Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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Scripture Reading: Luke 15:1-10
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.’
Whenever I read these stories about sheep and coins, I think about rhinos. Yes. Rhinos. I think I’ve told you this story before. When we went to South Africa, we met some people who were like the shepherd who went looking for that one lost sheep, except it was a baby rhino. On the very first ride we took around the small game preserve where we were staying, we saw a white rhinoceros and her very young baby. The baby was the size of a very large dog, like a bigger version of our dog, Sugar. The mom was, well, rhinoceros-sized, huge. One of the first things we learned about the large mammals in South Africa is that baby rhinos make great little squeaking noises when they are impatient for their moms to do something. The little one we saw was impatient to keep roaming in the bush and had very little interest in standing next to the pond with land rovers full of people watching. Our guide, Tina, told us how this little rhino had once been lost.
She pointed to the mom and we could see that she looked a little swollen. She had developed an infection called mastitis that makes it painful and difficult to nurse. For the rest of the story to make sense, it’s important to remember something: Rhinos are endangered. The last Northern White Rhino died the year before we went to South Africa. We were looking at a couple Southern White Rhinos. They are threatened, but safer, at least for now. There are considerable conservation efforts going on all over South Africa to protect the species. As Tina put it, “Every rhino matters.” For those of you who are avid outdoorspeople or hunters or who have worked in conservation, you know that sometimes good conservation is not interfering too much in the lives of the animals in your care. That is true on the preserves we visited, too. But, when an animal as endangered as rhino is sick and when the illness can affect a calf, the rangers will attempt to capture the animal and provide a medical intervention.
Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to take a very annoyed cat or scared dog to the vet. If you have, you know it’s pretty hard. Now, imagine that the scared dog is the size of a Toyota Prius and has a horn longer than my forearm. And, it’s wild. And, it has a baby to take care of. They have to use helicopters and tranquilizer guns and cranes and trucks for these trips to the vet. In the midst of catching the mom, the baby got away. For three days, she was in the bush by herself. But, remember, they will go to extraordinary lengths to save a rhino. They looked and looked and finally found her. Her mom got treatment and she got to be reunited with her mom. What was lost, was found. Any resources expended in the search were worth it.
In our reading today, Jesus was, sadly, not hanging out with rhinos. Jesus was teaching and spending time with sinners and tax collectors. Scholars are quick to point out that we don’t know what the sinners have done, though we can assume that they are not guilty of the run of the mill mistakes that all people make. These folks are called sinners because they living consistently outside their community’s shared religious laws and ignoring their shared social obligations. Dr. Lois Malcolm notes that people who only look out for their own interests are called sinners in Luke 6:32-24. The details aren’t of what they did aren’t as important for us to know as the fact that the community, the respectable people, considered the ones who were eating with Jesus to be sinners. And, if you wanted your reputation to be good, you didn’t hang out with such people. So, why was Jesus spending time with them?
In her commentary on this chapter, Dr. Amanda Brobst-Renaud reminds us that there is an old cliché that says, “Bird of a feather flock together.” How many of you have heard that phrase before, particularly from parents who were worried about your misbehaving friends? Jesus’ critics, in this case, the respectable members of the community who were working hard to follow God’s laws and take care of their neighbors, wondered why Jesus was spending time with people who weren’t doing the same. It is also not surprising that they would be critical of Jesus for spending his time with sinners and tax collectors. It is one thing to argue, in good faith, with a Pharisee. Disagreement and discussion of religious law was a thing devout people did together. It is a whole other thing to willingly consort with tax collectors, traitors, who helped the Roman Empire. What was the content of Jesus’ teaching that sinners found it so compelling? What kind of example was Jesus setting with the company he was keeping?
Jesus often taught in parables. He decided to respond to those grumbling about him with three parables. The first two are our scriptures today. He said to the Pharisees and Scribes, which of you, having one hundred rhinos wouldn’t rent a helicopter to look for the one sick one to take it to the vet? Wait... he didn’t talk about rhinos. He talked about sheep. The people he was teaching knew more about sheep than rhinos. Who among you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them doesn’t leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one until they find it? And, when they find it, lays it across their shoulder and rejoices? Doesn’t that shepherd return to their friends and say, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” Dr. Brobst-Renaud argues that the pharisees and scribes would assume that looking for the sheep was worth it. Every sheep is important, even the one that has run off or has been frightened away. Every sheep, even the ones who make our lives harder with their choices, deserves to be searched for. Even if you fear that you won’t be able to find it, you look. Because that’s what shepherds do.
Then, Jesus told a second story. It was also not about rhinos. It was about coins. Jesus told a story of a woman who had two coins and lost one. We should understand that one coin was a fair amount of money. Dr. Brobst-Renaud said that one coin was at least a half day’s wages for most laborers and possibly a whole day’s wages. We don’t have a lot of background on this woman, just that she lost a coin. Maybe she’s rich because she has 10 coins laying around. Losing a half day’s work is still a lot. Maybe she’s poor and she has been scrimping and saving. It would be devastating to lose so much of it. While details of her life aren’t clear, what is clear is that she is frantic to find that money. She lit a lamp so she could see. She cleaned everywhere, searched carefully, until she found it. Then, she calls out to her friends to celebrate with her that she has found it. Whether this is just a bit of her wealth or a whole day’s labor, she celebrates. The coin meant something to her. She was not afraid to celebrate finding it.
Isn't this an interesting way for Jesus to describe his ministry? The Pharisees and the scribes were the 99 sheep and the 9 coins, safe were they were supposed to be. Jesus isn’t most concerned for the ones who are safe and sound. He is first concerned for, and orients his teaching towards, those who are lost, either because they are excluded or because they have chosen not follow the central tenants of their faith, love God and love your neighbor. Because Jesus knew that the sinners and tax collectors were God’s children, too, he made sure that his energy was spent making sure they are found.
Imagine hearing, maybe for the first time in a long time, that you are worth so much that you will be sought after frantically. Imagine hearing that you are worth the price of the oil in the lamp, the time spent cleaning in the dark, and the dangerous risk of a trip out into the bus. Imagine hearing that God’s greatest joy in not in hanging out with the righteous, but in finding the lost and bringing them home. In telling these two stories, Jesus made clear that the most care must be taken in searching for the lost, caring for the endangered, and in healing the relationships with the greatest histories of harm. Even if it takes a helicopter and a couple tranquilizer darts. The risk of the search is worth it.
Now, I think the rhino/sheep/coin connection I’ve made isn’t perfect. Rhinos are endangered for several reasons, none of which are the fault of the animal. Between the poaching, the colonization, and the human-caused climate change, rhinos aren’t simply running off, like the sheep. They are dwindling because of human actions, because we are sinners who are most concerned with our own well-being. But, sinners do not have to be without hope. Remember, as Dr. Caroline Lewis notes in her commentary on this passage, Jesus is trying to find us, searching urgently, relentlessly, tirelessly. And, we can live our lives different for having been found. Maybe we’ll even end up doing some of the looking alongside Jesus. Because those baby rhinos aren’t going to find themselves. And, neither will the lost sheep among us. So, who’s up for a helicopter ride?
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.