Proper 19C’19
15 September 2019
Luke 25.1-10
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church
North Little Rock, Arkansas
The Rev. Carey Stone

Behold, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. Amen.

 A priest dies and goes to heaven and the first thing he does is find his place in line to the pearly gates.  When he finally is second in line, he overhears St. Peter asking some basic questions to the man in front of him, like what’s your name/ occupation, and where are you from? They guy in front of the priest is wearing tight fitting, torn black clothing, has greasy slicked back hair and an overall punky attitude. He responds in a thick, NY accent, “Yo yo my name is Joe. I’m a taxi cab driver from New York.” St. Peter finds him on his list and says, “Oh yes, here you are. Joe, the taxi cab driver from New York. Welcome to heaven. Here is your silken robe and your golden staff. Go be seated amongst the highest saints.”

Now it’s the priest’s turn. “Hi St. Peter. My name is Anthony. I’m a priest from New Jersey.” St. Peter finds him on the list and says, “Oh yes, Anthony the priest from New Jersey. Here is your cotton rag and your wooden stick. Go be seated amongst the common righteous people.” Anthony is shocked and confused at this. “Now hold on a minute! You’re telling me that guy gets higher honors than me!? I’ve spent the past 30 years of my life dedicated to the church and the community! What’s he ever done?” St. Peter smiles knowingly, and says with compassion, “Yes, I see how it can seem confusing. But here, we go by results. When people listened to you preach, they snoozed. When people rode in his taxi, they prayed![1]

What is it about us religious folk, and our tendency toward self-righteousness? When will we in the 21st century realize there is no such thing! That was the same trouble with the religious folk back in the first century. That’s why they had so much trouble with Jesus.

Strangely, while the religious were repelled by Jesus, it was the drunkards, and derelicts (folks the religious looked down upon) that were drawn to Jesus. In fact, they were so drawn that they were invited to sit down at the table and eat with Jesus, the self-righteous Pharisees just couldn’t ‘stomach it’ and criticized him for eating and drinking with these notorious sinners: “This man receives sinners, and eats with them!”  [2]

Author Brennan Manning points out that the significance of having a meal with Tax Collectors, Prostitutes and other sinners is lost on us in the 21st century. These people were viewed as outcasts, ritually unclean, and no self-respecting religious person would want to be seen with them, much less to sit down and eat with them.

Because of Jesus’ radical invitation to share a meal, “They were now acceptable to God. Their sinfulness, ignorance and uncleanness had been overlooked and were no longer being held against them.”[3]  Theologian, Hans Kung put it this way: “For Jesus this fellowship at table with those whom the devout had written off was not merely the expression of liberal tolerance and humanitarian sentiment. It was the expression of his mission and message: peace and reconciliation for all, without exception, even for moral failures.”   [4]

Spiritual writer Richard Foster went so far as to say that one of the chief strategies of the dark side was to keep religious folk focused on “muchness and manyness.”[5] God surely wouldn’t want us to worry about a single individual, especially one that wouldn’t improve our social standing.

Today’s gospel reading from Luke shows us that nothing could be more opposite to the way of Christ. It is not the first, the great, and the found that is the heartbeat of our Savior, no, it’s the last, the least, and the lost. On the heels of the criticism of the religious folk Jesus tells the parable of the lost sheep. The parable reveals the true heart of God who will not rest until all his sheep are safely in the fold. The old hymn by Elizabeth Clephane says it well:

“Lord, Thou hast here Thy ninety and nine;
  Are they not enough for Thee?”
But the Shepherd made answer: “This of Mine
  Has wandered away from Me;
And although the road be rough and steep,
I go to the desert to find My sheep.”[6]

Jesus shows us time and again that every soul is equally loved and precious to God, and worth our best efforts. When we remember all the individuals Jesus ministered to it is truly a cast of unlikely characters: Peter, a lowly fisherman who couldn’t keep his mouth shut; Mary Magdalene, a woman of ill repute, the Samaritan woman at the well, Zacchaeus, the tax collector, and short little man, and as we find in the epistle from today, Saul of Tarsus, the first middle eastern terrorist whom Jesus calls and turns into the Church’s finest apostle, St. Paul.

As you may recall, he was actively seeing to it that Christians were hunted down and killed in an attempt to stamp out what he viewed as a heretical cult. Jesus went after him and appeared to him in a blinding light on the road to Damascus.  In order to have God’s finest apostle Jesus first needed to find a middle eastern terrorist, bent on destroying the Christian faith, the lost sheep, the least likely, and last person on earth we would think God could use.

Francis Thompson was a 19th cen. poet and suffered with poor health and battled an addiction to opium. His most famous poem, “The Hound of Heaven” describes God as a relentless lover who stalks us like a hound in order to overtake us, and reveal his love to us in spite of ourselves.  [7]

Jesus is not hiding from us, he is the “Hound of Heaven” who’s after us!

Again, the old hymn reminds us of the joy in heaven when another sheep comes home:

“And all through the mountains, thunder-riven,
  And up from the rocky steep,
There arose a cry to the gate of heaven,
  “Rejoice! I have found My sheep!”
And the angels echoed around the throne,
“Rejoice, for the Lord brings back His own!”

Being righteous and getting to heaven are above our paygrade – salvation is God’s job, and he will not stop until he finds the last, the least, the lost sheep, and once he finds us, we are to join him in spreading this wonderfully good news!


[2] Luke 15

[3] Manning, Brennan, A Glimpse of Jesus, The Stranger to Self-Hatred (HarperCollins: San Francisco, 2003) pp.55-56

[4] Ibid, p.57

[5] Foster, Richard, Celebration of Discipline

[6] Clephane, Elizabeth Cecilia, “The Ninety and Nine”