Sermon for September 15, 2019
On the PBS channel a new Ken Burns documentary will be shown, the history of country music. One of the most famous country singers was Hank Williams, Jr. In 1948 he wrote a gospel song, “I Saw the Light”; the first stanza goes like this: “I wandered aimless, life filled with sin; I wouldn’t let my Dear Savior in. Then Jesus came like a stranger in the night; Praise the Lord, I saw the light!” The first portion of the song described well the life of Hank Williams, tormented by alcohol and drug addiction. Near the end of his life, while performing at a concert he stumbled off the stage after only two songs. Another famous country artist, Minnie Pearl, was also on the schedule to perform. She drove Hank Williams around town, trying to sober him up so he could perform for the second show. Minnie began to sing his song “I saw the light.” But after the first verse Williams interrupted and said, “Minnie, I don’t see light. There ain’t no light.” Tragically Hank Williams, Jr. died in the back seat of his Cadillac somewhere in West Virginia on January 31, 1952; he was only 29 years old. In spite of writing gospel songs, in spite of a promising career ahead as a singer and song-writer, in spite of success in the country music business, appearances can be deceptive. He was truly lost. I wonder how many people are not as happy or self-assured as they appear. They may not want anyone to know the sadness or helplessness deep within their souls. They might think no one would care to listen and understand. They might feel others have their own issues to deal with so they just try to live life just as it is; they appear fine but down deep they are lost in a world that can be impersonal and perplexing.
The gospel reading today featured two small parables with simple true-to-life examples of the lost being found. The stories told of a lost sheep and a lost coin but we know the parables are not stories of shepherds and house cleaning. The parables were prompted by the company Jesus was keeping. Tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. Occasionally Jesus ate lunch with them and partied with them. Tax collectors were unpopular for obvious reasons. In New Testament times people were heavily taxed and the collectors were considered agents of the unpopular Roman occupiers of their land. When we hear the word “sinners” the meaning was not a common term for all people. It would mean people who habitually and whole-heartedly exhibited a life style ignoring and defying the word and commandments of God. The company Jesus kept raised suspicions about him. The Pharisees and scribes grumbled about this. They devoted their lives to the teachings of the Scriptures and here comes this man named Jesus who seems to enjoy associating with people who may not know the difference between a Beatitude and a beer commercial. Jesus was even accused of being a drunkard and a glutton. He was called a friend of sinners, and that was not meant as a compliment. Maybe they grumbled about Jesus saying “Bad company ruins good morals.”
Jesus could have responded with grumbling of his own, commenting on the hypocrisy of the Scribes and Pharisees. But Jesus loved to tell stories not only to be folksy, but to teach the faithfulness of God. Jesus looked at the grumblers and said “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 who is lost until he finds it.?” Jesus expected his listeners to understand the shepherd’s diligent search, even in the wilderness. Each sheep is important to the shepherd. The shepherd found the lost sheep. It must have been injured for he lays it on his shoulders, all the while rejoicing! Many of us are not familiar with sheep-keeping, but what happens when someone loses a dog? They don’t say, “Well, it is just a dog; we can always go to the shelter and get another one.” No, posters with pictures appear all over town and friends are phoned to please look for the lost pet. And when the lost animal is found, there is great relief, but also rejoicing.
The shepherd texts his friends and invites them all to a “Lost but Found” party because he wants all to share in the joy. So Jesus tells the grumbling experts on religion and scripture, “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.” Jesus never condoned the corruption of the tax collectors or overlooked the wicked deeds of sinners. Jesus welcomed them and ate with them because he was seeking the lost. As the old expression goes, Jesus knew there was emptiness in their lives only God could fill. Jesus did not threaten them with the wrath of God and punishments; you just do not do that if you are eating with people. Tax collectors and sinners would not come near to hear Jesus if he was cold and cranky about their lives. True repentance, a change of mind, a change of direction in life is inspired by what we heard in the reading from Psalm 51 today, the mercy of God, God’s compassion and steadfast love. Tax collectors and sinners, and all who are lost today need to have a change of mind about God. Instead of distant and indifferent we can draw near to God. The prophet Isaiah famously preached “Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their way; and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, for God will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways says the Lord.” Our thoughts go something like this: “I am a sinner God does not want”; God’s thought is “Balderdash!! You are mine, says the Lord, and God’s love is beyond limit and calculation. Our thoughts go something like this: This is nothing but a world of sorrow and pain in which God is absent. God’s thought goes like this: “I so loved the world that I sent my only Son, Jesus, that all who believe in him shall not perish but have life forever with him. Jesus came and did not reveal a God uncaring, but God who bears all our grief and all our infirmity.
Similarly Jesus told a twin parable, this time about a woman who finds one of her ten coins is missing. She is diligent in her searching, sweeping the floors and cleaning even into the night because she had to light a lamp. At last she found the coin, invites her lady friends to come and rejoice with her because the lost has been found. Jesus concluded “Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” Later in the gospel Jesus would say what could be counted as his vision: “I came to seek and to save the lost.” Have you ever wondered why people no longer attend worship services? There can be many excuses, but I think they are symptoms of unbelief, unbelief about God truly loving, forgiving and caring for them. People will say “I have lost faith”; in other words one can say “I am lost”, the pain of life is just too much. People’s misbehavior may be a cry for help, “I am lost, and does anyone notice or care?” Just think of the apostle Paul in the second reading today: I was a blasphemer, hated and persecuted Christians and was super violent. One might want to give up on someone like that. But not God, not Jesus: “I received mercy because I acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus….so the saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” Repentance, faith, comes from Jesus who draws near to us in the Gospel Word and the Sacrament of Holy Communion. Jesus draws near with the power of his cross and resurrection, which is power to fill the emptiness with the peace of God; to heal the wounded soul with the steadfast love and mercy of God.
Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners to reveal what God is like, God who has not rejected them but has drawn near in Jesus with forgiveness of sin to motivate true repentance. Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners, but he also ate with Pharisees and scribes, the God-fearing people who needed no repentance. But Jesus wanted them to change their minds about God and the so-called sinners: he deeply wanted the scribes and Pharisees to accept those he accepted, for all are meant to know and rejoice that they have been found in the love and mercy of God, and they are beloved children of God. There is the story of grandpa walking with his young grandson. Grandpa asked his grandson, “How far are we from home?” The little guy said “Grandpa, I don’t know.” Grandpa had another question, “Well, where are you?” Again his grandson said, “I don’t know”. Then the grandfather said, with a twinkle in his eye, “Sounds to me as if you are lost.” The little boy looked up at his grandfather and said, “Nope, I can’t be lost. I’m with you.” Life can be hard and we feel lost or left out; but no, Jesus is with us. We are not lost with him. He is our light.