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Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 15, 2013

This week marked the anniversary of 9/11. No matter how far away we are from that horrible day, most of us cannot forget the pictures of death and destruction, the news of hundreds of firefighters and police killed trying to rescue survivors, people walking out of crumbling buildings, dazed and confused, their world torn to pieces around them. But there were also the stories and pictures of rejoicing, when someone found a loved one in the rubble, when families were reunited, when people who were supposed to be in the building weren’t and walked several miles through New York to get to the ones they loved. These pictures marked the joy of finding something so valuable that a person could hardly put it into words.

The same thing happens in tornados and hurricanes. People find other people. People find the storm has spared their one-of-a-kind photo albums, some treasured piece of furniture, even their whole house. You can be sure the people who find what was lost tell all their friends about it and rejoice with gratitude for the saving.

Jesus is looking for the lost today – the sinners and tax collectors. Sinners in Jesus’ day didn’t just include those of questionable moral character, but even those of certain occupations, such as shepherds, which is ironic in the face of Jesus’ comparison of God with a shepherd. The crowd also includes the disciples and the Pharisees and scribes. This last group begins to grumble as you might expect, because Jesus is not only talking to social and religious outcasts, he is hosting a meal for them. Eating a meal with someone was a sign of intimacy, of welcoming, of acceptance. Jesus agreed with the Pharisees about who the sinners and tax collectors were; it was his way of relating to them that was offensive. The Pharisees would preach repentance, but they really didn’t think these people were redeemable. Jesus met them where they were and showed them they were important and valuable in his eyes. They had worth as persons and were part of the community, no matter how much the Pharisees and scribes tried to exclude them. This surprising behavior made them open to listening to Jesus. To hear Jesus was to be open to what he was saying (Charles B. Cousar). Jesus’ critics did not like that either.

For the last few chapters, Jesus has been emphasizing repentance and the high costs of discipleship. He has criticized the Pharisees for their lack of humility and their failure to tend to the marginalized members of the society. But now he turns to parables that describe God’s loving nature to teach a lesson in response to the religious leaders’ unhappiness.

God is a seeker, Jesus says. God is loving and compassionate, and God’s character makes God look for the lost without ceasing until they are found. God does not separate himself from the lost as the Pharisees do, but wants restoration and reconciliation with those who have wandered away and cannot get back. He offers them an example of a shepherd to consider. This shepherd would leave 99 sheep in the wilderness to go off and search for one that is lost. This action is quite questionable on the shepherd’s part. Anything could happen to those 99. They could wander off too or predators could attack. But the emphasis is on the shepherd and the lost one. On finding the sheep the shepherd rejoices, but it is not enough for him to rejoice alone; he invites his friends and neighbors to party with him. There is extravagant joy expressed for a valuable item that has been found.

The other parable about a woman and a lost coin is the only reference to God as a woman in the New Testament. She lights a lamp, sweeps the house and searches until she finds it. Again, rejoicing alone is much too little. She invites her friends and neighbors to a party, probably spending as much money on it as the coin she found. Extravagant joy again.

These stories are not in themselves about repentance. Sheep are wanderers by nature and are not acting immorally. The coin, an inanimate object, has no moral sense either. The emphasis is on the finding and the extravagant rejoicing that is the result. But the teaching at the end of each parable does connect repentance with the finding by talking of the joy in heaven over one sinner that repents.

Jesus’ word is for the Pharisees just as much as it is for the sinners and tax collectors. He reassures the outsiders that God is looking for them and will never stop until God finds them and restores relationship with them. He is asking the Pharisees to join in the celebration of finding the lost, and they cannot do it. It would mean welcoming the lost to the table and it goes against all they believe in. They may want to save the sinners, but they do not want to eat with them, showing the ultimate sign of welcoming. Jesus’ word to the Pharisees is also an unspoken message that they are lost because they cannot rejoice. They cannot bring the community together because their rules require division, and the community cannot be whole unless everyone is part of it. God is searching for the Pharisees too and will not stop until God finds them and they repent, which does not mean to be sorry in Greek, but to change one’s mind, to get a different perspective on things.

What does all of this mean for us, the insiders of today? We are the righteous – not the self-righteous, but the ones who try to live by the law (David Lose). We are the ones who go to church, pay our pledges and try to live our lives in the world loving God and neighbor. We are not the sinners and tax collectors, the ones who consistently live notorious lives. We are not the Pharisees and scribes who feel justified in their own eyes and not dependent on God for God’s mercy. We are the 99 sheep, the nine coins, and our story tells us nothing about them.

But the lesson this morning is about God’s relentless search for the lost and the great celebration when the lost is found, so we can look there for instruction. We righteous can and do get lost. As the hymn, “Come thou fount of every blessing” says, we are prone to wander. We are inclined to leave the crowd at certain times and not be able to find our way back. Perhaps we have a grudge that we are carrying and we just cannot forgive someone. Perhaps we have such specific hopes for our children that we do not give them room to become the people God wants them to be. Perhaps we have been asked to become involved with something shady at work and rather than lose our job, we do what we are asked. Perhaps we are tight with money, failing to be generous in our giving to others. And perhaps we fail to welcome everyone in our community as a valued child of God. Those things put us in the lost column, despite our other efforts at righteousness. Then God comes looking for us to restore relationship with us, to call us to repentance, to changing our mind about what we are doing. The truth is even us insiders get lost more than a few times in our lives, and God has to remind us of our value and importance to God as God’s children.

On rejoicing: we are called to party. Jesus liked to go to parties. I remember how surprised I was at an adult forum class that included a picture of a laughing Jesus. I never thought of that before, and I have never forgotten it. We are called to eat with sinners and tax collectors, to rejoice when the lost are found, to give thanks that we are God’s beloved sons and daughters.

Remember the rejoicing in the photos and stories after 9/11 or after a natural disaster? Our joy should be too big to contain within ourselves. We are called to spread the word that God seeks – and always finds – the lost, that everyone is welcome in the community of the faithful. This week, find some way to rejoice in God’s love and mercy in seeking until God finds and to party because we have been found. 

AMEN

     - The Rev. Ann Barker


Works Cited
Charles B. Cousar, Feasting on the Word, vol. 4, year C (Louisville: John Knox Press, 2009), p. 69
David Lose, Lost, Dear Working Preacher, blog post, Monday Sept. 9, 2013