13th Sunday after Trinity 2019
How re-assured would you feel if I said that I only have three points to make this morning? Would you imagine that we are in for a short or long sermon? Storytelling is full of threes – from the three little pigs to the three bears that Goldilocks encounters, from the three mystery caskets in The Merchant of Venice to the three prophecies by the weird sisters to Macbeth.
All the best stories come in threes, but we this morning only have two. We have the story of the lost sheep, and the story of the lost coin. There is a third to round off the series – the Prodigal Son – and it is not there. Why? Is it a conspiracy, to keep us from figuring out Jesus’s intentions? Or is it sparing us a very long Gospel reading? The third possibility, to stay true to the emerging theme, is that the compilers of the lectionary think we know the story of the Prodigal Son so well that we don’t need to hear it again, and can provide the ending to the sequence all by ourselves. As the twist is always in the third story, we have to decide if that is patronizing or a compliment.
Be that as it may, we have two other readings all about God changing his mind, so in the grand scheme of things, we might just be in a right old mess. Which of course we are, because today we do not know where we are going as a nation, what the impact of what might happen might be to us, to our community, to our country and to the wider world. There has been much talk of absolutism – sticking to a decision that was taken in 2016 – and of alteration – try the referendum vote again and see if people have changed their minds. There are hardliners on both sides, but just in case there are those who would seek to apply God’s standards to this unholy mess, remember the outcome of Moses pleading before God as the Israelites danced round a statue of a golden calf at the foot of Mt Sinai. God, in his holiness, has sworn to destroy the people. Moses pleads for their forgiveness and for God’s own honour in the world, and these astonishing lines follow, “And the Lord changed his mind…”. There: to change one’s mind can be God-like. Yes, it involves mercy and great grace, as the Apostle Paul discovered, but it happens.
So what exactly is Jesus doing in this series of three stories? Look first at his audience. A ragtag group of people surrounds Jesus. Quislings, “sinners” – what on earth does that mean? And some Pharisees and scribes. Poles apart socially, theologically, politically and culturally, this crowd is about as divided as a crowd can be, and just to provide the full panoply of Jewish dissent, there are at least two of Jesus’s disciples who could be described as terrorists. None of these people would normally talk to each other, none of these would normally share each other’s company, but in the presence of Jesus, they are all brought together. They all want to listen to him, to learn from him, receive something from him that is apposite to them, so Jesus skillfully draws them all in.
The lost sheep – a cheerful pastoral story, easily accessible, a simple point made about the repentance necessary from those who have wandered away from the fold of Israel. The Pharisees nod approvingly, the tax collectors & the “sinners” take comfort in the possibility of their redemption. There is grace for those who take it upon themselves to drift away from the orbit of God’s love, and they will always be welcomed back.
The lost coin – same thing, only this time it is hardly the coin’s fault that it has gone missing. But things happen, circumstances can conspire against us – remember that we are all two months’ rent arrears away from homelessness, and four months mortgage arrears away from being out on the street – and we can simply get lost through no particular fault of our own. But, Jesus insists, God will find us and bring us back, and all the angels will have a big celebration. Again, the Pharisees nod, the tax collectors and “sinners” breathe a sigh of relief, and Jesus moves on to the third story.
But wait there. One part of both stories has not been talked about so far – the comment about the 99 safe sheep & the 9 safe coins. Is God not all that concerned about them? Those faithful people who, week by week, live out the life of faith, worship consistently in God’s house, and share his love in practical and meaningful ways day by day – is God not interested in them? The Pharisees are so caught up in the blame game that Jesus is offering that they have not noticed how they are being strung along. They are safe, they think, these Pharisees, they are connected to the divine, so it is only right that God should be doing something special for those who are outside the fold or disconnected from the main body of Israel. Should they not be concerned about their status in these two stories?
They really should, because the Prodigal Son narrative is coming down the tracks, and the whole ending section about the ingratitude and the anger of the son who stayed at home is aimed directly at them and, potentially, at us.
Who are those “tax collectors and sinners” in today’s reality? Or, more practically, our reality? Tax collectors in Jesus’s time were people who had sold out to the occupying force, who had thrown their lot in with the Romans. It doesn’t take much for us to identify people today who we judge to be quislings, in thrall to unthinking or malevolent political or social forces – according to us, that is. And the term “sinners” is just a catch-all word for people of whom we do not approve, who could range from fat cat business people to rough sleepers or anyone else who doesn’t meet our high standards of acceptability. It’s the old “U & non-U” thing – “people like us” – and we can fall into it so easily, especially in today’s divided Britain with “leavers” & “remainers”, snowflakes and baby-boomers, Generation Z & Millenials.
We have to drill it back into our hearts that God is not like that. God’s love is so extraordinary in its length and breadth and height and depth that we dare not slip into Pharisaical ways, or we too will need to be shamed out of our lazy thinking and returned to the fold and the unity of God. We are all both lost and safe, a prodigal and the stay-at home son.
Our final hymn today is “Amazing grace”, a heartfelt acknowledgement from someone who regarded themselves, along with Paul, as “the chief of sinners”, that God could reach out and forgive even someone like him. Having that same mindset will enable us to rejoice in our salvation with the angels, and share in their joy at everyone else’s.