Sermon: Practicing Joy

Sunday, September 11, 2016
St. Andrew Lutheran Church, West Chicago

prodigal-son

Luke 15:1-10
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. 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 persons 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.”

Good morning! It’s wonderful to be here again with you all at St. Andrew. After being away for so many months, it seems kind of fitting that today’s gospel story is about lost sheep!

I’d like to do a kind of silly interactive thing this morning, if you’ll indulge me. One thing you might have noticed in our gospel text is that there is a lot of celebration! So in my sermon, whenever you hear the word “rejoice” or “rejoicing,” I want you all to do a little rejoicing! Let’s practice it right now. “Rejoice!” Excellent.

The two parables Jesus tells today in our gospel reading – about the lost sheep and the lost coin – are actually part of a set of three parables that make up the 15th chapter of Luke. The third parable is one you probably know very well: the story of the prodigal son, who wastes his inheritance and is later forgiven by his father.

I want to talk about these three parables together, because they share this common theme of something or someone who was lost being found again. And at the end of each story, there is a whole lot of rejoicing! When the shepherd finds his sheep and the woman finds her coin, they each call out to their friends and neighbors to celebrate, and the prodigal son’s father is so overjoyed by his return that his son can hardly get a word in edgewise!

And we too should rejoice when we read these stories together. Because these stories remind us that in our lives, we are often lost and wandering far from God. Sometimes we don’t even have the energy or the will to try to find our way back to God. But God is like the shepherd and the woman and the father, who never ever stop looking for what they have lost. God will never stop seeking us nor loving us. God doesn’t give up on us. And God rejoices when we do repent and return.

End of sermon, right? Not quite.

There’s something else very interesting about this chapter of Luke. These parables, even though they’re definitely stories about repentance – about turning back to God – don’t actually show us a whole lot of repentance. I mean, lost sheep and coins aren’t really capable of repenting – like, what could a sheep even do? They’re pretty fluffy and inoffensive. And even though the prodigal son is repentant, he can’t even finish his apology before his father embraces him and gets the party started. His father doesn’t even seem to care that much whether he is sorry or not.

Instead of focusing on the one who was lost, these stories focus more on the one who is searching, and then on the rejoicing that happens when the lost are found, be they sheep, coins, or sons. When the shepherd, the woman, and the father find what they have been seeking, they call together all their friends and neighbors to celebrate with them, and Luke tells us that even God and the angels in heaven rejoice when the lost are found and the community is made whole again.

What stands out sorely against all this celebration, however, are those who do not rejoice when the lost return to the community. The prodigal son’s older brother is not happy at all that his brother has returned. Instead, he says to his father,

“Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!”

And he’s not the only one. Way back at the beginning of the chapter, this whole scenario actually got started because the scribes and the pharisees were complaining about the fact that Jesus was welcoming in tax collectors and sinners and showing them hospitality.

Their attitude is what prompts Jesus to tell these three parables in the first place. He is directly responding to their inhospitable attitude toward those who are returning to God. Jesus is indeed calling for repentance through these parables, but it’s not the repentance of the lost and sinful – it’s the repentance of the scribes and pharisees. It’s the repentance of those who believe themselves to be found, of those who presume themselves to be righteous.

The pharisees and scribes saw themselves as the leaders of a pure, godly community, and they were offended and even embarrassed by the people that Jesus was bringing into their midst. Even though God and the angels welcomed these ones with rejoicing, the scribes and the pharisees complained about their presence. For them, these were not beloved children of God making their community whole, but undesirable outsiders who made their community worse.

It’s easy for us to look down on the scribes and pharisees as crotchety religious leaders with bad attitudes and poor hospitality. But we need to remember that while we are the lost sinners God is seeking, we here in the church are also religious insiders. And we don’t exactly have a perfect track record when it comes to hospitality – to welcoming the poor and the stranger and the sojourner.

It’s an important thing for us to remember this weekend for God’s Work, Our Hands Sunday. I know you all have done kind, charitable work for those who are poor and hungry in this community, and that’s wonderful. But it’s one thing to serve others, and another thing entirely to welcome them with joy. What would it look like to actually eat with them? To form relationships with them? To invite them into this community and rejoice with them? That’s radical hospitality. And if, like me, you’re thinking to yourself, “That sounds awesome! I would totally go for that,” then ask yourself this: “Why don’t you do it?”

The radical hospitality that Jesus is promoting in his parables is also crucial in sustaining a bilingual, bicultural congregation, as I’m sure you all know very well. But even here at St. Andrew, I know it is an ongoing struggle. It is hard to maintain a welcoming and hospitable attitude toward people who maybe frustrate you because they insist on doing things differently than you, or because they don’t seem to appreciate the rich history and tradition you bring to the table. It’s difficult to honestly see yourself and other people as part of one whole community when they don’t look like you or even speak the same language as you.

But that is exactly what Jesus calls us to do. This hospitality toward all is a necessary and non-negotiable part of our call to be the body of Christ in the world. We are called to extend Christ’s radical welcome to everyone – and not only that; we are called to rejoice over each and every person who finds their way to this community, no matter who they are.

When we gather here together in this place, we remember that each one of us here has sinned – each one of us has been lost and in need of hospitality, of welcome and love. Because that’s what the church is: it is a community of the found who gather together to practice the radical hospitality that Jesus first showed us. It is a place where the lost can be found, and where the whole body of believers all together can rejoice!

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About Day Hefner

Day Hefner is a seminarian at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago (LSTC), going through the candidacy process to become an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). Before moving to Chicago for seminary, she worked teaching English and job skills to refugees and immigrants in her native state of Nebraska, and also spent a year on staff at the Nebraska Synod office. Prior to that, she served for four years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Dominican Republic. Currently, she works part-time as an itinerant preacher. Her interests include Latinx ministry and immigration activism, as well as interfaith and development/redevelopment ministry. She also has a degree in music, loves cats, and is an avid crafter.
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