11th September 2016 - Hugh Perry
Jeremiah 4: 11-12, 22-28
We read two sections from Jeremiah this morning and the section in-between, that is missed out, gives imagery to the Babylonian invasion. In an interesting twist the blame for the invasion is placed with the invaded rather than the invaders. This is real social comment stuff where it is understood that bad national policy makes invasion a real possibility. The second part of this morning’s reading is a lament over the devastation caused by the invasion and Maurice Andrew points especially to the line in the second half of verse 25. ‘And all the birds of the air had fled.’ This reminded Andrew of a character created by the New Zealand author Owen Marshall. This character was described as being so tough that the birds stop singing as he passes. Such a character may not be an invading army but a school bully can completely block out a child’s world and have implications well into the future. 
The parable of the prodigal son actually belongs with today’s reading to make three parables of the lost.
The lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost sons, one who goes away and returns and the other who defies his father by not coming to his father’s celebration.
The importance of remembering that third story as we read the other two is that the younger son goes away and comes back but the eldest, although he stays home, defies his father and the father leaves the party to plead with him.
So in all three stories the lost is searched for by its owner, the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost, through defiance, eldest son.
In that way the three parables inform each other and relate to the opening lines of the chapter which is where we begin.
Craddock notes that ‘the joy of finding is so abundant that it cannot be contained; one person cannot adequately celebrate it; there must be a party to which others are invited. Jesus invites even his critics to join him, and all heaven, in celebrating the lost’. 
The opening paragraph of this morning’s gospel reading gives the reason for the following three parables of the lost.
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them’. (Luke 15:2)
Once again Dr Bill Loader’s comments take us right to the heart of the matter. The controversy is not over whether Jesus called sinners to repent. Because, as Loader notes, if that was all Jesus was doing along with preaching in an area that was understood to be frequented by sinners then he would have been the hero of those Pharisees and scribes. The problem the Pharisees had was that Jesus had already demonstrated his willingness to value all people regardless of how they were labelled as persons. Jesus was prepared to treat all people as people of worth before there was any repentance from whatever ‘sin’ it was perceived they might have committed. That total acceptance by Jesus was an expression of love, unconditional love.
It was an acceptance that was extremely challenging, because Jesus was suggesting that these so called sinners should be valued as people who would also be part of his future vision. He was not including them in his ‘realm of God’ vision so that they could be ‘converted,’ or made so they could be valued and worthy of love. Jesus accepted them because they were already valued and loved. The distinction says Loader is subtle but significant.
Both understandings, the Pharisees and Jesus involve repentance. But the Pharisees and the scribes way puts the focus on the deeds and laws. But Jesus’ way puts the focus on the person and possibility of transformation.
Loader then gives us a metaphor of his own by suggesting that one approach focuses on the fruit; the other, on the tree. ‘There is all the difference in the world between telling the tree it must produce good fruit and tending to its real needs which make such fruit bearing possible’.
We have a great produce producing community garden so we understand that metaphor completely. Peter maintains a couple of serious compost bin and regularly brings in large trailers of interesting smelling material to liberally spread on it.
But the real challenge in Loader’s metaphor is how do we respond. Are we the Pharisees and scribes who want confession before redemption or are we the followers of Jesus who accept all people into our companionship? Are we the Jesus people who will risk inclusion in the realistic expectation that love and kindness will transform both the sinner and the sanctimonious?
There are plenty of examples where that is not the case and our communities look to be much nearer the scribes and the Pharisees than following the Jesus model. Our penal system refuses to parole the most model of prisoners if they profess their innocence and refuse to admit guilt. Yet our appeal courts regularly throw up high profile instances where people have been wrongfully convicted. Furthermore the public pressure appears to focus penal policy on incarceration rather than rehabilitation. Even a repentant sinner can’t be let loose in a risk averse society unless of course they come from a wealthy family and are a promising athlete, or just trash a neighbours batch while in a drunken stupor.
To move the comparison away from the obvious examples I was intrigued to watch one of Nigel Latta’s latest series about immigration to discover that a large part of our immigration is kiwis returning home. Even more surprising the biggest number of new immigrants still comes from Britain and a very large portion of immigrants come for a time then go home again. Furthermore, an economist’s evaluation of various emigrant groups net worth to our economy was most revealing. He took the total tax paid and then deducted the services they used to tabulate the amount of tax gained. That was his estimate of extra money the government could use to grow the economy and improve services. New Zealand born people were bottom of the list. That is actually not surprising because apart from a relatively small number of refugees we only accept people as immigrants if they have skills that are in high demand. People who have skills that are in high demand have the ability to demand high wages or set up businesses that do extremely well.
Nigel Latter’s program on immigration pretty much cleaned away any legitimacy in blaming our nation’s woes on new immigrants or demonising particular ethnic groups.
Unemployed people are regularly labelled as sinners despite the fact for all sorts of reasons some people are unemployable. Furthermore, politicians and others regularly label the unemployed as lazy because there are always plenty of jobs advertised. It is a fair guess however that a large portion of those jobs belonged to highly employable people who moved to another job because it looked a better prospect. That movement creates vacancies that are advertised and will be filled by highly employable people who are also moving from one job to another. So the competition from employed people moving shuts out the unemployed people. Those who fail to secure a job become more unemployable the longer they fail to secure a job because their work history fades like a low quality art print.
Although we might not use the Pharisees’ word ‘sinners’ there are a whole host of examples in our society of people that other people like to exclude. However the real sin is that the church does the same thing in spite of the Christ example in this morning’s gospel reading. Traditionally the church has excluded people from membership for hundreds of years unless they confessed and renounced certain beliefs and practices. When we were planning our new building some of us went to a very helpful lecture on church architecture. It was explained that the traditional church was designed so the miserable sinner could enter by the narrow door and find a place in the long rows of pews. They would pick a place sufficiently far back so not to contaminate the sanctuary at the front. It was not until after the general confession that the sinner could humbly, with head bowed, come to the altar rail and receive communion in that one instance of Grace, in their ‘sinful’ poverty driven lives.
Much like Jesus’ time it was relatively easy to discern who the sinners were in feudal Europe. The peasants were sinners and even if the aristocracy were not saints they certainly could be sanctimonious.
The church of today still plays with in-groups and out groups that strengthen the belonging of those in, at the expense of those out. We have softened the boundaries of our denominations but we still place fences around belief and practice. I recently heard of one settlement board defining their parish as ‘not an evangelical congregation’. OK, a prospective minister would know what they are not, but they might want to know what they are.
The homosexual debate is a classic in group out group search for self-identity by demonising others and is still very definitely alive and well in most parts of the church.
Pharisees in all ages and circumstances like to separate themselves from others, to define their purity by the perceived lack of purity in others. Pharisees do approve of sinners being called to repentance. The Pharisees would have approved of John the Baptist’s message of repentance and his threat of judgement. But although Jesus’ ministry began with John’s baptism of repentance Jesus not only moved on from John’s baptism but he changed John’s baptism of repentance into a baptism of belonging and acceptance.
There are elements of judgement in Jeremiah’s poem we read this morning but the overall theme is lament. God crying over the fate of people who have brought disaster on themselves. That is certainly an ongoing theme in the history of humanity as unjust or foolish actions bring calamity that leads to further calamity.
The Jesus way through such ongoing calamity is not to call people to some uniform and impossible purity but to recognise the God who laments such foolishness and seeks out the lost.
Luke introduces Jesus’ three parables of the lost by setting the scene and then relates the three parable of the lost, each of which concludes with a celebration. The God we image in Jesus Christ not only seeks out the lost rather than exclude them, but also celebrates their return. To unpack the imagery, as Bill Loader did, the celebration is an inclusion of both the lost and those who seek in a loving community. It is that loving inclusion that calls people to transform their lives and so transform the lives of others. The sheer creative magnificence of Jesus’ vision of a realm of God is that when humanity judges itself, as our examples demonstrate, people struggle to make accurate or acceptable judgements.
Our two parables this morning and our memory of the third reminds us that God calls us to celebrate the return of the lost, not to judge who is lost and who is not. We are called to celebrate together in an inclusive loving community and allow our lives to be transformed by the company of others who are themselves transforming.
In this Springtime of changing weather, we are called to nurture each other and encourage the possibility of the fruit of transformation and new beginnings.
Humanity’s hope of new beginnings and new growth comes through loving kindness given and received, nurturing that blossoms into a transformed world.
 Maurice Andrew The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand (Wellington: DEFT 1999), pp. 454,455.
 Fred B. Craddock Luke. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press 2009), pp. 185,186.