Week of Sunday September 15 – Pentecost 17
Gospel: Luke 15:1-10
Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’
3 So 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 neighbours, 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 people 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 neighbours, 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.’
11 Then Jesus said, ‘There was a man who had two sons. 12The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” So he divided his property between them. 13A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16He would gladly have filled himself withthe pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything.17But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger!18I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’ ” 20So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” 22But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate;24for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate.
25 ‘Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27He replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.” 28Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29But he answered his father, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.30But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” 31Then the father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32But 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.”
I was evangelised by my girlfriend. There was a youth event on, and she invited me to her little church; she didn't come for some reason, and I was comprehensively ignored. I remember their pastor looking at me strangely, and recognised that, really, he would rather I had not been there. The reason, of course, was that I was disrupting their safe comfortable little church.
I did the same thing to others. I remember coming home from a wonderful holiday away. We went to our church, and as I was walking from the church back to our car, I saw "David Munro" walking down the other side of the main street. He was a not-nice kid from a poor, lower class, not very good family. I remember a sinking feeling of pain and despair, as I realised that this was what I had to go back to at school tomorrow; someone and something's existence, that for two glorious weeks I had completely forgotten.
So of course I would never have invited David Munro to my church. My church was the one place where I was safe. Why would I want him there? I would not have made him welcome.
It's easy to see why we don't like the strangers. They make life uncomfortable. They destroy the peace, and the safety, and the familiarity of the one place where we can be at home— where we can be with our friends.
Sure… David Munro can come to the Methodist church with me if he becomes like me, and if he behaves like me, and stops teasing me, and scaring me, and bothering me. Then he is welcome to come in, because by then he is one of us. He is like us. He does not disturb us. He does not destroy our calm. He agrees with us, and we know we are right.
So we wait anxiously for people to hear the call of God, and to come in and join us and be like us, and be saved. We wish them no ill. We wish them only good. But we are tired, we lack energy, sometimes we are frightened, and it is really too much to ask us to go out and to bring these people in, unchanged and dangerous. We have enough trouble dealing with our own wrinkles, and our own less than helpful habits. We need to look after our church to keep it healthy; to keep it going; to love each other. Those others will make it harder… and likely spoil things.
The trouble is… the Shepherd went out from the flock and went actively and anxiously searching for the David Munro's of his time. He didn't take the flock safely back to the sheep fold, where the other shepherds could look after it in his absence. He left the sheep in the wilderness, on their own, to look after themselves, while he searched for the lost sheep.
This very rich Shepherd— a hundred sheep was something like six times more than the average family in Jesus time would own— this rich Shepherd left all of the 99, looking for just one more; looking for the one who was lost, probably the unsavoury one, or the rebellious one, or the troublemaker. Every mob of sheep has one or two sheep who are never happy, unless they are making trouble on the other side of any fence, or any gate, they happen to find.
The thing about this mob of sheep— this big important mob of sheep— this very successful church mob of sheep— is that they are called the 99. They're not called the church; they are called the 99. 99 is the number of incompleteness. The Shepherd does not rejoice until the mob is brought up to the number 100— the number of completeness— it's then that the Shepherd invites his friends, and us to rejoice with him— then… when the mob is complete.
So what this parable is suggesting to us,
is that our very human keeping safe,
and our very sensible keeping safe of our congregation,
and keeping out of the troublemakers and those who are different,
until they repent and become nice people like us,
is entirely the wrong way to do church and to be church.
If we are to be shepherds like Jesus we will actively go out and bring in the lost sheep. We will carry them in, taking them as a burden on our shoulders. We will actively make them welcome when they arrive, rather than looking askance at them when they don't do things the way we to them. We will put up with their differences even though they challenge us, or irritate us, or puzzle us, because they are the lost sheep, the ones over which the Shepherd rejoiced, and the ones who will make us as a church complete.
One of my colleagues used to tell the story of having become friends with his neighbour, who became very keen and excited about church, and joined.
When the church was having a barbecue at the minister's house, the neighbour next door said, "Alright, I will bring the keg." And the Minister was faced with the difficult task of telling his friend that people would not approve of a keg being at the barbecue. He had to do this knowing full well that in more than half the houses of his congregation there was a good store of alcoholic beverages. He did this knowing that if the keg was there, once people overcame their reservations about a couple of disapproving old battle-axes, most of the people would enjoy a beer or two with their barbecue, or a nice red, which is as life should be if that's what you enjoy.
The sad thing is that when we get into making-people-fit-our-model, we prevent ourselves from having fun. We are not able to enjoy the feast. We are like the older brother of the prodigal son, when he meets his father's great generosity and love, but is unable to see that the same generosity and love is there for him, and always has been. And so he refuses to go into the feast with the fatted calf, and the freely flowing wine, and cuts himself off.
That feast in the prodigal son is meant to remind us of the great feast at the end of time; the completion of creation in all its fullness; God's coming again and establishing the kingdom. How ironic that at that feast the faithful members of the Church are not able to be present because they have not learned the lessons of God's love.
Will we be like the grimly pious sectarians who spend Christmas telling each other how the rest of the country is having a terrible time? Except that it might be the Last Christmas; the Great Feast? Are we sitting shivering in our cold churches while the lost sheep whom God loves are enjoying the rich pastures in the sunny parks and on the river banks, longing for more of a sense of God, to be sure, but certain that God will not be in there in the shadows with that sad mob of church types?
God loves all people unconditionally. It is our calling, and it is our duty, to do church and be church in such a way that those people are able to come and be a part of the place, and know and love God— even if they only come for lunch, or for the barbecue, and always arrive after the sermon during the last hymn.
Let's rejoice over the ones who come only for food, because they are beginning to join the feast! And it is only then— really! — that our joy can be full and that we can really join the feast.
Notice how the stories in Luke chapter 15 increase in their intensity. First of all the flock is incomplete because just one of 99 is missing. Maybe it's not so bad if just one percent of the world does not make it into the feast. But the shepherd searches anyway.
In the parable of the woman— she also a symbol of Jesus and of God— she is searching for 10% The church is not complete without that last silver coin, the last 10%. Those who are missing are ten percent, not one percent.
And finally in the parable of the prodigal son, it is half the world who is missing. The one percent has the value of half the world of the father, one of his two sons.
God turns all our barriers and all our defences upside down, and knocks them down, because God desires all of us, all people, to come in. He desires even the noxious, self-centred, not really repenting younger son, who has wasted everything and shamed the family, to come home to be at the feast. We can do no less if we are truly going to follow Jesus.
And our greatest joy, and our greatest enjoyment of the feast of life, will be when we stop walling ourselves off, and being safe, and when we welcome in the whole world. Amen
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
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