Sunday, March 19, 2017

Party Time--a sermon on things lost and found (Luke 15)

Rev. Teri Peterson
Party Time
Luke 15.1-32
19 March 2017, NL3-28, Lent 3 (are you all in?)

Today’s reading is from Luke chapter 15, and can be found on page ___ of your pew Bible if you wish to follow along.
Since we left off last week, Jesus has been at a dinner party, and teaching about hospitality and who is invited to feast in the kingdom of God. He reminded people that those who are lowly will be lifted up, and those who lift themselves up will be brought low. He taught that we are to invite people to share our bounty, especially if they cannot repay us or invite us in return—undoing the system of reciprocity and quid-pro-quo, insisting that hospitality is a blessing we are to share. He told a story about people invited to a large dinner, who made excuses when it was time to come to the table. In his parable, the host then had everyone in the city’s streets and alleys, including the poor and sick, brought in to share the feast. Jesus speaks of the cost and demands of being his disciples, and calls us to be fully committed to following him. That’s where we pick up the story today.

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 neighbors, 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.
 ‘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 neighbors, 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.’
 Then Jesus said, ‘There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’ ”

I Will Arise, verse 1 & 2

 So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate.
 ‘Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.” Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” Then the father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” ’

I Will Arise, verse 3

            One:    For the word of God in Scripture;
                        for the word of God among us;
                        for the word of God within us,  
            All:     Thanks be to God.   

I Will Arise, verse 4

Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one, does not leave the 99 in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? Surely all of us would abandon the obedient sheep out in the wilderness—not in a pasture or fenced grazing area, the wilderness—in order to go after the one that didn’t want to conform. Who wouldn’t leave 99% of their property and wealth in danger, and then on returning with the one recalcitrant sheep, throw a party for all the neighbors, who likely think he’s irresponsible for risking the rest of the flock?

Or what woman, having ten days wages, if she loses one day’s paycheck, wouldn’t move all the furniture and sort through all the recycling until she found it…and then call together all the neighbors for a party, probably spending that money to celebrate finding what was lost?

Or what family, having said goodbye to the ne’er-do-well younger child, knowing they’re going to behave badly and lose everything but hoping they won’t get themselves hurt, wouldn’t watch out the window and wait for his return, and then run out to meet him and hand over all the best party clothes and fire up the grill and break out the best wine and call all the neighbors for a party when he finally returns penniless?
There seems to be a theme in Jesus’ parables today. Even a quick read through this chapter will make clear Jesus’ stories are about being lost and found—and that whether we are one of a hundred, one of ten, or one of two, God cares deeply about us, and we are all found by grace, again and again. Nothing, and no one, is lost to God.

But there’s another theme right alongside being found…the party. Every single one of these stories of being found ends with a party! Jesus is obviously into celebration. He, too, was clearly looking for reasons to have cake, no matter how tenuous the need for a party might be. One found sheep—cake! One found paycheck—cake! One found son—cake! You can see that I came by my love of church celebration cakes honestly. J

And it isn’t just about the party—in every story, there’s a growing hint that the celebration is extravagant, perhaps even unwise or unnecessary. No one wealthy enough to have a hundred sheep would leave 99 of them at risk to go search for the one…and no one poor enough to search so desperately for one day’s wages would spend it on inviting her neighbors over for a party because she found it. We see the rational, responsible, early free-market leanings in the elder brother in the third story. He worked hard, he followed the rules, and instead of being rewarded with advancement, he sees his shiftless moocher of a younger brother get celebrated for doing nothing other than losing everything with his wasteful and lazy ways. So he takes a stand for radical individualism and personal fiscal responsibility: he refuses to go in to the party.

Here is why it’s important that we read all three parables together, as the Narrative Lectionary places them, rather than one by one at different times like we might be more used to. At the beginning of the chapter, Jesus asks “which of you…” and then at the end of the chapter we wonder: does the older brother go in? And we realize that the question has been building the whole time. He knows that we are often like the older brother, and wants to know: are we coming in to the party?

Through all three stories we see Jesus sketching out the character of God: it is the nature of God to seek, to find, to welcome. It is in God’s character to restore identity and relationship—the one sheep is reunited with the flock, the woman comes out of her individual consumer fear to join with her neighbors, the younger son “came to himself” and remembered who he is, the older son distances himself with words like “this son of yours” and the father responds with “this brother of yours”…and every single instance of being found by grace then leads to the whole community coming together in gratitude.

And so the question: will we go in to the party? The decorations are up, the grill is going, the cake is still warm, the sparkling cider is poured. Everything God has is already ours, now how will we experience it and use it in this life?

Going in to the party means letting go of a grudging spirit…Gratitude can’t be only for what God has done for us, but also what God has done for them. Even if they’re the ones who wandered off and got into trouble, or the ones who are using their found money in ways we wouldn’t… if we want to experience the fullness of mercy and grace ourselves, here and now, we’ll need to practice celebrating God’s grace given to others. We have been found by grace, again and again, for the Spirit is always calling, breathing life, creating community, bringing together all kinds of people.

Going in to the party means admitting that love doesn’t require confession…the younger son never even gets his whole confession out of his mouth before the father is dressing him and hugging him and cutting the cake. Love was there the whole time. Our repentance is just that—ours. It reminds us who we really are, puts our focus on our true identity, rather than all the other ways we have defined or hidden or created ourselves. It doesn’t earn us a place at the table, it simply prepares us to receive what God is already giving us. We are fed by grace at Christ’s table, where no reservations are necessary!

Most of all, going in to the party means accepting grace as the family rule. Being part of this family, God’s family, the Body of Christ, means everything we are, everything we say, everything we do, is about grace. Setting aside grudges and our understanding of who is good enough, allowing God’s love to be the foundation and the measure of life. It means admitting we’re just as lost, and just as found, as anyone else, no matter how much we think we have earned or they have not earned. And it means that even when we would prefer not to claim some of the family, they’re still ours to love, because in this family, we follow by grace, seeking to be living examples of Christ’s welcome.

No matter who you are, what you have done, or where you are on life’s journey…all are welcome, we mean it. And more importantly, God means it.

May it be so. Amen.

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