By The Rev. Sherry Crompton

September 12, 2010

Read: Luke 15:1-10

So, today we hear from Luke that Jesus was welcoming sinners and eating with them. The Pharisees and scribes were grumbling about this. Jesus was keeping company with sinners. We must admit, that they kind of had a point.
-Bad company leads to bad conduct. Wise parents encourage their children to seek out wholesome friends.
– Table fellowship implies acceptance, and Jesus could leave the wrong impression by eating with tax collectors and sinners.
– And St. Paul advises, “Do not be mismatched with unbelievers. For what partnership is there between righteousness and lawlessness? Or what fellowship is there between light and darkness?” (2 Corinthians 6:14). There is a tension here that we must honor. If this is only a story about good Jesus versus bad Pharisees, it loses force. It is, instead, a story about religious people, pillars of their community, whose preoccupation with ritual observance has blinded them to their own sin. It is a story about people whose concern for God’s law has caused them to forget God’s love for sinners. Jesus calls them (and us) to love sinners while hating sin. He challenges them (and us) to hope for repentance. He calls them (and us) to celebrate the redemption of even one sinner.

Jesus tells the parables and begins with the question “Which one of you?” which makes it sound as if leaving the ninety-nine is the natural response, but that is far from clear. An M.B.A. would protect the core business — the ninety-nine. We can survive a one-percent loss. We cannot survive a ninety-nine percent loss.

An old Gospel song speaks of leaving the ninety-nine “safely in the fold,” but Jesus speaks of leaving the sheep, not in a safe sheepfold, but in the wilderness — a dangerous place. Matthew’s version of this story has the shepherd leaving the sheep “on the mountains” (Matthew 18:12) — another dangerous place.

So the answer to “which one of you?” would actually be “no one”. It doesn’t make sense to leave 99 sheep vulnerable to attack and loss to go after just one.
And the woman loses a coin. Luke goes in to great detail to show how intensely she searches for that one coin. She lights a lamp, sweeps the house and searches carefully for it. When she finds it, it appears that she spends it to throw a party. Calling together friends and neighbors to rejoice with her. That doesn’t make good sense either – spending all that time and effort to find a coin only to spend it on a party.

Throughout his ministry, Jesus has introduced us to the kingdom of God, a place of upside-down rules. This is a kingdom story, which reflects the radical nature of God’s love. This is a story about the nature of God. Ordinary rules of business calculation do not apply. The loss of one sheep breaks the shepherd’s heart, so the shepherd searches until he finds the sheep.

“When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices” Laying the sheep on his shoulders is a mark of the shepherd’s gentleness. The shepherd has suffered the loss of the sheep. Now the shepherd rejoices, the natural response to recovering something precious that was lost.

Tax collectors and sinners did not come to hear Pharisees and scribes, because they knew that they would find only judgment. They come to hear Jesus, because they sense that he accepts them — is perhaps even joyful at their coming.

Emily Sylvester shares a story. She wondered how many lost coins can I find in a year? I’ll turn it into a parable.

She says: At first I got my found change mixed in with my own coins. That wouldn’t do. So I dedicated a special pocket in my purse for my lost and wayward coins, and every once in a while, emptied it into a plastic mesh bag. I washed them too – now why would I bother doing that? Yes, anything you pick up from the ground can be pretty icky.

I would have expected to find lots of pennies, and I did, but I found almost as many nickels, dimes, quarters and loonies. And even a couple of toonies. And here is the funny part. I was equally excited about finding pennies as I was about other coins. Their face value didn’t mean too much to me – it was the fun of finding and rescuing them, knowing someday I would be telling you about all this.

Some of the lost coins were still bright and shiny. Some were so tarnished they were exactly the same colour as the dirt on the street. Some had lain on the road so long that they were bent and pitted and scarred and broken around their edges from the cars driving over them. John mounted one on a pin. It might have been lying in the street for years. There was nothing it could do to rescue itself.

So that’s the story of the change I’ve been finding. And here is a pun. I noticed some changes in me too. I began to look for fallen coins. I began to walk in different places than before – along new streets and on the opposite side of a street. And I learned a lesson in humility. I was walking with some people who are well placed in the world, quite senior to me in my department. When I stooped to pick up a penny on the sidewalk, it was a curious feeling to not explain why I was “pinching my pennies” so tightly.

Yesterday I saw God walking down the sidewalk. God looked as if he was looking for something too. What could it be? What is he looking for in all the hidden crannies and dark places, and when he finds it, what is he picking up with such tenderness and putting in the special pocket he keeps for found souls? What is he looking for so hard and not giving up no matter how pitted and bent and dismayed it has become? What is he celebrating whenever he finds it as if it is still as shiny and precious as when it was first minted?

It’s us, of course. God is looking for us. He doesn’t mind at all the humility of stooping down and lifting us up from wherever we have rolled to. He lifts us close to his heart and whispers, “Precious child, I am so glad I found you. I’ve been looking for you everywhere. Let’s go home and I will wash you clean and polish you up and we can start all over again. You couldn’t rescue yourself. I knew that. So I came looking for you. And listen, we have a party waiting for us in heaven.” Then God checks his watch and gives a start. “You know, angels don’t like to be kept waiting. Let’s go!”

There’s a strange paradox about the Christian life. Often, it’s more about being lost than found. It’s more about feeling incomplete than whole. It’s more about feeling excluded than included, because many of us live in those places most of the time.

But that’s why we need redemption. That’s why conversion is at the heart of who we are. Because we all get lost in the desert, even when we’re part of the fold. And we all need someone out there, willing to go looking for us. We’re always in the process of trying to turn back, to find our way home again. And it’s a struggle.

But it’s a joyful struggle, because repentance is a joyous activity. It’s the endless way that we turn back toward the truth and wholeness. How great is that? And life becomes this process of shouldering one another, of walking each other home. And sometimes we’re the carrier, and sometimes we’re being carried.

But all the time, it’s a movement toward wholeness, toward being included again, toward being under one roof again. A sheep. A coin. Us.

And what joy at being found. Thank God. Amen.

Copyright 2008-2012 Episcopal Church of the Trinity.

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