September 15, 2013

Luke 15:1-10

“Rejoice With Me!”

On the back of this morning’s bulletin cover, Aubrey Botha points out that in today’s Gospel reading Jesus talks about things that are lost: “The sheep is lost, vulnerable, hungry and confused and can’t do a thing about it; he has to be saved by someone other than himself. The same is true for the coin; once it lands in a dark corner, it is gone unless someone finds it.

“In both parables we find this strange, relentless search for the lost, even when the search goes beyond all logic and reason. What an image of God’s persistent love for us, searching relentlessly in the dark places of need and brokenness.”

This is the good news of the gospel – that God loves every single one of us that much – so much that God’s mercy and love reaches out to find us no matter where we have wandered to, no matter what mistakes we have made, no matter how many times we have turned away from God or doubted God’s presence and love.

And as Aubrey notes, “Every time the lost is found, there is a call for celebration. When God looks at us, when God sees us, there is one reaction: “Rejoice with me!”

When we can identify ourselves with the lost coin, the lost sheep, or perhaps the lost son of the prodigal son parable which comes next in Luke’s account, these parables can be heard as a simple proclamation of God’s love, and grace, and mercy for us. Like the assurance that is spoken after each confession of sin, these stories are a reminder that we also are precious enough to God to be forgiven again and again.

But let’s remember for a moment, the setting in which Jesus told these parables. The passage from Luke begins by setting the scene: “Now 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.’”

And that’s when Jesus told the parables about the lost sheep and the lost coin and the lost son. I suppose he could have told the stories in order to reassure the tax collectors and other sinners that they also were important to him and to God, but I think that the main message of his stories was for the Pharisees and the scribes who were doing the grumbling.

Jesus’ parables were not so much for the “lost ones” as they were to challenge and teach those who thought they were already found – for the righteous, religious people. They were intended to instruct the people who might say, “Don’t bother going after that sheep; it’s not worth much.” They were intended to challenge those who might say, “Don’t waste a whole day searching for one lost coin; you’ve already got a pouch full of others.”

And what does Jesus instruct his religious listeners to do? What does he want them to change about their attitudes or behaviours? He says that they should rejoice with him. Essentially he tells them to stop grumbling and complaining and join the party.

You must have noticed that instruction in the parables, right? The shepherd goes out and searches until he finds the lost sheep. When he finds it, “he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbours, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’”

And the woman does something similar: When she finds the coin, “she calls together her friends and neighbours, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’” “Just so,” Jesus says, “there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

The problem here is that our hearts are rarely as big as God’s. (I guess that’s not a surprise.) Although we talk about the grace and forgiveness of God for us every Sunday, it’s not always that easy when we are called to actually participate in God’s forgiveness.

When we’re asked to give someone a second chance, to give them the benefit of the doubt, or to rejoice because they are making a new start, we may find ourselves like the older brother in the parable of the prodigal – standing outside the party grumbling while everyone else is celebrating and sharing in the great feast.

One of the things that I hear the most grumbling about in our church, in most churches actually, and even coming out of my own mouth sometimes, is grumbling about numbers: “There were only 8 people at bible study this morning, only 15 children in the church school today, only 120 people at worship.” “Well, the potluck went pretty well, but there could have been more people there.”

Emily Carr, who serves as the Ecumenical Chaplain at the University of Saskatchewan, said something during the Women’s Camp last weekend that I am going to try to remember. She has also gotten used to people grumbling about the numbers. They ask, “How did your new program go? How many students attended?” And the evaluation of what happened is quickly determined by the numbers.

But Emily told us that she has stopped answering the numbers question. Instead of saying there were 4 students, or there were 10 students, or there were 25 students, she says something like this: “The new program went very well, thanks. Emma was there, and Steve was there, and David was there. I was so happy to see David because he really needs some support right now. Sarah was there too, and she’s really becoming a leader in the group. I’m looking forward to next week already!”

Just like the shepherd who cares more about the one sheep that is lost than the other 99… just like the woman who cares more about the one coin that has gone missing than the other 9 in her purse, the individuals who participate in our church communities and programs are way more important than how many people we have participating.

That’s why it doesn’t matter if there are 30 people, or 100 people, or 1000 people here to listen to my sermon this morning. The only thing that matters is that God, by God’s grace, can work through the reading of the Scriptures and my clumsy efforts at interpreting them, and at least one person will understand God’s will a little more clearly, or hear God’s call a little more loudly, or experience God’s love a little more deeply. And we, for our part, as a church, are called to join in the celebration when even one who was lost is found by our loving God.

Across the city of Saskatoon and even further afield, we are known as the “friendly Presbyterians.” Mostly that’s because people have noticed the sign of invitation posted on our back wall: “Come and worship with friendly Presbyterians,” but in many cases folks have come to worship with us on occasion, and they have indeed been warmly greeted and offered gracious hospitality by many of the people of St. Andrew’s. With the wide variety of people who come through our doors, from different countries, cultures, ages, and socio-economic levels, I have often felt proud to watch you welcoming each and every one like a lost sister or brother who has come home – whether for a visit or potentially permanently.

But today’s text reminds us that the friendly welcome is just the first step. After that we have to spend time together, get to know each other, and keep on growing into a community of care and acceptance. The verse that kept coming into my mind this week as I reflected on the call to rejoice was one from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. After describing the church using the metaphor of the Body of Christ, the apostle explains that within the Christian community we must share in each other’s joys and sorrows: “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it.”

On Friday when the prayer group gathered in the parlour for our usual hour of prayer for the church and the world, we had a new member show up. We were especially honoured by his presence because he took time off work to come and pray with us. He brought a prayer request that perhaps he could have just sent to us on email or asked us to pray for on Sunday morning.

But instead he chose to come and pray with his church community for healing and hope. By doing that, he gave us the opportunity to share in his struggle, to ask God together for help, and when, by God’s grace, his prayer is answered, we will join in the celebration; we will rejoice with him!

I am very grateful for the rich diversity of this congregation and for the pretty consistently warm welcome that everyone receives when they come to worship with us here. But I’m also aware that we have to be intentional in getting to know one another so that we can truly share each other’s joys and sorrows – so that we can rejoice with someone who is turning their life back to God and finding a new sense of hope and joy in Christ – so that we can be there for someone who is struggling with sin or doubt, depression or despair.

And so, since I have the chance, I want to invite you now to share a little something with a neighbour sitting near you this morning. Maybe don’t choose your spouse or your best friend whom you already know so very well. But I’ll give you a couple of minutes to talk with someone else nearby.

You might want to share something that is going well in your life – a cause for celebration and rejoicing. You might want to share something that you’re struggling with right now – something that is weighing heavily on your mind or heart.

And later, when we get to the Prayers of the People this morning, I’ll invite you to pray silently for your neighbour – to give thanks for that one person who is so precious to our loving God, rejoicing with them in their joy, and praying with them in their struggles.