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The Lost and the Rejoicing

Luke 15:1-10

I hate being lost. Not just dislike. I seriously hate being lost … which is a shame, because I do it rather frequently, or at least I did until smart phones came along. I am geographically impaired, directionally challenged—whatever you want to call it, you can turn me around twice and I’m lost. So when I read this story about the shepherd searching for the lost sheep, it is not hard for me to imagine myself as the one who is lost. I can see myself—metaphorically, at least—as a lone, confused sheep, out on the ledge, longing for Jesus to come and find me and take me home.

That’s what sheep do, I’m told. One scholar says, “When a sheep discovers that it has become lost, it simply lies down and bleats. Once the shepherd picks up the sound of the traumatized sheep, he or she follows the sound until the sheep is found.”[1] Other experts say that sometimes the sheep won’t make a noise at all, for fear of being found by predators instead of the shepherd. Either way, “The sheep is traumatized, [so] it cannot walk. So the shepherd has to put the sheep on his or her shoulders and bring the sheep back to their home.”[2] Yep, that’s me. Come and get me, Jesus! I’m lost. Again.

This is not how Jesus’ audience responded to his words. The scripture begins: Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” The religious leaders of the time would not have had the concept that we’re all sinners. The term “sinners” refers to people who are so habitually sinful that everyone knows. These people may have been unclean, and as you know, following dietary laws was crucial to maintaining a Jewish person’s own holiness. Table fellowship also implied approval of the people with whom you were eating. So to the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus was breaking or at least being dismissive with important laws that God had given them.

In response to their muttering, Jesus told these parables. He started with a metaphor of God as a shepherd. This was not a shocking image–God is often referred to as the shepherd of Israel in the Hebrew Scriptures. But by this time period, shepherds were not viewed highly. They often were looked down upon as dirty and shiftless. So Jesus’ use of a shepherd metaphor—though not surprising—was not particularly pleasing to Jesus’ audience. But then it got worse. Then Jesus used the metaphor of a woman representing God. Now that was heretical! A dirty, shiftless thief of a shepherd was bad enough. But a woman?! The religious leaders surely would have been outraged.

They would have been further outraged by the idea that God would rejoice more for the lost than for them, the righteous. That’s just not right. It’s like someone pointed out in Leisurely Lectionary this week—the child who finally gets the right answer after 10 tries gets praised, while the child who got it right the first time gets nothing. It’s not fair.

But you see, that really wasn’t their problem. The real problem for them is that they put themselves in the place of the 99 sheep left behind, of the 9 coins still safe in the moneybag. After all, they haven’t wandered away like some stupid sheep. They are surely not lying in a dusty corner like a lost coin. They have no idea that they are lost. And so they have no idea that the shepherd God, the woman God, is looking for them.

Some of us are lost like the sheep. Maybe we have wandered away. Maybe it was intentional or maybe we didn’t mean to. We simply weren’t paying attention, and we followed a tempting patch of grass . . . and another, and another, and until suddenly we found ourselves all alone. Or maybe life circumstances left us feeling lost and alone.

Others of us are lost like the woman’s lost coin. We got dropped or we fell through the cracks or something knocked us out of our place of belonging, and we feel invisible to passers-by. We don’t feel like we’re worth very much, so we’re probably just going to be left here in the corner. But it sure would be nice if someone considered us valuable enough to look for us.

There are lots of ways to be lost, and in the first draft of this sermon I went on for a while about some of those ways … lost in the past, lost in worries about the future, blah blah blah. But then I remembered something I read—a warning of sorts—on a website called “Working Preacher.” The posts each week are written to preachers, and this week’s post went like this:

“On my first read of the Gospel lesson with you in mind, I could not help but imagine the many ways of and bases for feeling lost that those who will gather in your worship space this weekend will bring. They will hear ‘lost’ and quickly abandon attention to your sermon so as to ponder their own sense of lostness. They will be reminded about those in their lives who are lost, the reasons for which being as varied as they are. They will note the tenacity of the shepherd and the woman in searching for the lost sheep and the lost coin respectively and question why no one searches for them.”[3]

If this writer is correct, then there’s not much point in preaching about all the ways we’re lost because you’re already ahead of me. So I want to pause and make room for this question. When have you been lost—not physically but metaphorically? I want you to think about that experience for a moment—to name it for yourself, and to remember how it felt.

(Pause)

Nod at me if you can think of such a time. I imagine most of us can think of a time when we felt lost. I’m going to guess that some of these times were when someone we love died, or we went through a divorce or a job loss, when we struggled with depression, anxiety, or addiction, or when, because of our own choices, we felt ourselves to be morally adrift.

Maybe you experienced this a long time ago, and maybe you’re there now. We all experience those times. And if we haven’t, then, most likely, we will. It’s part of life, and Jesus knew it. And the sinners and tax collectors around the table certainly knew it. And the scribes and Pharisees knew it, even if they didn’t want to admit it. There are lots of ways to be lost.

The good news is, the shepherd doesn’t stand in the pasture and yell, “Get back here you stupid sheep!” The woman doesn’t stand with broom in hand and yell, “Jump back in the bag, you dumb coin!” God comes looking for us.

And here’s the real kicker: God looks for the one. Jesus asks, “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?” Well, actually, none of us would do such a thing because it’s foolish. “Logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Or the one.”[4] You don’t leave 99 perfectly good followers alone in the wilderness in order to get that one ornery sheep who left. That’s not good management. “It’s terrible economics if you’re looking to protect your investment, but life-giving if you are among the lost.”[5]

Earlier I said that some of us feel like the lost coin—we don’t feel like we’re worth very much, but it sure would be nice if someone considered us valuable enough to look for us. The good news is, Somebody does. Somebody did. God turned the world upside down until earth became heaven, until Divinity became Humanity until the stars at our feet guided us Home. When we are found, God throws a party—a divine celebration where the angels sing and all creation dances. All because you are found.

So far I’ve only covered one possible way we can read this passage: as if we are the lost. But Jesus told the parable in response to the scribes and Pharisees. “If for the sinners and tax collectors, doubters and skeptics, these parables are about being found, for the Pharisees and scribes they are stories about learning to rejoice.”[6] The religious leaders were not happy about who was in the crowd—these people who live on the fringe of society. And for those who have never felt lost—or acknowledged their own lostness—it is so easy to judge those who are. But “Jesus understands that those on the fringe of the community are integral to what the community in all its fullness should be.”[7] Nobody is unworthy or unwelcome or unredeemable.

I’m reminded of a man who lived across the street from one of the churches I used to serve. He caused us a lot of problems for us in the community. He called our plow guy and pretended to be us, telling him not to plow so early in the morning. He kept neighborhood teenagers from using our basketball goal in the parking lot because he didn’t like the noise. And then one day we had the nerve to put up a sign welcoming children to the playground. He was furious because it attracted, and I quote, “undesirables” to the neighborhood. I was stunned, but I finally stuttered, “They’re children. There are no undesirable children!”

God says the same thing: these are my children. There are no undesirable children. And so we’re called to rejoice, to join the celebration, even if those coming to the table don’t look like us or think like us or act like us. I am imagining again, but I can almost hear you saying “of course, naturally, we welcome everyone.” But this scripture forces us to ask ourselves again: do we really? as a church and as individuals? Do we offer the same welcome to people who come here, regardless of their appearance? Do we honor all of who they are, and not just the comfortable parts? Do we as individuals celebrate growth even if it means change? or only because if there are more people to do the work, we can do less?

On a larger scale, do we rejoice at the thought of God forgiving people we don’t? Do we cringe at the thought of God loving people we despise? And if we cannot celebrate their found-ness, we’re saying God’s mercy is offensive.

“Salvation consists not purely or even primarily in rescue, but in being drawn into the eternal celebration. For the Pharisees (and of every critical, naysaying voice in the church) the question becomes, ‘Who are you ready to party with?’ If the answer is ‘We don’t party,’ or ‘We don’t party with them,’ then those righteous ones will have ceded … the role of the kingdom” to the pub.”[8] (Cheers—where everybody knows your name and they’re always glad you came.)

If we cannot welcome all, if we draw lines between us and them, if we allow prejudice a foothold in our heart, if we promote discrimination or hatred of any kind, then we are lost sheep. Excluding others is just another way of being lost.

If you are feeling lost today, I want to remind you: The shepherd is coming. The woman is sweeping. You will not remain lost. Let us help find you. And when you are brought back to the fold, when you know your value is recognized, all of heaven will rejoice. And so will we.

Let’s get this party started!

 

[1] Page, Charles. “The Parables of Luke 15.” Lectionary Homiletics: Back Issues Plus!

[2] Ibid.

[3] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4708

[4] Quote from Star Trek: The Wrath of Kahn.

[5] Bellan-Boyer, Paul. “Don’t let Jesus manage your money.” www.citycalledheaven.blogspot.com.

[6] Bader-Saye, Scott. Feasting on the Word Year C, Volume 4.

[7] Debevoise, Helen Montgomery. Feasting on the Word Year C, Volume 4.

[8] Bader-Saye, Scott.

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