Sep 9, 2016

24th Sunday: Over-the-top mercy

"I have found my lost sheep."

The Word for Sunday:

Luke 15: 1 - 10

One of the most popular shows on the PBS station is called "Antiques Road Show."  Folks from all over the country bring all sorts of items, preferably those of "antique" quality in order to have them appraised.  Everything from art work, sculpture, tapestries, clothing, documents, and books, along with a host of other items, shows up.  Everyone dreams that maybe their item will bear good news and be appraised for some great value. What they bought at a yard sale for a few dollars may wind up being of far greater worth than they ever imagined. Everyone hopes to find that great treasure.  

Our Gospel this Sunday is the fifteenth chapter of Luke. It is rare that an entire chapter of any of the Evangelists would be quoted as the Gospel passage.  Yet, this unique and beautiful writing is priceless. It reveals a fundamental truth of God's nature - mercy and love.  In three very beautiful parables, the last one of the prodigal son, the longer version of our Gospel, Jesus speaks to a skeptical crowd of both those learned in the law (Scribes and Pharisees) and a mixed bag of tax collectors and sinners.

A lost coin, a wandering sheep and an ungrateful son all provide a fundamental lesson of who God is and of what he thinks of us; particularly how he views us when we are lost or wander away and squander the grace he offers to us daily. I can only imagine what the crowd around Jesus appeared like as part of them hung on his every word and drew near to him while the other part held back offering only a critical eye.  

In the end the two parables which open the chapter remind us that in the eyes and heart of God, every human person, regardless of their status or condition, is of priceless value.  Far more than anything that might be valued of costly antique quality. 

The lost sheep and the coin provide a symbolic image of ourselves. Sheep are notoriously not the brightest of animals.  They follow the herd and the voice of their shepherd with seemingly no forethought for their own safety.  This one sheep which Jesus refers to, had strayed away from the safety of the group.  Perhaps it was injured, overly curious or the like.  Yet, he had wandered into danger so the shepherd went in search.  Leaving the other 99 in harms way more or less, he considers this one valuable enough to rescue it - a good shepherd indeed.  Once found, he rejoices.

The coin was just a coin.  Perhaps it fell out of a bag or the owners pocket.  Nonetheless, the woman of the house notice it was missing.  She diligently searches and when finding it, she invites her friends and neighbors to a party for celebration.  That was some coin!  Either that or the town folk considered her a bit nuts to get so excited over one coin while she still had nine more.

Then, something of priceless value is introduced in a similar context.  The son of a father whose ingratitude is shocking by requesting his inheritance before his father's death, insults his father and thereby wished him dead, wanders away from his Father's house and lives a life in shame and self indulgence, Wasting all he was given, eating pig food, in desperation he decides to go back not knowing what kind of reception he will receive.

Like the shepherd who rejoiced and the woman who threw a party, this father behaves far more like a loving mother than a father of that culture.  He embraces, kisses, and calls for a town party to celebrate the new life his son has found. Such irrational behavior on the part of the shepherd, the woman and especially the father in our three parables is over the top of what we might expect.  But these are images of what God is like.  Jesus reminds those in his audience, as he points especially to the sinners in a bold manner, that they are being invited back to their Father's house. God loves them so much that he will rejoice along with the angels in heaven if only one of them turn back to his all embracing arms. We well know that we are among the sheep who wanders, the misplaced coin and certainly we find ourselves given to selfishness and rebellion before the God who has given us more than we deserve.

If we could just wrap our heads around that.  That's how much you are loved. That's how God views our sin and hopes we will turn back from it.  We will be welcomed not with condemnation but with grace. When we celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation the worst that could happen is that your sin will be forgiven.  

We are given grace not because we deserve it or because we have some kind of special favor from God above others.  But because God's nature is to be love itself.  He will relentlessly pursue us whether we like it or not.  "Come back.  Come home."  He calls to us each day.  Jesus, his own Son, is the fleshly proof of that.

Our second reading from Timothy confirms this all the more.  We hear Paul state: "I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and arrogant, but I have been mercifully treated . . . the grace of our Lord has been abundant, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus."

Our gathering for Eucharist and who we receive is given not because of our good behavior but because of God's overflowing love for us.  This sacred food for the journey, Christ himself, provides that grace and strength that even if we do wander a distance, miss the mark through our sin, we will never forget where our true home lies.

Pope Francis in his Apostolic Exhortation, the Joy of the Gospel, beautifully puts it this way:

"Whenever we take a step towards Jesus, we come to realize that he is already there, waiting for us with open arms.  Now is the time to say to Jesus: 'Lord, I have let myself be deceived; in a thousand ways I have shunned your love, yet here I am once more, to renew my covenant with you.  I need you.  Save me once again, Lord, take me once more into your redeeming embrace.' How good it feels to come back to him, whenever we are lost!" (EG 3).

Think of this the next time you feel unappreciated, unloved, taken advantage of, or so far gone that God is simply too busy with the good people to care.  That's not thinking as God thinks.

Look upon us, O God, 
Creator and ruler of all things, 
and, that we may feel the working of your mercy, 
grant that we may serve you with all our heart.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, 
who lives and reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit, 
one God, for ever and ever. 

(Collect of Sunday)