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.”
So he told them this parable: “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? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
As kids we all knew about “the line”—the line you were not supposed to cross. Oh, it was an invisible line, but most of us knew where it was most of the time. And we also knew how different kids reacted to the line. Some kids would step back and say, “There’s the line, up there, and I’m not getting anywhere near it.” Some kids would see just how close they could get without crossing it. Others would have to see what happened when they put a toe over. Then there are the kids who run straight through it and say, “What line? There was a line?”
I don’t know that Jesus fell into these categories, but he was a line-crosser. Not out of rebellion or disrespect. He just thought the lines were not nearly as important as the people who stood on the other side of them. So he healed people he wasn’t supposed to touch. And he ate with people he wasn’t supposed to be seen with. And he chose mercy over strict adherence to rules. And the religious leaders of the day didn’t like it one bit. They grumbled, saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So Jesus told them these parables.
He started with a metaphor that presents God as a shepherd. This is not a shocking image–God is often referred to as the shepherd of Israel in the Hebrew Scriptures. But the Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels says that by this era, shepherds were considered a despised occupation. “Being away from home at night, they were unable to protect their women, hence [were] considered dishonorable. In addition they often were considered thieves because they grazed their flocks on other people’s property.” Basically Jesus was asking the scribes and Pharisees to imagine themselves not as respected religious leaders, but as thieves and dishonorable men. And then it got worse. Then Jesus used the metaphor of a woman representing God. Now that was insulting!
The real problem for the scribes and Pharisees is that they put themselves in the place of the 99 sheep left behind, or the 9 coins still safe in the moneybag. After all, they hadn’t wandered away like some stupid sheep. They were surely not lying in a dusty corner like a lost coin. They had no idea that they are lost. And so they had no idea that the shepherd God, the woman God, was looking for them.
In 2011 I was the co-chair of the Welcome Table at General Synod, which is the national gathering of the United Church of Christ. One of our tasks was serving as the keeper of the Lost and Found box. On the last day of the conference a woman came to tell us she had found a wallet, but she wouldn’t give it to us. We assured her that we would keep a careful eye on it, and we would ask for proof before we gave it to the owner. But that didn’t help . . . because she didn’t trust US. She flat-out said so. She wouldn’t even give us the name of the person whose wallet she’d found. All she would do is give us HER name, and anybody who lost a wallet was supposed to call her to identify it. My co-chair said to her, “I’m really sorry that you don’t trust us.” The woman snapped, “Well, I’m not sorry! I’ve been burned too many times. I don’t trust anybody!” That’s when I felt sorry for her. The wallet wasn’t nearly as lost as she was. And she didn’t even know it.
There are lots of ways to be lost.
Some of us are lost like the sheep. We have wandered away. We didn’t mean to; it was not a deliberate act of rebellion. 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.
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. Whatever the cause, we are all alone—at least we feel all alone—hidden by layers of life-dust until 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.
Some of us are lost in the past, whether it was good or whether it was bad. We castigate ourselves for mistakes we made, unable or unwilling to accept the forgiveness God has already granted. Or we languish in memories of days gone by, when life was sweeter and more beautiful, only to miss the tiny sweetness of each second. When we live in the past, we get lost in the “what ifs” and “if onlys” and we miss God’s “yes, but!”
Some of us are lost in the future. We spend so much time worrying about things that might not even happen that we have no energy for what is happening today. Or we focus so hard on what we’re going to make of ourselves, that we aren’t making anything of ourselves in the present. When we live in the future, we get lost in the “somedays” and miss God’s “right now.”
Some of us are lost in indecision and fear and uncertainty. We want the answers, and we want them now, darn it! We want everything plotted and planned and articulated and we end up made powerless by our own insistence upon certainty.
Some of us are lost even among people we love. We made compromises because that’s what you’re supposed to do in relationship, right? Only we sacrificed little parts of who we are, this part after that and on and on until we don’t even know ourselves anymore.
There are lots of ways to be lost. And there is one spectacular way to be found.
Episcopal priest Rick Morley points out that the scripture begins, “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?” His answer is: “Nobody. No one does this. No one would ever do that. If you lose 1% of your holdings, you don’t risk losing the 99% of your holdings to get it back. By leaving the 99, you risk them roaming off, being stolen, or being killed and eaten by a wolf. No one leaves the 99.”
The scripture asks, “Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, `Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Again he answers, “Nobody. No one does this. You don’t call friends and neighbors together for a celebration only to spend more money feeding and entertaining them than what you found was worth.
Nobody does this. Except Jesus. Jesus does this. Jesus leaves the 99 to search for the lost. Jesus sweeps the house and then throws a party when the lost are found. It’s totally and thoroughly [illogical]. And, that’s why the Gospel is such Good News.”
A wonderful song from the musical Evan Hansen has these words:
Have you ever felt like nobody was there?
Have you ever felt forgotten in the middle of nowhere?
Have you ever felt like you could disappear?
Like you could fall, and no one would hear?
Well, let that lonely feeling wash away
Maybe there’s a reason to believe you’ll be okay
‘Cause when you don’t feel strong enough to stand
You can reach, reach out your hand
And oh, someone will come running
And I know, they’ll take you home
Even when the dark comes crashing through
When you need a friend to carry you
And when you’re broken on the ground
You will be found
So let the sun come streaming in
‘Cause you’ll reach up and you’ll rise again
Lift your head and look around
You will be found
It’s a beautiful song full of hopeful thinking if we’re relying on humans. It’s a promise if we’re relying on God.
Earlier I said that the pharisees’ problem was that they saw themselves only as part of the 99 sheep or the 9 coins, the ones smart enough to not get lost. I think the challenge for us is the opposite. Yes, sometimes we are lost, and I’ve just spent 9/10ths my sermon pointing that out. But we also are the 99 sheep, the 9 coins, the community that creates space for the return of those who wandered off, and we welcome them back without judgment on their journey. We need to welcome not just the ones who strayed, but the ones who have lived their entire lives in the ravine or on the edge of that cliff, not knowing there is a community who would welcome them because some other flock told them they weren’t acceptable. We need to create a space that welcomes not only the ones who aren’t here yet, but the ones who don’t even know they want to be. We are the 99 and the 1 and the shepherd. We are the 9 and the 1 and the woman. We get lost. We get found. We seek. We wait. We get to do it all. We are all sheep in our shepherd-God’s fold. We are all coins in our woman-God’s purse. Let us find and be found.
 The Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, p. 232.