“Feast of the Forgiven Sinners”

A sermon by The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson

Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28; Psalm 14; 1 Timothy 1:1-2,12-19a; Luke 15:1-10

It’s not often that I give my sermons a title but this week seemed a no-brainer: “Feast of the Forgiven Sinners.” It comes directly out of today’s Gospel reading which has Jesus telling two little stories about things that are lost – a sheep and a coin. These two actually go with another ‘lost’ story – that of the Prodigal son. They come in a cluster following several chapters in Luke where Jesus heals people on the Sabbath and cops considerable criticism for doing so. In that mix are also two stories about two dinner parties – one to do with who sits where, the other with who gets invited and who accepts the invitation.

In order to appreciate the title, The Feast of the Forgiven Sinners, let’s start by noticing who the players are in today’s Gospel passage. There are two groups of people. The first to be mentioned are the tax collectors and sinners – they are clustering around Jesus eager to hear what he has to say. The second group is made up of the Pharisees and teachers of the law. This group appears to be on the sidelines muttering to themselves and criticizing Jesus. The third party is, of course, Jesus himself.

It’s easy to picture the scene – Jesus in the middle of an eager group of people who don’t normally get the chance to speak to an important teacher. Why is that? Well, both tax collectors and sinners were classed as the sort of people no self-respecting person would want at their table. Even while Jesus speaks to them he is aware of the murmuring of the other group – the Pharisees and teachers of the law. These are the respectable people, the ones who get invited to important events and invite others in return. Remember that this little incident in Luke’s Gospel comes after a series of confrontations  and criticisms – especially over the question of Jesus healing sick people on the Sabbath.

Noticing the muttering and murmuring going on Jesus turns to the Pharisees and teachers of the law and tells them today’s two parables – one about a lost sheep, the other about a lost coin. We haven’t read it today but the next story he tells is about the lost son. If something is lost it can’t be seen, and that is precisely the point Jesus is making to these self-important Pharisees and teachers. They actually can’t see the ‘lost’ people in front of them. Of course they do physically ‘see’ the tax collectors and sinners – but they might as well not, for they will have nothing to do with them. In Jesus’s day the lost would have included children, women – especially the widowed or those who perhaps had been forced to turn to the oldest profession in the world because they had been divorced by their husbands, the tax collectors, seen as quzzlings and working for the enemy, and a raft of other people collectively known as sinners.

We should pause for a moment and ask who the lost people, the unseen people, in our lives are? Who is it we simply do not notice? Just yesterday I came across a cricket story told by the Rev’d Samuel Wells, rector of St Martin in the Fields in London. He writes of the way in which his local church cricket team began to see refugees differently. Instead of being ‘those’ people who could be fobbed off with a sandwich, a blanket or perhaps a demonstration or two, he realized that there were actually spin bowlers and excellent batsmen among them – coming as they did from cricketing countries like Sri Lanka and Pakistan. It’s well worth reading and the link is in the hard copy of this sermon and on our Cathedral facebook pages. https://www.christiancentury.org/article/faith-matters/refugees-my-church-s-cricket-team?fbclid=IwAR24pLmZIP5_EAzZ38SA_d3xTzQHeZSFNFubkG_8-gXoNISf7zinL6y46zo

But back to Jesus and the lost sheep, coin and boy. In the parables Jesus tells there is active and diligent searching for the lost. The shepherd takes the risk of leaving the other sheep – even in the open country – and going to find that one single sheep. The woman leaves all her other chores and business and turns the house upside down until she finds the coin. And in the story of the lost boy it is the father who sits anxiously scanning the distance hoping against hope that his son will return. When he does spy him far off he immediately rushes out to meet him, completely ignoring the carefully prepared sob-story and apology of the boy.

In each case the searcher does everything possible to find the lost – even risking the rest of the sheep, the coins, the other brother. If Jesus intended the Pharisees, the teachers and us, to understand that the searcher is God, then we could say that God is passionately concerned about finding the lost! Even, and here is the real point, when it makes no sense to leave a whole flock of sheep for just one of them! The value of the ninety nine sheep, the remaining nine silver coins, the faithful older brother working diligently on the farm – far outweighs the value of the lost. Yet God goes to find the lost. Compared to what is not lost there is little value to the lost sheep, lost coin or lost son – except that the seeker sees something the others don’t. The very fact that the lost is searched for gives it value. Perhaps no one else cares – but God cares.

You may have seen a wall poster with a very sulky child pictured on it. The caption says it all: “I know I’m somebody cause God don’t make no junk.” But it’s not until God goes searching for the lost one that the lost one can begin to realize he or she has value in God’s eyes. This is something St Paul eventually realized when he was overwhelmed by the love of God for him despite his persecution of Christians. It was not because Paul was better than others, or had done something marvelous, or given heaps to charity. Writing to Timothy Paul will say that ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.’ Paul considered himself one of the lost – in exactly the same way as the sheep, the coin, the boy. And God came searching for him and found him and gave him value.

What was going through the minds of the Pharisees and teachers of the law when they heard these stories of Jesus, when they must have been acutely aware he had heard them criticizing him for associating with the tax collectors and sinners – the lost people of his world? Read on in Luke 15 and see the reaction of the older brother when his lost younger brother turns up. He’s furious – and refuses to join the party.

God always turns the tables on us. In God’s economy things are not quite as they are in ours. Over and over again in the Bible – beginning with the stories of Cain and Abel, the people of Noah’s time, those who made the golden calf, who hewed out for themselves cracked cisterns that could hold no water – God overturns the expectations of those who think they have it all sorted out.

We have seen something of the compassionate concern of God for the lost. But notice also the sheer delight in finding the lost. In the stories of the lost sheep, the coin and the boy the the one who searches and finds invites friends and neighbours to a feast, a great celebration – why? For that which was lost is found!

In the world of ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’ in which we live, these little parables of the lost are extremely challenging. It is not difficult to make connections into our day and age.

And so the great Feast of the Forgiven Sinners is assembled. We call it the Eucharist, Holy Communion, The Lord’s Supper, The Mass. Those invited are the lost, the last and the least – the ones who know their need of God, the one’s called Blessed by Jesus. And it all begins when we turn away from self and turn to Jesus, turn from sin to Christ. When water is poured over our heads at baptism, the mark of the cross of Jesus traced on our foreheads, and a lighted candle, symbolizing Life with a capitol ‘L’, is given into our hands.

As we come forwards later today with hands outstretched to receive the Body and Blood of Christ we know we are no longer lost – but found, still sinners – but forgiven.

Today’s Collect says it beautifully.

Undaunted you seek the lost, O God, exultant you bring home the found: touch our hearts with grateful wonder at the tenderness of your forbearing love; grant us delight in the mercy that has found us; and bring all to rejoice at the feast of forgiven sinners. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever.  Amen.