September 15, 2013 – Pentecost 17

Ezekiel 34:1-6, 11-16

The word of the Lord came to me: Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them….     For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.

1 Timothy 1:12-17

I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost.  But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.

Luke 15:1-10

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.”

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Pentecost 17 9/15/13 (Ps 23, Ezek 34:1-6, 11-16; 1 Timothy 1:12-17)

Luke 15:1-10    Lost and Found

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Jesus says “which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one, won’t leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that’s lost? 

And maybe we nod our heads – amen. But will a shepherd really leave 99 sheep in the wilderness? – to seek just one that’s lost?  Not without having a mighty good reliable backup shepherd on hand to watch the rest of the flock, I’d say. But Jesus doesn’t ask me – or say anything about taking any such precautions. He just says any good shepherd will up and go… And Jesus says –

            When he’s found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices and comes home and calls his friends, saying ‘rejoice with me, I’ve found my sheep that was lost.’”

And I can understand a shepherd being glad to get a sheep back alive but – I have a hard time imagining a farmer throwing a party when a lost sheep or cow is found. Farmers I know up in Vermont might have an extra slice of apple pie, maybe a glass of something that night – but call the neighbors over to come rejoice, have a party? I don’t think so. But then again, Jesus didn’t ask me – and this is his parable… And –

Sheep were plentiful in Jesus’ day, and sheep and shepherds were familiar metaphors for God’s people and for God. We are the sheep of his pasture Psalm 100 tells us. The Lord is my shepherd Psalm 23 says. God, speaking through the prophet Ezekiel, says the leaders of Israel are total failures (for the most part) as shepherds, but God himself will seek and find the lost sheep. God’s the One who seeks and finds the lost…

And now here’s Jesus, stretching the metaphor, saying –

            And what woman with ten coins if she loses one, won’t light the lamp, sweep the room, search till she finds it? And when she finds that coin, won’t she call her friends and neighbors and throw a party, saying ‘rejoice with me, I’ve found my coin that was lost.’”

And well again – if you’ve lost a day’s wages (the value of the drachma coin Jesus is talking about) and find it again – you might call friends and share the good news – but throw a party? End up spending maybe more than you found? When you need that money to pay bills? Again I really don’t think so… But this woman searching is starting to look like God in the world of parable…

And again this is Jesus talking – and these are parables about lost and found – stories designed to get us hearing differently, seeing from different angles – and joining in the chorus about joy in heaven over one sinner who repents.

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Lost and found is a subject I have some personal experience in. And I asked my mother once to write up some of our family lost-and-found stories for posterity, and she wrote back, saying first of all (quote:)  “Thinking back on your career, dear heart – there was more than one time we feared you were lost – but always you were found, thank God.”

When I was a toddler, mom says, our family lived for a while in a rented house on a farm in Waltham, and even as a little child I was eager to explore. Somehow, mother says, I pried one of the wooden spokes off my playpen, squeezed myself out between the spokes, liberating myself from captivity, then pushed the screen door open, and left the house. There was a very interesting pen full of large pigs nearby that had caught my attention, and I was off to investigate.

Long story short – my parents soon noticed I’d broken out, and ran after me – where they found me outside, heading towards the pig pen. Foreshadowing Prodigal Son episodes-yet-to-come. That first time, thanks God, my parents got to me before I got to the pigs. And my mother, God bless her, has been celebrating my safe return ever since.

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Jesus is eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners again, when we meet up today, and the religious leaders are complaining about the company he keeps, again… And here’s Jesus – telling a string of parables, for the benefit, first of all, of these religious leaders grumbling about him – and for disciples, listening, also. A string of three parables with a common theme of lost and found. Talking about a lost sheep, then a lost coin, finally a lost boy. We’re not reading the third and last of these three parables today, the one about the prodigal son – but we need to notice how in each of these stories – lost sheep, lost coin, lost boy – we always conclude with the same refrain of rejoicing on earth and in heaven for what’s been lost, but now is found.

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My mother also wrote me about another time while I was still in the toddler stage, and my dad, in college at the time, had a summer job chauffeuring a wealthy elderly widow in Watch Hill, Rhode Island. A great job, because it came with rent-free use of a cottage by the beach, next door to the big house where the widow lived, with servants. There was a screen-porch attached to this cottage, and I could  play on the porch by myself, while mom was in the kitchen, just a few feet away.

One day I was on the porch, playing as usual…  but when mom glanced over to check on me, I was gone. It was an old, weathered house; some of the wood the screen was attached to must have weakened and let go.

It didn’t take long for mom to figure out the screen had come apart – and looking down (mom says) it was a long way down to the sandy ground… with tidal waters not far away… And I was nowhere in sight.

Mom went running next door to the kitchen of the big house – and all the helpers quickly joined the search – except the cook, who, my mother says, just wailed and moaned, saying, “Oh dear – he was so cute – he was so cute – poor little tyke!”

They searched and searched all around the premises – and finally found me – on the road leading off the property – moving slowly, hidden, just out of sight by beach grass. And again – mom’s been celebrating my safe return ever since.

Which is a good thing, because – when I got to my teen years my parents got very familiar with searching and seeking for the lost, and finding me in various Lost and Founds, including the town Police Department. I won’t bore you with details, but there was more than one long night of worry for my folks. I got far too good at playing the part of the lost boy in the parable of the prodigal son – the word prodigal meaning ‘wasteful’ – as in wasting time, talents, and treasure. And my mom and dad got much better than they ever wanted to at playing the part of prodigal parents – prodigal also meaning ‘lavishly generous’ – extravagantly dishing out grace and forgiveness.

I thought about having us read-on through the next and last in this string of three parables, the story of the prodigal son. A story so powerful and familiar that it tends to overwhelm the two we’re reading, which carry part of the message of lost and found we might otherwise miss. So we’re not reading the last of the three parables – but maybe we remember how, at the end of that prodigal son story there’ s again a big party for the son who was lost, who now is found – and there’s also that lost son’s older brother, who wasn’t lost – who won’t join in rejoicing with the rest of the household.

And there’s lost, and there is lost. There’s lost when we know we’re lost, like the prodigal son. And there’s lost, not knowing we’re lost – like the prodigal’s son’s older brother…

“In case you have not noticed – Christianity is a religion in which the sinners have all the advantages,” preacher Barbara Brown Taylor has written. And she nails it. All the biblical lost and found stories do seem to give all the benefit of the doubt to the lost. Which can seem rather unfair if we’re found…or think we are. (And – )

I can understand why Pharisees and scribes aren’t happy, seeing Jesus partying with sinners. If these sinners were appropriately dressed – in sackcloth and ashes –  praying, fasting, begging forgiveness – well, ok – we could understand Jesus being with them. But the gospel says nothing to indicate any traditional visible signs of repentance are to be seen. And the fact of Luke identifying these folks as sinners surely implies their repentance is not an entirely-done-deal yet…?

But here’s Jesus, hanging out with sinners, talking about finding a lost sheep, a lost coin, a lost boy…And even though we don’t seem to have seen visible signs of repentance, still the refrain from Jesus is always about joy over sinners who repent.

So maybe it all comes down to what does Jesus mean by repentance?

The Greek word translated as repentance means literally turning. And maybe Jesus is letting us know that for him, just the fact of folks hanging out with him is sufficient evidence… they’ve begun to make the turn.

Still, this does seem like a rather strange string-of-lost-and-found parables – considering –

A lost sheep doesn’t really have a clue how to get found. But the shepherd goes and seeks and finds the sheep anyway.

A lost coin can’t do a thing to get itself found. But a woman sweeping, seeking, shining a bright light everywhere, seeks and finds the coin.

A lost toddler can’t get found by themself. But loving parents will always search and seek without ceasing till their child is found.

Lost people of any age really can’t get found by ourselves. And aren’t all these parables about God, the only Perfect Parent – seeking, finding, welcoming home all the lost? Celebrating each and every time with a party.

Calling us to do likewise. Calling us to love as we’ve been loved. Calling us as people of God to do as God does – and keep searching, seeking, finding, persistently – welcoming all into God’s community of faith and grace and love…

And at the end of the day, won’t the good news always be – that God has welcomed us home, one and all? Even after all we’ve put God through, all these years…  God’s still ready to party with all of us – whenever, however we turn home…  Whenever, however we get found.

Sounds like Good News to me…

Amen

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