Sermon for September 11, 2016 – Pentecost 17
Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Encinitas, CA.
Text: Luke 15:1-10
15Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him [Jesus]. 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.”
Grace, peace, and light to you from our loving God. Amen.
For the Christmas season in 2010, my family and I planned The Ultimate Holiday Vacation. Armed with frequent flyer miles, hotel rewards points, and a ski condo bargain that combined low rates and lift tickets, we crafted an adventure that involved us driving to Salt Lake City with our truck packed for skiing – and then parking the truck and flying to New York City for five days in the Big Apple just before Christmas. We flew back to Salt Lake on December 23rd and then enjoyed a week of skiing at our favorite mountain. Miles and points make dreams possible!
Upon our arrival in New York, we deposited our luggage at the hotel and headed out to see some of the holiday store windows for which New York is so famous.
We returned to our hotel room at about 4 pm, eager to get ready to have dinner at the legendary steakhouse, Peter Luger’s in Brooklyn. Just before leaving, we remembered that Peter Luger’s is a cash-only establishment, and went to the luggage where we had placed the cash for both segments of this two-week trip.
It was not there.
Now, this particular piece of luggage is a pocket-rich wheeled garment bag. We emptied the entire thing. We searched every pocket. We then went to the OTHER garment bag and did likewise. Nothing.
We called hotel security, who ALSO searched both garment bags. Nothing.
They took the matter under consideration and began the process of questioning the hotel staff. We sat with this situation for a time, and realized there was a branch of our bank in the next block. While the fabulous steakhouse was out of the running, we had plenty of local options.
The next morning, while returning some of our clothes to the garment bags, we found the cash – in a pocket we are CERTAIN was not there the previous day (and which to THIS day I cannot again find).
Well, as you can imagine there was great rejoicing in our room! Which was quickly followed by a phone call to hotel security to make sure no hotel staff were in trouble for our mistake.
Great rejoicing. That day, we knew what it meant. We found what had been lost.
But I share this story with you not as an attempt to identify with someone who has lost a bit of cash, but in order to look at the relative importance of what is lost.
In one of the biblical outlines I use regularly, our gospel lesson is called “the value of sinners.”
It’s an interesting phrase, one that can be read as both inclusive and judgmental; i.e. sinners have value (but they’re STILL sinners).
Jesus tells these parables of redemption prompted by the judgmental grumblings of the religious elite who were horrified that Jesus was hanging out with the n’er-do-wells. And not just a few of them! ALL the tax collectors! ALL the sinners!
The cultural norms of the time assigned deep importance to table fellowship. It was an event of no small consideration that Jesus had done this, broken bread with THOSE PEOPLE.
But there is an interesting distinction sitting between the lines of this text.
Jesus tells two stories that sound like they’re all about sinners and the actions they take. “There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” That might be what my outline calls “the value of sinners.”
But the similes in Jesus’ stories are a sheep, and a coin.
I think we can agree that a coin is not capable of repentance. Remember, the biblical text tells us it is the love of money that is the root of evil, not money itself.
What about a sheep?
I’ve raised sheep, and while I do think they are capable of incredibly annoying behavior, including wandering off, I’m not at all sure they have the mental capacity for metanoia – the Greek word used here for “repentance.” We have a lot of negative connotations with repentance that reflect an idea of punishment. But metanoia is much broader, and really means to turn and go a different direction. To be transformed and redirected.
But the sheep and the coin – these are the things which are found in these stories!
So what might Jesus be saying here?
Maybe the point isn’t the action of the sinner, so much as it is the dogged persistence of the one doing the looking.
The shepherd is so persistent as to leave virtually the whole flock behind to go look for the one who wandered off. This is a dicey move. Does the shepherd work with other shepherds who can keep an eye on the flock? Has he built a sheepfold, an enclosure that we don’t hear about?
And the woman. A rare feminine image of God, and held next to the image of the shepherd so there’s no mistaking it as that feminine image. She is so persistent. She lights a lamp and sweeps, looks everywhere. I guess our modern equivalent might be our car keys (or my suitcase cash). But maybe we aren’t supposed to have a “modern equivalent.” Maybe part of the point is that it’s just one coin, seemingly of little importance.
While the cash in our suitcase was a significant amount, it ultimately was of little importance. It was not a question of whether we could spare it (we couldn’t) but a question of what was important. Of whether we would allow a setback to spoil the trip. Figuring out our options was our own form of dogged persistence.
But doesn’t THAT form make more sense than the dogged persistence in our gospel text? Than the urgency with which these God-figures go searching? And then there’s the disproportionate lavishness of the celebrating, once they have found the lost. It doesn’t make a lot of sense. After finding the cash, my family and I didn’t invite the entire hotel to have dinner in the Rainbow Room at Rockefeller Center!
There is much here to puzzle over. As I pondered the image of the so-called “sinner” I also pondered Jesus’ description of the 99 as “those who have no need of repentance.”
Does such a person even exist? We’ve heard of now-Saint Teresa of Calcutta’s crises of faith, which she herself would describe as times when she was in strong need of repentance.
I am doubtful that we are permanently and solely in one group or another: the sinner in need of repentance, or the righteous one NOT in need of repentance. One of the most beloved, and I think USEFUL, tenets of our Lutheran theology is simul iustus et peccator – simultaneously saint and sinner. The nature of the human condition dictates that we will find ourselves at varying times in both of these groups – and sometimes with very little time between.
One moment we feel great. Things are going well. That project came in on time and under budget.
The next day, maybe even just a few hours later, we are most definitely in the “needing repentance” column – for any one of a myriad of reasons.
As a saint, we stand in God’s grace, freed through the cross and resurrection of Jesus. Freed in Christ to serve the neighbor.
As a sinner, we stand in constant need of that grace.
Both of these are the moments when I think it’s critical to remember this text: these words that Jesus said to let both marginalized AND mainstream folks know that they are welcomed. Not only welcomed, but joyfully, abundantly, lavishly welcomed and over whom the angels rejoice.
When we are lost, we are not at the beginning of the parable.
When we are lost, we are already across Jesus’ shoulders. We have already been found.
The concepts of being lost and found are seen through a particular lens on this day.
Fifteen years ago today, thousands of lives were lost in the 9/11 attacks.
As we know, one of the groups that suffered particularly heavy losses was the New York City Fire Department.
We’ve heard many stories of the engines racing towards Lower Manhattan, never to be seen again.
When I think of this day, when I think of the loss suffered, I think of an example of the shepherd who searches for the lost with incomprehensible urgency.
That example is Father Mychal Judge, one of the five chaplains to the NYC Fire Department on that Tuesday.
Father Mychal was a Franciscan friar who lived in the friary across the street from Engine Company 1/Ladder Company 24. He was the son of Irish immigrants, born during the Great Depression and who endured plenty of his own suffering (he lost his father at the age of six). He was well known in the City of New York: he embodied the spirituality of the Franciscan, always seeking the marginalized and hurting. As Daniel Wakin wrote for the New York Times:
The tales of Father Judge’s life are legion. He was one of the first to minister to AIDS patients in the 1980’s, at a time when many of them felt abandoned by the church. He walked around with dollar bills to hand out to the homeless. At all hours of night and day, he rushed to fires, stood by the bedsides of dying firefighters, comforted widows.
The untold tales of his life, of course, emerged after his death. On the day of his funeral, for example, Father Mychal would have celebrated 23 years of sobriety. He absolutely considered himself both saint and sinner, both the joyful, freed recipient of God’s grace and the struggling man so desperately in need of it.
But on September 11th, Father Mychal walked into the face of danger, searching for the lost. He was killed when the first tower fell and sent debris flying into the lobby of the second tower where he stood.
Those whom Father Mychal was seeking, found HIM. They carried his body out of the building to safety and then returned to their work. This picture has become one of the most haunting of all the images of 9/11. One of Father Mychal’s Franciscan brothers has said it is a modern-day Piéta, after the Michelangelo sculpture.
These men have all said in the ensuing years that their tending to Father Mychal is likely why they are still alive today. It took them out of the field of danger long enough to survive.
In our text, Jesus tells a story because some of those present couldn’t get their heads wrapped around the fact that Jesus, the shepherd, is out searching for the lost – not relaxing with the righteous. Not seeking them to impose punishment, but searching for them so that they might have life. Jesus uses the examples of sheep and coin to remind us that we need not do anything to merit God’s love and saving grace. God searches for us, as Father Mychal searched for his firefighters, with dogged persistence and incomprehensible urgency.
Barbara Bradley Hagerty, writing for NPR, reports that Father Mychal was well-liked by folks from both ends of the political spectrum because he had the Irishman’s innate ability to make life a celebration – even in the darkest hours.
Three hundred forty three firemen died that day. Craig Monahan, who barely survived, says that the way Father Mychal died is fitting.
“I think he wouldn’t have had it any other way,” he says. “It was as if he took the lead, all those angels, right through heaven’s gates, you know. That’s what it seemed like to us. And I guess if any of those guys were confused on the way up, he was there to kind of ease the transition from this life to the next.”
And when his time comes, Monahan says, he expects to see Mychal Judge. They’ll have a party, he says. Maybe sing a song.
My beloved community, believe these words: When we are lost, we are already across Jesus’ shoulders. We have already been found.
Perhaps our metanoia, our “repentance”, is simply to open our eyes to what God has already done: set the table for rejoicing.