Proper 19, Year C – Luke 15:1-10
The Rev’d Charles Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
September 11, 2022
When I was a kid, my music and television habits were heavily influenced by my parents. I grew up listening to Chicago, Led Zepplin, the Doors, Fleetwood Mac, the Eagles, and the like. And I grew up watching movies like Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, and Arthur, and TV series like Married with Children, and my favorite, Cheers. This show is about a bar in Boston called Cheers where folks gather to unwind and interact with friends. Its theme song is famous not only because of the catchy tune, but because it names a longing that every person has:
Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came. You want to be where you can see our troubles are all the same. You wanna be where everybody knows your name.
That’s the kind of place Cheers was in this show. A place where people could be real and share food and drink with others, no matter their station in life. In today’s gospel reading, it’s not difficult to imagine Jesus in such a place, eating and drinking with anyone, much to the chagrin of the proper and pure. St. Luke tells us that that Jesus is eating and drinking with “tax collectors and sinners” while the “Pharisees and scribes” are grumbling about the fact that he welcomes – that he even seeks out these sinners. In response to their grumbling, he tells the Pharisees and scribes three parables, two of which we heard today.
The first is the parable of the lost sheep. He asks these religious leaders, “Which of you would leave the ninety-nine sheep in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?” I’m a city boy and have no experience with sheep, but this shepherd doesn’t sound very responsible to me. What about the 99 sheep left in the wilderness? Who will take care of them? These are questions I’m sure the Pharisees asked themselves upon hearing this parable, but perhaps like the Pharisees, I was initially as dense as they were. The utter ridiculousness of what the shepherd does is an important part of the story. He is so focused on the lost sheep that he not only throws caution to the wind, he risks his livelihood by leaving his flock unattended. And when he finds the lost sheep, he lays it on his shoulders and comes home rejoicing and calling in all the neighbors and friends to throw a huge party to celebrate the one who was lost and is now found. He ends by telling them, “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”
The second parable is similar. Instead of a shepherd, Jesus talks of a woman with 10 silver coins. What woman, were she to lose one of them, doesn’t light a lamp, or sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? And then once she finds it, what woman wouldn’t call her friends and neighbors together and have a party in celebration for find it? He ends this story like the first by saying, “there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
I’ve often heard this passage preached like this: you and I are sinners, and Jesus cares so much for sinners that he relentlessly seeks us and rejoices when we are finally found. We should therefore repent and return to the Lord. While that’s not a bad sermon for another day, Jesus didn’t direct these parables to the sinners and tax collectors. These parables were addressed to the religious leaders of the day – the Pharisees and scribes. Jesus isn’t trying to get them to identify themselves as one who is lost and needs to be found. Jesus is trying to get them to learn to rejoice! Both of these parables end by calling friends and neighbors together to rejoice and celebrate. Jesus’s focus isn’t on the lost that are found by God, it’s on the rejoicing that happens when the lost one is found!
When the religious people of the day grumble about Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners – when they grumble about Jesus’s radical hospitality – he responds by telling them that they should celebrate when God goes after the sinner who is lost and rescues them. Yes, salvation is about being rescued, but it’s even more about being drawn into the eternal party. When you see Jesus seeking the lost, when you see him dining with the worst of the worst, the appropriate response isn’t grumbling or jealousy or judging – it’s rejoicing! That’s what repentance looks like for the Pharisees and scribes as well as for you and me: when we see God seeking someone who doesn’t wear the right clothes, or hold the same political views as we do, or that causes us in any way to label them as an “other” – as someone over in “that group” when God seeks them out and finds them, we are called to turn from judgement and grumbling to radical hospitality at a fabulous party!
This past week, after over seventy-years on the throne, the Queen died. I am intentionally resisting my natural urge to spend more time on how that has affected me and saving it for the Solemn Requiem for her, the date and time of which will be announced soon. But as she was literally one of the most recognizable person in the world, you know that she was had a deep, Christian faith, and embodied duty, steadfastness, and dignity. Friday, I received news that a fellow priest, Adam Ngyren, died suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of 35. You all met then-Deacon Adam as he was deacon of the Mass for David Wilcox’s wedding this past May, and then served as deacon at this service the next morning. He was ordained priest just a few weeks later. In fact, Adam was David roommate for two years at seminary – please keep David and Zach in your prayers, if you would. Adam was always open about the fact that he was in recovery and regularly attended Narcotics Anonymous meetings, and if you think I have a potty mouth, you didn’t spend more than 30 seconds with Adam. He was quirky and rough around the edges. Many in Adam’s situation would consider the Queen as a notorious sinner due to her wealth, privilege, and connections with empire and colonialism. Many in the upper crusts of society would view someone like Adam from a blue-collar background who struggles with addiction as a notorious sinner, writing them off as the Pharisees did the tax collectors in Jesus’ day. While both deaths have affected me in very different ways, I am greatly consoled by the thought of Adam lining up on his way to heaven alongside Elizabeth, a foulmouthed vegan-electrician-turned-priest alongside the Defender of the Faith, both sheep of God’s old fold, lambs of his own flock, notorious sinners of his own redeeming, both headed to the party of all parties, the heavenly banquet.
Throughout his life, Jesus was repeatedly criticized for spending time with notorious sinners and outcasts. He’s inviting us today to join him by spending time doing the same. To eat and drink with those around us in our lives, perhaps in a context like Cheers. We have a deep longing to spend time with others who know us…a place where everybody knows our name. A place where we feel welcome. Nowhere in this text or elsewhere in Luke’s gospel do we see Jesus commenting on the sinners’ behavior. He eats and celebrates with them. He identifies with them and genuinely cares for them. Yes, he rejoices all the more when the sinner repents, but his love and care for them doesn’t depend on them repenting.
For the Pharisees and for all of us, the question is, “Who are you ready to party with?” If the answer is “I don’t party,” or “I don’t party with those people,” then we’ve missed the point entirely. Friends, God is inviting us today to join in the eternal party…to practice generous hospitality with people from every walk of life both here at St. Mary’s and beyond, whether they be prince or pauper or somewhere in between. And he’s inviting us to rejoice with the angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven every time he finds someone who is lost.
 David Lyon Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word. Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 68.
 Ibid 72.
The sermons preached at High Mass at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!