Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 19, Year C)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on September 12, 2010 (Proper 19, Year C)

We seem to have found some lost sheep this morning. Or if not “lost” then certainly returned. Returned from vacations and cottages and lazy, hazy summer days. The choir has returned; the Church School has returned; we’ve returned to a two-clergy parish. Of course God never left; and many of you have been around for much of the summer. But I can’t help but look around and say, “Here is the church, here is the steeple; open the doors and see all the people.” Look around; that’s what it looks like at St. John’s this morning. Never mind that we don’t have an actual steeple – we have more of a rook. But I’ll always trade a steeple for a bunch of people. 

Our gospel reading begins with the observation that “All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus.” And so a good starting point this morning is to wonder what drew them to this man? What was it about Jesus that made him such a magnet for social outcasts? The phrase “tax collectors and sinners” is really a euphemism for the undesirables – those no one else wanted to have anything to do with. So what drew them to this particular itinerant preacher? It’s hard to say. But I always get wary when I hear people talk about Jesus’ special charisma or charm or arresting good looks as if he was some sort of spiritual pied piper. With the underlying assumption that his followers weren’t much better than underprivileged and uneducated rats.

That’s basically what the “Pharisees and scribes” were muttering about. These respected and privileged members of society stand in direct contrast to the tax collectors and sinners. And they couldn’t believe Jesus was drawing such large crowds. And so, out of fear or jealousy, they started grumbling. This Jesus wasn’t attracting any big donors or people of influence or members of the religious elite; his followers were just a bunch of riff raff. And what kind of ministry is that? Certainly not one with any respectability or dignity. No Tiffany windows for that crowd. 

So if it wasn’t his natural animal magnetism, what was it that drew these people to Jesus? It was his message. Stop a minute and listen again to the Pharisees’ complaint: “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” That’s right; Jesus welcomes them. When no one else in society – let alone the religious establishment – would have anything to do with this crowd, Jesus welcomes them. For a people used to being shunned and rejected, Jesus throws open the loving arms of God and welcomes and embraces and loves them. 

The one thing Jesus doesn’t do – unlike the Pharisees and scribes – is judge them or condemn them. He welcomes them. That’s why tax collectors and sinners are drawn to Jesus; because he welcomes them in the name of his merciful and forgiving and loving Father in heaven.

And this morning as we “open the church and see all the people” it’s worth pondering a similar question: why are you drawn to Jesus? What draws you here? Why are you taking time out of your precious weekend to pray and sing and listen to Scripture and receive the body and blood of our Lord when you could be doing any number of other things? Like walking the dog on the beach or drinking coffee and reading the paper or shopping or surfing the internet. But you’re here; you have been drawn here to worship the One who welcomes you for who you are and nothing less. And while we are all at different stages of our individual journeys of faith we share one thing in common: we, too, like the tax collectors and sinners, are welcomed by Jesus in the name of his merciful and forgiving and loving Father in heaven. 

But it doesn’t end there. Not only are we drawn to Jesus, Jesus is drawn to us. He tells two parables to illustrate this point – the Parable of the Lost Sheep and the Parable of the Lost Coin. And in them we can see just how much Jesus values each one of us. Both stories share the same basic structure. Something, a sheep or a coin, is separated from a larger group; a great search ensues; and once it’s found, a large-scale celebration takes place. Jesus then gives the moral of the story: “There is great joy in heaven over one sinner who repents.” When we return to the Lord, no matter how long we’ve been gone or for whatever reason, there is great joy in heaven. Not just a small “woo hoo” but a loud shout followed by a great celebration!

Now, in my own lifetime, I’m proud to say, I have not lost a single sheep. I have never even temporarily misplaced one. Of course, unlike Old MacDonald, I have never actually had a farm. But I do know what it’s like to lose a cat. When I was a kid we had a Siamese cat named Mundy. My parents always gave our pets the most ridiculous names. Names that they loved deciding upon; names that their artsy friends thought were clever but names that I hated yelling out in the neighborhood. They were either French names, like the stray dog they found on a Sunday and named Dimanche, or names from music or literature like this cat who was named Siegmund for the character in Wagner’s Ring cycle. Anyway, Mundy, as we called him for short, got loose one day. And after scouring every inch of the house we concluded he must have gotten outside and I remember spending a few terrifying hours trying to find him. With tears in my eyes I rode my bike all around the neighborhood. Not exactly calling out his name but looking everywhere.

We finally did find him cowering in the neighbor’s garage. And the family let out a great collective sigh of relief. I remember, at least for a few days, appreciating Mundy as I never had before. I played with him – well, as much as you can play with a cat – I bought him catnip and reveled in his “resurrection.”

I share this because it reveals just a glimpse of the urgency with which Jesus seeks after you. Because here’s a little secret: you are that lost sheep. You are the one that Jesus seeks with all his heart. Not in some abstract or metaphorical or theoretical way but actually and concretely and with great joy. 

There’s good reason we call this day “Homecoming Sunday.” If home is truly where the heart is then St. John’s is a good place to be. For some of you this has been your spiritual home for many years. For others this may be your first Sunday among us. It is my fervent hope that all will feel welcome here – tax collector, sinner, Pharisee, scribe, and everyone in between. And that this place will continue to be a welcoming, vibrant, challenging, and exciting spiritual home for you throughout this coming year and for many generations to come.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2010

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