The Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost: September 15, 2019
Paul’s first letter to Timothy informs us that, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” I’m not inclined to harp on the sinner part too much. Most of us know that in some way we are broken if we have any self-awareness at all. I’d rather love people into the Gospel, however, rather than try and judge them into it. Yet, so that we have a common understanding here, I understand “sinner” to mean that we have a broken relationship with God and with each other that needs healing. We keep missing the mark of God’s vision for us and the whole earth. It is the vision of justice, peace and mercy for every single human being.
That’s why we get such stern words from the prophet Jeremiah, because we human beings always have and keep messing things up. “For my people are foolish, they do not know me; they are stupid children, they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil, but do not know how to do good.” Well! That’s a message that will suck the wind out of a good party.
In response, God, rather than give up and abandon us, chooses in Jesus to “leap down from heaven” as is said in the ancient antiphon to the Song of Mary. Or, to quote from that wonderful Christmas hymn: “Love came down at Christmas.” Today’s Gospel/Good News gives us in a couple of parables what that passionate love of God looks like and it seems to me a perfect thing to remember in the midst of a celebration of a new relationship in ministry with Fred.
St. Luke portrays God’s love that looks like a shepherd who leaves the 99 to go after one that has become lost. God’s love also looks like a woman who sweeps the house, every single nook and cranny, to find the one lost coin. These are pictures of God’s pursuit of us. They sound great don’t they, even heartwarming? But please note—in neither case is this normal expected behavior, yet it is God’s behavior Jesus is telling us. As is often the case, Jesus turns expectations around in order to surprise us into a new vision that transforms us into Kingdom people. Here’s what I mean.
The shepherd goes off to find the one that strayed. Anyone listening to that parable would declare this to be an incompetent shepherd. No shepherd who knows what he’s doing would go off for just one. When he got back he wouldn’t have the 99! And of course in every day practice it is our tendency to write off the one lost and be thankful still to have the 99. We cut our losses. We might call it collateral damage. The religious righteous who are challenging Jesus would leave to their own devices, by expelling or shunning, those who wander off, those who don’t conform, those who won’t be like us.
That’s what the Pharisees did as their teaching was that it was better to stay with the 99. Jesus throws in the big reversal of a story as if it is normative behavior and shocks the stuffing out of them. You can be sure that it was not lost on the tax collectors and sinners, however, the ones on the edge who always experienced rejection.
Then of course there is the woman sweeping her house for the lost coin, again as if it is the norm. And it would be, for the poor. But the Pharisees? They wouldn’t waste their time. Jesus is telling of a God who gives of self, one who leaps down from heaven, dies for the one who looks most expendable or worthless to the rest. This is also not lost on the so-called tax collectors and sinners within earshot.
Jesus again overturns expectations, always challenging the norm with a new Kingdom possibility. What is being said here, in the words of a seven-year-old who had heard this Gospel and gave a succinct and clear interpretation: “God gets more happy from one person who messes up than a bunch who stay good.” Is that offensive to our sense of fairness, that mystery that one criminal, one drug dealer, one petty thief, one person on death row, who is drawn back to the flock prompts more joy than then those of us who never fall off the cliff or run into brambles?
That can be hard to embrace especially when polite society seeks to make invisible those who do not measure up to our standards.
So where does that leave us? What the Pharisees wouldn’t see, couldn’t see, is that they too were lost. They saw no common ground with the sinners and tax collectors. They and we are called to drop our well-constructed facades and be honest about our own inability to measure up, our “foolishness” as Jeremiah calls it, our lost-ness, and see that we are in the same boat in our brokenness as every other human being. I’ll never, ever forget Mother Teresa’s words to me almost 30 years ago: “Unless we recognize the Hitler that is in all of us we are in grave spiritual danger.” Not doing so makes it very difficult to be open to Jesus’ call, to being found, which ushers in pure joy and hope.
God seeks to rejoice with us. It was C.S. Lewis who said that the clearest indicator of a Christian is joy. Joy not being mere happiness, but a deep centered grounding in the hope of God. There can be no better reminder as you embark on this time of new ministry between priest and people. Christianity is not a religion of rules and regulations, do’s and don’ts. It is a religion of celebration, of a party, of Eucharist, as we discover a God who rejoices in us and among us. We were lost. Now we are found. Fred and people of Edisto—Celebrate!
Bishop Skip Adams
The Right Reverend Gladstone B. Adams III was elected and invested as our Bishop on September 10, 2016. Read more about him here.