On losing, seeking and finding . . . sometimes.
A sermon on Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28; Psalm 14; 1 Timothy 1:12-17 & Luke 15:1-10
by the Revd Marita Munro, 12 September 2004
Todays lectionary readings share some common themes: the experience of loss and devastation, searching, finding. . . sometimes. Some losses in our lives are trivial; others are overwhelming.
I feel as if I have spent a good part of my life searching for things that have gone missing: keys, purses, wallets, pens, sunglasses, combs. Where do they go? A few months ago I bought a new handbag. The zip had broken. This was inevitable after I had endlessly overstuffed the poor thing with many items it wasnt intended to hold. When I bought a new bag, I carefully removed everything from the old bag, threw out the rubbish and transferred the good stuff to the new bag. I had a set of keys in the old handbag that belonged to a relative whose place I had been staying in between house moves. I could have sworn that I had carefully transferred these keys from the old bag to the new one. When my cousin asked me to return the keys, I looked for them in the new bag. They werent there! I couldnt find them anywhere. I searched my new flat, drawers, pockets, bags and cases. I was sure I had lost the keys - and my wits as well. I apologised to my cousin who simply laughed and said, Dont worry about it! To my astonishment and great joy, a few weeks later, when I was cleaning out the new handbag, I discovered that the lost keys had found a tiny gap in one of the bags many compartments and fallen through to the lining together with coins, combs and sundry other items it was quite a find. An unexpected bonus. Not only were the keys not lost but neither was my sanity after all! Well it was a trivial incident. Hardly earth shattering.
Other losses are much more significant and the searching may be heart-rending. This week we are reeling from the news of Beslan and Jakarta - the terrible suffering of parents and communities who have lost children and loved ones in sieges and bombings. The tragedy and devastation is beyond description. Some of the parents of Beslan are still searching for their children and waiting for news of family members. The Baptist World Alliance has informed us that the Baptist pastor of the church in that town has lost three of his five children and his brother, a church elder, four of his children. One of Pastor Sergei Totijevs surviving children is severely injured and the other has lost his sight. Four of the elders children are still missing. Their experience is the reality for many people in the world - loss, searching and often, little joy in the outcome.
Scripture speaks of the universal experience of loss and searching; it reveals God as one who searches. The prophet Jeremiah, whose people caught up in the midst of middle eastern politics, speaks of unrelenting desolation, bleakness, a hot wind, threatening invasion, war and suffering the reality of many people throughout the world today Sudan, Middle East, Iraq, Beslan, Indonesia we remember them in our prayers of intercession. In Jeremiah God looks for signs of goodness, light and life but doesnt find them.
The Psalmist cries out in Psalm 14: There is no one who does good no, not one! Are these evil doers mad? They eat up my people like so much bread. You would confound the plans of the poor but the Lord is their refuge. What is God up to? God is searching, looking for evidence of righteousness, seeking signs of goodness but not finding. God searches in vain. The Psalm is concerned with the state of society as a whole, not only with the plight of the individual. It is a lament on behalf of those who suffer from things as they are - no compassion and little accountability in a so-called religious society. The Psalm concludes: If only a Saviour would come from Zion to restore the peoples fortunes. This is a wish prayer for the salvation of the people of God.
We are in the midst of a frenetic election campaign, I believe that many good people long to hear a vision for our society that goes beyond tax cuts for the middle and upper income brackets or a $600 family income supplement. Surely we need something more that inspires us: the vision of a nation that cares for the vulnerable (including the environment) and works for the common good, not simply for sectional interests; a nation which prizes the values of honesty and integrity, goodness and excellence, creativity and commitment; a nation in which security of borders and maintaining what some have at the expense of others, is not the main consideration. Surely we can do better!
In the Gospel we find stories that Jesus told from everyday life about men and women losing, searching, finding and celebrating. Theres one about a shepherd and a woman a perfectly matched pair of stories told to a mixed audience that included tax collectors and sinners, Pharisees and scribes. The joy of the shepherd and the woman contrast beautifully with the grumbling of the scribes and Pharisees towards Jesus open-handedness. Luke 14 ends with the words: let the ones with ears to hear, listen. Jesus has been talking about the cost of discipleship and not letting salt lose its flavour. Luke 15 begins with the words that the tax collectors and sinners were drawing near to Jesus to listen to him. It would seem that they are the ones with ears to hear! For Luke, real hearing is a sign of conversion. Hearing precedes obedience. The tax collectors hear the words of Jesus and acknowledge the justice of God (7:34). The words of the transfiguration account are significant: This is my Son, my Chosen. Listen to him (Lk 9:35). Sinners and tax collectors listen while Pharisees and scribes complain/grumble. (The word to grumble suggests more than a private whinge it refers to a public ongoing remonstrating. Who is this?) This is an indication that the message of Jesus, while especially attractive to some is repellent to others! And they are not happy, Jesus!
Love discriminates. Jesus is not apparently being even handed. More than any other Gospel, Luke likes to show that there are no acceptable limits to the grace of God. He singles out those considered to have no hope in this world as the special recipients of Gods grace. (Samaritans, Gentiles, widows, women, children, lepers, the sick and demon-possessed, the poor, tax collectors and sinners). Gods welcome is for all. Luke is well aware of accusations brought against Jesus by religious leaders. They were shocked by his associations with outcasts and his free offer of forgiveness.
We read that a farmer loses a sheep. Wasnt that a tiny little bit careless? Wasnt it a gamble to leave 99 perfectly good sheep in the wilderness on their own, without a border collie or blue heeler to keep them in line and go scouting for the lost one?
Isnt the shepherd using dodgy maths? Surely one does not equal ninety-nine? According to the prophet Ezekiel (34:11), Yahweh denounces the shepherds of Israel who dont caring for their people. Yahweh declares: I myself will search for my sheep and seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when some of his sheep have been scattered abroad, so will I seek out my sheep; and I will rescue them. The image of the good shepherd was a well-loved one in the ancient world as well as in Scripture. It expressed tender care. (See overhead transparency of the Catacombs image)
According to the Gospel of Thomas, the sheep that was lost was the largest (and therefore the most valuable). When he found the sheep, the shepherd told him that he loved it more than all the rest. This interpretation is totally absent from the Gospel accounts. In fact Matthews context infers that the sheep may have been one of the weakest ones and in danger of going astray.
What about the story of the lost coin? We probably wouldnt worry about a 5 cent piece rolling behind the bed or the desk. But the coin in the parable coin was worth much more than that to a 1st century woman. It may well have been part of her dowry sewn into her head covering, and worth more than a days wages for an unskilled labourer. Looking for the coin in a small, dark one roomed Palestinian house with no windows was no fun. The Jewish Talmud says: He who studies the law is like a person, who having lost a coin or necklace in his house, lights many lamps until he recovers it.
The shepherd and the poor woman lose, search, find what is lost, call their friends and neighbours, and throw a big party. Luke stresses the joy that is experienced when someone regains something which has been lost. This human joy pales into insignificance before the joy that God experiences when God recovers what has been lost. In Jesus context, those who are lost are people who employ dubious business methods and avoid any form of religion that could bother their lives. The tax agents and sinners represent the outcast and the poor who respond positively to Jesus. They eat with him and respond to him. In the ancient world table fellowship, like hospitality, symbolised spiritual unity. Their opponents are devout people who impose great sacrifices on themselves in order to serve God. Jesus simply acts out the parable that he is telling. The New Testament scholar Eta Linneman, writing about the Parable of Jesus said: There is a direct line between Jesus parable and his death. His parables were shocking in so many ways. He acted out the parables that he was telling. Through his encounters with people, Jesus was expressing the nature of God. God is one who seeks after us and rejoices in our being found and restored. God invites us to be people like that people after his own nature in all our interactions and thinking. It is this nature that allows the author of 1 Timothy to write that he was not finally determined or condemned by the failures of the past: Even tho I was formally a blasphemer, a persecutor and a man of violence, I received mercy. (1 Tim 1: 13)
After the memorial service for his children, Beslan Pastor, Sergey Totiev said he would not seek revenge on the killers of his children; others in the crowd started to curse and vowed to take revenge against the terrorists but Pastor Totiev said: Yes we have an irreplaceable loss, but we cannot take revenge. As Christians the Bible teaches us that we must forgive. Vengeance is in Gods hands.