Sermon on Luke 15:1-1, for Pentecost + 17, 24th Ordinary C, September 15, 2013,
1 Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow
welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3 So he told them this parable: 4 “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? 5 When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6 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.’ 7 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. 8 “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? 9 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.’ 10 Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
There is that moment when you realize that what you expected to see is not what you are seeing, and it means you are not where you thought you were, and you realize that you do not know where you are. Suddenly your brain goes into full alert. Instantly it starts firing questions: What happened? Where was I when I last knew where I was? Should I go back or is there a way to get back on the path from here?
I would love to see a brain scan of a person in the exact moment that she or he discovers they are lost. That moment feels terrible. Often times it comes either with bad words coming out of your mouth, or a great mental effort to stop them. I’m sure the scan would show a flood of activity in the amygdala; instant fear. Stress hormones pour into the bloodstream. Not good.
I live in the Lake Forest subdivision in Daphne. On a map, the streets look like a bowl of spaghetti. People have been known to wander, circling around illogical loops and cul-de-sacs for years before being rescued (small joke). My street even confuses GPS devices (not a joke). When I’m giving directions to my house, as soon as I mention “Lake Forest” people always have this look on their faces: dread. The human brain can picture the future state of being lost, and the brain reacts, even when it hasn’t happened yet.
Worse than being lost
But there are worse things to be than lost. It’s much worse to be lost and not know it. This is why parents of toddlers have to be so careful. I just read a woman describing how a two year old toddler in her family wandered off when no one was looking, and just kept walking and walking, for a whole mile. It never occurred to her to turn around after a while when she didn’t reach home as expected. She just kept walking, not realizing that she was getting further and further away. A friendly neighborhood grocer recognized her, so that story had a happy ending. (the story is told by Kathryn Matthews Huey in “Sermon Seeds” UCC lectionary reflections, available here)
Jesus’ Entourage of Lost Souls
Jesus was surrounded by people who had figured out that they were lost. They were people with a past. They had done things; they had reputations, maybe even tattoos they didn’t remember getting. They had memories they wished they didn’t have.
Somehow, these lost folks had that moment of epiphany and had realized they were lost. Somehow they finally got it that further progress in the same direction was only getting them further and further lost, so an about-face was in order. They had met Jesus; everything changed.
Sheep and Coins: Getting Found
How did they reach this lost-realization condition? I love the way Jesus tells the stories of lostness; he uses a sheep and a coin as examples. How do they get found?
People who know sheep tell us that when threatened or fearful, they tend to hide quietly, hoping not to be seen or heard by potential predators. It’s the rolly-polly bug method of avoiding danger.
Similarly, the coin just sits there in the darkness, of course, what else can a coin do? In both cases, neither the coin nor the sheep cry out. They don’t contribute to being found, they are simply found. It is the action of the searcher that matters: the shepherd who combs the hillsides and the lady with the lamp and the broom. These are stories about God’s grace at work, taking the initiative, not waiting for preconditions to be met.
But although there are no preconditions, no action that the lost ones need to take, nevertheless, they do recognize that they are lost. If not the sheep or the coin, at least the real people who Jesus welcomed to his table and whom he included recognized their lostness.
Permission to land?
I would like to share a story that Walker Percy tells in his book “Lost in the Cosmos.” It is set in the year 2050. It begins,
“A starship from earth is traveling in the galaxy, its mission to establish communication with extraterrestrial intelligences and civilizations.”
It arrives in orbit around the planet Proxima Centauri or PC3. The earthlings request permission to land, but before permission is given, they must answer the questions that the inhabitants of PC3 put to them.
They have to say which kind of consciousness earthlings possess. They give three possible answers. To be quite brief, they are: 1) innocent; 2) innocence lost, but not knowing it; and 3) lost, but knowing it, and asking for help.
Clearly, all the playing of roles, being phony, lying, cheating, stealing and killing on earth proves that innocence has been lost, but the question remains, do the earthlings realize it? The PC3 people say, “Have you asked for help?” meaning, not self-help, but help from outside? The earthlings admit that they have not. So they are told, “Permission [to land] denied. Please resume your mission or return.” They are considered dangerous: lost but not knowing it.
Here’s the thing: there were two groups of people that Luke puts onstage with Jesus in this scene. One of them has gotten it that they are lost souls, and that God has found them. They are the ones causing all the joy in heaven.
When the Good Shepherd found them quivering under a bush, they didn’t run; they let him scoop them up and sling them over his shoulders and carry them back home.
But there was the other group there that day too. They were not happy at what was happening. To them, lost souls were getting what was coming to them. Lost people like “tax collectors and sinners” had no place at the same table with the not-lost people, in their minds.
There are a couple of ways of being lost. One way is that you don’t know where you are anymore, like the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost folks Jesus welcomed to his table. The other way of being lost is to have no idea where you are going because you have mistaken your destination. This is the lostness of “the Pharisees and the scribes.” This is a profound and tragic kind of lostness.
People who have mistaken the destination still think they are on the right path. And they are willing to put in a lot of effort to make progress getting down the road. But having lost sight of the destination, no amount of diligence is going to help.
What are we doing here? Have we lost sight of the destination? I am tragically aware that there are lots of church people who think that the point of all of this church-stuff we do is to save us from the anger of a wrathful God. They think the destination we are after is being saved from God. This is tragic and deeply mistaken.
How do we know? As always, we rely on Jesus to set us straight about God. What is the Great Seeker after? He is the lady with the light and the broom – why? To find coins to crush? He is the searching shepherd – after what? A lamb to skin? No! God is the seeker whose goal is redemption, not retribution. He and all of heaven has a belly laugh when the lost ones are found and returned.
The only people not laughing in this text are the ones looking down their noses at the others. The ones who don’t get it that they too are lost, because they don’t see the destination. They think the destination is a grade A on a performance test. They don’t get it that A is for All, and that the destination is that all of Gods’s lost souls will gather at his table.
They should have known better.
We will never know for sure if this was in Jesus’ mind or not, but there is a fascinating mention of a lost lamb in the Hebrew bible. It shows up at the oddest possible place. It’s the last line of the longest Psalm. Psalm 119 has 176 verses, all in praise of the Torah; the law of God. Over and over God is praised for giving us ordinances, precepts and statutes. The law is a lamp unto our feet and a light to our path (Psalm 119:105).
But out of nowhere, after 175 verses of praise, the Psalm writer recognizes a problem. Even after all of those laws, he is still lost; a lost sheep. He prays to God:
“I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek out your servant” (Psalm 119:176)
The Table Destination
The final destination was never a legal score card, it is a community, gathered around a table. A community with one thing in common – we know we were all lost, and all have been fond by the Great Seeker, the Good Shepherd, the Lady with the lamp and broom; by God’s grace, by Love.
The call to us lost and found people today is to embrace the destination that Jesus is leading us to: a destination of joy around the table of the foundlings.
There are so many people who feel alienated from that table. The church for many years, has looked a lot more like those grumbling scribes than the happy lost and found lambs. Let those days be over and done with.
Let us join Jesus on his mission to find and welcome every lost soul. But this is going to have serious implications. To welcome someone to the table means we care about them. We cannot sit down beside a homeless person and not care that she is homeless. We cannot sit at table with a child having trouble in school and not care. We cannot look the other way if people are sick and cannot get to a doctor, or cannot afford medicine. Only severely lost people could look the other way without caring.
Some of us are closer to that final destination than others. Let this text be a cause of great joy: we know where we are going. We know who has found us. We have experienced God’s seeking, God’s finding, God’s mercy, and we know when this part of life is over, we will be in a place of joy and goodness. However many days, weeks, months or years we have left, let us be a part of Jesus mission of finding and restoring.
Let us pray for lost souls around us. Let us use our resources to give a hand up to lost souls. And let us advocate in every way we can; let us be the voices for those whose voice is silenced, “the widow, the orphan, and the resident alien” among us, “the least of these brothers of mine” as Jesus taught us. And let us rejoice that we will one day sit beside them, at table, rejoicing that we too were lost, and have been found.