Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28
Luke 15:1-10

From my perspective, the opening sentences to our gospel lesson this morning are some of the most interesting in all of Scripture: “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him (meaning Jesus). And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’”[1]

Notice how the tax collectors almost always have a special designation and all the other “sinners” are looped in together. I guess the money handlers were a special breed unto themselves.

This news that he welcomes sinners and eats with them is the very best news of all, isn’t it?  Not only does he welcome sinners, but Jesus goes further in order to demonstrate this truth by actually placing his body in their midst. He aligns himself with them and becomes one of them. By so doing, he changes their status as outsiders and dismisses all doubts about their value – though they may have been guilty of whatever.

This is dangerous territory. I mean, if you think that universal health care is a hot topic, try to imagine what it would have been like in those days for someone to have been talking about universal divine love and grace. At the end of the day, that’s really what it’s about, isn’t it?

They grumble because they think they understand, but they really don’t. They grumble because deep down we humans must fight against an incessant need and desire to separate and divide, to one-up, to be “us and them.” They grumble because they fail to see the beam in their own eyes while quick to point out the speck in others.

“He welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

We know what happens when people sit down and eat together. Now, it’s not always true, but more often than not, the actual food becomes less important in comparison to the spiritual and emotional food being served. Conversations are held in which we get to hear what’s really on the minds and hearts of those we care about. Hopefully, there is laughter and teasing and enjoying the sight of the other. There are shared stories and memories created and rehearsed. We are fed by good company and knowing that we belong to someone and someone belongs to us. Often feelings of love and connection are made, as well as hopefulness about how the relationship might evolve. Even a business meeting can take on a different tone when food is involved.

It’s a way of giving one’s self, time and money; establishing or re-establishing a sense of importance of the other. There is a lot that happens – then and now – over a simple meal though we most likely take it for granted, unaware of it all.

Of all of the expressions that Jesus could have used to symbolize his ongoing love and presence, it was at the table in which all are welcome: take and eat my body, here is the cup, drink from it.

So, how does Jesus respond to their grumblings and complaints? He tells not one story but two – actually there are three – in common language to help them understand.

There is a shepherd who leaves ninety-nine safe sheep and goes after the one who is lost.   That seems ridiculous to leave 99 safe ones, putting them at risk to go after just one who is lost. It makes no sense at all – unless of course, you are the lost one out there on your own and subject to all kinds of danger – in need of someone to rescue you.

Or the woman that has 9 silver coins but searches all day and night – sweeps the house over and over again – desperate to find the one piece missing.

Not included in today’s lesson is that 3rd parable – the one that really gets to us. A young son comes to his father and begs his inheritance. This would have been unheard of in Jewish life. He goes away, spends everything, lives like there is no tomorrow, and ends up in the pigpen of life. But he recognizes his sad and desolate state. He decides to pick himself up and return to his father’s care. And this is where things get really murky. Dad throws a big party, kills the fatted calf, calls all the neighbors, asks for a ring to put on the son’s finger and a robe for his back. “My son that was lost is found; was blind but now he sees.

Jesus could have stopped right there, but he didn’t. Jesus goes on to talk about the older brother – the son who never left home, who is always close by, dutiful and responsible, always safe – just like the 99 sheep, just like the 9 silver coins – tucked away securely. This furious older son remains close in body, but his heart and mind have wandered to the far country and he’d rather there not be any commendation at all over the “wayward” son. But I tell you, he is just as lost.

Jesus tells us this last piece, I think, to remind us of how close we too can come to being lost; doing all the right things, feeling entitled and a bit self-righteous, thinking we are safe (even if we are not really safe at all).

In all 3 of these incidences, there is glorious rejoicing over that which was found: the one lost sheep, the lost coin, the wayward son – great joy! Perhaps, Jesus is pointing the way to universal joy for all – where no one is disqualified for any reason. We must ask ourselves about our commitment to be catalysts where such joy is manifested. What might that look like for us and them?

I’m glad this morning that heaven rejoices over each of us because we all fit into the “sinners” category, I think. We are all guilty in one way or another. Try as we might not to, we say things and do things while failing to say and do things all the time. We hold grudges and can’t let go. We are part of systems that oppress whether we participate directly or not.

We are imperfect creatures made of clay with our biases and preferences. I don’t mean to rain on anybody’s parade, but we are sinners saved by grace and all too often lost and needing to find ourselves.

So often, people come into our doors who are also lost, perhaps because of things they have done or things that were done to them or circumstances of life.

I was thinking about this the other day and remembering Ash Wednesday a few years ago.  As I got off the elevator, I noticed a gentleman sitting in the entrance of the west side door.  He had asked to see a pastor.

I hurriedly introduced myself thinking the timing was “off.” It was Ash Wednesday after all, and a few people had already gathered for the 12:30 service. Ashes were waiting.

“Would you mind coming back in an hour or so,” I asked. He agreed. By way of introduction, he said “My name is James Eagle – like the bird.” I imagined he used this line many times over the years.

Sure enough, about an hour and half later, Mr. Eagle (like the bird) found his way back and I invited him to my office. His sad eyes were down-cast. He was a disheveled man and my first impression was that he was surely going to ask for money – but he did not. He began to tell me that his mother had passed away a few days before, but her body still remained in the morgue at St. Luke’s Hospital.

He didn’t know where to begin to get her out and buried. The hospital had said that he needed to remove her body soon. He was alone, no siblings, no close relatives, no church of his own. The mother had attended somewhere uptown but was no longer active. There was little information about her financial affairs, although she had a little money somewhere that he seemed to know about. No community, no pastor, little to no information.

He didn’t have a funeral home in mind, didn’t know where she could be buried, or whom to ask. “I’m lost,” he said. I looked at him, and to be honest, my heart broke. “How can these things be,” I asked myself.

So often when people come to me in despair, I hear words or phrases like: “I’m overwhelmed, I’m angry or frustrated, I’m mad or sad or I just don’t know what to do.” But somehow, his use of the words “I’m lost” hit deep. It takes a certain amount of abandonment and self-awareness to use these words. “I’m in a wilderness trapped in despair and I cannot find my way out.”

I went to my desk and made a few phone calls. His mother would be buried within the week in a cemetery in New Jersey – further away than he had hoped, but less expensive and doable. He thought he could get a cousin to do the service – though I offered. He thanked me repeatedly and I’ve never seen him since.

A few weeks later one of the custodians handed me a laminated card – the kind provided by funeral homes in memory of the deceased.

James Eagle (like the bird) had returned and left it for me. He wanted to make sure that I knew everything had turned out well. And to say thank you.

What a great reminder on that Ash Wednesday. I have never forgotten. He was as much a gift to me that day as I have ever received – a reminder of why we are here and what Ash Wednesday is all about.

Remember, you are dust and to dust you shall return. His mother and my mother are dust – the same kind as you and all you’ve loved. We all come from the very same clay – him and me – and our mothers and fathers: earth to earth, ashes to ashes.

That’s why we need to keep these doors open, my friends. We need to keep them open. We need to do everything we can to keep this ministry alive. Because we never know what kind of bird might fly in.

Oh, the joy that floods my soul thinking about the kind of conduits we can be through which people are free to fly. The kind of place where the lost can wander in and find themselves – even as we find our own selves. Where God pulls out the red carpet and welcomes us all back with new thoughts, new opportunities, and new direction. May we join the party as heaven rejoices over us all.

[1] Luke 15:1-2