There was a man with 100 sheep. 1 sheep got lost so he left the 99 and goes after the one until he found it, lay it on shoulders, rejoicing, gets home and throws a party. “I have found my sheep that was lost”
There was a woman with 10 coins and she lost one coin. So she lit a lamp and swept the house searching carefully. When she found it she called together her friends and neighbors. "Rejoice with me I have found the coin that I had lost."
These parable are really about people. Can children get lost? Can grown-ups get lost? Jesus tells these stories to let us know that if we get lost God will look for us until we are found and bring us back home. And then celebrate when we return.
In this first week of our Season of Saints we will think about John Newton. He wrote Amazing Grace. Let's sing the first verse, "I once was lost but now am found!"
You know the lost and found story, right? It’s the story we just heard Paul telling in his letter to Timothy, he was “the worst of sinners,” but God’s grace changed him so much he even changed his name. Originally his name was Saul. His parents were devout Jews from a place called Tarsus. His father was also a Roman citizen, and so was Saul. His family sent Saul to Jerusalem to be trained as a Pharisee. He was among the crowd when the first Christian was killed by Pharisees – he held the coats of the people who stoned Stephen to death. You can read about that in Acts chapter 7. Saul continued killing Christians.
But two chapters later in Acts 9 we find the dramatic story of Saul’s conversion. As he was traveling on the road to Damascus, a bright light blinded Saul. He fell down and heard the voice of Jesus speaking to him. “Saul, Saul why do you persecute me?” Jesus also spoke to a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. God told him that in spite of all the bad things Saul had done, even though Saul had been an enemy of Christians, Ananias should welcome him, pray for his healing and help him to become a Christian too. He became so different that he changed his name to Paul. Paul became an amazing saint of the church, transformed by God’s grace, working hard the rest of his life to spread the good news of Jesus to the Gentiles, building up the church, filling it with people like you and me. Saul once was lost, but by the grace of Jesus Christ he was transformed and reunited with God and with God’s people.
You know the story of lost and found, right? Paul is just one example of many lifted up in the church. These are the stories that become movies. Perhaps you know the story of how John Newton was transformed by God’s grace. By the age of 11 (Jack, Paul) John was working on a ship. His father was the captain and his mother had died when John was seven. For the first few years after his mother’s death John was mostly left on his own. In his writings Newton describes hanging out with lazy and wicked boys and learning their ways. Then his dad began to take him on voyages to keep John out of trouble. But the rough sailors were not a good influence on John. After five voyages, John’s father left him in Spain with a friend of his to be an apprentice. John later wrote, “I might have done well, if I had behaved well: but, by this time, my sinful propensities had gathered strength by habit: I was very wicked, and therefore very foolish; and, being my own enemy, I seemed determined that nobody should be my friend.”
John Newton chose to continue life as a sailor. Many of John’s voyages were to Africa to buy slaves who were sold to the United States and the Caribbean. One night he was captured and forced onto a navy ship. This time at sea mad John an even angrier young man. By his early twenties, John Newton had become a rebellious person. Even the toughest sailors, known for their cursing and drinking, were sickened by John's bad attitude and foul language. He refused to follow the captain's orders and constantly made fun of anyone who believed in God. He had read a book that said there was no God. John liked the idea that we wouldn’t have to answer to God for his actions. Earlier this morning we read Psalm 14. “Fools say in their hearts, ‘there is no God.’ They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds; there is no one who does good.” John Newton’s early life shows us what that looks like.
But in the midst of a terrible storm at sea, while the ship lurched and rocked on huge wave, plunging it time after time into the ocean, John had a change of heart. After he witnessed a sailor being washed overboard, John, who could not swim, knew he was facing death. He started to remember Bible verses and prayers his mother taught him when he was a little boy and cried out “Lord, have mercy on us.” But then he thought, “What mercy can there be for a wretch like me? Then John began to tell God he was sorry for turning away from Him and for doing so much wrong. A feeling of peace began to grow in his soul.
When the storm ended, John realized God had saved him from death, and he asked God to save his soul as well. He found a Bible on the ship. As he read the word of God he started living like a follower of Jesus. When the other sailors noticed that John had stopped swearing, and was no longer making fun of Christians they teased him, but John didn’t get upset.
After a time John gave up life on the sea, settled back in England, married and studied to become a minister. Along the way he met John Wesley. John Newton served a church in Olney, England and then another in London. As he grew in faith John came to see that the slave trade was wicked. He joined with abolitionists like John Wesley and William Wilberforce, until the practice of slavery was made illegal in England.
For a while John and his best friend wrote a new hymn for worship every week. His best known is Amazing Grace. When writing that hymn he remembered the storm and how God had “saved a wretch like me.” He remembered how wonderful it was to feel right with God at last. “How precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed.”
You know the story of lost and found. But do you like it? Is it getting stale? Are you tired of hearing Paul say Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners and he was the “worst of sinners”? That might be good news for some, but what does it have to do with you and me? Do you secretly think as I have, “I was never lost. I’m right here in God’s house. I’ve been working as a servant God, I have never disobeyed God’s commandments. Why do the lost ones always get a party? I’m tired of all this talk about sinners. I’m not a sinner. I’m not a fool who says there is no God. I am part of the church, I lead a respectable life.
Let me tell you another story of lost and found, this time with a twist. It’s a story by Flannery O’Connor called Revelation. She made it up, like Jesus made up the parables, but like parables it is the God’s honest truth.
The main character is Ruby. Mrs. Claud Turpin. In some ways Ruby is very different from any of us. She’s a Southern woman, lives on a farm in Georgia, where her husband and the black farm workers raise “a little of everything” including cotton and pigs. But in other ways Ruby is very much like you and I. Respectable, church going, she knows the words to the gospel songs when they come over the radio. And one a these days I know I’ll wear a crown. “To help anybody who needed it was her philosophy of life. She never spared herself when she found somebody in need, whether they were white or black, trash or decent.” She probably felt inspired when she sang, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.” And Ruby knows how to count her blessings. She thinks of herself as a good person, just like you and I think we are good people.
But “Ruby has a habit of classifying others; when she has trouble falling asleep at night, she calms herself by imagining all the classes of people.” (Jones 53)
On the bottom of the heap were most colored people, not the kind she would have been if she had been one, but most of them; then next to them – not above, just away from -- were the white-trash; then above them were the home-owners, and above them the home-and-land owners, to which she and Claud belonged, Above she and Claud were people with a lot of money and much bigger houses and much more land.
This system always broke down after a while. It was hard to decide if common people with a lot of money ought to be above or below she and Claud. Some people with “good blood” lost all their money and had to rent. And there were black people who owned their home and land, and even had signs of wealth far greater than she and Claud.
The story of Ruby begins in the waiting room of the doctor’s office. And Ruby is busy classifying everyone else in the room. She judges them by their age, by their state of cleanliness, by the things they say, even by their shoes. And it isn’t long before she is unable to keep her thoughts to herself. While conversing with the “stylish lady” in the room she “begins to hurl well-mannered comments, really carefully disguised insults, even observing that her pigs are cleaner than some children she has seen.” (Jones 54) She was referring to a sick little boy whose in the waiting room, whom she judged as white trash.
O’Connor helps us see that not only is Ruby arrogant and self-righteous, but she is incapable of seeing these qualities in herself. She is practically obsessed with thinking about the lost, the last and the least, but she doesn’t count herself in that number. In his book Embodying Forgiveness Greg Jones reflects, “Once we begin classifying people, whether in the way Ruby does or by saying that sin is what others do, we have begun to tear at the unity we are called to live with one another.”
Unity, fellowship, friendship – these are ultimately the purpose of anyone of God’s human creatures being saved by grace. The whole reason God created us in the first place was to be in communion with the Holy Trinity, with one another and with all of creation. When we reject that communion and focus on our individual selves (whether in the way John Newton, or the prodigal son did – or in the way Ruby does) that communion is shattered. The purpose of forgiveness is not to welcome individuals into the kingdom of heaven one at a time, but to restore communion with God and with others in the Christian community. The lost sheep joined the other 99 and the neighbors were invited to celebrate. That’s what it means when in worship I say after the passing of the peace that we are “a forgiven and reconciled people.”
Paul wasn’t saved by grace so he could become a good person and get into heaven on his own. He was saved by grace so that he could join the Church, his life could be transformed, and he could dedicate the rest of his life to drawing others into the Body of Christ. John Newton wasn’t saved by grace so that he could rest assured that his soul was saved, others be damned. God saved him by grace, transformed his life so that he could bear witness to the depth of God’s love and mercy for every human being, and so he could join with brothers and sisters in Christ in the fight to restore right relationship between people by abolishing slavery. The kingdom of heaven is not some place we go when we die, it is living in right relationship with God and with one another here and now.
When I am honest, I am a lot more like Ruby than I care to admit. How about you? The good news is that Ruby was transformed by God’s grace too. Through a college student on break from Wellesley named Mary Grace. She was reading a book called Human Development.
Ruby was in the midst of a little speech in that waiting room, "If it's one thing I am," Mrs. Turpin said with feeling, "It's grateful. When I think who all I could have been besides myself and what all I got, a little of everything, and a good disposition besides, I just feel like shouting, 'Thank you, Jesus, for making everything the way it is!' …Oh thank you, Jesus, Jesus, thank you!" she cried aloud.”
At that point Mary Grace hit Ruby with the book, lunged for her and started to choke her. During the scuffle Mary Grace and Ruby both ended on the floor. Ruby looked into the girl’s eyes and had “no doubt in her mind that the girl did know her…in some intense and personal way.” This knowledge made Mary Grace’s judgement even more severe:
“What you got to say to me?"” she asked hoarsely and held her breath, waiting, as for a revelation… The girl raised her head. Her gaze locked with Mrs. Turpin's. “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog,” she whispered. Her voice was low but clear.
Ruby Turpin was finally confronted with the truth about herself. The encounter with Mary Grace helped Mrs. Turpin to become fully conscious, perhaps for the first time, of her turpitude, her depravity, her inherent badness.
She had been singled out for the message, though there was trash in the room to whom it might justly have been applied. The full force of this fact struck her only now. There was a woman there who was neglecting her own child but she had been overlooked. The message had been given to Ruby Turpin, a respectable, hardworking, church-going woman.
But this moment of judgement is also the moment of grace. As Greg Jones explains, judgement helps Ruby see the truth about herself, though it takes her a while. How am I a hog and me both? How am I saved and from hell too?” she wondered.
Returning home Ruby goes out to the barn to observing her pigs.
"Why me?" she grumbled. "It's no trash around here, black or white, that I haven't given to. And break my back to the bone every day working. And do for the church.” In her meditation Ruby discovers that God is not simply a therapeutic nice guy who asks only that we be nice too. “Who do you think you are?” she yells at God.
In asking the question Ruby begins to be clear about who she is. Ruby the talkative woman, eager to classify and judge is now left speechless. She recognizes that her self-righteousness has been a false way of being upright.
At the end of the story Ruby has her revelation while looking at the sunset in the clouds. A visionary sight settled in her eyes. She saw the streak of light in the clouds as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were tumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black [people] in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who , like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the given wit to use it right. She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They, alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces even their virtues were being burned away.
Ruby’s vision of those transformed by God finally includes herself. Further, she is no longer the judge of others, nor even the “first” among people; people like her [like you and me] are among the last to move through the field of living fire, and even then their virtues are being burned away.
Psalm 14 tells us “there is none that does good...,they have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse.” But you know the story, the lost are found. Psalm 14 declares at the end “deliverance will come from the Lord.” Elsewhere in the psalms God’s mercy is like the refiner’s fire – cleansing rather than consuming – this judgment of grace enables new life by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Any time we think we haven’t done anything that needs forgiving we are lost in self-deception. You know the story of lost and found, right. The story is about you and me, and Ruby Turpin as much as it is about Paul and John Newton.
Whether we have squandered our inheritance on loose living, or we assume that we possess a righteousness based on our fidelity, we are all in need of God’s transforming grace until the whole body of Christ, every human being created in the image of God can learn to bend the body in gestures of love, to acknowledge the gift of grace that others, including the Other who is God, offer to us.
The purpose of forgiveness is the restoration of communion with God and with others in Christian community. When that transformation takes place our lives shine as the Saints of God.