Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I recently read a book from our parish library written by John Krumm, who was chaplain at Columbia University when he wrote it, and later went on to be Bishop of Southern Ohio in the 1970s. Modern Heresies: A Guide to Straight Thinking About Religion was published in 1961, but sixty years later, it’s obvious to me that we are still dealing with many if not all of the same issues. Sometimes, though, these heresies are rebranded and take a form particular to our modern context. What was once called Pelagianism might just as well be called the heresy of American individualist spirituality.

The idea that it’s up to us to go on some sort of spiritual quest to effect our own salvation, is popular and deadly. Certainly, as Christians, we are expected to expend some sort of effort in order to live the Christian life aright. We’re expected to grow in love and virtue. Even so, when we take it to an extreme, we start to see our own efforts, our own seeking, as the primary action in salvation history, shifting the focus from God’s actions to ours. Unfortunately, our efforts will never be enough.

I know I’ve mentioned before from this pulpit that this heresy, so popular in Nineteenth Century liberal protestant theology, was widely recognized as being problematic after the experience of the First World War, when the human family was reminded again that despite all of our advances, our capacity to turn on each other–the reality of Original Sin–was still a strong force for evil in the world.

Despite all our attempts to be reconciled one to another, radical evil still succeeds, albeit (we hope) temporarily, in alienating us from God and each other and the whole created order.

I’d be remiss not to mention that twenty-one years ago today we were reminded of this sad state of affairs, and, not to put too fine a point on it, our own attempts to grow in love as a nation and as human family in response to this tragedy were short lived, and here we are just as divided as ever.

The parables Jesus tells in this morning’s Gospel remind us who the principal actor in salvation history is, who alone has the power to save and reconcile us one to another. But before we get there, let’s look a bit more closely at each of these parables.

The problem with parables is that they meant a lot to the people to whom Jesus first told them, but they may (at least initially) mean less to us. This is because our context is so different from that of a first century Jew in Palestine. We hear the parable of the lost sheep, and probably think the shepherd rather silly. He’s still got ninety-nine sheep safe at home, and the dangers inherent in searching for the one lost sheep are likely not worth the risk. The woman who’s lost one of her ten coins might seem a little more believable to us, at least from a mathematical point of view. She’s lost a tenth of her wealth to the shepherd’s one-hundredth. Even so, calling the neighbors over to celebrate finding one measly coin that was in one’s house the whole time seems a bit much, doesn’t it?

Yet, if we were to place ourselves in the shoes of those first century listeners, Jesus’ parables would have made perfect sense. A conscientious shepherd would have been sorely grieved by the loss of one sheep and would have put himself in harm’s way to seek it out. The modern language of “satisfactory percentage” and “acceptable loss” would have been foreign to the first century shepherd, because if he were a good shepherd, his sheep would not be considered a mere commodity, but rather an extension of himself. Thus, his grief upon losing the sheep and his great joy upon finding it would have been natural. It would have been as if he had lost and found a missing part of himself.

Likewise, the woman with the lost coin can be understood to have found something more than a minor boon. Objectively, one silver coin, or drachma wasn’t worth that much. It was one day’s wage for a laborer. We might in our present economy even start to see the loss of a tenth of one’s wealth (or, in our case, inflation getting close to that 10% mark) as terribly inconvenient, but for those of us not living a hand-to-mouth existence it is probably less than utterly catastrophic.

Well, we get a distorted view of the plight of the woman in the parable if we view he through that modern, middle class lens. For that matter, we get a distorted view of contemporary poverty if we do so. For folks living on the margins, in the ancient world and today, that one sheep or coin can be like that one piece in the block-and-tower game Jenga, whose removal leads to everything else crashing down around them.

But for most of us, both parables seem to be dealing with a relatively insignificant object, but we can start to appreciate the value of that which is lost by the grief of the one who loses it and his or her joy upon finding it.

But Jesus’ words make it rather explicit that we are not the shepherd or the woman; God is. We don’t need to worry so much about saving ourselves by pulling ourselves up by the spiritual bootstraps, because he’s the one who invariably finds us. When we like sheep have gone astray, Christ the Good Shepherd grieves the loss and then strikes out into the wilderness to take us back, his finding us restoring joy to the heart of God. When we like the coin fall through some crack in the floorboard of our existence, God, like the woman in the parable, will tear up the house in order to find us.

You see, God might not be as immovable and implacable as we think. God’s certainly got a Plan and a Will, He’s certainly perfect in strength and virtue, but thanks to the Incarnation, the fact that God has become human in Christ Jesus, we can understand God as being moved by our weakness and woundedness. God is love, and when love goes unrequited, the response is grief. When we are not in God’s presence, when we wander lost through the wilderness of self-willed depredation, which is the state of sin, we grieve Christ’s heart of love.

The Good News is that God does not then disown us, but seeks us out. God will and has searched for us as far as the depths of Hell itself; and in Christ he has found us and he is still finding us and he will find us at last. And our Lord’s grief, being once as sharp as a sword piercing His breast, will at last be transformed into greater joy than we can imagine. The whole host of heaven will rejoice in our having been found, and we shall join with them in praising the God whom we didn’t presume to seek out, whom we couldn’t reach by building a tower tall enough or find by lighting a torch bright enough, but who reached down found us when we were most in need.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.