Sermon for March 19, 2017

Anna V. Copeland, Preaching

Luke 15:1-10 NRSV

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

So he told them this parable: “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? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And 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.’ Just 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.

“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? When 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.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”


Full Measure

         We turn our attention this morning to the fifteenth chapter of Luke, and two little, very familiar stories about a shepherd searching for his lost sheep, and a woman searching for her lost coin. As so often happens, we think we know what the parables are all about. Just when we think we’ve got it, Jesus turns our world-view on its head. Prepare to be surprised.

First let me tell you a true story that I shared earlier this month with your newly elected leaders of this church at the annual Leadership Retreat. While driving over to Betsy Caruther’s house for a church meeting, I was half listening to an interview on NPR with a man named Joe Satori. Joe was talking about how he got started photographing wildlife, growing up as a child visiting the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, Nebraska. My ears perked up. “I grew up visiting the Henry Doorly Zoo, taking my first school field trip there in the first grade. “Actually”, he said, “I didn’t grow up in Omaha, I grew up in Ralston, a tiny town just outside of Omaha.” I grew up in Ralston, Nebraska, a town of 2,500 people. Now he had my attention.

         His story was suddenly my story. Nobody from Nebraska ever gets interviewed on the radio, unless your last name is Buffet, Warren, not Jimmy. A professional wild life photographer, Joe created what had come to be named The Photo Ark, after Noah’s Ark. He travels the world to photograph the last, single image of the last remaining members of species just prior to their extinction, so that what seemed lost will be forever remembered.

         His story is one of sacrifice, traveling long distances at great financial and personal expense. He recalled the year his young wife was diagnosed with cancer. He was grounded, spending a year at home caring for her and their three young children. Unable to work, he was frightened for the health of his wife and worried about provision for his family.

         When his wife recovered, their priorities radically rearranged. They let go of everything that did not support their life purpose. She told him he could spend their money on whatever he wanted, and he did. Joe Satori purchased 1,200 acres of prairie near Alliance, Nebraska for no other purpose than to provide a sanctuary for a particular endangered bird, the long billed curlus.

         Asked by his interviewer how he could leave his family once again, home only a couple of days each month. He replied that his passion and purpose is to preserve the image of creatures before they are forever gone from our sight. For such a purpose as this,” he said, “I give my full measure devotion.”

At the retreat a few weeks back, we asked the question, “To what do you give your full measure devotion? That is a critical question, and one we will explore another day. But not yet. The subject of today’s worship is not us, but rather God. The sermon focus this morning then is this. “To what does God give full measure devotion?”

As we enter this third week of Lent, the parables of Jesus give us a hint. We join Jesus this morning who is traveling to Jerusalem: teaching the scribes and the Pharisees and educated religious leaders, as well as the poor, the outcast, and the sinners with whom Jesus ate and drank. He taught all of them about the character of God who relentlessly searches out and reclaims every rare and endangered human with just such full measure devotion.

People are precious to God. Every single human being, God made and God loves one of us like a parent or aunt or uncle. We love our children, our grandchildren, nieces our nephews more than life. We’d do anything for them. Yet most of us as parents have had moments when our children fell from grace. Then we might have traded one of our kids to the lowest bidder if anyone had offered. You know what I’m talking about: those moments when they have their sassy on, when they shock us with some outrageous behavior and we’re completely lost as to what to do about it.

         God is different than that. God relentlessly goes after every single precious human person with full measure devotion, especially the ones we may think are expendable or whom we care about the least.

         Jesus’ message surely provided relief to the hated tax gatherers and sinners who were outcast in his society: the unclean, the marginalized, the disposable, and the aliens. Jewish law supported these prejudices, righteously claiming the necessity to avoid the unclean in order to present oneself as pure and holy. It was therefore forbidden for a Jew to touch or share food with sinners. The Pharisees would have assumed that Jesus’ stories were a call to repentance for these lowlifes.

         But when the Pharisees and Scribes began to understand that Jesus’ message was somehow about them, their anger and hostility toward him continued to grow. Our story from Luke this morning opened with their outrage. “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

They were convinced that Jesus misunderstood how God wanted people to become holy and righteous. They welcomed a certain class of people to God’s table of blessing: Jewish men who followed the laws and rituals of their faith to demonstrate their devotion. Jesus demonstrated a wider welcome to God’s table. He embraced women, foreigners, children, tax collectors, sinners and slaves. He revealed the character of God who relentlessly searches for every lost child with the unconditional love of a devoted parent.

In the previous chapter, Jesus told the story of the Prodigal Son to make this point. The Pharisees could see and affirm that God is indeed the loving father who would of course welcome the repentant younger son back home.

But there’s more to these stories than that, and the religious leaders weren’t getting it. So Jesus persisted. He told them these two new parables from today’s scripture reading. The stories at first seem sweet to us, G rated Sunday school tales. They remind us at first glance that God never gives up on us. This is a worthy point of course, but Jesus is going for the gold here.

Jesus engages the religious leaders in these two stories for an entirely different purpose. First he asks them to imagine what it would be like to be a shepherd. Then he wants them to think and feel like a woman. This meant something entirely different for them at that time than it does for us now. This would have been scandalous.

This is where things get tricky. The Pharisees would never have identified with the Shepherd. Shepherd’s were unclean, often foreigners. They wouldn’t associate with them and they certainly wouldn’t identify with them. Jesus’ choice of an unclean shepherd made it more difficult for them to identify with the hero. At this point in the story they would surely have grown uneasy.

Jesus then says, "I tell you, in the same way, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance."  He is delivering a scathing punch line and at first they miss it. If not the shepherd, then they would surely have thought they were in the righteous ninety-nine. But Jesus shows them that in their pride and in their prejudice, they have become the lost God now seeks to find. In the upside down kingdom of God, Jesus makes it clear to the Pharisees that they are the lost sheep that the migrant worker is carrying home. 

Jesus confronts those beliefs that have made them an endangered species in God’s kingdom. Like he Photo Ark photographer, he pursues them with full measure devotion hoping that they will repent, which means to change direction, and return to the heart of God.

Jesus then tells a second story about a woman who lost a coin. Living in a rural village at that time, a day’s wages would have been bartered with goods or services. Real money would have been rare and precious. She lost something of great value.

        Last week I met a British woman whose hobby in Europe is metal detecting. I asked her to tell me about her greatest finds. She reflected a moment, and then described her most precious discovery as a single, engraved metal button from a woman’s dress, lost more than a thousand years ago. She considered the anguish of the woman who searched everywhere for it when it fell from her clothing. It would have been irreplaceable, and a source of great sorrow to have been unable to recover it.

So it was for this woman from Jesus’ parable who lost her precious coin. As Jesus wanted the Pharisees to understand that they were the lost, he also wanted them to understand the unspeakable sorrow of God when they stubbornly remained unfound for so long. He invited them to repent of their pride, arrogance and abuse of power by lifting up the humility and persistence of a despicable shepherd and a powerless woman. This would have been horrifying for them at a time in human history when women were not considered worthy even to be taught God’s word, and the Pharisees prayed several times a day the prayer, I thank you O God, that I am not a woman.”

       Today Jesus might have used a different example. He might have asked, “What undocumented worker in southern Arizona about to be deported, having lost his green card would not search the house and the car until he found it?” We too might nod in agreement, until we realize that the green card God searches for is us. We can now see what upset the Pharisees so much. This was part of the prophesy of Mary, Jesus’ mother, before he was born. The lowly will be raised up, the proud will be scattered in the imagination of their hearts.

The Pharisees were then in a double-bind and so are we. Much as we want it to be so, we can’t make ourselves the subject of God’s story. Jesus pushed the religious leaders to reimagine the character of God by thinking like a shepherd and acting like a woman. This would have outraged them, but they couldn't avoid it. Jesus distressed and disturbed their conceptions and prejudices greatly.

How hard it is for us when we think we’ve got it all together to become vulnerable before God. But think about it. “The sheep is helpless, the sheep is near dead and can do nothing. It has to be picked up, put on the shepherd's back and carried back. The shepherd carries the full burden, the full weight of the search, the find, the recovery and the restoration. The coin is inanimate, helpless, dead, and lifeless. God has to do the finding and the restoration. But our God makes clear that this does not happen without repentance.” We have to be willing to turn away from whatever distracts us or tempts us away from God’s kingdom plans for our life and for all people.

This is a story of hope for all who humble themselves like the lost green card, the lost coin, or the lost sheep. Just when we think we’re the insiders in charge of helping the world’s miserables, God comes searching for US. God becomes the wild life photographer who creates The Photo Ark to capture every last creature before its too late. We become the endangered species God lays down God’s life to preserve.

When we imagine then like the Pharisees that we can rescue ourselves through our good works and actions, we’re mistaken. Twenty years ago when my fifteen-year old son Joshua and I were caught in a summer blizzard, I sought the shelter of our car with full measure devotion. Suffering from hypothermia and hallucinating, I would have done absolutely anything to get my son to safety, even lay down my life.

I learned then what I often forget. It was not my determination or mountain climbing skills or even my absolute devotion to the life of my son that saved us. While we were searching for our car, Alpine Rescue was searching for us. Only a quarter mile from the car, the distance might as well have been a thousand miles. We needed someone to bridge the gap towards us in order to live.

This is our story as human creatures, a story of creation, fall and redemption. God made us and loved us into being for good, and then at some point, our world unravels and then stops. Just when all seems lost, we are inexplicably found. This is the good news of God’s redeeming love for us all.

 May it be so. Amen

Quote from “Grace to You Podcast, Grace Community Church, 2017.”

Sermon by Anna V. Copeland, First Parish Church, York, Maine, UCC