Sermon: Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
1 Timothy 1:12-17
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In last week’s gospel, remember, we heard some startling things. Jesus sounded harsh, and it was hard to understand. We had to do some work together, digging around for the Good News behind the blunt phrasing.
This week gives us a different picture. This time, it’s easy to see and hear the love of our compassionate God in the parables Jesus tells this morning. These are comfortable, comforting images-- the Good Shepherd searching diligently for the one lost sheep, and the woman looking for her lost silver coin, not giving up until the lost is found, and then rejoicing. Yes, God loves us, just that much! What a simple, wonderful bit of Good News.
Before we get too satisfied, however, let’s look at this scripture a little deeper. One of the great things about Jesus’ parables is that they have a way of conveying several layers at once, in such a way that it is possible for different listeners to hear different messages. Indeed, the same story can tell us a variety of things, depending on who we are, and where we are in our lives.
Let’s try that-- try listening to these parables from different perspectives, to see what we can hear together this morning. Where do we see ourselves in this story?
Well, one place to start would be the place of the the lost sheep, or the lost coin. Yes, certainly, we who gather here this morning are not “lost,” in the classic evangelical sense. Most of us here have come to know the grace of God, and the love of Christ, and the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives, in one way or another. But we don’t stop there, do we? Our walk through this world as disciples does not end at baptism like some classic fairy tale: “They accepted Jesus as their Savior, and they all lived happily ever after.”
Have any of you ever seen a show called “Into the Woods?” It’s a Broadway stage production, though it’s also been broadcast on television, and is available on DVD. It’s a 2-act play, about the lives of the characters some of the best-known and beloved fairy tales: Cinderella, Rapunzel, and Little Red Riding Hood, among others. There are a couple of Princes Charming, of course, and the Wicked Witch as well. The first act is mostly familiar-- it tells the stories, more or less, of how these characters end up together-- the good are rewarded, the bad are punished, and True Love is found, and they all live Happily Ever After.
That's the end of Act One.
Then there’s Act Two: what comes next. And as you might expect, “Happily Ever After” is not the end, after all. There continue to be trials, and tensions. Even in a land of magic, there are no magic answers; as it turns out, in reality no one is wholly good, or wholly evil. They continue to be who they are, and so they are challenged, and stretched, and grow in some profound ways.
That’s the ongoing truth about how Christian lives work. Even when we are wholly committed to our walk as faithful disciples, problems crop up. We fall short, and fail to live up to our own standards, let alone those held up by God for our good measure. We encounter trials, and struggles, and it can be hard to see the end. We have moments where we strain to see God’s presence, and just can’t seem to manage to do so. We feel “lost.” Just like that sheep, or that silver coin.
When we’re in that place, these tales become the comfort we long for. They remind us that God will not give up. Just as the sheep and the coin are very valuable items to their owners and caretakers, we are infinitely valuable to our Creator; and no matter where we are, there is no end to his seeking for us, no limit to love and care and compassion.
Thanks be to God.
But now... what if we are somewhere else? What if we see ourselves in the place of the others in the story? There are 99 sheep hanging out in the wilderness, remember, while the shepherd is out searching for the lost one. And 9 other coins the woman might have safely stored in her purse, or under the mattress, right where they should be, waiting to do what they were created to do-- to provide for the needs of the household. Think about the situation from their perspective. What are we supposed to do while we’re waiting?
I don’t know about you, but my tendency is to DO something. Anything! Shouldn’t I be helping in some way? The shepherd went that way-- Maybe if you go this way, and I go off looking in the other direction, we can find that silly lost sheep! Of course, if we do that, you know what will happen. The shepherd will have to find two lost sheep, or three, or four, who are not anywhere near one another!
No, it does not help to go bleating off in different directions, as though running about will solve the problem. Sometimes, the best thing we can do-- indeed, the only thing-- is to wait. To be patient, and trust that the Lord will take care of what needs to be done. Sometimes this is the hardest thing to manage! The good news here, my friends, is that we do not wait alone in the wilderness. We have one another to care for and support, while we trust in the promise that our Shepherd will come back, and that he’ll be bringing more beloved companions when he does.
And now... what if we are the searching woman, or the shepherd? This is a role that we usually think of as Jesus’ job, and with good reason: he is often named as the Good Shepherd, and even describes himself so in scripture. Remember, though, who we are. As followers of Jesus, we are the Body of Christ in this world today. As the 16th century mystic St. Teresa of Ávila said, “Christ has no hands and feet but ours.” We are entrusted with the responsibility and care of God’s creation, including the other people whose lives we touch. What if, instead of being the coin, we are searching for it? What if we were that shepherd, out looking for the lost sheep?
Yes, that is our role here, too. If we hear the story from this perspective, we are not comforted so much as we are challenged. We have been given important tasks, and we are reminded that we need to be diligent in performing them. Just as the earliest of Jesus’ disciples “continued in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers.”
No, this is not as easy as it sounds. We are called to keep showing up, even when we’re tired. We are called to care for people we don’t want to be around. We are to pray for those we don’t like, and listen carefully to those with whom we disagree. For how long? As long as it takes. We are to be persistent, just as God is persistent with us.
So-- where do you see yourself in this story? What is the lesson you hear? Patience? Persistence? Compassion?
Or perhaps a bit of all three... in Jesus’ name.