Sunday, September 16, 2007

Sermon -- 16 September 2007

Proper 19 / 16th Pentecost — 16 September 2007
St. Luke’s, Cedar Falls — 8:00 & 10:15
Jer 4:11-12,22-28 Ps 14 1Tim 1:12-17 Luke 15:1-10

Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.

If I were a little more Monty-Pythonesque, I might produce a script in which there are a couple of shepherds standing at the back of the crowd muttering, “Oh, will ye listen to the carpenter now! Never herded a sheep in his life, he hasn’t! You can’t just leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness! You’d come back with your little lost sheep and there would be only eighty-nine sheep, scattered all over South Galilee, and ten fat and happy wolves!”

Well, that shows how not to interpret the parables of Jesus! Jesus isn’t talking about sheep-herding, or about keeping track of your money, he’s talking about God’s joy at finding the lost. “Hey, everybody! I found my sheep! Hey, everybody! I found my coin!” The sheer delight at finding something that had been lost! We’ve all had that experience. Some of us are at the point where we have that experience all the time, because we lose things all the time! But it’s more than just, “Oh, there are my car keys!” Think of something, perhaps some old and precious keepsake that you were trying to find once, and you couldn’t find it, and you were sure it was just gone forever and you’d never see it again, and then one day you ran across it in some utterly unlikely place — “Hey, look what I found! look what I found!” That’s the joy, and that’s the joy God feels about us.

I am inclined to think — Matthew’s parallel version of the parable of the lost sheep gives me some warrant, but in any case I am inclined to think — that the lines about “there is more joy in heaven” and “there is joy in the presence of the angels of God” are editorial addition by St. Luke. I don’t doubt that there is joy among the angels over one sinner who repents, but that’s not really the point, and it seems to me that it piously diffuses Jesus’ point, that God rejoices. Moreover, God does not only rejoice, but bids us as well as the angels to share in the divine joy. We too are to rejoice that the lost is found. And not to be like Jonah outside Nineveh, sitting around grumping: “Yeah, well what would have happened if the wolves had come while he was out looking for that stupid little lost sheep? When is she going to learn to keep track of her money a little better?” (Jesus gets at this a little more pointedly in the next story, the Lost Son, which we actually heard last Lent: “I’ve been working for you all these years but you never even let me have a little party with my friends, but when my bro—when your son comes home…”)

God rejoices. And we are to rejoice with God.

This may seem fairly obvious to us.. I hope so. But I’m not sure it is as obvious as we may think.

There is a religious stance we can take, in which we say, “There is us, and there is them; and God loves us, but God hates them.” Often enough they are people who are not Christians, or not religious at all; or maybe they are purported Christians but are in some other way are not like us, because they worship differently, or are culturally or ethnically different, or interpret the Bible differently, or don’t have the same opinion about various moral or political issues. Lots of folks seem to have taken that stance, and are taking that stance today, and we ourselves have taken that stance often enough in our history, and in own lives; and even today it lies, sanitized and covert, at the heart of the longing —which we all share at least a little, if we will admit it — the craving for self-justification.

Or there is the other stance, that understands that “There is us, and that’s all — there is no them — and God loves us all and yearns to gather us all, the lost, the strayed, the misplaced, you, me, them — God loves us all, all, as Archbishop Tutu reminds us over and over again, not some, but all —God is a God who rejoices to find us, and invites us and expects us to rejoice with God when the lost is found and to share with God in the ministry of seeking the lost.

Here is the heart of Christianity: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him” — not "everyone who assents to certain doctrinal propositions about him" (however important those may be), but everyone who follows in faith and trust into the life of the Reign of God that Jesus proclaims and enacts — “so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep, I have found the coin, I have found my people who were lost.”