St Mary’s 15/9/19 13th after Trinity 8am, 9.30am, 10.45am
(Exodus 32.7-14) 1 Timothy 1.12-17 Luke 15.1-10
What’s the most valuable thing you have ever lost? On a few occasions I’ve been asked to bless a new wedding ring because the original could not be found. In one case, a week later, it turned up in the husband’s turn ups.
Or it may not be something you accidentally lost but something you now regret not having kept. A trivial example for me is the lovely soft red leather bookmark I had throughout my childhood. I rolled it up, chewed it, sucked it, and made its home to be every book I read as a boy. Then one day I threw it away. Probably because I thought I was grown up, or because it was too disgusting. Ironically, it had a Bible verse on it, 1 Thessalonians 5 v 21, which says, ‘Hold fast that which is good’.
We have heard two lovely short parables about something lost being found. The lost sheep, and the lost coin. And of course if we’d continued through the chapter we’d have read the long and best known parable of the lost son. They all come together, and they are all a response to the scene set in the opening two verses.
Tax collectors and sinners are gathering around Jesus. People who were despised and outcast from polite society. Meanwhile, the Pharisees and the scribes, the people of authority and status, stand apart watching and grumbling. They complain and mutter to each other, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners – and eats with them’.
What causes the outrage is that Jesus doesn’t just spend time with these people. He sits at the same table with them. He dines with them. And in the ancient world that kind of fellowship and hospitality was a sign of spiritual unity. You were identifying yourself with them and recognising them to be just as worthy of sharing in God’s banquet as the most righteous.
Jesus is prepared to rejoice with them, and that note of rejoicing is the surprise at the end of each of the parables.
It’s over the top isn’t it? Does a shepherd ever call together friends and neighbours for a party after finding one lost sheep? If you found some money you had lost, however much, would you go to the folk next door and invite them round to celebrate? And if your son returns after recklessly wasting half your money? You may throw a party if your son returns after being lost on a heroic expedition. But a son that had been so wasteful?
In fact, whether we’re thinking of the shepherd, the woman, or the Father, you would expect more like quiet, private embarrassment rather than a public celebration.
And what about our world with all its trouble and strife? What happens in heaven when they look down? Does God get embarrassed about his creation in front of the angels? Not at all. It only takes there to be one sinner who repents and the place erupts with joy. One change of heart, one life turned around from self-indulgence toward the way of love. Or even just one step in that direction.
These parables are meant to transform our sense of how God regards us. We’re so used to being judged by others, we can so live in fear of being condemned or cut off, we’ve so much experience of authority working that way – that it’s natural to assume God is a bigger version of it.
How do you think confession works? What’s your primary image? God sternly looks on from a throne as we speak, then tells us we’re forgiven, but with a warning in the eye saying, ‘Off you go, don’t do that again’.
By contrast, the parables tell of a shepherd who goes out searching. He puts the sheep on his shoulders, and he rejoices. They tell of a woman who lights a lamp and carefully sweeps as she looks. And when she finds, she rejoices.
These are the pictures to lodge in your minds. This is God’s way with you.
In fact, the parables themselves don’t put emphasis at all on your sin or repentance. Neither the sheep nor the coin can be blamed for being lost. And it’s all down to the shepherd and the woman to do the finding. These parables represent people who for whatever reason have found themselves to be uncared for and neglected. And God goes on the search.
Jesus is telling the Pharisees that the people they despise are people whom God utterly delights in. And it makes heaven go wild when any are brought to the table.
And if that’s how God welcomes you and me today, he wants us to be like him with others. He wants us to search out and welcome all who are excluded.
It’s a huge theme in Luke’s gospel, to include all the different marginalised groups. Just think about these three parables and how we’re used to thinking about them. The shepherd searching for the sheep – that’s a picture of God isn’t it? We’re very used to thinking of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. The Father welcoming the son home. Don’t we readily see him as a picture of our Father God?
What about the woman sweeping the floor, looking for the coin? Have you ever thought of that as an image of God? I can’t remember that being pointed out in Sunday School. But Luke is being very bold and portraying God as a woman in a society where women were lost to so many places of privilege.
Who are the people we are meant to go searching for? Who have we neglected? Who have we grumbled about when a welcome has been offered?
Ideally we need others to tell us the answers to those questions but we should try our best.
How good are we at welcoming children? I hope we do well, but it doesn’t take much more than a stern glance from someone to give the wrong message when they make a bit of noise.
How good are we at welcoming women? All the clergy at St Mary’s are male. That’s not by design or policy, but I’m conscious that it’s not the best look, and I would like to invite women priests to preach and preside occasionally.
Last week a group of people from St Mary’s met to start thinking about how welcoming and friendly we are to people with dementia and how we can do better. It’s an area which will become increasingly important.
This week the PCC will consider the question of whether St Mary’s should support its clergy in offering services of prayer and celebration to couples in same-sex partnerships. If a couple approach us, should we welcome them with rejoicing, or should we judge them?
What have you lost over the years because you didn’t recognise the value at the time? Maybe something more important than my bookmark. Friendships, relatives, work colleagues – people who may now be lonely, or in some difficulty, who would value a call?
Who has reached out to you and you’ve not been ready to be found, to be restored to this or that community or friendship?
If only we could live with a sense of God’s joy in us, then we’d be free to receive it from others, and free to offer it to others, without fear of whether we’re accepted or rejected.
And to speak of joy is not to deny that we may be experiencing pain or disappointment or tension or anxiety. It’s about what we trust to be most fundamental about ourselves and the world. Can we believe that, whatever our circumstances, we are regarded with unbounded love and generosity, and drawn by the relentless welcome of God?
May God help us to rejoice with him as he draws people to share his table. And may God save us from standing apart, grumbling and self-righteous.