Holding Tightly - Luke 15:1-10
17th Week of Pentecost: Sept. 11, 2016
Luke 15:1-10 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.” So he told them this parable: “Which one of you, 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? 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? 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.”
Today is a day of celebration for this congregation, but it is also a day of many painful memories for our country, and perhaps for some here today.
I don’t know all your stories yet, but I know that public remembering can be hard. It is my prayer that my words today bring not a re-opening of wounds, but rather a time for reflection on how God’s promises speak to the times of deep pain and fear in our lives.
I did not lose anyone on September 11, 2001, but I can never forget the fear.
I remember the climate of fear that seemed to hang in the air like the cloud of dust and smoke spreading out from Ground Zero.
And I remember the particular fear that came when I realized how easily I could have lost my little sister. She was in New Jersey for a short visit with Tyler and I, but she had been scheduled to take a cross-country flight from Newark to San Francisco on Sept. 12.
Once the details started to sink in, and we all started to understand what had happened that morning, I couldn’t stop thinking:
That could have been her plane. Just one day more and that could have been her plane
Somehow that made the fear so much more personal, and it made me want to hold onto my baby sister and never let her go. I remember reaching for her hand and gripping it more tightly than I had ever done before.
That fiercely tight grip will always be part of my memories of September 11, and so it was in my mind as I studied our gospel reading for this week.
Maybe that’s why, as I read this familiar text, it struck me for the first time how that tight hold is reflected in two ways in this reading.
The first way is in the intense effort of the seekers of the two parables.
Both the shepherd and the woman were committed to find what was lost – desperate even. Neither withheld any effort in their search. In fact, this grasping to restore what was lost is almost the only thing they had in common. The other details we have about them are polar opposites.
The shepherd is a man - the owner of the coin is a woman
The shepherd is rich, with a huge flock by the standards of the day; he can afford to lose just one – the woman has only 10 denarii, each equal to only one day’s labor, so she can’t afford to lose anything.
Even the setting for the losses could not be more different: the sheep is lost somewhere out in the country where the openness of the space was the challenge – whereas the coin was lost in the house, where the clutter and the darkness are the problem, requiring her to light her lamp.
It’s almost as though Jesus is shining a spotlight for us on the important characteristic of God that these parables teach us. God is the seeker – the active one. Both short stories are packed with action verbs (leave, go, finds, sweep, search…), and they all apply to the seekers. The lost items are utterly passive.
Despite Jesus’ explanatory words about repentance, there is no willful decision on the part of the sheep or the coin to return. NT scholar Robert Tannehill, explains the significance of this fact for how we understand repentance in the stories: “repentance is more an experience of being found by a concerned seeker than the product of human effort.”
It is the one who is seeking about whom we learn. These stories show us how God is the one seeks – the one who holds tightly and is desperate not to let us stay lost.
So God’s seeking is the first tight hold we see.
The second is very different. We find it alluded to in the second verse of our reading – which sets the context for these parables.
“And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’”
The Pharisees were grumbling because Jesus was breaking the rules for how the righteous are supposed to act. They had a detailed system of more than 600 rules that had to be kept at all times in order to have right standing with God. And these rules proscribed not only their own behavior, but whom they associated with.
The center of their faith, and their high standing in society, depended on maintaining the perfection of their ritual cleanness.
But Jesus thumbed his nose at their rules, welcomed those who were ritually unclean, and counted them as equals by eating with them.
The openness of Christ’s fellowship felt dangerous to them.
They didn’t want a God who seeks after everyone – even those who are foolish or irresponsible enough to get themselves lost.
They wanted a God who kept the rules and loved only the obedient.
Their focus was always on worthiness – on earning God’s love and protection, not being pursued by the Seeker. They didn’t want passive repentance to count. They wanted to have to earn it – because they believed they could, and that this set them apart from everyone else.
Jesus’s unlimited invitation threatened the system of rules and boundaries that made the Pharisees feel secure. And so they objected – they held themselves in judgment over Jesus’s example because that felt safer.
In their grumbling, the Pharisees signaled that they were holding tightly to their boundaries.
And so, today’s story presents us with a profound contrast:
The Seeker, whose desperation to find the lost knows no limits; vs. the people whose desperation to hold onto their limits keeps them from knowing the Seeker.
I think that is the great irony of this story. The people who think they are safe, are really the ones who are lost. The “sinners” about whom the Pharisees are complaining are coming near to listen to Jesus – they hear the voice of the Good Shepherd and they come. But the Pharisees can’t hear it, because they think they don’t need to. They think they know how to stay safe – which is what makes them lost.
That desire for safety is something I imagine we can all understand. The question “are we safe?” has become a driving force in our society since the devastating events fifteen years ago today (– if you think that’s an exaggeration, check out the Star Ledger today).
The recognition of our vulnerability, of our lostness, or even the threat of loss, is deeply unsettling, and we tend to grasp for ways to feel safe again – as tightly as I grasped my sister’s hand fifteen years ago.
Whether we fear terrorism, or immigrants, or economic instability, or gun violence, or even the questioning of a system that gives us privilege or status – fear drives us to hold tightly…
We try to control the dangers, and build up walls. We hold onto rules and boundaries that promise to keep the dangerous people out.
But this gospel won’t let us do that.
It won’t let us look to our boundaries for safety because to do so denies the love and commitment of the Seeker.
And it won’t let us cling to our rules about who deserves saving, because the Seeker’s love knows no bounds.
Our rules and our boundaries are the wrong things to hold on to. It is not our grasping that saves us. It is God’s seeking.
It’s an astounding claim, and if we really believe it, it will transform the way we respond to fear.
If we really believe that the Love of the Seeker knows no bounds… that it can find us anywhere, whether we are lost in the wilderness, or crammed into some hidden, dark crack, then fear can never claim our souls – it can never control us.
And, it can never convince us that our own safety means we don’t have to care about the rest of the lost.
Because instead of being afraid, we get to join the party.
When the shepherd and the woman found that for which they had been seeking, they threw a party and asked their friends to join in the celebration. The seekers asked others to share in the joy of finding.
And joining the party means also celebrating that God seeks the other, with as much dedication and love as God seeks us.
Jesus’ parables were a response to the grumbling of the Pharisees – and the parables concluded with celebration because grumbling cannot coexist with joy.
Joy that ALL are sought
Joy that Love destroys Fear.
I believe the party in today’s text is a very fitting context for my installation as your Vicar. Not just because we are celebrating this “new union” (rather than the reunion of the stories). But more so because the vocation on which I am embarking, is the work of calling this community to the party – the party that celebrates the Love of the Seeker.
The Love of the Seeker who promises to always find you.
And The Love of the Seeker that calls each of us to reject our fears, and boundaries, and tight hold on what is safe – that calls us to join in the search and to never write-off anyone as unworthy of finding.
In this story, Jesus doesn’t promise we will never get lost, but he does promise to be the Seeker who will always find us – whether our lostness is the lostness of the wandering sheep or the lostness of the Pharisees. God will ALWAYS pursue. God will never let us stay lost. And because we are safe, we can be free from fear, and we can rejoice with the angels in welcoming everyone God brings to the party.
 Tannehill, Robert. Luke, Abingdon New Testament Commentaries, New York: Abingdon Press, 1996, p. 238.