The Rev Cynthia KR Banks: The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost—PR 19—Year C; Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28; Psalm 14; I Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10
In Jeremiah this morning, God has gone to that Eeyore place. Totally pessimistic. Totally dualistic. The land of superlatives and negative extremes. Just listen. “My people are foolish, they do not know me; they are stupid children, they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil, but they do not know how to do good…The whole land shall be a desolation…the earth shall mourn, and the heavens above grow black…I have not relented nor will I turn back.” Not a lot of room for grey here. Somewhere in this passage, God does promise not to make a full end, but that one little ray of sunshine has a hard time peeking through all this doom and gloom. Foolish, stupid, evildoers, desolation—that’s extreme. I think God could use a little training in nonviolent communication.
The psalmist does no better. “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God,’ All are corrupt and commit abominable acts; there is none who does any good…Every one has proved faithless; all alike have turned bad; there is none who does good; no, not one…Have they no knowledge, all those evildoers who eat up my people like bread and do not call upon the Lord?” Fool, all, none, every one, evildoers—this is black and white language. Talk about dividing the field into good vs. evil. Wow!
Now, imagine that you are a Pharisee and scribe steeped in this language. Imagine that you have grabbed ahold of the notion that there is a good and righteous way to live in this world; imagine that you have taken Moses’ counsel in Deuteronomy 30:19 to heart—that God has set before you this day life and death, blessings and curses, and you have chosen life! You are ethically upright and morally consistent—you get it, and you have shaped your life accordingly. You understand that there are right ways to live and wrong ways to live, and people can be divided according to the ways in which they live. So, you, as a Pharisee and scribe understand yourself to be righteous because you are living the right ways; you are really good at being really good. Tax collectors and sinners are living the wrong ways, and therefore, they are to be avoided because there are no shades of grey here. Right is right, and wrong is wrong.
But that’s not how Jesus sees it. The Pharisees and scribes see good vs. evil. Jesus doesn’t see good vs. evil; Jesus only sees lost. So, as the Pharisees and scribes grumble at his choice of those evil tax collectors and sinful sinners as his dinner companions, Jesus tells them a story.
“If you’ve got a hundred sheep, and you lose one of them, what do you do?” Well, let’s stop right there and think about this. You’ve got a hundred, and you lose one, do you go after the one? What about the other ninety-nine? Are you going to leave the unprotected in the wilderness? There are wolves out there, and bandits! Wouldn’t it make sense to cut your losses and let that one go to preserve the ninety-nine you still have? That’s just good business sense. But that’s not Jesus. He continues, “Which of you does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 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.
“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it?” Well, again, we have to weigh the amount of energy we will expend in the search vs. the possibility of finding that one coin. Is worth it to spend all of that energy if you still have nine coins? Aaah. Not so sure. Nine coins are pretty good; nine is enough. But not for Jesus. “That woman will light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it. When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
We are concerned over what we still have and what we might lose, be that ninety-nine sheep or lost energy, but Jesus is only concerned over that which is lost. For Jesus, all of this either-or language, all this us-vs.-them thinking, all of this righteous-vs.-evil-dividing-the-field-of-humanity gives way to a simple question, “Who is lost, and how do we search for them, how do we find them, how can we bring home? And oh, by the way, you can be just as lost in your righteousness as you think these tax collectors and sinners are lost in their life choices.”
St. Paul gets at the same truth with a little different language. It’s not this hard-and-fast-good-vs-evil for Paul. Listen to his experience. “I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. 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.” Paul understands that he was lost; he wasn’t evil. He acted ignorantly in unbelief.
Think about those times when you have lost your way. We all lose our way from time to time. And when you are in that place, has it ever helped you to find your way back if someone came at you with shaming language? Has black-or-white thinking ever helped you navigate a really grey stretch of your life? Has being described as a “you” who is part of an “all” or part of a “none,” has being called “stupid” or “foolish” or “evildoer” ever helped you to turn and find your way toward home one minute sooner? Probably, if you’re like me, all that shame has ever done is make you dig your heels in deeper and send you deeper into the wilderness.
Jesus seems to intuitively understand that the broken heart and wounded soul longs to be found, not shamed. And so, Jesus showers us with mercy and grace; Jesus reconnects us to the whole. Jesus chooses rejoicing over shaming. Jesus invites those really good Pharisees and scribes to a full table at a great party, where lost and found dine together, and all are free to acknowledge how lost they really are, and all can experience how incredible it is to be found by a God who refuses to give up the search for us no matter how deep in the wilderness we have wandered.
The only thing that ever keeps us outside the party is our unwillingness to come in. The only thing that ever keeps us from being found is our refusal to admit we are lost. It’s our refusal to stop, to repent if you will, and maybe ask for directions that makes it so hard to find our way back home, and it’s really hard to ask for direction if you have staked your Pharisaic and scribal identity on being really, really right all the time.
So, how do you divide the field of reality? Are you an Eeyore type? Are you a grumbler, like the Pharisees and scribes? Are you part of the ninety-nine, or the nine, or are you the one who is prone to wander? Are you an eager seeker of the lost? Are you a willing member of the found? Are you willing to come to the table where lost and found rejoice together, or would you rather preserve the clear boundaries of “those that are good” and “those that are evil”?
So many choices. So many places to stand. So many wildernesses to navigate. There is joy to be found on earth, as well as in heaven, when we repent of our judgments. There is joy to be found when we know ourselves and one another as both lost and found, and there is immeasurable joy when we sit down together at the table and enjoy the feast that God has spread before us. Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
September 15, 2013