Luke 15: 1 – 10_Joy in Heaven_September 15, 2019

Joy in Heaven

Luke 15: 1 – 10


Good communication is very important.  Whether we’re communicating with close friends, or at work, or just doing our shopping around town, it’s important to express ourselves clearly and listen carefully.  When good communication doesn’t happen, major mix ups can occur.  Sometimes that’s because we hear what we’re expecting to hear, instead of what the other person is trying to say.  That may have been the case for a man who pulled into a gas station one day, and stopped at the pump that offered full service. The attendant came out to his car with a smile.  But then the attendant noticed some very unusual passengers in the man’s  back seat.  He spoke to him with some alarm.


“Hey,” the attendant exclaimed, “There’s four penguins sitting on your back seat!”

“I know,” the driver responded.  “Cute little guys, aren’t they?”


“Well, sure,” the attendant replied, “They’re cute, but you know you really ought to take those penguins to the zoo.”


“Yeah, I guess I should,” said the other man.  Then, after the attendant had filled up his tank, he drove away.


The next day the same attendant was astounded when he saw the man pull up to the pump again with the four penguins still sitting up in the back seat.  This time the birds were wearing sunglasses.


“What are you doing with those penguins still in your back seat?” the attendant wanted to know.  “I thought you were going to take them to the zoo.”


“I did,” the man replied.  “And they had such a good time that today I’m going to take them to the beach!”


In his ministry, Jesus understood the importance of good communication.   He had a gift for communicating with all kinds of people: men and women, sick and healthy, wealthy folks and poor.   To share his message, the message of a God of infinite love, Jesus used all kinds of communication.  He told stories and taught life lessons.  Sometimes he didn’t use words at all, but showed God’s love with healing hands.  Jesus didn’t avoid communicating with anyone, even people he knew to be his enemies.  In our gospel passage for today, from the gospel of Luke, he doesn’t avoid the scribes and the Pharisees.  As our passage begins, they are grumbling that he welcomes sinners and eats with them.  Jesus doesn’t ignore the grumbling.


He doesn’t pretend not to hear when those pious and powerful religious leaders accuse him of having what they might have called bad table manners.  Of course they don’t mean table manners in the sense of using the right fork.  When they talk about table manners, they’re referring to the company he keeps at the table.  In Jesus’ day, that was significant.  Who you sat at the table with made a statement about your standing in the community.  It was a social no-no to eat with people of lower status than you.  The Pharisees and scribes are grumbling because no proper religious leader would associate with the riffraff Jesus sits down to dinner with:  tax collectors, prostitutes, outcasts, and sinners of all descriptions.


It’s no accident that tax collectors are mentioned in the same breath as sinners here.  To the Pharisees, they were more or less the same as sinners.  They were despised because, in spite of being members of the community, they worked for the Roman government, the government that occupied their country.  Usually they were Jewish, like the others in their community, and their fellow Jews hated them.  They hated them because they were taking money from their own people.  It was common practice for tax collectors to take a cut for themselves off the top of what they collected.  And the tax collectors routinely pressured people to pay even more than the outrageous taxes demanded by the Romans.


No self-respecting Pharisee would give the time of day to a tax collector.  But here is Jesus sitting at the table with them, and other sinners.  Here is Jesus, saying these sinners are precisely the people God goes looking for, to bring back into the fold of his loving embrace.


Responding to the Pharisees’ grumbling, Jesus tells a parable of a shepherd who goes after a lost sheep. Herding sheep was a common occupation at the time.  It was also a dangerous one.  You and I might have peaceful pastoral images of the shepherd’s life.  We might imagine the shepherd standing in a grassy field, under a sunny sky, surrounded by sheep peacefully grazing.  But actually a shepherd’s life was not an easy one.  For one thing, there wasn’t a whole lot of pasture land in the region.  What grazing land there was, was on a narrow central plateau just a few miles wide.  Both sides of the plateau plunged down wild cliffs and landed in a desolate desert.  Of course there were no fences or guardrails or anything else to keep sheep from wandering too close to the edge.


The shepherd was personally responsible for keeping every sheep safely with the flock.  Good shepherds were very good at following the footprints of a wandering sheep for miles, across the rough terrain.  Good shepherds often risked life and limb to bring a lost animal back to the fold.  And flocks of sheep were often owned communally, by the whole village.  So when a sheep went missing everyone in the village would be alarmed.  They would be on watch, waiting, looking into the distance, hoping to see the shepherd appear from over the hill with the wayward sheep on his shoulders.  When he did return, the whole village would erupt in celebration, filling the air with shouts of joy.


In this parable of the shepherd who goes after the lost sheep, Jesus is saying, that’s who God is.  God goes looking for sinners who have gone astray; God searches for us when we are lost.  God is active, involved, invested in what happens to us.  When one of us loses our way, God leaves all the rest to look in dangerous places: searching, finding, and rejoicing to bring us back to the fold.


This image of God as one who goes looking for us when we stray makes Christianity unique.  Among the monotheistic faiths, the faiths that worship one God, Christianity is unique because we Christians dare to make the claim that God is not only the Creator of the universe, and the Source of eternal wisdom, and the Author of goodness, as God is for both Judaism and Islam.  For us, God is also active.   God goes after us when we lose our way.  God is the love that seeks, finds, and wants to bring us home.


Jesus doesn’t limit his message to shepherds and sheep though.  To drive the point home, he goes on to tell a similar story in a different setting.  A woman, he says, who has ten silver coins, loses one of them.  She drops everything to look for it.  You might wonder why a woman would go to so much trouble to look for a single lost coin.  But the coin in the parable was a silver drachma.  In those days a silver drachma was about what a person would be paid for a day of work.  The woman may have been looking for the coin because, if she didn’t find it, the family wouldn’t eat.


Imagine the determination of this woman, who lights a lamp and sweeps the house and searches every nook and cranny until she finally finds the coin!  Imagine her excitement as she picks it up, checks it carefully to make sure it’s the right one, then calls her friends and neighbors to say, “Come celebrate with me!  The coin I thought was lost is found!”


Jesus tells of a God who goes after the lost; a God who searches in infinite love, who seeks out people who have lost their way: people the world might write off as sinners.  He tells of a God who lights a lamp and searches the house and won’t give up until he finds us.


The writer Anne Lamott describes God seeking her when she was lost in her book Traveling Mercies. Lamott went through a very difficult time as a young adult.  She had been raised by parents who didn’t have much use for religion.  She had only a passing acquaintance with Jesus.


As a grown woman, though, she began to feel drawn to church, mostly because of the music.  She writes:  “I went… to St. Andrew [‘s] church about once a month.  No one tried to con me into sitting down or staying.  I always left before the sermon.  I loved singing, even about Jesus, but I just didn’t want to be preached at about him.  To me, Jesus made about as much sense as Scientology or dowsing.  But the church smelled wonderful, as if the air had nourishment in it, or like it was composed of the [warmth and faith and peace the worshipers exhaled as they prayed]”  (Lamott, p. 47).


Lamott went through a lot of turmoil in her early adult years.  She struggled to get published as a writer.  Sometimes the struggle got the better of her and she turned to alcohol or drugs.  She drifted in and out of a number of dead-end relationships with men.  Finally, one night, she was near rock bottom.  A few days before, she had made the agonizing decision to go through with an abortion.  Since then she had been overcome with sadness.  The sadness was so intense that for the past couple of nights she had gone to bed with a bottle of Scotch and a couple of pain pills.


But this night, as she sat in her sleeping loft, something was different.  She writes, “I became aware of someone with me, hunkered down in the corner, … the feeling was so strong that I actually turned on the light for a moment to make sure no one was there”… She didn’t see anyone, but, she goes on, “after a while, in the dark again, I knew beyond any doubt that it was Jesus.  I felt him as surely as I feel my dog lying nearby as I write this…I felt him just sitting there on his haunches in the corner of my sleeping loft, watching me with patience and love”  (Lamott, p. 49).


As the days went by, little by little, Lamott let Jesus into her life.  She let him bring her into the fold of St. Andrew’s church, where she became an active member.  She also became a mother and an accomplished author.  But she never forgot the night Jesus found her.


Jesus tells of a God who actively seeks out those who are lost; a God who, like a shepherd who’s missing one sheep, will leave the other ninety nine to go looking for the one who has strayed.  Jesus tells of a God who, like a woman who’s lost one coin, will sweep every nook and cranny of the house until she finds it.  Jesus tells of a God who passionately, persistently goes after the lost ones, the outcasts, the people the world has pushed to the sidelines or rejected as sinners.


Jesus tells us that, when you are lost, wherever you are, God is on the way, with a shepherd’s crook over his shoulders.  Wherever you’re trying to hide, God is on the way with a broom in one hand and a lantern in the other, looking for you.  However lost you might feel, God has dropped everything to search for you.  God will not rest until you are found.








Rev. Elva Merry Pawle

Pentecost 14