September 15, 2019

Pentecost 14 September 15, 2019 (Ps 23, Exodus 32:7-14, 1 Timothy 1:12-17)

Luke 15:1-10     Lost and Found

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Jesus says “which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one, won’t leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that’s lost? 

We may say “amen!” But will shepherds really leave 99 sheep out in the wilderness? – to seek just one that’s lost?  Not without a mighty good backup shepherd on hand to watch the rest of the flock, I’d think. But Jesus doesn’t mention any precautionary measures – as he expects – ‘of course any of you would immediately get up and go and seek the lost…’ Like the shepherd in the parable, who – When he’s found that lost sheep – lays it on his shoulders rejoicing – comes home, calls his friends, says ‘rejoice with me, I’ve found my sheep that was lost.’

Now I can understand a shepherd being glad to get a lost sheep back alive but – I have a hard time imagining a farmer throwing a party when a lost sheep or cow is found. Farmers I knew up in Vermont might have an extra slice of apple pie, and maybe raise a glass that night – but call the neighbors to come, rejoice,  and have a party? I don’t think so. But – Jesus didn’t ask me – and this is his parable, not mine… And – we probably need to remember –

Shepherd and sheep were familiar metaphors for God and God’s people in Israel. The Lord is my shepherd Psalm 23 says– We are the sheep of his pasture Psalm 100 tells us. So if the shepherd represents God, ok – guess I can  imagine God throwing a party…

And Jesus, expands the metaphor, saying – And what woman with ten coins if she loses one, won’t light the lamp, sweep the room and search till she finds it? And when she finds that coin, won’t she call her friends and neighbors and throw a party, saying ‘rejoice with me, I’ve found my coin that was lost.’”

And again my first thought is – if you’ve lost a day’s wages (the value of the drachma coin Jesus is talking about) and find it again –  I can understand calling friends and sharing the good news – but throwing a party? Maybe end up spending more than you found? Again I don’t think so. But, again – it’s not my parable…

And now I’m remembering earlier this summer hearing from a parishioner whose purse had gone missing – apparently stolen or taken by mistake – while she was helping with our children’s clothing exchange. We prayed for whoever had the purse to bring it back… and…

Next morning I had a call from a leader of the 12-step group that met in the Bourne church the night before – saying the purse that was lost – has been found.  I called Joan to let her know… And she came over immediately to retrieve her  purse and thank the man who reported it found. Rejoicing there was nothing at all missing… And a party happened, spontaneously, in our kitchen, spilling out into the parking lot – all of us thanking God, feeling blessed… because somehow we could feel the connection with what Jesus is talking about in his parables – where lost and found is about much more than a lost coin or purse…. Parables designed to help us hear differently, see from different angles – and join in the chorus about joy in heaven over one sinner who repents.

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Years ago, I asked my mother to write up any family lost-and-found stories she could remember. She wrote (quote:)  “Thinking back on your career, dear heart – there was more than one time we feared you were lost – but always you were found, thank God.”

When I was a toddler, mom said, our family lived for a while in a rented house on a farm in Waltham. I was eager to explore that farm. Somehow, mother said, I pried one of the wooden spokes off my playpen, squeezed out between the spokes, pushed the screen door open, and left the house. There was a very interesting pen full of large pigs nearby that had caught my attention, and I was off to investigate.

Long story short – my parents soon discovered I’d broken out, and ran after me – where they found me outside, heading towards the pig pen. Foreshadowing Prodigal Son episodes-yet-to-come. That time, thanks God, my parents got to me before I got to the pigs. And my mother, God bless her, kept celebrating my safe return all the rest of her life…

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Jesus is eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners again, when we meet up today, and once again religious leaders are complaining about the company he keeps… So Jesus – tells a string of parables, for the benefit, first of all, of these religious leaders grumbling about his behavior – and for disciples, listening, also. A string of three parables with the common theme of lost and found. Talking about a lost sheep – a lost coin – and finally a lost boy – each parable concluding with the same refrain of rejoicing in heaven for what’s been lost, but now is found.

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My mother told me about another time while I was still in the toddler stage, and dad, in college at the time, had a summer job chauffeuring a wealthy elderly widow in Watch Hill, Rhode Island. A great job that came with rent-free use of a cottage by the beach, next door to the big house where the widow lived, with her servants. There was a screen-porch attached to the cottage where I could play by myself, while mom was in the kitchen, just a few feet away.

One day I was out on the porch, playing…but when mom glanced over to check on me, I was gone. It was an old house; I must have pushed on the screen and it opened up and I fell out…  Somehow I must not have cried… so it took a while for mom to realize I wasn’t there… and figure out the screen had come apart… And looking down from the porch (mom said) it was a ways down to the sandy ground… and tidal waters not far away… And I was nowhere in sight.

Mom went running next door to the kitchen of the big house – and all the helpers quickly joined the search – but the cook, mom said, wailed and moaned, saying, “Oh dear, oh dear – poor little tyke! – he was so cute – he was… so cute –”

They searched and searched all around the premises – and – finally found me on the road leading off the property – moving slowly, hidden, just out of sight by beach grass. And again, mom kept celebrating my safe return… from that time on…

Which is a good thing, because – when I got to my teen years my parents got very familiar with searching and seeking for the lost, and finding me in various Lost and Founds, including the town Police Department. I won’t bore you with details, but there was more than one long night of worry for my folks. I got way too good at playing the part of the lost boy in the parable of the prodigal son – the word prodigal meaning ‘wasteful’ – as in wasting time, talents, and treasure. And my mom and dad got much better than they ever wanted to at playing the part of prodigal parents – prodigal also meaning ‘lavishly generous’ – extravagantly dishing out grace and forgiveness.

I thought about having us read-on through the next and last in this string of three parables, the story of the prodigal son. But that story’s so powerful that it tends to over-shadow the two parables we’re reading today – each of which carries part of the message we might otherwise miss. So we’re not reading the last of the three parables – but let’s try to remember how, at the end of the prodigal son story, there’s again a party – for the son who was lost, who now is found – and there’s also that lost son’s older brother – who wasn’t lost – who will not join in rejoicing with the rest of the household.

And there’s lost, and there is lost. There’s lost when we know we’re lost, like the prodigal son. And there’s lost, not knowing we’re lost – or in denial – like the prodigal’s son’s older brother…

“In case you have not noticed – Christianity is a religion in which sinners have all the advantages,” preacher teacher Barbara Brown Taylor has written. And – yes –  all the biblical lost and found stories give all the benefit of the doubt to the lost. Which can seem rather unfair – if we’re found – or think we are. (And – )

I can understand why Pharisees and scribes aren’t happy, seeing Jesus partying with sinners. If these sinners were appropriately dressed – in sackcloth and ashes – praying, fasting, begging forgiveness – well, ok – we could understand Jesus being with them. But the gospel says nothing to indicate any  visible signs of repentance are to be seen.

But here’s Jesus, hanging out with sinners – talking about finding a lost sheep, a lost coin, a lost boy…And even though we don’t see obvious repentance –  still the refrain from Jesus is about joy over sinners who repent.

So – best to ask – what does Jesus mean by repentance? And, well, the biblical Greek word translated as repentance actually means literally turning. So maybe for Jesus – even hanging out with him can be evidence… those with him have begun to make the big turn.

Yet… no matter how many times I hear it – this still seems like a strange string-of-lost-and-found parables – considering –

A lost sheep doesn’t have a clue how to get found. It’s only because the shepherd goes and seeks… that the lost sheep ever gets found. And –

A lost coin can’t do a thing to get itself found. But – the woman in Christ’s parable keeps sweeping, seeking, shining her light everywhere, till she finds that lost coin. And –

Lost toddlers really can’t get found by themself. But loving parents will surely always search and seek without ceasing till their child is found.

So could it be that in reality Jesus is hinting – lost people of any age – can’t get found all by themself? And aren’t all these parables about God – the only Perfect Parent – seeking – finding – and welcoming home all the lost? Celebrating each and every time with a party. And –

Calling us to do likewise. Calling us to love as we’ve been loved. Calling us as people of God to do as God does – and keep searching, seeking, finding –  persistently welcoming all into God’s beloved community of faith and grace and love…

And at the end of the day, isn’t the good news still – that –

even after all we’ve put God through, all these years –

God’s still ready to party with us –

Whenever, however we turn home…

Whenever, however we get found.

Which still sounds like Good News to me…

Amen?