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September 15, 2016, 8:31 AM

Incomplete


Luke 15:1-10, CEB
All the tax collectors and sinners were gathering around Jesus to listen to him. The Pharisees and legal experts were grumbling, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose someone among you had one hundred sheep and lost one of them. Wouldn’t he leave the other ninety-nine in the pasture and search for the lost one until he finds it? And when he finds it, he is thrilled and places it on his shoulders. When he arrives home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Celebrate with me because I’ve found my lost sheep.’ In the same way, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who changes both heart and life than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need to change their hearts and lives.
“Or what woman, if she owns ten silver coins and loses one of them, won’t light a lamp and sweep the house, searching her home carefully until she finds it?  When she finds it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Celebrate with me because I’ve found my lost coin.’10  In the same way, I tell you, joy breaks out in the presence of God’s angels over one sinner who changes both heart and life.”
 
“Incomplete”
 
It is one of my earliest memories, one of those memories that exists in a soft haze. My grandmother, Mary McConnell, who just turned 95 two weekends ago, would take me with her to go do some housework at her father’s house when I was very little. I know I was very little for my grandmother would have to pick me up and place me in her father’s lap before she started working. While she worked, I would sit in Grandpa Badman’s lap, and ‘help’ him do his jigsaw puzzles, while eating Fig Newtons (his favorite). I remember doing this several times, but I have no memory of ever completing a puzzle. It seemed to always be a work in progress. Grandpa Badman was methodical and diligent. He had a system and did not deviate. He first carefully constructed the outer edge of the puzzle and then worked from one end across to the other. As we visited and munched on cookies, he would search constantly for the needed pieces, eyes carefully scanning the assortment. Grandpa’s puzzles were always incomplete, but they were always given his rapt attention.
 
Incomplete is a word we could use to describe the situation in our two parables this morning from Luke’s gospel. The shepherd’s flock is incomplete, a sheep has gone missing.  The woman’s coin collection is incomplete, one coin is absent. The flock and the collection are incomplete. These are very, very familiar stories from Jesus. Most of us have heard them hundreds of times, and we know that in Luke this is a set of three interrelated parables: The Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and…The Prodigal Son. I’m willing to bet most of us could recap these stories easily, staying true to the essential elements. We might think we know most all there is to know about these beloved parables, but perhaps, as parables are intended to do, there are still a few surprises. Our understanding may still be incomplete.
 
As we enter now into the new school year and our fall schedule, we are leaving behind our sermon series from the summer, and entering back into the lectionary readings. The lectionary is a calendar of scripture readings on a three year cycle that guides churches in hearing a wide variety of texts across the entire Bible. Each Sunday on the calendar has a Hebrew Scripture, Psalm, Letter from the New Testament, and a Gospel reading. The lectionary also allows us from different denominations and locations to be spending time with the same scripture passages on the same Sundays. We are current ly at the end of the three-year cycle, year C, which spends a great deal of time with the gospel of Luke. The church’s new year begins with the season of Advent. The author of Luke also wrote the Book of Acts and the author uses the image of journeying in both books to tell the story of God’s activity in Jesus Christ and the early Christian community. In a large chunk of the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is journeying toward Jerusalem, the cross, and the empty tomb. Today’s reading, and the upcoming readings this month, are a collection of teachings Jesus gave ‘on the road,’ as Jerusalem came closer and closer.
 
These beloved parables are shared with a very particular audience. Look at the opening verses of the chapter: Jesus is telling these stories to tax collectors, sinners, Pharisees, and legal experts. Quite a mixed crowd. Tax collectors and sinners are usually wealthy people who are not adhering to the law of God, the Torah. Tax collectors are collaborators with the Roman occupation, often accumulating wealth by collecting more Roman tax than proscribed. Sinners in Luke are often wealthy citizens who do not obey the Law regarding care of the poor and marginalized—think of the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man. Along with these non-observers of God’s Law are diligent observers. Pharisees are non-priestly Jews who have dedicated their lives to following the Law to the letter. Legal experts are professional theologians, those who have entered the profession of law knowledge and interpretation. Gathered before Jesus at this moment on the road are those who strictly and passionately live God’s Law and those who regularly disregard it. The law-keepers are upset with Jesus because he has broken the Law. He has eaten with the non-observers of the Law. Meals are sacred moments in Jewish tradition. To eat at table is likened to journeying up to the Temple in Jerusalem. To this crowd (along with the disciples, obviously) Jesus tells these parables of lost and found, these stories of incompleteness.
 
Parables are very unique forms of teaching. They are designed to be multi-layered, thought-provoking, and usually with a little twist or two that makes the stories stick with the listeners long after the hearing. Parables are designed to be chewed on and contemplated. So let’s chew. First, the sheep and shepherd. The first two sentences are told to shock, to grab the attention. “Suppose someone among you had one hundred sheep and lost one of them.” That isn’t too shocking. Most gathered around Jesus are rather wealthy as we have just discussed, they could imagine owning one hundred sheep. Some of the disciples, on the other hand (those fishermen, for instance), might have had a much more difficult time imaging owning so many. “Wouldn’t he leave the other ninety-nine in the pasture and search for the lost one until he finds it?” What? No! Common English Bible uses the word pasture, but it is really the word for desert or wilderness. First century Middle Eastern shepherds did not have fenced in pastures as farmers in our nation do today. They wandered the wilderness looking for grazing for their sheep. What shepherd would leave the entire flock in the wilderness to find that one? Sane answer: no shepherd in their right mind would do this. That’s the point.
 
One layer to chew on in this tiny, well-known parable, sees the shepherd as God. In the Hebrew Scriptures God is often seen as Shepherd of the flock, Israel. Is Jesus saying that God is an insane shepherd? If so, this little parable depicts God answering yes to Jesus’ question. God leaves all the observant sheep, who are not lost, because God’s flock is incomplete. Someone is missing. God runs off and searches methodically, diligently, relentlessly, until God finds this missing one. God’s joy in finding this one is extravagant and overflowing, calling everyone to join in the rejoicing. Does the audience see itself here? If we see the shepherd as God, are the sheep in the flock our Law-abiding audience, the Pharisees and legal experts? Is the missing sheep then our tax collectors and sinners? Is Jesus saying that God’s people are incomplete because not everyone in living the full life of God’s community?
 
However, not only is God depicted as a shepherd in the Hebrew Scriptures, another group is many times lifted up as shepherds of the people Israel—the keepers of God’s Law. As we move into another layer to chew for a bit, what does this story say to the audience if law-keepers suddenly see themselves as the shepherd? It is their job to keep the sheep; to guide, protect, care. Now a sheep is missing. Did they notice? Or have they only been busying themselves with the 99? Who is ultimately responsible for those sheep? Are they willing to do whatever it takes to find the missing and help them reenter the flock? Do they realize their flock is incomplete? Instead of criticizing Jesus, is he saying they should be sitting down at the table with him?
 
The story of the woman and her lost coin echoes the shepherd and sheep, but this time with a female main character. The woman has ten silver coins, something easily imagined by most of the crowd. Again, it is a stretch for the disciples. She misses one. One in ten is easier to miss than one in one hundred. She sees that her coins are incomplete and tears the house apart until she finds it—lighting the lamp to look under and behind, grabbing the broom to sweep all the nooks and crannies—until she finds it. Then she too calls everyone together and celebrates. If the audience has been seeing themselves in the shepherd and sheep, they don’t miss the carry over to the woman and coins. A few of the audience members may have bristled at God and themselves being depicted as a woman, but they are probably much more disturbed by the implications of the stories than the depictions. Jesus drops these stories into their midst. Stories that challenge their roles and responsibilities. Stories that challenge the legal expert’s harshness toward the sinners in their midst. Stories that point out that those sinners need to change their hearts and minds.  Many things here are incomplete.
 
We too are invited to find ourselves in this story. But let us remind ourselves of who we are, of our own context, as listeners of Jesus’ parables. We may want to identify ourselves with the missing sheep and lost coin. There may be moments in our lives when that is us. However, we are gathered here, in the sanctuary of the church, for worship and praise. We are not really tax collectors and sinners as Luke defines them, we are much closer to Pharisees and legal experts—those who seek to live God’s way in the world. After all, we are here. So, as we listen, as we contemplate, as we chew, we should find ourselves much more in the shoes of the observers of God’s way. Do we know our God to be so reckless and extravagant in God’s pursuit of those not living God’s way? Did we realize that this is God’s priority, that none be lost? Is that our priority as well, as followers of the One who sat at table with the non-observant regularly, as well as the observant? Did we realize our community is incomplete? Did we recognize that some are missing? What are we going to do about it?
 
It is the overall tendency in the Church to get busy with ourselves, to focus on what happens in here—for pastors as well as members. Do we have enough Sunday School teachers? What does the budget look like for 2017? How will pledging go this fall? Do we have anyone interested in campus ministry, visitation ministry, drama ministry? Can we schedule some youth café nights? These are important things, but according to Jesus, they are not God’s priority. Jesus challenges us today to prioritize our journey into the community around us. Jesus challenges us to be present beyond these walls in an intentional, diligent, even reckless way. Jesus challenges us to see that our community, God’s community is incomplete. Can we do this?
 
Like Grandpa Badman’s puzzle, our community will continue to be incomplete. There will always be more people to develop relationships with, reach out to, embrace. This community will always (until the coming age) be incomplete, but can it have our full attention? Can it have priority for us? Can we venture beyond the flock.

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