a sermon on Luke 15:1-10
Many churches these days spend a lot of time, energy, and money talking about “seekers.” According to their research and approach, there are a lot of “spiritual seekers” out there who are looking for a church of one sort or another. These seekers usually fit a very specific demographic: white, usually married men and women, with one or two children and middle-class suburban values and sensibilities. They use this focus on seekers as the guiding principle behind all the other things that they do, establishing small groups that meet in people’s homes and talk about the problems brought on by our intense and busy culture, designing worship and choosing music to support the individual’s life of faith, and setting up other programs that meet specific perceived needs of this population. There are people who are very much seeking this kind of community, but increasingly I wonder if there are as many people who don’t fit this model as those who do.
This morning’s reading from Luke gives us two parables about seekers, but these folks seem to be quite different from the seekers these churches are expecting. When he told these stories, Jesus was talking with “tax collectors and sinners,” although they were not his intended audience! They were not the seekers he was referring to. Instead, he directed these stories more at the hyper-religious Pharisees and scribes who were criticizing Jesus for the company he was keeping.
First he told the story of a man who had lost one sheep out of a hundred. This strange shepherd leaves the rest of the flock behind to go seek out this one sheep who is lost, then he returns with it on his shoulders. This seeking shepherd rejoices because his one lost sheep has been found, and he feels it worthy of a celebration for everyone! So Jesus connects this rejoicing back to his audience of Pharisees and scribes—and the tax collectors and sinners who were certainly also listening in!—by noting that “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”
Then Jesus repeats the same model and outline with a second story of a different seeker, this time a woman who has lost one of her ten silver coins. She is so intent on seeking it out and finding it that she lights a lamp, uses precious oil, sweeps the house clean, and turns the house upside down until she finds it. Then she too invites her friends and neighbors to join her rejoicing, just as “there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
If we take a closer look at these parables, we have to notice the characters here. Who is doing the seeking? What is actually being sought? Unlike the seekers so many churches desire, the seekers here are not people but God. The ones doing the seeking and the subsequent rejoicing are stand-ins not for humans but for the divine, and it is surely worth noting that the second story puts a woman into this role, the only time in the New Testament when a parable “presents a woman as a metaphor or allegory for God.” (Charles Cousar, “Exegetical Perspective on Luke 15:1-10,” Feasting on the Word Year C Volume 4, p. 71) The things being sought out are also notable, as the lost sheep and lost coin are deeply precious and yet have little or no control over being lost.
The scribes and Pharisees in Jesus’ day—and some of the more legalistic among us in our own—would not particularly like this, preferring to keep the emphasis on repentance and encouraging a sense of personal responsibility for sinfulness. But Jesus will have none of this today. His emphasis here is on joy, for these stories do not call sinners to find a new way but rather invite everyone, especially those who consider themselves particularly righteous, to join in God’s celebration of new life.
In reflecting on the joy in these parables in Luke 15, Henri Nouwen offers a beautiful word:
God rejoices. Not because the problems of the world have been solved, not because all human pain and suffering have come to an end, nor because thousands of people have been converted and are now praising [God] for [all] goodness. No, God rejoices because one of [God’s] children who was lost has been found. What I am called to is to enter into that joy. It is God’s joy, not the joy that the world offers. It is the joy that comes from seeing a child walk home amid all the destruction, devastation, and anguish of the world. It is a hidden joy, [an] inconspicuous [minute detail]….
But God rejoices when one repentant sinner returns. Statistically that is not very interesting. But for God, numbers never seem to matter…. From God’s perspective, one hidden act of repentance, one little gesture of selfless love, one moment of true forgiveness is all that is needed to bring God from [the] throne to run to [a] returning son and to fill the heavens with sounds of divine joy. (Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son, p. 114, 116)
So today’s kickoff celebration seems like an appropriate time to hear these parables anew and spend our time rejoicing. We can use a moment to stop and celebrate and enjoy a crisp fall day at the end of a long and hot summer. We can appreciate a new and different word in the midst of so many other words in our world. And we need a reminder to rejoice as we begin a new time in our life together as my hours shift and change in my service to this congregation.
At our core, I think we are pretty good at this kind of celebration, at welcoming those who might have been called “tax collectors and sinners” back in Jesus’ time, at leaving room for our faith to deepen and our seeking God to find us in the midst of the strange and confusing wilderness of our world, at putting our focus on the rejoicing that God calls us to do each and every day. When I think about the seekers here, though, I am challenged by these images of this seeking God—a shepherd who is not afraid to leave ninety-nine sheep behind to find the one who is lost, a woman who is willing to burn a extra oil in her lamp and get dirty from stirring up all the dust around the house just to find one lost coin.
We can certainly be grateful that we have a God who will do this for us and for anyone, but I don’t think that mere gratitude is enough. Beyond joining in the rejoicing, I believe that we are also challenged to join God in the search, to leave behind the familiar and certain so that we can discover the deeper and greater pleasure of something new, to use the gifts that we have been given in new and different ways, maybe even to get a little dirty and put a few things at risk as we look to recover the lost coins and lost sheep of our world today. We are invited not just to set aside our uncertainties about those who are different from us but in fact to join God in seeking out those very kinds of people who are lost and cannot even cry out for help. We are encouraged not just to throw open our doors and see who shows up in our life together but to go out and seek not just those who are already seeking us but even more those who are not even able to know that they need to seek something, those who cannot even begin to cry out for new life.
This might mean giving up things that are dear to us: a little extra time, maybe some beloved traditions, almost certainly some money, and maybe even a whole lot more. Yet the rejoicing that can emerge from this search can be so much more rewarding. We can transform our understanding of our lives and our relationships, recognizing that they are not grounded in the merit of what we or others do but rather in the deep and wide mercy of God for us and all creation. We can seek out others, not just to increase the numbers in our midst or address their eternal fate but to invite them to share in the kind of rejoicing that gives us life. And in giving up something of what we have been, we might discover that God is seeking us too, that God is working to find the things within us that seem to be lost, that God is diligently searching our hearts and our lives to help us to lift up the times and places and ways that we too can made new, and that God is inviting us to rejoice as these new things take hold in us.
So may God open our hearts and our minds and our lives to this new and deeper rejoicing, that we might welcome the God who seeks us, join God in diligently and hopefully seeking out those who are lost, and share in rejoicing with God and all creation until all that is lost is found and all things are made new. Lord, come quickly! Amen.