The Rev. Peter Faass, Rector
This morning we hear the familiar parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin. Jesus tells this parable in response to the religious authorities who are grumbling that he associated with people they considered to be sinners.
We need to understand the term sinners here with a few grains of salt. Religious authorities have applied the term pretty wantonly, using their own prejudices – and not the Gospel - to determine who was engaged in sinful behaviors; behavior such as dancing, playing cards, drinking, being divorced, engaging in sexual intimacy before marriage, marrying outside of your faith, marrying a person of a different race, being LGBTQ, sparing the rod in child rearing, having an illness, not being rich. I recall a church in New Hampshire that excommunicated a woman and her family because she worked as a waitress in a restaurant that served alcohol. She herself didn’t drink, but because she served alcohol her church considered her to be a sinner. So, they cast her out. Historically the list of behavior deemed sinful by religious leaders is seemingly infinite.
Jesus repeatedly, in word and deed, defied the religious authority’s idea of sinful behavior. When the religious authorities said that being blind, deaf or lame was due to sinful behavior by the afflicted person or their parents, Jesus said it was not. When the religious authorities proclaimed that being rich was a blessing from God and therefore being poor was God’s judgment, Jesus said it was not. When the religious authorities said that helping a person in distress on the Sabbath was a sin, Jesus said it was not.
And even when certain behaviors were sinful, like tax collectors gouging people, or engaging in prostitution or committing adultery, Jesus said that all people – even sinners - are worthy of redemption if they amended their sinful ways. That is why Jesus associated with them, to help show them a better way of life by affirming their being beloved children of God. The religious authorities said that was not possible; once you sinned you were done and out, and sometimes even dead.
When we people of faith want to engage in the dicey business of determining sinful behavior – I’m thinking of the names Falwell and Graham here - we would all do well to recall Jesus’ pronouncement in the story of the woman caught in adultery. When all the religious folks wanted to stone her to death – the penalty for adultery – Jesus said, ““Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Realizing their hypocrisy, everyone puts down their stones and walks away. Jesus’ desire was to redeem this woman, not condemn her. Jesus then says, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” (John 8:10)
This woman is a lost sheep who Jesus finds and brings back into the fold, the flock of the children of God, which is all of us.
Ergo the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin. Notice that both the shepherd and the woman go to great lengths to find what has been lost. They are relentless and stop at nothing. The shepherd leaves the ninety-nine sheep and doesn’t stop searching until he finds the lost one. The woman lights a lamp to brightly illumine the house and then she sweeps and sweeps and sweeps until she finds the lost coin. (BTW This is a person I need as a housekeeper!)
Such is the intrinsic value of what has been lost that no effort is too onerous in finding what was lost and restoring them to the flock or the coin purse.
In both parables Jesus is the shepherd and the woman. And in telling these parables, he reminds us that his life and ministry are always about imprinting on us the ways of God’s reign. As Jesus’ followers that is our goal; to have the Good News of the Gospel imprinted on us and for us to be like Jesus in our lives.
There’s a wonderful blog titled “Nakedpastor.com. Graffiti on the Walls of Religion” by David Hayword. David is a gifted graphic artist and his blog is comprised of sharp and often biting editorial cartoons critical of a lot of religious practice; practice that is contrary to what Jesus desires to imprint on us in the Gospel.
One of these powerful drawings shows Jesus standing with a lost rainbow-colored sheep which he has found and is now restoring to the fold. Jesus and this sheep are facing the rest of the flock, who are at the gate of the sheepfold. The lead sheep at the gate says to Jesus, “Oh, he’s not lost, we threw him out.”
Hayword’s cartoon is a poignant reminder that we often throw out of the flock those whom God says are valuable members of it. This is a vivid example of how religious people often determine sinful behavior in contradiction to what Jesus would have us do.
Today is Homecoming Sunday. As we re-gather as a congregation for a new program year, it is important to recognize that this parish has been very intentional in discerning how Jesus desires to imprint the ways of God’s reign on us, and then for us to welcome those sheep who have been thrown out of other churches. To a large degree we have attracted these lost sheep. If you look around at our parish you will see divorced people, inter-racial and inter-faith marriages, LGBTQ folks, bi-racial people, people who are poor and rich, people who are healthy and people with declining health, people of strong faith and people who wrestle with their faith, people who are married, and those who are not, but clearly are in love with another person. And all are welcome, because all are valued members of the flock by the sheer fact that all are beloved children of God. Ultimately nothing else matters.
We do not cast out at Christ Church, but rather we welcome the lost sheep of the world.
But a critical question we need to ask ourselves is, how much do we actively seek the lost, leaving everything and relentlessly searching for them, rather than waiting for them to find us?
I would postulate, not too often. Which leads me to an observation: There is one thing we have cast out – often without recognizing we do so. We Episcopalians are not too eager to go out and seek lost sheep. In our reticence to do so, what has been thrown out is our ability to articulate to others what we have in this congregation; the Good News of Jesus that is imprinted on us. All too often, speaking with confidence about are faith and the beautiful diverse flock we belong to, becomes our lost sheep, our lost coin. If we are to gather other lost sheep, and not just let them find us, then we need to recover what we have cast out. The lost voice of our Gospel faith must be found, or sticking with the metaphor, brought back into the flock first. Because if we don’t do that, too many lost sheep will only hear the voice of that lead sheep in Hayword’s cartoon: “Oh, he’s not lost, we threw him out,” and they will then believe that that sort of hateful exclusion defines all religious communities.
Okay, what I’m am about to say is not a political endorsement. Heaven knows I’ve had enough issues this year without having the IRS hound me. Rather it’s a religious endorsement. There is a candidate who is running for president this year who has – astonishingly– brought the lost sheep of the voice of Gospel faith back into the public square. I think we are all aware that the only voices of faith in the public square these past few decades have been those of the cast-out variety, and not the let’s go look for the lost sheep variety. So, what we are left with are political leaders who either embrace the cast out religious types, creating a society that in opposition to God’s reign, or those politicians who are afraid to speak of faith at all for fear of being perceived as being one of the cast-out variety. They, like us, have lost the voice of Gospel based faith. And frankly, considering our current state of affairs, it is imperative that what has become lost needs to be found if we are to have a just and loving society.
This is why it so refreshing and hopeful, to see someone – who happens to be Episcopalian, no less – articulate their faith and how it has formed them as a follower of Jesus, as well as how the Gospel informs how they lead as an elected official. And more to the point, they are not afraid to do so, but eager to talk about how Jesus imprints their life.
This is a person who is a relentless seeker of the lost and who desires to restore all people to the flock of our society.
We need to use this person as an example of how to do the same. To speak confidently and without fear about the Good News we have at Christ Church. That this parish is a place where the imprint of Jesus has us not only welcoming those who are lost or have been thrown out, but actively seeks and brings them back into the fold of the loving arms of God that we extend to them.
By doing so we become healers of a broken society and the Reign of God comes closer to becoming fully realized. And we, like the shepherd and the woman, can proclaim, ‘Rejoice with me, for what was lost, has been found!’