Sermon on Luke 15:1-10 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.
Like many of you, I spent a fair amount of time watching the Olympics a few weeks ago. While I am enthralled by the acrobatics of Simone Biles or the sheer dominance of Michael Phelps, I often find the less successful athletes much more compelling. One such athlete is Eric Moussambani, a swimmer from the small African nation of Equatorial Guinea who competed in the 100 meter freestyle at the Olympics in Sydney. In many ways, Eric was the unlikeliest of contenders. He had only taken up swimming eight months before the start of the Olympic Games. To put that in perspective, that’s like, well, someone taking up swimming eight months before they compete in the Olympic games. Nevertheless, the International Olympic Committee had awarded Equatorial Guinea a wildcard draw as a way of encouraging participation by developing countries. Thus, Eric was competing at the highest level of his sport despite the fact he had never even seen an Olympic-sized pool until he arrived for his first heat.
There’s no question that Eric was deeply sensible of his inadequacies, but he decided to go through with the race anyway. In an extraordinary coincidence, all of his competitors false started and were unexpectedly disqualified. This left Eric to complete the race entirely by himself. In the Disney version of this story, Eric would have set a world record, but in reality the race was excruciating to watch. Within a few strokes, it became clear that he had never swum any significant distance. By the time made the turn at 50 meters, people were openly wondering whether he would be able to finish or even survive the race. Ultimately, he completed the race, winning his heat (remember, he was the only competitor) with the slowest time in Olympic history. Though his performance initially elicited laughter from the crowd, the spectators gradually realized they were witnessing a true Olympic moment. We assume that the Olympics are meant to celebrate superhuman feats of athleticism, but Eric reminded us that in the end, these athletes are as frail and vulnerable as the rest of us.
This morning we hear two famous and related parables about human frailty: the parable of the lost sheep and the parable of the lost coin. These parables follow essentially the same formula: something is lost, someone seeks and finds it, and there is much rejoicing. What is striking about both of these parables is the extraordinary effort that is put into finding the lost. The shepherd leaves ninety-nine sheep behind to find just one. Even though Jesus seems to imply that this is standard practice, the fact is that losing sheep was part of being a shepherd in the first century. One lost sheep out of a hundred would barely register; it was the cost of doing business. In a similar way, this woman spends the day turning her whole house upside down in order to find the one coin she misplaced, potentially losing wages or time to run her household. At the very least she had to use precious lamp oil to look for something that wasn’t worth all that much in the grand scheme of things. When faced with similar situations, most of us would simply conclude that we could probably take the hit: we can live with the loss of a sheep or two. The implication of these parables, however, is that God doesn’t engage in this kind of calculus. As Henri Nouwen writes, “God rejoices when one repentant sinner returns. Statistically that is not very interesting. But for God, numbers never seem to matter…From God’s perspective, one hidden act of repentance, one little gesture of selfless love, one moment of true forgiveness is all that is needed…to fill the heavens with sounds of divine joy.”
Now it’s important for us to consider Jesus’ audience. Even though the occasion for this teaching is the fact that Jesus has been criticized for eating with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus is not speaking to them. He is actually addressing the scribes and Pharisees, the people who supposedly have their life together and ostensibly have no need of repentance. We might imagine their impatient response to these parables: “It’s certainly a nice thought that God will seek out those poor sinners even when it is a waste of everybody else’s time. In the meantime, here we are, doing our very best to stay out of trouble and keep our noses clean. We have never left home and have always done what we are supposed to do. What do we get from this God who seeks out and finds the lost?” Jesus has a startling suggestion for the scribes and Pharisees: “What if you’re the ones who are lost? What if you are the lost sheep who has strayed from the flock? What if you are that lost coin that rolled under the sofa?” With these parables, Jesus insists that everyone needs to be found, because everyone is lost in some way. The message of these parables is as much for those who have wandered off as it is for those who think they never left.
The scribes and Pharisees aren’t the only ones who have had trouble understanding this. We know we have a generous God who reaches out to the lost and rejoices when they return. It has been burned into our brains by years of faithful church attendance. The funny thing about religious people is that for all of our talk about God, we would much rather be left to our own devices. We do everything we can to conceal our vulnerabilities, to hide our inadequacies, to imagine that we have everything under control. We all like to think that we are Michael Phelps or Simone Biles: confident that we will succeed as we prepare to knife through the water or soar through the air. But this is only true on the rarest of occasions. Most of the time, we are much more like Eric Moussambani: plagued by deep feelings of uncertainty and inadequacy as we stand before the largest pool we have ever seen.
This is the nature of our human condition. We are inadequate; we are broken, and we are lost. But we begin to overcome this condition through the practice of repentance. Repentance is often misunderstood. It’s not about pleasing God with acts of contrition. It’s not even about being sorry for our sins. Repentance is about acknowledging the fullness of God’s reality even as we recognize our own inadequacy. It is about trusting that God’s grace and love transcend the hopelessness and sinfulness that characterize so much of the human experience.
Nothing illustrates this practice of repentance better than the Eucharist. So many of you are struggling in some way. Some of you feel overwhelmed by the pressure of keeping your family together. Some of you are grieving the loss of a spouse. Some of you feel betrayed by someone close to you. Some of you are just coping with the day-to-day challenge of life. There are moments when all of us feel broken, inadequate, and lost. Even though we are fully aware of our lostness, we have the opportunity to experience the fullness of God’s grace every time we come forward to receive the Eucharist. When we come to the altar rail, we have the opportunity hear the sounds of divine joy as we recognize, even for a fleeting moment, that no matter how lost we are, we have been found by God.