Sermon preached September 15, 2013
Texts: Luke 15:1-10
John Sebastian "Welcome Back"
This summer I preached a series of sermons on “sticky Scriptures,” Biblical texts suggested by you, texts that were problematic in one way or another. So with this sermon it would seem I am starting a series of snotty sermons. Doesn’t this title – “Where Have You Been?” reek of arrogance? I mean, where have you been?
With this phrase, tone and emphasis are everything. Where have you been? Where have you been… to which we might append “all my life”? Where have you been? Part of the challenge of our reliance on e-communication, text messages and the like is that they don’t come with a tone. We sometimes have to explain ourselves by adding letters like – lol (laugh out loud). Body language makes a difference, too. Arms crossed, tapping your toe – “Where have you been?” Arms extended, lightly – “Where have you been?’
Jesus is telling us “where have you been stories” with the emphasis on “you,” on welcoming. The stories have a light touch, a streak of humor. Which one of you, having one 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? Think about it. I wouldn’t be surprised if nobody’s hand went up. So I have ninety-nine sheep, and I am going to leave them to find the one that has wandered off? What happens to the other ninety-nine? What are the chances that one of them will wander off? I’ve heard that this is not likely, but you have already had one wander away, why not another? Sounds like something out of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, Abbot and Costello, Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker. It would not make economic sense. The shepherd in the story, assuming he owns the sheep, is well-to-do. He has not made silly economic choices. Wouldn’t you take the loss of one sheep rather than risk the safety of the other ninety-nine? Apparently not in God’s economy.
The lost sheep is found. The shepherd “lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’” Really? If I had lost something on the job, then found it, I would keep it to myself, a little embarrassed by my mishap. Not in this story. The guy wants to throw a party.
If this story isn’t quite enough, Jesus tells another. 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? O.K. Here, at least, the other coins are not going to wander off. Furthermore, the coins are valuable, worth about a day’s wages. We are not talking a missing penny here. Her behavior in searching seems justified for that kind of money. But then, she, too, “calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’” Again, a party. Not something I would do. Again, I would be a little embarrassed that I had lost the coin in the first place. I would not be anxious to admit it. A couple of years ago I bought a roll of stamps, not an insignificant purchase. I knew I bought them but two days later, I could not find them. I really hate to lose stuff, so I looked and looked, and finally located them on a book shelf where I never typically put stuff. I remember getting distracted by the phone or something and setting them down in a safe place. This is the first I’ve told anyone. Sorry, I did not have a party.
Of course, maybe the woman in the story needed to tell her neighbors, really needed to explain herself, I mean all those lights and noises coming from her place last after dark, at strange hours. Do you think the neighbors will buy the lost coin story?
These are “where have you been?” stories. They are about joy. One commentator on these texts wrote that in these stories “the joy of finding the lost is as extravagant as concern for the lost is excessive” (Discipleship Study Bible). So why is Jesus telling these wonderfully rich and humorous stories? Some of the religious leaders of the time were critical of Jesus. “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Where have you been, Jesus, hanging out with the losers and the outcasts I bet!
Jesus responds to their sarcasm and bitter criticism with these lovely stories, and then makes a serious connection. “Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” This extravagant joy, this odd happiness, this is God. That economically challenged shepherd, this is God. That kind of wacky neighbor lady looking for her coin, this is God.
Here is how theologian and preacher Frederick Buechner describes what’s going on in these stories and in the gospel. God is the comic shepherd who gets more of a kick out of that one lost sheep once he finds it again than out of the ninety and nine who had the good sense not to get lost in the first place. God is the eccentric host who, when the country-club crowd all turn out to have other things more important to do than come live it up with him, goes out into the skid rows and soup kitchens and charity wards and brings home a freak show. The man with no legs who sells shoelaces at the corner. The old woman in the moth-eaten fur coat who makes her daily rounds of the garbage cans. The old wino with his pint in a brown paper bag. The pusher, the whore, the village idiot who stands at the blinker light waving his hand as cars go by. They are seated at the damask-laid table in the great hall. The candles are lit and the champagne glasses filled. At a sign from the host, musicians in their gallery strike up “Amazing Grace.” If you have to explain it, don’t bother. (Telling the Truth)
Is Buechner a little over the top, not any more than Jesus in his stories.
This is God’s attitude toward us. “Where have you been?” spoken with arms extended and gesturing a welcome. Where have you been for so long, I’ve missed you, been saving a place just for you.
This is God’s stance toward us, always searching. If we wander away, God turns on all the lights, sweeps under all the furniture, dusts in all the corners, until we are found.
This is God’s stance toward us, joy – wild, extravagant joy. God’s “Where have you been?” is not “Where have you been?” – glaring with arms crossed, but “Where have you been?” – welcoming with a joyful voice.
God welcomes us, embraces us, joyously, extravagantly. Revel in this wild welcoming God.
Then, and there is a “then,” then remember that we want to reflect that hospitality, that joyous welcome in our life together as this church.
We are a place that says we “welcomes all people.” These stories are about welcoming. We are a place that says we are “guided by the teachings and unconditional love of Jesus.” These stories are what that looks life. We want, here, to “be inspired to live as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.” Disciples of Jesus Christ extend God’s welcome widely and wildly, to all, no exceptions.
If we take these stories seriously, our welcome here should be an active welcome. We cannot just wait for folks to show up, though when they do, we need to welcome them welcome all. Active welcoming is reaching out, inviting others to the party. Yes, we believe God’s Spirit moves in people’s lives to bring them here, but you may be the occasion for God to bring someone here.
Maybe even think of it this way. We want this to be a place where we each hear God say, in a warm, welcoming way, “Where Have You Been?” We want to hear those extravagantly joyful words in our own hearts. I hope you do. Then, consider this. You may help someone else hear God’s welcoming voice in their own life. It’s an idea as wild as these stories Jesus tells.
Where have you been? It’s great to see you. Welcome back. Welcome others. Amen.