190915 – A Lost Cause

Yr C ~ Creation 1 ~ Luke 15:1-10

So, a pretty straightforward and obvious little parable about being lost and found, right? Don’t count on it!
Let’s think about this for a minute. What does it mean to be lost today?

Who are the lost?
There’s the usual suspects – those with no religion, or too much greed, or too many possessions, or those in hyper-partisan politics, or Chelsea fans (Habs fans?).
Maybe the lost are simply those who’ve lost their way, or lost God’s way, or maybe have never had a way.
To be lost suggests that at one time you had it and then you didn’t, that you were in before you were out – which brings the question, “How do we get lost?”

We call these the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin. But if you read them carefully that’s not what they are. They’re not actually ‘lost’ in the way we usually think. Lost makes it sound like they were valued and loved and then they became separated from their people and so the natural thing was to get them back into the fold. That sounds great – we lose our way and Jesus comes running after us to save us from ourselves and restore us to our belovedness. I once was lost, but now I’m found – a personal salvation story.

But that’s not what’s going on here.
This sheep and this coin weren’t lost – they were discarded. Thrown away and excluded.
That’s not lost. That’s something very different.
And Jesus is making sure we understand what went wrong, and how to fix it.

Parables are supposed to be thought-bombs – stories that jolt our perceptions of the world and help us see through Jesus’ eyes the Ways of God.
So welcome to the parable of the excluded sheep and the discarded coin.

To get what I’m saying you have to look more carefully at the first two verses of this chapter to understand why Jesus taught this concept, and at whom he’s aiming.

Luke 15:1-3 Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So Jesus told them this parable.

Who are the “them” that Jesus is talking to? It’s the Pharisees and the scribes – not so much his own disciples here.
Why does that matter?
Because Jesus is trying to describe God’s economy, which operates on a different level than our usual economy does.
The Pharisees and the scribes represent the religious establishment. They are the keepers of the rules – the enforcers of the purity laws.

In their culture at that time being deemed clean or unclean was a big deal. If you were deemed unclean – whether because of sinful behaviour, or a natural medical condition (even such utterly un-sinful things as menstruation or childbirth) you had to pay the appropriate penalty sacrifice or purification sacrifice at the Temple, or present yourself to the Pharisees in your town and they would decide if you were clean. To be deemed unclean meant to be excluded – because if a ‘clean’ person came into contact with a person deemed unclean then that clean person would also be unclean. So the unclean were excluded, and separated out from the rest of the family or village.

Sinners, the unclean, had to be ‘othered’ and removed. For those with chronic illnesses, or those too poor to pay their sacrifices, or those who chose despised work like being a tax collector, there was no way out of their ‘sinfulness’, no way to stop being unclean – so they were permanently excluded, discarded from polite society.

And Jesus had the nerve and the gall to sit down and eat with such people!
He included those who society excluded.
He thumbed his nose at the Pharisees and scribes, first by associating with these ‘sinners’, and demonstrating how God’s love never excludes – and second by telling these parables that directly challenged the established thinking of the day and turned it upside down.
He was trying to explain how God’s economy is not ours.

Jesus asks, Luke 15:4
“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?”

Do you think you know the answer?

A minister is doing kids time at the front of the church and asks them, “What’s small and furry, has 4 legs and a bushy tail, lives in trees and gathers nuts” – to which a very bright kid responded, “Well, I know the answer is supposed to be Jesus but that sounds a lot like a squirrel to me.”

We’re just like that kid!
We know the answer to Jesus’ question is that we’re supposed to rush off after the poor lost sheep leaving the other 99 behind, right? – because that’s what Jesus teaches us.
But do you know what the real answer is?

Jesus asks, “Which one of you would leave the 99 to chase the 1?”
And the answer is “nobody”!

Nobody would do that – certainly not a shepherd. It’s absurd.
You have a hundred sheep out in the wilderness. The shepherd’s main job isn’t just to keep them together, it’s to keep them safe. Predators, both four-legged and two-legged, abound. To leave 99 sheep alone and unprotected in the wilderness while you go off and try to find one silly sheep who nibbled their way off the path is utter foolishness. You’d risk losing many of the 99 if you did that.

If you had a hundred toonies on a table in the shopping mall (I know, just go with it) and the table got bumped and a toonie slipped off and fell to the ground, and someone accidentally kicked it, and it went flying down the mall, and rolled down the nearby stairs, and bounced all the way to the bottom, what would happen if you went running after it, down the stairs, and finally caught up to it?
What would your table of toonies look like when you got back?
It’s just not worth it. It’s the cost of doing business. You cut your losses.

That’s common sense.
So this teaching from Jesus is about uncommon sense!
It’s about turning common sense on its head – when it comes to spiritual matters.
Our economy says ‘cut your losses’.
God’s economy says ‘love relentlessly’.

That’s what this parable is about. It’s about God’s relentless and inclusive love that seeks us out and never gives up.
And that by itself is a wonderful message that’s supposed to challenge us to go and do likewise.
So I guess we’re done here.
Nope! Not by a long shot!

You see, there’s this other whole level to Jesus’ teaching that’s really a zinger meant to jolt us into understanding something much deeper. It’s not just about loving the lost.
It’s also about valuing those who society may devalue – including those who society excludes – welcoming and loving those that society, and too often we, have callously discarded.

Remember, Jesus is sitting and eating with a bunch of unclean and rejected ‘sinners’ as he’s telling this parable, and he’s figuratively jabbing his finger into the chest of the Pharisees and saying,
“Listen pal, read between the lines. These [Jesus’ friends] sheep aren’t really lost. You kicked them out! You tossed these ‘coins’ away because they didn’t fit your definition of being worthy.”

It’s actually a pretty vicious dressing down of the way the world works – and a crystal clear, counter-intuitive, world-inverting example of how God views the way the world is meant to work.

God’s relentless love includes those that are lost, and those that we’ve declared ‘other’ because they’re different somehow and have pushed them aside.
But God’s love knows no bounds – God’s love is pure love – and Jesus is showing us how to love like that too.

How do the parables end?

Luke 15:5-6 When the shepherd has found the ‘lost’ sheep, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And 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.’

Luke 15:9 When the woman has found her coin, she calls together her friends and neighbours, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’

When the lost are found, when the discarded are valued, when the excluded are included, there is rejoicing – not just in the heart of the one who went looking, but also in the hearts of the whole community.
The friends and neighbours join in the rejoicing because the whole community is not ‘whole’ until the lost are found, until the excluded are included, until the discarded are valued.
There cannot be a ‘wholeness’ in the community while some are excluded and discarded. Rejoicing is a reflection of wholeness.

I called this sermon “A Lost Cause”. It’s an obvious pun – that we’re called to take up the cause of those who are lost.
But it’s also, in the tradition of Jesus’ parables, a pretty pointed thought-bomb. If we don’t understand the deeper meaning of parables such as these, if we don’t open ourselves to embracing the radicalness and counter-culture nature of God’s world-inverting economy, God’s Way, then the Church, we, are most certainly a lost cause ourselves.
I don’t for one second think that’s true about us.
But if we don’t constantly hold that deeper, harder vision up for ourselves, and keep challenging ourselves to love it out with our whole lives, then I think we’ll quietly slide back into the familiar ways of the world, and shrug, and cut our losses.

There’s one last bomb to go off.
Listen to how Jesus summarizes his teaching. He says,

Luke 15:10 I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.

To repent is to have a change in your thinking and see the world in a new and enlightened and inspired way. Jesus was trying to get through to those Pharisees – and to us – that we have some repenting to do too – to grasp and embrace God’s economy, and let go of the grip the world has on us.
The return of the sheep and coin brings wholeness and joy to the community – but neither the sheep nor the coin had any repenting to do.
The lost weren’t the sinners here.
A coin is an inanimate object – it can’t choose to go astray.
So, who were the sinners?
It’s the Pharisees and the scribes! Boom!
The repentance is reserved for the real sinners in this story – those who exclude, and discard, and devalue, and ‘other’ – those who don’t yet understand God’s Way and are not yet awakened to God’s Kingdom.

But if they could be, such an awakening, such an embrace of the new life Christ invites us into, brings wholeness and joy to all the heavens and the angels.
And God smiles, because we are not a lost cause after all.

May God’s extravagant, relentless love find each one of us, and move us, and transform us, and inspire us to go and extravagantly, and relentlessly, and inclusively love in kind.