Each week I get to think about a text (or two or four) and my congregation and my own life and the world and listen to God and try to say something meaningful. I love what I do, and I love the challenge of trying to say something new with scripture texts that are often familiar. Here’s my sermon from this past Sunday on a couple of well known parables.
Based on Luke 15:1-10
After my father died last year, my siblings and I gathered to do the hard work of sorting through his belongings. We discovered that Dad had three rings in a box on his dresser, and so my two brothers and I each picked one to keep. These rings were fine specimens of the 1970s — all were gaudy— and, to be honest, I never saw dad wear any of them. Mine had a star sapphire and a couple of diamond chips in a white gold blocky setting. There wasn’t a chance I would ever wear it either. When I picked it out though, I thought the stones could possibly be used for a wonderful new ring for Melissa. We worked with a local jeweler last year who showed us a fabulous setting, and then he went to work on this new ring.
When we finally saw the completed setting, we both loved it. Melissa wore it daily, and I often asked her to hold it up to the light so I could see the star formed in the stone. It become, for both of us, a joy to remember those we loved and also the love we shared with one another. And then one day I noticed an empty spot where the stone had been; and Melissa looked down in horror. The star sapphire had slipped out. We were devastated.
Since we had no idea where she lost it, we didn’t even know where to begin to look. So we turned the house upside down, just in case, but came up empty.
Luke’s parables of Jesus in the chapter we read from this morning are among the most well known. It’s a trio of lost items, a sheep, a coin and a son (we didn’t hear that one this morning, but I’d argue that the prodigal son is the most well known of Jesus’ stories) and how there is great rejoicing when the items are found. The problem with familiar parables is just that, we have heard them so often they lose their power. We know the moral and have filed it away to that place in our minds where Bible stories get banished. We might pull it out from time to time and blow the dust off, but it has little to nothing new to offer us.
But let’s try, and start at the beginning. “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus and the Pharisees and scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” So, Luke writes, Jesus told them a parable.
“Which 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?” Wait a second, you may be muttering. Who’s going to watch all those other sheep? Am I just leaving them to wander around in the wilderness alone? Is there another shepherd nearby that can keep track of those other ones so they don’t get lost too?
But Jesus doesn’t even give the questions a chance to be formed, as he continues, “When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulder 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.’”
And then, as quick as lightening, he tells another one. This time, it’s a woman and her lost coin, who cleans her house form top to bottom. And then when she has finally found it, she too rejoices. “So it is when one sinner repents.” Not only that, but she then went on to call her neighbors and friends and invite them to celebrate too.
It was Noah and Olivia who found Melissa’s gem. Just a few weeks ago, actually, on our stairway. God only knows how we missed it since we had cleaned those stairs quite a few times and never saw it. But Melissa, as you can imagine, let out a whoop when the kids came running over with the stone, and we all celebrated together. (The ring is still getting fixed, by the way, so you can’t stop Melissa to see it this morning and rejoice with her, but it should be back on her finger soon!)
For the sinners and the tax collectors and anyone else out there that has ever felt adrift or lost, these stories provide great comfort. Not only is God looking feverishly to find them, but when God does find them, there’s a party to boot. God doesn’t scold and shame and ask why you got lost in the first place. There’s simply rejoicing and a party.
And I’m beginning to think that this parable is less about the items lost and more about how there is rejoicing in heaven after a sinner repents. And, Jesus implies to those religious leaders mumbling, if God is rejoicing, you should be too. If God goes to all that trouble to seek out the lost in this world, why wouldn’t you join with God and be overcome with joy when the lost one is found?
A Jewish story tells of a hardworking farmer that God decided to bless. “The Lord appeared to the farmer and granted him three wishes, but with the condition that whatever the Lord did for the framer would be given double to his neighbor. The farmer, scarcely believing his good fortune, wished for a hundred cattle. Immediately he received a hundred cattle, and he was overjoyed until he saw that his neighbor had two hundred. So he wished for a hundred acres of land, and again he was filled with joy until he saw that his neighbor had two hundred acres of land. Rather than celebrating God’s goodness, the farmer could not escape feeling jealous and slighted because his neighbor had received more than he. Finally, he stated his third wish: that God would strike him blind in one eye. And God wept.”
If we were picking parts to play in this drama, many of us would be the Pharisees and the scribes. The religious ones who come to church regularly, who know the rules, and have probably written some of the rules ourselves. Like who the right kind of people are to be associated with or who can follow Jesus, or, in the case of this story, who you can have a meal with. Certainly the religious types in Jesus’ story weren’t rejoicing at all, but rather were disgusted with Jesus’ seeming nonchalance toward the wrong sorts of people. They couldn’t be happy with Jesus or these outsiders he befriended at all. Yet, as one commentator wrote, “These stories are about learning to rejoice. The parables … both end by calling together friends and neighbors to join in the celebration. Indeed the movement of joy pulses outward from the one to the many, from the earth to the heavens. The party takes a cosmic scale. Rejoicing itself seems to be the telos of these stories, the goal toward which they move beyond the penultimate moment of finding. So salvation consists not purely or even primarily in rescue, but in being drawn into the eternal celebration.” Let me say that last line again: “So salvation consists not purely or even primarily in rescue, but in being drawn into the eternal celebration.”
Are we able to rejoice with God when someone we don’t expect God to love gets found? Can we turn ourselves away from the Green-eyed Monster of jealousy when someone we know is blessed by God, and instead celebrate with them at their good fortune, recognizing the wideness in God’s mercy?
Can we be those who readily and joyful join the party rather than saying “We don’t party,” or even more damning, “We don’t party with them”? This table is set and it’s a place where all the lost are found; can we come to and share in God’s exuberance over everyone one who is found by God? “There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” If only we could recognize that at some point we are all the lost sheep or the lost coin and that God looks diligently for us longing to find us. And when that happens, when we are found by God, a celebration erupts beyond compare, as it does for all those whom God finds no matter who they are. Amen.
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