Sermon: Throwaway

September 15, 2019
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Luke 15:1-10

by Eric Anderson

When I throw something away, I don’t want it to reappear. Sometimes that can’t be helped, of course. The things I put in the wastebaskets here at the church have to be gathered together, bagged, and taken to the dumpster. At other times, trash reappears when I really don’t want it to. A ripped garbage bag that scatters trash about, forcing me to clean it up again, well: that stings.

In March of 1987 a barge called the Mobro 4000 was loaded with 3,100 tons of trash from the community of Islip, New York, a community on Long Island. A tugboat hauled it to Morehead City, North Carolina, where the garbage was supposed to be placed in a landfill. State officials, however, barred it from unloading. So did officials in Louisiana after the barge had made the long journey around the tip of Florida into the Gulf of Mexico. Mexican authorities apparently dispatched warplanes to prevent it from approaching the coast.

About seven months after it was loaded, the trash aboard the Mobro 4000 was burned in an incinerator and placed in a landfill in… Islip, New York, the very community it came from.

Sometimes it’s hard to throw away our things.

It’s surprisingly easy to throw away people.

“This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them,” they said.

I have to start by saying that the critics – these Pharisees and scribes – were more like us than those tax collectors and sinners were. The Pharisees were the good, faithful, religious, ethical, learned, hard-working people of the Jewish villages of Judea and Galilee. They thought seriously and diligently about what was right and wrong, what was good and bad, what was permissible or not permissible as daily life intertwined with the commandments of Judaism’s ancient law. The functioned as lawyers and judges, but also as ministers and teachers. These critics were the most respectable people in society.

The tax collectors were the least respectable people in society. They were collaborators with the occupying Roman Empire. They typically demanded more money from the district than the Romans required, and pocketed the difference. They were greedy. They were treasonous. And they had power. Luke, describing this scene, hardly needed to add a reference to other sinners. The tax collectors were more than bad enough.

You might recall a story of Jesus eating with a particular tax collector, a fellow named Zacchaeus. Luke included that story in his gospel in chapter 19.

Melissa Bane Sevier writes in her blog: “We people of faith tend to divide people into the groups of the worthy and the unworthy. And, how interesting that those we consider to be the worthy are the ones who are most like us. They look like us, pray like us, speak our language, think our theology, come from our country. Those who are not worthy are those who look, speak, act, pray, think differently. If we are Republicans, they are Democrats. If we are liberal, they are conservative. If we are white, they are not. If we are Americans, they are Iraqis or Mexicans or French, refugees or immigrants.

“Those people we think aren’t worthy—they are the ones we need to picture partying with Jesus. And you and I are the ones criticizing.”

Why would Jesus spend his time with the dregs of the society? That’s what the best people of the society wanted to know. Jesus responded with these two stories.

The parables themselves are pretty straightforward. A shepherd lost a sheep; he searched it out and found it. A woman lost a coin. She searched for it and found it. Diligence, effort, and determination win.

The odd thing comes at the end of each little tale: they called together their friends and neighbors – and the language is very clear that they get called to gather – to celebrate the recovery of the lost sheep and the lost coin. That’s the element that steps outside of the ordinary. That’s when we see Jesus making a particular point.

Imagine the shepherd for a moment. Do you believe for a moment that this was the first time he’d had a sheep wander off? Sheep do that. It was likely not the first time in his life. It was probably not the first time in his week. Finding lost sheep is a pretty regular part of a shepherd’s life. It wasn’t something to celebrate.

Likewise, the woman had probably dropped things in her house before. Perhaps a button, perhaps a piece of jewelry, perhaps another coin. We’ve all looked for misplaced objects in our homes. When was the last time you summoned your neighbors together to celebrate your successful search?

Not for a sheep. Not even for a coin that represented ten per cent of her substance. No. That sort of thing doesn’t happen.

But it happens, said Jesus, with God and all the residents of heaven when you recover a person.

As Melissa Bane Sevier writes, “Both of these people—the shepherd and the woman (stand-ins for God, of course)—are going to a great deal of trouble to find something that isn’t worth very much to anyone else. Why? That’s the whole point, isn’t it? To God, there is no such thing as a person with no value.” She continues, “Each one, each one, is cause for celebration. The imprint of the Eternal is upon her. He carries God within. And whenever any single one is set aside for any reason, God seeks diligently until that one is restored and brought home again.”

There are no throwaway people. There is no human being to be treated like a barge-load of garbage barred from port after port and nation after nation. There is no person whom God wants us to abandon to the hardships of living.

Then why do we act as if there were?

We can all think, I’m sure, of the big groups of throwaway people in America right now. Immigrants, mostly those from Central America, are being thrown away by the thousands. Last month in an interview with NPR’s Rachel Martin, Ken Cuccinelli, acting head of Citizenship and Immigration Services, re-wrote Emma Lazarus’ poem “The New Colossus” to read: “give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.” Give me your rich and your happy; the rest we will turn away.

The twentieth century is a tragic story of populations who were thrown away. Syrians in the civil war. Muslims during the conflicts that savaged the Balkans. Japanese Americans during World War II. Jews, Russians, Poles, Romani, and gay men during the Holocaust. Armenians during the Armenian Genocide. The soldiers of World War I: the estimated total deaths of military personnel for that conflict range from 8.5 million to 10.8 million. That does not include civilians.

There are throwaway people much closer to home, though. Some of them are the homeless. We may sympathize with them. We may offer to help them. But are we willing to sit down at a table with them? Are we willing to come to know them, to learn about their dreams and their histories, their needs and their longings? Are we willing to call them friends?

We have enough trouble doing that with our existing friends, and with our families. How often have we seen our friendships break? How often has something come between us, and wedged us apart? How often have we chosen our needs, our rightness, our privilege, or our hurt over the love we once shared? How painful do those shared table moments become?

How is it that we’re willing to throw those relationships, those commitments of compassion, those people away?

How is it that sometimes we’re prepared to dispose of ourselves? How often do we see ourselves as the worthless one? How often do we come to God, or refuse to come to God, convinced that we have no value?

Friends, if that is where you are, then hear this: God has a different opinion. You have great worth. You have infinite value. You are worth the celebration of the angels. And I hope you’ll forgive me if I choose to agree with God, and not you, in this disagreement.

The purpose of the Christian Church is to tell you, and tell your friends, and tell your neighbors, and tell the people you don’t like, and tell the people you’re uncomfortable with, and tell the people you don’t know, that God holds them of surpassing worth. There are no throwaway people.

Rick Morley asks at, “Oh, if only people would accuse Jesus’ Church of ‘welcoming sinners and eating with them.’

“Because nobody does that. Except Jesus, and those who follow him.”

Be welcome, friends, at the invitation of Jesus. Be welcome and be welcoming, for in so doing, you follow him.


Listen to the Recorded Sermon


This is about as close as the recording is ever likely to come to the prepared text. Really. This is probably it.

The image is Parable of the Lost Drachma (ca. 1618) by Domenico Fetti – Web Gallery of Art:   Image  Info about artwork, Public Domain,

Categories Sermons | Tags: , , | Posted on September 15, 2019

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