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Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Readings: Jeremiah 4:11–12, 22–28, 1 Timothy 1:1–2, 12–19a & Luke 15:1–10

Recently I bought myself a new DVD player. My old one had broken down about three years ago and I hadn’t bothered replacing it, because at that time I started watching movies on iTunes and Netflix. But one of the parishioners from St Andrew’s kindly offered to lend me, on DVD, the final season of Game of Thrones (which I hadn’t seen), so I thought that was a good excuse to buy another player. That and the fact that when I did some research, I found I could buy one for less than $40. 

So having bought my new player, I connected it to the TV, and then I thought I’d try it out by playing something from my own DVD collection. I decided to watch ‘Life as a House’ which, if you haven’t seen it, is a movie I highly recommend. So I went to where I thought it was, only to discover it wasn’t there. I then went to the alternate place where I thought it would be, only to find that it wasn’t there either. 

What followed was a search of the entire house which, after a good half an hour or so of looking in every conceivable place for it, I gave up and watched another movie instead. But the disappointment of not finding the movie I was looking for, especially as it is one of my favourite movies, lead to another extensive search of the house a couple of days later. When that also proved to be unfruitful, I resigned myself to the fact that I must have lent it to somebody previously, and that it was now lost forever.

A couple of night’s later I was having dinner with my children and their partners, and I was relating my story, and my heartache at the loss of my DVD, to my daughter Chloe, who then uttered the words that were like music to my ears: “Yeah Dad. You lent it to me!” 

Ignoring the fact that my failure to remember lending the DVD to Chloe was perhaps the early signs of Dementia, I was soon celebrating with her, over a glass of red wine, my joy at realising I had found what was lost. Have you ever experienced that feeling? You are so pleased to have found something that you believed was lost forever, that you just need to celebrate it with someone. That’s what Jesus is talking about in today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke when he tells the parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin.

Jesus tells these parables in response to the Pharisees and the scribes complaining that he “welcomes sinners and eats with them”. In both the parables, the man who finds his sheep, and the woman who finds her coin, celebrate with their friends and neighbours on finding what they thought was lost.

The point that Jesus is making to the Pharisees and the scribes through these parables, is that the tax collectors and sinners who gather around him had been lost, but now through their repentance and turning back to God they are found, and this is a reason for celebration, celebration which takes the form of table fellowship. In welcoming tax collectors and sinners to join him in table fellowship, Jesus is demonstrating the limitless grace of God.

Perhaps the perfect example of the limitless grace of God is the Apostle Paul, who writes about it in his First Letter to Timothy. Paul says to Timothy, “I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.”

We also get a sense of the limitless grace of God in our first reading from the Prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah writes, “For thus says the LORD: The whole land shall be a desolation; yet I will not make a full end.” The people of Judah and Jerusalem, like the people of Israel and their ancestors before them, had sinned against God by worshipping foreign gods and following the practices of foreign religions, and God punished them by allowing them to be conquered and sent into exile in Babylon. But God stops short of turning His back on them forever. If they repent, and return to Him, then God will once again welcome them and invite them to His heavenly banquet at the end of time.

The challenge posed by Jesus to the Pharisees and scribes in today’s gospel passage, is whether they would align themselves with Jesus and join in the celebration at the table with the lost who had been restored. We know from the Gospels that this doesn’t happen. The reluctance, or inability of the Pharisees and scribes to do so, is perhaps a reflection of the difference in the attitude they have towards the notion of repentance compared to that of Jesus.

The Pharisees were the protectors and teachers of the law, and we know there were 613 individual commandments that made up the law. The Pharisees believed people needed to keep all 613 commandments if they wanted to be righteous before God. We know from Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees that they were particularly hard on people who failed to comply with the law. It seems they were far less forgiving than Jesus, who throughout the Gospels is quick to forgive the sins of anyone who genuinely repents and turns to God.

As a young boy, my own experience of the Church’s attitude towards sin and repentance was similar to that demonstrated by the Pharisees. It was very negative and judgemental, and not particularly forgiving. Anytime I went to confession, I was made to feel that even though my sins were forgiven by God, I was somehow less worthy in His eyes than I was beforehand, and that I would need to be extra good to make up for my wrongdoing.

I’m not sure if any of you have ever felt that way, but in my time in ministry I have definitely encountered people who have felt very bad about themselves because of things they have done. I distinctly remember one person blaming herself for some awful personal experiences she had been through in her life, believing that these experiences were punishment for her sins.

In the parables we have heard today, Jesus is clearly saying that the grace and forgiveness of God knows no boundaries. God welcomes all those who turn to Him, and their restoration is a reason to celebrate. They are all welcome at the great banquet which God will host in heaven. 

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