Rev. Heather J. Blais, Rector
In today’s gospel, Jesus is teaching a large crowd as they travel towards Jerusalem. Within the crowd were tax collectors, and individuals known to be sinners. When Jesus heard some Pharisees and scribes grumbling about the company he kept, Jesus offered them a series of three parables:
In the parable of the lost sheep, a shepherd leaves ninety-nine sheep in order to go and find the one that has strayed away. It’s no small risk. After all, while seeking out the lone sheep something could happen to those ninety-nine others that might endanger the lives of the sheep, and the livelihood of the shepherd.
James Rebank, a shepherd in England, describes shepherding in his book The Shepherd’s Life: A Tale of the Lake District, as well as, actively on Twitter. Rebank writes:
“My job is simple: get around the fields and feed and shepherd the different flocks of ewes--dealing with any issues that arise. First rule of shepherding: it’s not about you; it’s about the sheep and the land. Second rule: sometimes you can’t win. Third rule: shut up, and go and do the work” (p.201).
The shepherd in today’s parable, likely shared a similar outlook. Finding this sheep was simply part of the shepherd’s calling and responsibility. It’s not about the shepherd’s ego, or even the shepherd’s livelihood; it’s about the sheep and the land. Even if the shepherd’s search were to prove unsuccessful, the work of shepherding, of caring for the lost, and the found, is simply part of the job.
When the shepherd in the parable finds his lost sheep, he calls his friends and neighbors, and says, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost” (Luke 15:6). Finding this lost sheep is a relief, and a joy worthy of celebration. Rebank describes this kind of joy when he writes, “As ever with a farming life, the little triumphs matter, because of the countless failures” (p.160).
This parable is a reminder to the crowd listening to Jesus, and to us, that no one is beyond redemption. Whether we have lost our way, or have been found for a long while, our lives have value and meaning to our God. Not for God’s ego, but because we are each beloved, beautiful, and broken children of God. Sometimes we are going to get lost. Sometimes we are going to muck up our lives and the lives of those around us. And even still, God will come searching after us. Because we are loved beyond measure, even when we lose our way.
In the parable of the lost coin, we see a woman who loses one of the ten silver coins she has in her home, as she lights a lamp and searches high and low until she finds it. This story is interpreted in a couple of ways. One interpretation is that the woman is poor, and finding this coin is essential to her livelihood. Of course she will sweep her home from top to bottom, using what precious and expensive oil might be in her lamp to find the coin. Then when she finds the coin, it is such good news that she calls her friends and neighbors to say, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost” (15:9).
Another interpretation to this story, and admittedly, the one I prefer, indicates this woman is actually not poor. Indeed, she owns a home, and these ten coins reflect the money she has on hand in her home at that particular moment. Upon the realization that she has lost the coin, she lights her lamp, and sweeps her home high and low until she finds the coin. Using this lens, the woman is not searching out of fear and scarcity, but rather out of our mutual calling to be good stewards of our resources. The woman is ensuring she is a responsible caretaker who wastes nothing.
Both of these stories serve as a reminder that each and every person is a beloved, beautiful, and broken child of God. Each and every one of us here today; each and every person out there; and even, each and every internet troll, criminal, or ‘bad guy’. The good news about the Good News is that it is for everyone.
Which is why at the invitation for Holy Eucharist, Molly and I say every week, “This is God’s table, and all are welcome here. No exceptions.”
We are each of value and worth, even losing our way does not take away this truth. None of us is beyond the reach of our God. When we lose our way, God will turn the light on, and sweep the house to find us. When we’ve lost all hope, God will bare the elements to find us in the wilderness. This is the message Jesus wants the crowd of tax collectors, sinners, families, elderly travelers, Pharisees, scribes, disciples, and all the rest of the travelers to hear.
Yet if we keep digging, these parables hold even more truth for us. The shepherd who puts his care of the sheep and land before himself. The woman who puts her care of her resources before herself. Just as humanity is never beyond redemption, nor is all of creation.
During this season of creation care, the Church is invited to wake up to the ways we have abused our power over the earth. In the beginning, we were called to be stewards of creation, and instead we have become a cancer to creation, draining the earth of its resources and leaving a wasteland in our midst. These parables are an invitation for us to be better caretakers of creation. We have become accustomed to convenience, and often are unwilling or unsure of how to change our customs and behaviors so that creation might begin to heal. Many of us know we need to do something, but are unsure of where to begin.
In the last nine months, the church’s new Green Team has worked to help us navigate ways to help be better stewards of creation. They’ve hosted 100 mile meals, asked us to take creation care pledges, maintain a blog, and on November 10, the Green Team will be leading a discussion of the book 101 Ways to Go Zero Waste. Our Green Team is here to help us, as we seek to live more intentionally as caretakers of creation. And there are countless other resources in the Pioneer Valley to help us live more intentionally.
We do not have to be overwhelmed into inaction. To do so, would be a choice to remain lost in the wilderness. God has invited us to realize something bigger. We are never too lost for God. Nor is God’s creation too lost to be healed. Not if we work together. Amen.
In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus is dining in the home of a prominent Pharisee. All the other guests are pretty curious about Jesus. They’ve heard he has a reputation for eating with prostitutes and tax collectors. Even before they sat down to eat, Jesus healed a man with dropsy, in spite of it being the Sabbath.Jesus was captivating, compelling, and yet, he routinely ignored social norms. No one really knew what to make of him.
While most of the guests were vying for seats near the host, Jesus hung back and watched. He then began to address his fellow guests with a parable. When you attend a reception, it’s wise to take the least prominent seat in the room. The seat that is furthest from the host and other guests. If you take the prominent seat, you risk embarrassing yourself and your host, should they need to ask you to move for a more honored guest. Whereas if you take the lowliest seat, your host may honor you by asking you to come and sit with them.
Jesus’ parable about humility is poignant and timeless. Sometimes we become so captivated by a compelling person, suddenly in our midst, that we forget ourselves. Have you ever hung back at a dinner party only to notice a crowd gathered around a prominent person, seemingly hanging on the individual’s every word? We get caught up in the prestige or power the person represents. Some small part of ourselves wants to be glorified, and in that instant we lose sight of building genuine relationships. Instead it becomes about what we stand to gain.
Jesus is suggesting we do something counterintuitive. It’s a matter of asking ourselves when we arrive in those social situations--what would be best for my host? By putting their needs before our desires, we are both practicing humility and loving our host.
Jesus goes a step further by offering his host some feedback. When you invite people to dinner, don’t invite your friends, family, or prominent guests, as they might return your hospitality. Instead, embrace those guests who can never repay you. Invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. In doing so, the host will be blessed by building genuine relationships with those they might never have gotten to know otherwise.
Jesus provided his host, and fellow guests, with a good deal of uncomfortable things to consider. What if we welcome this lesson as an opportunity to explore our own discomfort?
Do you remember November 2016? In the two weeks between Election Day and Thanksgiving Day, I heard the same angst repeated on public radio, in editorials, in the news, and overwhelmingly on social media. How were we to break bread with our family on Thanksgiving Day? The perception, whether it be real or perceived, was that our nation was more divided than ever over the recent election of now President Trump. How would Trump supporters and Clinton supporters ever find anything to talk about, besides the cranberry sauce? For many people, sharing this one meal felt insurmountable and painful. People came up with excuses to change their Thanksgiving plans, so they didn’t have to sit through an uncomfortable meal with their family.
Yet the true damage of that season, was not our anxiety about how to deal with uncomfortable dinner conversation with the family we vehemently disagree with. Rather, it was inviting the darkness in our world to takeover our meal, to drive us away from genuine relationships and the light and blessing that is born there. Because our God is a God of abundant love, and our God values being in genuine relationships above all else. Even with those who we believe voted for the wrong person, whoever that may be for you. This division has pervaded our culture in the years since, and if we buy into it, darkness will continue to grow and further fracture our relationships.
Or, we can choose to sit with the uncomfortable truth that Christ offers us in today’s lesson. We can spend some time reflecting.
If you were to host a meal and invite guests beyond your comfort zone, who would you invite?
Jesus is calling us to turn away from fulfilling our own desires, from spending all our time with people who might improve our social standing or who might repay us. Instead, we are being called to turn our attention towards the needs of creation and our neighbors. The first step we have to take is practicing some humility. We all have gotten caught up with a prominent guest, hanging on there every word. We have all done some networking, hoping the favor might be returned. It’s human, it may even be part of what has made our species evolve so successfully. And, it also works against the dream God has for us.
God calls us to be in genuine relationship with one another and creation. This includes spending time with people we would rather not hang out with, and taking care of our earth by doing things we’d rather not be inconvenienced by, like composting and limiting the meat we eat. The thing we least want to do, the person we least want to break bread with--that is probably where God is calling us to go.
I wonder, what if instead of just imagining such a meal with those who make us uncomfortable, we actually each hosted one? What blessing might come from building genuine relationships?
By Bill Hattendorf
“Do not be afraid, little flock,” the lesson starts out. Fear not. We have heard these words before in Luke’s gospel.
They’re the words that the angel Gabriel spoke to aged Zechariah, when he announces that a son will be born to him and wife Elizabeth, they who had waited so long for a child. “Fear not.”
These are the words that Gabriel speaks to a trembling teenage girl when he brings the message that she will carry Jesus in her womb.
They are the words spoken by the angel of the Lord in the shepherds’ field, “Do not be afraid … I bring you good • news of great joy for all the people.”
They are the words that Jesus uses to summon his first disciples after they haul in a boatful of fish. Peter and Andrew promptly leave their nets and follow him.
These are the words that herald miraculous births, joyful news, and calls to loving action.
So why does Jesus use them now? The news that he proclaims will no doubt raise some anxiety. His message is not easy. As the words of angels cause those in their presence to tremble, so too, does the cost of discipleship.
Jesus goes on to instruct his followers. Sell your possessions, he says, and give alms. Strive for the eternal, not for the things of earth which do not endure. This is hard news for a group of Christians in the first century (who weren’t known as Christians yet, of course), many of whom probably struggled just to get by.
I’ve got to think that the radical message that we find in Luke’s gospel, a vision of a new reign where the powerful are cast down and the lowly lifted up, likely did not have much appeal among the upper classes of society. It was fearsome news, indeed, that the order of things, our structures of power, would be turned on their heads.
I think this passage should really end a verse later. Those verses immediately after today’s lesson are not included in the Sunday lectionary. After our reading about giving all one has to the poor and about being on the watch for Christ’s unexpected return, we may well want to echo Peter’s question that comes in verse 41: He says, “Lord, are you telling this parable for us or for everyone?” (Or, Do we have to pay attention now?”)
In terms of family background, my mom’s Scottish McLeod family was part Methodist and part Episcopal. My dad’s parents of German background were Lutheran.
Naturally, I was baptized Lutheran, confirmed Methodist, but always knew in my heart I was an Episcopalian. With such church cross-cultures growing up, I’ve sometimes found it particularly challenging to remember which Chistmas carols or which verses belong where. But I do remember singing a hymn with the Lutherans that was:
“Have no fear, little flock, Have no fear, little flock, For the Father has chosen to give you the Kingdom Have no fear, little flock.”
“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is God’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Our reading today tells us that all that is worth having, God has already given, and gladly so. It brings God joy to share with us the eternal reign of heaven. And that should be our starting point. Treasure that, Jesus says.
The phrase “Do not be afraid” is the hallmark of good news throughout Scripture and it occurs multiple times in Luke's story of Jesus as well. (It is also what God says in today's first reading in Isaiah.) This “Do not be afraid,” is the rhetorical prelude to the announcement of God's mighty and saving deeds. And it’s the starting point and anchor for everything else in this passage. It is God's good pleasure – God's intention, plan, and delight – to give you the kingdom! If this is true, then disciples can, indeed, resist the seduction of wealth, not fall prey to constant anxiety about worldly needs, share what they have with others, and wait expectantly, even eagerly, for the heavenly kingdom.
The watchfulness that Jesus commands, I think, is not an anxious anticipation of the end of the world – but rather an eager expectation of God's consummation of history. What Jesus is commending is faith – faith that frees us to be generous; faith that enables us to leave anxiety behind; faith that creates confidence in us about a future secured not by human endeavor or achievement but by God alone. And todays’s second lesson was pretty much all about faith too.
Jesus does not simply hold out faith as a model and goal, much less as a standard by which to judge us. Rather, Jesus creates faith by announcing a promise: Like a parent loves one’s children deeply and desperately and wants all good things for them, so also is it God's good pleasure to give God's children the kingdom.
Promises create a shared expectation about the future and bind together the giver and receiver of the promise in that shared anticipation. Promises create relationship. Promises create hope. Promises CREATE faith. All of our instruction about the Christian life – whether about prayer, money, watchfulness, care of neighbor, and more – are therefore anchored in the gospel promise that it is, indeed, God's good pleasure to give us the kingdom. Remembering – indeed, exalting in – this promise enables us not only to have faith, but to answer Peter's question: is Jesus saying this to us or to everyone? — Yes!
The faith that is shared by Abraham and Sarah, by those first disciples of Jesus, by the little flock of Christians to whom Luke’s gospel speaks, is a faith that calls us to be dressed for action, speaking out on the issues of our day. It is a faith that calls us to be politically active, fiscally generous, and compassionate in every area of our life as we journey together toward the promised land. Christ calls us to respond gratefully, with love that risks, love that gives, love that answers, love that never stops hoping for the beauty of heaven, and never stops seeking to show that beauty here on earth.
While “Have No Fear. Little Flock” has not really stayed with me over the years, another song that relates to todays lesson, I think, has: It’s a Curtis Mayfield song from the 1960s that echoes the spirituals style in the African-American tradition. Mayfield titled his song “People Get Ready.” I bet you know it. The lines speak of faith:
People get ready, There's a train a comin'.
You don't need no baggage, you just get on board.
All you need is faith to hear the diesels hummin'.
You don't need no ticket, you just thank the Lord.
People get ready for the train to Jordan,
Picking up passengers from coast to coast.
Faith is the key Open the doors and board them,
There’s room for all Amongst the loved the most.
“All you need is faith,” Curtis Mayfield assures us.
That is where it starts, isn’t it?
The certainty of God’s favor, revealed, lived, died, raised, and ascended in Jesus.
It is only after this promise that we can imagine any kind of concept of what our treasure might be.
What is the power behind life?
Having faith makes it possible to be prepared for and
become an actual participant in God’s kingdom.
Only with faith, we are able to hear its sweet song.
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