A sermon preached at University Presbyterian Church in San Antonio, TX
Sept 16, 2019
note–this weekend, Covenant Network hosted an event at University Presbyterian in San Antonio. I am thankful to their pastor, Dries Coetzee, for allowing me to preach in worship Sunday after the event. UPC was my church home in college. They took very good care of me. In truth, they are one of the big reasons I became a pastor. In this sermon, I wanted to be able to thank them for their role in my journey, so many years ago.
Lost and found. There seems to be different understandings in this text of who is lost and who is found, doesn’t there?
So much depends on the inflection of your voice. The text tells us that the Pharisees and the Scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them”.
But if you change the tone of your voice, it becomes a celebration, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them!!”
What is Good News to some is decidedly NOT Good News to another.
This dinner scenario typifies what is so difficult about living together as community, because some days we can’t even tell who is lost and who is found. And every time we seem to get a handle on who is lost, Jesus goes and eats dinner with them.
Jesus is talking with the sinners, those people who weren’t following the laws, who weren’t obeying the religious rules.
And he’s also talking with tax collectors. These people were more than religious rule breakers, they were political problems, because they were Israelis who collected taxes from other Israelis for the Roman authorities. They were employees of the occupying power. The Vichy French.
The sinners and the tax collectors faced shame and exclusion from their society.
And Jesus eats dinner with them.
You can see why there was grumbling.
And so Jesus tells a story. Which of you, he asks, when you lose a sheep, wouldn’t leave the rest of your flock to go after the lost?
Or, if you lost one of your ten coins, wouldn’t you turn the house upside down to find it?
He tells this story to the Pharisees and the Scribes. And to us.
One thing I’m sure about in these stories is that we are never the finders. The finding of lost sheep and coins is not our call. Certainly we are to be welcoming and we are to share the Good News we’ve received, but that isn’t the same as going out to save someone. That is clearly God’s role in these stories.
I hope that will free us up from feeling responsible for saving people.
We aren’t the finders.
We are the found.
And there is no indication the lost objects were worthy of saving. Doesn’t say it was a good sheep, repentant sheep, or born again sheep. It was a lost sheep.
The “found” in this story aren’t very helpful in their own finding. The lost coin doesn’t shout out, “here I am! Over here! Look at me! I’m under the dresser!”
I’ve heard conflicting accounts of the intelligence of sheep, but all seem to agree that a lost sheep wouldn’t be putting his own picture on the side of a milk carton to help rescuers in the search.
In this story, God is cast as the shepherd and the woman. We are the barnyard animal and the inanimate object.
It may not be very flattering to our egos to be compared to sheep and dirty money, but it is GOOD NEWS, friends. We once were lost, but now we’re found. What news could be better?
Yet we often act as if it isn’t good news. In those moments when we are one of the already found sheep, or one of the no longer lost coins, we don’t always celebrate and rejoice over the finding of our lost brother and sisters
Why is that?
Even when we’re happily gamboling about in the fields without a care in the world, safe in the fold of God’s care and mercy, why do we get upset when the shepherd’s attention is focused on finding one lost sheep?
Why, even when we’re safe in our owner’s wallet, do we get upset when she starts trying to find the missing coin?
I have no idea.
But I know I’m as guilty of it as the next Scribe or Pharisee.
Jesus ends his parable with this sentence: “Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
When we are found, when our brothers and sisters are found, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God.
How does God’s own joy about us translate into how we live with joy, how does it translate into whom we invite to dinner?
Where are the sinners and the tax collectors in your lives? Where are the Scribes and Pharisees?
Who are the people our society wants to remain lost?
I confess that for me, I turn into a Scribe and Pharisee at the idea of Jesus having dinner with Pat Robertson, the Westboro Baptist folks, or a bunch of white supremacists.
There would be much grumbling from this Pharisee were I to see that dinner party.
But I have to allow for it.
Because I was once lost too.
And some of you were here in this flock when that happened. When I was in college, next door at Trinity, I was worshiping here in this congregation.
To make a really long story short, I got pregnant my sophomore year in college. Today, that doesn’t feel so much like being lost. But 30 years ago, I felt terribly lost. And unworthy of being a part of God’s flock. Shame is a powerful tool that can separate us from each other at the time we need each other the most.
And the 1989 version of this congregation was a big part of my being found again. You loaned me maternity clothes. You visited me in the hospital. You took me out to lunch after worship, to make sure I was eating enough. You helped me hear the shepherd’s voice, walk away from shame, and back to God’s flock.
In this parable, you were the sheep in the flock who went up to the Shepherd and nudged him over my direction, making sure he and I were close enough for him to hear my cries and find me.
That’s a lesser known verse of the parable, where part of the flock helps make sure the shepherd could hear the cries of a lost sheep. It’s in the Greek, trust me.
I was supposed to be joining this church when I figured out I was pregnant and I went to Pastor John Miller and told him it just wasn’t the right time for me to join the church after all. He asked me why. I told him about the pregnancy. He said, “when could you possibly need a church family more than you do right now?”
And so I was welcomed home. I will be forever thankful that you rejoiced with the angels over this sheep who found her way through a thicket of a year.
I placed my son for adoption. He just turned 30 in June. I’ve been a part of his life the whole way through.
Thank you for the part you played in helping this be a story of rejoicing.
If God can call me daughter, if Jesus searched far and wide to bring me into the fold, then I have to leave room for “those” people who I think are doing it all wrong to be found as well.
Jesus interrupts our complaining about those “other” lost sheep to remind us of our own found-ness, to remind us to celebrate more, and to remind us that nobody is lost beyond hope of return. “You’re already my beloved child. If I made room for you in the flock, don’t you think there is also room for these other children of mine? Let’s celebrate!”
The reminder in this text is that I don’t have to serve as the bouncer at the gate, determining who gets welcomed into the flock. I just get to rejoice that I’m included.
All week, I’ve been thinking about the statement from the complainers at the beginning of this text.
“This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them!!”
How can we live our lives so we take this phrase and turn it from a complaint to a celebration?
Maybe our church signs and websites should read “This congregation welcomes sinners and eats with them”!
Maybe we should make t-shirts.
But I think we’d need some way to make clear we know we are among the ‘sinners’ in question. Maybe it should say “Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with us!”
And “There’s room for you too.”
Friends, we who were once lost have been found. There is joy in the presence of the angels of God because of that truth. Let us live our lives in gratitude because of that great news! Amen.
Disclaimer–I do not now believe that people who have sex and get pregnant are ‘sinners’, comparable to white supremacists. At the time, however, I did feel as if I had disappointed everyone who loved me, disappointed myself, and disappointed God. “Sin” is often less dependent on particular behaviors or categories, and is more often how those behaviors separate us from God and from each other. And when someone feels they have sinned, you can’t talk them out of it with logic. You can accompany them with love, helping them see their own story through a different lens. I’m thankful for the way UPC and my community at Trinity University accompanied me through that year, helping me step away from shame, and back toward community. May we create a world where everyone can set aside their shame. There is joy in the presence of the angels of God when we do so.