Overflowing Love at God's Table

Sermon Preached earlier today at
St. Barnabas-by-the-Bay Episcopal Church
Proper 19C

My grandmother – my mom’s mom – was a storyteller. My mom and my sister and I would be sitting on the scratchy green sofa in her living room listening to her tell the same stories again and again. I have vague recollections of her telling us about her pet lamb she had as a little girl. I remember my grandmother referring to herself as Peggy in these stories – something I couldn’t imagine because everyone I knew called her by her proper name, Marguerita. She’d talk about picking strawberries and walking to school and on and on she’d go. And, I confess, as a child, I wasn’t very good at listening. Once Grandma got going on tale after tale, I sort of checked out. I’d trace the pattern on the sofa with my finger or I’d pick at a piece of lint I found or I’d daydream because, quite frankly, Grandma’s stories bored me. I didn’t know any of the people; I didn’t know any of the places. And I didn’t understand what I might find of interest in the stories, so I didn’t even bother trying. And today, I wonder what I might have missed – if only I had been paying better attention.

There are at least three parables in Luke’s gospel that are familiar to most of us – the story of the lost sheep, the story of the lost coin, and the story of the lost – or prodigal – son. And each of these parables remind me a bit of my grandmother’s story telling – or rather, they remind me of my inability to listen well to something I’ve heard so many times before. Because these three parables are stories many of us have been hearing since we were in church school, we don’t have to wait for them to roll around in the lectionary on a Sunday morning. They are some of the earliest stories many of us ever encountered in the church. Perhaps you’ve acted them out in skits in Sunday school or have been invited to retell them in modern form at a Bible camp. They are stories we’ve heard told countless times, like my Grandmother’s stories.

Of course, I’ve mentioned three parables from Luke’s gospel, but in today’s reading we only get two of the three - the lost sheep and the lost coin. The story of the Prodigal Son was read during one of the Sunday’s in Lent this past year. In any case, the two stories today have a common theme. Some of us know the stories this way: something valuable gets lost, we should look for it, and when we find it, we should rejoice; others of us, perhaps would tell the stories this way: we are what is lost, God will look for us and when we are found there will be rejoicing. But in either version, we have a pretty simple plot line, not too many twists and turns, and we might, therefore, be tempted to say, “oh, I know this one”. And so I always get a bit nervous when these stories appear in the Sunday lectionary because I’m fearful that you might be tempted, like I was with my grandmother, to simply turn off your attention switch for awhile and begin playing with a piece of lint on the pew cushion. So, all of this to say, there might be a new gem in the stories for you today, so I encourage you to stick with me!

I was at a Bible study earlier this week and we were reading these two parables – the lost sheep and the lost coin – and someone in the group said, “The real challenge is that God wants us to rejoice over the return of the bad guy.” And suddenly, I had a new insight into the stories – that’s how it happens some times – and I nearly jumped out of my seat with excitement because I realized that No!, in the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin, there is no bad guy. In the parable of the lost son, there is a bad guy – or at least a son who has been less than obedient. Even the son knows he has not done the right thing when he says, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”[i] And if we’d been reading that story – the story of a lost and found son – then one might say, yes, God wants us to rejoice over the return of the bad guy. But in today’s stories – sheep and coins – there is no bad guy. The one sheep that is lost is no different than the other 99 sheep. It’s not a bad sheep, it’s just lost. In fact, any one of the 100 sheep could have been lost and we are told, the shepherd is the one who lost the sheep in the first place. So there is no judgment and there is no distinguishing between that one lost sheep and the other 99. Likewise with the coin. The one coin that is lost is no different than the other 9 coins. It’s not a bad coin, it’s just lost. Each coin has the exact same value – it could have been any one of the coins. And again, it is the woman who has lost the coin. There is no judgment and there is no distinguishing between that one coin and the other nine.

In the story of the prodigal son there a number of potential roles that you and I might take. We can play the part of the older son or of the slaves in that story. There is a way out of the hot seat for us; we don’t have to assume we are the prodigal son. But when we are talking about sheep and coins, my friends, we’re it. The only other actor in the play is the Shepherd or the woman and it is safe to say that in both instances that leading role is taken by God. And so we come to realize, you and I, that the lost coin and the lost sheep are us. There is no distinguishing and there is no running away from it. All of us together, wandering in this wilderness, sometimes grumbling like the Israelites, sometimes celebrating our common life together, but all us in this together.

Are you with me so far? Now let’s consider the reason Jesus was telling these two parables in the first place. Luke’s gospel tells us, “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.’”[ii] In answer to this grumbling, Jesus tells the Pharisees these two stories. Two stories that set all of humanity on equal ground: tax collectors, sinners, and Pharisees are all bundled together in one lot – the human race – and not one of them is counted as more important than the rest. And, what’s more, not one of them is counted as less important than the rest. The Pharisees had become convinced that they were better than – more righteous than – the tax collectors and the sinners. But Jesus reminds them that they, just like the tax collectors and the sinners, are simply sheep. By not accepting their place in God’s economy, the Pharisees exclude themselves from Jesus’ table fellowship. A fellowship that is open to all – no matter who you are, what you do, or where you come from.

Jesus’ message is clear, all are welcome to the table. And the gospel message is clear that the only ones who are not enjoying the feast on this day are the grumbling Pharisees and scribes. But it is their own grumbling, their own feelings of superiority that separate them from the table and from fellowship with Christ. They have become the lost sheep. But even in this state – especially in this state – they are loved by God. However, until they recognize this, they will not be open to God’s overflowing[iii] love, they will not be able to enjoy the same kind of welcome experienced by the sinners and the tax collectors.

Each one of us is one of God’s sheep. And the gospel is clear: all of the sheep are equally valuable to God. When we are lost, God will not cease looking for us until we are found. And once found there will be great rejoicing at the table of the Lord. The table that is open to all – no matter who you are, what you do, or where you come from. Because God’s love is that extravagant. Believe it!

[i] Luke 15:21.
[ii] Luke 15:1-2.
[iii] The author of the first letter to Timothy writes, “and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.” (I Timothy 1:14).


Anonymous said…
For some reason I was drawn to your equating of "prodigal" with "lost" and I too have used the term that way. But the dictionary antonym if "cautious" and the synonyms include "wasteful, reckless, dissolute, profligate, extravagant and uncontrolled."
I suppose I was less careful in my word choice than I could have been; however, when I used the word "lost" I was speaking in the general sense of one who is "lost from God" -- spiritually or physically doomed or destroyed (http://wordnet.princeton.edu/perl/webwn?s=lost&sub=Search+WordNet&o2=&o0=1&o7=&o5=&o1=1&o6=&o4=&o3=&h=)) . . .

So, I did not intend a direct parallel between a lost coin/lost sheep and the lost (i.e., prodigal) son, but rather a bit of a play on words.