There's a long tradition in Judaism. It's a tradition of complaining. Of course, the Jewish people don't have a monopoly on the art of moaning...we are all capable of it from time to time! But its something which emerges time and time again in Jewish literature.
Sometimes there are things to moan about - undoubtedly. I was moaning last night about an appalling system of finding a way to pay online for Elizabeth Bain-Doodu's ticket to the UK! But there was a particular kind of moaning which really got under Jesus' skin...it was the kind of moaning done by religious people who are sure that God loves them, but that he would be far from happy about some other people!
At the beginning of today's Gospel story, we hear that all sorts of "tax collectors and sinners" were coming near to Jesus to listen to him. The text goes on: "Now the Pharisees and the Scribes were grumbling and saying "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them!" Jesus response is to tell them the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin.
On the surface, these parables are well known to us. At a simple, basic level they teach us that God and the Angels in heaven rejoice over every lost soul which turns to God. But there's something more going on in this story...something, like most Gospel readings, which has the power to challenge us.
As human beings, we have a tendency to judge others - don't we? We are awfully quick to jump to conclusions about the motives of other people. I hear a lot of it, as a priest. People will complain to me about another person, convinced that such a such a person has behaved in a particular way because of some negative characteristic. Such and such a person is said to be 'nasty' or 'cruel' or 'lazy'. Such and such a person 'should have remembered what I told them a few weeks ago...but they forgot. They don't care'. And so it goes on. Time and time again, we are all capable of ascribing attributes to other people - even though we have no idea what made them appear to act the way they did. Perhaps they were stressed. Perhaps they were tired. Perhaps they were distracted. Perhaps they were simply mis-understood. But we feel, don't we, that we have the right to judge them...to complain about them, to moan.
At the same time, we recognise that we are failing human beings ourselves. All of us know, don't we, that we are capable of being all the things that we accuse others of being. We are all capable of being stressed, tired, distracted, mis-understood, uncaring. And we confess that to God...we pray for God's mercy on us. We seek his forgiveness and healing, because we know that we need it. But, as failing human beings, whilst we seek mercy and understanding for our failings, we too often seek justice and retribution for the failings of others.
There's an old Native American saying which is worth us remembering: "Never judge another man until you have walked a mile in his moccasins".
And the challenge of these parables, which Jesus told to those grumbling Pharisees and Scribes, is this: Jesus calls us to celebrate with God, because God has been merciful not only to us, but to others as well - even to those we would not otherwise have accepted into our fellowship.
There's an old Jewish story which tells of the good fortune of a hard-working farmer. The Lord appeared to him one day, and granted him three wishes, but with the condition that whatever the Lord did for the farmer would be given double to his neighbour. The farmer, scarcely believing his good fortune, wished for 100 hundred cattle. Immediately he received a hundred cattle, and he was overjoyed...until he saw that his neighbour had received two hundred. So he wished for a hundred acres of land, and again he was filled with joy until he saw that his neighbour had two hundred acres! Rather than celebrating God's goodness, the farmer could not escape feeling jealous and slighted because his neighbour had received more than he. Finally, he stated his third wish: that God would strike him blind in one eye. And God wept.
The parables of the lost sheep, told to those grumbling religious-types, expose the grudging spirit that prevents us from receiving God's mercy. Only those who (like the Angels in heaven) can celebrate God's grace to others, can truly experience that grace for themselves.
So what does this mean for us? What is the challenge that we might take away with us today? First, it is surely the challenge to stop judging other people. We know ourselves from the inside - we know every thought and emotion that flickers through our brain. We know ourselves, subjectively. But we can only ever know our brother or sister objectively - that is from the outside skin that they portray to the world. We cannot know what their upbringing has done to the person they are. We cannot know the stresses they are coping with today. We cannot know what has happened to them, and what has affected them, even in the last five minutes...let alone the last day, week, month or year. What right does any one of us have to judge another person?
Secondly, we are challenged to be like the Angels in heaven who celebrate God's grace for others. God's grace is extended to everyone of his sheep - and even most especially to the very lost of sheep. So the next time you encounter someone who doesn't think like you do, perhaps even about the most important of theological issues - don't refrain from celebrating the fact that they too are experiencing God's grace. Whoever that person is, whatever their beliefs and background, if they are communicating to you that they have found God, rejoice with the Angels in heaven. Perhaps they are a Muslim, who believes that God loves them. Rejoice. Don't judge. Perhaps they are a Buddhist, or a Hindu, or Pagan. If their life reflects the grace of God - if there is kindness and love in their being...rejoice with the Angels. They may not have understood God correctly yet...but are you so sure that you've got God taped down? I'm sure I haven't!
Those of us who regularly spend time in the Community Cafe, downstairs, know that from time to time we encounter some very damaged individuals. All of human life passes through the door of our cafe...and I frankly wish that more of you were there to see it and encounter it. There are young mums with restless babies. There are elderly people seeking a friendly word and an encounter with someone - just someone - someone to help drive back the lonliness of living alone. There are people with mental health issues. There are people coping with alcohol or drug dependency. There are people whose personal hygiene perhaps leaves something to be desired! There are workers, and there are lay-abouts. There are creative geniuses, and there are committed volunteers. Time and time again, what we see in the cafe, are small signs of grace. Someone will lay a hand on a shoulder - and a smile will light up a face. Rejoice with the Angels. Someone will offer a lift home to a neighbour, or someone will set up a craft-session in the corner. Rejoice with the Angels. Someone will dig deep, and give money for the work of the cafe - generosity flowing outwards - rejoice. Someone will spend an hour, patiently listening to the old lady with no teeth who can hardly get her words out...just loving her, listening to her. Rejoice with the Angels.
God's grace is at work in everyone. God never stops looking for the lost sheep, or the lost coin. He never stops igniting little fires of wonder in the hearts of his children - even the most apparently unlikely ones.
I tell you, there is more joy in heaven over one lost soul who turns - even an inch -towards God than over ninety-nine Churchgoers who are already secure in their salvation. Let's join in the celebration of God, by walking alongside those who are beginning to turn to God - even as we learn how to get better at turning - at repenting. Let's never judge them...judgement is the job of God, not something he delegates to us. Instead, let's love them, and celebrate every spark of God that shines through.