SERMON:14 Pentecost c 9 15 19
Did you get the impression from today's readings that there is a lot of focus on repenting and doing as God would have us do? Each reading had a different angle, but the lesson--that God wants us to live godly lives--was clear.
Some things aren't so clear. Sometimes it takes a while to imagine clearly what was going on with some of the major events in the Bible.
pastor was speaking to a group of second-graders about the resurrection of Jesus when one student asked, "What did Jesus say right after He came out of the grave?"
The pastor explained that the Gospels do not tell us what Jesus said.
The hand of one little girl shot up. "I know what He said." The pastor said, "Oh, really?"
She said, "Yes, I do. He said,"Tah-dah!'"
I know. I know. Unlikely. But it is one of the possibilities. Remote possibilities.
There's also some possibility for confusion with today's Gospel. One reason for the confusion is all the imagery: the sheep, the coin, the saved soul. Another reason is that this delight at God's saving grace plays out in different ways. A third reason is there always seems to be some griping, even when God's saving grace is witnessed. Consider the grumbling Pharisees and scribes. Also, there's the obvious question: when we consider the angels of heaven delighting at a single soul saved more than 99 of the faithful, don't we suspect the 99 faithful might feel a little like, "What are we, chopped liver?"
Finally don't we have to admit that this all sounds like the Prodigal Son, yet he's nowhere in the readings?
One of my seminary classmates complained this week that we've been reading from the Gospel of Luke for quite a few weeks and now, near the end of the fifteenth chapter we shift over to the Gospel of Matthew. Would anyone care to guess what story appears in last part of the 15th chapter of Luke? That's right, the Prodigal Son.
But we know the story and there's no harm in considering it along with the specifics of today's Gospel. In each of these examples it's kind of challenging to imagine that for every saving grace there are those who are delighted, there are those who share in the delight, and there are seemingly always those who do not accept that a moment of grace has materialized for someone else.
This is the missing piece of the puzzle in each story, the true puzzler in each situation. Mostly we talk about the repentant sinner, the individual who realizes they have strayed, repents and is joyfully received. Why wouldn't everyone be joyful? Why isn't the celebration unanimous?
The story of the Prodigal Son lays it out the most clearly. The Prodigal Son demanded his inheritance, lost it all, returned quite humbled to his overjoyed father, overjoyed at his lost son's return. The brother of the Prodigal Son was peeved. Asked why he said to his father, "Look! All these years I've been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!"
What seems to be going on here is that the angry bother has been faithful to his father only in an obligatory way. His heart has not been in it. You could say the same is true of the scribes and Pharisees in today's Gospel. When they criticized Jesus for eating with tax collectors and sinners they were essentially admitting they considered ministering to them beneath them.
What does that say about their faith? Is it supposed to be exclusive? Is it for the good people only? Are they actually good? Have they read the psalms, Jeremiah and Isaiah?
Rather than concern ourselves too deeply with the spiritual status of characters in Jesus' parables we would be well advised to consider our own responses to situations similar to those described in the Gospel.
Let's start with the easiest example, the woman who found the silver coin. We might ask, "Why should I have feelings about this of any kind?" But what we know from the reading is that she went to great lengths to find her lost coin. When she was successful she was relieved beyond measure. If we are loving God and loving our neighbor we will share in the relief of the woman who lost the coin. We will be thankful that her fear has been erased and her delight is a comfort.
When we consider the shepherd and the lost sheep we realize that we might be thinking more of the sheep than the shepherd. After all, the sheep is lost. It might be devoured by a fierce beast like a bear or a lion. And everyone loves sheep, right? So we aren't about to be cold hearted at the sheep's relief at being found.
But the shepherd? Are we happy for the shepherd? Is it his or is he a hired hand, responsible for the herd and potentially on the hook for the lost animal? Obviously he could leave the 99 and go looking for the lost animal from the herd because in general sheep will stick together, not go off and get lost.
But can't we sympathize with the shepherd, whether the owner or the hired hand? Is there not cause to join in the joy of another when that person has avoided a serious setback? And if we cannot, how are we doing in the loving our neighbor department?
Now maybe those scribes and Pharisees were worried that Jesus was going to elevate one of the dreaded tax collectors and sinners to some position of status within the Jewish congregation where he was teaching. Maybe they feared Jesus was going to invite them to speak in the synagogue and the religious leaders took offense at this prospect. Who knows? Maybe they invented the saying, "You're judged by the company you keep," and it did not occur to them that it was their job to encourage tax collectors and sinners to change their ways.
But we can imagine it. We can imagine all kinds of ways that we can reach out to others of all kinds, assuring them of the love of God and offering them what we have for them here at St. Paul's in God's name. The Gospel is not only the four books of the New Testament written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The Gospel is the Good News of God's love for all, the fallen, the standing, the rich and the poor, the needy and the affluent, even the needy affluent. We celebrate with joy our treasured position at this church from which we get to dispense the signs of God's goodness made known to us in our faith and passed from our hands into the hands of the needy in God's name. Amen
A sermon preached on the 14th Sunday after Pentecost, Sept, 15, 2019, at ST. Paul's Episcopal Church, Poughkeepsie NY, by The Rev. Tyler Jones, Rector.