The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost E. Bevan Stanley
September 15, 2019
Proper 19, Year C, RCL
Jesus said, “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous person who need no repentance.” In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Welcome to the lost and found department! When we are lost, God finds us. We all know how it feels when we think our wallet or purse is missing and then find it. The movement from frantic anxiety to relief and joy. The one prayer I say that is always answered is, “Lord Jesus, help me find my keys.” Many of us have also known the even stronger feelings that go with the loss of a friend or a love. And if there is reconciliation, the immense and awesome joy of having found that friend again.
The two parables we have heard in the Gospel lesson this morning are among the most well known and most loved.
I wonder what it feels like to be that sheep. Sheep are notoriously stupid animals, so the lost sheep may not even know that it is lost. Here I am just munching away on some grass, totally oblivious to the cliff I’m about to stumble over or the wolf that is about to eat me. I’m just enjoying this grass. All of a sudden this hand comes down, grabs me by the legs, and heaves me into the air. Thump! I land across the shepherd’s shoulders with a jolt to my stomach. Then bounce, bounce, bounce. You know (bounce) this really isn’t (jolt) all that much fun (oomph). Oh! Here we are back to the rest of the flock. Gee, I hadn’t even realized I had missed you guys, but you know, come to think of it, I had been pretty lonely and it is good to have some friends again. Now where’s that grass?
We need not discuss the minimal thought processes of the coin!
Neither of the New Testament readings this morning suggest that we do anything to get back to God. I doubt if the lost sheep was looking very hard for the flock. Certainly the lost coin wasn’t doing anything but lying in the dirt. Paul was even blaspheming and persecuting the Church. You know, I’m sure glad I’m not like any of them!
These readings are not about our doing anything. That is, except the hardest thing of all, trusting God. They are about grace. They are about God.
The Apostle Paul annoys some of us at times in his letters by what sounds like arrogance. Imitate me, he says. But in today’s lesson from the first letter to Timothy, we get a better idea of what the Apostle of Grace has in mind. “I am the foremost of sinners; but I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience for an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.” What Paul is an example of is God’s grace working in an ordinary, imperfect life. “Look at me,” says Paul, “This is what God can do for a sinner, this is what God can do for you. This is what God wants to do for everyone. I am only going to boast in what God is doing in my life.”
We are so silly. We want to know what we need to do to get close to God. We want to know what we need to do to please God. We want to find God. But these two stories from the Gospel show us the truth. It is not I who must find God, as if I had misplaced God like my car keys. God is not the one who is lost, wandering around not knowing which way is home. No, I am the lost sheep or coin, and God finds me. Although created by God and belonging to God, somehow I wandered away, I ended up in the wrong place, I strayed from the flock or rolled off the table, or something. The proper relationship was broken. And then God comes looking. I did not, when I was lost, nor do I usually now, when I am lost, do anything about it. God does. And what God does is to come after me, to hunt, to search, to pursue, to woo, until God gets me back. God is as relentless as the Hound of Heaven in Thompson’s famous poem, and as persistent as the mother rabbit who pursues the Runaway Bunny in the children’s story of the same name. God’s love is so fierce that it will allow nothing to stand in its way. And when the lost is found, there is rejoicing. In these parables Jesus shows us what it looks like from God’s point of view. God enjoys finding us and getting us back. There is rejoicing in heaven. That’s what makes the Son and the Father rejoice and dance around with the Holy Spirit and say hurray! What fun! We got another one back!
When the Pharisees criticize Jesus for hanging out with disreputable people, Jesus simply says in effect, “Hey, Jesus is the name, finding lost people is my game. Get used to it.”
The question I have this morning is: whom do I think I am the most like? Am I like the Pharisee, the person who has gotten pretty good at religious practices, and who is uncomfortable when these people of low character get too close? Am I like the coin, just lying in the dirt waiting to be saved but not even conscious? Am I like the sheep who was rescued but it was a pretty bumpy ride? Am I like Paul who sees his own life as an example of God’s power to forgive and renew? Am I like Jesus who is so excited about bringing another person back into fellowship with the Father that he will go through death and back to accomplish it?
Wherever we see ourselves in these lessons today, whatever word the Spirit is speaking to our hearts right now, in whatever way we were lost, now we are found. The lostness is our doing, but the finding is all God’s. And God is very, very happy to have us back. Every time. Always. Whatever it takes. There is rejoicing in heaven, and we get to join in joy here on earth.