Sermon for September 11, 2022, 14 Pentecost, Year C: Everyone loves a party (The Rev. Walter Ramsey)
Everyone loves a party unless you aren’t at the party. Years ago, when I would commute into The City early in the morning, I would get up at 4:00 AM, so every minute of sleep was “precious.” I worked on Saturday for a while, and a Friday night party in the neighborhood would ensue from time to time. Suffice it to say those Saturdays were miserable. One person’s celebration can be annoying for someone else, especially if they don’t understand the reason for the party.
I’m sure you’ve heard that Jesus loved a good party, and today’s Gospel is no exception. Indeed, the three parables in this fifteenth chapter of Luke, the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the Prodical son, are told because Jesus was making a habit of having celebration parties with all the ‘wrong’ people, so the Pharisees and scribes thought it was a nightmare.
The crux of the trouble with the Pharisees and scribes was the character of the people Jesus ate with regularly. The tax collectors were disliked not just because they were tax collectors – nobody much likes them in any culture – but because they were collecting money for either Herod or the Romans and thought of as an instrument of oppression. And if they were in regular contact with Gentiles, some might have considered them unclean. The ‘sinners’ are a broader category, and people disagree about who they are. They may have been people who were too poor to know the law correctly or try to keep it. Indeed, they were people regarded by the self-appointed experts as hopelessly irreligious, out of touch with the demands God had made on Israel through the law. For Jesus, these “sinners” are something more than riffraff and the scum of the earth; they are the “lost” who are being “found” through his preaching, teaching, and table fellowship and whose return gives rise to a supreme joy that overwhelms all other considerations.
In reply to the Pharisees and scribes grumbling about who he invites to eat with. Jesus tells two parables. The first is the parable of the shepherd who leaves 99 of his sheep behind to search out and find one lost sheep. The second is the parable of the lost coin, in which a woman turns her house upside down to find a valuable lost coin. Both parables end with rejoicing and celebration at finding that which was lost.
Going to the heart of these stories, the shepherd and the woman represent God. Despite the ongoing anxiety of some at having to admit it, the Bible frequently depicts God as a woman: a mother nursing her child, a mother hen gathering her chicks, and a woman searching for a lost sinner. God is described as a woman! And here Jesus tells us what the parables are about: the return of lost sinners so that God and the angels in heaven rejoice. Notice in both stories the result is the same; the shepherd and the woman invite all their neighbors, as in all, everyone without qualification, to “Rejoice with me, for I have found [that which] was lost.” Jesus explained There is more joy in heaven over one sinner found than any 99 who have no need for repentance. Probably a dig at the Pharisees and scribes.
The particular sheep, and the particular coin, weren’t themselves unique. (The coins, by the way, may well have been the woman’s savings, possibly her dowry. Losing one would be a personal as well as a financial disaster.) In one of the late, perverted versions of Jesus’ teaching circulated in subsequent centuries, Jesus says to the lost sheep, ‘I love you more than the others.’ But the whole point of the parable is that the only thing different about this sheep is that it was lost. Imagine the impact of this on the repentant sinners who heard the stories. They didn’t have to earn God’s love or Jesus’ respect. He loved coming looking for them and celebrated finding them. And what Jesus did – this is the deepest point of these parables, and the ultimate reason why the Pharisees objected to them – was what God was doing. Jesus’ actions on earth corresponded precisely to God’s love in the heavenly realm.
As Jesus puts it, the Pharisees and the scribes have been part of the mainstream community and enjoyed attendant privileges while seeking to exclude groups such as the “sinners” and tax collectors from the community structures. They have benefited from the comfort and security of participation in the community, denying the same to others from whom they sought to separate themselves. Those thus far excluded will now occupy prominent places at the dinner Jesus is hosting. The Pharisees and the scribes will likely not be a part of that dinner, and the exclusion will be of their own making.
In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus says, “Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” But in these parables, God is the one searching – searching for our hearts and spirit to bring us to true repentance, metanoia – turning from the idols of self and the world to God. There is more joy over one sinner who is found than any 99 who have no need for repentance.
If we try to understand the joke implied in Jesus’ conclusion, those that need no repentance, by making confession every Sunday in the Eucharist or daily Prayer, all good and necessary things can become like the scribes and Pharisees who think everyone else but them needs to repent. We must always repent and pray for deliverance from the idol of privilege.
In a world where demeaning others has become the commonplace, everyday rhetoric of people on all sides of all conflicts, can we place ourselves in this crowd of tax collectors, sinners, Pharisees, and scribes and listen to what is said?
How can we ever be found until we accept that we are all lost? Because the witness of the Biblical story from Genesis to Revelation is that our God is indeed relentlessly compassionate, pursuing us even when we are at our worst.
Accepting God’s mercy, love, and compassion requires us to turn, change, and repent of all thoughts and behaviors that stereotype and demean others. For in such turning is salvation. And our salvation is a gift from that power much greater than we are. And these stories are about the salvation of our whole community, the entire world, united in rejoicing that we have all finally turned and abandoned all language of exclusion! What might today’s Christians do that would make people ask, ‘Why are you doing something like that?’ and give us the chance to tell stories about finding something that was lost?
Both stories say: ‘This is why we’re celebrating! Wouldn’t you have a party if it was you? How could we not?’ Through them all, we get a wide-open window on what Jesus thought he was doing – and, indeed, on what he wants us to do. Amen.