This text is used for the Lectionary Year C on September 11th, 2016.
In the churches in which I grew up, we thought the “lost” consisted of everyone who was not in a church like ours on Sunday morning—and maybe a few that were. The preacher’s first job when preaching the parables of the lost sheep and lost coin is convincing listeners that these stories are about us. We feel lost and want to be found. Jesus is talking to us.
Jesus is having dinner with a crowd that is lost and wants to be found, but has not recognized it yet—tax collectors and sinners, low-downs and no-accounts. Every once in a while the ones who think themselves the best and brightest complain about the way Jesus treats the worst and dimmest like they are long-lost friends, “Why are you eating with these people?”
Jesus tries yet again to explain: “God is a shepherd with a hundred sheep who loses one because sheep are always wandering off. Ninety-nine out of a hundred sounds pretty good. Most shepherds wouldn’t be upset, but God leaves the ninety-nine in the wilderness—where they are vulnerable to wolves, wandering off, and lots of other mischief—to go out in the dark to find the poor lost thing. God beats the bushes because no one is expendable.”
This good shepherd tramps about in the pasture watches for briars and listens for snakes. He finally hears the lost one crying and puts it on his shoulders. One of the neighbors asks, “Why did you risk leaving ninety-nine to go looking for just one?” God replies, “Let’s have a party.” Jesus looks at the religious crowd and asks, “Do you get it?”
They do not, so Jesus tries again: “God is a woman who has lost a silver dollar. She still has nine left. Losing one isn’t going to break her, and yet she acts as if it’s all she has. She pulls up the carpet in her living room, moves the table out of the kitchen, and the couch into the front yard. She searches relentlessly until she sees the coin that has rolled into the corner. God runs out into the yard and calls to everybody in street, ‘Let’s have a party.’ Now do you get it?”
God’s purpose is to drag everybody into the party—saints and sinners alike. Jesus eats with anybody because everybody is lost and needs to be found. Jesus seldom called people “sinners.” He called them “lost.” Lost is more concern than condemnation.
Some days we feel more lost than found, more wrong than right. We have acted like sheep wandering off. We have been as helpless as coins falling to the floor. We have felt like the percussionist in a string quartet like we have lettuce stuck in our teeth, and like we are a few points short on the “Are you a good person?” test.
So many things make us feel lost: the sudden loss of a job, debts you wonder if you will ever pay, a disabled child, the pain of a broken marriage, a long illness, an unrequited love, and the loss of someone we love. We feel lost when we realize that we do not do what we want to do. We feel lost when we get what we thought we wanted, and it is not enough. We feel lost when we lose our patience, purpose, or sense of humor. We feel frustrated, weary, and troubled. We wander off and cannot think of any reason anybody should come looking for us.
The Shepherd is walking through the thickets in the middle of a stormy night. The woman is looking for the needle in the haystack, diligently sweeping the dust out of the way, shining a light in the dark corners. God keeps seeking our company. God is trying to show us the good life. God looks for us through people, prayer, and worship. God is a hope that pursues us, a comfort that gathers us home, and love that embraces us.
We are never as indifferent to God as we might think, for the lostness we feel is the longing for grace. We need to pay attention to the whispers of God’s love because we are not deaf to the sound of God’s voice. We can live in grace beyond what we understand.
When we accept the truth that God accepts us, the parts that embarrass us do not usually vanish, but they are changed in the light of grace. We do not suddenly lose our short tempers, sharp tongues, and talents for self-promotion, but we are found by a goodness that helps us accept all that we are. We learn to rely on God more than we rely on ourselves.
God knows that we have problems letting go of everything of which we need to let go, of doing all that we think we should do, and of becoming all that we think we should be. What we most need is to do nothing at all. We most need to let ourselves be loved. We need to let God punch our ticket forgiven and join the party. The one gift that matters is God’s grace.
God cares passionately that we be well and that we find our way home. God keeps searching for everyone who is lost—lost sheep, lost coins, lost insurance agents, lost teachers, lost mothers, lost daughters, lost preachers, lost people like us. Preachers need to share what it is be lost and what it is to be found. The Gospel we proclaim is the story of wandering off yet always being sought, wounded yet healed, confused yet cared for, broken-hearted yet loved, foolish yet forgiven, and lost yet found.
Plymouth Church, Brooklyn, New York
Tags: lost, found, the good shepherd, grace