September 15, 2019/Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost /Richard E. Holmer First Lesson: Exodus 32:7-14/Second Reading: 1 Timothy 1:12-17/Gospel: Luke 15:1-10
Love Has Found Us
“This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
This was the grumbling complaint of the scribes and Pharisees – the upstanding religious leaders of the community. And their criticism was on target. It’s true that Jesus could be found breaking bread with serious, big time sinners. Tax collectors were despised by everyone. They were collaborators – fellow Jews who worked for the Romans, gouging precious money from their brothers and sisters to fill the coffers of the empire. Tax collectors were such outcasts that they were disqualified from holding any community office, and even from giving testimony in a Jewish court.
The Pharisees wanted Jesus to shun such despicable sinners and instead spend his time with good and faithful people like them. This attitude is not surprising or unusual. Throughout history, to this day people have been inclined to distinguish between good people and bad people – and have wanted a god who was “for all us good people.” Thus, any sign of welcome to outcast sinners is offensive and troubling.
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Of course this was not an isolated incident. Throughout his ministry Jesus reached out to sinful, broken, rejected persons. The parables we hear today are not the only time Jesus proclaims God’s welcome to the least and the lost. Jesus tells of a man who was planning a great feast to which he invited many important persons. They all made various excuses as to why they could not attend. So the man told his servants to go out to the streets and alleys and bring back the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame – people both good and bad.
The Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard relates how in God’s Kingdom, the last are treated as well as the first. Those who work one hour are paid the same as those who put in a full twelve hours. The undeserving get a great blessing.
Jesus is always emphasizing God’s gracious and radical welcome to undeserving sinners. What we need to recognize is that every last one of us is an undeserving sinner. Seeing this is essential to understanding Christ’s message. We can begin to realize that we all get lost – just not in the same way. Today’s gospel describes how God is a relentless seeker: like a shepherd searching for a lost lamb, like a woman turning the house upside down to find a lost coin.
When Jesus speaks of 99 righteous persons who need no repentance – he’s being ironic. He is holding up the mirror to the Pharisees who believe they are beyond reproach – not guilty of any serious sin. They do not acknowledge their sin of self-righteousness and spiritual pride. They are blind to their complete failure to love, to show mercy and compassion.
What Jesus is saying go his critics is that in their own way they are as lost, as far from God, as tax collectors and prostitutes. They are lost sheep who need to get found. And so do we! All of us. Sin is not a problem for some people – but for all people. There are no simple divisions to be drawn between good and bad people. As St. Paul wrote: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:22) We can all get lost in any number of ways: pride and vanity, selfishness, greed, lust, anger and resentment, envy, laziness, apathy and indifference.. Here in church there is not section reserved just for sinners!
Nobody is immune to the power of sin. Yet sometimes we are like those Pharisees: blithely unaware of the ways we fall short – how we fail to truly love God and our neighbors. Other times we can be acutely aware of being lost: feeling trapped in a dead end job or relationship, unable to find meaning or purpose, feeling alone and disconnected, having lost hope, feeling unwanted, unloved.
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Back in the 70’s Linda Ronstadt recorded a song written earlier by the Everly Brothers. That song, “When Will I Be Loved?” made it to #2 on the pop charts. While the song has to do with failed romance, the lyrics speak to a larger, heartfelt longing:
I’ve been cheated, been mistreated. When will I be loved? I’ve been put down, I’ve been pushed round. When will I be loved? I’ve been made blue, I’ve been lied to. When will I be loved? Tell me, when will I be loved?
That refrain, “When will I be loved?” resonates in many human hearts. An essential human need is our need to know we are loved. Without love, life becomes a lonely and perilous journey. It’s not at all unusual to wonder: Hey, when will I be loved? The song we will sing together as our offerings are brought forward speaks to that existential question:
For the wonders that astound us, For the truths that still confound us, Most of all, that love has found us, Thanks be to God.
That’s the gospel message right there: the wondrous news that God’s love seeks us relentlessly – and will not rest until we are found. This is the radical message that Christ proclaimed. This is the way he lived here on earth. Jesus was all about seeking after the lost ones, bringing God’s gracious love to anyone and everyone. Ultimately he laid down his life to demonstrate how far God is willing to go to reach us, to find us, to love us, to save us.
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And in the finding there is great joy! The 15th chapter of Luke is filled with rejoicing. There are three parables in a row, so we can’t miss the message:
Having found the lost sheep, the shepherd comes home, wakes up all his friends and neighbors, saying: “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.”
Likewise, when she finds the missing coin, the woman shouts to her neighbors: “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.”
In the parable which follows (the Prodigal Son), a father explains to his older son why they are having an impromptu party: “We had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life, he was lost and has been found.”
You might say it would be a sin not to rejoice when the lost are found.
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Jesus describes the joy in heaven when a lost one is found, when a sinner turns around and comes home. Our God is not impassive or stoic. God is not the “Unmoved Mover.” Heaven will be filled with continuous joy, because there all the lost are gathered together in a joyful feast of celebration. That heavenly joy is meant to be shared here on earth as well. Joy comes when all of us sinners are welcomed to the Lord’s Table – again and again. Joy is ours when we get found by grace and mercy. Joy is the assurance that we truly are loved. Like the shepherd with his lamb and the woman with her coin, Jesus says to us all: Come, “Rejoice with me!”
John Newton experienced the exquisite joy of being found by Christ – and so he wrote “Amazing Grace.” I remind you, God’s grace is amazing! It amazes me time and again. I hope it amazes you.
Love has found us – so we always have a reason to rejoice.
Thanks be to God.