“All Is Not Lost”
September 18, 2022 - Cobleskill United Methodist Church, Pastor Anna Blinn Cole
Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
The Parable of the Lost Sheep
Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’
So he told them this parable: ‘Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.
The Parable of the Lost Coin
‘Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.” Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’
I have recently been taking somewhat of a mental health break from listening to or watching the news. After being something of a news junkie for a couple decades, I recently discovered that while you can tune into an incessant flow of unsettling news that you can’t curate or skim or control, you can also move the dial just so slightly and get almost only classical music on the radio. Pretty nice by comparison. I know this phase won’t last forever. It has been more of a survival mechanism than an engaged way to live in the world. I’ve heard others of you say you’ve done something similar at times. It’s important to protect your mental and emotional health by realizing you have control over when and how to consume news that is unpredictable and often depressing.
That said, I was in the car one day this week and I was in a pretty decent emotional space so I decided, hey, let’s go crazy and listen to the news. So I turn on the radio. And at that very moment this is the headline that I hear: America’s Christian Majority Is On Track To End.
Wow, do I have great timing or what? (eyeroll)
The Pew Center for Research had just released their findings from a recent poll about Christianity and it has become clear that Christianity is not a religion that is growing in numbers. This news probably doesn’t surprise us. But the numbers are still shocking. The study found that while 90% of Americans identified themselves as Christians 50 years ago in 1972, only 64% of Americans do so now. The downward trend is predicted to continue with Christians representing a minority of Americans in the coming decades. People who once identified as Christian are increasingly opting to identify as no particular religion at all, although many of them still say they believe in a higher power.
Personally, I don’t really care about whether Christians have a majority or not. Some of our best work as a religion has been done when our movement was small, nimble, and focused less on its own numbers and more on God’s vision of justice and love for the good of the whole. But what is most concerning about this recent report is the emerging theory that the steep decline in people identifying as Christian is tied closely to the modern rise of Christian extremism and the shifting dominant narrative from our religion that the goal of Christianity is exclusion, power, wealth, and nationalism.
It’s not that Christians haven’t done pretty terrible things in the name of Jesus in past centuries, it’s that in our modern day and age there is less pressure to conform and stay in a religion when people in your religion do harmful things. Millennials have walked away from Christianity in greater numbers than any other generation in our nation’s history. Plus, record numbers of people from other generations have joined them. And it’s not so much that they lack spirituality or faith in God, it’s that they have the courage to walk away when the church that should be representing Jesus is instead embroiled in political battles of America First and religious freedoms to exclude and control.
Honestly, if that’s all I saw, I’d walk away, too.
We’re doing a series this fall here at Cobleskill UMC where we are naming the fact that there is plenty about Christianity that disappoints and discourages us. We’re reckoning with the fact that it’s important to step up and name that hurt and confess the sins of our religion’s past hurt. And yet we must also acknowledge that we are still here. If you’re listening to this sermon right now it’s because there’s some part of you that still wants to believe that there is something redeemable about this religion. There is good news. Religion is a human construct, but Jesus is not. The teachings of Jesus Christ are solid and authentic and revolutionary. And as a religion we’ve drifted from those teachings, chasing our own majority power, emboldened by our wealth and prestige. We’ve lost sight of the core values that empowered Jesus himself to step up to the religious and political elites of his day and flip the tables.
If this Christianity business is something we hope to redeem, we’ve got to get back to basics.
So over the next three weeks I’m going to highlight three of the most basic undergirding values that Jesus lifted up in his teachings and ministry. Values and teachings that, in my estimation, must be visible in modern-day Christianity if we should even dare to call ourselves Christ-following.
They are in no particular order, but events of this week paired with the scripture we just heard led me to make this the one we talk about this week.
Jesus welcomed the ones whom everyone else rejected. In fact, not only did he do this, it was foundational to his ministry. Here are just some of the categories of people Jesus welcomed into his life and to his dinner table and into his social circles:
people who had been shunned because of their illness
people who were social pariahs like, prostitutes
people who struggled with mental illness in an era where illness was considered to make you unclean before God
tax collectors and Roman guards, people whose job helped prop up systems of injustice that held Jesus’ people in captivity
people who were broadly considered sinners of all types
women, in an era when women were property
children, in an era when children were not to be heard or seen
people who were religious outsiders, those who didn’t worship in the same way, or those who didn’t worship even the same God
and last, but certainly not least: foreigners, especially, foreigners from countries that were looked down upon by Jesus’ people.
Is that exhaustive enough? Because if we put some more time into it we could probably add a few more categories. The Gospels are filled to the brim with Jesus bringing back those who had been lost in the margins of society and reclaiming them as whole and loved people.
While there are any number of passages that we could have read today that highlight Jesus’ extraordinary capacity to welcome those whom everyone else casts out, it seemed like the parables of the lost sheep and lost coin capture the ethic well.
They start like this: Jesus had welcomed sinners and tax-collectors to his table. And the religious authorities grumbled. So he told his story. If you had 100 sheep and lost one, wouldn’t you leave the rest and go looking for the lost one? Now I don’t know how the grumbling religious authorities heard this passage at that time, but I do know the real world works. And the answer to Jesus’ question is no, most people would not risk the security of the vast majority for the safety of one. Why? What’s the pay off? Jesus’ story has an element of the irrational and extravagant. The shepherd comes off as impractical and potentially unpopular with the rest of the sheep. What kind of shepherd walks away from the majority of his flock in order to search for one?
Jesus follows this parable with another about a woman who has 10 coins and loses one. She searches high and low, obsessively even, for this lost piece of money. This story is a little more relatable. Who doesn’t love money and do everything they can to find it, if lost. But, again, this parable takes an extravagant turn. After the woman finds her coin, she doesn’t just do a happy dance and move on, she invites the neighborhood over and basically has a party to celebrate. Over a single coin?! It’s extravagant and over the top. Perhaps impractical and uncalled for.
Extravagant. Impractical. Uncalled for. Over the top. Sometimes unpopular. And often irrational. The truth of this Jesus teaching is that this is the nature of God’s love. It chases down those who are lost and it lavishly welcomes them back into the fold. This is who God is; this is what Jesus’ ministry was all about.
Ironically, it was in that same newscast where I heard that Christian numbers are declining, it was also reported that a political leader who has often talked about the importance of his Christian faith chartered two planes in order to send 50 migrants from the US border in Texas to Massachusetts in an effort to make a show of how hard it is to deal with an influx of migrants. The migrants were treated like pawns in a political game rather than humans. What boggles my mind, and perhaps the minds of the 30% of people who used to be Christian and instead have walked away, is that if one is going to make public statements about the importance of Christianity in your life then why don’t one’s actions follow suit? Why would a Christian go out of their way to have impoverished foreigners sent away from you instead of to you?
This is not just about Florida and Massachusetts. It’s about any of us anytime we begin to think that our Christian faith is just a part-time affiliation that doesn’t actually have any relevance to the decisions we make about our resources and our time and our policies. It’s us anytime when we begin to think that Christianity is here just for us and our needs instead of the people who are lost at the margins of society. The truth is, saying we’re Christian is infinitely easier than acting like we’re Christian.
To welcome extravagantly doesn’t mean you ignore the root causes of why someone was at the margins in the first place. There is a crisis at the southern border of this country, no doubt. But how we respond to crisis says everything about how seriously we take our faith.
Our faith in Jesus calls us to bring his teachings into practice in our everyday life. And when a world of Christians around us disappoint, it’s tempting to walk away from the faith entirely, like many already have. Yet if we do, who will be left to us to set the example? We are called to be the people who extravagantly and irrationally suggest that instead of watching the migrant crisis from afar we use our combined resources to give humanity back to those who have been lost. Instead of making them someone else’s problem, charter planes and buses to bring the migrants to us. Dropped off at our own front door so that what is ours becomes theirs. If it sounds far-fetched, that’s because it is. That’s because Jesus Christ, the foundation of our faith also went to incredible, irrational, unpopular, and impractical lengths to make sure God’s love was known in tangible ways to those who had been cast off by the rest of society.
There is still time to reclaim this religion. It won’t happen with smoke machines in worship and showy political stunts. It will happen each time you choose to see the humanity in someone who has been deemed by the world to be unworthy. It will happen each time you do something impractical and lavish for someone who everyone else says doesn’t deserve it. It will happen when we use our collective creativity to welcome the stranger and receive the rejected. It will happen when we’ve flipped those tables over for the purpose of making them longer with more seats.
Because when everyone is found, all is not lost.