Sunday, March 07, 2021

The One Matters -- a sermon on Luke 15's lost things

Rev. Teri Peterson

Gourock St. John’s

The One Matters

Luke 15.1-32 (CEB)

7 March 2021, Lent 3, NL3-33

All the tax collectors and sinners were gathering around Jesus to listen to him. The Pharisees and legal experts were grumbling, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose someone among you had one hundred sheep and lost one of them. Wouldn’t he leave the other ninety-nine in the pasture and search for the lost one until he finds it? And when he finds it, he is thrilled and places it on his shoulders. When he arrives home, he calls together his friends and neighbours, saying to them, ‘Celebrate with me because I’ve found my lost sheep.’ In the same way, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who changes both heart and life than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need to change their hearts and lives.

“Or what woman, if she owns ten silver coins and loses one of them, won’t light a lamp and sweep the house, searching her home carefully until she finds it? When she finds it, she calls together her friends and neighbours, saying, ‘Celebrate with me because I’ve found my lost coin.’ In the same way, I tell you, joy breaks out in the presence of God’s angels over one sinner who changes both heart and life.”

Jesus said, “A certain man had two sons. The younger son said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the inheritance.’ Then the father divided his estate between them. Soon afterward, the younger son gathered everything together and took a trip to a land far away. There, he wasted his wealth through extravagant living.

“When he had used up his resources, a severe food shortage arose in that country and he began to be in need. He hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. He longed to eat his fill from what the pigs ate, but no one gave him anything. When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have more than enough food, but I’m starving to death! I will get up and go to my father, and say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son. Take me on as one of your hired hands.” ’ So he got up and went to his father.

“While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with compassion. His father ran to him, hugged him, and kissed him. Then his son said, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Quickly, bring out the best robe and put it on him! Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet! Fetch the fattened calf and slaughter it. We must celebrate with feasting because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life! He was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.

“Now his older son was in the field. Coming in from the field, he approached the house and heard music and dancing. He called one of the servants and asked what was going on. The servant replied, ‘Your brother has arrived, and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he received his son back safe and sound.’ Then the older son was furious and didn’t want to enter in, but his father came out and begged him. He answered his father, ‘Look, I’ve served you all these years, and I never disobeyed your instruction. Yet you’ve never given me as much as a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours returned, after gobbling up your estate on prostitutes, you slaughtered the fattened calf for him.’ Then his father said, ‘Son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad because this brother of yours was dead and is alive. He was lost and is found.’”

These stories may already be familiar to many of us — whether we’ve heard them from the Bible or not, they’ve entered into the public consciousness, like the story of being a neighbour from a couple of weeks ago. We use phrases like “prodigal son” or “lost sheep” even if we don’t know the specifics of the full story that Jesus told. 

Some of you know what I’m about to say next, I suspect! — that the popularity of those phrases and the things we think they refer to might be obscuring what Jesus was actually talking about. Remember that a parable is a story that is intentionally open-ended — like a parabola in maths is an open-ended shape — so that we can continue to learn about the kingdom of God from many angles within the story. 

One of the things that has happened over the centuries is that we have conflated these stories Jesus tells in Luke’s gospel with one of his sayings from John’s gospel, where he says, “I am the good shepherd”…and so we assume that this story is the same as the one John is telling. But that means we have to ignore the set-up of today’s parables, which suggest something quite different!

Jesus is speaking to the people who are grumbling about his choice of companionship — in this case, some leaders in the community. To those leaders, he said, “Suppose someone among you had 100 sheep, and lost one…”

Now, we have been conditioned by the conflation of this story with the one about Jesus being the good shepherd to assume that this is a story about God seeking out the lost. But listen carefully to the start of the story. To the Pharisees and scripture experts, Jesus said, “Suppose someone among you had 100 sheep and lost one.” From the very first sentence, Jesus is letting the listener know that they are supposed to see themselves as the shepherd! Except the things he then says are things that no shepherd would do. First of all, what shepherd can just glance at a hundred sheep on a hillside and notice that there are only 99? Second, what shepherd would leave the whole flock on that hillside and go searching for one…especially since that probably means when he came back, he’d have a flock of just one?!? One lost sheep out of a hundred would not be a terribly big deal, though it does suggest some carelessness on the part of the shepherd, a bit of a failure at his job.

The second story ups the stakes a little bit, with the coin being lost — that coin is a whole day’s wages. To lose an entire day’s wages would be a pretty significant problem! 

The shepherd and the woman then search, thoroughly and tirelessly, until they find what they have lost. Then they rejoice, calling together their community to celebrate with them — maybe even spending more than they had originally lost and found on the party!

The third story increases the stakes even more. Many of us have used phrases like “family is most important”…well, here’s a story about a family that doesn’t quite go according to plan. The younger son demanded his inheritance while his father was still alive, and he ran off and spent it. When he came home, the father welcomed him with open arms and again there’s a big party, what was lost has been found! But when we read all three of these stories together the way they were intended, we see something unusual:

No one went looking for the younger son who wandered off. 

And when he returned, no one went looking for the older son to tell him the news and invite him to come in from work early and join the party.

The shepherd recognised that he had lost a sheep, and went looking. The woman recognised that she had lost a coin, and went looking. The father doesn’t seem to have recognised what he was losing, and he did not go looking. Yes, he welcomed the younger son, and pleaded with the older one, but only when they turned back up of their own accord.

Perhaps by now you can see the problem with the way we have often understood these parables. The shepherd is responsible for his sheep and loses one. The woman is responsible for her coins and loses one. The father is responsible for his sons and loses…one and then the other. But of course we know that God does not lose us. God never loses track of a sheep. There is nowhere we can go that would be out of God’s sight. God does not simply forget about us, toiling away in the fields. 

And when we hear the interpretation Jesus gives, that there is rejoicing when someone changes their heart and life, when they repent — we see further how bizarre that interpretation really is, though we have been used to it for a long time. A sheep doesn’t need to repent for doing what sheep do — wandering around looking for better grass. And a coin can’t repent because it’s an inanimate object. Sheep and coins don’t lose themselves, they are lost by their owners. 

Which means it must actually be the owner that is changing their heart and life in this story! It’s the shepherd who recognises his error, and works to put it right, to bring the flock back to wholeness, even at great risk to his livelihood. It’s the woman who recognises her error, and works to put it right, bringing her savings back to wholeness, even if it means staying up all night tearing the house apart and putting it back together. But the father — who is tasked with caring for something far more valuable than sheep or coins — doesn’t seem to recognise his error until it’s too late and the family is coming apart at the seams, wholeness out of reach.

And Jesus has addressed the religious leaders as if they are the shepherd…the woman…the father. Telling them what they are supposed to be like: not to complain about another leader who goes looking for the lost, but rather to recognise their faults and failings and change their ways. That means seeing who’s missing and taking some risks to restore the wholeness of the community, because that is what causes rejoicing in heaven: restoring wholeness.

All of which leads me to wonder: have we noticed who is missing from our community? And what effort are we willing to put in, what risks are we willing to take, for the one? So often we are focused on what the majority wants or needs…what about the one who doesn’t feel they fit in, or who hasn’t been able to access, or has been left out and feels unloved or taken for granted? Are we willing to make changes to the way we do things so that the one, or the few, can be included at the same level as the 99? Or do we either assume they’re fine out in the field without an invitation to the party, or that they’ll be perfectly fine just out on the edges of the community where there’s no trouble to us?

Perhaps the most obvious connection is disabled access — how do people feel entering our church buildings and other buildings in our community? — like a valued regular part of the family, or different and causing trouble to get in and navigate around the space and participate fully in activities? We might ask the same questions about socio-economic status, or educational experience, or family configuration, or ethnic background, or health needs, or gender identity, or knowledge of our traditions, or traumatic pasts, or facility with technology, or any number of other things that might be keeping people separate. Without them, our community is not whole. So what effort are we willing to put in not just to make the one welcome, but to look for them and rejoice in their presence? It’s so tempting to count the cost of making changes, not to mention the risk to the 99 and their feelings of being left on the hillside for a bit. But what about the cost to the one who has never fit in, or always been made to feel second-class or marginal or have to come through the back door? And what about the cost to the whole community when we are fractured and missing pieces?

The Pharisees and legal experts grumbled about Jesus spending time with the people they thought weren’t worth the effort. Jesus responded with stories of God rejoicing when we recognise the sinfulness of that thought and change our hearts and lives by going to seek the lost…and the consequences to the family if we don’t recognise and don’t try. 

May we recognise the missing members of our family, and seek the wholeness God desires for the kingdom of God coming on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.

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