Yesterday’s Gospel reading was some of Jesus’ best known parables: the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin. When we’re so familiar with Bible passages, it can be interesting to try and think about them from a different perspective. In this case: who is really lost in this stories?
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Did you know the Lutheran church has a calendar of commemorations? I don’t call it a saints’ calendar, per se, because it commemorates lots of people, from your typical “saints” to musicians, to social workers. Sometimes, if their day falls on a Sunday, they are mentioned in our prayers.
Tomorrow is the feast day of Cyprian of Carthage. Most of us have probably never heard of Cyprian. He was born in Africa, along the Mediterranean Coast around the year 200. He eventually became bishop of the region. While he was the bishop, the church underwent a period of intense persecution. People were required to make sacrifices to the emperor of Rome, and carry a certificate proving that they’d done so. Many Christians were tortured and executed because they would not obey this law. But just as many simply made the sacrifices and got their certificates.
When the persecution ended, these Christians wanted to come back to the churches they had denounced. And that’s where Cyprian gets famous. Those who had suffered through the persecution thought that what they called the “lapsed” Christians didn’t deserve to get back into the church. They definitely didn’t deserve to be welcomed back to the communion table.
As bishop, the situation ended up on Cyprian’s desk. And he insisted that the lapsed be admitted back into the church. They may have sinned, but where else should sinners go? The question at stake was this: is the church a museum to enshrine saints, or a hospital for sinners?
Who gets to be included? Where it the line drawn? It’s the same question that prompts Jesus to tell these parables in the gospel reading. Jesus’ ministry, his teaching, his healing, is attracting people from all different walks of life. The Pharisees and the scribes are interested in what Jesus is saying. So are the tax collectors and sinners. Gathered around Jesus, we find a strange group—people who wouldn’t normally be in the same company. Pharisees and scribes were good, religious, upstanding people. They were the regular church goers of first century Judaism. The people who followed the laws and tried their best to live the right way. Descriptions many would apply to those of us gathered here today.
And alongside these good, upstanding people are those whose conduct flies in the face of social norms and rules. Those who can’t even be bothered to pretend to follow the rules and laws. Prostitutes. Tax collectors. Rebels. Jesus’ message of God’s kingdom has attracted them, too. They’ve come near to listen to the rabbi teach, to hear about God’s righteousness and justice which brings new life and sets people free. And Jesus is willing to break bread with them. He welcomes them to the table.
And the Pharisees and scribes can’t fathom why Jesus would be acting this way. Sharing a meal with someone meant being associated with them. Jesus is willing to be associated with tax collectors and sinners. Although Jesus has also shared meals with Pharisees, they don’t want to be associated with “those people.”
Who gets to be part of the group? –I don’t want to be part of any group that they’re in.– This isn’t just a problem for Jesus’ time or for Cyprian’s time. It’s a human problem. How do we draw boundaries around who is in and who is out? Who is included in our gathering today? And who is excluded, either by intention or through ignorance? We still draw lines, not just in church, but everywhere, by race, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, education, economic class, political affiliation. Many of us have experienced exclusion for some reason in our lives, just as we have perhaps been those doing the excluding at times.
And in response to this kind of thinking, this boundary-drawing, Jesus tells these two parables about lost things. God is like a shepherd, Jesus says, who does everything he can to find one lost sheep, leaving the ninety-nine for the sake of the one. God is like a woman who sweeps her house and a desperate search for one coin. And when that one small coin is found, she rejoices. God is a God of lost things. Sheep, coins, and people. The ones that, for whatever reason, find themselves cut off from the rest of the group. God has a heart for these things, for these people, and seeks them out. Seeks us out.
And who is lost in this story? Who needs to be found? The tax collectors and sinners are already eating with Jesus. They’ve found him already, drawn by the new life he brings. The ones who are truly lost, the people who need repentance in our story, are the Pharisees and scribes. The ones who believe they’re in charge of who’s in and who’s out. The ones who would seek to put up barriers to other people accessing God.
Sin can be defined as anything that separates us from God and from our neighbor. In this case, that’s exactly what the Pharisees and scribes are doing. They want to be separated from their neighbors, and in doing so, they are separating themselves from God. Whenever we try to put up barriers to other people, to draw lines and make distinctions, the only thing we accomplish is to block our own relationship with God. Because in Jesus we find that God is a God of outsiders, of outcasts, of lost things.
A God who seeks after those who have been excluded, cast aside, and turned away. But also, a God who seeks after those cut themselves off through hatred or fear. A God who wants to reconcile all people to Godself. Because the party is not complete unless everyone is there. When we are able to come together, and to see each other not as sinners or righteous, not as rich or poor, not as insiders or outsiders, but when we see with Jesus’ eyes, there is rejoicing in the presence of God’s angels.
And God will continue to seek after every one of us until that is a reality. Because that is what the kingdom of God looks like: a group of unlikely companions, gathered around a table together. We get a glimpse of it every Sunday morning, when we gather together around this table, and share God’s meal. A glimpse of the kingdom where the lost are found, where every last person matters, where distinctions fall away. And all of heaven rejoices.
We take that glimpse with us as we leave this place, making it a little bit more real every day, until it is no longer just a glimpse, but truly, God’s kingdom come. Amen.