“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.'” Luke 15:8-9
This week we continue on with Jesus in his journey to Jerusalem, and once again the audience changes. We have heard him at dinner with a group of well-educated Pharisees, and on the road with a crowd attracted to his celebrity. And now we meet him talking to a motley crew of tax collectors and sinners. Tax collectors were looked upon harshly by the Jewish community, because they worked for the Roman occupiers and collected taxes for Caesar. By sinners, the gospel means people who were on the outs with the listening Pharisees. For the Pharisees keeping the law was everything, and those who did not observe it, whether because they chose not to or because they were not able to, were equally shunned. Jesus tells these stories both for the outcasts and for the eavesdroppers. And while he tells the stories, the Pharisees grumble about him. He welcomes these people we do not, they say. He even eats with them.
Jesus wants these outsiders to know that they are not outsiders to God. And so he tells them three stories, two of which we heard a few minutes ago and one which I’ll speak about in a little while. First he tells them the story of the lost sheep. A shepherd has 100 sheep to care for, and one of them gets lost. Now sheep are not too bright. And losing them was just one of the risks of caring for them, along with predators or eating something not good for them, or being rejected by mother as a lamb. Any shepherd with 100 sheep to care for would have been very unlikely to leave 99 unguarded to search for one. He would likely have found himself with no sheep at all and a very difficult explanation to make to the owner of the flock. But the shepherd in Jesus’ story cares about the unfortunate lost sheep and seeks it out.
God never writes anyone off. That feels good to hear when we are aware of our failings, but not so good when we’re working hard at being good people. I will never forget studying this parable in Sunday School as a high school student and watching my minister’s daughter have a flaming meltdown over it. For those of us who might have been described as professional good girls, it was hard to take, and my friend put that feeling into words. “Why does God care more about someone who hasn’t been good than about all the effort I put in,” she asked? Because God never writes anyone off. And if we are faithful, it’s not our job to judge that as the Pharisees did; Jesus tells us it’s our job to rejoice. He lays it right out for the Pharisees in verse 7. There will be more rejoicing in heaven over one lost sinner who repents than over 99 are persistently righteous. We have a choice between being among the grumblers or among the rejoicers.
Of course, there’s a bit of a trick going on here that the Pharisees and my young friend did not catch on to, isn’t there? We’re all among the lost, and God cares for all of us. Sheep and coins cannot repent. Only people can. People can repent and turn towards God, as the Prodigal Son will illustrate in the next story. He’s a right down bad ‘un, who takes his share of the estate before his father dies, affecting his family’s life, his brother’s inheritance and the economy of the dependent folk in the surrounding community. He’s selfish. He loses everything on wine, women and song, then works among the unclean pigs in a foreign land, defiling himself and ignoring everything he would have been taught about how to be a faithful and righteous person. When he comes home, his father is glad to see him, but his older brother is not. Like the older brother in that story, the faithful are asked, even required, to rejoice in the return of those who have appeared to be lost forever.
These stories illustrate most of all what faith is not about. Faith is not about counting up who is deserving and who is not. It’s not about making deals with God to achieve a desired outcome. As we acknowledge the anniversary of the attacks on September 11th, I remember how bothered I was by stories of people who were late to work that day and seemed to be saying that they had been spared by God; that sounds good for them, but is the logical corollary that God allowed other to die? No.
God allows us everything. We’re operating under a principle of complete freedom, to do what we will with what is before us and to react as we will to what is behind us. The choice comes not only in our actions but also in our responses to the actions of others. How we choose to react and respond, both in our behaviors and in our attitudes, says a lot about our faith. Faith is not based on God’s actions, or seeming lack of them. Our faith is not based on making deals and getting proofs from God. Faith is about our response to life’s difficulties. Faith is living into the notion that there is a God who loves each of us, whether we are up or down, whether we are winning or losing, whether we are living or dying.
Mrs. Gerald Barbara, Joanne, whose husband was New York Assistant Fire Chief, talked about her loss on NPR’s Weekend Edition yesterday. Gerry and Joanne were married for thirty years and had two young adult children. Jerry died after entering the South Tower of the World Trade Center with a group of firefighters, just minutes before the Tower collapsed. When asked how she was able to keep going, to bear the pain of her loss, Joanne responded, “What I had for thirty years some people don’t even have for thirty days.” That is a person of faith. She has swept her inner house carefully and shined a light into every corner, and she has come up with the answer that allows her to rejoice in what she has. That doesn’t mean there isn’t sadness, but it does mean there is not despair and alienation.
At Jerry’s funeral in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Mayor Rudolph Guiliani asked the gathered crowd of friends and firefighters and people who had just walked in off the street to stand and show Jerry’s family how much he meant to them. As Scott Simon of NPR put it, “We applauded until our hands hurt, and kept applauding.” Giuliani called upon the people to lift their eyes up and keep living, to live the kind of lives that Gerry and his men died to save.
What kind of lives did Jesus die to save? He died to save all our lives, whether or not we live nobly, whether or not we grumble or rejoice. He died so that we might be free to know God’s love, to break down the barriers we feel or create between ourselves and the Creator and Parent who cares for us just as the shepherd cared for the sheep and the woman for the coin.
In Sunday School one day, the children were asked to describe God, and my daughter answered, “I think God is just a big ball of love.” Our Sun, the big ball of light that primitive people worshipped because it gave life in their eyes, has a gravitational pull 28 times greater than the gravity here on Earth. In that kind of gravity, we would not be able to move. We would be pulled in utterly. When we think of God’s love today, perhaps we can imagine ourselves simply sinking into it, the pull of love too great to resist. God is always there for us, all of us, big enough to share and strong enough to support us in anything. And that is why we are called to rejoice.