Proper 19C, 2019
1 Timothy 1:12-17
The Rev. Dr. Kathy Kelly
When Kate was 3 years old her aunt and I took her to Phipps Plaza in Atlanta and lost her. We were on the second level of Macy’s and took our eyes off of her for about 5 seconds and she was gone! We panicked of course. Kate’s aunt, a quick thinker, told me to watch the escalators near by while she checked the changing rooms. We didn’t realize we were both walking away from where she was hiding by doing this. I kept one eye on the busy escalator and kept glancing back at the round rack full of clothes where we were when she went missing.
Then, about 2 minutes later Kate came out from the middle of that rack and started looking for us. But I saw her and ran back to intercept then found her aunt too.
The Gospel reading today is another example of Jesus turning things upside down. Jesus is accused of welcoming sinners and tax collectors to the dinner table. What is interesting to note is the word “welcome.” This indicates Jesus is the host of the party, which is odd since he had no home. Maybe they just met on the corner and ate at makeshift tables. Whatever the case the Pharisees are after him again for not avoiding the less desirable members of their community.
Jesus tells two parables in response to their criticism of him. One is the familiar, favorite image he paints of the good shepherd leaving the 99 and going into the wilderness to find the one lost sheep. We like to imagine Jesus himself coming to us when we are lost and bringing us back to the fold. We tend to think of this as Him coming to rescue Me.
The parable of the woman who cleans her house until she finds a lost coin seems to me the opposite of the story of the widow’s mite. Instead of suggesting that she give away all of her wages, the limited funding she has to feed her family, Jesus suggests here that she work hard to find and keep this coin.
In both parables there is rejoicing reminiscent of the Prodigal Son for whom the father has the fatted calf butchered and served up for a feast to celebrate. Jesus reminds us again and again that when we back slide and then repent and then get found, there is much rejoicing in heaven.
But if we dig a little deeper we can see that these parables are not so much about getting lost and found as they are about changing the culture of division and marginalization. Maybe that sheep didn’t just wander away. Maybe he was sent! Maybe that coin didn’t just go missing. Maybe it was taken! These parables are on some level symbolic of the powers-that-be over taxing and oppressing the poor.
I think these parables are more about overcoming the divisions of a community than they are about the individual experience of getting lost and found like Kate did that day in Macy’s.
This reminds me of a Family Circus cartoon. Do you remember that strip? It was created by Bill Keane. I remember this one running gag in that strip in which the mother would be standing there scowling, holding some broken vase or some such household disaster and all the children would be standing looking up at her with overly innocent faces proclaiming, “Not me!” And there would be a ghost in the background that apparently only the children could see named “Not Me” floating around causing all sorts of mayhem. This is the classic image of blaming others. This is scapegoating.
The term scapegoat has a fascinating history. Today the word is used to refer to one who is wrongly blamed for something, but it originated with an actual goat.
There was an ancient Jewish tradition in which they believed that God ordained a particular day during which the entire nation of Israel would set aside work, and during which the priests would atone for the sin of the whole nation. This is still practiced and known as Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. What is not still practiced is the ritual of the scapegoat.
In this ancient ritual, the slaughter of two goats was required on Yom Kippur. Two goats were chosen for the ritual and the High Priest drew straws sending one to a quick and humane slaughter for a sacrifice to God and the other to carry the sins of the people. Originally the second goat was just cast out in the wilderness symbolically carrying the sins of the people away and left there to die. To prevent its return to human habitation however, the goat was eventually led to a cliff outside Jerusalem and pushed off its edge. Later they added ritualistic abuse of the poor animal beating him with sticks as symbols of the pain of the sins he must carry. This is just like the way Jesus was wounded on the way to His death.
But from this Day of Atonement ritual comes our modern term, “scapegoat.” The goat was believed to be possessed with a demon who’s name was something that sounded like scape. This was their way of gaining atonement.
We don’t see atonement in that way now but we still scapegoat people. Families, exclusive groups, fraternity and sorority pledges, and larger cultures all have a tendency to choose and abuse a member of their group as the scapegoat. This comes from our human tendency of the need to blame others.
In these two parables we have examples of the ultimate option to scapegoating. Instead of a goat we have a lost sheep. Jesus suggests that we should go and find that sheep, rather than torture and sacrifice her.
Maybe that’s pushing the metaphor but the point Jesus is teaching the crowd here is to move away from the old ways of sacrificing animals and entire wages. He is inviting them, and us, to live a different way of life. It is not about ridding ourselves of things that should be lost, it is about finding and getting found. Rather than project the guilt of our sins onto the scapegoat, we are invited through this lesson to consider turning and finding our way home. And I would add we are called to lead others home too.
I have been thinking about that twenty year old movie this week, The Green Mile. It was based on a novel by Stephen King which tells the 1932 story of the block supervisor of the Cold Mountain Penitentiary death row, played by Tom Hanks in the movie. This prison is nicknamed "The Green Mile" for the color of the floor's linoleum. The story begins with the arrival of John Coffey, played by Michael Clarke Duncan, a 6 ft 8 in tall, powerfully built, black man who has been convicted of murdering two small white girls. We learn as the story unfolds that John Coffey possesses inexplicable healing abilities and that he was trying to revive the girls when he found them and that another prisoner in the story was the real murderer. John Coffey heals several characters before he is executed, an innocent man.
This character is a Christ figure. An innocent man who heals others and is then executed for crimes he didn’t commit. John Coffey is a scapegoat. Somebody had to pay for the death of those little girls and it is sometimes easier to blame the first responder, or maybe a black man, than it is to spend the effort of investigation. He is like Jesus in this way and also in his healing abilities, his kindness and gentleness. He also refuses to defend himself and goes willingly to his death.
John Coffey is not like Jesus in some significant way though. He did not resurrect, he did not teach or preach. He was like a lost sheep who was not rescued.
Jesus calls us to seek out the lost sheep among the community, but we also must consider the ways in which we are found.
The author of the first letter of Timothy spells this message out in these words, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners-- of whom I am the foremost. But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me . . . Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life.”
We get found not so that we can get fixed and go to heaven. We get found by Jesus so that we can model for all those other lost sheep how to get back on track and follow the Good Shepherd in this life.
When I was in 6th grade my favorite class was music. I loved singing in the chorus. For this choir the school combined all 6th graders so there were about sixty kids in that choir.
Mrs. Katron was the music teacher and when we all met together to rehearse we had to sit in the bleachers in the gym.
One day Mrs. Katron was rehearsing us, or trying to, and every kid in that gym was talking and playing with each other. Except me. I was waiting patiently for Mrs. Katron, my favorite teacher to teach us more about singing. I refused to respond to the kids around me when they invited me into their conversation. We were not supposed to be talking right now, we were supposed to be quiet and wait for instructions from the wonderful Mrs. Katron!
Poor Mrs. Katron kept trying to gain their attention until she became exasperated and yelled at us! Then she made a threat. Once everyone was quiet, she said that the next person to so much as open their mouth would be punished.
The room was silent. I was impatient to get to the singing. I had become bored with this situation that I perceived to not involve me. So, at that moment, I yawned.
Mrs. Katron thought I was mocking her with my open mouth.
I was the only kid that day who was following the rules and I got punished. I was forced to run sprints in the gym in front of may peers. I was humiliated. And I was furious.
Mrs. Katron was no longer my favorite teacher. She wouldn’t listen to me try to defend myself. She used me as a scapegoat to gain control of her class and it worked. But she lost my respect and never regained it.
I remember that experience whenever I consider the plight of the scapegoat. And when I consider this parable of the lost sheep I feel empathy for the poor thing and want to go and find him. When I feel empathy for the lost, I too can see the ways I am lost and need to get found.
I hope you can too. Rather than waiting for Jesus to rescue us though, let’s consider the other options here, the things we can do to participate in the rescuing of all the lost, lonely, marginalized people all around us, all the time.
So, go get found friends. And do some looking around you for the people in your life who need to get found too. Amen.