Sunday, September 15, 2013,

Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost
Ezekiel 34:11-24
Psalm 119:169-176
1 Timothy 1:(5-11) 12-17
Luke 15:1-10

Even so, I say unto you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth.

We live in a disposable world. We buy ten dollar toasters and throw them away after a year because they no longer heat our toast properly. We buy a new phone every year because our old phone is out of date. We want the new, we want the best, and we donít care what happens to the old when we cast it out. How many of us have dropped a penny, or even a quarter, on the ground and we walked away because it would be too hard to get it from under the car where it rolled? How many of us are willing to drive back to the grocery store when we realize that the cashier put our can of corn in a bag that we forgot to pick up?

We are careful when the item is more valuable, but we ignore the waste when it is worth only pennies. We justify it by saying that our time is more valuable, or our clothes. After all, if we crawled on the ground to reach a quarter under the car, we might ruin an expensive dress or suit, or have to pay the dry cleaner to get it clean. Is it worth going to such trouble for just a quarter?

I am guilty of so much waste. Iíve never been able to make the right amount of mashed potatoes, and while we use some for leftovers, we never eat them all. The rest is thrown into the garbage or garbage disposal. I buy fruit that goes bad because we do not eat it fast enough. I drink half a glass of soda and throw the rest away because I do not like that it gets watered down with the melting ice. I cast off items that are chipped and cracked even though they might be reusable in a different way.

I think, sometimes, that because we are in such a disposable world, we do not really understand the Gospel lesson for today. In the first parable, Jesus talks about going after the one sheep that has wandered away, leaving the ninety-nine to fend for themselves. We wonder at this, because those ninety-nine are left vulnerable without the care of a shepherd; is one sheep more valuable than ninety-nine? What happens if the wolves come while the shepherd is away? Wonít the wolves attack and kill more sheep in the flock while the shepherd is trying to save just one?

And what about the woman who lost one coin out of ten? When I lose something in my house, and Iím certain that it is in the house, I say, ďItíll show up.Ē As a matter of fact, Iím always excited when I find something that was lost and it shows up one day, like when you put your hand in your winter coat the first time you wear it after a long summer and find a $20 bill, or when you dig deep in the storage closet and find a favorite pair of pants that you thought was accidentally sent to Good Will.

We moved a lot over the past twenty-five years because my husband was a member of the U.S. military. We purged our household goods often, at least during every move. It is easier to get rid of stuff than to pack it and deal with it when unpacking. We never knew how much room we would have in the next house. A favorite book of mine disappeared during a move to Washington state, but since it was the only thing I could find missing I didnít worry about it. We moved from one house to another in Washington, and then we moved to England for four years. Our baggage was limited in our move to England, so we put piles of things in storage.

We really didnít miss all that stuff during our time in England, and it was frustrating to go through those boxes when they arrived at our new house in Arkansas. I found myself moving most of the items from the packing box to a box designated for Good Will. If I didnít use it for four years, why keep it? I kept a few items, but most of them were given away. This included dishes, chotchkies, linens, clothes, holiday decorations and books. The worst of it were the five sixty pound boxes of National Geographic magazines that we hadnít even unpacked in the last few moves.

Now, I love National Geographic magazine; we still receive it at our house. We still keep issues in the house because the photography is beautiful and the stories are often informative. The magazine is printed on paper that is perfect for some art projects, and so it is nice to have them around just in case I need the materials. But as I opened those five sixty pound boxes, I thought about the three hundred pounds of household stuff that was stored for four years, the space it took and the money it cost to move them. I took the boxes to the kidsí school and donated them for art projects or use in the library.

But I looked through the boxes before I gave them away and I discovered the book that I thought had disappeared. It was buried under those National Geographic magazines and since we hadnít even opened those boxes for years, we never found it. It was never really missing; it was with us all along, I just didnít know where it was.

As I read the parable of the woman who searches for the coin, I think, ďSheíll find it eventually, and for now it is not missing, it is just not found. How much fun will it be when it shows up, just when she needs it most!Ē After all, those lost or hiding bills always seem to show up at just the right time, donít they?

But these stories remind us that God does not value His people as we might value them. Sadly, I donít think we as the church do a very good job at searching for the lost. This is certainly true when it comes to those who need to hear the Gospel message to be saved from sin and death. But do we go searching for the one who wanders away?

I have left my share of churches for many different reasons. Most of the time it was because we were moving to a new city, but other times were for personal reasons. What I have found, sadly, is that whether or not the other members of the congregation knew that we were leaving or not, very few ever called to find out what happened to us. We didnít receive calls asking if we are ok, wondering if we needed anything. We didnít receive calls telling us we were missed. On one occasion I ran into a member of a former congregation and instead of being concerned about us, she said that they missed everything I did for the congregation. Is it any wonder that we felt the need to find another church?

People change churches for many reasons, and sometimes it is because there is a problem in the old church. Sometimes it is difficult to reach out to those people. It is so much easier to let them go. But even if they have chosen to become a part of another Christian fellowship, are they not still brothers and sisters in Christ? Is there room for continuing relationship? Is there any Christian concern for those who have walked away, even if it was under difficult circumstances? We donít need to try to convince them to return to a place that is difficult for them, but should we not be concerned about them? What if they havenít found a new church home? Should we not be concerned that they are still faithful to God even if human brothers and sisters in Christ have hurt them in some way?

Is there anyone in your own Christian fellowship circles that has been missing? Have you called them to find out whatís happening? Have you called to ask if they would like to go to lunch? Have you rejoiced with them that theyíve found a place where they can live their Christian faith fully and faithfully? Have you encouraged them to find a place where they can be in fellowship with other Christians, even if they canít return to your church?

We might not think there is value to the one who wanders away when there are still ninety-nine in the pews, but God assures us that He is concerned for that one. He will go looking for them. He will leave the others to go find the missing. We can see this parable in terms of finding those who are not yet saved, but we can also think about those who were once part of the flock but have wandered away. They may no longer be of value to the congregation, but they still belong to God.

Those sinners and tax collectors with whom Jesus was having dinner were probably not outsiders or foreigners. They were probably Jews who had lost their way, or had found a way to get through life that didnít fit the expectations of the Jewish faith. They arenít any different than the rest of us; we all find a way of living that sometimes goes against the expectations of our faith. As a matter of fact, we understand that the Law is impossible for us to keep perfectly, which is why Jesus came in the first place.

Of course, being a tax collector was so offensive to the Jews because they were traitors, puppets of the Romans, and they often took advantage of their position by taking more than they should. The tax collector received his pay by taking more than the actual taxes. The Romans didnít care as long as they got the amount they expected, and some of the tax collectors were greedy. For the Jews, the others may not have been guilty of greed, but they were guilty of working with the Romans and of bettering themselves at the expense of their brothers and sisters.

The story of Zacchaeus shows us how Jesus deals with tax collectors. Jesus didnít avoid or ignore Zacchaeus, but instead invited Himself to Zachhaeusí house for dinner. During the meal, which included many of Zacchaeusí friends, Jesus invited Zacchaeus back into the fold. Zacchaeus was that lost sheep which Jesus went out of His way to find. The religious leaders did not think it was a work worthy of a great teacher, and they refused to believe that Jesus was sent by God because He was putting so much time into people who did not deserve His attention, just like we think that the one wanderer does not deserve our attention when there are ninety-nine are left behind being good sheep.

I know that we usually see this text in terms of those outside the Church who need to be found, and we should never forget that our Great Commission is to take the Gospel to all nations. But we are responsible for one another. Who from our fellowship has become like Zacchaeus, outside the Church and in need of Godís grace to restore and return them to His flock?

The text from Ezekiel can be divided into two parts. The first, verses 11-16, talks about how God will care for His flock, searching for those who are missing, restoring them to the field where they will be fed, giving them rest. The final verse says, ďI will seek that which was lost, and will bring back that which was driven away, and will bind up that which was broken, and will strengthen that which was sick: but the fat and the strong I will destroy; I will feed them in justice.Ē

We donít often talk about the fact that within the church are those who are weak and those who are strong, but it is true. It could be seen within the Jewish fellowship in Jesusí day. The priests, the Pharisees and the Sadducees had all the power and they put heavy burdens on the people. They talked the talk, but didnít walk the walk. They did what suited them and expected perfection from others. They didnít even see their own sinfulness.

The same is true today. Every congregation has people who have power and authority who place heavy burdens on the others. There are many within our congregations who are weak. They donít have a strong understanding of scripture. They have faith the size of a mustard seed, but canít seem to move mountains with it. They have listened and followed the words of men without knowing that those words are not Godís Word. They have been led astray, and then often left to fend for themselves. The church becomes the seat of power for some and a place of pain for others. God promises that He will take care of those who have been harmed by leaders who did not care for His sheep.

The passage goes on to explain verse 16. God promises to judge between sheep and sheep. ďSeemeth it a small thing unto you to have fed upon the good pasture, but ye must tread down with your feet the residue of your pasture? and to have drunk of the clear waters, but ye must foul the residue with your feet?Ē The strong and powerful sheep destroy everything good given to the flock by God so that they will get stronger and have more power. The strong does not care when a weak sheep disappears; that leaves all the more for them. But God promises that He will make things right for the weak ones.

This passage makes an even greater promise. ďAnd I will set up one shepherd over them, and he shall feed them, even my servant David; he shall feed them, and he shall be their shepherd. And I, Jehovah, will be their God, and my servant David prince among them; I, Jehovah, have spoken it.Ē The promise begins with David, who will make things right in Israel for all people, and it will be fulfilled with the Great Shepherd, our Lord Jesus. Jesus came and He did search for the lost sheep. He did search for the lost coin. He did search for the people of His flock who had been outcast and forgotten because they werenít perfect. Jesus reminds us that He didnít come for the perfect, who do not need salvation: He came for the sinners who need to be saved.

Look at Paul. There was none who was a greater sinner against Jesus in those days. He was, as he says, ďÖI was before a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious: howbeit I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbeliefÖĒ He fought the Church. He encouraged the stoning of Stephen. He took papers to the cities with the authority to destroy the Christians. He did all this until Jesus came and found him on the road to Damascus. ďFaithful is the saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chiefÖĒ He was the strong sheep who pushed the weak sheep, at the good grass and trampled the rest, drank the clean fresh water and then muddied the rest. He was the enemy of the Church.

But Jesus did not let him continue down the wrong path. He sought Saul, revealed Himself and called him by a new name: Paul. He called Paul into a new relationship, a right relationship. This is why Jesus ate with the sinners and tax collectors. He wanted to bring them home. He wanted to help them be the people God called and gifted them to be. When we ignore those who have left our fellowship because we deem them unimportant or without value, we forget that God has saved them for a purpose, just like us.

I think it is funny that the woman in the parable searches so diligently for a lost coin, but then calls her friends to a party to celebrate finding it. ďRejoice with me, for I have found the piece which I had lost.Ē Did she use that very coin to share her joy with her friends? Did she pour out upon them the blessings of her fortune? Does it make sense to celebrate the finding of one small coin? But God does not fit into our expectations. He celebrates the restoration of each and every one of His children. He honors them and values them as if they were the most important person in the Kingdom. Is this not worth a celebration on our part, too?

The psalmist writes, ďI have gone astray like a lost sheep; Seek thy servant; For I do not forget thy commandments.Ē We know what we should do. We have heard Godís Word and we understand the life He has called us to live. We fail daily, but even in failing we know that God has promised to forgive us and restore us. We are, at times, the lost sheep. We are like Zacchaeus, even if we arenít a tax collector. We separate ourselves from the body of Christ for very human reasons, but God will not allow us to get lost. He saved us for a purpose and He saves us from our own selfishness or weakness. And then He celebrates that we have returned into His fold.

So, let us live in the mercy of God, praising Him for His promises and for His faithfulness. We will fail, one way or another. We might be among the strong who take advantage of the weak or we might be among the weak who are led astray. But God will make things right. He doesn't think any of us are disposable, and He will always bless those who turn to Him.

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