On the Fringe

The Rev. Alanna C. Sullivan preaches at Sunday ServicesSermon by The Rev. Alanna C. Sullivan, Associate Minister, The Memorial Church of Harvard University, for the Memorial Church's Sunday Worship Service. Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications.



I must admit I am hesitant to preach on the parable of the Lost Sheep. It is a subject of family lore.

When my grandfather was minister and recently out of seminary, he was invited to preach on the Parable of the Lost Sheep before a congregation of distinguished ministers. 

If this was not intimidating enough, two of those in the congregation were his newly inherited brothers-in-law, who were also invited as promising young clergy. So my grandfather worked diligently on the sermon. 

The night before he sat at his typewriter working into the wee hours of the night. This could not be just another sermon. He tried to distill the all of Christian thought into the one sermon. No thought would go unsaid. 

But, as the story goes, my grandmother who was unconditionally supportive and loving could not find a single positive thing to say about the sermon. It was a complete flop. 

So, to this day when someone in our family wants to do something well and simply tries too hard, we say, “Well it was a ‘Lost Sheep’ sermon.”

Now you will know what I mean when I say that today. I hope to preach on the parable of the lost sheep without preaching a “Lost Sheep Sermon.”

Let us set the stage for our Gospel lesson today. A crowd presses in around Jesus to hear his teachings. Each person is there for a different reason. Disciples are there to receive his instructions. Pharisees and Sadducees stand on the fringe to keep tabs on his radical teachings.

If cell phones were around then, you could imagine them filming Jesus and posting a video on social media with the hashtag: #canyoubelievethisguy, #dangerousdude, #weirdo or something worse.

Jesus is breaking bread with sinners and tax collectors — those whom society has displaced to the fringe. They are the outcasts and deemed unworthy. Others fear being associated with them because it might ruin their reputations. 

So, when Jesus shares the parables of the Lost Sheep and the Loin Coin, you cannot help but wonder to whom is he speaking?  Who is his message for?

It says that Jesus told “them” the parable. The antecedent is not clear. There are at least two possible audiences mentioned. On the one hand there are the Pharisees sneering at Jesus for the “bad company” he keeps. One the other hand are the sinners and tax collectors, members of that bad company.

We should note that Pharisee and tax collectors frequently appear in the Gospel. Sometimes they are the characters of Jesus’ parables themselves. Listeners of the time would have had a different understanding of them then we do today.

Pharisees were members of an ancient Jewish sect, distinguished by strict observance of the traditional and written law. The Pharisaic way of life was practiced by only a select few prior to the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.

The Pharisees educated their Jewish kin how to take their Jewish tradition and the Torah seriously. 

Roman violence devastated institutions of Jewish life with the destruction of the Second Temple. The Pharisaic tradition of teaching and living was a force behind survival of the Jewish people.

So, the listeners of Jesus’ day would hold them in high regard. Tax collectors would not have been reminiscent of today’s IRS agents. They were franchisees of a corrupt political system that devoured the poor and stuffed the wealthy.

Tax collectors were considered to be collaborators with the Roman Empire. Each tax collector was assigned a district and responsible for collecting a prefixed “tax” from residents of that area. They then paid the Empire that set amount.

Tax collectors had the freedom to extract the money from their neighbors in whatever ways they preferred. And they kept whatever money they collected beyond what they owed to the Empire. 

Often tax collectors farmed out responsibilities to others, thereby constructing a pyramid scheme of greed. The gospel tells us that one of the main reasons the Pharisees disdained Jesus was because he “welcomes” sinners and tax collectors.

The Greek verb for “welcome” here is prosdechomai which means to bring into one’s arms. This is not a passive “welcome” spoken at the front door when a guest arrives at your home. 

It’s an active embrace, a drawing in, of your guest. This echoes the enveloping embrace that the father gives to his prodigal son later on in Luke. The tax collectors and the sinners would find this message reassuring. It is good news they are the ones God welcomes and finds them because no one wants their company.

Pharisees never missed an opportunity to tell them that they were lost causes. They are not God’s kind of people. It would not occur to the Pharisees to get to know them. Let alone they are the ones sought out by God.

It reminds me of the movie, Babe, which tells the story of a pig raised as livestock who wants to do the work of a sheepdog.  (I have fond memories of watching this movie with the same grandmother who could not find a nice thing to say about my grandfather’s lost cause of sermon.)

The animals on Hoggett Farm all have preconceived notions about one another. The sheep are convinced dogs are reckless, dogs are convinced the sheep are dimwitted, and nothing would convince them otherwise. Each said, “The way things are is the way things are.”

If you are dismissed as a lost cause, this is good news indeed. God seeks and embraces you. What’s more, Jesus posits there is more joy being lost than there is for those who never get lost in the first place. There is a joy in being lost because God not only seeks you out but celebrates when you are found. 

How different these parables must have sounded to the other audience… the perceived found — the Pharisees! The message of these parables is not opaque. There is no reading between the lines.

How disconcerting this must have been to hear. God leaves behind the dutiful to seek out the wayward. When the lost are found, God envelops them with open arms. There is joy in realizing one’s total dependence upon God’s love and mercy.

Pharisees are displaced from their position of privilege. They are no longer the arbiters of what is right and what is good. Preacher and professor Karoline Lewis said, “It is a sad reality of the human condition that all too often in the face of our own fears, our default reaction is entrenchment, self-justification. Our insecurity in our future all too often turns into certainty about the fate of the other. Our sense of justification gets caught up in our own self-righteousness rather than trust in God’s love.”

And how do we receive this news? How do we receive the celebratory news of God’s unconditional love  and unending grace? 

How we respond reveals whether we believe relationships and self-worth are based upon merit or mercy. Does the gospel only sound good to us when we see ourselves as the targets of God’s grace and joy? 

Or does it still sound good when we see others as the recipients of God’s grace too — even if those “others” are people who very much don’t look or act like us.

And then there is the reality that we all fall short of the grace of God. As Mr. Rogers captured in his signature succinct and profound way: “The very same people who are good sometimes are the very same people who are bad sometimes.”

For each of us has a little bit of Pharisee and a little bit of tax collector within us. Sometimes we are virtuous, and sometimes we are self-righteous. Sometimes we are crooked, and sometimes we are honest. Sometimes we are right, and sometimes we are wrong.

We always fall short, and this is just part of being human. Now I am not saying that we don’t stand up and speak out in the face of bigotry, racism, sexism, xenophobia, Islamophobia. As Christians, we are called to speak truth in the name of love.

These parables, however, teach us that the invitation to enter into the kingdom of God shows up when we least expect it.

A mother of eight children was asked if she had favorites, “Favorites?” she replied. “Yes, I have favorites. I love the one who is sickest until he is well. I love the one who is in trouble until she is safe again, and I love the one who is farthest away until they come home.”

There are no people who are lost causes. We are all lost and wandering people waiting to be found and freed by God’s grace.