When we follow Jesus, we will find ourselves crossing social boundaries set in place by fear that has been put in place through generations – boundaries between people of different economic classes, different races, crossing language barriers, lines between those with lots of education, those with some, and those with very little. If we follow Jesus, looking for friends across social boundaries, we’ll find ourselves in the company of conservative and liberal Christians, Jews, Hindus, and Muslims, atheists, agnostics, and apathetics.
15Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3So he told them this parable: 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? 5When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 7Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. 8“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? 9When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ 10Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
Friends in Low Places
Who are we in this passage? Are we meant to identify with the shepherd or the lost and found sheep, the woman or the lost and found coin?
The question supposes that a parable is an allegory, that there are simple lines of equivalence we can draw between the characters of a parable and God and ourselves. An allegorical interpretation of the parables could say that we are to identify with the lost sheep and the lost coin, God is the shepherd who comes after us, God is the woman who lights the lamp, sweeps the house, and does not stop searching until we are found. I like this interpretation because it’s such a happy story. I like being found, being brought back into the fold, held close after wandering away or slipping through the cracks of the floor.
Writer Annie Dillard tells about her life growing up in Pittsburgh. She was a smart young woman. By the age of fifteen she’d read through all the books in the Carnegie Branch of the Pittsburgh Library near her home. And reading those books she decided that all this religion stuff is bunk and God doesn’t really exist. So she took it upon herself at age fifteen to show up at Shadyside Presbyterian Church and she said to her aging pastor, “I want my name off the roll. I don’t believe in God anymore.”
The pastor said, “Okay.”
Annie Dillard said, “You’re not going to try to argue me out of it?”
And he said, “No, no, no. You’re too smart for me. There’s no way I could argue you back in.”
So she said, “I want my name off the roll.”
He said, “It’s off the roll.”
She said, “Okay.” She walked out of the minister’s office and on her way down the hall she heard him mutter to himself out loud, “She’ll be back!” She wheeled around, went back into the office and she said, “What did I hear you say?”
He said, “Oh, I said I presumed that you’ll probably be back.”
And she said, “Look, this is my life. I live my life like I want to live my life. I’m not coming back!”
Well, Annie Dillard wrote in her life story, “As I write this I’m 48 years old and I’m back.”
It’s a happy interpretation of the parable, so I’m tempted to stop right there. We could sing Amazing Grace, “was lost but now I’m found,” take up an offering, and all go to lunch in the joy of having been found.
But, let’s hang with Jesus just a little longer. Let’s listen a little more closely.
To whom is Jesus speaking when he tells this pair of parables? It’s the scribes and Pharisees.
Like it or not, we are the Pharisees of our age. I know – Pharisees get a bad rap, as though Pharisee and hypocrite are synonymous. But that’s a caricature. Pharisees were the religious establishment of their day. That’s us.
We, the respectable people who attend church, give generously, do the work of the church, serve those in need, and otherwise do our best to practice righteousness and discipleship, we are the religious establishment. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s the way we keep the church and our souls vital, strong and healthy.
Jesus’ beef with the Pharisees was their grumbling, their muttering about his low-life friends. He ate with sinners and tax collectors. When he chose to do such an outlandish thing, he essentially cut into the time that he spent with the respectable people. The scribes and Pharisees could not even imagine sitting at the table with Jesus’ companions from the wrong side of the tracks. So, they grumbled. If he was a man of God, he should watch the company he keeps. He should spend his time with us instead of sinners and tax collectors.
With this pair of parables, Jesus mounts a powerful defense against their grumbling. Like the shepherd who goes after the lost sheep, like the woman who searches diligently for the lost coin, Jesus goes to the lost sheep of Israel, the sinners and tax collectors, and welcomes them.
That, Jesus says, is the way of God and the angels. There is joy in heaven, partying, singing, eating and drinking, and music and dancing over the repentance of even one who was lost. The Pharisees would probably have no argument with that – if one of the sinners or tax collectors were to repent, turn his or her life around, make atonement in the proper way and begin walking the path of righteousness, then the Pharisees could see welcoming such a person to the table.
But, here’s what really got to the Pharisees. Jesus enjoyed hanging out with sinners. He ate and drank with them, he told stories, he healed, he befriended them. This was not like the Gospel Missions of our day that will give a poor sinner a meal on the condition that he or she first sit in a hot chapel with their stomach growling through a hellfire and brimstone sermon.
Jesus did not wait for them to repent before he welcomed them. He did not require that they get their life in order before becoming friends.
That is good news for any who are on the outside. When we feel rejected, put down, lost and alone, these parables reinforce what we know from the way Jesus lived – that Jesus never stops loving us. Never.
I lose stuff. All the time. One glove, one of my favorite pair of socks, a file folder with my short stories I wrote twenty years ago. And tools. When I finally clean out the garage, every five years whether it needs it or not, I have five hammers. Within a month or two, I’ll have a hard time finding just one.
I’m sure Nancy gets tired of hearing me say, “Have you seen my other biking glove? How about that blue Phillips-head screw driver? My wallet? My car keys? My phone?”
“It’ll turn up,” she says. And she’s almost always right.
These past two weeks, it has been especially noticeable because we’ve been moving. Last week, we heard the passage in which Jesus tells the crowds following him, “If you wish to be my disciple, you must give up all of your possessions.” And in the midst of a move, that doesn’t sound half bad.
This week, though, as we open all the boxes and try to sort everything out, all sorts of treasure has turned up – a missing earring (Nancy’s), tools, a nice fountain pen, great books we forgot we had, CDs I never got around to uploading, wonderful old photographs.
That kind of finding makes us smile, sometimes laugh. We don’t exactly call up the neighbors to come and party with us, but these parables are stories of how God behaves, not how we behave. Our joy is perhaps a mild imitation, a fogged window into the joy in heaven over the return of a lost sinner. The difference, of course, is that the shepherd, the woman who lost the silver coin – they portray God who does not just wait for someone to show up. God goes out to find them. God doesn’t quit until the lost are found.
Here’s the hard part of these parables. For those of us in the church, we who are part of the religious establishment, we have to look a little more closely to find ourselves represented in the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin.
We may find ourselves among the ninety-nine who feel left in the wilderness to our own devices while we look at the strong and obvious presence of Jesus in faraway places. In China, where the churches are full to overflowing. In Kenya, where worship and eating together and caring for one another has become the center of life for Christians. In the villages of El Salvador and Guatemala, where those who return report that they have never before had such a sense of the Spirit in worship as they did there.
The old spiritual becomes our lament: Come by here, Lord. Come by here. Oh, Lord, Kum ba ya.
The Gospel song becomes our plea: When on others thou art calling, do not pass me by.
We may find ourselves among the neighbors invited to the party by the joyful shepherd or the joyful woman. We get the invitation, “Come and party with me!” and have to think about it. It’s not our sheep, it’s not our coin. Will we share in our neighbor’s joy? Or will we decide we don’t really have the time to spend in such frivolous pursuits while there is work of our own to do? There are worship services to plan, volunteers to recruit, meals to prepare, funds to be raised. Do we really have time to party with a neighbor?
We may even find ourselves in the place of the shepherd or the woman who seeks diligently. If we dare to go there, we find ourselves in the company of Jesus, but we also will find ourselves in the company of all sorts of people with whom politicians will go out of their way to avoid having their picture made.
Eighteen years ago, when terrorists crashed planes into the world trade center towers, the pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania, killing nearly 3,000 people, the airspace in the United States was closed to all commercial and private airline traffic. Transatlantic flights were diverted, not allowed to land in the U.S.
Thirty-eight wide-body planes landed at Gander Airport in Newfoundland. Gander is a town of less than 10,000. More than 7,000 people landed at their airport.
The world stood at high alert. For days, rumors swirled that more terrorists had boarded other planes all over the world, waiting for their moment to attack.
“The people of Gander looked at all those planes lined up at the airport and didn’t think of terrorism, didn’t see potential attacks. They just wanted to help.” (Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/on-sept-11-a-tiny-canadian-town-opened-its-runways-and-heart-to-7000-stranded-travelers/2016/09/08/89d875da-75e5-11e6-8149-b8d05321db62_story.html )
“It was a logistical challenge. The city didn’t have hotels or restaurants to take in nearly 7,000 passengers, and the community knew that the people from more than 100 countries stuck on those planes were mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, grandmothers. Just like the Newfoundlanders were.
“The town’s bus drivers, who were on strike that day, walked off their picket lines and went back to work. Bakeries went into overdrive production, hospitals staffed up, and many of the townspeople opened their homes and offered their beds to the “plane people.”
“They found a way to care for the 17 dogs and cats and the two great apes that were also aboard the planes.
“Shirley Brooks-Jones, who is now 80 years old, was one of those plane people on her way back home to Ohio from Europe when her flight was diverted to Newfoundland.
After 28 hours on the plane, she and her fellow passengers were bused to the even tinier fishing village of Lewisporte. They spent the next three days in that town, where the mayor and most of the residents cooked elaborate meals, let them use their showers, even borrow their cars.
None of the townspeople would accept money. So after the passengers were finally able to reboard their plane, Brooks-Jones, a longtime fundraiser at Ohio State University, had a midair idea. She passed around a notebook and asked each of the passengers to contribute to a scholarship fund for the children of Gander.
They had $15,000 when they landed.
Brooks-Jones did this for a living. So she helped turn that into more money — the Lewisporte Area Flight 15 Scholarship fund has grown to about $2 million.
“As of this year, the scholarship has been received by 290 graduates of Lewisporte Collegiate” high school, Brooks-Jones said. One of those scholars is now the town doctor.
This story of hospitality in a fearful world captures something of what Luke describes when Jesus sat down at the same table as tax collectors and sinners.
When we follow Jesus, we will find ourselves crossing social boundaries set in place by fear that has been put in place through generations – boundaries between people of different economic classes, different races, crossing language barriers, lines between those with lots of education, those with some, and those with very little. If we follow Jesus, looking for friends across social boundaries, we’ll find ourselves in the company of conservative and liberal Christians, Jews, Hindus, and Muslims, atheists, agnostics, and apathetics. We may find ourselves inviting old friends and new friends into our home, making our own homes places where people will gather from north and south, east and west, and eat together, sinner, tax collector, scribe and Pharisee. We may find ourselves living right in the middle of a place where the Kingdom of God is breaking in.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
 William Willimon, 30GoodMinutes.org. http://www.csec.org/csec/sermon/willimon_5316.htm