By Rev. Sarah Buteux
Lent 4, Year C
In my reading this week, I came across the story of Jon Tyson, a mega church pastor, who left his church in Florida and moved to NYC to start a new kind of church with a close group of friends.
I’ve read a lot of stories like this one, and at first it followed all the familiar beats. Jon and his friends gave up the lives they’d known back in Florida. They banded together and started their church in somebody’s living room. They quickly outgrew that space and started meeting in the back room of a downtown bar, and when that became too small, they made the big leap.
They rented a theater uptown, launched a web site, printed flyers, rehearsed the band, and lo and behold, on their very first Sunday, 300 people showed up.
Whatever! I don’t know why it works that way for some churches and not others but it does. And get this: that 300 was just the beginning. People came back. They brought their friends. The church grew, and it kept growing.
But, and here is where the story took a turn I wasn’t expecting. The bigger they got, the emptier it all started to feel. On the surface it looked like everything was going incredibly well. They had great music, powerful preaching, and phenomenal programming. They weren’t just adding services, they were scaling up and adding new locations.
“Yet the more we seemed to do,” he said, “the less we could truly give.” The joy he’d felt at the outset began to fade. “It wasn’t any one thing in particular,” he said, “but everything combined that led us to replace wonder with work, people with programs, organization with power, and dreams with duties.”
And then a newcomer sat down with him. This guy had been part of a number of churches, but he wanted Jon to make the case for why he should join Trinity, and in that moment a little light bulb went off in Jon’s head. He started to really look around at the people coming and he realized they were all people from other churches.
Not only that, the unchurched people they’d welcomed at the outset had all but stopped coming. A deep sense of unease started to fill Jon, doubts that came to a head about a week later when his wife admitted that she was losing her faith in the church.
“We may look successful on the outside,” she said. “But (Jon), if we keep doing what we’re doing, we will know in our hearts we just happen to be the cool church of the moment…And worse than that, we may fail in our mission. We may be entertaining Christians, but (we’re) not helping those far from God make their way back to him.”
Notice that his wife hadn’t lost her faith in the gospel, the good news of God’s love, but in the ability of the church to get that message out to the people who need it most.
And then Jon came across an article in the Atlantic, where a young man who had lost his faith in the church explained why: “Christianity, “he said, “is something that if you really believed it, it would change your life and you would want to change the lives of others. (But) I haven’t seen too much of that.”
At least he wasn’t seeing it in the church. And that’s when Jon knew deep down that something had to give, something needed to change.
I can’t help but wonder if Jesus felt the same way. I wonder if he may have had a similar awakening in the context of his own faith community, perhaps on the very day we read about this morning.
When we catch up with him, Jesus is breaking bread with people who appear to be about as far from God as you can get – tax collectors and sinners.
We’re talking some really bad people. The sort of people who weren’t above, say, colluding with a foreign power in order to enrich themselves at the expense of their own people. Yeah. So please don’t think for a second these guys are just poor, misunderstood, underdogs. They’re not. They’re the worst.
But they are at least listening, really listening to what Jesus has to say. The more he talks, the more their hearts are coming around to the idea that they don’t have to live the way they’ve been living any longer. It’s not too late to turn things around, find redemption, and come back to the fold.
The trouble is that Jesus hasn’t cleared his invitation with the ones who will need to do the welcoming. He may be ready to work with these guys, help them turn their lives around, but the scribes and Pharisees are not. And for good reason.
These are not the sort of people you’d ever bring home to mother, and if you did, you certainly wouldn’t leave her alone with them. And so rather than look on with wonder and excitement that Jesus is actually getting through, or even better, sitting down next to Jesus to join him in the work, the religious folks keep to themselves. They don’t want to have anything to do with these people, and so they hold themselves back from Jesus.
“This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them,” they grumble.
At which point Jesus tells them all -the Scribes and the Pharisees and the Tax collectors and the Sinners – two of the weirdest stories in scripture.
“Which one of you,” he begins, “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?”
It’s a rhetorical question, which is good, because the answer is not a one of them would do that because it would be a foolish thing to do. No self-respecting shepherd – if he even noticed that one out of a hundred was missing (which is a big if) – would leave 99 sheep unprotected and alone in the wilderness to go after one measly stray. No. He’d cut his losses and try not to lose anymore.
But Jesus’ shepherd isn’t like the other shepherds. He not only goes after the sheep, he searches until he finds the little guy, and then brings him home on his shoulders rejoicing. In fact, he’s so excited that he throws a party for all his friends and neighbors. Which sounds lovely but for the fact that, if you think about it, what’s the one thing you would expect to eat if you went to a shepherd’s house for a big party? I’m thinking mutton! Right? So this is a little weird.
About as weird as his second story about a woman who loses a coin, turns her house upside down until she finds it, and then throws a party for her friends and neighbors that probably costs her more than the lost coin was worth in the first place.
And then, as if what he just said makes perfect sense, Jesus caps it all off by saying: “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.” As if there is such a thing. You find me 99 righteous people who need no repentance and I’ll find a bridge to sell you, toot suite.
These are weird, cheeky, quite confusing little stories and it’s hard to know exactly what to make of them. You might think the shepherd and the woman represent God, because every sermon you’ve ever heard and I’ve ever preached starts with that assumption.
But this time around – thanks to Amy Jill-Levine – I noticed that Jesus never says as much. And that’s probably good, because if anyone needs to repent in these stories, isn’t it actually the shepherd and the woman? They are the ones who were negligent. After all, one can hardly blame a sheep, much less a coin, for getting themselves lost.
I’m not exactly sure what to do with that realization, but thankfully we at least know who, in Jesus’ original audience, needed to found. Obviously it would be the tax collectors and sinners who were lost because of all their, you know, tax collecting and sinning.
But, as one of my favorite theologians – Sarah Dylan Brewer – likes to point out: if the tax collectors and sinners are represented by the lost sheep who was rescued and is now safe at home, and the 99 righteous sheep are still stranded out in the wilderness apart from their shepherd, “who’s really the stray?”
I swear, sometimes it’s hard to feel like Jesus isn’t just messing with us.
I mean, is the point of these parables that God loves us so much that no matter how lost we have become she will go to any lengths to find us?
Or is it that anyone who thinks they are righteous is fooling themselves and probably needs to repent?
Or is the point that we are responsible for one another, so we need to be as tuned into one another as a shepherd who can tell when one in a hundred sheep is missing, as aware of each other’s state as a woman who can tell her purse full of coins feels just a hair too light, and ready – come what may – to do whatever it takes to find one another and bring each other back into the fold?
I’m going to go with yes.
Which is to say, I think this parable is as much for the lost as it is for the found. In fact, I suspect that if you think you’re found, at least more found than other people, you might well be more lost than you realize. But be of good cheer, because if God is as determined to find the lost as this shepherd and this woman, then things are bound to work out for you eventually.
Actually, what I really think, is that we’re always a little bit of both – a little lost and a little found. We all sin and we all judge. Some of us sin in ways that are more obvious than others. Some of us have more reason to judge others. But we all sin and we all judge.
In fact, if you could go back in time to this very moment in Luke and ask all these people gathered around Jesus who the lost ones really were, I think there would have been a lot of finger pointing.
I mean it’s pretty obvious that the scribes and Pharisees would have pointed at the tax collectors and sinners. What’s maybe not so obvious is that the tax collectors and sinners might well have pointed right back.
After all, they were the ones really listening to Jesus and actually understanding what he was saying. They knew they had sinned and were ready to repent. They wanted to be a part of this new thing that Jesus was doing.
The question was whether the Scribes and the Pharisees would come along too. Whether they could repent and open their hearts up to believe along with Jesus that these sinners could really change.
Whether they could ever come to realize that there actually are no righteous people knocking around down here at all; not even 99. There are just a whole lot of sinners: sinners in need of repentance, sinners in need of God’s grace.
But also – coming back to the parable – sinners who somehow need one another if we’re ever going to be made whole… brothers, sisters, and siblings who can never be complete without each other, because at the end of the day that’s how God designed it all to work.
I think the central truth Jesus is trying to communicate to everyone is that we are all in this together: all created to be a part of the same flock, the same purse, the same family, the same kingdom.
We’re all invited to the same party – every last, lost, and lonely little one of us – and we’re all going to need each other’s help if we’re ever going to find our way home.
Which is not to say that we need to go out and convert the lost. In truth, I’m not even sure how you do that anymore. I think it’s more that we simply need to care:
Care enough to notice who isn’t here…not just around this table, but our kitchen tables, the board room table, the lunchroom table. Who’s missing, not because they are unworthy, but because we made them feel unwelcome.
I think we need to care enough to do the work and reach out to these people. Turn our lives upside down if necessary, to find them and let them know we were wrong.
And I think we need to care enough to not just welcome people or help them from our place of foundness, but care enough to be vulnerable with them about our own lostness – honest about our sins and struggles, our fears and our doubts.
Honest enough to admit that but for the grace of God, we wouldn’t have found our way here either.
I’m not saying it will be easy. It won’t. Bringing everyone together never is. The Pharisees had every right to hang back and grumble because they were right – sinners are just the worst.
But so often the things that cause us to sin – fear, anger, selfishness and shame – are exactly the things that can get dusted off when people are willing to let us know that they value us enough to not give up on us,
when they show us that they are willing to go the extra mile,
willing to put in the effort,
or willing to risk leaving the herd behind for nothing more and nothing less than us.
Because, at the end of the day, we all need to know that we matter – and we do. God loves you and there’s nothing you can do about it. But in order for us to know that love – really know it, God needs us to communicate it to one another. To love one another as we have been loved. To forgive one another as we have been forgiven.
That’s what you and I, by the grace of God, can do. That’s how we help people far from God find their way back home.
“Christianity, is something that if you really believed it, it would change your life and you would want to change the lives of others.”
I hope it has. And I hope you will. Amen.