Two Sides... - Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost (September 11, 2022)
“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.” (1 Timothy 1:15).
There are two sides to every story… and coin… and sheep, I suppose.
In our Gospel reading today St. Luke gives us two parables from Christ: storied images meant to tell us something important about the surprising Kingdom work that He is up to in the world.
The first is about someone who was willing to leave behind a flock of ninety-nine, in order to go searching for one solitary lost sheep.
The second tells of a woman who turns the whole house upside down… searching everywhere for just one lost coin, even though she still has nine more.
Both parables end with joy, and the invitation to celebrate because what was lost is finally found. A powerful image of our salvation. These two stories have offered much comfort, and strengthened the faith of many over the centuries, reminding us that at the heart of the Good News of Jesus Christ is God’s searching, rescuing love for us… and the mind-blowing lengths He went to to bring us home.
Of course, that’s true of the entire story of Scripture as a whole… this majestic theme of God’s rescuing love runs all the way through it.
Like in our reading from Exodus today, where we see Israel on the brink of disaster. At the very moment when Israel was entering into a sacred covenant partnership with the YAHWEH, the LORD, we hear God’s chosen people had forsaken Him, building an idol to worship, and spitting on His honour, justice, and goodness.
And yet the LORD makes room for Moses to intercede, to stand up for His sin-filled people and plead on their behalf… and so the people are spared. Much damage was done to their relationship, but the way forward was preserved. The Living God would continue to go with them and lead them to the Promised Land.
And again, in our reading from first Timothy today, we heard St. Paul tell of how God’s grace had found him out, and turned his life around. Turned from a persecutor of the Church to a penitent, faithful servant, St. Paul had seen up close the difference God’s mercy can make.
Both of these stories reveal God’s heart of love as well, in their own special ways: Though the crisis at Sinai pushed God’s plans for Israel to the very limits, God prompts Moses to pray on their behalf, and then God listens to those prayers… showing Himself to be “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty” (Exodus 34:6-7a).
And though St. Paul’s story was filled with bloodshed and regret, he came to see it as an example of the greatness of God’s love: “that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost.” (1 Timothy 1:15).
From Moses to St. Paul, to you and I today, this is what God has been up to all along: seeking out and saving those who are lost… not as something extra on the side, but as the very core of all Christ has come to do! It’s the reason that all of us are here today… to receive God’s gracious gift of life offered to us through the work of His faithful Son.
We are the lost sheep. We are the lost coin. We are the ones who had turned our backs on God, and needed someone to pray for our salvation. We too are sinners, sought out and saved by God’s grace in Jesus Christ.
This is one side of the story. One side of the coin.
But what is the other side? What else is it that these parables of Jesus have to tell us today?
We’re used to thinking of ourselves as the sheep that Jesus pursued… the one who wandered, but who was finally found by love and brought safely home.
But what if we’re actually also one of the ninety-nine in this story? Or one of the nine coins safe and sound inside the woman’s purse?
No less loved. No less valued or precious… but what if Christ’s actually calling us to be concerned about, and join with Him searching after those ones that aren’t yet safe at home? What if theses stories aren’t all about just you and I?
St. Luke tells us that Jesus had a specific reason for telling these two parables: Luke 15:1-2, “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.’”
Religious folk were frustrated that Jesus was spending His time with the wrong sort of people. People that no one who was truly close to God would want to welcome.
Who comes to mind when we hear the word “sinner” today? Or maybe that word’s too familiar… too spiritualized… Who is it that we can’t even imagine welcoming into our door, or to share at our table? Who are the ones we would rather Christ not care about?
I’m sure we all have our reasons why. The Pharisees and scribes had their reasons too. But this is the other side of the story… the other side of the coin: How are we going to respond to God’s searching, saving love… for other people? Especially for other people that we might, on our own, want nothing to do with?
Christ spells it out for us: “Rejoice with Me. Rejoice with Me.”
Jesus invites us to share in His joy with all who come to Him. Because all His sheep belong together. All His coins are precious. There’s no hierarchy of importance or worthiness among God’s children. No first and second class. No inner circle. No outcasts.
So why do so many of God’s people today seem to struggle so hard with this one? Why is it that Christians of all people are often seen as those most likely to look down on our neighbours? Why are we the ones with the reputation for being judgmental and standoffish? Who have so much trouble inviting others to join in the joy of heaven?
One answer is that we’ve forgotten the real meaning of the first side of the story. We’ve forgotten the depths of the love of God for sinners like us. For everyone.
I’m convinced that the Pharisees and scribes were so upset that Jesus was welcoming sinners because they had lost any sense that they had at onetime needed saving themselves. And the same temptation lies before us all the time: the temptation to forget the generous love of our Father, and frown disapprovingly at those who are drawing near to Christ, but who don’t measure up to our particular standards.
But what are God’s standards to be saved? First of all, that they are lost! That’s the starting point… as N.T. Wright so helpfully describes: “What was it, after all, about that one lost sheep that made the shepherd go after it? It wasn’t the one with the woolliest coat. It wasn’t the one with the sweet, almost human bleat. It wasn’t the one that regularly nuzzled up close to his knees. It was simply the one that was lost. No qualification except a disqualification. No structure to its life, no good sense, no obedience. That was the one that got the ride home on the shepherd’s shoulders. That was the one that made the angels sing for joy.”
The sheep, the coin… they’re searched after and found because they are lost. They’re just as precious, just as valued, just longed for as the others… and nothing else was needed in order to make them worthy of rescue. The sole motivation behind the search is the saving love of the one searching, and their Saviour's longing for all to share together in the joy of perfect reunion.
Bottom line: we’re not saved because we deserve it, and others don’t. We’re saved by the great love of God, who has reached out to us in Jesus His Son, and who’s still at work through the Spirit reaching out to everyone else as well. This is Christ’s mission, and as His people it must be at the heart of our life too.
Again, this theme runs through all of Scripture: the saving love of God offered to sinners, none of whom deserve it.
In the moment of crisis at Mt. Sinai, as the scholar Brevard Childs points out, “Moses does not attempt to excuse or mitigate Israel’s sin, but he seeks to overcome it by falling back ultimately on what God can do in making a future possible.” In other words, Moses calls on God to forgive, and to somehow bring life out of the death that Israel had rightly earned for themselves. And that’s what He does. Time and time again, the LORD remains faithful, and listens to the prayers of those who intercede to save His people.
And again, St. Paul was convinced that he was turned around by God’s grace, not his own worthiness. Wright makes the point well: “He wasn’t just a lost sheep; he was a wolf, harrying and devouring the flock. But even he received mercy, so that he might serve as an example. If he could be rescued, anyone could.”
If St. Paul could be rescued, anyone could. Anyone could. Anyone CAN! Because it’s not we who do the saving…
Jesus Christ is the One who still searches for every lost sheep, and every lost coin… He’s the One interceding for all of us, even in the midst of our worst failures… He’s the One who can turn all our hearts around by His love, and turn our lives into signs of God’s great forgiveness at work… He’s the One who bids us all share with Him in the joy of His Father in heaven.
Both sides of the story, both sides of the coin, God’s searching, saving love… for you and I, and for everyone, come together in Jesus Christ, who came and found us at the cross, and lost His life to rescue ours… and rose again to reunite us with God and with each other in His eternal joy.
We are the rescued sheep who had once wandered. We are the recovered coin, that once was lost. We are the people who turned away from our LORD, yet received forgiveness. We are sinners, saved by “the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.” (1 Tim. 1:14).
So then, if this is who we are… how does that change how we see everyone else? If we were once lost, but now are found, how will we treat those who aren’t yet in the fold? As those Christ loves and longs to save, and bring back rejoicing? As those, like us, embraced not because we did something to deserve it… as those, like us, saved by the mercy and grace of God alone? Equally dependent on the rescuing love of Jesus?
I’ll close now with a prayer from the writings of St. Basil: “O Lord, the helper of the helpless, the hope of those who are past hope, the savior of the tempest-tossed, the harbor of the voyagers, the physician of the sick; you know each soul and our prayer, each home and its need; become to each one of us what we most dearly require, receiving us all into your kingdom, making us children of light; and pour on us your peace and love, O Lord our God. Amen." ” 
 N. T. Wright, Twelve Months of Sundays: Reflections on Bible Readings, Year C (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2000), 104–105.
 Brevard S. Childs, The Book of Exodus: A Critical, Theological Commentary, ed. Peter Ackroyd et al., The Old Testament Library (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 568.
 N. T. Wright, Twelve Months of Sundays: Reflections on Bible Readings, Year C (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2000), 105.
 Liturgy of St. Basil the Great, found in Thomas C. Oden and Cindy Crosby, eds., Ancient Christian Devotional: A Year of Weekly Readings: Lectionary Cycle C (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2009), 212.
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Rev. Rob serves as the Priest-in-Charge at St. Luke's Gondola Point, and as the School Chaplain at Rothesay Netherwood School