Sunday, September 16, 2007

Proper 19C

St. Christopher's Episcopal Church of the Ascension, Jackson

Exodus 32:1, 7-14; Psalm 51:1-11; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10

Well, which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine alone and defenseless in the wilderness where coyotes and wolves and thieves can attack the flock while you go after the one little sheep that is lost who knows where among the steep and rocky and treacherous hillsides for who knows how long until you find it?

I haven’t done much sheep herding in my life, but from what I have read it seems the honest, real life answer to Jesus’ question in this parable would have been: no one. No shepherd who truly made a living from his flock of a hundred sheep upon losing one of them would leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after that one. It’s not worth it. He’d cut his losses, and return with his flock to the fold.

Which one of you, like a woman having ten silver coins, if you lost one of them, would not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until you found it?

Now this one I have done. Or something like it. The honest, real life answer to this question would have been: most people. Most of the people, anyway, among whom Jesus ministered – a single silver coin, worth barely a day’s wages, could have meant the difference between eating and starving to death for the poor and outcast who flocked to him like lost sheep to a shepherd.

We’ve all searched high and low for something that was lost, something of real or sentimental or at least practical value. For me it’s my car keys nearly every morning. For my six year old son it’s a little blue matchbox car missing for weeks now. Every now and then I wish God the Homemaker Woman would come to my house and light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds…under all my clutter who knows what she’d find that I’ve forgotten I ever lost…

The Pharisees and the scribes, scrupulously obedient to God the Rulemaker, had no patience for anyone who couldn’t find their way out of sinfulness and into righteousness. Luke tells us they grumbled when they saw Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners, because surely he knew God’s law warned against it like a mother warning her children not to run with the wrong crowd. At their best, the Pharisees and scribes lived and breathed Torah, setting for all others the example of living according to God’s covenant rather than the world.

But their high standards over time had become rigid, more concerned with measuring righteousness than with maintaining the relationship between God and God’s people. Jesus’ warm welcome of those who just didn’t measure up was radical and disturbing to those who topped the charts of righteous living. And so they grumbled, unable to accept the wideness of God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea when the law clearly defined a more narrow way. So, Luke writes, Jesus told them these two parables. The shepherd who does leave the ninety-nine to find the one. The woman who searches diligently until she finds her coin. The parties that follow on earth and in heaven as friends and neighbors and angels rejoice over what has been found, for I tell you there will be more joy…over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

Jesus, in his life and in his teaching, in these parables he told the grumbling religious leaders, was messing up the boundaries that had long stood between sinners and righteous people. He was cluttering the covenant with what seemed like exceptions to the rules. If the shepherd will risk everything to find the one lost sheep, if the woman will search until she finds the coin, doesn’t that give us permission to wander away from the flock whenever we feel like it? To fall away on a whim? God will come looking for us, and just when we need it, will lift us up on strong shoulders or tuck us away in an apron pocket and all will be well until the next time we lose ourselves…

But the Pharisees and scribes were making the same mistake we often still make when we hear the parables of Jesus. It was and is, perhaps, a natural mistake for those who measure worth by personal merit rather than by divine mercy to hear the parables as stories about people rather than God. We have named these parables “The Lost Sheep” and “The Lost Coin,” but if Jesus had given his sermons titles, he might have called them instead “The Kind Shepherd” and “The Diligent Woman”. The pair of parables are not really about lost-ness or found-ness but rather about God the shepherd, God the homemaker, valuing infinitely what has been lost, searching for it tirelessly, seeking not just until frustration or discouragement set in or the until the search becomes dangerous but, rather, seeking until it is found and the party can begin. These parables are about the wideness of God’s mercy, the enormity of God’s love, the immeasurable value God attaches to us whether we think we are valuable or not, whether we think we are lost or not.

One theologian has asked, if the one sheep is with the shepherd, and the ninety-nine are not, who in the story is really lost? Another suggests that the ninety-nine and the one are not really two separate groups of sheep – they both represent us. The ninety-nine are humanity as we think we are, while the one lost sheep is humanity as we really are.

Listen, then, to who we really are. We really are easily separated from the flock. We wander. We stray. Perhaps we become self-absorbed, so busy nibbling away on our little circle of grass we don’t notice when the others have moved on. Perhaps we see a better patch of grass a little ways off, and then another, and then another, and before we know it we are all alone with our lunch. Perhaps we consider ourselves better than some of the other sheep and so we distance ourselves from them. Perhaps we consider ourselves strong enough to make it on our own and so we wander off deliberately. Perhaps we just want to be alone. Perhaps we think we have something to prove. Like the one sheep, we really are easily separated from the flock.

But like the one sheep, like every one sheep who wanders off, like every coin that rolls away into a dark corner or deep crevice, we are also worth the search. In spite of – perhaps in part because of – our proclivity to roam, we are of inestimable worth to God. Paul knew this, and rejoiced in it greatly, proclaiming, The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, to round up lost sheep, to collect coins. When we have, as the old confession of sin states, erred and strayed like lost sheep, we have become separated from our understanding of how we are valued by God. Our worth, and the worth of every other sheep in this life is not measured by merit, by what we have or by what we have accomplished, but rather our worth is measured by God’s infinite and unfailing love. God will find us, broom in hand, and will sweep away the clutter from our lives and restore us to our God-given image.

The parables of Jesus are not about us, but we are invited through them to consider how we are both lost and found, both Pharisee and sinner. And we are invited especially to accept with joy our worthiness and our God-given image and to join in the search for all who are lost, broken, bleating, and alone. 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? Like Paul before us, we are invited to rejoice both in finding and in being found, and to bring others with us to the party that begins at this table and lasts for eternity.

This, Jesus teaches through his parables, is the repentance over which the angels themselves rejoice. Not to come crawling back begging forgiveness but to recognize with gratitude that we are forgiven before we ask and found sometimes before we realize we were lost. Repentance is accepting with joy and gladness the work of the shepherd who washes us through and through once he gets us home, the work of the woman who wipes away the dust and grime. Repentance is our response to being found, so that, with a clean heart and a renewed right spirit within us, we take out a flashlight and broom and join in the search for all who, like us, so easily wander off.

Although it is not the context in which the words were first delivered, these reflections of Martin Luther King resonate with the good news Jesus shares with us this morning: “Number one in your life’s blueprint should be a deep belief in your own dignity, your worth and your own somebodiness… Always feel that you have worth, and always feel that your life has ultimate significance… If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper [and here I would submit that it is the lot of the whole flock to sweep the house, the streets, the world if we can], sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, sweep streets like Beethoven composed music, sweep streets like Leontyne Price sings, sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say: Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well.”

We follow Jesus here as his faithful flock so that we can follow him right back out that door into the wilderness, flashlights and brooms in hand, tirelessly sweeping the world not to separate the righteous from the sinners but in order that the world might rejoice in the worthiness of all its lost sheep (which is to say, everyone). There’s an amazing grace party going on, and all are invited. Amen.

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