Luke 15:1-10 – Irreplaceable

Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.  And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’

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? When he has found it, he 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.”  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.

‘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?   When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.”  Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’

Let’s begin by getting the obvious out of the way.  When Jesus describes the Kingdom of God in this text from Luke’s gospel, we have a hard time relating.  Which one of us, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness to search for the one that is lost?  Well, for starters, I don’t think any of us has a sheep, much less a hundred sheep.  Furthermore, I don’t know that any one of us would do what Jesus suggests.  Leave ninety-nine for the sake of one?  Forget it.  I’ll take my ninety-nine and try to cut my losses, thank you.

But which one of us, having ten silver coins, would lose one and then sweep the house with lamp in hand until we find the tenth one?  That’s a bit easier for us to follow.  Money is different, and we’ve probably all had that moment where you lose your wallet or your purse or your credit card, and then you retrace your steps and even freak out a little bit until you find it.  Still, Jesus’ parable comes up a bit short.  It’s just one coin, right?  Don’t worry about it.  Take care of the other nine next time by putting them in the bank, okay?  I don’t think any of us would get so bent out of shape about a single coin.

That’s the intriguing part about this text.  These verses are among the best-known and most-read in all of scripture.  But they are also among the most difficult for us to relate to.  We don’t have sheep, we don’t stress over coins, and it’s a challenge for us to read this text without thinking it’s just a nice story about how annoying it is to lose stuff.  That says far more about us than it says about Jesus, and I’m convinced that if we’re really going to let this text live within us, we have to take an honest look at ourselves first.

We live in a world that is far different from the one that Jesus walked around in.  As generations have gone by, we have learned that everything is replaceable, that you don’t “sweat the small stuff”, that there’s always “more where that came from.”  We’ve become so accustomed to clutter, so used to throwing things away, so addicted to convenience, and in fact corporate America counts on this.  There’s a popular concept in the business world known as “planned obsolescence”.  Have you heard that before?  If you haven’t heard of it, you have at least seen it.  “Planned obsolescence” is the name for what companies do when they make their products in such a way that they become out-of-date or useless within a certain period of time.  The goal of this, of course, is to manufacture the need for consumers to come buy more of their stuff.  Things wear out, or become obsolete, or are simply made to be thrown away so that customers have to keep coming back again and again.

This is largely why we have come to live in a culture in which everything is disposable. We have disposable wipes, razors, coffee cups, towels, diapers, forks, spoons, napkins, etc.  Even the things we use the most are becoming no more than temporary fixtures in our lives.  Last week Apple unveiled the iPhone 5S.  Keep in mind this was less than a year after unveiling the previous model, which is now probably obsolete.  I could hardly believe it when, earlier this year, Heather’s laptop died a mere two weeks after the warranty expired.  And yes, what you’ve heard before is true: your brand new car really does lose its value the minute you drive it off the lot.

Because more and more of the things we use are becoming disposable, we are becoming less and less attached to our things.  Younger generations are growing up in a world of disposable everything, and as a consequence they will be accustomed to the notion that most of what they see in the world around them is replaceable.  Just recently A.J. lost one of his toys in a restaurant.  Instead of being upset about it, he just said, “Oh well.  We’ll just get another one.”  In case you’re wondering, his parents were NOT okay with that!  But even we parents have said that a time or two, haven’t we?  We’ll just get another one.  There’s more where that came from.  Everything is replaceable.

Now I know that this text is pushing us to look at more than just what we consume or throw away.  If we’re just talking about disposable razors or griping about a broken laptop, that’s one thing.  I know that my life over the last several years was made appreciably better because of things like disposable diapers and wipes.  I get that.  That’s not really the problem.  The problem comes when we take that attitude, that notion that everything is disposable and replaceable, into other facets of our lives, like our family routines, or our personal relationships, or even our faith and our connection to a church home.  There’s an oft-repeated story about a deeply religious man who was shipwrecked on a deserted island.  Eventually his prayers were answered and a passing ship saw him and picked him up.  The captain of the ship looked at the island and saw three huts on the beach.  “Are there others on this island?” he asked.  “No,” the deserted man said. “I built those.  The one on the right is my home and the one on the left is my church.”

“What about the one in the middle?” the captain asked.

“Oh,” the man said. “That’s my old church.  I don’t go there anymore.”

That’s our real challenge: separating what’s disposable and replaceable from what isn’t.  And it’s harder that you think.  Just a couple of months ago, Pope Francis spoke about what he calls a “culture of waste” which has led to a mentality of disposability that involves not only things, but people as well.  “We are often driven by pride of domination, of possessions, of manipulation, of exploitation,” he said.  “We do not ‘care’ for [the earth entrusted to us], we do not respect [each other], we do not consider [life] as a free gift that we must care for.  We are losing the attitude of wonder, contemplation, listening to creation… we have moved away from God, we no longer read His signs.”  The pope went on to say that people are more concerned with material possessions, money, and the stock market, while human beings themselves “are disposed of, as if they were trash.”  That’s the real problem, the real challenge that faces us in this reading.  But you know, even as this scripture shows us the distance between Jesus’ day and our own, it also shows us the nearness of the one who never saw a single person as disposable or replaceable.

“All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.”  That’s how this text begins.  And the scribes and Pharisees were grumbling about him and saying, “This guy welcomes sinners and eats with them!”  Look at this rabble he’s attracted!  Look at this mess of people!  These people aren’t worth anyone’s time!  I can’t believe he’s with them.

It’s understandable.  The ones who were grumbling were society’s upper crust.  They were literate and well-off.  They were employed by priests and kings and the wealthy.  They lacked for nothing.  They had all that they needed.

When Jesus began to speak about what God and God’s kingdom are like, he began by speaking to the assembled rabble in terms they could understand.  He told a parable about a lost sheep to show them how persistently God seeks out disposable things, those who are broken, those who are lost, those who have nothing.  The rabble listening to Jesus would have understood exactly what he was saying, especially if they happened to be shepherds.  But then there were those others, standing on the outskirts of the crowd and grumbling.  Pharisees wouldn’t have understood sheep-searching.  You know, when you have everything you need already, what’s one missing sheep?

But Jesus continues his parable, this time putting it in terms that even the Pharisees could understand.   He talks about a missing coin, and now he has their attention.  That’s real money.  That’s something meaningful.  If you lost a silver coin, Jesus asks, wouldn’t you do what you could to get it back?  Wouldn’t you turn the whole house upside down to find it?  Wouldn’t you rejoice when you found it?  Now that’s more like it.  And those are terms that the grumbling Pharisees can relate to.

But you know, Jesus wasn’t really talking about sheep, and he wasn’t really talking about money, either.  At the heart of Jesus’ parable is a fundamental truth that applies to tax collectors, and sinners, and shepherds, and scribes and Pharisees, too.  He was trying to tell them, to explain to them, to show them who God is.  He was trying to get them to see just how deeply and fiercely God values each and every one of them.

Jesus saw that they all struggled to see value in the midst of disposable things, just like we do.  Jesus saw that the more we have, the greater the challenge that is.  As you surround yourself with more and more stuff that you discount as disposable and replaceable and obsolete, you also run the risk of viewing people and relationships and even God in those very same terms.  The irony of it all is that once you see all those other sinners out there as disposable, you’re the one who has become lost.  That struggle is there for us if we want to fight it.  There’s probably more than enough clutter, more than enough disposable things, in our lives to keep us occupied and invested in the notion that nothing lasts and everything can eventually be thrown away.  The opportunity is there for us to play the role of the scribes and Pharisees, looking out onto a world and a crowd of people who are less-than, easily replaceable, imminently disposable.  It’s an easy part to play.

The good news is that it isn’t the only part to play, and there are other opportunities for us as well.  Just by coming here this morning, to lift our voices in praise, to give our time, talents, and resources, to pledge to grow God’s kingdom right here in Mint Hill, we are choosing to play a different role.  We’re choosing to live out the story of the One who told us and showed us what God is like.  We’re choosing to open ourselves to loving others as fiercely and persistently as God has loved us.  We’re choosing to remember our baptisms, that moment when someone at some point put water on your head and simply proclaimed who you are: a child of God, accepted and loved by God before you could act or respond to God in any way.  And yes, during this year’s stewardship campaign we are choosing to remember how that little bit of water on our heads has nourished and fed not only a growing faith but a growing kingdom.  It is through your gifts that the crowds around this place receive God’s love.  It is by your giving that the kingdom grows!  It’s a kingdom in which the sinners are welcomed to the table, the lost are searched for until they are found, and no one – no one! – is beyond the reach of God’s persistent and unshakeable grace.  It’s in this place that the good news is heard, and the unchangeable truth of Jesus Christ is proclaimed.

Remember…  that you are a child of God.

Remember…  that you are precious.  You are loved.  You are indisposable.

Irreplaceable.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

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