There’s nothing that concentrates the mind more than impending disaster. This morning at All Age Worship, we thought a bit about what we would take with us if we had to leave our house with a few minutes notice, like the people of Whaley Bridge earlier this summer, or those made homeless by Hurricane Dorian.
Some opted for useful things. The front door key. A phone and phone charger to let people know you were safe. Others thought first of things of sentimental value. The family photos which were now the only reminder of family members who had died, things that were irreplaceable. Of course, it went without saying that people were the most precious of all.
These were the things we valued the most.
When Jesus tells his stories of the lost sheep and lost coin, he is tapping into that instinctive sense we have of what matters to us and how desperate we are to preserve it. It’s not actually very sensible to leave 99 perfectly good sheep in the wilderness in order to find one which is lost, but the shepherd couldn’t bear to think of it being vulnerable and alone. The woman who used up good lamp oil to find her lost coin and then probably spent its equivalent on rejoicing with her friends also seems to have got things a bit out of proportion. The woman’s coin wasn’t worth a huge amount, but it was probably part of her dowry, the only thing which truly belonged to her and which she would keep if her husband divorced her. It was a symbol of her independence.
The amount of effort both characters put into their search may seem disproportionate, but that’s the point. People behave like this. We all do. People will even put their own lives in danger in order to save what is precious to them – spending those extra minutes gathering their precious possessions up, in the knowledge that every moment they delay is actually a moment they are risking their lives when disaster threatens. Disaster movies often play heavily on that – the wall of water is advancing, the asteroid is approaching but, no, the protagonists decide that they just have to go back for this thing, that person, the dog or cat they can’t bear to leave behind. We want to shout “no, leave it – just go!”, but it doesn’t work like that.
And, Jesus says, if people behave like this, how much more so will God?
The difference between us and God is in what, or who, we think is valuable enough to merit this “do or die” treatment.
The Pharisees and Scribes are clear about it. The valuable people are people like them, people who are at least trying to keep the rules, respectable people. They are aghast at Jesus’ apparent insistence on spending his time – wasting his time as they see it – on tax-collectors and sinners. Tax collectors collected taxes for the Romans; they were collaborators. ‘Sinners’ was a vague term that covered anyone whose behaviour, or simple misfortune, put them beyond the pale. This was an age in which illness, disability and poverty were thought to be punishments from God, so “sinners” covered many, many people who had just found that the wheels had come off their lives, so to speak, and that they were floundering in some way. What’s the point in trying to help them? If Jesus is God’s Messiah, surely he should be more careful, wiser, in choosing his associates!
That’s why Jesus tells them these stories. He gets his audience to think of what they value and how far they go to rescue and safeguard these things. But then he challenges them to imagine that God might feel exactly the same when he looks at the people they have written off.
"What if God felt about a tax collector the way you felt about a sheep that was lost and found, a coin which you had treasured as a symbol of your independence, a safety net if life went wrong for you? What if each of these people whom you have written off as a waste of space were actually worth so much that God would be prepared to give all he had, even his own life, for them." And that is exactly what Christians believe that he did in sending his son, who refused to turn back from his commitment to those who needed him.
The letter to Timothy, from which our first reading came, probably wasn’t written by Paul – it was probably written after he died - but it is meant to read as if it was. It was the kind of thing he would have said; we know from other letters that were written by him that he regarded it as astonishing that he, someone who had persecuted Christians, would ever be accepted by them, and by God, forgiven, loved, regarded as part of the family. But that was what had happened, and it transformed him completely. Love has a way of doing that. He was the “foremost of sinners”, and yet the grace of God overflowed for him.
Tonight we may be feeling like the lost sheep – “Can God really love me?” Or we may be feeling like one of those 99 who thought they had it all sorted out – “Can God really love him or her, the one who has wandered off?” But either way, the answer is “Yes!Yes!Yes!” and all the angels in heaven rejoice when we start to hear that answer and believe it.