A sermon delivered by Robert Browning, Pastor, Smoke Rise Baptist Church, Stone Mountain, Ga., on September 12, 2010.

Luke 15: 1-10

Have you heard about the movie, Get Low, starring Robert Duvall? Many believe this is one of his finest acting jobs, perhaps worthy of an Academy Award nomination, which is not bad for a soon to be eighty-year-old actor. He plays the part of Felix Bush, a crusty old hermit who lives in a cabin in the Tennessee backwoods and has the nasty habit of pretending to shoot anyone who trespasses on his property.

For forty years, Bush lived in a self-imposed prison because he never recovered after the love of his life died in a house fire. He withdrew from friends and neighbors, wallowing in anger, grief, guilt and pity.

What makes this story so tragic is that underneath this tough exterior was a man with a good heart who longed for understanding, redemption and companionship. Deep down, he did not want to live in exile, but he had no idea how to plug back into his community.  His heart ached for someone to listen to his story and extend the hand of friendship.

I thought of this movie when I read today’s text. In many ways, I think it is about finding the Felix Bushes of the world, outsiders who long to be a part of an affirming and encouraging community. To me, the parables of the lost sheep and lost coin reinforce the importance of being part of a community that notices when someone is missing and will not rest until that person is found.

Are you a part of this kind of caring community? If you were lost or in trouble, who would drop everything they are doing to find and help you? Who can count on you to do that?

Have you noticed how important community is in the biblical narrative? Why do you think this is so? I think it has something to do with overcoming fear.

Recently, my Sunday school lesson was on I Kings 17:8-24, the encounter that Elijah had with the widow of Zarephath, a town located on the shores of the Mediterranean in Lebanon. After announcing to King Ahab that a drought was coming to Israel, which the prophet interpreted as the consequence of the nation’s self-centered behavior under Ahab’s wicked and corrupt leadership, Elijah had to run for his life. It was not uncommon for prophets of doom to be imprisoned or killed.

At first, God led Elijah to the brook at Cherith, east of the Jordan River, where he was nourished by ravens. When the brook dried up during the drought, Elijah was directed to go to Zarephath where he encountered a widow living in abject poverty. It was apparent that she was losing the battle to survive this drought because she was preparing to cook a final meal for her son and herself.

In spite of this, Elijah asked her for something to eat and drink, and surprisingly, she shared what she thought would be her final meal. You remember from reading this story that because of her compassion and generosity, this widow’s provisions never dried up. She and her son survived that devastating drought.

Why did she share her final meal with a total stranger? We pondered that in our class. I believe it was because of something that Elijah said to her after making his request and hearing her plight. “Do not be afraid,” he softly told her.

When was the last time she had heard these words? Not since her husband died, I would be willing to say.

From this story, I sense a powerful lesson that speaks to our text today. The community that says, “we are with you,” rather than the one that says through word or deed, “we are not with you,” is the community that reflects God’s heart and casts out fear.

What was the strongest emotion you felt nine years ago this very day after experiencing the Attack on America? I suspect it was fear.

What did you do in the days following the attack? I would be willing to say you did what most of us did. You sought comfort, strength, courage and safety in community.

Families drew closer together. Churches filled up during worship. Neighbors checked on each other. Strangers in the marketplace talked to one another as if they had known each other for years. Why?

We needed each other and we knew it. We also knew that the community that says, “we are with you” is the community that casts out fear. No wonder living in a caring community is an important biblical theme.

 Have you also noticed how important every person is in the Kingdom of God? Based upon these two parables, no one is to be left behind, not even those that others deem unworthy, like tax collectors, sinners, shepherds and women. No one is insignificant or disposable. In God’s eyes, everyone matters and everyone counts.

I mentioned tax collectors, sinners, shepherds and women because our text does. I am confident that the religious leaders of Jesus’ day knew the value of living in a caring community; they just felt it was all right to exclude some people. Jesus, on the other hand, did not.

You are aware that Jesus told these parables in response to the criticism he received from the scribes and Pharisees because he associated with undesirable people, like tax collectors and sinners.

Didn’t he know that he was to have no contact with scoundrels, like corrupt tax collectors or those who did not maintain ritual purity practiced by the Pharisees? In first century Palestine, scribes and Pharisees did not buy, sell, trade or lend money to sinners. They did not eat or travel with them, either. They avoided all contact with them and believed that there was joy in heaven over every sinner that perished. This was such a contrast to what Jesus believed and the way he lived, revealed again in these two parables.

No doubt the parables themselves added to the Pharisees’ disgust. According to Dr. Alan Culpepper, referring to God as Israel’s shepherd was common in the Old Testament, but not in Jesus’ time. Shepherds had acquired a bad reputation by the first century as shiftless, thieving, trespassing hirelings. Shepherding was listed among the despised trades by the rabbis. So you can imagine how the Pharisees bristled when Jesus told a story that cast God in the role of a shepherd.

Similarly, Jesus used a story about a poor woman to contrast the grudging spirit of the Pharisees to God’s gracious spirit. This, too, would offend the religious leaders and cause them to murmur even more.

Why did Jesus do these things? I think he wanted to make it perfectly clear that everyone is important in the Kingdom of God because all people need to be part of a loving community who cares about them and notices when something is wrong. No one is to be left behind or excluded.

Whose responsibility is it to find those who are missing? Our text answers this question. Those who are safely in the fold, enjoying the warm embrace of family and friends, must always be looking for those who need to be there but are not. To do any less will disappoint a God who, according to Tom Ehrich, “always hears a lost child’s cries above all else.” It would disappoint us, too, if we were a part of a community that forgot about us.

You must not overlook the fact that the shepherd was not content with having ninety-nine sheep safely in the fold and neither was the widow satisfied that she had nine of her ten coins. Both went to extreme measures to find the sheep or coin that was missing. How can we do any less when people’s lives are at stake?

Jesus could not. This was why he became an advocate of those not considered “in” by the prevailing religious attitude of his time. Finding any lost person living outside a caring community became his life’s mission.

This morning, I want you to take an inventory of your relationships. I am confident that most of us are members of several loving and affirming communities and are grateful for the difference they make in our lives. I know I am.

Who is missing from those communities? Who has fallen by the wayside and been forgotten? How do you think they feel? What can you do to reclaim them?

Just as important, though, who has never been a part of your family or circle of friends, but needs to be? What do you need to do to include them? Do you need to change your attitude or behavior?

Are you, like some of the religious leaders of Jesus’ time, doing things to contribute to someone’s “lostness” by your self-righteous attitude that promotes division and strife? Are you erecting barriers that keep some people out of a community that they need?

Are there people you look upon with contempt instead of compassion? Are there people you shun instead of pursue? Are there some you condemn instead of redeem? Are there some you have given up on?

How do you think God feels about this?

Are you here today longing to be a part of a community that will affirm and embrace you? Do you need someone to listen to your story, accompany you on your journey, accept and affirm you and help cast fear out of your life?

If so, I invite you to become a part of this warm and loving church. You will find some good listeners and wonderful traveling companions here.

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