Exodus 32:7-14 Psalms 51:1-11 I Timothy 1:12-17 Luke 15:1-10
There was a painter named Jack who was very interested in turning a profit, so he often thinned down his paint to make it go a little further. He got away with this for some time. The local church decided to do a big restoration job on the outside of the church. Jack put in a bid and, because his price was so low, he got the job. So, he set about erecting the scaffolding, setting up the planks, and buying the paint, and yes, thinning it down with turpentine.
While Jack was on the scaffolding, painting away, the job almost completed, suddenly a horrendous clap of thunder; the sky opened and rain poured down, washing the thinned paint from all over the church and knocking Jack off the scafford, landing on the grass among the gravestones, surrounded by puddles and puddles of the thinned and useless paint. Jack was no fool. He knew this was a judgment from the Almighty, so he got down on his knees and cried: “Oh God, Oh God, forgive me; what should I do?” And from the thunder, a mighty voice spoke. “Repaint! Repaint! And thin no more!”
Jack was a greedy man. He did everything he could to make money and not spend it, including thinning his paint. The good news is that God grants grace and forgiveness to all. Jack repented (and repainted, as luck would have it), and God sought after him to extend that grace and forgiveness that God always extends to those repenting.
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.
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. 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.
In the reading, 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 of society. They are described as tax collectors and sinners, which means they are people no one else wants to hang around because of what it would do to their reputation. Somehow these outsiders have crowded into this community as well as the others. 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 tension 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 who had lost 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. God is always seeking us.
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. God values every one of us. 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.
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.
Today we recognize the 21st anniversary of 9/11. 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 loss of innocence. It was our wakeup call to be better aware and to take better care of ourselves.
It was such an amazing coming together of people and agencies to help. St. Paul’s Chapel in 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. The Sunday after 9/11, had the most attendance in churches throughout the country. We sought solace and strength.
With the death of Queen Elizabeth II, I heard several stories about her kindness and empathy toward the United States. After 9/11, she had our National Anthem played at the changing of the guard outside Buckingham Palace just two days after 9/11. She also has the flags lowered to half-staff.
There is a Queen Elizabeth 9/11 Memorial Garden in New York City in honor of the 67 British citizens who lost their lives on 9/11. At 96 years old, she supported the elimination of Conversion Therapy that was thought to “cure” LGBTQ people of their sexual orientation, often very aggressively. A life of service and compassion. A life well lived!
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 – sing! 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! 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 restored. That is how it is in the household of God. Thanks be to God!! Amen.