Pentecost 14C September 11, 2022

 Pentecost 14C Luke 15.1-10 Sunday, September 11, 2022 In the spring of 1994, economist Paul Krugman wrote an essay for Foregin Affairs magazine that probably has been collecting dust ever since. The essay was entitled: Competitiveness: A Dangerous Obsession. In the United States where competition and rivalry seem as fundamental as baseball, hot dogs, and apple pie, Krugman’s “dangerous obsession” would certainly seem to some as counter intuitive. Basically, he argued that the mindset of “winners” and “losers” and a zero sum game of economics on a local, regional, and global scale misses the reality of the interconnected and often integrated world in which we live--even in the 1990s. If the fluttering butterfly in South America can produce a hurricane in Miami, you better believe that the complexity of the world transcended dog-eat-dog. Yet, some would go so far as to say that, contrary to Krugman, competitiveness was more the driver for global growth and less a dangerous obsession. Nevertheless, Krugman’s words have borne some truth regarding global economics, and they may actually help us consider the gospel text for today. While competition may seem the furthest thing from the parables Jesus offers, it may be at the very heart of them. At first glance the stories of the shepherd and the woman seem fairly straightforward. They are stories about grace and mercy. Look how forgiving God is. God, like the shepherd, will illogically and without any benefit, leave the 99 in search of the one lost sheep. God, like the woman, will turn the house upside down to find the one lost coin. The focus is on God and the “sinner”. God overflows in passion and compassion. God will seek out the lost and forgive them. Thus, Jesus ends both examples with the words, “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” And, if this is how we read the story, it is not so bad. There is a moral. A lesson. We can be thankful that God is so forgiving, yet, poignantly forgiving of others. Indeed, this perception of us versus them implied in the narrative has created some wonderful stories to remind us that we should not be so quick to judge. We should be. . . well . . . more like God. For instance, the story exists that long ago a monk committed a sin. The elders assembled and sent for Abba Moses. He, however, did not want to go. Finally, a priest sent a message to him, saying: “Come, everybody is waiting for you.” So Abba Moses got up to go. However, he took a worn-out basket with holes, filled it with sand, and carried it along. The people who came to meet him said: “What is this?” The old man said: “My sins are running out behind me, yet I do not see them. And today I have come to judge the sins of someone else.” When they heard this, they said nothing to the monk and pardoned him. Again, if God’s forgiveness and, by extension, our call to forgive are takeaways from today’s parables, that is not so bad. A good moral. An important lesson. Yet, the parables of Jesus are never meant to be read as a good moral tale or a life lesson. The parables of Jesus are meant to disrupt, and these parables do just that. Indeed, the parables are less about grace and mercy and more about judgment. Judgment not on the usual suspects but those whom we might least expect. To begin, the images of a shepherd seeking out a lost sheep and a woman finding a lost coin can be quaint and appealing. It’s easy to sentimentalize God and forgiveness with these images. Nevertheless, the ultimate idea expressed by Jesus that sinners repent implies that a lost sheep and a lost coin are capable of repentance. And we all know how absurd that is. Agency is not an aspect of a sheep or coin’s reality. Thus, repentance in this instance isn’t about human will, or people acting morally, or even the desire to change. Rather, as Richard Jensen notes, “The only possible action in this story which could constitute repentance is the finding of the lost. Repentance, therefore, may be defined as our acceptance of being found. . . Repentance is our acceptance of the reality that God has found us in Jesus Christ. This means, of course, that we acknowledge our own 'lostness.” And, we also acknowledge our powerlessness in the equation of repentance. As another writer notes, “Repentance is more an experience of being found by a concerned seeker than the product of human effort. And its public sign is joy at the gift of new life rather than doleful remorse." Indeed, we move from a recognition of repentance as something that we do to something that is done on our behalf, for us, done to us, whether we know it or not, acknowledge it or not, believe it or not. You can’t be unfound! And the joy in heaven among the angels that Jesus references when the lost are found--redeemed if you will--presses a vital point that was prevalent among the religious type of his day and too often abides in our communities of faith. Our dangerous obsession is to compete for some level of moral standing or propriety or virtue where we end up defining ourselves over against others. Some are considered worthy. Others are considered unworthy. The religious leaders judged the world with this calculus, and believers down the centuries have done the same. Thus, the judgment in this parable is that if we think in these terms we have missed the whole point. The question is asked, “If the angels of heaven are rejoicing that the sinners, the reprobates, the crooks, the swindlers, the dregs, and the lost, have been found, well, why aren’t we rejoicing as well?” As one writer notes, “The cult of respectability must give way to the cultivation of the art of joy over God's delight in reclaiming the refuse of humanity.” And this recognition starts with an understanding that we are part of that lost group as well. We are in need of being found. We cannot save ourselves, least of all and notably, from ourselves. If repentance is our acceptance of the reality that God has found us, then there is nothing that separates us from each other, save the acceptance of such a reality. We are all equally needing of God’s love. All equally needing of God’s seeking us. All equally incapable of saving ourselves. And all equally dumbfounded by our good fortune to have stumbled into such mercy. Which, ultimately, transforms our view of not just those like us, but, particularly, those whom we think stand outside of the mercy of God. Again, don’t let our dangerous obsession--competition--get in the way of what God is up to. A Jewish story tragically makes this point. The Lord appears to a hard-working farmer and grants him three wishes. However, the condition exists that whatever the Lord does for the farmer would be given double to his neighbor. The farmer, scarcely believing his good fortune, wishes for a hundred cattle. Immediately he receives a hundred cattle. He is overjoyed until he sees that his neighbor has two hundred. So he wishes for a hundred acres of land. Again, he is filled with joy until he sees that his neighbor has two hundred acres of land. Rather than celebrating God's goodness, the farmer cannot escape feelings of jealousy because his neighbor has received more than he. Finally, he states his third wish: that God would strike him blind in one eye. You understand the moral?! Ultimately, the parables Jesus tells today are not of upright sheep and coins repenting. Rather, the parables tell of a God so in love with the world that nothing can stop the divine from seeking out and saving all, even when the repentance that is recognized is simply the acceptance of being found on the part of all who have been lost. We don’t win. We don’t rise above others. We don’t claim a status for ourselves. Rather, we recognize our connection with everyone. We need to be found when we are lost. We have been found. And we are loved forever. This is the opposite of a dangerous obsession. It is the beginning of life together. And it is the very thing that, along with the angels in heaven, we can rejoice over