Sermon: Let’s Try That Again

September 11, 2022

Exodus 32:7-14
Luke 15:1-10

by Eric Anderson

These two readings from the Bible aren’t precisely parallel. Exodus 32 – God’s response to the creation of the golden calf by the Israelites fleeing from Egypt – was a real crisis.

God had delivered the Ten Commandments in chapter 20 and followed it up with a foundational legal and religious framework in chapters 21 through 23. Moses then climbed the mountain to receive further detailed instructions, most of them about the creation of a travelling religious sanctuary for worship, bringing us to the end of chapter 31. The first six verses of chapter 32 tell us what had been happening at the bottom of the mountain, the construction of the golden calf, the Israelites’ failure to keep the commandment against creating idols and, quite possibly, their abandonment of God for some other deity. Remember again: they’d already received the Ten Commandments that explicitly forbade exactly what they did.

God’s anger raised the possibility that the entire Exodus project would be abandoned, that the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel would be reduced to one – Moses – and that a great nation would once more lie far ahead, exclusively among the descendants of Moses.

That’s a crisis.

In contrast, the Pharisees’ critique of Jesus was not a crisis. Some probably meant it as a way to dismiss Jesus’ teaching and influence, but others may have meant it as a gentle correction. Encounters with sinners and tax collectors risked one’s ritual purity; it made one unclean. This isn’t the same thing as sinning, because plenty of natural things made one unclean. The solution was washing – but sometimes a specialized and rather difficult ritual washing. It was best to avoid it.

And in the Talmud, a 3rd century compilation of rabbinic teachings from the previous 400 years, we find, “When (tax) collectors enter into a house, the house (is considered) unclean.”

Some of these Pharisees, no doubt, hoped to help Jesus avoid the ritual impurity of encountering and especially eating with these tax collectors and sinners.

I would guess it went further than that, too. As Amanda Brobst-Renaud writes at Working Preacher, “In the ancient world, as with today, individuals were concerned that those with whom one passes one’s time will naturally have an effect on a person.” Why, after all, do parents worry about their children hanging out with “the wrong crowd?” Why do they discourage friendships with young people who do things they’re not comfortable with? Why do they intervene in these relationships? Because one’s circles of friends influence one’s behavior. Some friends encourage their peers, join them in study, help them when they’re down. Some acquaintances discourage schoolwork, encourage drinking or drugs, and abandon one another when times get hard.

“Make good and wise friends, Jesus,” was a part of the message of those Pharisees. “Don’t hang around with the people who’ll drag you down.”

That makes excellent sense to all of us except… Jesus.

Dr. Brobst-Renaud goes on to write, “In response to the charge that Jesus associates with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus’s response is, ‘Obviously.’ Throughout the Gospel of Luke, Jesus dines with the poor and the rich, the tax collectors, sinners, and the Pharisees. What, then, might Luke be trying to imprint upon us? In the case of these parables, at least, it seems Luke invites us to the table with the tax collectors and sinners, inviting us to find God’s image in all that seems lost, for ‘nothing will be impossible with God’ (Luke 1:37, 18:27).”

With many of Jesus’ parables, we tend to assume that the lead character, the hero of the story if you will, stands for God, or for Jesus. It’s really easy to do that with the parable of the lost sheep, isn’t it? We are so accustomed to the image of God as shepherd. I don’t know about you, but when I read this story the 23rd Psalm is floating around in my memory. In addition, there’s the tenth chapter of John, in which Jesus said explicitly, “I am the good shepherd.” So who else could this shepherd be but Jesus?

Well. It could be… us.

Jesus went out of his way to invite the Pharisees to consider themselves as that good shepherd, the one who seeks the lost sheep until they find it. “Which one of you… does not leave the ninety-nine…” he asked. Clearly the answer he expected was, none of us. Of course we’d go. The missing sheep is important. The missing sheep is valued. The missing sheep is precious. Of course we’d go. We might have lost it before, but let’s try that again.

Jesus didn’t invite the Pharisees to consider themselves the woman searching for a coin – that’s probably in recognition of first century sexism there – but her actions are more comprehensible even than the shepherd’s. In all the years I’ve thought about the lost sheep story, there’s always a little bit of discomfort at abandoning ninety-nine sheep to find one. It seems like a really good way to be looking for another sheep as soon as I get back. But the lost coin makes perfect sense. There’s no question of losing the other nine. There’s no question about value – this is, after all, a full ten percent of the woman’s liquid wealth. Yeah. I’d move heaven and earth – or at least furniture and broom – to make sure I hadn’t lost ten percent of all the money I had in the world.

Let’s try that again, and again and again, until we find it.

“Let’s try that again, Pharisees,” said Jesus, “with sinners and with the unclean.”

Why? Because those people, too, are children of God. To put it in poetry:

“The trouble is, dear Jesus,
that you’ve used the coin and sheep
as if they represented people
lost and disregarded.

“If they were precious, we would seek.
Because we do not seek, you know they’re not.
Not precious to us.
Not precious in the world we’ve made.

“And there you are, lamp-bearer,
there you are, sheep-seeker,
for those we do not treasure
are so precious in your sight.”

There you have it. In ancient days and in modern days, people choose who is important and who isn’t. Earlier when I talked about parents worrying about their children joining the “wrong crowd,” I talked only about behaviors – things the members of those crowd did that made them untrustworthy acquaintances, not valuable friends. But we’ve defined the “wrong crowd” in a lot of other ways, haven’t we? By language, by culture, by race, by gender, by religion, by age? One of the heartbreaking realities of this season of the coronavirus is the way that relaxing precautions against disease raises the risk levels for people with medical vulnerabilities. The freedom of the majority to crowd together without masks tells a minority that they are of less value, that their lives and their health will not be protected by their neighbors.

To that I’m sure Jesus would say, “Let’s try that again.”

Jesus told the Pharisees, both the ill-intentioned ones and the well-intentioned ones, that the despised people are precious in God’s sight. There’s no point to say, at least for you and I to say, “We’re done. No more.” “Let’s try that again,” says Jesus, though we might have to try things in a new and different way, rather like a nene learning to fly.

That’s important because while we might be in the role of the searching shepherd or the searching woman in these stories, we might also be the lost sheep or the lost coin. That means we are precious – it also means that we are lost and vulnerable and we need help to be found. As Greg Carey writes at Working Preacher, “Luke provides a mixed message: Jesus seeks to bring sinners to repentance (5:32), but not once does Jesus actually scold or correct a sinner. Instead, he eats with them. Four times Luke reports (a) meals in which (b) Jesus receives criticism for (c) his relationship with sinners, but (d) Jesus never once comments on the sinners’ behavior (5:27-32; 7:36-50; 15:1-32; and 19:1-10).”

If we’re the seekers, I admit that’s annoying. “Where’s that repentance?” I want to know.

When I’m lost, however, that fundamental commitment that God and Jesus have made to “Let’s try that again” is everything.

Barbara Messner writes in her blog, “BarbPoetPriest:”

“Can it be true that God prefers
to search for the fallen and lost
than to keep the complacent ones
in their stagnant security?
If God cares to search like that shepherd,
or the woman with broom and lamp,
then rejoice, for all is not lost
in our wandering, blundering world.”

Let’s try that again, to recognize that the people precious in God’s sight are all people, and they ought to be precious in our sight. Let’s try that again, to restore our fractured relationships. Let’s try that again, to realize that we, also, are precious in God’s sight, that God seeks for us, and that we, too, can rejoice to be found.


Watch the Recorded Sermon

Pastor Eric has just returned from vacation, so he’s still figuring out to stay consistently on text. Of course, he hadn’t figured it out before vacation, either.

The image is by Brothers Dalziel – This file was donated to Wikimedia Commons as part of a project by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. See the Image and Data Resources Open Access Policy, CC0,

Categories Sermons | Tags: , | Posted on September 11, 2022

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  1. by Barbara Messner

    On September 11, 2022

    I love the way in which you have used the last verse of my poem in your sermon. I’m honoured.

  2. by holycrosshilo

    On September 12, 2022

    Thank you so much! You said it so brilliantly; I’m grateful.

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