Sermon Seeds: Growing in God’s Love

Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 19) color_green.jpg

Worship resources for the Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time are at Worship Ways

Lectionary citations
Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28 with Psalm 14 or
Exodus 32:7-14 with Psalm 51:1-10 and
1 Timothy 1:12-17 and
Luke 15:1-10

Sermon Seeds

Focus Scripture:
1 Timothy 1:12-17
Additional reflection on Luke 15:1-10
Sample sermon on Luke 15:1-10

Weekly Theme:
Growing in God’s Love

by Kathryn M. Matthews Kate_SS.jpg

It would be a good idea to read the Gospel text for this Sunday, Luke 15:1-10, along with this passage written in the voice of Paul, the great apostle, to his young protégé, Timothy. We can understand why the lectionary provides this short text from the beginning of Paul’s letter to go with the stories of Jesus about lost sheep, and lost coins, and the One who goes looking for them. (It’s also helpful to read Eugene Peterson’s beautiful translation of the entire letter in The Message: “I, Paul, am an apostle on special assignment for Christ, our living hope….”)

It’s also important to have a little background on the whole letter and the two that go with it, 2 Timothy and Titus, to form what are called the Pastoral Epistles. A careful reader will notice that there are subtle but important differences between these letters and the ones that, according to most scholars, were written by Paul himself. The HarperCollins Study Bible provides several clues that help scholars draw conclusions about the authorship of the letter: “Key Pauline concepts such as faith, law, and righteousness are treated quite differently, while a new emphasis on godliness, sound teaching, church order, and good works appears.”

Paul, keeping in touch

In the ancient world, it was accepted practice to write in the voice and name of a great and respected teacher, and that appears to be what is happening here, with “Paul” writing in the name of the great Paul the Apostle, but with a somewhat different set of priorities pressing on him. The Apostle Paul traveled around the Roman Empire, teaching and gathering people into communities of those who wanted to follow Jesus not just on their own but in community, the kind of community we call a church. Even after he left a church behind, he still cared about it and wrote letters back to it, offering advice and encouragement, and today our churches hear these letters as if they were written to us as well.

This particular letter is addressed to Timothy, working hard in his new-church-start pastorate in Ephesus. Now that the churches have been planted and the people have joined them with great enthusiasm, there’s a lot of work to be done to help them thrive, to grow in God’s love, and besides, you know how people are: every time we come together, whether we form a book club or start a religious order, organize a softball league or get married–dare we say, “establish an institution”–there are going to be matters to be handled, questions, challenges, and of course a few rough spots along the way.

Establishing his credibility

Paul is writing back to his young friend to encourage and guide him, and he begins his letter of instruction by establishing his credentials, or at least his credibility, that is, by reminding Timothy that he, Paul, was “the foremost” of sinners, and yet one whose life was transformed by the power of God’s mercy and grace. Everyone knows his story, when he–a man of deep and sincere faith–was so sure of himself and the rightness of his cause, back when he was persecuting Christians, before God knocked him off his horse and blinded him until his heart and mind were opened to the grace of Jesus Christ in his life.

That call on the road to Damascus, the experience of life-changing grace and his response to it, gives Paul authority to write the things he is about to tell Timothy. Surely, his own story would inspire and encourage sinners of somewhat lesser magnitude.

Potluck, Prayer and Praise

There are several ways to approach this text, in addition to reading it with the Gospel text. We might consider the power of personal testimony, even though mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics alike tend to get a little uncomfortable when people start “testifying” to what God has done in their lives. I remember years ago when our church had a monthly “Potluck, Prayer, and Praise” gathering where folks came together to eat a light supper and then hear the story of one member’s spiritual journey.

These accounts–testimonies–were heartfelt and amazingly effective in connecting us one to the other, that is, in building the community and nurturing our spiritual growth–helping us to love God more. We didn’t draw together simply to “swap stories”: those experiences were framed by the greater picture of God’s all-encompassing love, compassion, and faithfulness. Our gatherings were an opportunity to shine the light of the gospel on our lives, and they were undergirded by God’s great mercy and grace. Like Paul, that’s what folks talked about: God’s grace at work in their lives.

Are we jaded about our stories?

In his thought-provoking reflection on this text, William P. “Matt” Matthews acknowledges our discomfort with personal testimony, and even our jadedness: “Perhaps we are a bit dulled to the before/after lives of the John Newtons,” he writes. Perhaps we’re a little “standoffish like the prodigal son’s elder brother,” or “suspicious and polluted with more than a tinge of envy. Whatever the reason, our neighbor’s news that he has seen the light elicits more queasy stomach than glad heart.” While Matthews, like other writers, observes that young people–Generation X, Millennials, and whoever is coming after them (I’ve heard the term “digital kids,” but I doubt that will stick)–are better reached by personal stories of the experience of grace, I think everyone, including the oft-maligned Boomers, responds to honest, open sharing.

As the remarkable effectiveness of Twelve-Step programs (and really great churches as well, including the example above) illustrates, the right setting for such sharing is crucial. We’re not just listening to the stories of others until we get a chance to tell our own. There is something underneath the sharing and the hearing, something that helps us to make sense of it, to seek and find meaning in our mistakes and the grace that has set us free from them.

Matthews, like many scholars, finds this foundation and framework in the words and deeds of God in Christ, for “we tell our tale in light of Scripture, never without it. Our personal story needs to find meaning within the larger communal story of God’s people.” He then puts it plainly by saying, “What Paul says means nothing without what God said first in Jesus Christ” (Feasting on the Word Year C). Perhaps this provides one reason that we need the church, and, in order to preserve the core tradition, some kind of “institution” to nurture our growth in God’s love, in every generation.

Telling that old, old story in a “frantic post-9/11 world”

In the church, in our preaching, teaching, and Bible study; in our trustees meetings, our youth group gatherings, our church school classes; in our works of mercy and compassion and justice; at our potlucks, our small-group gatherings, our mission days; in our stewardship witnesses and our signs out front and even in our messages in the media, we’re telling the old, old story again, and we’re telling our own stories in light of that ancient one. This story is not just up in our heads, although it’s enriched and informed by the teachings of those who have gone before us, and the contributions of learned scholars in every age whose wisdom helps us to open up the mysteries of life lived in the light of the gospel.

The current interest in generational differences helps to illuminate this text, and our life of faith at the same time. Jane Anne Ferguson provides excellent material for reflection (also in Feasting on the Word Year C) that might go on in every one of our church gatherings at this beginning of a new program year, as she asks, “Who are the Pauls and Timothys of the twenty-first-century church?” Her description of the youth and young adults raised in the church actually sounds a lot like the generation that raised them, who taught them to “question and discern what they believe for themselves,” to “believe in the inclusion and acceptance of all people,” to be “passionate about changing their world.” Like every generation before them, they have inherited a world full of problems, but still, a most beautiful and promising world nevertheless.

The world we live in

Ferguson’s description of a “frantic post-9/11 world….a pluralistic religious world where claims of exclusive paths to God cause strife or oppression at the very least and terrorism at the extreme,” is particularly timely (and painful) in light of our current election rhetoric about Muslims, refugees, immigrants, and all “the others” we have chosen to fear first and get to know later, if at all. Her reflection reminds me of Stephen Sondheim’s observation in his musical, “Into the Woods,” that our children are listening to everything we say, and how we say it. (They can certainly hear and see what our campaign ads and speeches are saying.)

She also challenges “the Pauls of our time” to “share intimately with the Timothys their confessions of faith, their personal relationships with God, their questions and doubts, as well as affirmations and celebrations,” for younger people in every generation “want to know if there is substance behind the ancient language of the church. The Pauls of the twenty-first century are being invited to reexamine the language of Christian faith, not to dispose of it, but revitalize it, to reframe it for twenty-first ears” (Feasting on the Word Year C). What an awesome responsibility for the Boomers today and in the decades to come!

The least likely are chosen

We also read in this short passage another example of that ironic but enduring theme that Lisa Davison finds in Scripture from the very beginning: that God chooses the most unlikely candidates to carry out God’s mission. “No matter how unworthy we might feel, God can still use us for making the world a better place,” she writes. God does not see us through human eyes, or measure us with human measurements: “The good news is that God does not use the same criteria; all God requires is that we say ‘yes’ when we are called” (New Proclamation Year C).  

Perhaps we feel even more than inadequate; we may feel that we are unworthy, or too marked by sin and failings. Consider sin and failing undone, Paul writes. Robert Wall remarks on Paul’s sense of the power of God actively at work in our lives to transform even the weakest of us: “Paul’s idea of God’s mercy is active: mercy is a verb of God’s activity that is conjugated in Paul’s own experience” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels). It’s interesting to think of mercy as a verb rather than a noun, which suggests a thing that can be measured or held back. A verb suggests change, movement, vitality, and perhaps even unpredictability. How does that sound to you?

So many stories, so many lessons

Two illustrations from literature (where there is an abundance of such illustrations, of course) come to mind. The writing of Anne Lamott is one great song of unconventional praise to God’s grace; in fact, her best-known book, Traveling Mercies, tells one story after another about that “verb” in motion in her own life. “I don’t know why life isn’t constructed to be seamless and safe,” she writes, “why we make such glaring mistakes, things fall so short of our expectations and our hearts get broken….”

Still, like Paul, Lamott knows that grace is always there, underneath it all, that it’s “unearned love–the love that goes before, that greets us on the way….Grace is the light or electricity or juice or breeze that takes you from that isolated place and puts you with others who are as startled and embarrassed and eventually grateful as you are to be there.” This is a good description of our most life-filled churches, and her images provide creative ways to think of the Holy Spirit, as “light or electricity or juice or breeze”; in any case, Lamott’s story is testimony at its best, and it goes right to our hearts. [One of her other books focuses on this subject, Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith.]

“A new experience”

Speaking of going right to our hearts: so does the story of Celie, told in letters, in Alice Walker’s classic book, The Color Purple, but the novel’s character who may best illustrate God’s mercy and grace inexorably at work in his life is Mister, or Albert, Celie’s abusive husband. His transformation is slow and almost imperceptible, until the end of the book, when he reflects back on his life and the terrible things he has done, and articulates a simple but clear new perspective on things, a kind of theology of wonder: “I think us here to wonder, myself. To wonder. To ast.…The more I wonder, he say, the more I love.”

This painful process (painful not just for him but for those he has hurt) has eventually led to transformation, as Celie recounts to her sister: “when you talk to him now he really listen, and one time, out of nowhere in the conversation us was having, he said Celie, I’m satisfied this the first time I ever lived on Earth as a natural man. It feel like a new experience.” A “new experience” made possible by grace, the promise that hope is not lost, that no one is beyond the reach of God’s grace, not Paul, not Mister, not any of us.

Wonder and love and grace

Wonder, and love. Again, Peterson’s translation in The Message is clear and lovely: “The whole point of what we’re urging is simply love–love uncontaminated by self-interest and counterfeit faith, a life open to God….Grace mixed with faith and love poured over me and into me.” Just as Celie, in The Color Purple, sings her own kind of doxology to “Dear God. Dear stars, dear trees, dear sky, dear peoples. Dear Everything. Dear God,” so Peterson translates Paul’s praise and thanksgiving in elegant terms: “Deep honor and bright glory to the King of All Time–One God, Immortal, Invisible, ever and always. Oh, yes!” And our response to all of this beauty? Perhaps W.H. Auden provides the best, and simplest, guidance: “I know nothing, except what everyone knows–if there when Grace dances, I should dance.” Amen.

The Rev. Kathryn M. Matthews retired in July after serving as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.

You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below the post on our Facebook page.

A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.

For further reflection:

Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith, 20th century
“Grace is the light or electricity or juice or breeze that takes you from that isolated place and puts you with others who are as startled and embarrassed and eventually grateful as you are to be there.”

Nadia Bolz-Weber, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint, 21st century
“Grace isn’t about God creating humans and flawed beings and then acting all hurt when we inevitably fail and then stepping in like the hero to grant us grace–like saying, ‘Oh, it’s OK, I’ll be the good guy and forgive you.’ It’s God saying, ‘I love the world too much to let your sin define you and be the final word. I am a God who makes all things new.'”

Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest, 20th century
“You will never cease to be the most amazed person on earth at what God has done for you on the inside.”

Simone Weil, 20th century
“Grace fills empty spaces, but it can only enter where there is a void to receive it, and it is grace itself, which makes this void.”

Frederick Buechner, 20th century
“Life is grace. Sleep is forgiveness. The night absolves. Darkness wipes the slate clean, not spotless to be sure, but clean enough for another day’s chalking.”
Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality, 21st century
“When one of my friends becomes a Christian, which happens about every 10 years because I am a sheep about sharing my faith, the experience is euphoric. I see in their eyes the trueness of the story.”

Thomas Merton, 20th century
“Grace is not a strange, magic substance which is subtly filtered into our souls to act as a kind of spiritual penicillin. Grace is unity, oneness within ourselves, oneness with God.”

Martin Luther, 16th century
“Grace is given to heal the spiritually sick, not to decorate spiritual heroes.”

Thomas Aquinas, 13th century
“Grace is nothing else but a certain beginning of glory in us.”

Additional reflection on Luke 15:1-10:

A challenging way to express the theme of this Gospel reading might be “The Problem of Grace.” Certainly, Jesus continues to upset the religious leaders who are sincerely trying to live good lives and hold others to the same standard of goodness and faithfulness. After all, in any age and any religion, you can’t just let everyone run wild and ignore the teachings that keep us on The Straight and Narrow, right?

Yes, “The Straight and Narrow” is a good thing, if it provides safety and nurtures holiness and goodness. Of course, part of the problem is just how very narrow The Straight and Narrow is, and it’s very easy for us to find ourselves falling right off the path and feeling lost and alone, lost and beyond hope. How then can we feel that we, too, and all of the other sinners, are “of great value” to God?

All good news, all the time

Barbara Brown Taylor has written a beautiful sermon on this text, “The Lost and Found Department,” in which she calls this fifteenth chapter of Luke’s Gospel “the gospel within the gospel” (The Preaching Life): these parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin, followed by the Prodigal Son story, are “all good news,” one might say, “all good news, all of the time.” But we might wonder, is it fair and balanced, too? After all, the concern of the Pharisees is not necessarily hypocritical and corrupt, Roger E. Van Harn claims: “Given the Pharisees’ and scribes’ love for God and law-shaped mission, Jesus’ table fellowship with sinners was an offense and an obstacle to the coming redemption” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels).

We tend to romanticize the sinners in this text (most of us have very little contact with shepherds or prostitutes, after all), but we probably fall uncomfortably closer in our practice and attitudes to these religious folks than we’d like to think we do, when we’re confronted with real-life, modern “sinners” and folks who are “lost.” This is where the problem of grace comes in. We really want it for ourselves, but it’s a little harder to think that it’s freely given to everyone, isn’t it?

Who’s hungry for good news?

Who was most hungry for this “all good news”? Van Harn draws our attention to the way Chapter 14 ends (“Let anyone with ears to hear listen!”), and the way Chapter 15 begins with a description of who it was that apparently had ears to hear: “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.” This did not please the Pharisees and scribes, who used a term we translate much more gently as “that fellow,” although the Greek word expresses a measure of contempt, like “that guy” or even “that thing” (Gary E. Peluso-Verdend, New Proclamation Year C 2007).

There’s more than one way to approach this problem of grace, of course, as there so often is when we read the Bible. One approach is to picture ourselves as the lost coin or the lost sheep. That way feels good, much better than putting ourselves in the place of the religious leaders. Jesus loves me, this I know, and Jesus will come and find me when I wander away like a little lost lamb: perhaps the most comforting image in the Bible, this lost lamb on the shoulder of the gentle Good Shepherd. Barbara Brown Taylor, like all of us, appreciates the comfort of this message, as long as she doesn’t have to think about that Problem of Grace (We can’t let down all our standards! We need to call people to repentance and faithfulness!).  

The shepherds and sweepers, not the sheep or the coin    

But perhaps this text isn’t about putting ourselves in the place of the lost coin or lost sheep but in the role of the one who seeks them. After all, there’s no repentance here on the part of the sheep or the coin, but there is plenty of seeking and finding. And there are direct challenges by Jesus to put ourselves in the place of the one who seeks, not the one who is found. In her sermon, Taylor observes that “the invitation is not about being rescued by Jesus over and over again, but about joining him in rounding up God’s herd and recovering God’s treasure….It is about trading in our high standards on a strong flashlight and swapping our ‘good examples’ for a good broom. It is about discovering the joy of finding.” These parables, then, are about the shepherds and sweepers–and we’re challenged to see ourselves in them (The Preaching Life).

This is where so many great writers focus their attention. Charles B. Cousar writes of “the compassionate concern of a searching God….God is like that, the stories say, meticulously pursuing confused and rebellious creatures. Such searching gives value to those being sought. They become treasured and significant because they are not left for lost, but are made the objects of divine concern” (Texts for Preaching Year C). One is reminded of Henri Nouwen’s claim that “We are not loved because we are precious, but we are precious because we are loved.”

Acting out God’s love and concern

That’s what Jesus was all about, and it’s why he sat comfortably at supper with sinners who were hungry for good news. When he did so, he was showing us, not just telling us with words, “acting out,” Van Harn says, “God’s gracious and determined search for the lost.” We can conscientiously do the math and argue the reasonableness of the shepherd’s leaving the rest of the sheep or worry about the expense of a party over one coin, but we’d be missing the point and the call: “God’s unrelenting search provides the true measure of a lost sinner’s worth….there is no acceptable margin of loss.” We’re told not only to sit with sinners and “the lost,” but to seek and find and rejoice, too, when they’re restored, just as Jesus did and does (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels).

Of course all of this bothered the religious leaders greatly, because they too were struggling with that pesky Problem of Grace. A party in heaven over lost people and sinners upset their worldview here on earth, and Cousar notes that it didn’t help that Jesus used people from “the underside of society” to teach this disturbing lesson (Texts for Preaching Year C). It’s bad enough to be expected to eat with such people, but it’s too much to be told to identify with them and perhaps even learn from them. Van Harn also notes that, while their daily prayers of thanks for not being made a woman put a distance between them and the woman in the story, “Jesus closed the distance and called them to identify with a woman even before her actions were described” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels).

Who’s at our table?

Who are the people you would rather not “welcome and eat with”? Is it easy to admire Jesus and to identify with his actions, until you think of someone you would not sit down to supper with? Is it easier, for example, to give money to a hungry person on the street than it is to sit with them while they eat, and talk with them? Is this something we can do today? What are the pressures and influences that keep us from table fellowship with all of God’s children?

Richard Swanson, in his commentary on this text, speaks of “the unstoppable goodness of God” and feels “the bite” of these parables: “These strong little stories require us to think hard about whether we believe any of what we say about grace and forgiveness, and whether it would be a good idea to practice any of what we say we believe.” Again, “Grace is a problem, not a simple solution” (Provoking the Gospel of Luke).

Extravagant hospitality

The response and reactions to the inclusive vision and extravagant hospitality of the United Church of Christ is teaching us many things. One of these lessons is a measure of understanding of the depth of pain experienced by so many people who do not feel precious in the eyes of the church and perhaps not, then, in the eyes of God.

I will never, ever forget the experience during my seminary internship in a local congregation for GLBT people (a radically inclusive ministry in those days, almost unheard of), when a person who looked like she was about to faint, or run away, approached the doors of the sanctuary. When I welcomed her, she said she wasn’t sure she could stand coming all the way in to the church service. I gently suggested that she might just step inside enough to sit in the back row; the doors would never close. And in fact, she did “escape” at one point during the service, quietly and unseen. I still think about how she is today, and whether she ever felt that God was searching for her, because she is surely precious in the eyes of God.

What does our table fellowship look like today? Are there people who would not be welcome at our table? How does God call us to find joy in one another’s company? Reflecting on our celebration of Holy Communion, would you say that we live out the example set by Jesus? Are we practicing what we say we believe in the church? The shepherd seeks out the lost sheep, and the woman goes searching, cleaning furiously, looking for the lost coin. God is like that, the stories say, and we are not left for lost.

For further reflection:

Madeleine L’Engle, 20th century
“Rather than feeling lost and unimportant and meaningless, set against galaxies which go beyond the reach of the furthest telescopes, I feel that my life has meaning. Perhaps I should feel insignificant, but instead I feel a soaring in my heart that the God who could create all this–and out of nothing–can still count the hairs of my head.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance, 19th century
“Men have looked away from themselves and at things so long that they have come to esteem the religious, learned and civil institutions as guards of property, and they deprecate assaults on these, because they feel them to be assaults on property. They measure their esteem of each other by what each has, and not by what each is.”

Anne Lamott, 21st century
“I do not at all understand the mystery of grace–only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us.”

Marilynne Robinson, When I Was a Child I Read Books, 21st century
“Say that we are a puff of warm breath in a very cold universe. By this kind of reckoning we are either immeasurably insignificant or we are incalculably precious and interesting. I tend toward the second view.”

Sample sermon on Luke 15:1-10:

My mom told some great stories. In 1918, when she was two years and four months old, she was playing with her older sisters, my aunts, at a neighbor’s house two doors away from home. She decided to go home, and my aunts, being four and six years old themselves, didn’t have the sense to stop her or to take her home themselves. So my mom toddled out to the sidewalk, and turned right instead of left, the wrong direction. My mom explained that she would know her house when she saw it, and she didn’t see it.

Now it apparently didn’t occur to her, as she walked and walked, looking for home, that maybe she should turn around. Instead, she walked and walked and walked, even crossing the streetcar tracks–this little two-year-old walked a whole mile–until she came to a little corner grocery store, where the owner saw her and called the police, and gave her some candy while they waited for her parents to come and get her.

Meanwhile, my very pregnant grandmother was frantically looking everywhere for little Kathryn (yes, we’re all named Kathryn in my family) and all the neighbors were helping. They were in a panic (you can imagine how long it took a two-year-old to walk a mile!), and my grandfather was called home from work to help in the search. Then the call came from the police, and my grandfather went to the store and brought his little girl home to her waiting mother’s arms. The story goes that my mother said, “Me find Mommy.” And that she promptly fell asleep and slept until noon the next day.

As I reflected this week on today’s Gospel passage, with two parables about being lost and being found, and the rejoicing that follows, I remembered the story about my mother as a baby, and those words, “Me find Mommy.” I questioned my mother closely: could she remember any of this? Well, kind of, in a vague way, but she wasn’t sure what she remembered and what she pictured from being told the story so many times. So we can only guess what that little girl was saying. Did she know she was the one who was lost, or did she think her mother was lost, and she had to find her? Was she frightened, or just determined to get home, no matter how long it took? In any case, what I hear in those three words, “Me find Mommy” is a wonderful sense of trust, celebration and relief.

Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, and we’ve been hearing the past few weeks about the large crowds that are gathering to hear him teach. Chapter 15 begins with two interesting sentences: “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” The next phrase is especially important: “So he told them this parable:” It was the criticism of the religious authorities, the ones who make and enforce the rules and judge who is and isn’t worthy, it was their grumbling and complaining that prompted Jesus to respond by telling these stories about being “lost.”

This morning, let’s put ourselves in the place of the different characters in the stories. First, there’s the shepherd, who obviously represents God, made known to us in Jesus. This shepherd cares for each and every one of his sheep; each and every one is precious in his sight. As a model of God, then, the shepherd leaves the ninety-nine sheep and goes out looking, goes out after the one lost sheep. We don’t need to get hung up in pragmatic arguments about the relative value of ninety-nine sheep next to one little old sheep. The point we need to get into our minds–into our hearts–is the extravagance of God’s love and care and mercy for each one of us. As a friend of mine once said, “The shepherd would have done the same thing for any one of the other ninety-nine, too.”

And then the shepherd, carrying the sheep on his shoulders, rejoices, comes home and calls his friends together to celebrate the return of the one who was lost. In the same way, the woman in the next parable searches everywhere for her lost coin, and when she finds it, she too calls her friends together to rejoice in the finding. Our way of identifying with the shepherd and the woman is to accept our call to partner with God in seeking in the same way, searching everywhere, going after the lost, and rejoicing when we find them. Two weeks ago, we heard the call to “invite the forgotten” to our table. It’s appropriate then, to add that phrase, and to seek out “the lost and the forgotten” before we gather around this table.

We can certainly identify easily with the lost sheep. How many times in our lives do we stray away from what is best for us, from the love and care of God, who is our shepherd? How often do we stray, in body or in spirit, away from the “flock,” the church which is our home and the place in which we live out our faith? I don’t know about you, but sometimes I get uncomfortable with the way we do our confessing in church. I know it’s the good and right thing to do, at the beginning of our worship, to look at ourselves and our lives and to see the ways in which we have fallen short and turned away from God’s grace. It’s good to say, we have sinned. It’s good to say, Have mercy, Lord. And it’s good for us to hear an assurance of pardon, of God’s forgiveness and mercy. But sometimes I think it’s become a little too rote, and we say–and hear–it all too easily.

I remember a story about Peter that the nuns told us–the nuns, like my mother, also told great stories–when Peter denied Jesus, and, as the Bible says, “wept bitterly.” The nuns told us that Peter cried so hard that the tears left permanent marks on his face, like tracks on his cheeks. What a great image that is–however unhistorical it may or may not be–of contrition that is profoundly heartfelt and life-changing.

Or what about the story of the publican and the Pharisee, where the Pharisee proudly thanked God that he was not like this lowly publican, and the publican could not even raise his eyes to heaven, saying, “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner”? Or the story of John Newton, the slave-trader who saw the evil he was doing, turned his ship around in the middle of the ocean–a great image of repentance!–and wrote the great hymn, “Amazing Grace”? John Newton recognized, in God’s grace at work in him, the God who pursued him, who searched for him when he wandered. Sometimes I wonder if our hearts need to be broken open, so that we can truly feel the weight of our sins, truly repent, truly experience God’s mercy and forgiveness, and truly change our lives. Turn our ships around right in the middle of the ocean, and head back to where we belong.

And then there are those ninety-nine sheep. Do we have any doubt that the 99 sheep were the Pharisees and the scribes? There they were, with all their ducks in a row (I’m sorry to throw the ducks in with the sheep but I can’t resist the phrase), knowing the rules that shouldn’t be broken and the lines that shouldn’t be crossed, getting incensed that Jesus, this supposed religious teacher, a “good,” observant Jew, would let these unclean, sinful people near him, even let them EAT with him.

Remember that many people who were labeled sinners in those days, like today, were people who were no more sinful than the Pharisees and scribes themselves, but were considered outside the boundaries of the acceptable–women, lepers, tax collectors. Perhaps they had less to lose and more to gain in the words of Jesus, and for them truly the gospel was and is good news. But the proud Pharisees and scribes, with their self-righteous outrage at Jesus’ inclusive love for all people, saw themselves as not in need of repentance, and Jesus, in these parables, hit them right where they lived. We can almost hear a hint of sarcasm in the phrase, “ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” What person exists, we ask, who needs no repentance?

Okay, I’ve beaten up on the Pharisees and scribes and religious authorities in general enough for one morning. Here’s the hard part: we have to put ourselves in their place, too. How are we the ninety-nine, the ones who think we have it right, and it’s those other guys who need to repent before we can let them into our community or into our lives? And in what ways do we have to admit that we judge the repentance of others, instead of considering how deep and authentic our own contrition might be? Even better, do we find ourselves tagging along with Jesus as he heads out to look for the lost (maybe we can lend a hand), and do we rejoice when they are found? Are we willing to sit down at the party with all of God’s children, lost and now found, including us?

I remember a segment of Primetime Live in which Diane Sawyer was revisiting–eight years later–several young people she had interviewed on the streets of a city in Oregon. These kids were definitely lost children. At least two of them were gay, and one can only imagine the terrible rejection that drove them from their homes and families. One young boy was asked to describe his dream home. He answered quickly, as if he had dreamed of it often: his dream home would have a marble staircase and a big entrance hall (doesn’t that sound like someone who feels the need to be welcomed?). Asked to describe his dream parents, he said “They would have their mouths taped shut so they couldn’t yell at me and their hands tied so they couldn’t hit me.” Years later, this same young man looked back on the years he spent as a runaway; when Diane Sawyer asked him, “Is that what you wanted–for someone to come and find you?” His response: “Yes, that’s what I wanted–I wanted someone to care enough to come looking for me.”

Friends, I know that we are all at times lost children. Sometimes, like my mother as a baby, we don’t know enough to turn back from the direction we’re going in. Sometimes, we’re running away and need someone to come looking for us. And sometimes, even when we think we’re safely in the ninety-nine righteous ones, we have lost our way in our pride and self-righteousness. The good news this morning is that there is someone who cares enough to come looking for us, someone ready and eager to rejoice when we are found. Like little Kathryn way back in 1918, we may think that we are the ones to find our way back. But the one who loves us comes to get us, and brings us home. So, let us gather once again around the table and rejoice, for we were lost, but now we are found. Isn’t it amazing?  Amen.   

Lectionary texts

Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28

At that time it will be said to this people and to Jerusalem: A hot wind comes from me out of the bare heights in the desert toward my poor people, not to winnow or cleanse—wind too strong for that. Now it is I who speak in judgment against them.

“For my people are foolish,
   they do not know me;
they are stupid children,
   they have no understanding.
They are skilled in doing evil,
   but do not know how to do good.”

I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void;
   and to the heavens, and they had no light.
I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking,
   and all the hills moved to and fro.
I looked, and lo, there was no one at all,
   and all the birds of the air had fled.
I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert,
   and all its cities were laid in ruins
   before the Lord, before his fierce anger.

For thus says the Lord:

The whole land shall be a desolation;
   yet I will not make a full end.
Because of this the earth shall mourn,
   and the heavens above grow black;
for I have spoken, I have purposed;
   I have not relented nor will I turn back.


Psalm 14

Fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.”
They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds;
    there is no one who does good.

God looks down from heaven on humankind
    to see if there are any who are wise,
         who seek after God.

They have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse;
    there is no one who does good, no, not one.

Have they no knowledge, all the evildoers
    who eat up my people as they eat bread,
         and do not call upon God?

There they shall be in great terror,
    for God is with the company of the righteous.
You would confound the plans of the poor,
     but God is their refuge.

O that deliverance for Israel would come from Zion!
When God restores the fortunes of God’s people,
    Jacob will rejoice; Israel will be glad.


Exodus 32:7-14

The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshipped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!'” The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.”

But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it for ever.'” And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.


Psalm 51:1-10

Have mercy on me, O God,
    according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
    blot out my transgressions.

Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
    and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions,
    and my sin is ever before me.

Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
    and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
    and blameless when you pass judgment.

Indeed, I was born guilty,
    a sinner when my mother conceived me.

You desire truth in the inward being;
    therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.

Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
    wash me, and I shall be purer than snow.

Let me hear joy and gladness;
    let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.

Hide your face from my sins,
    and blot out all my iniquities.

Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.

1 Timothy 1:12-17

I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 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 come to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.

Luke 15:1-10

Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

So he told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.

“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.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (
Faith Formation Ministry, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ

(Essay based on an article by Laurence Hull Stookey: “Putting Liturgical Colors in their Place” in Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church ©1996 Abingdon Press.)  

The use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons is a custom in use among some Western churches for hundreds of years. Although the custom of using colors is an ancient one, there has not always been agreement on what the colors should be. The Council of Trent in 1570, a Roman Catholic response to the Reformation, codified the colors for the Roman Catholic Church. When we talk about “traditional” colors today, we usually are referring to that codification. There were four basic colors in that codification: purple (penitence), red (Spirit or Martyrs memorials), green (long season after Pentecost) and white (festivals). Other colors, or no color at all, were acceptable variants in some regions.

The Reformation of course was a watershed for Christian ritual practice. Anglican and Lutheran churches often used some form of liturgical colors; however, the Reformed tradition of churches, where the UCC falls, for the most part did away with the custom of using colors, opting for much more simplicity. During the ecumenical liturgical movement of the mid-20th Century, Protestant churches began to look back at some of the ritual and colorful practices of the past with an eye toward reclaiming them to help give expression to feeling, tone, and imagery underlying the lectionary stories.  
Before the Reformation’s iconoclasm, and Trent’s code, practices varied from place to place, often depending on what was available. Indeed, in some places the custom was to organize vestments into practical categories of “best,” “second best,” and “everyday” — not depending on the color at all. For Christmas and Easter the “best” vestments were used, no matter the color! Other, less prominent feasts or Sundays got “second best” or “everyday.”