Sermon for Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity High Mass Sunday 15 September 2013
Sermon preached by Fr Julian Browning
Readings: Jeremiah 4.11-12, 22-28; 1Timothy 1.12-17; Luke 15.1-10.
Luke 15.9 – The woman said, Rejoice with me, I have found the coin that I had lost.
If you’ve ever lost your keys, you’ll get the point of this Gospel. They must be here somewhere. I’m not leaving until I find my keys, my phone, my oyster card, my wallet, whatever it is we’ve lost. That’s God’s attitude towards us. He’s determined to find us, wherever we’ve got to. We mean everything to God. We are his life’s work. He has created us in his own image. And it’s our life work to discover who God is, to find him. Jesus shows us how to do it. He also shows us what we’ve been doing wrong all these years. We’ve been trying to work out first who God is and come up with a sort of character sketch of God, you know the sort of thing. God is good, God is just, God is merciful. It never really works because God can’t be described in that way. We try to do the impossible when we try to work out who God is. We’re looking for a lovable God so that then we can love him. We think that’s Christian, but it isn’t really. The Christian way is to love God, and then to start to know him. The love, the surrender, comes before the knowing; the knowing takes a lifetime. Then we are doing what God does, God loves us before he knows us. In today’s Gospel Jesus eats with sinners and tax collectors before they do anything to change their lives. God doesn’t wait for us to repent or change our ways or be lovable. We are precious to God now.
The story of the lost sheep, the story of the lost coin, and the story of the Prodigal Son are three stories about what God does in every human life. St Luke’s emphasis is different from St Matthew’s. You can have different interpretations of these classic stories. There’s not just one answer. A new meaning is always there, including your interpretation, what the words say to you. For St Matthew the stories are about your ministry, the importance of the individual, searching out the lost. For St Luke the stories are about God’s mercy and forgiveness, God’s outreach, what God does for us, searching and finding. He searches for us until he finds us. It’s all there in the story of the lost coin. We can fail, we can lose, but we can’t give up. God never gives up on us. We can lose so much of what we value, we can be very lost ourselves, at intervals in our lives, depending on circumstances, it just happens, we can find ourselves as lost as a coin beneath the floorboards, as lost as one sheep in open countryside. Knowing God then is very difficult, God seems indifferent to us. But faith is always just possible, believing against all the evidence, that there is always one who will look for us until he finds us. So we then start to rely on God not giving up. We might begin to see a pattern of losing and finding in our lives, and begin to sense some design behind the pattern, a God who makes sense of it all, drawing us back into his life.
Often overlooked in these two stories is God’s foolishness. It seems slightly risky to talk of such a thing, but it is part of the story, part of what we are supposed to see. No shepherd would abandon ninety nine sheep to search for one that is lost. Nobody, even a poor person, needs to turn the house upside down to find the tiniest of coins. Who would want to look for me? These actions are foolish in the eyes of the world. In other words God isn’t going to act in our lives in the way we might expect a rational intelligent human to act. Nobody is beyond God’s love and mercy, nobody, nothing – not one lost sheep, not one lost coin, not one lost soul like me. As we heard Paul say in the epistle to Timothy, Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.
As we ponder these little stories over many years, it might dawn upon us that it is not just God doing the losing and the finding, this is something we must do ourselves. We can do what God does. Indeed God needs us to do what he does. Sermons are hopeless for teaching, so don’t try to remember this, but St Irenaeus in the second century wrote: We can never see God as an object but only by sharing in God’s self-understanding. We can never see God as an object – we can’t know God out there – but we do see God when we join God in his foolishness, his divine experience in this world, his searching and finding. That is how we shall get to know who God is, when we search for those who are lost, when we don’t give up, when we find and rejoice.
There is a powerful Christian principle at work here, the principle of unity, all being one, we are made for union, that perfection which comes from being entirely known, total harmony, when ninety nine out of a hundred sheep just isn’t good enough. Nine out of ten silver coins is incomplete. We see the principle at work in our own lives, the parts of our lives which are separate or secret or feared are precisely the aspects of ourselves which need to be worked on, sought out and found. Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost. We have a principle of unity within us, and I believe that this principle of unity is the divine image, is God within us. Jesus wasn’t very interested in religion, the do’s and don’ts, and who is allowed where, but what he does show us is the freedom of the authentic human life, the human integrity which mirrors the unity of a God who searches until he finds, so that ninety-nine becomes a hundred again. And there, of course, is the warning for all of us in the Church of the immense harm and cost of schism, of splitting, of destroying the unity, of giving up one coin as lost. Here’s why we find it so distressing when friends decide they have to leave the church of their baptism on matters of principle, and why it upsets us so much to consider that action for ourselves, because this, our stories tell us today, is precisely what God doesn’t do to us. God doesn’t split. God doesn’t lose a coin. There is a place for everyone at God’s table. God finds a way, beyond human wisdom, to turn nine silver coins into ten again, and it is always the way of the Cross, the way of selfless love, the same love which sends God to the end of the earth to find you, to the outer edges and the dark places of your life, and to help you with the choices every person has to make in life, and bring you home. And then, rejoice with me, there is universal joy, the shared united joy which is the point of this parable, the joy that what was lost, or the one who thought he or she was utterly lost, is of infinite value to God, and has been found.