Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; September 15, 2019
14th Sunday after Pentecost
1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10
Just before today’s reading, Jesus says, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” Ironically, the tax collectors and sinners do just that, unsettling the Pharisees and scribes so much they can’t keep from grumbling, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Recognizing this as a perfect teaching moment, Jesus proceeds to share three parables about his Abba Father’s relationship to the lost. This morning we will consider only the first two: the parable of the lost sheep and the parable of the lost coin. These stories invite those who have ears to hear to slip on someone else’s dusty old sandals and venture into un-chartered territory. And if the invitation feels a bit strange to us, it was nearly as strange to the original hearers—particularly the Pharisees and teachers of the Law.
Though it may seem that the Pharisees and religious leaders are against everything Jesus is for, they are likely faithful Jews trying to live out their love for Yahweh to the best of their ability. They wait in hope of the coming Messiah and it is their understanding that while they wait—they are to study, interpret, and apply the Law of Moses. Therefore, they must maintain laws of cleanliness, which includes not affiliating with the unclean and sinners. For them, the unclean and sinners are those who habitually break the Law and do dishonorable work, like that of a tax collector or a leather tanner or a shepherd.[i]
Nevertheless, Jesus has the gall to ask these “righteous” leaders to slip on the dusty sandals of a shepherd and to imagine one of their 100 sheep goes missing. “Wouldn’t you leave the 99 in the wilderness and go after the lost sheep? And when you find it, wouldn’t you throw it over your shoulder, take it back home, and celebrate with your friends and neighbors?”
If asking the religious leaders to identify with a dirty shepherd isn’t enough, Jesus continues by asking them to slip on the sandals of a woman who loses a coin. Surely Jesus realizes these Jewish leaders begin each day with the prayer: “Blessed are you, King of the Universe, for not having made me a Gentile, for not having made me a slave, for not having made me a woman?” Sure, Jesus knows, but that does not stop him. “Suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Does she not light a lamp, and sweep until she finds it? And when she finds it, doesn’t she call her friends and neighbors to celebrate with her?” Jesus concludes, “In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
If the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law were not already offended by Jesus’ teaching, they are now. But Jesus does not care because he yearns for them to see “kingdom living” in a different light. He wants them to know it isn’t that God’s doesn’t love and care for the righteous. It’s just that God also cares for the precious soul who loses his or her way and through the grace of God, reaches a place in life where being found is possible. Indeed, there is joy in the presence of the angels when the lost are found.
While I have read these parables many times and have preached them more than a few, not until this week, did I really see God as the key player in them. Instead, I have tended to focus on what is found—a lost sheep and a lost coin. But in both instances, God is the seeker. The sheep does nothing to find itself. The coin has no capacity to find itself. No! God does the seeking and the saving and the calling for a celebration. The Pharisees and scribes, however, are unable to celebrate because they see no need to seek nor to save. Why bother? Who cares about one sinner? God—that’s who! In the eyes of God, each coin and each sheep matters. In the eyes of God, each man and woman and child matters. In the eyes of God, both the righteous and the unrighteous matter.
As you have likely heard me say before, I was twelve when I was baptized into the family of God. In the conservative Baptist church I attended with my uncle, the path to salvation was made clear every Sunday. If a person wanted to be saved, he or she must make the decision to repent from sin and profess to the preacher and the congregation his or her faith in Jesus Christ. To this day, I can recall the morning I took that first step down the aisle. My hands were sweating, and my heart was beating so fast I thought it would jump out of my chest. Still, my desire for the light and love of Jesus outweighed any fear that could keep me in my seat.
In the years to come, I had many questions about the act of “getting saved.” For example: Why did the preaching of my childhood focus on “getting people saved” almost to the exclusion of teaching people how to live as disciples of Christ? Why was there more emphasis on eternal life than the life we are called to live now—loving God with all our heart and mind and strength and loving our neighbor as ourselves? Why did I witness the condemnation of people of other traditions because they were baptized as infants or, perhaps, because they could not recall the exact moment Jesus came into their heart? Thankfully, many of my questions were answered through the Reformers of our Presbyterian tradition, who recognized that even the DESIRE to know Jesus is pure grace. We cannot even muster up the will to profess Jesus without the prompting of the Holy Spirit. And though none of us deserve such love—it is doled out like manna from heaven for anyone who wants a taste.
Years before I met Rodger Nishioka at Columbia Theological Seminary, I read his book, The Roots of Who We Are. A Presbyterian preacher, seminary professor, and Christian educator, Nishioka’s reformed theology felt like a breath of fresh air to me and there is one story, in particular, that I carry with me still today.
Following a key-note address at an event, Nishioka was approached by a man and woman who were surprised that he was a Presbyterian since he talked about Jesus so much. He replied, “Well, he is kind of the point.” Then they asked him, “So when were you saved?” He responded, “Oh, I’ve always been saved. You see my parents love God and Jesus Christ, and from my earliest memory, I have known that God loved me and Jesus was my Savior.”
“Yes, but when were you saved?” they asked again.
“Well, if I had to name a day and time, I guess it would be when I was confirmed in our church. That is when I stood up in front of everyone and said that Jesus Christ was my Lord and Savior.”
“So that’s when you were saved?” they asked.
“Well,” I explained again, “I really believe I have always been saved, but that is a special time when I proclaimed it to my family and church.”
“Well,” they said, “That’s not good enough.” And they both walked away. What Nishioka came to realize in further discussions with them is that they had a very specific idea of what it means to be saved. They believed you could only be saved or converted in a dramatic way. But you see, there are different ways to be found by God—through a dramatic conversion, yes, but also through a nurtured conversion, like that of Rodger Nishioka, and like that of many of you, I daresay.
Undoubtedly, the most compelling example in Scripture of a dramatic conversion comes through the Apostle Paul. One moment he is going out of his way to terrorize Christians and the next he is preaching Christ to anyone who has ears to hear. In his first letter to Timothy, we find words of gratitude to Christ who strengthen him and called him into service EVEN THOUGH Paul had been a man of violence. Hear his words again, “But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 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.”
Even though Paul was a man who persecuted Christians, he was found by Jesus on the road to Damascus. Even though the sheep had gotten lost in the wilderness and the coin had fallen through the cracks, they were found by the God who seeks and the God who saves. For you see, it is only by God’s grace that anyone is found—that anyone is saved. And it is only by God’s grace that we know what our response should always be—rejoicing and celebrating. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
[i] Roger Van Harn, The Lectionary Commentary Series