A sermon for the 14th Sunday After Pentecost, Luke 15:1-10
What is our value?
When we answer this question, what then is our responsibility in understanding that value?
The lessons that Jesus offers today are both an answer to the grumbling of the Pharisees and an explanation of the boundaries, the limits (or lack thereof) to where and to whom Jesus is willing to minister. Both stories are told from the perspective of someone who has lost and drops everything to go find what was once lost. These losses though are fractionally small compared to the whole. One out of 100 sheep, One out of 10 coins. Sheep used to explain the story in terms of practical application, all know what the role of a shepherd is, how the loss of a sheep reflects on a shepherd. Coins used to drive home the financial value of this message, that even one coin is enough to flip the whole house upside down, and its return worth rejoicing and celebrating with your neighbors and friends. So, we must be called then to drop all and find that wandering sheep, to comb through every inch to recover the lost coin, right? Perhaps not.
I don’t think we’re the shepherd or the woman in these two stories. Rather we’re the 99 sheep that are left alone because we are accounted for, because we are trusted to hang out and stay with the flock, we are not the wanderers. We’re here at church already. We may feel somewhat lost, wandering, at the moment, but we’re here, we’re with the flock, we’re making an effort to stick with it, we’ve heeded the shepherds call and are in the fold. So, who is this story really about, and what is our role in living into this story, here and now.
I want to reflect on the two questions that I asked at the beginning of this sermon: what is our value and when we answer this question, what then is our responsibility in understanding that value.
The setting of this story has at its center a question of financial value and place in society, importance, based on the financial value that we can (or cannot) provide. Jesus is gathering with sinners and tax collectors. In this setting, sinners are debtors, they owe a financial debt to the religious institutions and to the Roman Empire. The tax collectors are debt collectors, employed by the Empire to maintain a specific societal order, a societal order that the religious authorities (such as the Pharisees) financially benefit from. Jesus brings together the debtors and debt collectors to eat together at the same table. Jesus is exposing the reality that even though they exist on either side of this financial burden imposed by the Empire, they are both being oppressed and taken advantage of by the imperial system that seeks to benefit a small fraction of the society off of the work and subjugation of the many.
The Pharisees directly benefit from this system that is in place. By not pushing against the Roman Empire, they are largely left alone to practice their religious authority over their people, they are able to maintain a somewhat autonomous religious expression in an empire that typically is known for wiping out competing cultures. To be forgiving of the debtors is to deny the empire financial benefits from their rule over these people. The Pharisees grumble about the company Jesus is keeping, because he is challenging this financial, political pay-to-play system. Jesus is challenging the ruling of the masses by a wealthy elite. And, he does this by openly, specifically engaging with the debtors, with those tasked with collecting those debts for the wealthy political elites.
Jesus tells these two stories to the Pharisees to illustrate the accessibility of the Kingdom of God, regardless of perceived value in society, but rather through the value that God has placed upon them. God rejoices in the return of those who were once lost, wandering afar from the flock. The value of that one lost and wandering soul is worthy of great rejoicing and celebration because it was gone, it was forsaken, it was abandoned. Not by God. But by the neighbor, by the friend, the family member, by the religious authorities of the day. And this is where the reality of these stories hits us today. Even if we are not the shepherd of the story because we are part of the flock, our value is not any less, it’s just that our being of the flock has already been rejoiced for. Our value is found in the reality that Christ is the shepherd, is the woman, who stops at nothing until that which was lost is found. This is the promise that Christ makes to us today. That is the promise of Christ, of God, always available to us, that even if we find ourselves outside of the flock, the shepherd will tirelessly seek us until we are found, for our value is priceless in the eyes of God. This is how we know that all it takes is turning back to God to re-enter into the flock.
What then is our responsibility in knowing that our value, but not just our value, but every single person in creation’s value, is worthy of such tireless seeking, of such great rejoicing at its return?
Jesus Christ is unfortunately not physically present with us in our modern time. We cannot rely on Christ to physically seek us out, to draw together the debtors and debt collectors at the same table, to challenge the imperial system that places a perceived financial value based on your role in the system, that keeps the poor poor and the rich rich, with the middle employed to make sure that the system stays in place. So, if we are of the flock, what is our expectation, what is our role in this system today.
If we are to be followers of Christ, then we are going to have to take on that mantle from time to time. We are going to have to be the shepherd that searches tirelessly for the lost sheep, the woman who turned the house upside down to recover the one coin. And, when we step out from the flock to take on this mantle, we must do so in the knowledge that the rest of the flock awaits us, ready to rejoice when we have found what was once lost.
Gathering modern-day debtors and debt collectors together at the same table looks like feeding any who need a hot, home-cooked, nutritious meal, and sitting together to enjoy that meal, creating community and connection with one another. It looks like supporting the various ministries that we do have access to, whether it is volunteering for Family Promise, Winter’s Night, Radical Love, Emergency Cold Weather Sheltering, we have to be physically present in order to reflect the value of the lives of those who are wandering away from the flock, who society has labeled as sinners, as owing a debt to society, as filling the lowest rung of the imperial system, because someone has to.
When we reflect the value we know that we possess, and the equal value that we know others possess, we create the opportunity for great rejoicing with God, with our neighbors, our family, our friends, for we are creating the Kingdom of God in the here and now.
Our challenge is to accept that value in ourselves and reflect that value to the world. To see and acknowledge that value in ALL. And, when we do accept and acknowledge this value, we are called to live into that truth, to support those ministries that reflect the true value of a person and not the societal value of a person. We do this by showing up. We do this by welcoming all. We do this by abandoning (for a short while) the comfortable and reliable in order to make sure that the lost are found and brought back into the flock. And the flock (us) rejoices in their being found, they (us) welcome them back into the flock, for all in the flock are of equal value (to us).
We will have many opportunities in this upcoming year to seek the lost, to reflect the value that God places on each person in creation, to share the true value of every person with anyone who questions it. From inviting a friend who is on the edge of returning to the flock, to stepping up when volunteers are deeply needed, to challenging societal structures that only serve to create levels of status based on differing values of life, we will be tasked with seeking, but also with knowing that we are also part of the flock already, that the shepherd that is seeking is really and truly Christ, it’s just that today, we are the vehicle through which Christ does that seeking, and then we can return once again to the flock to hang out and be reliably accounted for, to be trusted by God to be reliable and accountable. We are in a special place with the knowledge we have of the value of a soul in God’s eyes, and it is our responsibility as Christians to work on instilling that same knowledge with all whom we encounter.