Lost and Forgiven
1 Timothy 1:12-17
Our reading from the Gospel of Luke presents to us two parallel parables of God seeking out the lost. One parable is God as male. And the second is God as female. But in both cases, whether the lost is portrayed as a sheep or a coin, we generally interpret it that the shepherd or woman represents God and God drops what he or she is doing and seeks out the lost one. And of course, the lost one is the wayward sinner.
Interestingly, in the shepherd parable, the lost sheep – the sinner – wanders off. But in the coin parable, it is the woman, i.e., God who loses the coin – the sinner. Why this distinction?
We romanticize these parables. The shepherd or the woman is God and we are the lost sheep or coin. The promise of the parables is that God never abandons us. Indeed God intentionally searches for us and forgives us our sins. There isn’t even a notion of recompense. How can a sheep or a coin turn and resolve not to sin? Indeed, it wasn’t even the coin’s fault. So we get a warm, comfortable feeling that we will be ok.
But is that all there is to it? Where is repentance in these parables?
Well, actually not. The next passage in Luke is about the Prodigal Son. And he does repent of his sin. His father, i.e. God, doesn’t go looking for him. He must turn around and return to his father in humbleness and contriteness.
This is quite a bit different from the parables of the lost sheep and coin.
So … what is Jesus saying to us right now in our time and place? These parables have double meanings. That the shepherd or woman is God is one meaning. But there is another:
What we often overlook in this passage is the first two verses. They actually take us to a different interpretation of this passage. Verse one tells us that all of the sinners and tax collectors were coming near to hear Jesus. Sinners, we can presume is just about anyone who is living life, but we probably can narrow it a bit to petty thieves, prostitutes, and even shepherds who must often break the Sabbath to care for the sheep. But it would also include people that generally are outside of acceptable society, such as slaves. And, of course, the tax-collectors were even worse. They were traitors collecting the Roman taxes and in the process enriching themselves.
If Jesus came back today who would be listening to him? The drug dealers. The pimps. The terrorists.
And who was upset by Jesus preaching to all of these “low lifes”? It is the civic leaders, such as the Pharisees and the scribes, who were the keepers of the law and the traditions of the people. Today if Jesus was preaching, it would be the politicians, the preachers, and the media who would raise a red flag about Jesus. He was lifting up the worse in our society and threatening its stability and viability.
Given this perspective, I suggest that the shepherd and woman are not metaphors for God. They are metaphors for the civic leaders and for those who have power over others, such as managers and the dominant participant in a relationship.
The civic leaders of Jesus’ time were rejecting the sinners and the tax-collectors. In their worldview, they were the guardians of the gateway to God. They determined who had access to heaven. They were offended that Jesus would be involved with these people and saying that they were also admitted to God. They are outcasts and rightly so. They are a risk to an orderly society and they should not be encouraged. They wished they were not part of their society. So it is, in our time, with drug dealers, pimps, and terrorists, and any others we don’t want around.
But Jesus was speaking to them more than to so-called sinners. Jesus is saying you, civic leader … have a responsibility to these sinners. Many of them probably are sinners and divorced from God. They do need to repent (see next parable: The Prodigal Son.) But that does not excuse you. You sin too … by not reaching out to them and seeking them out and giving space for their repentance, as the Shepherd did.
And by the way, you need to look into what you do to see how your life and your actions could have encouraged their sinning. Did you lose them, just as the woman lost the coin? You are not the guardians of God’s gateway. God’s gateway is wide open inviting everyone in. Have you entered God’s gateway? Or are you so busy guarding it that you haven’t entered through it?
We are all sinners in our own way and God searches for all of us.
I was looking for an illustration for this sermon. I wanted one that was a personal one … one we each could relate to in our ordinary everyday life. I couldn’t find one that was satisfactory.
But then yesterday came along … the 9th anniversary of 9-11. But this anniversay as we all know was different. In years past we memorialized the dead of that day. It was a holy day as Archbishop Dolan said. But this year it was overshadowed by a variety of protests.
Maybe the most virulent one is the threatened Qu’ran burning by Terry Jones down in Florida. I understand that he didn’t follow through, but other pastors were taking up his wicked banner. The one that struck me the most was from a Kansas Baptist church. The Star Ledger published its notice and it was a particularly hateful note.
How lost from God are these protesters? Is God searching for Jones and the Westboro Baptist Church?
When I imagine the book burning I think of the Moslem friend I have who is very gentle and very compassionate. Or I think of the home health aide I see in a facility with her headdress, but otherwise just another hard working dedicated helper. Or I remember the Iman who came to my church in Closter right after 9-11 to try to build bridges. None of these people, who find the Qu’ran a guide as we do the bible are convicted of the slaughter of 9-11.
Burning the Qu’ran is indicting the entire 1 billion Moslems throughout the world… guilt by association.
Imagine that Jesus was preaching these parables today in one of our media outlets … the modern day marketplace. He’s gather quite a following … maybe not disciples yet, but people wanting to hear him. Among those who are listening to him are Moslems. But also among his listeners are our two protesters.
In the two parables Jesus is talking to these protesters and the Moslems. Surely there are some among the Moslems who contemplate the fundamentalist radical side of their religion, just as in any religion. But the majority, like in any group, just wants to get along and do the best they can quietly and live in peace with their leaders.
But our protesters are leaders … the media by giving them press, make them so. A leader in a church or even a member of a church is obligated to present to the world the face of Jesus as best they can. I can see no way that these protesters can justify what they are doing as the work of Jesus. They are not being good shepherds. They are not dropping what they are doing and searching for the lost sheep. Indeed, they are punishing the entire herd for the sins of a few. They are trying to close the gateway to God’s love to a whole group of people.
But God will not let them. Compassionate and sane voices can also be heard among us. The many ministers and rabbis that objected to this farce swing open wide the gateway to God’s love. The iman who spoke with Jones was trying to recover this lost sheep. And we pray that the members of Westboro Baptist will recover their lost sheep too.
Whether we are civic leaders, preachers, politicians, or voters we all must guard against claiming to be guardians of God’s gateway to love. Do we think some group is undeserving of God’s love? Do we think our nasty offensive neighbor is unworthy of God’s love? Do we think that we are unqualified for God’s love? If so we are guarding God’s gateway and that is NOT our role.
Our role is embrace God and invite all of those around us, lost or found, to join us in the great fold of God’s forgiveness, love, and mercy.
Think about it.
God’s grace and love be with you …