Fifteen years ago our nation reeled from the terror attacks on 9-11. The damage not only changed the skyline of New York but also our outlook on the world. We now accept a level of surveillance which would have scandalized past generations. Our military fights in conflicts throughout the mideast; and we’ve so internalized the logic of war that few of us ponder what it means have a 14-year war that shows no sign of ending. What does it mean spiritually that no child or youth in our church school has ever experienced America at peace in the world?
At first it seemed as if the tragedy of 9-11 would bring us together as a nation, healing the wounds of the 2000 presidential election. But unity was but a breath; and since those days we’ve grown increasingly divided by politics and partisanship.
No community felt this more than our Muslim neighbors. Since 9-11 hate crimes against Muslims mushroomed five-fold. And we clearly struggle as a nation with whether or not liberty includes the freedom to be different.
Thinking about 9-11 may seem like an odd beginning to Jesus’ words from the Gospel of Luke. But I think his parables about the lost sheep and the lost coin speak to our post-9-11 questions. This Sunday I want us to look closely at these parables. I ask that you open up to our reading, which can be found on page 78 of your Pew Bibles.
The parables we heard today come just before one of the most famous stories Jesus told: the prodigal son. We often skip over these parables in order to get to that longer and more familiar story. But today we will just focus on these two parables.
Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.
This first verse sets up the meaning of all the following stories. We’re so familiar with the image of Jesus hanging out with tax-collectors and sinners that we don’t stop to wonder why people hated them.
Tax-collectors worked on consignment for the Roman Empire. The tax-collector paid a fee to the Empire to collect taxes in a particular region. Then the tax-collector could wring as much money as possible out of the populace to cover their fee to the Empire. They were not bureaucrats but mobsters, shaking down people for profit. And the sinners; people who hung around the glittering gold of the tax-collectors, more concerned with easy living than ethics. And so we begin here: shameful, dangerous, criminal people came close to Jesus.
And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’
We know this routine so well: Jesus with the outcast as the religious insiders shake their heads. And yet, when I think about their world, I understand their horror. Because we feel it too. The Pharisees saw Jesus as a religious leader living a double life, preaching one thing on Sunday and living another life on Monday. To the Pharisees, Jesus was a fraud. We have these same concerns today. In fact, the hypocrisy of religious people, and especially religious leaders, is one of the leading causes of people leaving religion behind.
Just think how people reacted a couple of years ago to Creflo Dollar. He leads one of the nation’s largest megachurches in Atlanta. And along the way he’s become incredibly rich: mansions in Atlanta, New Jersey, Manhattan. When his private plane had mechanical trouble, he asked his church to donate 60 million dollars so that he could buy the world’s fastest civilian jet. Many commented on Pastor Dollar preaching the love of Jesus while seeming to love mammon more.
Our noses sniff out religious hypocrites. And so the Pharisees got wind of Jesus: preaching the Kingdom of God on Sunday and hanging out with the imperial mobsters on Monday.
We can think of situations which would make us react like the Pharisees. Imagine how we would feel if we saw Gloria Steinem hanging out at Phyllis Schlafly’s funeral luncheon. Or if we learned the superintendent of MPS sent her child to a voucher school.
Too often we dismiss the Pharisees as narrow-minded and judgmental people. But I get their concerns. And I think if we’re honest, we do too. Because no one likes a fraud.
So he told them this parable: ‘Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it?
Importantly, Jesus didn’t dismiss the Pharisees. He spoke to them directly in the two parables, one about a man and one about a woman. I want you to really think about what Jesus asked.
First, it helps to know that most people in the time of Jesus had small flocks, about fifteen sheep. A hundred would be the mark of a wealthy man. In Jesus hypothetical situation, a wealthy man loses 1% of his assets. To put it in the 21st century: that’s not even a market correction. But in this hypothetical story the man left 99 sheep - all of his wealth - in the wilderness to find the one missing sheep.
Jesus asked it as a question - “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, doesn’t leave the 99 and go after the one?” Honestly: no one does this. If the stock market goes down 1%, no one, no one cashes out and buys gold.
The parable suggests ridiculous behavior that no sane person would do. And of course that’s the point. God will be ridiculous if that’s what it takes to find the lost. God will throw caution to the wind if it will bring the flock back together.
It makes me wonder: If God will put everything at risk to bring everyone together, then what kind of risks does God expect of me? Can we take big risks? Even the risk of having our character called into question?
Many people showed heroism in the immediate days after 9-11. One of them, not often celebrated, was Rev. David Benke, who grew up here in Milwaukee before moving East and becoming the Missouri Synod Lutheran Bishop for New York and surrounding states. After 9-11, Benke joined with Catholics, Jews, Muslim, and Hindu leaders at Yankee Stadium. “Benke asked attendees to join hands and pray with him ‘on this field of dreams turned into God's house of prayer.’”
Benke faced immediate sanction. His fellow pastors charged him with all sorts of heresies - praying with people of other religions, violating one of the Commandments - and the Missouri Synod suspended him for a year.
Praying with people of other faiths represented a risk to Benke; he paid a professional cost for it. And yet to took the risk because he knew the amazing lengths God would go to restore wholeness.
This was Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees: What you call hypocrisy is really just the ridiculousness of God. I’m willing to be as ridiculous as God when seeking wholeness.
Jesus continued, “When he has found [the sheep], he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbours, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ And in the same way he said of the woman, “When she has found [the lost coin], she calls together her friends and neighbours, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’”
Usually I’ve thought about these parables as stories about finding - the sheep, found; the coin, found. But recently I noticed how clearly Jesus’ emphasizes the joy, the rejoicing. And this makes me think the point of all the searching is the joy that comes at the end. If we include the story of the prodigal son, then we have three parables that end not with the finding but with the rejoicing. Jesus stressed to the Pharisees and to us: rejoice, rejoice, rejoice.
This suggests something important about salvation. We normally think of salvation as a divine rescue. But here, in these verses, salvation seems to come as the celebration.
It makes me think about the difference between saving and celebrating. Saving is ultimately an act of power: I save you; she saved me; and it’s individual: I’m saved. But celebrating comes as a community event; and one not of power but intimacy: your joy will be my joy, my joy will be your joy; we celebrate together. The woman who found the lost coin had to celebrate with her neighbors; an imperative celebration.
It reminds me of Betty Ann Fisher’s experience on 9-11. Betty Ann died a number of years ago but back in 2001 she was an active and involved part of our community. Her son worked on one of the upper floors of the Twin Towers.
Before the attacks, Betty Ann flew to Ireland for vacation. She was with a tour group on that fateful day, watching in horror as the towers fell. “All is lost.” Unable to call home, far from family and close friends; can you imagine it?
And then came the news. Her son hadn’t gone to work; he had taken his father-in-law to the airport that morning. “My son was lost, but now is found.” Stranded in Ireland with people she really didn’t know, Betty Ann raised her glass and celebrated.
The Pharisees wanted to find the perfect people with which to celebrate. And if we’re honest, we like to do the same. But Jesus chose to celebrate with those he found. Not the perfect people, but the present people. And that’s what happened to Betty Ann too. She couldn’t wait for the right people with whom to celebrate; “my son is not dead, rejoice with me.”
Jesus ended both parables in similar ways. “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.
Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’”
Jesus reminded everyone - the good, the bad, and the otherwise - that heaven would not be complete until the missing were restored. This vision puts community and restoring community in the forefront of our spiritual life.
Recently, as I mentioned in a letter to the congregation, I heard Dr. Sayyid Syeed of the Islamic Society of North America reflect on the anniversary of 9-11. He said, "15 years ago, some crazy terrorists tried to destroy those tall towers in New York. They thought that America stood tall because of those towers. They did not realize that America's greatness, glory, and grandeur is not in material issues. It is in building a society that respects diversity. A society where Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, people of all faith, together build that Great Human Society." Syeed’s vision sounds to me like Jesus’. Don’t wait to find the perfect people, just rejoice, just work, just build with any of your neighbors.
It can be so natural for us to think like Pharisees: we have a moral code and judge those who break it, especially those who seem like hypocrites. But Jesus called for something different: joy in community. It looks like a Missouri Synod pastor praying beside a Hindu, a mom raising a pint in an Irish bar, a celebration of the strength of our diversity.
Today, as we begin a new year of church school for children whose whole lives have come after 9-11, these parables of Jesus teach me what we need as a post-9-11 spirituality. Rejoice with your neighbors, no matter who they are or where they are on life’s journey.
Alleluia and Amen.