Welcoming Sinners | Proper 19

Luke 15:1-10

1 All the tax collectors and sinners were gathering around Jesus to listen to him. 2 The Pharisees and legal experts were grumbling, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

3 Jesus told them this parable: 4 “Suppose someone among you had one hundred sheep and lost one of them. Wouldn’t he leave the other ninety-nine in the pasture and search for the lost one until he finds it? 5 And when he finds it, he is thrilled and places it on his shoulders. 6 When he arrives home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Celebrate with me because I’ve found my lost sheep.’ 7 In the same way, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who changes both heart and life than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need to change their hearts and lives.

8 “Or what woman, if she owns ten silver coins and loses one of them, won’t light a lamp and sweep the house, searching her home carefully until she finds it? 9 When she finds it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Celebrate with me because I’ve found my lost coin.’ 10 In the same way, I tell you, joy breaks out in the presence of God’s angels over one sinner who changes both heart and life.” (CEB)

Welcoming Sinners

On my last day as a student at Oak Hill Middle School, I took a penny to show some of my teachers. It was a penny that I had with me on a visit to Stone Mountain, Georgia. A penny I had placed on the railroad tracks there and watched as the train flattened and stretched it. Several people put coins on the track that time, but mine was the only one that stayed on from engine to caboose. The cool thing is, the penny was so perfectly flattened that you can still read the date of 1989, and the word Liberty. You can make out Lincoln’s profile and the Memorial and words on the reverse side. The day I took it to school, just as I was packing up after the last bell, I slapped it against the wall above the lockers. It slipped out of my hand and dropped behind the metal flashing. I tried to get it out, but couldn’t. Then, I had to run for the bus, sure I would never see the coin again.

About five years later, I found myself back at Oak Hill for some program my sister was in. When I walked the halls, I remembered that penny. I headed toward my old locker, slipped my fingers behind the flashing, and pulled it right out. I found my lost coin, and I was stoked.

It’s probably safe to assume that most of us are familiar with these two parables. I remember hearing about them when I was a child in Sunday School and at Camp Santa Claus. I remember the emphasis always being on seeking and finding. After all, at face-value, that seems to be the meaning of the parables. Yet, something hit me as I read them this time. Jesus’ teaching here is not only about finding what was lost but recognizing what is valuable.

The thing about a lot of religious people is that we tend to set boundaries based on our comfort zones. We tend to be at least a little flexible, tolerating small incursions into our circle from the outside, but usually only in measured doses, and only if the visitors conform to our established expectations.

All the tax collectors and sinners were “gathering around” (CEB) or “coming near” (NRSV) to listen to Jesus. The Pharisees and Scribes were not thrilled about the presence of these outsiders. After all, they were the ones who knew the rules. They were the ones who defined the kinds of people who were righteous and the kinds of people who were sinners. They set the boundaries and delineated who was in and who was out.

The fact is, we can feel threatened when those we might count as outsiders come near. Somehow, their coming near—their gathering around—jeopardizes our sense of nearness. Maybe it even diminishes our sense of religious comfort or security of faith. If so, then we need to hear what Jesus says. Those whom we consider outsiders are already near. The reason they are near, as Jesus reminds us, is because God has drawn them. Remember what Jesus said in John 12, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I shall drag all things to myself.” (John 12:32, my translation).

Who is in and who is out is a valid theological question, but it’s how we answer that reveals whether or not we are in congress with our chief Rabbi and teacher, Jesus of Nazareth. The church has debated issues like this from early on. Regarding the sacrament of Holy Communion (or Eucharist) the church has asked who is allowed to received? As a pastor, I happen to be one of those religious insiders, much like the Pharisees and Scribes of Jesus’ day. Theologically, I see Holy Communion as the meal of the baptized. It’s a meal that represents the whole of Christian Community as a foretaste of the feast to come when we all get to heaven. Theologically, only the baptized should receive.

But pastorally, I answer the question differently. The teachings of Jesus suggest that people are more important than rules. If someone who is not baptized came forward to receive because they desired to receive the grace of God offered freely to all in the sacrament, how could I say no to them? Now, once they received, I would encourage them toward baptism as soon as possible, but I wouldn’t fence out someone who was seeking Jesus because of theological propriety.

In the parables, Jesus reminds us that the lost as already part of the flock. They are sheep of the same flock, they are already in the house, no different from the other coins jingling in your pocket. They are already gathering around, and they are already near. We have nothing to fear by the presence of those called into our midst by God. In fact, our response should be pure, unadulterated joy.

In both of the parables, there is searching and finding, and the response when what was lost is found. We often speak of salvation in terms of “finding God,” but the parables suggest that even if we seek God, the most we can do is be found by God. A lost sheep will hide in the brush, fearful and quiet. A lost coin cannot cry out, “Hey! I’m over here!” The lost do not find God, God seeks and finds them. God is the actor in the plan of salvation. God is the one who invaded the world for our sake and became one of us. Our loving God has a long reach and a patient heart.

People in the church are usually more comfortable with the idea of saving the lost than welcoming them. We can make sure they’re saved, send them on their way, and pat ourselves on the back for to good job we did. Saving is about power, even control. Welcoming is about relationship and closeness, tenderness and generosity, celebration and joy. We don’t save anyone. God does. When God brings home the lost, what is our response? It should be welcome.

When God searches for what is lost, it is not some haphazard, lackadaisical affair. God is all in. God searches diligently. God seeks with reckless abandon. God tears the house apart and sweeps every corner. The urgency with which God seeks us has nothing to do with our worthiness nor our righteousness. God seeks because God loves us, and God’s love has a long reach.

Sinners are called to repentance, but repentance isn’t about feeling bad. It’s about turning around. It’s about having our minds and our lives changed. The thing is, the parable doesn’t seem to be about calling sinners to repentance so much as inviting the righteous to join the celebration.

R. Alan Culpepper writes, “Whether one will join the celebration is all-important because it reveals whether one’s relationships are based on merit or mercy. Those who find God’s mercy offensive cannot celebrate with the angels when a sinner repents. Thus they exclude themselves from God’s grace.” And, “Typically, we want mercy for ourselves and justice for others, but the Lukan parables call for us to celebrate with God because God has been merciful not only to us but to others also, even to those we would not otherwise have accepted into our fellowship.” (Luke in NIB vol IX, 298). God expects rejoicing from us.

In fact, rejoicing seems to be the climax of each parable. The sheep is found and the shepherd rejoices. The coin is found and the woman rejoices. Not only do the shepherd and woman rejoice—these two who are the God-figures of the parables—but that rejoicing expands to include the heavens and the angels. Sinners, doubters, and tax-collectors will inevitably hear this parable and take away the fact that God is seeking them. But for those of us who are religious insiders like the Pharisees and Scribes, what we’re being told is that we need to learn how to rejoice. We need to join in the dance. We need to participate in the celebration that is already taking place on a cosmic scale and will last for eternity.

There’s a scene toward the end of C.S. Lewis’s book, Perelandra, where a celebration takes place. It’s a celebration of human beings and angelic beings, which includes the whole cosmos. It’s almost difficult to read because the celebration, this description of the Great Dance, just goes on forever. It’s splattered across four-and-a-half pages of roughly 2,500 words. But it describes this cosmic party that has been going on forever, and will continue forever as more and more people join in. Rejoicing is the response God expects. It’s the response God invites us to participate in.

It’s an exciting thing when the lost are found and sinners repent. But this also begs the question: Who are the sinners? The lost, yes, probably. But those who need to turn around and have their minds changed includes more than the lost. It’s also the insiders who refused to join the celebration but suddenly start to party, who change their hearts and minds about who is in and who is out, who is acceptable and who is not. Because, no matter who we are, we’re all sheep of the same flock. We’re all coins in the same piggy bank.

We can open ourselves to true rejoicing when we no longer make distinctions. When we no longer thing in terms of one sheep who is lost apart from the ninety-nine others, or one coin that is lost apart from the other nine. When we view our own community as incomplete until the whole world is included within our circle, until no one is lost, then we can rejoice each time God finds one of the lost and we welcome our sister or brother with open arms because we, too, are sinners. We have no high ground on which to stand in judgment of anyone, but we are invited to a party that never ends.

Jesus even gave us two parallel parables. One presents God metaphorically as a man working as a shepherd. The other presents God metaphorically as a woman cleaning out her house. This is the only parable that presents a woman as an allegory or metaphor for God. Maybe, if we have only ever thought about God in masculine terms, our minds need to change about who God is. If both male and female are equally made in God’s image, then we really have no excuse for speaking of God in exclusively masculine terms. Might we need repentance—to have our minds changed—in this regard, too?

Absolutely no one is excluded from the invitation to welcome and celebrate those whom God finds: female or male, righteous or sinner. Even those who do not seek God are often found by God. And those who do seek God are only found because our seeking is little more than our willingness to be found.

Jesus’ teaching here is not only about finding what was lost but recognizing what is valuable to God. What is valuable to God should be valuable to us. When God invites us to rejoice, what shall we do?’

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

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