Just who are the lost sheep and the lost coin?
When I was in the first or second grade, I asked my dad if I could carve the pumpkin. My dad said, “no. Your hand will slip up the knife and you’ll cut yourself.” I’ll bet you know what happens next. I waited for about an hour, until my dad had gone upstairs to do some work. I snuck into the kitchen, listening carefully for my parent’s footsteps, and grabbed the big carving knife. “The pumpkin can't be that hard to carve. He didn't say I couldn't put a hole in the pumpkin did he? I just couldn't carve the whole thing right? If I can just show him that I can carve an eye out of the pumpkin, then he’ll let me carve the whole pumpkin.”
I stabbed that pumpkin with the knife and up the blade went my hand. The knife was so sharp that at first I didn’t realize I’d done any damage. But of course when I pulled the knife away there was a substantial amount of blood dripping down my right hand. You can still see the scars on my pointer and middle finger today. Of course realizing that I was going to be in a lot of trouble, I decided the best course of action was to wrap my fingers up in paper towels and hurry up to my room pulling my sleeves down over my hands. I needed to hide my deed. Remind you of anyone else (Adam and Eve come to mind at all?).
I wasn’t afraid of my injury, I was utterly terrified of how my parents were going to respond to my defiance of their directive and so I kept that hand hidden for as long as I could. I somehow managed to get out of the house and onto the bus without my parents noticing. It wasn’t until I was bleeding all over the school, leaving a trail behind me with teachers scrambling to figure out where it was coming from, that my parents found out through a teacher’s phone call. Both my parents - my mom a teacher, my dad a management consultant - were called out of busy classrooms and meetings to come and take me to the hospital.
I felt sick to my stomach with how they would respond and sat in the principal’s office feeling just short of utter despair. Yet when they arrived, I exclaimed, I'm sorry, I know you told me not to. To my shock, the first thing I received was a hug and comforting words that it would be okay, we’d get it fixed up and I wouldn’t even miss my baseball game. The sense of relief and thanks I felt for their merciful response to my disobedience and the pain it caused me, taught me far more than would have a punishment. It taught me that I could trust my parents. It taught me that they sought my good in the rules they set for me and what I could and couldn’t do, because, and here’s the key point: they loved me and wanted me to flourish (repeat this). That they were willing to come after me in the midst of their busy days tending to all their other activities - come after me when I’d done wrong - also taught me that I needed to be responsible so they didn’t need to come to my rescue again.
In this morning’s Gospel we hear Jesus tell two parables. The one lost sheep of the 99 a shepherd has and a woman who finds the one coin she lost of the 10 she had. In both parables Jesus is driving home one fundamental point: God rejoices in reclaiming those who are perhaps the most deeply embedded in sin. In fact, Jesus says, “God rejoices more over the one who repents than the 99 righteous people who need no repentance.”
Now we know from the rest of our Scriptures that no one is righteous - no not one, says psalm 14; or, in John’s letter, “if you say that you have no sin the truth is not in you and you do not know Christ.” So I would suggest that Jesus’s words to the Pharisees and Scriptures are in fact an understated rebuke: oh dear Israelites, you who turn from God with the presumption he will not provide; you with your golden calf of self appointed righteousness. My friends, you’re doing it again, can’t you see. I have come to you over and over, to Abraham, to Moses, to your prophets, priests and kings, and here, I am, the I am, the Messiah, here to bring mercy to all the lowly whom I told you to provide mercy to whom you haven’t, and again, you do not recognize me.
It is you, my Israelite Pharisees, who have cut yourselves off from God’s love. It is you, my Scribes, who know the letters of my law, but are blind and ignorant to my presence. I have come for you, don’t you see? And yet as I promised your ancestor, Abraham, through you, even in your defiance, and out of your defiance, I will gather all nations to me.
That ‘one lost sheep, or the one lost coin’ Jesus speaks about stands for more than a single sinner. These items are metaphors for all gentiles who are gathered to God not through procreation (as are the Israelites) but through adoption into the very body of Jesus who gave up his life because he loved Jew and gentile, saint and sinner, slave and free, men and women. However, we hear in Romans 9-11 that they also stand for every Jew who is God's through procreation. That last coin, is all of us. For no one is righteous. All of us stray from God at various points in our lives. Gentile and Jew, slave and free, man and woman. I will not drown you in a flood, I will not let you be turned over to self destruction, war, violence, your own self inflicted pain. For I love you and will gather you to myself if you turn to me. I will not force you. So turn to me. For our God so loves every person whom he made, each one, even the sinful thief on the cross, even Judas his betrayer, even the Jews who will call for his execution, even the millions who do not or cannot hear, even person who merely grasps the fringes of Jesus’s cloak, who struggle desperately to walk a path of faith.
Getting back to my story. You see like my parents, Jesus knows every aspect of our lives. He knows all of our gifts. He knows our longing to establish ourselves as valuable, worthy, competent, and independent, yet connected, desperately seeking our perfection. He knows our joys and what really drives us. He knows all of the experiences we’ve had that have caused us to struggle and suffer. He knows what we fear. He knows our pain and sorrow and our confusion. He knows our ignorance. He knows that we are all caught up in a world that bears the consequences of every person’s individual and our collective sin.
Seeing this from the Cross, surveying the entire swath of human existence, Jesus cries out in the voice of every human being who ever has or ever will live: my God, my God why have you forsaken me? I know I screwed up. There is blood on my hands. I can see it flowing down my arm and all around me. Please come for me. Do not leave me for I have cut myself off and I cannot fix it. And as my parents came for me when the truth of my cut was finally revealed, so God comes for everyone who reveals their brokenness and asks for help. He gathers them to himself, drawing them through the hospital of his body, the Church and its collective life of healing our wounds with prayer, with immersion in his life, with hope and joy in his fellowship. I will have mercy on you and I will restore you all if you will but open up to me even when your hearts are the darkest. Why? Because I love you. Come to me and find rest for your wounded and weary souls. My burden is light and my mercy will follow you all your days. AMEN.