I Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10
Preached by Rev. Dr. Jason Haddox
Several years ago Shannon and I were visiting friends in northern California. We were there over a weekend—Easter weekend, as it happened—and we attended the Great Vigil of Easter at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco.
St. Gregory’s is an unusual church for many reasons. It began in 1978 as a mission congregation, meeting in people’s homes, then worshipping in rented space for many years, before they began to construct a building of their own. The worship space is designed for movement. Although there are chairs where the people sit for the reading of the scriptures and the preaching of the sermon, most of the space is wide open. And most of the worship service takes place “on foot”, with the assembly standing, or walking together, or even, believe it or not, dancing.
At two key moments during the service every Sunday, and oftener than that at special occasions like the Great Vigil, the entire congregation dances together, in a very simple folk dance—three steps forward, one step back. They do this to remind themselves that Worship is not a spectator sport, done by professionals on behalf of an audience who sit and watch—that it is, as the word “liturgy” reminds us, “The Work of the People.” They also dance to remember in their own bodies the truth of the Incarnation, the coming of God into the world in physical reality, not merely as a pious ideal or an intellectual abstraction.
The altar at St. Gregory’s is a large table, placed in the middle of a large octagonal room, around which the worshippers stand to celebrate the Eucharist. It is crafted of shiny dark wood, with two wide pillars supporting the tabletop.
Engraved on one of these pillars, in sparkling gold letters large enough to see from a good distance away, are these words:
“Outos amartolous prosdexetai kai sunesthiei autois”
Which, being translated from the Greek, means:
“This guy receives sinners and eats with them.”
The very words which are hurled in accusation this morning against Jesus and his followers, by the religious professionals of his own day.
Jesus has just been teaching the crowds and all who will listen about what it means to follow him. That it is not a small or frivolous thing to undertake; that they had better be ready to take it, and him, seriously—even being ready to reject the claims of family, friends, and finances, if push should come to shove. Choosing to follow Jesus can be costly.
At the end of all this, Jesus ends by stating aloud: “Let anyone with ears to hear, listen!”
And all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near—why? “To listen to him.”
To those on the edge of polite society, those who had already been rejected by family and friends and economic and social status, these words of Jesus had a truth that called to them. Made them “listen up” to his preaching, and more than that, to Jesus himself.
And the Pharisees and the scribes start complaining. “There he goes…hanging out with the riffraff again. The users, the screw-ups, the bums and the crumbs and the ones who aren’t even trying to get their lives together. Them People.”
Jesus does not even try to argue with his detractors—because he cannot. They’re right, after all. He’s letting in people who have no right to associate with a respectable rabbi and his followers; he is infamous for indiscriminately sitting down to eat with almost anyone at all. Think of how many stories of Jesus have to do with food, or take place at a dinner table.
And there’s another problem here. It’s not just Jesus who is being accused of issuing a too-open dinner invitation. Remember that the gospels are written many years after the events they describe. Luke’s gospel is thought to be somewhere between fifty and seventy years after the fact. It would be as if I were to sit down in 2013 and write about Bishop Albert Rhett Stuart and Mr. Gwinn Nixon planning the founding of St. Augustine’s Church in 1960.
The fact that this accusation is included in Luke’s telling of the story tells us that it’s still going on at the time, fifty, sixty years later—that Jesus’ followers are still known for this too-open interaction with the wrong sorts of people. That generous table fellowship is still a hallmark of their community.
Instead of arguing with his accusers, Jesus tells a story. Two stories.
One story of a lost sheep and a crazy shepherd; one of a lost coin and a frantic housekeeper.
He begins the first story: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost?”
The proper answer that any right-thinking person would make is “None of us would do that. Are you out of your mind, Jesus? One lost sheep—that’s the cost of doing business! You can’t leave ninety-nine to chase after one, what would happen to the others? They’d just wander off too!”
Likewise, in the second story, he asks a crazy question. “What woman, having lost a coin, and having turned the house upside down to find it, would not throw a fabulous party that cost more than the value of the coin, in celebration of finding it?”
By this time the audience must have been standing there open-mouthed, wondering “What in the world is he talking about?”
Because he’s not talking about ordinary everyday valuation of a single sheep. Or of a single coin.
He’s talking about God. Who goes into the wilderness chasing the one lost sheep.
Who tears the house apart looking for the one lost coin.
Who Searches for the lost ones, and Rejoices when they are found.
The stories are not about repentance either, despite the assertions of vss. 7 and 10. Sheep cannot repent, cannot have a “metanoia moment” when they recognize they have wandered off and gone astray.
A coin cannot suddenly pop up from the place where it has fallen among the dust bunnies and breadcrumbs under the sofa, and roll itself back out into view. The one who seeks the lost must come and find it there. Must pull the sofa out from the wall, and root around stirring up the dust, and dig through all the flotsam and jetsam back there, to discover what has gone missing.
A human being can repent, of course. Any person might reach that moment of recognition that the life they have tried to build for themselves isn’t working; individuals and communities and even nations can realize they have “followed too much the devices and desires of their own hearts”, as the confession in Morning Prayer has it, and seek once again to walk in the way of Eternal Life.
The good news is that the one who offers that Way of Eternal Life is eagerly longing for them to return to it. Scanning the crowds, listening for the familiar beloved voice, ready to receive the one who comes, with embraces and welcome and joy.
“I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord” says the writer of the letter to Timothy this morning, “...even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, a man of violence. But I received mercy…and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.” Here is someone who has been a truly awful person, who knows how great a gift he has received from God in bringing him out of all that. He has seen the better way, the Way of Eternal Life promised in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and has set his feet to follow that way. And he is so overwhelmed by that joy and that gratitude that he bursts into song: “Immortal, invisible, God only wise…”
I want to invite you to think for a moment. Think of something, or someone, for whom you are grateful today. It doesn’t have to be a Lifetime Achievement Award kind of grateful; something more modest is fine. Think of that person, or that gift, or that moment for just a second.
Now the part that might be a bit unusual for us: I want you to turn to someone near you and tell them what you thought of. Tell your neighbor, the person sitting by you: “Today I am grateful for…”
This God of ours, of whom Jesus tells these two outrageous stories this morning, is bigger and greater than we think, most of the time. This God, whom Jesus addresses as “Daddy”, desires to give us abundant life, that we may in turn give away that abundant life, that prodigal welcome and persistent generous forgiveness to everyone we meet. This is our call, as fellow-travelers in the Way of Eternal Life to which Jesus invites us.
For the love of God is broader than the measure of the mind;
And the heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind.
If our love were but more faithful, we should take him at his word;
And our life would be thanksgiving for the goodness of the Lord.
(“There’s a wideness in God’s mercy”, Hymn 470)