When God throws a party, all are invited. Check your superiority at the door and join the dance!
15Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3So he told them this parable: 4“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? 5When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6And 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.’ 7Just 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. 8“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? 9When 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.’ 10Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
You can find one in every police station, every department store, every school, and certainly every camp and conference facility. It is the Lost and Found department. By the end of the summer camping season, the lost and found room is full of shoes, towels, t-shirts, swim suits, underwear, every imaginable article of clothing. It’s amazing what people lose. But what amazes me more is that people don’t come back to claim their lost articles. I have been told that laundromat operators donate hundreds of pounds of clothing to charity every year. This is clothing that patrons leave behind in the washers and dryers and never come back to claim. Fortunately, it is not the same when it comes to lost children. Shopping in big department stores, often, you will hear an announcement come over the loud speakers that a lost child is waiting for his parents to claim him at a particular counter. You hear similar announcements in airports and for sure you hear them in places like Disneyland. Sometimes, it is the parents who are lost. In these cases, unlike articles of clothing left behind at Mt. Hermon or a laundromat, we do go looking for lost children and lost parents. In my former congregation, the Presbyterian Church in Chinatown, we conducted a memorable search for one of our elderly members, suffering dementia, who got off at the wrong bus-stop on the way home. Fortunately, after several frantic hours, we found him, confused and lost.
But there are occasions when we treat people like things. I have read far too many stories of mothers abandoning their newborn babies on doorsteps or behind dumpsters. There was a case of a child purposefully left behind by her parents at a gas station when they stopped for gas. When the child went to the restroom, they drove off leaving her behind. These are the times when we treat people like lost articles of clothing, not worth going back for, not worth reclaiming. These are people we have given up on, people we don’t like, people we hate, people who have done terrible things, people we don’t want anything to do with. In the Bible, they are often called tax-collectors and sinners. In the Bible, tax-collectors are not people who worked for the IRS. In the Bible, tax collectors are traitors. They are people willing to work for the enemy, willing to do work that hurt their own people. So we should not be so quick to judge the Pharisees and the scribes who grumble that Jesus accepts and even eats with sinners. You see, eating with sinners means taking sides. And in our current cultural moment, depending on your political affiliation, sinners are the refugees at our southern border or they are members of the NRA. We all are capable of grumbling and saying: “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them!” Not once does Jesus scold or correct a sinner; instead he eats with them. We have a hard time not judging people who have done wrong. It isn’t right for a student who cheated in his final exam to get away with it. It’s not right for the receptionist who regularly gets to work late not to be fired. It’s not right for teenage prostitutes on Polk Street to be given free medical treatment. This is how Luke chapter 15 begins, with grumbling. Jesus then responds to the grumbling by telling two parables—the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin.
The emphasis of the parables is on the search, and the finding. And it is no easy search. The wilderness of Judaea is hilly and has many places sheep could navigate but humans could not, making it difficult to find. The myriad of predators—jackals, hyenas, foxes—would have rendered the sheep vulnerable. The shepherd looks for the sheep with little hope of finding it and finding it alive. Against all odds, the shepherd discovers the sheep and restores it to the flock. Likewise, a woman who loses one of her silver coins, lights her home and sweeps it until she discovers it. I’m imagining a dirt floor making it all the more challenging to find the lost coin.
The key verb in the two parables has to do with finding, and NOT with forgiving. The verb find occurs 7 times in the chapter. And when the sheep or lost coin is found, no comment is made on any sinful behavior. What is described is NOT their repentance at all, but the absolute commitment of the person to finding them again. Action verbs predominate for the shepherd, not the sheep—leave, go after, finds, lays it on his shoulders, rejoices, comes home, and calls together his friends. The same holds for the woman: light a lamp, sweeps the house, search carefully, finds, and calls together her friends. The parallels here show that the emphasis is on the finding. God, the Shepherd, goes looking for us and reclaims us, regardless of what wrong we have done and what failures we have been. God, the Shepherd, sees passed the sin and sees the person in need. Could it be that the exam cheater was not able to study the night before because his alcoholic father went on a rampage and beat up his mother? Could it be that the receptionist can’t afford a car and is dependent upon MUNI to get to work after she feeds, dresses, and gets her infant child to a grandmother to babysit for the day? Could it be that the teenage prostitute ended up on Polk Street because she had to escape an abusive stepfather? Could it be that the homeless person ended up on the streets following surgery which wiped him out financially because he did not have any health insurance? God, the Shepherd, looks out for the lost person who slips and falls between the cracks of society.
But Jesus also sums up each parable by making a connection between God’s finding and rejoicing over what was lost and the sinner who repents. “Just so I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous persons who need no repentance.” Unlike the English word repentance which implies contrition and remorse, the Greek word metanoia has to do with a change of mind and purpose—a shift in how we perceive and respond to life. When God finds us when we are lost, our usual ways of perceiving and responding to life are transformed. And yes, we all are sinners! But in our passage, Jesus makes a distinction between sinners who repent and the righteous who have no need of repentance.
Her husband called me to tell me his wife had been taken to the ER, with difficulty breathing. In the past 12 years she has been in and out of the hospital. Exhausted both by her medical condition and what she has put her family through, she is at a crossroads. Her condition is so critical that she is ineligible for a lung transplant. Her pulmonologist, nevertheless, has encouraged her to not give up hope, to continue on with the almost monthly trips to the emergency room. She is exhausted to the point of asking whether euthanasia is legal in California. I sat in her hospital room, together with her palliative care physician, listening to her thoughts, feeling her raw emotions and her husband’s sobs for over an hour. By the end of our time together, she found peace. She experienced metanoia; her perception shifted on how she would respond to life and death. She let go of the false hope for a lung transplant, choosing instead to seek the most comfortable life possible in her remaining months of living and the best quality of relationship possible with her husband and daughter. Sinners repent because they know they are lost and thus can avail themselves of the transformation that comes from God’s finding them. By contrast, the righteous do not need to repent (or change their ways) presumably because they don’t think they are lost. They don’t need God to find them; they are justified in their own eyes or in the eyes of others.
At the end of the road, there is a meal and redemption. And nothing, nothing at all, need get in the way of the divine celebration even in a hospital room. Luke invites us to the table with the tax collectors and sinners, the sick and the dying, inviting us to find God’s image in all that seems lost, for “nothing will be impossible with God.” God’s grace overflows. When God throws a party, all are invited. Check your superiority at the door and join the dance.
In high school, my son Stephen could not wait to leave home. Throughout his high school years, he was rebellious and uncooperative. Those years were very difficult for me. I was tempted often to give up on him. When he finally left home, for college, he went as far away from home as he could go—the east coast. His very first week away from home was marked by one disaster after another. The first night he called to tell me that he had lost all his travelers’ checks. The second night he called to tell me that someone sat on his brand new $1000 trumpet, which he had left out on the couch. At the end of the first week, he called again, this time to tell me how in high school he had his own fan club (Stephen played first trumpet in the jazz band); but there at Berklee College of Music in Boston, he was a nobody. I held (no I bit) my tongue and kept from saying, “I told you so.” But for me, it was crucial for me to listen, to be present, to be there for him no matter what. Stephen graduated from Berklee and got a wonderful teaching position in New York where he has since received tenure. There is a bit more to the story. The first Christmas in his first year of teaching, he came home and over a father-son dinner, he unloaded on me, dumping all the pain, anger, disappointment he felt in our relationship. I listened. And I did not argue back to tell him my side of the story. That wasn’t the point. The point was to be there, to be persistent in my listening, to allow him to tell just his side of the story. When we said goodbye that evening, we hugged and held each other, and we able to say for the first time with genuineness to each other, “I love you.”
We have all done shameful things, made mistakes, disappointed family and friends, let people down, gotten in trouble with the law, broken promises and commitments. We have all been the lost sheep and the lost coin. And in those times, we rejoice that God, the Shepherd, came looking for us; and that God, the Woman, was persistent. And when we were found, the only sound that could drown out the sound of our loud rejoicing was the sound of joy and celebration among the angels in heaven! AMEN.