All Alone We Are of Concern to God

A sermon based on Luke 15:1-10
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on September 15, 2019
by Rev. Scott Elliott

A police car pulled up in front of Grandma Bessie’s house. She was very surprised to see her husband, Morris, step out of the car while the police officer held the door open. The officer walked Grandpa Morris over to Bessie and politely explained to her that Morris said he was lost in the park and couldn’t find his way home. “Morris,” Bessie said, “You’ve been going to that park for over 30 years! How come you get lost today?” As he hugged his wife closely Morris then whispered so only she could hear, “I wasn’t lost. I was just too tired to walk home.”

In that story Morris did not think he was lost, but the thoughtful police officer did. The officer’s duties included being on the alert and ready to help those with perceived needs. The officer left the scene certain he had helped a lost man– and he actually did help, he got a too tired elderly man home. Morris may have been unwilling to admit he was tired, but I doubt the officer would have denied him a ride if he’d told the truth that he was. Either way the officer is the one who would have perceived a need for rescue and acted on it.

In Jesus’ parables that Cindy read so nicely, the two lost things are notably also only lost in the eye of the one who seeks, finds, and rescues. The finder perceives the need, but the objects sought and found do not. We are NOT told the sheep had a sense of being lost; and the coin of course, did not have any sense of it.

Another fascinating part about this lesson is that neither a sheep nor a coin can repent. In other words, Jesus stories are not so much about the lost and their need to repent, as about gaining perspective about what is lost and what to doggedly seek and find and rescue. And maybe most poignantly that the truly righteous are supposed to rejoice, not grumble, at the pursuit and welcome of each person. In the Gospels we see Jesus time and again – as God’s hands and feet and voice on earth – endlessly pursuing lost ones. This is true even if the culture did not care to find them– which is hinted at in our lesson today.

It is also true that in the Gospels. Jesus’ pursuit of the lost goes on even when the lost do not feel lost. See neither sinners nor scoffers stop Jesus from passionately seeking to find and rescue those he considers lost. And it is also notable that the immediate rescue is not from hell in the afterlife, but rather salvation from the lesser way of life –including lack of Jesus’ company and the meals the Jesus’ critics in the story would deny to the lost.

The message throughout the New Testament, and in our verses this morning, is that the truly righteous strive to do as Jesus does. So the grumbling Pharisees and the scribes in the story are ironically back-handedly highlighted as sinners themselves for not acting in the manner Jesus does. They look down their noses at those they perceive “less-than-they,” so Jesus tells a story where the lost are equal to the un-lost, and even so have more of God’s attention because God abhors waywardness and calls over and over and over to the wayward to get back on the path toward goodness . . . toward Godness.

God endlessly aims humans to get back on track. The sheep and the coin in the story today are metaphors for the spiritually lost. They are lost in the sense that they are sinners. We know that’s what they are because we are told they have been coming to listen to Jesus . . . yet the religious elite chided Jesus by “grumbling and saying this fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” But I have already suggested, the grumblers are also sinners. Their grumbling alone evidences that.

I know a lot of us cringe when a pastor puts the word “sinners” in a sentence. The word sin and sinner, in my opinion have long been abused and misused. Jesus acts as if they were in his day too. The word “sin” has been loaded up with guilt and dark foreboding negatively, but what it really seems to do is name the truth that humans as a rule are not perfect, certainly not me and I am guessing probably not you either. Humans “as a rule” being imperfect is not the same as “humans as rule” being terrible –which is how most of us have been taught to hear the words “sin,” “sinner” and “sinning.” I have mentioned before that the word “sin” is derived from an archery term in Hebrew for missing the mark. To sin is to miss the marks God aims us at. From time to time we all have such misses. Repenting means to turn from the failures when we notice the miss, and then pick up our arrows and re-aim them and try and hit the mark. It’s how life works. Sin does need not be understood to always mean terrible conduct. IT IS only terrible when we do not even try to hit the mark God aims us at, or worse when we intentionally mis-aim, like the grumblers in the lesson who should know better.

So our lesson starts with the irony of the self righteous missing God’s mark of care and welcome. The elite who would have Jesus NOT welcome sinners, are themselves sinners. As is often the case, Jesus does not directly call them out on the hypocrisy. Instead he tells stories of lost things being sought. God seeks as a shepherd in one, and as a woman in another.

Notably Jesus has God metaphorically appearing as both a male and a female figure. You many have heard that God must be thought of as male, yet Jesus smack dab in middle of the Gospels evokes a female image for God.

If Jesus can do that, so can we. And we can understand Jesus’ very intentional inclusion of images of God as male and female as a lesson that both men and women –all people– can and should act like God does in the parables – and like Jesus does in the story and throughout the New Testament. Like God and Christ we are to seek out the lost by doing what Jesus opponents accuse him of doing, “welcom[ing] sinners and eat[ing] with them.” We are supposed to do that.

What’s more we are not to wait around hoping they will decide they are tired and want a ride, or figure out they are lost. We are to tirelessly search, and move heaven and earth if need be, to find them and rescue them like the shepherd with a lost lamb and the woman with the missing coin. And we are to rejoice when we find them and they are rescued, not grumble. We are assured that heaven itself will rejoice when they are found. Which I think Jesus said as a tongue-in-cheek reference to those negative sinning lookie-loos not rejoicing.

We can understand one more point Jesus makes in these verses, a point often overlooked. The stories Jesus tells are not about lumped together groups of the lost, as if all the tax collectors, or all the grumbling self righteous; or all aliens; or all the enemies; or all the non-Christians are signaled out for rescue. The singularity of the lost stands out. The grumblers lumped others into groups to ridicule, Jesus goes out of His way to talk in terms of THE one sheep, THE one coin, THE one sinner, THE one who repents. Jesus does not label groups. He does not “otherwise” others by making it about stereotypes or lumped-together-people.

Jesus’ lesson is about individuals. So he does not see himself as welcoming and eating with types of people, he sees his ministry as focused on and caring for each individual. He tends to the person. In the Gospel accounts he certainly challenges the collective conduct of people in and through institutions, but HE tends to the person. The single individual is of deep concern to Jesus. I remind us every week that we matter much and it so, so true. In this great big ginormous universe the very creative source and power that made it cares about little, tiny us . . . YOU! Whatever troubles you not only troubles God, but has God affirmatively trying to end the trouble. Whatever waywardness you think you have, or whatever waywardness you have and cannot see or admit, God’s already on the hunt trying to help you be found and restored to the path that’s best.

If that sounds unbelievable, let me ask if there has been – or is waywardness– in your life that troubles you, and if so did you or do you have a longing to get onto the right path and leave it behind? I am willing to bet that even if any of us has not taken action to correct whatever is troubling us that we feel a pull to do so, a pull to our better way of being. Believe it or not, that sense of pull is the very force of the universe, God, focused on you. To put it in the words of Jesus’ parables whatever lost feeling you may have– YOU are the lamb the shepherd tirelessly looks for, YOU are the coin the woman tenaciously seeks. The singular YOU matters and YOU can feel it.

And it is not just when we are lost, or we are otherwise wayward, we are as I mentioned last week, made of the stuff of stars. We are stellar in make up and in the eyes of our Creator. I chose the invocation, Psalm 8, for it’s remarkable way of pointing out that we matter. Speaking to God the Psalmist writes.

When I behold your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars which you set in place— what is humanity that you should be mindful of us? Who are we that you should care for us? You have made us barely less than God, and crowned us with glory and honor.

In the Book of Matthew Jesus points out that God, the Creator of the universe cares for us individually. We can understand Jesus to take Psalm 8 to the singular level in Matthew 6 (26) when He says

“Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?”

Four chapters later in Matthew 10 (29-31) Jesus returns to the if-even-a sparrow-matters-to-God-humans-surely-do when He states

“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”

How is it that the God of the great expanse of the universe cares for us like a shepherd cares for one lost sheep or a woman cares for one lost piece of treasure? I think the better question is why do we persist in thinking God would not care for us? To either question the answer is:(to quote the Bible again– the Apostle Paul actually)– that it is in God that “we live and move and have our being.” The more I quote that, and I do quote it a lot, the more I think of us all as being in the womb of God, her very own children enveloped as they are formed through life. We may exit our mothers womb at birth but we are born into God’s womb and stay there for life.

I always marveled at the last month of pregnancy where each unborn person is very much a part of the mother– and can be seen and felt actively living and moving and having their being in her womb. I hear Paul’s theology to place us in the womb of God. It fits with Genesis’s theology that has us made IN the image of God and to have God’s breath in us. And as we discussed last week WE have no less that the very makings of the universe in us.

Our own being is in all that God-ness. One way or another God is a part of us, we are a part of God. That’s true no matter what we do, whether it is sin, scoff at Jesus, collect taxes, or whatever it is any of us might think makes us unworthy– or anything anyone else claims makes us unworthy. There is joy in heaven when sinners repent because it means that small part of God is healing. When we allow that God has female attributes –as Jesus allows– our life can be understood to be in and a part of the very womb of our mother God. And God wants all Her parts healing. What hurts us hurts her. When we heal she heals.

The quickest way to healing for human mistakes and wrongs (what we call sin) is forgiveness. Forgiveness is what Jesus is doing when he lets in sinners. He gives forgiveness, freely, as God does. For us, forgiveness can be harder and not so freely given. We have to work at it, sometimes all our life. So for us forgiveness is best thought of as a process that we need to offer ourselves and one another. The first things I always point out are that the process of forgiveness can be very long and it is not forgetting, it is working on the reparation of the relationship with God in others. As wrongdoers we need to strive to do our part on the path of forgiveness. We must acknowledge the harm we have done, show remorse for it, and request forgiveness as we try our best to repair the damages.

As victims we need to work to find a way to abandon whatever sense of revenge and retribution we may have toward the person who harmed us, we need to aim as best we can to try and no longer see the wrongdoer as an other. This does not mean there are not other consequences for wrongs. Nor does it requires victims to be in the same place with a person who makes them feel unsafe. It means that we need to work on being able to one day let go of our anger and revenge and see a wrongdoer as a person, even if broken– a person worthy of God’s love.

We need to get to the point where we do not complain that Jesus and God welcome ever sinner. Indeed like the shepherd they seek all those lost sheep, like the woman they look for all those lost treasures. And all heaven rejoices when they are found. Jesus forgives them. God forgives them . . . and the them includes us. May we rejoice as the angels in heaven do, and strive mightily to forgive as God and Jesus do. And may we know that whatever it is we might think keeps us from God, it is not true, because among those God and Jesus are hoping to find – no matter what we do– is me and you. Steadfastly and forever they love us through and through.