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Sermon:  Proper 19 Year C[1]-The Rev. Eileen Weglarz-September 15, 2019-Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28; Psalm 14; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10

A woman approached her priest with a question: “Where is the lost and found department in our church? I’ve lost my glasses and I can’t see very well without them.” The priest replied, “We don’t actually have a lost and found department. You might check the secretary’s desk. Maybe you’ll find your glasses there.”

After the woman left, the priest rethought his answer. “Actually, the whole church is a lost and found department. The business of the church is to find the lost.”

The incident that gave rise to Jesus’ parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin was the attitude of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. They grumbled when they saw tax collectors and sinners being welcomed by Jesus. Jesus didn’t approve of the behavior of tax collectors and sinners, but he demonstrated God’s welcome to all people who are willing to let themselves be transformed.

The religious leaders regarded tax collectors as the least worthy members of society. After all, in Jesus’ time, tax collectors were Jews who were traitors. They collected money from fellow Jews to give to the Romans. In the process they lined their own pockets by taking extra for themselves. They were considered the scum of society.

The religious leaders saw common people as sinners. They considered themselves better than the common people spiritually, morally, and economically. As sinners they were regarded as hopeless, lost souls.  Like the woman with lost glasses, these religious leaders didn’t see very well. They were shortsighted. Jesus told them parables about the lost sheep and the lost coin to correct their lack of vision.

The word, “lost,” is generally used in two ways. The word might describe someone who sins and is separated from God and other people by their sin. The word may also be used to describe someone who is confused by his or her surroundings (geographic, mental, or spiritual) and can’t find his or her way home. The scriptures use the term “lost” both ways.

Jesus welcomed tax collectors and other people who had broken the commandments of God and the laws of the land. He didn’t welcome them because he approved of their behavior. He welcomed them because he saw what the religious leaders of his day didn’t see—their need.

Looking down on notorious traitors, cheats, and other evildoers is understandable but dangerous. It’s understandable because we don’t want to promote or approve of evil people doing evil deeds and not facing justice for their deeds. But, it’s dangerous because before God, a self-righteous, judgmental attitude can be as bad as the deeds of evil people, if there is no attempt to reach out to them.

The human malady being addressed here is self-righteousness, expressing itself through grumbling or murmuring. We need to remember that looking down on people can say more about ourselves than about them. Gert Behanna, who came to Christ late in life after she had devoted herself to riches, booze, and drugs, said that we have to be careful about looking down on people. “I’ve recently discovered a new sin. I found myself looking down on people who look down on people.”

Looking down on what we consider to be inferior human beings is dangerous. The same self-righteousness that damages the souls of those who consider themselves morally superior people can infect the souls of those who consider themselves the economic upper class. Jesus hits these attitudes of superiority to the lost right between the eyes.

The second use of the term, “lost,” has to do with drifting off in the wrong direction because of being inexperienced or naive, like a child who doesn’t know better. In Matthew 18:2-3, 10-14, the parallel passage to Luke 15:1-7, the context of the parable of the lost sheep is Jesus’ welcoming a child.  He called a child whom he put among them (the disciples who asked about who was the greatest in the kingdom), and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

“Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven.  What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountain and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So, it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.”

It is dangerous for a child to wander off because a child can’t protect itself from dangers. Someone or something can take advantage of a wandering child. In like manner, it’s dangerous for a sheep to wander off because it is vulnerable to being attacked by wolves, or being turned over on its back. A sheep turned over on its back is totally helpless, unable to right itself without help. A little sheep can lose its footing and fall off a mountain to a shelf below and there die from exposure to the elements of nature. That’s why the good shepherd leaves the 99 sheep and goes out after one lost sheep. A sheep can be lost as it drifts away from the shepherd and the flock.

So can human beings who drift away from their spiritual underpinnings. And like the ancient Hebrews, we are lost spiritually on our own journeys in the wilderness. Like them we are lured away from God by attractive distractions and false gods. Like them we easily get diverted by wrong turns on our journey toward the promised land. Like them, we need to hear and heed the Word of God to get back on the path that leads to eternal life. We need to be found and saved.

It is encouraging to hear that God seeks the lost. It is also encouraging to hear that God seeks the least. One sheep seems considerably less important than the 99 that do not wander off, but God thinks otherwise. God is a seeker. God searches until he finds the lost and the least. That’s the point of the parable of the lost sheep.

That’s also the point of the parable of the lost coin. To a rich, powerful person, one silver coin, a drachma, may have seemed like very little, but to a common laborer, a drachma was one day’s full labor, and therefore very important. To the religious leaders who were in the upper class, a drachma might have seemed like it had little worth, but to a common housewife, a lost drachma, was worth a tedious search. Jesus said, God is more like the common laborer and common housewife than like the rich and powerful upper class.

One tradition says that Palestinian women received ten silver coins (drachmas) when they got married. Besides their monetary value to a poor family, these coins held sentimental value like that of a wedding ring.

The following story drives it home. A man was playing on his church’s baseball team when, suddenly, he looked and saw that his ring finger was bare. He had lost his wedding ring. The game stopped.  An extensive search was made, but the ring couldn’t be found.  When he got home that night and told his wife, she was upset. “How could you have lost that ring?” she said bitterly. “How could you? That ring was one of our most precious possessions.”

“You’re right,” he replied. “I really feel bad about losing it. We searched for two hours, but just couldn’t find it. I posted a notice at the ball field. Maybe someone from one of the other teams will find it.”

Two days later, the manager of another baseball team found the ring in the dust. He returned it to the owner. The husband and wife went out for dinner that night and celebrated the restoration of the lost ring.

As the husband and wife rejoiced in finding his wedding ring, so the woman in the parable rejoiced in finding her lost coin. In the same way, the angels in heaven rejoice over one sinner who repents. God grieves over every lost soul and celebrates when a lost soul returns to him. As God rejoices over each sinner who returns to him, so we should seek out and witness to the lost, rejoicing in their return.  As God cares for the least, we, too, should care for the needy, the hungry, the thirsty, the sick, the prisoners, and those with other overwhelming needs.

Jesus said, “Anything you did for the least of my people, you did for me.” Or as Max Lucado says, “The sign of the saved is their love for the least.”2

Jesus’ concern for the lost and the least is revolutionary. It turns the value system of the world upside down because Christianity offers a revolutionary reversal of values. St. Paul, the premier missionary and theologian of all time, understood this trans-valuation of values in the light of his own sin. In our second lesson for today, Paul said, “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost. But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would believe in him for eternal life” (1 Timothy 1:15-16).

In other words, Paul saw himself as one of the lost and the least because of the sin in his own life.
And, in that respect, we are like him. If we don’t see our sin as more offensive than the sins of others, we haven’t understood our sin at all. The primary comparison is not between you as a sinner and me as a sinner, but between you or me as a sinner and God as the righteous one.  We are called to compare ourselves to God. That eliminates any right to self-righteousness and arrogance.

The distressed, displaced, and despised of this world may be better in touch with their need for God than the successful. The down-and-out may be more open to the call to repentance than the up-and-out.

If we take away one thought from today’s lessons, I pray it will be that whatever we do—or don’t do—for the lost and the least, we are doing—or not doing—for God. Christianity is all about finding and welcoming the lost and the least.

2  Max Lucado, And the Angels Were Silent, The Final Week of Jesus (Portland, Oregon: Multnomah Publishers, 1992),    p. 142.

[1] Sermon Resource:  CSS Publishing Company, Inc., Sermons for Sundays After Pentecost (Middle Third): Only the Lonely, by Ron Lavin.