14TH Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 19
September 11, 2022
Search and Rescue Party
Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28
1 Timothy 1:12-17
Luke 15, 1-10
It is really infuriating to lose something; and I am prone to losing stuff.
When I lose my cellphone, keys, earbuds, an earring, the good scissors, important documents or my glasses, I freak out. Earlier this year I lost my driver’s license at SeaTac: I was obsessed about it throughout my vacation.
Whenever I lose something at home, my stress level peaks to alarming levels. My emotional acceleration sets into motion a force of chaos that reverberates throughout my peaceful home. Everyone is adversely affected. Tony, Piper and Mr. Bean all suffer my wrath as I frantically search for my lost item.
I know it is wrong to impose my agenda onto Tony, but I tend to draw him into my web of insanity. But here is the other part of the problem; he looks for stuff wrong. I know it is bad, but I get really annoyed by the way he helps me because he doesn’t do it right. He looks in the wrong places. And at some point, in the process of looking for whatever it is that I lost, he invariably says, “Do you know where you last put it?”.
Anyway, he loses stuff too and he get all frustrated too.
I knew a woman many years ago who told me a story about how she had all her possessions in a storage locker. Her husband was supposed to be paying the rent, but he didn’t. By the time this woman discovered that he was not paying the rent, all her things had been auctioned off. All her things…gone forever.
Family heirlooms, artwork, letters, pictures, jewelry…all gone.
She was devastated. She was telling me this story 10 years after losing everything that mattered to her. She was still broken, sad and angry. The loss seemed to define her.
Loss hurts. But finding is wonderful.
Imagine if this woman was looking around an antique shop one day and discovered one of her beloved personal belongings sitting on a shelf. Imagine her joy. She might shout, “Thank God! I found it!”
Luke’s Gospel is about God’s loving heart and passion for those who are lost. That sounds simple enough but there is so much to unpack.
Luke 15, 1-10 tell the first two parables about God’s ‘lost and found department’ preparing the Pharisees for the third, and more complicated, parable of the lost son, which we will address next week. Remember that last week we focused on the loss of the nation of Israel, today we focus on the loss of individuals symbolized by sheep and coin.
Let’s start with the two populations for whom the story is told: sinners and tax collectors; and Pharisees and scribes.
Tax collectors: Imagine that I accepted a high-paying job raising money for the Taliban and the Oath Keepers. I am allowed to raise as much money I as I want and am only obligated to turn in 60% to the Taliban and Oath Keepers. I get to keep 40% for myself, and the money is good. I have armed guards to protect me from you. You must pay me, so that I don’t turn the bad guys on you to burn crosses on your lawn or beat up your family. And to add insult to injury, the money you pay me funds the cross burning, violence and oppression on you and your people. You might not like me; you might think I am a jerk. You might not want me in your home as a guest at your table
Sinners: These are the low-life folks, the loud, rude, and mannerless. They could be less educated, taking low skilled jobs that require selling bad things or sex. Or maybe they are well educated folks selling bad things. Anyway, sinners tend to do ‘bad things.’
Imagine that I came to church often enough that you knew me. I spent all my money that I made selling cigarettes to children on designer clothes and other things for my pleasure and never gave anything to the church. I gossiped about you, and to you, and sometimes I stole church linens and candles. And one of you caught me drinking the communion wine in the sacristy. You might not like me; you might think I am a jerk. You might not want me in your home as a guest at your table
Pharisees and scribes: These are seriously religious men. To be a Pharisee among other things, he must be a Pentateuch which means one who knows, by heart, the first five books of the Torah. Pharisees and scribes held the power of the church on their shoulders.
Sure, they were annoyed when others had fun because they 100% believed in piety, quiet obedience to God, consistent discipline and rigorous adherence to spiritual principles of prayer and tradition. These were not light joyful ideas because these were not light and joyful matters. The Pharisees preached that adherence to the Law meant life, rather than death, to the nation of Israel. Without adherence to the Law, all would be lost.
So, when the Pharisees grumble that Jesus is partying with sinners, they are not just being party poopers or persnickety crabapples. They fear losing Israel. They have devoted their lives to teaching people how to be righteous in the face of God.
Of course, they do not celebrate sinners; sinners are the problem.
The Pharisees are convinced that they need to destroy sinners and clean them out of Israel for the glory of God. Consider their point of view in Isaiah 13:9 Behold, the day of the Lord cometh, cruel both with wrath and fierce anger, to lay the land desolate: and he shall destroy the sinners thereof out of it.
And yet, everywhere Jesus goes there is a party celebrating sinners as if they are the solution rather than the problem.
It is safe to say that at these parties there was probably drinking, rowdy behavior and coarse language. Right in the middle of all this hoopla is Jesus eating and dancing and celebrating simply because these people are with him. The Pharisees have tried to confront Jesus about this, but Jesus ignores their warnings. The Pharisees are reaching a boiling point.
They are trying to make Jesus understand that Heaven rejoices when a sinner is destroyed.
But Jesus reframes this idea by changing the meaning to: Heaven rejoices when one sinner is found.
So today Jesus addresses the common ground interest that both God and the Pharisees share: loss. The reframe adds something new and important: finding, redeeming and rejoicing for sinners, not destruction.
And he does this with three stories about loss, the search and the response of joy.
Verse 4 is the story of the lost sheep and verse 8 is the lost coin. The Pharisees are desperate not to lose Israel. Jesus wants the Pharisees to understand that, as is true for Israel, people are like sheep who cannot save themselves. They are not homing animals; they do not have the skill set to find their own way home. They either stay with the herd or they are lost. They are lost in their lostness until God intervenes. This is the point that the Pharisees missed; that the kingdom will survive without every lost Sheep, but the joy of the kingdom lies not in being cleansed of sinners but in sinners being found.
The lost coin goes even further. Jesus is telling the Pharisees about God’s loving relationship with each one of these lost people. God will work tirelessly all night long to find the missing coin and will rejoice with all the others upon finding and redeeming the precious lost one.
It is only one coin among 10 and only one sheep among 100, but when all are reunited there is a party. Maybe Jesus was trying to tell the Pharisees that they were one of the 9 coins that are not missing so please join with the search and rescue party in finding the one lost coin, or maybe he was implying that they represented the lost coin and there will be joy upon their redemption. In Paul’s letter he implies that he was a lost coin who was lovingly found and redeemed. Maybe Jesus is asking the Pharisees to help him count sheep, not for the slaughter but for the glory of the kingdom.
We can’t save people. God is the one who saves. God is the one who found the sheep and the coin. So, what is our role once we are redeemed when it comes to finding and saving the lost? This is the big and ancient conversation, but I would contribute that we generate a place in our lives and in our hearts that invite people to be found. We can light the room and help tend the sheep.
Some days I am the sheep in the story, some days I am the coin. Some days I am the partiers and some days I have the attitude of a Pharisee.
Regardless of who we identify with this morning, we are equally valuable whether we are the one lost, or one of the safe ninety-nine. We are walking a path of trust and meaning that is set for us.
Paster Rob of Crossroads Church in Seattle writes “God sees sinners as prisoners of war. Lost in a spiritual battle they did not create. Jesus is the path to freedom because he served the sentence for us. For this reason, all of us can face God in joy, confidence and forgiveness.”
And no matter what, we can always come home.
I say all the time that if it isn’t about love it isn’t about Jesus. But it takes courage to love. Ask Sarah Monroe about having the courage to love the way Jesus loves.
When we join God’s search party, we will find opposition. And we keep the lamp lit despite the hate and other obstacles.
We are called to respond to God with a heart of repentance for all, without an attitude of rejection.
It was hard for the Pharisees to understand that God calls us to be righteous, not self-righteous. I too mix those up sometimes.
Today’s Gospel is about joy and rejoicing. Jesus is being lighthearted with the Pharisees, rather than harsh. Like Paul before his conversion, the Pharisees were looking at this all wrong. Jesus came to this world to save sinners like them, and he wants them, and us, to come into the party with all the other sinners.