a homily for Proper 19C
Text: Luke 15:1-10
In or Out?
There are a million different ways to enter into this gospel. It is a familiar enough one that some of our long-tenured members are likely to have heard them all. The favorite approach is this one: these are two of the three “lost” parables: stories about someone seeking after that which was lost: a shepherd to a sheep, a woman to a coin, a father to his sons. The third, the most famous of the three has brought us one of the most recognizable words in all of Scripture: prodigal.
The favorite version of this story, then is to talk about GOD. Precisely to talk about what these three stories tell us about the peculiar generosity of GOD. Perhaps the most prominent recent sermon on this is Timothy Keller’s book and video called The Prodigal God: about the crazy idea that GOD seeks us out.
The most common approach, then, is to dwell on GOD’s relationship to us. I think we ought to go in the opposite direction this time and talk about our relationship to GOD.
Precisely because these stories are parables, not allegories. Jesus much less frequently says OK, this is what GOD is like. Here he starts talking about us, what we would do in these situations.
And each of these three parables is under-girded by its unspoken question which I will ask you here at the outset.
The chapter begins by pointing out that Jesus is being followed by traitors and sinners and the righteous leaders. And He challenges the hearers by saying that GOD is so much happier about a sinner being redeemed than all the righteous. So here’s the question:
Are you a sinner in need of redemption or are you the righteous?
Many of our friends will try to wiggle out of the question with some pretty theological gymnastics.
- Our Evangelical Protestant friends would no doubt say we are all sinners in need of redeeming and throw the question out.
- Our Catholic friends may say let’s go back to that talk about GOD’s relationship to us and ignore the question.
- Our Mainline Protestant friends would say we are all sinners and righteous, so it depends and try to obscure the question.
As Episcopalians, from the Anglican stream of the church that is neither Protestant nor Catholic, and who are too often prone to our own brand of wishy washy, who like to recycle the old jokes about ourselves with which the outside world has teased us for the last century, I think we ought to prove them all cowards and deal with the question.
Are we sinners in need of redeeming or are we righteous? How fitting that we would last week be called to examine what it means to be a disciple, that we would be compelled to look into our own hearts to see if we are truly on the path with Jesus or if we took a break and are having drinks at the local pub. That’s right! Jesus was taking us somewhere, wasn’t He. How long have I been sitting here?
This is something each of us can only discern for ourselves. Are we the sinners or the righteous?
These stories are different depending on how we answer. If you are the sinner, it says GOD will be so very proud of you, so excited to see you come home. If you are the righteous, well, you’re already home. You get to watch someone else get a great big party in their honor.
Perhaps a little less like Cain
I’m reminded of the often misunderstood story in Genesis of Cain and Abel. In the third chapter, GOD has given the first human a name, Adam, which means from the soil and a job to till the soil. It is a profound mission for humanity to be from the soil and care for the soil. Adam’s son Cain follows in his footsteps. He tills the soil just like his dad. His brother, Abel herds animals. The two brothers take the best of the best from their respective fields and give them as an offering to GOD. When GOD sees what Abel has given, GOD is so pleased and showers him with praise.
Seeing this, Cain is so overcome with hurt and jealousy that he does the unthinkable. When GOD sees what Cain has done GOD is overcome. Cain tries to explain to GOD that he was doing what GOD asked of him, that he only wanted that love his brother got from Him. And GOD’s response is so important. GOD tells Cain that what is pleasing is that Abel brought something new.
Cain was doing what he was called to do. He was responsible. He was faithful. GOD isn’t pleased with staying the course. Being inside. Because there we are already close to GOD. GOD loves when we strike out on our own and do something new, something exciting that we know will please GOD because we know GOD.
The party isn’t for the insiders, but the outsiders that walk in and say I’m tired of running away. I want to come home. This can be home to me.
Prudence is the wrong virtue
Of these three parables, my favorite is the one most overlooked. The middle one. The one in which Jesus presents a woman who has lost a coin. She lights a lamp, looks all over for this coin, and when she finds it, she invites her friends over for a big party.
If this woman were one of the righteous, I bet the story would be a little different.
Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not go to bed and sleep on it, rising with the sun at dawn when the light is better, coming through the east window of course, then prudently scours the house for her missing coin until she finds it? When she has found it, she takes it to the bank so that she might not lose it again and then heads to work blaming herself for her own carelessness.
What the woman in Jesus’s version does is ridiculous and wasteful. If prudence were Jesus’s favorite virtue, then He certainly would have had this woman wait until morning. But it isn’t. And let me say, that prudence couldn’t be further from Jesus’s mind. What Jesus does care about? Urgency. Strip the house and clean it in the middle of the night. Find that coin now. Use the lamp oil. Find the coin and spend it on a big ol’ party.
Get a little crazy!
We need what Michael Curry, bishop of North Carolina, calls Crazy Christians. We are full to brimming with prudence and reason, with wise and considerate. What we need is passion and generosity. We need to display the very character Jesus actually praises. To love and be goofy. To be creative and imagine new ways to please GOD.
This is why we need to deal with our own person—who we are in relationship to GOD. We need to determine whether or not we are in need of redeeming or if we already are redeemed. Because that determines our role at the party.
But either way, there’s going to be a party. And we don’t need grumps bringing us down. Come get blessed or celebrate with someone who is about to get blessed. Because this is a place of blessing, not behaving.
If you’re a sinner, then come on in. We’ve got a party waiting for you.
If you’re a righteous. Start blowing up some balloons. Because we’ve got a party that’s about to start and this place is not ready. But in a minute, we’ll be.