God’s Idea of Welcome & Joy (Sunday 9/13)

God’s Idea of Welcome & Joy

Luke 15: 1-10

There has been a lot of news recently about a congregation in Florida that was planning to burn the Koran yesterday, the 9th anniversary of the attacks in September 2001.  Thankfully, they did not go through with it and we can hope that the news media moves on to overexpose some other story.  I don’t really want to talk right now about the congregation or its pastor or their unfortunate ideas about religious expression – they’ve already gotten more than enough attention.  But I do want to make a comment about the news coverage.

Did you notice that in every report news anchors and journalists found it necessary to mention that this pastor had “only” gathered a small flock of parishioners, somewhere between 30-50 people?  In the context of the story, I suppose they were trying to make the point that he is a fringe presence and that this is clearly not a mass movement.  Fair enough.

But I think something else was going on with those ever-present comments on the congregation’s size.  Many times it was reported something like this, “The Florida pastor, who has managed to only gather a flock of 50 people…”  Rather than simply focusing on the man’s beliefs, which on their own are enough to marginalize him, the media made sure to put him in his place, dismissing him with the numbers.  It seemed to me as I listened and read that the numbers were mentioned as an editorializing comment.  The congregation’s size and the way it was mentioned – clearly to connote that it is small, insignificant, unimpressive – was included in order to further diminish any credibility we might want to extend to this pastor.

As if, were he to have gathered a congregation of 200 people we would have to concede that he wasn’t quite as unimpressive and kooky and wrong.  As if what impresses us is numbers.  More is always better, more significant, much more impressive.

But what impresses God?

Luke gives us    a few big hints.  If you have 100 sheep and one wanders off and gets lost, a good shepherd leaves the flock to look for that one sheep (Luke 15: 4).  If you have 10 coins and you lose one, you will turn the house upside down until you find the one you lost (15: 8).  So, 1 is as important as 99 and 1 is as valuable as 9?  You all know that math is not my strongest skill, but even I can see that God’s up to some interesting calculations here.

Just before the passage we heard tonight, in the very last verse before this one, Jesus finishes up another discourse with these words:  “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” (Luke 14: 35b).  Do you remember the next verse, the very first one we heard tonight?  Here it is again (15:1):  “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.”  Then immediately after this statement we’re told, “And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them’” (v.2).  Seems like the tax collectors and sinners –the ones polite religious society thought were expendable and outside the promises of God – seems like they have ears to listen.  So far they are the only ones paying attention to Jesus, listening for what he will say rather than coming prepared with their own comments and critiques.

You probably assume, as I do, that when these outcasts, the tax collectors and sinners, hear the parables they recognize themselves in the lost sheep and the lost coin.  You might also assume that the Pharisees and the scribes identify with the secure flock and the 9 coins resting in the purse, and that they feel slighted and undervalued because Jesus chooses to also value something or someone else.

It’s an interesting set up and it’s important to consider who we identify with because it can make a difference in how we hear what Jesus says.  After this passage Jesus tells the story of the prodigal son, another parable where it’s important to recognize our own biases and identifications (15: 11-32).  Do you sympathize with the younger son who can’t bear to stay home and help with the family business so he goes off alone to explore the world but comes back humiliated and penniless?  Or do you sympathize with the older brother who always did as he was told and felt jealous and underappreciated when their father allowed his brother to go sow his wild oats – and even more jealous when their father welcomed his brother back with feasting and joy?  Or maybe you even consider what it would be like to act like their father, loving each son in the way he needed and offering extravagant forgiveness?

Our context matters and it influences how we relate to one another and to God.  It influences what we hear when God speaks.  Sometimes it even influences whether or not we have ears to listen.

You know, that one lost sheep was just like all the other sheep.  Jesus gives absolutely no indication otherwise.  This one isn’t a “sinning” sheep or the “black sheep of the family.”  There are 100 sheep and one day one of them gets lost.  Jesus doesn’t even indicate that it’s that sheep’s “fault” that he’s lost.

Same thing with the coins.  Ten silver coins and one goes missing.  It’s not 9 silver coins and the woman loses the 1 gold coin, so of course she goes looking for that one.  No.  Ten silver coins, all alike, all equally valuable.

From my experience it seems that many people in the church identify with the group, seeing ourselves as part of the 99 sheep or the 9 coins.  We didn’t get ourselves lost.  We stuck together.  We didn’t cause trouble and make the shepherd or the woman – or God – go looking for us.  We were right here all along. Then you can add an emphatic “harrumph!” at the end of those sentiments.

But again, all 100 sheep were the same and all 10 coins.  Jesus doesn’t say “Then that pesky penny got lost and the woman had to go looking for it again, like she always did.”  No.  All the same value, all the same potential – the same potential to be lost or to be found.  It’s harder to read it this way, isn’t it?

Do we have ears to listen?

What happens when the lost sheep is found?  The shepherd carries it home over his shoulders and when they get there he calls his friends and neighbors to celebrate (vv. 5-6).  What happens when the woman finds the coin?  She calls her friends and neighbors to celebrate (v. 9).  And after each recovery, Jesus adds that “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine persons who need no repentance” (v. 7).  And, “there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (v.10).

That’s where we in the church can get caught, isn’t it?  Harrumph!  Well, I don’t know why there is more joy over that lost sheep than over me!  Baaaa!  I don’t know why the father treats the prodigal son so well when he doesn’t deserve it!  Why does God care as much about that ex-addict as God cares about me?  I never caused trouble like that! This is where it’s extremely hard for us number-crunching, “more is better” kind of people to have ears to hear.

Remember, if all 100 sheep and all 10 coins are exactly the same – same value and importance to their owner – then all 100 or all 10 are equally likely to get lost at some point or to stay put at some point.  The tongue-clucking sheep in the fold (or in the pews) are just as likely to be lost and alone in the wilderness as the one who happens to be lost at the moment.  The seemingly upstanding church lady is just as much a sinner as the ex-addict or the current addict – and just as valued by God.  The value of each stays the same, whether it’s still in the fold or the purse or lost who knows where.

That’s the real scandal.  That Our Shepherd does not love the lost sheep better or more than the others.  God loves each one exactly the same – in or out of the fold, lost or found.  It’s our idea that by celebrating the return of the one, God is somehow scoffing at and undervaluing the many.  It’s also our idea that we are either the lost sheep or one of the many in the flock – and that we are always one or the other “kind” of sheep.  But that’s just our idea.

God has other ideas.  Numbers matter to God but they matter one by one by one.  We matter to God because we are the sheep and coins – we are the wonderful creations – God loves.  It has nothing to do with what we do or don’t do.  We don’t even have to give up the labels like “tax collector,” “scribe,” “church lady,” “addict,” “lost,” or “found.”  But if we have ears to listen, we just may begin hearing those words more as God hears them.

I do want to say one more thing about the hate-spewing man in Florida.  Though I am certain God also recognizes this man’s aborted book burning as hateful and does not want this done in the name of Christianity or of God, I am also certain that on gazing at this man, God sees someone loveable.  God’s ideas are not our own and I am not saying that God sees the opinions and actions as loveable, but the man, God’s child.  A sheep like the rest of us.

Do we have ears to listen?

There are a lot of strange sheep in this world.  Sheep logic tells us that 99 are better than 1 and 200 are better than 100.  Sheep logic tells us we can write off the kooks, especially if there are just 1 or 2 of them out there.  Sheep logic sometimes has us flocking together as white sheep or black sheep or Christian or Muslim sheep.  Thank God there’s a Shepherd.  And if we listen for that voice calling us out of the wilderness, perhaps all of us lost sheep may start seeing ourselves and those behind the other labels differently, calling one another “brother” and “sister” instead, and throwing a big party to welcome one another home.

Thanks be to God!

© 2010 Deborah E. Lewis