Leaving the Ninety-nine

September 11, 2016

Christ Church Episcopal, Norcross, GA
17th Sunday After Pentecost – Proper 19
 4:11-12, 22-28; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10

(Gospel Text provided below)

lost-found-woohooToday we hear the familiar parables about the lost sheep and the lost coin. In Sunday School lessons and discussion groups our conversation usually focuses on the experience of being lost and being found. We ask questions like, “Describe a time when you were lost or separated from a family member?” or “What feelings did you experience when you were found after being lost?” Or perhaps the focus is on one’s assurance that someone cares enough about them to actually look for them.

This is a very understandable inclination. We can identify with the lost sheep because sometimes we feel lost ourselves. We want a God who will come and look for us, who won’t give up on us when we go astray. And, when we are found, we like the idea that God rejoices and celebrates our return! WooHoo!!

And while all of that is well and good, and these are comforting messages, I’m not sure that’s really what these parables in Luke’s gospel are getting at. When we look at the parable and its context more closely, we see that it isn’t a story about the lost sheep or lost coin. Like most stories in the gospels, it’s actually a story about Jesus.

road-to-jerusalemRemember, along this road to Jerusalem, Jesus is teaching people what it means – what it looks like – to be a disciple. A couple of weeks ago he talked about not taking the place of honor when invited to a dinner. It went on to say, when inviting people to dinner, don’t invite those you know – those who can repay you. Instead, invite the poor, the lame, the blind. Invite those who can’t repay you.

So now, in the opening two verses of today’s gospel lesson, we see Jesus living into that instruction himself. We are told that the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. These weren’t just your garden variety, “white-lie” sinners. These were folks who live a life contrary to the Hebrew tradition, and even conspire with the Roman establishment in order to make their living.

The Pharisees are grumbling saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’  Who you ate with was a reflection of your societal standing. If you were a good Jew, you kept yourself separate from unclean and unwelcome sinners like these.

But remember, Luke’s gospel has a salvation message that shifts things. The lowly are raised up. The outsiders are restored to community. Jesus is the one who delivers that message of restoration. Jesus is the one that makes that possible. We see this in the parables he shares along the journey.community

The lost sheep and the lost coin represent the hard-core sinners – the outsiders who have been excluded. It doesn’t explain how they got lost. That isn’t the important part of the story. And these parables don’t say anything about repentance – after all sheep and coins can’t exactly repent. What we hear in the story is that the shepherd and the woman go and find the lost things.

So, what do these parables teach us about discipleship?

sinners-wantedWell, in order to find the lost sheep and the lost coin, the shepherd and the woman must put themselves in proximity to the things that are lost. In the same way, Jesus is putting himself in places where sinners and tax-collectors can hear him.

Today’s parables serve as a response to the Pharisees grumbling comment: “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Jesus’ stories give the reply: “Why yes, yes I do!” He is the one who leaves the ninety-nine righteous sheep behind, going to unfamiliar places to find the one that is lost. He is the woman who turns on the lamp, and sweeps and searches until she finds the one coin that has been unreachable.  dinner-with-jesus

This is the lesson of discipleship Jesus is teaching. Jesus provides an example we are called to follow. Being among the lost, the outsiders, is an essential part of discipleship. In doing this we create space for relationship. It is in building relationships that the restoring of community can take place. And when it does, there’s cause for celebration!

As we consider this, we might ask ourselves if we are willing to get outside the comfortable places, to leave the ninety-nine familiar sheep, so we can find the lost one beyond our immediate sight. We are called to share God’s message of love for all – even those considered outsiders and unclean – not asking them to meet us where we are, but instead, meeting them where they are. What might that look like?

We have several ministries at Christ Church that are engaged in this kind of work. The Norcross Co-op and Rainbow Village both help those who are homeless and the poor. The Thrift Shop provides affordable clothes and household items for people in our community. Our school in Haiti, provides education to children that would otherwise be unavailable. In July we helped provide items for a refugee family from Syria that found their way to Georgia. And on the third Sunday of each month, the children and youth have begun using part of our worship time to make sandwiches or do other service projects for those in our midst.

And while writing checks and bringing supplies for these wonderful ministries is very important and very much appreciated, as followers of Jesus we are also called to be in relationship with those in need. To make ourselves available in a real and tangible way. To step away from the comfort of our sanctuary and church campus so we can make connections in search of the lost ones just beyond our sight.

When we do the relationship-building that’s at the heart of discipleship, it creates moments of joy and celebration.

thriftshopOne of my moments of joy and celebration began with an unexpected phone call one Friday afternoon. On the other end of the phone was a young Hispanic woman. Fortunately for me, she spoke English pretty well. She began by asking if the wedding dress she’d seen in the Thrift Shop was still there. (Of course, I had no idea.) She explained that she wasn’t going to be able to get to the Thrift Shop before it closed, and asked if we could put it on hold until she could get there the next morning. I wasn’t at the office, so I quickly called Beth who immediately went downstairs and made sure the dress was still there. She then put it somewhere out of sight so it wouldn’t accidentally be sold before this young woman could get there the next day.

While this may not seem like an especially amazing story, for me it was a moment to celebrate. What a gift to be able, in some small way, to be part of a momentous event in this young woman’s life – to provide her with her wedding dress. It’s a moment worthy of celebration!

Each person who has done this Jesus-following work has their own stories of celebration.

woohooEach outsider who is welcomed-in just as they are, provides us with a moment for celebration!

Each time we dare to get outside our comfort zone, to eat with modern-day sinners and tax-collectors, it’s a moment for celebration!

Each time we do the relationship-building that allows others to feel that their life matters, it’s another moment for celebration!

Jesus made himself available to all people. He wasn’t concerned about what those in authority thought. Jesus had the ultimate authority, that of God’s love and grace. He taught that this love and grace is open to all people, especially the broken and lost. That’s very comforting to those of us who have had times in our own life of being broken or lost.

Paul’s letter to Timothy shows his own appreciation for God’s grace:

I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy… The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost. (1 Tim 12-13a, 15)

God uses all of us – ordinary people – not perfect people – to do God’s work of love and relationship-building in the world. We are each judged as faithful and each appointed to service. So I invite you today to consider what that might look like for you at this time in your life. Then, as you leave here, go in peace to love and serve the Lord.



Gospel Text:

All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

So he told them this parable: “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? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And 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.’ Just 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.

“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? When 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.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Luke 15:1-10)

I invite your thoughts and insights.

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