God Seeks the Lost a sermon on Luke 15:1-10
Joseph Cailles, pastor, Trinity UMC
September 15, 2019, The 13th Sunday after Trinity Sunday

Luke 15:1-10

The Parable of the Lost Sheep

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 neighbours, 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 people who need no repentance.

The Parable of the Lost Coin

‘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 neighbours, 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.’

New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicized Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org
Well, Jesus is at it again. He keeps saying things and doing things that the religious leaders of his day have said – clearly and repeatedly — you can’t say that! You can’t do that! Jesus says that and Jesus does that. The religious leaders of the Jesus days are the Pharisees, who are the experts in the Jewish law. They’ve studied the scriptures and they know how to apply them to everyday lives. Jewish law says, “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.” That’s one of the 10 commandments. The Pharisees teach the people how to keep the sabbath holy. Like when does the Sabbath begin. Since no one has cell phones or watches to keep track of the time, the Pharisees say that sabbath begins when the sun sets Friday and ends on sunset Saturday. No work on the sabbath means no plowing the fields. No weaving of cloth. You can walk this many steps at one time, but no more. You can eat, but you can’t cook. You can help people and animals that are in mortal danger but not anything more. You can do this, but you can’t do that.
The Pharisees make those decisions for everything based on the law that God gave the Jewish people eleventy hundred years ago. That’s their job and it’s a respectable, useful profession, and I believe that their intentions are honest and true, and they are genuine people of faith, trying to help the their people follow the ways of God. But scripture says the one of the ways the Pharisees are trying to be useful is by identifying the people who are not following the ways of God, pointing them right out so that the good folks will know to avoid them and not follow their bad examples. And Jesus keeps undermining them!
One time a Pharisee welcomed Jesus into his home and in walked a woman, a woman with a reputation, not the good kind of reputation. Jesus allowed this woman to touch him and honor him, and that is not done. You don’t do that.
Second time a Pharisee invited Jesus to eat, and Jesus did not do the ritual washing before he ate. When the Pharisee politely pointed out that omission was disrespectful to God, Jesus pointed out rudely that the Pharisees may keep their outsides clean but inside they were filled with greed and wickedness. Jesus says that the Pharisees are obeying the letter of the law but neglecting justice and the love of God. Well, you can’t just say things like that.
Finally, Jesus healed a man on the sabbath. Right in front of the Pharisees and the people and in front of God Almighty. The man wasn’t going to die then, he’d been sick and miserable for years, and Jesus couldn’t wait one more day. He had to again disrespect God and disrespect the scriptures by healing the man then and there on the Sabbath. Who does Jesus think he is? God?
And now at the start of our passage, Jesus is breaking bread and eating with tax collectors and other sinners. Tax collectors are the worst! They are Jewish people collecting tax money and a little bit extra from fellow Jews for the hateful Roman Empire. Awful people! And sinners, well, if you show a sinner kindness and acceptance, how in the world will they understand that they are sinners. Don’t eat with them. Don’t touch them. Don’t welcome them into your worship space. That’s just common sense according to the Pharisees. And now Jesus is seeking these people out and welcoming them into his presence.
Now to be clear, Jesus is not condoning sin. He’s not saying that it’s perfectly fine to do whatever you want, no matter how much it damages self or does damage to the neighbors or does damage to God. Jesus does have standards: Love God. Love all your neighbor, even the ones you don’t like at all, as you love yourself. Focus less on your own status and more one the needs of those around you.
To the tax collector Zaccheus, Jesus extends kindness and compassion and in response, Zaccheus pays back all the money he had skimmed off the top for his own pocket. Another tax collector, called Levi in some places and Matthew in others, Jesus invites him to leave his profession and follow him as a disciples.
To all sinners, Jesus says, your sins are forgiven, leave them behind, start life new and fresh, and that sounds obvious and perfect to us but for the religious leaders of Jesus’’ day, Jesus was breaking down the walls between sinner and saved, between respectable people and disrespectful people, between those who honor the traditions which the Pharisees have developed and those how, I guess anything goes? If Jesus keeps this up, then, the Pharisees wonder, are their going to be any differences between us and them left? So we have conflict between established, time-honored traditions and a movement to break down barriers and walls, and welcome those who have been rejected.
It doesn’t take too much of a stretch, does it, to see how all of that is playing out today with all of us?
We today find ourselves in a time when the standards of American life and the standards of Christian life are being challenged and reconsidered. Lynn Japinga, a Professor of religious studies writes that we’re asking questions that we really haven’t had to ask before, and frankly that we don’t much like asking at all. “Who is a real American? Who is a real Christian? Who belongs in this country? Who belongs in this church?” [From “Commentary 2 of Proper 19, “Connections: A lectionary Commentary” Westminster John Knox Press. 2019] Many of us remember a time in our church and in our country when we didn’t have to honestly ask those questions. We had established structures and stability. Most mainline pastors and executives and leaders in the government looked like me…White, male, on the younger side, married to a wife, and now there are churches and universities and corporations and countries which are led by people who are none of those things.
It’s a rapidly changing world in the church and in our country, and of course that produces anxiety and anger, and everyone of us wants to grip tightly on something that makes sense and is stable. The Pharisees feel the same way as we do, and God bless them, and God bless us.
And so Jesus tells the Pharisees and tells us two stories…really it’s the same story told two different ways. In the first story, a shepherd won’t stop looking until a lost sheep is found. In the second story a woman won’t stop looking until a lost coin is found.
In the first story, the shepherd seems to abandon 99 sheep who had the good sense to stay found. They’re the good sheep. But the shepherd can’t leave the the one lost sheep behind. When the stupid sheep, who got himself lost!, is found, the shepherd brings him back and then celebrates with the other shepherds. In the second story, a woman has 10 coins, each worth a day’s wage. One stupid coin is lost and she searches for it, neglecting who knows what else that needs her attention. She persists until she finds it, and then she celebrates with her friends and neighbors.
In these two stories, Jesus is saying God is the shepherd, looking for the lost sheep. God is the woman, looking for the lost coin. God is not going to be content, Jesus is not going to be content, to abandon anyone, or to forget anyone or to leave anyone behind. Sinners and tax collectors and those with shady reputations and those who are excluded and shut out either by their own actions or because they don’t fit in with everyone else. Anyone who feels lost and rejected, Jesus says, here I am, come home.
The scriptures don’t say how the Pharisees reacted to Jesus’ stories. Perhaps some of them had their eyes opened, their hearts expanded, and said, “Oh, I get it now! Of course! Why didn’t I see it before! God’s love and compassion transcends our ordinary definitions of good and bad.” Maybe some of them got it.
I suspect most of them did not. Once we make our minds up about something. It’s hard for us to walk that back.
I’m guessing that when Jesus is telling his stories, it was the word “more” that gave the Pharisees the most problems. Did you catch that, when Jesus used the word “more.” Jesus says that there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous person who need no repentance. More joy? More joy over the stupid sheep who got itself in its own mess than over those of us who didn’t get lost in the first place. More joy? That is unfair and infuriating.
And it is very good news. The Pharisees are not the 99 sheep, not really. We’re not the 99 sheep either. Now we come to church. Good on us! We mostly do our best to follow Christ, mostly when it is convenient and easy and beneficial for us to do so. We don’t litter. We’re good people. That is absolutely true. We are also lost sheep and lost coins. All of us. And there is more joy in heaven when each one of us recognizes how lost we all are, and how much we need the shepherd, the woman, the savior, to find us and bring us home. We were lost until Jesus found us. We were blind until he opened our eyes.
Both stories end in parties. Having found the lost sheep and the lost coin, the shepherd celebrates with his friends and the woman celebrates with her friends. It’s meant to symbolize the joy in heaven, but Jesus rarely talks about just heaven stuff separate from the down here stuff. The party, the joy is meant to be here among us. We’re meant to celebrate each other. WE’re meant to rejoice with each other and share good times with each other, even when we disagree with each other. And we do disagree with each other, as Americans as Christians, our divides seem deep and wide, but Christ keeps leaping over those divisions to reconcile us lost sheep and lost coins to each other. The Pharisees aren’t just 99. Neither are we. We’re all lost. We’re all found. We’re all welcome to this party.
Jesus is inviting us to do the hardest thing possible and that’s to take an honest look at ourselves and the divisions we’ve lost ourselves in, and then let him lead us back, back to the party, back home. So this day and every day, let’s leap over those divides and follow him home.