How appropriate that preachers all over the world will be preparing sermons this week on the gospel text Luke 15. These parables of the lost will have us remembering the work of a beloved scholar whose work on the parables influenced generations of preachers. Robert Farrar Capon died on Friday and looking over the various sermons that I have prepared over the years on Luke 15, I for one am grateful to have been influenced by such a great theologian! I am also indebted to two beloved seminary professors for the formation of this sermon: Dr. Donna L. Seamone and Dr. Ed Riegert. All preachers stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us!!!
Jesus was and is an absolute fool! An absolute fool, I tell you!
Among the teachings of Jesus, the parables of the lost and found are so well known, so familiar that we are in peril of failing to hear the foolishness they advocate.
Although only a few of us have had the opportunity to tend a flock of sheep, most of us at one time or another have been responsible for the welfare of a flock. Whether that flock be sheep or co-workers, clients, customers, students, friends, or children none but the foolish among us would leave 99 to the perils and dangers of the wilderness in order to go looking for one idiot who’d been stupid enough to get themselves lost.
We may not keep our coins at home, but I daresay that most of us have felt the sting of loosing a drachma or two or three in this recession. Only a fool would waste a moment searching for our losses when our portfolio’s are so full. I dare say that if we managed to find or recoup our loss, we’re hardly likely to invite the neighbourhood to a party that would in all likelihood eat up more than we had found.
Many of you are parents, and all of us have been parented, so we know the wisdom of parents not rewarding bad behaviour. Most of us are law-abiding. I dare say we all want what is best for our own parents, and so I don’t think any but the foolish among us would consider celebrating the return of someone who has hurt our parents in the past.
These parables of the lost and found are outrageous. None of us would get very fare in life if we lived by these teachings. It is better to put the welfare of the many above the needs of one. It is pointless to cry over spilt milk. Sometimes its better to cut your losses and move on. The best accountants learn quickly to write off losses that would be too time consuming and costly to recoup. Children need to learn that they can’t always get what they want; that there are consequences to their actions, that dues must be paid, that we need to ask for forgiveness and make amends for our crimes, that rules need to be followed, and laws cannot be broken. That doing the right thing will be rewarded. And yet along comes Jesus, spouting such foolishness that even we who are predisposed to agree with him, even we can sympathize with the self-righteous and wonder how anyone could be expected to live like this. The chaos that would ensue if we followed the teaching of these parables as law would be horrendous. What Jesus is advocating is foolishness itself. It makes no earthly sense. So, we confine these teachings to Sunday morning sermons and let the preachers drone on. We nod as experts dissect the historical and social context of the words. We hear the details unravelled and we smile as we confine the teachings of Jesus to the lives of sheep and shepherds knowing full well that the likelihood of our ever having to tend a flock of sheep will absolve us of ever having to go looking for a wayward baaing creature. We hear the details of a woman seeking a lost coin and we scoff at the idea that we would ever waste our time looking for a coin, when we have so much more than ten in our purse. We hear of the wayward child and we smugly give thanks that our children would never behave like that, or we resolve never to demand our share of our parents wealth, and whether we fold our arms in righteous indignation or not, we breath a sign of relief knowing that this particular problem could never happen to us. And so the foolishness that Jesus advocates remains on the pages of our Bibles, or in the sanctuaries of our churches, or in the halls of the academies where they busy themselves arguing of the historical minutia and we smile as the familiarity of the text washes over us from time to time, but we know full well that this is not the way for any self-respecting, 21st century person to live in the world. These are just parables after all and we can’t be expected to live by them. We’d be fools to try. After all we are not Jesus! And anyway look what happened to him!
So, the foolishness that Jesus taught is reasoned into irrelevance and confined to the recesses of our consciousness. But what if we didn’t approach these parables with the idea of pinning down their meaning. What if we approached these parables without feeling the need to wrestle the wisdom they contain to the ground so that we can extract from them rules to live by. What if we allowed these parables to simply touch us? What might the foolishness they prescribe evoke in us? How might we respond to their touch? In brushing up against these parables of the lost might we feel the touch of the ONE to whom they point?
I have come to believe that only those who have known the fear, the pain and the joy of losing and finding can really feel the touch the parables of the lost. But then again, I’ve come to know that it is impossible to go through life without knowing the fear, the pain and the joy of loosing and finding again and again and again. `Jesus came teaching in parables. The parables of Jesus come to us to “show” us what God is like and to call us to a way of being in the world. These parables, of the lost sheep, and the lost coin and the lost sons, have about them a “ring” of foolishness.
“Only a fool….Would leave ninety-nine sheep to look for the one lost. Only a fool…Would leave the ninety-nine unguarded: to wander aimlessly, to be ravaged by some unknown predator, to fall prey to God knows what. Only a fool would leave to search for the stray who might be wounded, damaged, dying, not interested in being rescued. Only a fool…Would risk a reputation as a wise shepherd, a careful guardian of the known and secure, to seek one lone sheep. Only a fool…Would find. Would restore, would be a shepherd, foolish enough to care enough to save the lost, the wandering, the lonely, the one outside the bounds of the flock. Only a fool…Would sweep and sweep and sweep, leaving the purse unguarded, to search for one lone coin. Only a fool…Would search and look and scour and puzzle, bend and peer, lift and move everything, to find a single coin. Only a fool… Would resist the contentment, the satisfaction of a purse fat with nine shiny, weighty coins. Only a fool… Would rather be relentlessly looking – for one small, lone coin when nine, known and countable, are all that are really needed. A small but secure fortune in hand. Only a fool… Would fret about the loss of a small insignificant coin. Only a fool…Would know the joy, the absolute delight of finding — what really isn’t needed. Only a fool would rejoice with such extravagance. Only a fool would be such a steward as this. Jesus teaches by showing us in these parables: in such foolishness as this God has broken into our world and does so again and again. Only a fool would welcome home with joy and abandon a wayward child who had used, rejected, dishonoured and then returned only to try to use them again. Only a fool, would run head-long, open armed to kiss such a wayward fool, extravagantly bestow more household treasures, and expect the faithful to join in the rejoicing. Only a fool, would cajole the self-righteous, indignant child to join the celebration.”(D.L. Seamone)
The Lucan parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost sons, point us in a direction of foolish and passionate abandon. The seeking shepherd who rushes off to find one sheep shows us the God who cares for us so much that the safety of the secure flock is risked so that the stray might be brought home. The mark of the reign of God will be foolishness such as this. In the time of God’s reign shepherds will care less about flock security and principles of good management and more about the vulnerability of the odd one out. In the time of God’s reign the keepers of fortunes will not be at rest unless every penny can be accounted for in the ledger. In the time of God’s reign everyone will counted valuable enough to be cared for. In the time of God’s reign every stone every clump of dirt, every thing, every one will be counted as valuable. In the time of God’s reign among the keepers of households, fathers and sons, parents and children, there will be no unforgivable sin. There will be no unrestoreable fracture. In the time of God’s reign there will be less begrudging and more rejoicing.
Today, as we do every Sunday, in worship, we gather in thanksgiving for the reign of God. In the retelling of the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost children we are called to a holy foolishness. To live toward the reign of God is, in some ways, to heed a call to reckless love that gives itself away for the sheer joy of loving. If only our lives could embody that spirit of abandoned self-giving and love.
“In the telling of these parables, we remember that none of these stories is of the stuff of everyday fare. None of us can do this kind of relentless, reckless abandon constantly. But there are times, there are times when … The risk must be taken. The grasp on the known must be released to reach for, find and restore the lost the abandoned the wayward and yes even the self-righteous. Those we have every right to leave alone. In one frame of reference the shepherd should have been guarding the flock, faithful to home duties, and the woman sweeping should have been investing the fortune she had in hand and the parent should have been instilling a sense of self-reliance and respect in children who would need to learn how to get by in the world. But in each of the parables there is a moment that grips, a moment in which what might be choice is no choice. There is only abandon and care, compassion and joy… There is only a moment of foolishness and then…. love.” (Seamone)
These are not only words for individuals they are words for the collective, words for institutions and those of us who make up institutions. The parables were spoken to the Pharisees by Jesus whose comfort with the outcasts and sinners made those keepers of the gates of righteousness squirm in their holy seats. It was foolish action Jesus was about. The wisdom of the righteous was ossified righteousness. Theirs was the wisdom of those entrenched in their own role and task so deeply they could not see some new foolishness of God, as wisdom. These were people lost and in exile for most of their history over and over again called and delivered by God. These were the ones whose memory of deliverance could not release them to be delivers. These people were very much like us.
The Apostle Paul tells us that God has chosen what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong. These parables challenge us to be reckless and relentless in our loving and in our witness. The wisdom of the world that lurks in us is challenged — down to every last maxim: – charity begins at home. – God helps those who help themselves. – Count the cost or pay the price. – “They should just pull themselves up, by the bootstraps. You fill in the rest… These parables challenge our notions of repentance. Does the Lost sheep repent? Can a coin repent? Can the self-involved, self-righteous really repent? Like the sheep and the coin, like the wayward and the self-righteous, we are first found by God and then in reaction to God’s reckless act of love we turn again toward our lover, and the relationship is restored and the rejoicing can begin. The worldly wisdom insists that repentance must come first. The worldly wise fold their arms in disgust at the foolishness that would openly welcome those who have not at least confessed their sin. Institutions have laid it all down and we know the need to repent but we have forgotten the simplicity of the act of repentance. Burdened with centuries of rule-making we are trapped by the rules into forgetting that resentence is the simple act of turning around of returning. Coming home if you will. Only the foolish can rush with open arms toward those who have sinned against them. Only the foolish can celebrate reconciliation that has not exacted a pound of flesh from the wayward. We are called as individuals and as a church to an uncalculating and foolish love.
We are called to be vulnerable in our ministry, vulnerable to those outside the boundaries of our private lives and our community of faith: to give with no expectation of reward, to love without demand for return, to reach out to those in need with unrelenting care, to release preoccupation with the cares and concerns of our own lives (or perhaps through these cares) to reach out in love to those who are not easy to love. We are called to do all this in delight and with joy and in so doing we mirror the foolishness of God. St Paul tells us that God has chosen what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong. By God’s grace we are the weak and the foolish.
Today in the retelling of these parables we give thanks for the reign of God in our hearts and lives. We give thanks for the hope of the fullness of that reign that sustains us in each moment of our breathing. Most of all in the retelling of these parables we give thanks to God who sustains and calls us to live toward the vision of this reign. Today we gather in thanksgiving for the Reign of God. In the retelling of the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost children we are called to a holy foolishness. To live toward the reign of God is, in some ways, to heed a call to reckless love that gives itself away for the sheer joy of loving. We pray that our various ministries in the worlds in which we live will embody that spirit of abandoned self-giving and love. May we declare the foolishness of God by reaching out in love recklessly, and with great joy. Moment by moment….let it be so!