Sunday, September 11, 2022

Rejoice for what was lost is found

The Rev. Mark D. Wilkinson, Rector

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church

Katy TX 77450

September 11, 2022

(click here to watch the video)

Our gospel this morning contains two parables of Grace. That is key to understanding all that follows. The definition of Grace is found in our Catechism, “Grace is God’s favor towards us, unearned and undeserved; by grace God forgives our sins, enlightens our minds, stirs our hearts, and strengthens our wills.”

The parables we have in today’s gospel are the first two of a set of three that ends with the Prodigal Son. These are all parables about the lost being found. Two are found by the their owner and the lost son comes back on his own account. There is also an escalating scale going on here. The first is one sheep out of a hundred, then one coin out of ten and finally one of only two sons. There is an increasing value in the structure of these three parables typical of Jesus’ style.

The word choice in Luke is very important. Matthew also tells the parable of the lost sheep, but in Matthew the sheep wanders away and there is no parable of the lost coin. In Luke the sheep is lost and the coin is lost.  The focus in these two parables is on lostness whether it is a coin or a sheep. The focus is also on the one doing the searching.

Jesus says, “Who would not,” well none of them in particular with the parable about the shepherd and the lost sheep. The shepherd is doing something no human shepherd would do. A shepherd who leaves 99 sheep to go look for one sheep is liable to end up with 99 lost sheep. He might send a dog after the one, but would certainly not leave the others in the wilderness, which is where Jesus says they are. One writer said that in effect a lost sheep was a dead sheep. Certainly to be devoured by some wild animal in the wilderness.

Yet the shepherd in the parable with the lost sheep does not stay with the other sheep. He does not act like the Pharisees who shuns the sinner and only worries about the saved. Jesus is saying the lost are not to be cast aside or forgotten, but are to be sought out and saved. This is a direct indictment of the Pharisees who are still thinking in human terms, not God’s.

The person, searching in both parables, searches until they have found what they are looking for. There is a diligence and thoroughness in this search. The same is true when God is searching for us.

The important point in all of these parables is that Jesus is speaking about Grace. All three of these parables are about God’s economy of Grace. The point is that these parables tell us that God doesn’t play by our rules. Jesus is trying to make that point in these parables, both to those on the inside and to those on the outside. God’s covenant is offered to all, but particularly those on the margins.  Holiness for Jesus does not mean keeping separate from sinners, but means embracing them and calling them to a new way of life.

These parables focus on the unearned and undeserved. The sheep is lost in Luke. It has not wandered as in Matthew. The coin is lost. Coins cannot wander away or do anything to be found. They are simply lost. All of the focus is on the one who is searching.

In both cases, the sheep and the coin, the object being sought does nothing except hang out in its lostness. The point is that this is totally out of our hands. We may think we have control, but not in matters of grace.

Robert Farrar Capon has written a book on The Parables of Grace and the chapter on these parables is entitled Losing as the Mechanism of Grace. Stop and think about that. Losing as the mechanism of grace. Capon states, “They are not stories designed to convince us that if we will wind ourselves up to some acceptable level of moral and/or spiritual improvement, God will forgive us; rather they are parables about God’s determination to move before we do in short to make lostness and death the only tickets we need to the Supper of the Lamb.” This is why Luke has Jesus approaching the tax collectors and sinners.

This is not about repentance before we turn to God, but as a response to being found by God. This is not about what Dietrich Bonhoeffer referred to as cheap grace. Grace and forgiveness granted because we have done something to earn it for that flies in the face of the very definition of grace that Christ presents us with in this passage.

Paul Tillich writes: Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. It strikes us when we feel our separation is deeper than usual. Sometime at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you and the name of which you do not know.”   In other words Grace strikes us when we are lost in the wilderness.

I selected the hymn Amazing Grace to sing before and after the gospel for a very specific reason. That reason is the story behind the hymn and I want to tell that story but in the context of these 2 parables.

The words to the verses 1-4 were written by John Newton the slave trader turned Anglican priest. There is far more to the story about how “lost” John Newton was. John was the son of a merchant seaman and went on his first voyage at 11 and began a carrier as a sailor. In 1743 he was impressed into the British Navy and tried to desert and was severely punished. He eventually got onto a slave ship as a crew member but ran afoul of that crew who sold him into slavery in what is now Sierra Leone. In 1748 he was rescued by a captain who had been asked by Newton’s father to go look for him and returned to England. During that voyage the ship was caught in a severe storm off the coast of Ireland and Newton prayed for God’s mercy after which the storm died down. That was the start of his conversion but as you will hear, he had a long way to go.

He began to read the bible and had accepted the basic tenants of the faith. He had put aside his drinking, profanity and gambling however he continued to work in the slave trade. First serving as first mate and then a captain he made 6 trips transporting slaves. He suffered a stroke and retired from seafaring but continued to invest in the slave trade in 1754. He now turned to being a tax collector but began to study religion and learned Greek, Hebrew and Latin. He became known as a powerful preacher and applied to be an Anglican priest in 1757. It was 7 more years before he was accepted and ordained in 1764. He eventually became the vicar of Olney in Buckinghamshire and then moved on to be a rector in London and was much sought after by people searching to find their faith.

It wasn’t until 1788, 34 years after leaving the slave trade, that he finally wrote a treatise on the evils of the slave trade. He would go on to become an ally of William Wilberforce who was the leader of the abolitionist movement in England. He lived to see the trade abolished in 1807.

I am hoping that this backstory helps to make the words of the hymn Amazing Grace even more important. He could honestly say “that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see.” I started thinking about this direction for the sermon last week with psalm 139 where the psalmist tells us that no matter where we go, God will be there. That is the image of God of our parables today.

In our parables, neither the sheep nor the coin do anything about being found. In fact the sheep may hide to protect themselves from predators. Thus, making it more difficult for the shepherd to find them. Newton was not originally looking for God or salvation until that first moment when he prayed on the ship in the storm. But then like so many he got on with his life, but little by little God kept searching for him like the shepherd or the woman. Searching until what was lost was now found.

What this shows us is that God never gives up on anyone. God is always reaching out to us, but we must make the decision to accept God’s presence in our life. We do have to make the choice to accept the grace that is offered to us. It is totally up to us.

The whole point of all this is the God searches for us, calls to us, longs for us to come to be embraced by God. This truly is part of what I said last week when I spoke about Fr. Paul’s discipleship go bag. The first piece was that we must let God love us and live with us forever.  We must be willing to let God find us. That really is the key if we truly want to embrace amazing grace.