Sermon for Sunday, September 11, 2016 || Proper 19, Year C || Exodus 32: 7-14;Psalm 51;1 Timothy 1: 12-17; Luke 15:1-10 || The Rev. Margot D Critchfield
“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.’”
I confess that I have to giggle every time I read that line. The church hasn’t even been born yet, and already, some come to listen and some come to grumble. Some come to hear the good news, and some are so busy criticizing or complaining that they completely miss it.
It’s too bad, really. Because while the grumblers are grousing, the poor lost sinners, who just want to listen, get to hear this gospel word: God treasures you. God treasures you and will never give up on you. God will go to astonishing lengths to find you when you get lost—and it doesn’t matter how lost you are, how you got there, or where “there” is, because nothing will dissuade God of his love for you. God will search you out and will find you, and when he does he will weep tears of pure unadulterated joy in the finding. Because there is more joy in heaven over one lost soul who turns to God, than over ninety-nine righteous folks who are perfectly-fine-just-the-way-they- are-thank-you-very-much.
Now if, like me, you’ve ever counted yourself among the sinners or the lost,that is exceedingly good news indeed! I’ve been lost in grief, and I’ve been lost in addiction. I’ve been lost in fear and loneliness and pride and perfectionism. I’ve been lost in self-doubt and self-recrimination, in anger and in remorse…and this doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the many ways that I’ve been lost from any sense of God’s presence in my life.
I’m not about to say, like Paul in his letter to Timothy, that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost” (that’s a little prideful in and of itself, don’t you think?) but I will say with absolute conviction that if the Divine Shepherd had given up on this particular lost sheep, I very well might not even be alive today much less would I be standing here as a priest in God’s church. That I know. It’s why the hymn we just sang is my favorite hymn, and the third verse, my favorite verse:
Perverse and foolish oft I strayed,
but yet in love He sought me,
and on his shoulder gently laid,
and home, rejoicing, brought me.
Yet the real emphasis in this morning’s gospel isn’t on us, or on our sinfulness, or on the ways we end up so hopelessly lost. The real emphasis in this morning’s gospel is first, on the man, and then, on the woman—the two “stand-ins” for God—both of whom never stop searching for what is lost until they find it.
Now, you may have noticed the number of active verbs that reference these two pivotal characters. The man leaves everything behind and goes after the sheep that is lost. He finds it, lays it on his shoulder, and rejoices. He comes home, calls all his friends, and invites them to rejoice, too. For her part, the woman lights a lamp, sweeps the house, searches carefully for her lost coin. She too finds what is lost, calls her friends, and invites them to rejoice with her.
What this tells us is that Jesus really wants us to understand that God actively searches for us in our lost places. God doesn’t wait around for us to start looking for him. No, God initiates. In fact, God is actively looking for us before we even realize we’re lost. And oh how easily we get lost!
But God is persistent—which is another way of saying that God is faithful, even when we are not. God is so persistent and so faithful, that rather than give up on us as a species, he finally came looking for us in the person of Jesus–the Christ—to call us back to him yet again. Jesus, the Christ—the one the grumblers criticize because he “welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
But that is the very heart of the gospel, isn’t it? This God, who throughout Old Testament history repeatedly calls back his willful, stiff-necked, creation –over and over again when we stray from His ways…finally this hopelessly-in-love-with-us God comes to us in the flesh, and what does he do? He welcomes sinners and eats with them. Welcomes and eats with sinners like prostitutes and extortionists. Sinners like the priest and the Levite we met a few chapters back who did nothing to help the poor man left lying in the road half beaten to death. Sinners like the overly-distracted Mary, the greedy brother with the inheritance, the hypocrites and the intransient. Sinners like the gossip and the bully, the liar and the manipulator. Sinners like that one person in your life you’ve sworn you will never, ever forgive. Sinners like me and like you and like the person sitting next to you. This fellow Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with them!
Yes, and this fellow Jesus still welcomes sinners and eats with them, every time we gather around his table like we’re going to do in just a few minutes. Because that is precisely why this fellow Jesus came into the world: To save sinners and to find the lost. That is the Good News of the gospel that the Pharisees and scribes were too busy grousing to hear or appreciate. That is the Good News of the gospel that I know from personal experience to be true.
So whether you’ve come to listen, or come to grumble, if you find yourself burdened by guilt, or feeling lost… if you’re feeling achingly absent from God’s presence–then please hear this word: God will not let you go. God will never stop loving you, never stop looking for you, never give up on you, not ever. God will find you.
God will find you, and when he does, you will sing in grateful thanksgiving:
In death’s dark vale I fear no ill
with thee, dear Lord, beside me;
thy rod and staff my comfort still,
thy cross before to guide me.
Thou spread’st a table in my sight;
thy unction grace bestoweth;
and O what transport of delight
from thy pure chalice floweth!
And so through all the length of days
thy goodness faileth never:
Good Shepherd, may I sing thy praise
within thy house for ever.