Sunday, September 11, 2022
If your house was on fire, what is the one thing you would want to take out of the house if you only had time to grab one thing? First of all, let me assure you your family is all safe; what thing or object would you want save if you could? When I ask this question, a lot of people usually say photo albums, baby pictures, the family Bible or other family heirloom. We all have items that may be of little monetary value, but are priceless and irreplaceable for us. A family in a previous congregation I served had a New Year’s Day fire that started in the garage from Christmas lights that were plugged in there. The actual fire damage was contained to the garage, thankfully, but the smoke and water damage resulted in the family having to live for nine months in a hotel. Even though they weren’t burned, a lot of their keepsakes and memorabilia had to be thrown out because of water and smoke damage. Like a death in the family, losing these treasures is a big loss from which you never fully recover, I think. Having good homeowner’s insurance may cover the replacement value, but you can never replace one-of-a-kind family items.
As Christians, questions like these are key questions of faith: what do we most value, and what does God most value? Like the popular saying, some of what we might consider trash is another person’s treasure, or vice versa. The things we hold dear like family photos would not have much meaning or monetary value to a stranger. In the gospel for today, Jesus tells two stories about people who have lost something dear to them, and the lengths they take to recover those lost things: a sheep, and a coin. For people listening to Jesus’ stories, they might be confused about why a shepherd would leave 99 good, valuable sheep to find the one wandering sheep. Why would a woman waste so much time looking for one coin when she has nine others? We estimate that that coin was worth no more than $120 today, so it would be worth finding eventually, but for those of us in the middle class, not necessarily a huge loss. What’s more, each of these people go to the expense of throwing a party to rejoice in finding their treasures – her coin, his sheep – which may have cost more than the value of the found item in the first place! The sheep and coin are more valuable than the price tag you can put on them, clearly, to the shepherd and the woman. Maybe that particular silver coin was a present from a dear friend or relative. Maybe that sheep’s mother had died in childbirth, and the shepherd had nursed it to health from infancy. Maybe there’s no real logical explanation – they just loved that sheep, that coin. What is clear in Jesus telling us these stories is that these lost things have value to God beyond what the market tells us they are worth. What some people consider trash can be God’s treasure.
Let’s remember one very important detail about the context of these stories: Jesus is telling these stories in response to the Pharisees and scribes grumbling about Jesus welcoming tax collectors and sinners and eating with them. Churchy, religious people know their value to God, but they have forgotten that God actually values ALL people. Rather than seeing all human beings as God’s valuable treasure, they have treated some like trash. They have abandoned God’s mission to gather all people to himself, seeking out the lost, those who have wandered or gone astray. Instead, they seem to be fine with people being lost and separated from God for good. They cannot see the human being beyond the “tax collector” or “sinner” title, who is just as worthy of being redeemed as they are. They cannot rejoice or celebrate God in Christ transforming these lost “sinners” as it were to a new, healthy, restored relationship in the faith community. They would rather that the kingdom of God be a little bit smaller or emptier. What’s more, they grumble about it! Their righteous judgment is bringing everyone down, whereas Jesus comes down to welcome and eat with sinners to bring them up; to raise us all up with him, actually– which brings joy and an atmosphere of celebration to the entire faith community.
Today, Jesus gives us an attitude check. We can be the party poopers, bringing other people down, looking down on certain people as “trash,” and tightening our exclusive club of “good, respectable people.” Maybe we feel a little jealous if we consider ourselves people who do what God wants us to do and have been good, Christian people for a long time. Is it fair that Jesus seems to waste so much time, money, and effort on people who do not have it all together, people who clearly have some things wrong with them, people who struggle to have faith, and so on? Instead, can we hear Jesus’ invitation to join the party, to rejoice with those who are rejoicing, and to find joy in God’s joy; that God’s greatest treasure in fact is every single one of us. In both of Jesus’ stories, the 99 sheep and the 9 other coins are still of value to their owners. Finding the lost one doesn’t diminish the value of the others, rather, the missing piece of the group is found, making everything whole and complete once again. That is worth all of us celebrating!
As school starts once again, I find myself sifting through our kids’ papers they bring home and trying to save only the best ones. In my opinion, I save too much already. Realistically, what am I going to do with all this stuff in thirty years? Right now, sometimes my kids find their daily homework in the recycling bin and take it back out. “Why would you throw this away, Mommy?” they cry. I try to explain that we just don’t have enough space in our house to save all of their hard work, but we do have a box to keep our best things. These parables of Jesus in Luke 15 is kind of my kids’ dreamworld in the sense that Jesus is saying here that in the kingdom of God nothing is thrown out, everything is a treasure – everything CAN be saved and nothing will be lost. Of course, this isn’t a story about things, really, about coins and sheep. This is a story about us. Jesus’ bigger picture message is that people are not things to be discarded or forgotten or left to wander lost and alone. Our tagline as a church is “You matter to God. You matter to us.” This is basically restating what Jesus tells us this morning, that some people are not worth less or more than other people -- that’s how the world measures and judges people. God estimates our worth by a different system entirely. Each one of us is God’s beloved creation. God doesn’t create trash. Instead, through Jesus Christ, God restores what is broken, finds what is lost, and turns our mourning into dancing. As Christians, Jesus’ work becomes our work, to help in finding the lost and bringing people back into a joyful relationship with Jesus. May we join the angels in the presence of God rejoicing that we, all of us, are God’s greatest treasure, and God has found us. Amen.