Proper 19C-1 Luke 15: 1-10
In our readings from Luke we’ve been watching the tensions build between this uncredentialed but charismatic rabbi from the Galilee and the well-credentialed but not-very-popular leaders of the mainline religious establishment. This morning Jesus pours kerosene on the fire by ostentatiously consorting with the edgiest folks in the neighborhood—those who don’t observe the ceremonial law, those whose daily work marks them as ritually unclean, those regarded as sinners and indeed those who truly were sinners by any measure of moral conduct and Biblical norm. Even to include those pariahs who have prospered by collaborating with the Romans in the structures oppressing God’s people. Quite a crowd: tax collectors, prostitutes, publicans, who were kind of the street corner drug dealers of the day, pickpockets and shoplifters. A cast of characters you for sure wouldn’t want to meet while walking down a dark alley. As before, the religious leaders voice their objections, trying to do whatever they can to tamp down the fire of this rising “Jesus movement.” And so they point their fingers and proclaim with indignation, “this man receives sinners, and eats with them.” Hard to imagine any right-thinking, God-fearing person would want to get within a country mile of this guy and his rabble followers.
To answer, Jesus shares three parables. The first two in this morning’s reading, the Parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin. These set the table for the third, the highlight--unfortunately not included in the lectionary today, but I’m going to refer to it anyway-- and we’ll need to use our best memory and imagination: Luke 15, verses 11-32, the Parable of the Prodigal Son. So together three little vignettes, a Lost Sheep, a Lost Coin, a Lost Son, catch our attention. Have for two thousand years. I think for every Christian at the very heart of what we understand the good news of the gospel to be. To venture into theological language, these parables interpret the Cross for us. They present the portrait of a God whose love is extravagant -- who will do anything, who will go the extra mile--and then another, and then another: who simply can’t bear to take no for an answer. Whose heart yearns for us. Who loves us more than life itself. Who will do whatever it takes to restore our relationship with him.
First of all the shepherd. Quite a peculiar story, if you think about it. If you’re the owner of the flock, or even better, if you’re the company that wrote the loss and liability policy, you’re going to fire this guy and fast. What was he thinking? We had a hundred sheep, and one somehow wandered away--and so, let me get this straight, you left the 99 out in the field somewhere, where there are wolves and poachers and all kinds of potential dangers, and you went out with your whistle and for hours and hours hiked over hill and vale—wouldn’t stop looking, until finally at long last you happened to find the one that was lost? Are you out of your mind? And then the woman in the second parable. Talk about obsessive! She loses a coin, which is too bad. Something of value. But then she goes nuts. She puts her whole life on hold. Talk about a disproportionate response! She stops preparing food for her family. She skips the monthly altar guild meeting. Forgets about going to work. Her yard is overgrown with weeds. The dishes have been sitting in the sink for who knows how long. The kids don’t have their back-to-school shopping done. But she can’t let it go. Like Captain Ahab in pursuit of the Great White Whale--searching day and night until finally, finally, she finds that coin! And then, of course, the Father. We know him the best because we have heard this story so often and because it is so beautifully developed. A theological and literary jewel. ( It wasn’t included in our reading this morning because we’ve already had it appointed on the Fourth Sunday in Lent.) Betrayed in a deep way by this son who blows off his share in the generational inheritance of the family business and heartlessly asks for his share right now and in cash. Too much trouble to wait around until the old man dies. He takes the money and runs off to the big city to live it up in one long party of wine, women, and song. For days and weeks, perhaps for months and years. And certainly never a postcard home, never a phone call. Until every penny is squandered. And for all that time, every day, the father stood watching at the gate. Every day, surveying the road all the way to the horizon. Looking out to the horizon, with pain in his heart, tears in his eyes. Hoping, praying.
And the parables end in joy. Big joy. The shepherd returns singing, carrying the precious lamb tenderly in his arms--the flock is made whole again. Such a beautiful picture. The window in our narthex dedicated to Harry Briggs Heald, one of my illustrious predecessors. The Good Shepherd, who is not willing that even one should be lost. And the woman finds her coin. Finally. And so overjoyed, she doesn’t rush off to put it in the bank or spend it on some essential purchase. She throws a party! The celebration of her life, probably spending twice as much on refreshments than the coin was worth in the first place! This is what it’s like, the joy of the angels in heaven, says Jesus. Their celebration, for even one sinner who turns away from his sinful life. And then the Father, as he wraps the boy in an embrace even before his carefully-rehearsed words of repentance can be spoken. Bring a robe, a ring, new shoes, a fatted calf! I’m never letting go of you again, he says. I’m never letting you go.
That’s how Jesus answers his accusers. In the midst of a dry-as-dust professional religiosity based on the external formalities of elaborate Temple ceremonies and a harsh and obsessive judgmentalism focused on customs, rules, laws governing in minute detail even arcane aspects of food preparation and diet and clothing and just about every aspect of ordinary household and community life and work and relationship. To say nothing of the issues of deeper concern of faith and moral conduct. In the midst of a culture of arid judgement and even a kind of mean-spirited unforgiveness. Then we hear Jesus:
“Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. . . .” “Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” Joy. The longing of God’s great heart, that we who are lost, would find our way back into his arms. “Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.” Joy, joy, joy.
This is a personal God we’re talking about. Whom Jesus is talking about. A personal God. Not a philosophical abstraction. Not some hazy remote universal spiritual force. Every page of scripture speaks of his deep desire, his passionate and focused longing. He knows us and wants us. We are his people, the sheep of his pasture. He seeks for us when we are lost. (He’s out there looking right now. And that is a promise. He won’t give up.) He calls us to return, and knows us by name. To turn around. To put on a new mind and a new heart. To walk with him in a new way. The beating heart of the universe, his heart, fills with joy when we do turn back to him. Ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven. That’s what he lives for. He proves himself to be not far off, but near, yearning to forgive, and bless. Willing to go to the Cross, if that’s what it takes to break the chains of sin and death. Whatever it is going to take. Disproportionate, extravagant love. More than we deserve.
These stories of Luke 15 touch my heart I know every time I have read them and heard them. I hope for you too. A good place to begin a new season here at St. Andrew’s on Rally Day Renaissance Round Up Sunday. There really isn’t any expression of Christian doctrine more to the point than we’ve heard in these parables this morning. If we have wandered, and we have wandered, if we have gotten lost, and we have gotten lost, just to know: he’s out looking for us right now. Right now. We have representations of his Cross all over the place here at church and perhaps in our homes and even to wear around our necks sometimes, and this is what we would remember whenever we see that Cross. Why it is so important to us, so precious. He stands at the gate, watching for us, waiting for us to return. Never sleeping, never turning aside, never forgetting us. Eager to forgive us when we return. Eager to bless. Eager lift us up when we have fallen, to restore, to give a fresh start. Eager for us, and full of love.
And so, Rally, Round Up, and Renaissance: walk in love, as Christ loved us, and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.