Our readings from Acts during this season of Eastertide have given us a glimpse of the early church. We have seen a healing miracle provide a way for disciples of Jesus to tell others about their personal experience of Christ’s resurrection. Thousands have come to believe in Jesus. Last week, we saw the Holy Spirit nudge Philip to follow a chariot on its way to Gaza. That encounter changed Philip as much as the man in the chariot. The Holy Spirit is on the move.
It’s a common practice for schools to encourage parents to check the Lost and Found collection during Parent/Teacher conferences. One year, to attract parents to the area where the Lost and Found items were displayed, an administrator posted a sign at a school’s entrance that caught everyone’s attention. A simple stick figure had been made from scraps of wood. The mannequin was propped in a pair of snow boots that had been stuffed with Lost and Found gym socks. It wore a pair of Lost and Found sweatpants, a Lost and Found jacket, a hat and scarf and gloves – all from the Lost and Found. Hanging from one “arm” was a lunch box. The other carried a backpack. A sign was pinned to the front of the scarecrow that read “Are you missing something? Do I belong to you?”
As Jesus continues on his journey toward Jerusalem, followed by those crowds that include people of every description, his teaching is becoming more and more intense. Last week, we heard him insist that no one could follow him who had not renounced everything else – family, wealth, or reputation – for the sake of being a disciple of Jesus. Scribes and Pharisees had challenged Jesus, but they were still part of the crowd. At first they had come out of curiosity. Later, they came to discredit this new, unauthorized teaching. Now they were following Jesus with the intent of catching him in some heresy. Whatever their reason for being there, people came and listened. As they listened, they asked questions about the things Jesus said that didn’t make sense to them. And there were plenty of questions!
Over the past few weeks, we have already seen how Luke’s gospel is filled with examples of the many ways Jesus challenged the status quo. The theme of reversal threads its way throughout Luke’s story, and by now, it should come as no surprise that Jesus is going to flip things topsy-turvy whenever he opens his mouth. As the scribes and Pharisees listened to Jesus, they wondered where did he get authority to say such things? Were they missing something? Did Jesus belong to God? And if he did, did they? Hear the Word of the Lord, as found in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 15, verses 1-10:
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.”
The three parables that make up chapter fifteen all focus on the central theme of the lost getting found, and the joy that is shared in the finding. Many scholars believe they were told as a single unit from the beginning of the Christian era, passed along through the oral tradition that Luke used to compile his gospel account. Today’s reading focuses on the first two of these parables, saving the parable of the prodigal son for the season of Lent. As I read these stories again and again, I am struck by the realization that, in order for the lost to be found, it had to belong to someone first. The lost sheep was not a wild sheep that the shepherd happened upon and added to his flock. That sheep had belonged to the shepherd from the beginning, and had strayed away. The coin that the woman lost had been part of her life savings. It belonged to her. When she found it, she rejoiced with her neighbors that something of her very own had been restored to her. When Jesus told these stories, he was describing things that had once been where they belonged, but had somehow gone missing.
As you ponder that thought, you might be thinking of things that have gone missing from your life over the years. Maybe you have lost touch with people who were once dear to you. Perhaps you have allowed a broken relationship to remain broken, and you have lost the sense of freedom that comes with forgiving and being forgiven.
Maybe you have lost the habit of reading God’s Word on a daily basis, or the diligent practice of prayer. Maybe you have lost faith in God, wondering how God could allow evil to persist in the world. Perhaps you’ve lost purpose, or joy, or the assurance that you belong to a loving God who cares for you. Whatever you’ve lost, Jesus tells these stories to you, just as surely as he told them to his disciples and the crowds around him as he traveled to Jerusalem.
Remember that Jesus was responding to the grumbling he heard from the scribes and Pharisees, as they complained about the company he was keeping. In last week’s passage, Jesus ate with a respectable Pharisee, but this week, he has accepted hospitality from the opposite end of the social spectrum. Those Pharisees who entertained Jesus a few verses ago are now upset because he also eats with sinners and tax collectors. (Apparently, tax collectors were in their own class of sinfulness, apart from regular sinners such as liars, adulterers, murderers, and thieves.)
Yet, while these righteous teachers and leaders are criticizing Jesus for hanging out with the wrong crowd, Jesus is trying to teach them a short lesson in how the Kingdom of God really works. He isn’t too worried about the people who already believe in God and worship God. Jesus is concerned about the ones who have been excluded, the ones who are lost.
So he tells two stories, and the main character in each of them is someone from the bottom of the social ladder. Shepherds were notoriously despised in Jewish society. They could not be called upon as witnesses, because they weren’t trusted to tell the truth. They were considered no better than robbers, partly because they sometimes tended to let their sheep wander onto land that belonged to someone else. In the parable of the lost coin, it’s a woman who searches diligently for her silver drachma. Women had no social standing at all in first century Palestine, and were completely dependent on their fathers or husbands. They too could not serve as witnesses, not because they were considered dishonest and untrustworthy like shepherds, but because they were not considered at all. Yet, here Jesus uses these two outcast figures to demonstrate how carefully God searches for his own, how diligently he pursues his children, how joyfully God celebrates whenever one of his lost ones repents, and returns to be loved and embraced.
It’s easy, sometimes, to get lost in the details of one of Jesus’ stories. We can get caught up in trying to assign specific meaning to each element. What does the coin stand for? Who does the shepherd or the woman represent? What is the significance of sheep, instead of, say, cattle? Jesus wasn’t too concerned about these issues. When Jesus told these two parables, and the one that follows about the prodigal son, his focus was on the certainty of searching, and the celebration at finding what was lost.
Neither the searching nor the celebration was really new to the crowds listening to Jesus. They had heard, and maybe even sung Psalm 27:
“One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple. … Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud; be gracious to me and answer me! You have said, “Seek my face.” My heart says to you, “Your face, Lord, do I seek.”
And the idea of God doing the searching was also not new to them. They were intimately familiar with Psalm 139: “O Lord, you have searched me and known me.” The reading we heard from Jeremiah today describes a God who searches for any who are good, any who are righteous, but a God who finds a world lost completely to evil. Within a few years, the Apostle Paul would write to his friend Timothy of his own dependence on God to find him in his lost-ness. Time and again, we get lost, and time and again, God searches for us to bring us home.
Here’s the thing: We belong to God. When we stray, lose our way, or even run away from God, he will persistently look for us, and he is always ready to welcome us back home with joy, because he loves us. God wants us to be in loving relationship with him, because that is how he created us. We are his; we belong to God. The question each of us must answer is simply this: do we want to be lost, or do we want to be found? We can choose to stay lost and suffer the consequences of our rebellion against God’s love for us. But Jesus came to restore us to God, to bring us home to the one who loves us more than we can possibly imagine.
You don’t have to run away from God to be lost. Even if you do everything in your own power to be right, you can still be lost. To get found, you have to turn toward God, and away from everything else. Last week, Jesus challenged us to give up everything that matters to us most, in order to put him first and be his true disciple.
Getting found requires admitting that we belong to God, and being willing to live our lives in a way that shows others we belong to God. And that means that, when we see people turning to God who might not be our idea of “good,” we welcome them into the family with open arms, just as Jesus welcomed sinners AND Pharisees; just as God welcomes us.
Jesus is saying that sinners and tax collectors, the scum of society, all belong to God, just as much as anyone, and God is eager to restore all of us to himself. Once we accept that we belong to God and choose to serve him, we can’t slam the door in other people’s faces. It’s our job to hold the door open for everyone, even those we might consider outcasts. Especially those we might consider to be outcasts. We are to rejoice with God whenever one of these outcasts ‘gets found’ because all are precious to God. And we are also to join with God in the work of finding lost ones, and pointing them toward Christ.
The parables were given to religious insiders – Pharisees and scribes. Whether or not we want to admit it, we fall into that category, too. We are the religious insiders in our society. And if we read these parables closely, we may realize that the ones who need to repent are the ones hearing the story. A coin or a sheep cannot repent. Perhaps Jesus is asking us to repent, as members of the “already found” group of insiders. Perhaps Jesus is asking us to repent of our smugness, our complacency, our failure to include sinners and tax collectors as part of “us.”
Verse one says that the sinners and tax collectors were “coming near” to Jesus – and that can be threatening to insiders. We don’t want to lose our place in the inner circle, or be shoved out of our spot at the head of the table. But Jesus says there’s room for everyone who seeks him in the Kingdom of God. And he also reminds us that the ones he seeks are already near to him. If they were going to shove you out of your spot, it would have happened by now. So, instead of fretting over keeping your place near Jesus, he invites you to rejoice with him that another has been found! The table keeps getting bigger! Quick, draw up another chair and welcome into your midst the ones Jesus welcomes!
It’s easy to focus on the redemption of the “lost” around us, and we should be joining God in the search for those he seeks to bring home. But our role in this search is different from God’s part. Jesus says, “The Son of Man came to seek and to save that which was lost.” It’s God’s job to search and save. It’s our job to search and welcome. Theologian Penny Nixon writes, “Religious insiders are often more comfortable with saving the lost than welcoming those whom they perceive to be lost. Saving is about power, whereas welcoming is about intimacy.”
Christ calls us to welcome the outcast, because we were once outcasts. Christ calls us to rejoice when one of the least of these discovers that this is home! Christ calls us to fully embrace each person he brings into our midst – not as a project to be worked on, but as one of us, redeemed by God’s grace alone.
Remember the Lost and Found scarecrow’s sign? “Are you missing something? Do I belong to you?” If you feel lost, know that God wants to pull you out of the Lost and Found box, and bring you home. If you know you’ve been found, it’s time to welcome others into the family of God, into the life and community of this congregation. It’s time to rejoice over each one of us whom God has found. Amen.