1 Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3 So he told them this parable: 4 “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? 5 When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6 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.’ 7 Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. 8 “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? 9 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.’ 10 Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
Friends, the first thing we learn today from our gospel text is that Jesus eats with bad people. Jesus eats with the kind of people parents don’t want their children eating with. And not only does Jesus eat with them, he actually welcomes them. He invites them to dinners where he is the host. Which is a sign of acceptance. We know this. To have a meal with someone, to invite someone to your home is to invite them into your life. To accept them in someway as a human being. And so the first thing we learn today is that Jesus eats with and accepts bad people.
I wonder, who would you get in trouble for eating a meal with? Who would your parents or your friends not want you to sit down with at the lunch table? Or what person would get the town talking if you were seen having lunch with them at Wags? Because chances are, according to our text, whoever that person is… that’s exactly who Jesus would be eating lunch with.
When I asked this question to the confirmation students at our retreat a couple of weeks ago, one person said, “Miley Cyrus.” And then another said, “Osama bin Laden.”
That last one is a hard one, isn’t it?
It’s hard to imagine Jesus spending time with someone we love to hate. Someone that, in our minds, is so filled with evil that there is nothing of value and nothing redeemable.
And that’s how it was for the Pharisees and scribes who saw Jesus eating with the tax collectors and sinners. They hated the idea of it. Because to them the tax collectors and sinners were the worst sort of folks. This isn’t just minor sins we are talking about. The people who did wrong over and over and over again.
And so that’s the second thing we learn today from our gospel – that religious people hate the idea of Jesus hanging out with people who aren’t like them. But here’s the thing – there is no way around that. Jesus is a defiant, radical, trouble maker who loves to love the unlovable. Jesus loves to love the unlovable. And so often that is the last thing religious people expect him to do. So, if you consider yourself religious, you might want to be careful. Because at least according to this text, being religious and being a follower of Jesus are not always the same thing.
I hate to say it this way but I really do believe that Jesus’ favorite people to hang out with are the people our parents spent most of their time trying to keep us away from. And I am sorry to you parent’s out there for whom this sermon will make your job harder, but nobody said this Christian thing would be easy.
Jesus stands alongside those we think are the last person in the world Jesus would want to stand beside. And that can be really hard to hear and to think about but here is the thing, if we are honest with ourselves, sometimes the last person in the world we think Jesus would want to be with is ourselves. And that is when this text becomes really, really good news.
You see, as Christians, as those religious people, most of us are aware that we all are sinners. We can admit that. And I hear people say that all the time, “Well, none of us are perfect. We’re all sinners.” The problem is that whenever I hear people say that, it always sounds like they don’t actually believe it. It sounds like we’re all sinners in the same way that we all steal pens from work. It’s not really a big deal, but we still know we should probably not do it. And so it sounds like God is the business of forgiving misdemeanor sins – you know, the stuff we are all guilty of. Like stealing pens. Or losing our temper. Or telling a white lie. Or speeding. And we are all okay with Jesus hanging out with those kinds of sinners, but any time the topic of a big, juicy sin comes up, we suddenly seem to get uncomfortable with the idea that Jesus forgives those sinners too. Sometimes, it seems like the more obvious or public a person’s sin is, the less we want them to be forgiven. You know, people like murderers, or drug dealers and drug addicts, or sex offenders. Their sin is so public and so visible that so often we can’t ever imagine it being forgiven.
But then if we are being honest, there are those things about our own lives. Things that have a hold on us, that we can’t get away from that are not public, that are not visible, that are not obvious to the person sitting next to you in the pew. Sins that we would never want to be made public, and yet that we are desperate for God to forgive. Maybe it has something to do with the way your first marriage ended, or the way you treated your child that one time, or that thing you did when no one else was around. Whatever it is, we all have something, some part of us that begs for acceptance and forgiveness.
But you know, we can avoid that thing inside us for just a little bit longer, when we can look at and judge the wrong and the failure inside someone else. The Pharisees do that. The Pharisees would just as soon rather Jesus discard the tax collectors and the sinners. To get rid of them. You see, I think our natural tendency is to throw away that which seems lost and hopeless. To let the lost be lost.
And the truth is, sometimes that seems like a completely sensible thing to do. I mean, listen to the parables Jesus then shares. If you are a shepherd and you have a 100 sheep that you are leading in the wilderness, and one of those sheep wanders off, who in their right mind is going to leave all their other 99 sheep out in the wilderness, just to find that one sheep. I mean, if you leave the 99, then who knows, they might scatter too, or even worse they might be attacked and eaten by other wild animals. It makes perfect sense to let the lost be lost. Or if you are a woman who has worked and worked to earn 10 silver coins and suddenly you realize you’ve lost one, who in their right mind would spend all of their time (presumably missing even more work) just to search for that one coin. Who would do that? Sometimes, it makes perfect sense for the lost to just stay lost.
But here’s the thing: in Jesus’ parable, the lost don’t stay lost. That shepherd does leave the 99 sheep, just to find that one sheep lost in the wilderness. And that old woman spends all of her time sweeping the floor until she can find that one silver coin.
You see it’s easy to throw something away that you have no relationship with. But when you desperately need it, it’s a different story. When I was growing up, there was a boy who went missing. You probably remember him by his name, Jacob Wetterling. And I’ll be honest, it’s easy for me to forget about Jacob. It’s easy for me to just let the lost be lost. Because I have no relationship with him. But I guarantee you that not a day goes by that Jacob’s mother, Patty, and father, Jerry, don’t search the faces of everyone they pass in the grocery store, or at the mall, or at a restaurant desperately hoping to find the face of their beloved child staring back at them. They’ll never stop searching for their son.
And that’s how it is with God. It is easy for us to think something or someone is beyond forgiveness. That someone is irredeemable…because we often have no relationship with them. But not so with God. God has this desperate and unashamed love for that beloved child of God, and when that person is lost. Lost in their own self-destruction; lost in their own deep well of brokenness. God will stop at nothing – nothing – until God has found that lost sheep. That precious coin. God will stop at nothing until they have been found.
A professor of mine tells the story about when his mentor was coming close to the time of death. And when my professor went to visit him, the man said, “Tell me the promise again. I’ve forgotten it. Tell me the promise.” Before I tell you what he said, I invite you to close your eyes. Close your eyes and listen to this promise being said to you. But also listen to this promise that is also for that person who in your eyes is unlovable, unredeemable. Close your eyes and listen.
My professor leaned over to his mentor and he whispered: you are the one. You are the one that God went looking for. Leaving behind all the other 99 sheep, God came looking for you. You are the one God spent hours and hours on hands and knees sweeping and searching for. And when God found you, God called together all the saints in heaven, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep, my precious coin that was once lost.” Amen.