon by Robert W. Prim —
~~~14th Sunday after Pentecost; September 15th , 2019~~~
The dinner table was central to Jesus’ culture. Those invited to a meal were considered fully embraced by the host of that meal. Jesus was sharing his meals – even hosting meals if you consider the feeding of the 5000 hosting a meal – with tax collectors and sinners. Tax collectors were collaborators with the Roman government in collecting revenue from their own people – Jews working with Rome to collect money from other Jews. This was not an esteemed position within the Jewish culture. Sinners was a term that connoted both moral failure and being an outcast from proper religious life. Jesus was breaking bread with the likes of these, and the religious authorities, for the most part, were incensed. They believed the rift-raft folks would corrupt the pure.
Jesus’ behavior was radical. The same behavior is radical now. Jesus welcomed to his table those who were thought to be cutting away at the moral fiber of the community. It was not that Jesus wanted the world to descend into the chaos of sinfulness and lawlessness; rather, Jesus wanted to bring those who were lost into a joyful communion with the God who lovingly created them. Jesus invited the lost to a party of forgiveness, grace, and new life. Jesus went looking for the very ones the purists would have rather left off any guest lists.
Jesus goes looking for the lost, but the goal, I suspect, was not always to return the lost to the same community from which they strayed. Jesus was about the work of changing individuals, inviting them into God’s transforming grace, but he was also about the work of changing communities in the direction of compassion and grace and lives lived to the glory of God. Sometimes those who had strayed away from their faith communities strayed away for good reasons. Jesus wanted to restore them and all the rest of us to communities of well-being, forgiveness, grace, compassion.
Once the lost were found, Jesus turned to the religious leaders and said – “We’re having a party! Will you come?” And all of a sudden the righteous, the ones who did not stray from the pack, were the ones who needed to find their way home out of the wilderness of their hermetically sealed moral universe.
Jesus told two stories in response to the grumbling of the religious authorities about the company he was keeping – three really but the third, the story of the prodigal son, we read at another time. Today, we read two stories that very closely parallel one another and make the same basic point of God’s ongoing search for joyful communion with all God’s children.
Listen for the Word of God in Luke 15:1-10
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, 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 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.
“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, 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 story of the one sheep that has wandered away from the flock of one hundred has a beloved place in the canon of Jesus stories. For us we think of Jesus as the Good Shepherd and what a lovely image it is to think of Jesus bringing the little lamb home. Jesus, the strong one, takes the weak, little lamb who has nibbled his way away from the flock, and drapes the lamb over his shoulders to make the rocky journey home. We’ve told the story over and over again, and I think the line in Jesus Loves Me refers to this picture of Jesus … little ones to him belong, they are weak but he is strong.
It is an important message… God has a searching love for us that is relentless. God sees all of God’s children as valuable and will never stop searching for us to bring us home. We can wander away for all manner of reasons, we can make all sorts of mistakes, we can and will fall short of the glory of God; yet, God never will abandon us to our despair or to our just deserts. God’s love is stronger than all our weaknesses, and no one is expendable. It is an important message and I hope you hear it. No matter what ways any of us have broken covenants with one another and with society, God will always welcome us back and call us into a way of life that is redemptive and grace-filled and loving. God loves us and all people and there is nothing we can do to change that glorious good news! God’s love is always on the prowl!
This is the gospel of the Lord. Praise be. Believe it. Live it. Trust it. God’s love is far more powerful than yours or my sinfulness. Now, let me delve into some other stuff…
There are for me a couple of troubling things about this story of Jesus and the flock. (Leave it to a preacher to think too much about a simple story!) As Jesus makes comment on this parable he tells the scribes and Pharisees this: 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. Well, here’s my problem…if we are supposed to think of the flock, the 100 sheep, as the church, I think Jesus has a pretty unrealistic view of the righteousness of the membership. Show me a church with 99% righteousness and I’ll show you St. Peter at the gate because such a place does not exist outside of heaven. Now if Jesus had said… Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine persons who think they are righteous and need no repentance… that I can buy into.
I think, because the parable was addressed to the religious leadership, Jesus was inviting them to consider if they were righteous. Jesus might have been implying to those he who were listening to his story… “You think you are part of the 99 but maybe you all are more like the 1 than you are willing to admit.” Maybe the story was meant to remind them that they too were not perfect, that they too had fallen short of the glory of God, that they too could use the mercy of a Good Shepherd to guide them to the home of true grace and forgiveness.
So, the story is about repentance but not just of the one who wandered from the flock but also for the self-righteousness of those who stayed in the group and considered themselves above and better than the rest.
Another problem I have with this story is the implication that the Shepherd should leave the 99 and go out to find the one who has wandered off. I get that Jesus was making the point that all are valuable, and I should probably leave it at that, but maybe I’m feeling a little guilty because I don’t act like the shepherd in the story. I don’t leave the ninety nine to go find the one.
Here’s what I mean… Some of you in personal conversations with me have heard my philosophy about people coming in and then leaving the church. Here my philosophy: I don’t chase people! I want to treat all of you and those who come to this church as adults, as people who are agents for your own well-being. I do believe this community of faith is healthy and grace-filled and unto well-being for most people who come our way, but I do not presume that we are the congregation for everyone. I also do not presume that the people who leave us are making a mistake. Maybe there are good reasons for leaving the church, even this church … a couple reasons might be … another church is a better fit, another pastor speaks to a person’s longings and challenges in a way that is more resonate with that person, a person may need a break because church is too close to some of the things in his or her past that were oppressive and toxic. The point is some will wander off for good reasons and I’m not leaving the ones who are finding strength and purpose here to chase the ones who have, one can hope, made adult decisions about leaving. I could be wrong about this, but I am a shepherd who stays with the 99. I am also a shepherd with blind spots and a pretty good ability for self-justification.
Here’s a challenge I see in this story… I want to be an agent of welcome and a pastor who leads this community to be welcoming, grace-filled, forgiving, justice oriented, and always seeking to model for the community around us the joy and strength of being a welcoming, diverse community of faith. In staying with the 99 I see the call to be to help facilitate a community that is redemptive and exemplary for those who may be wandering outside the fold of God and needing a place that will both welcome and redeem them into a joyful, loving life.
I ventured outside our community yesterday. It was not exactly a great time for me to venture away because this sermon was not finished and I need at some point soon to start pulling together an order of worship and writing a eulogy for a beloved member of this church. It was not a great time to leave my ordinary pastoral duties, but the event that called me away seemed important.
It started at a clergy, inter-faith gathering at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Dahlonega. We were there on Wednesday, September 11th to discuss an inter-faith thanksgiving service. We have had one each of the last two years, and we want to carry on the tradition. (We decided, by the way, pending session approval, to have it at Nacoochee Presbyterian Church on November 14th. At the end of the meeting my colleague and friend, Charlotte, the UU pastor, began to tell me about a rally that was being planned in downtown Dahlonega. It was presented to the community as a patriotic rally to support the President, but it turned into well-known White Supremacists being slated to speak. One by one the more mainstream folk dropped out but the rally was still to be held. My friend did not ask me to come, but she was pleased when I told her I would be there wearing my collar and a stole and a cross.
I have never seen so many police officers and people in riot gear. Maybe the number will be reported but it seemed to me like hundreds. I told the ones I saw as I was making the long walk to the side of the gathering reserved for those of us protesting the white supremacists rally that I was grateful they were there. I was. They were doing their job. It was hot and they were in lots of gear, and they were there to protect people on both sides of the rally. I appreciated their sacrifice of a Saturday to allow people freedom of speech in a safe environment.
Here’s the good news, there were not very many attending the white supremacists part of the rally… maybe 50 though we were separated from them and could not hear or see anything they were doing. I’d put the number of us on the other side of the square between 100 and 200.
I did not bring anyone back into the fold of grace. I did not even speak to anyone on the other side of the square. I did, however, say by my presence, by my collar, stole, and cross that I am part of a church that wants to be a part of a society that is generous and equitable and fair to all people. I want to be a part of a church and society that recognizes that before God we are all precious. Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight, Jesus loves the little children of the world… and all the adults too!
When I leave public events and I’m wearing a collar, stole, and cross I usually want to take them off, especially when it is hot. As I walked back to my car alongside a busy road I left them on… a quiet witness for those who saw me I hope, a quiet voice that was saying … the church is a place where all God’s people… the righteous few and the wayward many… have a home under the shelter of God’s redeeming love. Amen.