Exodus 32:7-14 Psalms 51:1-11 I Timothy 1:12-17 Luke 15:1-10
One Sunday morning, a preacher told his congregation, “Everyone who wants to go to heaven, come down to the front!” The whole church came forward except one man. Thinking that maybe the man hadn’t heard his appeal, the preacher repeated the invitation. Again, the man just sat there. “Sir,” said the preacher, “don’t you want to go to heaven when you die?” The man replied, “Oh, when I die! I thought you were getting up a group ready to go right now.” It’s all in the wording. These parables introduce teachings of Jesus about the nature of God, particularly God’s nature to forgive and restore God’s people. The parables repeat throughout what forgiveness is like in terms of things lost and things found. Jesus challenges his hearers to consider what it means to be community and what boundaries community has. In this, he invites us to consider what God is like by dwelling on our own experience. This is the power of the parable. We lived out this parable yesterday when everyone pitched in to take down tables and put up chairs as we reconfigured the parish hall for Sunday. Many hands went to work to sort and load the New to You treasures. We are a community of faith and when we work as one, God’s hand is surely making it happen. Why are the Pharisees and teachers of the law bothered that Jesus associated with these people? The religious leaders were always careful to stay “clean” according to Old Testament law. They went well beyond the law to avoid certain people and certain situations. They went past what was needed in their ritual washings. But Jesus took their concept of “cleanness” lightly. He risked defilement by touching those who had leprosy and by neglecting to wash in the Pharisee’s special way. He showed total disregard for their sanctions against his associating with certain classes of people. He came to offer salvation to sinners, to show God’s love for them. Jesus didn’t worry about the accusations. Instead, he continued going to those who needed him, regardless of the effect these marginalized people may have on his reputation. It begs the question…How are we following Jesus’ example? The crowds are pressing around Jesus to hear his teachings. Can you imagine the excitement, the anticipation? All kinds of people make up this community. They gather around Jesus for many reasons. The disciples are there to get some instructions. The Pharisees and Sadducees are there to keep tabs on Jesus’ radical teachings. And the people who do not really belong anywhere are there to feel connected. They have spent so much of their lives on the fringes. They are described as tax collectors and sinners, which means they are people no one else wants to hang around because their reputations will be tarnished. Somehow these outsiders have crowded into this community as well as the others. Here we have a list of strange bedfellows, not a list fit for any dinner party. Here they are, eating with Jesus. If you are known by the company you keep, Jesus has created panic in the community. You can almost hear the whispers as the Jesus community begins to crack. “Who invited them? Why would Jesus embrace that woman, this man? Does he know who they are? Does he know what they do for a living? Who is this Jesus? He talks about godly things on one hand and then on the other hand, he eats with these people.” Sensing the questions, feeling the tenseness and growing division in the air, Jesus begins to talk about the nature of God. He talks about things they value. He wants them to think about what is important to them. It may seem silly for the shepherd to leave 99 sheep to go search for just one. The shepherd knew that the 99 would be safe in the sheepfold. They have a herd mentality. But the lost sheep was alone and in danger. Because each sheep is of high value, the shepherd knows that it was worthwhile to search diligently for the lost one. God’s love for the individual is so great that he seeks each one out and rejoices when we are found. Jesus associated with sinners because he wanted to bring the lost sheep – people considered to be lost causes, those people beyond hope – he wanted to bring the gospel of the kingdom of God. Before we believed, God sought us. God is still seeking those who are lost and hurting. The shepherd values the health and the safety of his flock, his source of income. The woman values the hard-earned money she has scraped and saved to feed her family. Think of that thing that is most precious to us in life and what it would be like to lose it, whether through carelessness, intent, or thief. Think if something we value goes missing. We would be devastated. Not that we can’t continue; we can. People adjust, people adapt – but life feels incomplete with the loss. Part of the whole is missing. God is like the shepherd who values each sheep in the flock, like the woman who accounts for every silver coin in her purse. God treasures every child of the family. When one goes missing, God seeks them out. God’s nature is love, and love looks like one who goes out tirelessly searching because the one who is lost is so lost that she can’t find her way back home. We may be able to understand a God who would forgive sinners who come to him in mercy. But a God who tenderly searches for sinners and then joyfully forgives them must show an extraordinary love. This is the kind of love that prompted Jesus to come to earth to search for lost people and save them. This is the kind of extraordinary love that God has for all of us. As part of their tradition, Palestinian women received ten silver coins as a wedding gift. Besides their monetary value, these coins held sentimental value like that of a wedding ring, and to lose one would be extremely distressing. Just as a woman would rejoice in finding her lost coin, so the angels would rejoice over a repentant sinner. Each individual is precious to God. God grieves over every loss and rejoices whenever one of his children is found and brought into the kingdom. Perhaps we would have more joy in our churches if we shared Jesus’ love and concern for the lost. Perhaps we would have more joy if we went out diligently seeking them and if we began rejoicing when they come to know and love Jesus. One opportunity we have for helping the lost, those who have turned away from God and/or those who are hurting from the loss of a loved one is GriefShare. There are opportunities to ask questions that help flesh out who Jesus is and where God is in our grief. It covers all aspects of grieving. It offers comfort to those who feel isolated by their loss. The sessions last for fourteen weeks with an opportunity to really get to know the folks in your small group. Each of the sessions stimulate questions for small group discussion. GriefShare is an open door to people outside the church. It is a way for non-believers and church-goers to come and learn that we share the common path of grief. We began a couple of weeks ago and continue on Tuesdays at 6PM and to will continue to November 26th. Come and join us. Come and bring a friend who would benefit from this experience. We all need to know that we are not alone in whatever we are experiencing. This sense of God’s community can renew us, restore our faith, reaffirm who God is for us and also help strengthen us for what lies ahead. (Message brought to you by the Holy Spirit.) Woven into the nature of God is the nature of the one who is lost. A lost sheep will often keep quiet out of fear, instead of bleating to let someone know where they are. It will curl up and lie down in the wild brush, hiding from predators. It is so fearful in its seclusion that it can’t help in its own rescue. The sheep is immobilized, so the shepherd must be the one to bring him home. The lost coin, an inanimate object is unable to shout out or shine brightly to attract attention. The woman’s diligence must win out. The murmuring of the Pharisees and scribes would judge Jesus by the company he kept, suggesting that the one who shows hospitality to the sinner is himself a sinner. The sinner would see things differently. Jesus understands the struggle with being lost - the emptiness of being separated, and the struggle to return. Jesus does not turn away from the sinners, but toward the lost, to make a place for them, to welcome them home. Jesus understands that those on the margins of the community are integral to what the community should be in all its fullness. Until they return, the community is incomplete. The parables are about a hospitality that seeks to forgive and restore. This week we recognized the 18th anniversary of 911. It is the kind of thing that we, people of a certain age, remember where we were when the towers came down. It was a sense of profound loss – not just the almost 3000 people who died, but a sense of loss of security. We often said things like that would not happen in America. It was our wakeup call to take better care of ourselves. It was such an amazing coming together of people and agencies to help. Trinity Wall Street opened its doors to feed and house the workers. Restaurants provided food. We all offered our prayers as our nation’s perception shifted. We have been found. We are stronger today because of our responses – both physical, emotional and spiritual. Just as in life, these parables call the community to open its doors and rejoice. This call is repeated again and again. Sinners and tax collectors gather at the table with Christ. Rejoice – be glad – laugh! They have returned home and now sit in the presence of God. The sheep who wandered off from the rest of the flock, lost in the thicket, is now safe and sound back with the others. Hallelujah! No more worries. The coin that fell through the cracks was easily forgotten but blessedly retrieved. We can celebrate. Hope is restored! When one in our community goes missing, we are all affected, we are all diminished. When one is restored, we all are better off for it. That is how it is in the household of God. Thanks be to God!! Amen.