Readings for Sunday, September 11/ 24th Sunday of Ordinary Time: Exodus 31:7-11, 13-14 | Psalm 51 | 1 Timothy 1:12-17 | Luke 15:1-32
A couple weeks ago I was over at mom's house and we were going through the storage unit where a lot of our stuff was that had been affected by the flood. As we were going through and tossing a lot of stuff that couldn't be saved we came across one big plastic tote and it was full of two-week-old floodwater. Floating in that disgusting water were my keepsakes - my first baseball cap with my name written on the bill, my Baptismal garment and a few other little things from my childhood that mom had been treasuring for many years. We looked at it, and honestly it was disgusting; I didn't want to touch it, but mom was digging through it, trying to find what she could. I said, "Mom it's ok, it's just stuff, I'll put it out." She responded," No you won't! It may not mean much to you, but it means a lot to me. Give me a minute." And so she dug through it, found a hand full of things she wanted to keep and passed them off to my sister to get her to take care of them.
It was interesting because that is the basic idea of the Gospel this. It starts with the scribes and the Pharisees and they are looking at Jesus who welcomes sinners and even eats with them. They imply in their words to Him a sense of ‘don't you know that they are filthy, don't you know that this is not worthy keeping, just put them to the road, just be rid of them, cut your losses and be done.’ But it's the Lord God who looks and says, "No no no ... these are ones that are very valuable to me. They have great value. They may not have any value to you, you may not see or understand it, but they mean a great deal to me." And that's the scriptures - it's the love that God has for every single one of us as children, and to be able to receive that love.
The reading from Exodus shows us in a sense the patience of God. The passage we heard comes directly after they have sealed the covenant and received the law. Moses had gone up on the mountain and the cloud had consumed the mountain. All the people were praying during this time and Moses comes down with the law - the Ten Commandments - that God Himself has written on the tablets for the people. Moses gives them to the people sayings these are the things God has asked us to do, will you enter into the covenant? Will you enter into the family bond that we want to set? The people of God respond saying, "All of these things we will do - every one of them, we will be faithful to our God." And they were sprinkled with the blood of the sacrifice as a way of saying, "If I fail to keep my side of the covenant, may death come upon me. It's rightly mine. I choose it." A couple of days later, we find the people of God have already shrunk to their depravity. Rather than turning to the Lord, in their impatience they make a the golden calf from bracelets and other things saying that this is the god who has saved us, not that God on the mountain, this god that we have created with our own hands, this is what has saved us. And the Lord God says, ‘How quickly you have gone away. So quickly you have abandoned the covenant we formed a few days ago.’
It would have been right for God to kill them all; it was part of the judgment, part of the covenant, that every single one of them who said they would do all these things, it would have been part of the deal to rightly deserve to be killed because they asked for it, really. If I don't keep my end, let me die. But the Lord looks upon them with mercy and says, "No no. We will keep them. We will keep trying to bring forth that which is holy which I desire for them. We will keep the promise in store for them." And He shows His patience. He showed His patience for many years as the people of God continued to break the covenant over and over again. Every single generation, every single human heart. We make our promise to God saying, "Lord I will follow you, I will do all of these things," and ten minutes later we have sunk to our depravity once more. How many times have I heard, "Father, I feel like I need to go to confession again after I just walked out of confession because someone did something that upset me."
How quick our hearts can turn, and yet the Lord is always patient with us. He is patient with us and He goes to great lengths to try and save us. A lot of times we feel like we have to try and save ourselves, that we have to try and convince God of our goodness, convince God of my holiness and worthiness of being saved, but it's the Lord who wants it even more than I do. God wants to save you more than you want to be saved. And we see a glimpse of that in the Gospel.
Jesus gives three separate parables all of which show the stupidity of God - the foolishness of God - and His love for you and I. "Who among you," the Lord says, "having a hundred sheep, and losing one wouldn't leave the 99 sheep to go and search far and wide for the one sheep until you find it." And every one of the people there would say that the only shepherd that would leave 99 perfect good sheep to leave in search of the one who has already strayed, no matter how long it takes, is a stupid shepherd because you never know what could happen. The job of the shepherd was to keep safe the flock, and so yea "I'm going to leave 99 perfectly good sheep, so I can go and search - I don't know how long - to find that one. And when I find that one and I come back and 50 others of my 99 have already scattered." It's foolishness. You cut your loses. One sheep - it's unfortunate - but we can't abandon the 99 for the sake of the one, we'll just let it go. That seems like a reasonable thing for a shepherd, it would have been reasonable at the time to do that. But that's not the heart of God when it comes to us. It would be like a family of 12 going to a theme park, and coming out with 11 and going, "Well ... close enough .... get in the car." It doesn't happen, right? If you're missing a kid you say, "Y'all get in the car, but I'm going back to find them." And the same thing with our God. He doesn't look upon us as sheep, He looks upon us as children. He's our Father. He says, "One of my children is out there. I need to go find them." To great lengths He goes, to foolish lengths He goes.
The second parable shows that even more of the absurdity of it all - the lady with the 10 coins who loses one. We lose something in the translation, as always, from the ancient language to the contemporary language, and by the coin they essentially mean the equivalent of a penny or nickel. She loses a penny in her house ... and so in response, she tears up everything; she's pulling out the couches, flipping over the beds, searching the cabinets, sweeping the entire dirt floor, cleaning everything and searching entirely for…a penny. How many times have you gone to the grocery store and while walking to your car, you look on the ground, see a penny, and keep walking because it's just a penny. It's not worth your time to pick up the penny in a sense sometimes. And yet she goes and turns over her entire house looking for it. And then when she finds it, she invites all the neighbors to come celebrate. Imagine if you were sitting at your house and you got a phone call from your neighbor saying, "Come to the house, come to the house! We got some great news! The whole street, the whole neighborhood is coming, I got something awesome to tell you." And you all get there like, "What, what, what?!" you ask and they excitedly inform you, "I found the penny I've been looking for." "You invited us over for that? You're crazy .. you're a fool." It's a penny! And yet that's the Lord. How often whenever we are lost and we don't even know we are lost, we think everything is fine, and yet we're lost. It would've been easy for the world to look upon us, as the scriptures describe the Pharisees, and say "It's just a penny ... it's just one person. There's what, 5 billion people in the world, what's one? Just let them go." But the Lord says no.
Those are two examples of things that were "not able to go back;" the coin doesn't have a mind of its own; the coin can't seek to be found. If the sheep goes in a place or gets lost in a hole or falls off a cliff and needs help, it can cry out but it doesn't have the sensibilities to go back exactly where it was…he can't reason it that way. He simple cries out in hopes of being found. But the lost son who goes away, it makes it more personable.
The last one is the son who goes off, and he receives the father's inheritance first. Basically he says, "Father I wish you were dead, so I could have my part of your stuff." What a great son, huh? Everybody wants a son like that. And so the son takes it and immediately leaves. Imagine the sorrow in the father's heart. The son goes off and he spends it on prostitutes and all these sorts of things. He's working among the pigs which would have been completely contrary to the faith, they didn't touch pork or deal with pigs - it was "unholy" and "unfitting", and yet he was longing to eat pig food. That tells you the lengths to which he had gone in his faith, and he realizes it and decided to go back, thinking he'd at least be a hired hand at the house. And when he goes back, the father does - again - the most foolish of things. Who among us would take the son - who took half of our belongings, went and spent it on sin, and wants to come back - who among us would give him the finest robe, put a ring on his finger, sandals on his feet, and slaughter the best animal we have, and throw a party? The fool. Instead, at best, you would welcome him back as a hired hand; at worst, you would slap him in the face and tell him to get out of here. That would've been normal, the normal response of the days ... "You wanted me dead? I'm dead. Go away." That would've been acceptable, socially reasonable, and yet the father does the exact opposite. He gives him even more riches on top of what he has already wasted.
And its the Father who does the same for us. No matter what filth we may find ourselves in, no matter what it is that we are "floating in" in a sense, God our Father looks at us and goes, "This is one that I treasure. This is one that I created Myself and love, that I want to keep. I know how bad it looks, how disgusting it looks, how useless it may seem, but this is one that I treasure." Every single one of us. The person that we think is the easiest to dismiss, who ever that person might be for you, that person is so deeply loved by God that He is willing to go to any lengths to save him. All the people that we meet, every person we see - today, tomorrow, and for the rest of our lives - God longs for them to be sitting right next to you in the pews. He longs to have His children to come to Him. It's not that He will accept us back reluctantly - He is actively seeking every single person. Every single one of us. Some of us respond and come back. Sometimes we don't know that we are lost - we're like the coin that's just there, it doesn't know. But every single one of us, God calls. Every person - treasured, loved, valued and longed for.
Brothers and sisters we are much more than coins and we are much more than sheep. God calls us to Himself. We are the sons and daughters of His who can turn away or can draw close, and we can bring the same with others. We can bring others close to Christ and let them know that no matter what, they are loved, because there are many people around us who don't know they are loved, who don't know they are worth saving, who don't know they are worth anything. They have never been told that, but it's we who can share the good news. It's we who can share the gospel of the love of our God which is so powerful that He calls every one of us to Himself. He seeks that all might be saved, and it is for us to respond, to be willing to be found. And so we pray through the course of this Mass, pray for the grace of the Lord Jesus to be with us, especially in this Eucharist, to help us to become even more deeply aware of our sinfulness so that we can become aware of the gift of our Savior and the gift of the God who loves us, who longs for us, who has come to seek and to save sinners.
We see Paul as the perfect witness who says, "I am a blasphemers, a persecutor." He tried to actively killed Christ and stands here as a witness. How much can we say the same for others? We are all sinners, and there is place for more here in the Church of Jesus Christ. And so we pray for His grace to be with us again, to help us become aware of our sinfulness, but also the joy of a Savior. That we might be able to experience the joy of this Mass, the peace of His mercy, and the grace of coming to rest in the heart of Christ that comes to seek us out and to save us.