Bad News and Good News: A Sermon for 14 Pentecost, Proper 9
If you attended last Sunday’s Adult Forum on Preparing for a Funeral in the Episcopal Church, you heard me use the term “Greatest Hits” more than once. Not only do recording artists have their Greatest Hits collections; the Bible, the Prayer Book, and the Hymnal have them too. Some stories, prayers, and hymns are just more well-known and well-loved by the Body of Christ. Chapter 15 of St. Luke’s Gospel would certainly make a Greatest Hits of the New Testament collection. This is the chapter where we get three parables in a row, the third being perhaps the greatest hit of them all – the Prodigal Son.
Fittingly so, we read parable of the Prodigal Son on the 4th Sunday of Lent this year, so now, in the Season after Pentecost, we are circling back around to read the first half of chapter 15. And today also marks a turn from the last two weeks, when the gospel lessons from Luke were focused on the social, financial, and spiritual costs of following Jesus. And indeed, Jesus made it clear that the cost of discipleship is high, and involves great sacrifice.
But in Chapter 15, Luke reminds us that while the cost of Christian discipleship is high, so is the reward. God the Good Shepherd values each and every one of God’s sheep – including those that go astray. But we have to be careful not to domesticate the parables of the Good Shepherd and the Lost Coin. If we see them as sentimental stories about a loving, caring God who will seek and find those who are lost – as if it is only others who are lost – then we have missed the point of the parables. In his book Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale, Frederick Buechner asserts that “the Gospel is bad news before it is good news. It is the news that [the face we see in the mirror] is at least eight parts chicken, phony, and slob. That is the tragedy. But it is also the news that we are loved anyway… cherished, forgiven… bleeding to be sure… but also bled for.”
Applied to our two parables today, the tragedy is that it is we – you and I – who are the lost sheep and coins. We are the ones who are in desperate need of salvation…not somebody else. Not those other poor souls who are lost and haven’t found the way. If we come to the Gospels with the understanding that it isn’t us who needs Christ’s atoning sacrifice, then we put ourselves in the company of the grumbling scribes and Pharisees in today’s story.
Frank Limehouse – retired Dean of the Cathedral Church of the Advent in Birmingham – told a story at a clergy conference in the Diocese of Florida a few years back and I’ll never forget it. He was recalling to us a time when he was in the handshake line after worship one Sunday morning. A woman who he didn’t know approached him with tears in her eyes as she profusely thanked him for the worship service and his sermon. She told him that she had been literally and spiritually far from the church for many years, living a sin-filled, selfish life. But something told her that she needed to come to church this morning, and she did, and now she was so grateful that she had come. And she was ready to get her life back on track.
As Frank held this woman’s hand, he said [something along the lines of], “Thank you for your vulnerability, and for sharing your story with me. Now I have some bad news and some good news for you. The bad news is that you are even more sinful, selfish, and lost than you think you are. But the Good News is that it doesn’t matter how sinful, selfish, and lost you are; or how sinful, selfish, and lost I am. Jesus died for all of us – every single sheep in the flock - so that we might be redeemed. That, my friend, is the Good News.
Just as Buechner said, the gospel is bad news before it is Good News. And in order for the Gospel of Jesus Christ to have transformative power over us, we first need the bad news. Otherwise, the Gospel becomes a domesticated, sentimental story for those “other people” who are lost.
If we’re not careful – particularly in our context here – we can fall into the trap of seeing ourselves only as the shepherd or the woman in today’s parables. We see ourselves as the ones doing the rescuing, and not the ones in need of rescue.
In his first letter to Timothy, the Apostle Paul gives us an excellent example of recognizing first the bad news and then the Good News of the gospel when he says, “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners-- of whom I am the foremost. But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life.”
Now don’t get me wrong – through our baptisms, we are called to go out into the world to share and do the love and work of Christ in the world. We are called to be shepherds for the lost sheep. But the only way we can do this with any integrity is for us to first recognize – like the Apostle Paul did - that we too are lost and in need of being found. When Harriet Tubman was being praised for her heroic work with the Underground Railroad, her response was, “I could have freed more if only they knew they were slaves.” Part of me wonders if Jesus might be thinking the same thing about us – “I could have saved more if only they knew they were lost.” But when I frame that question within the Parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin, I am reminded that the focus is on the steadfast, persistent, constant pursuit of the shepherd and the woman. Even when I forget that it is I who is lost, I am still being relentlessly pursued by Jesus. And that my friends, is Good News indeed!