Feb. 28, 2016
The two short parables I’m about to read proceed a much longer one, “The Parable of the Prodigal Son” which we’ll look at in a couple of weeks. They could all be summarized in three words: Lost and Found. The parable of the lost sheep appears in different forms, in the gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Thomas, one of those heretical gospels not included in our sacred scriptures.
Luke takes these simple parables of a lost sheep and a lost coin and makes them into allegories where God becomes both the shepherd and the woman, both who have lost something of great value to them, and the sheep and the coin become sinners in need of repentance. He sets them in the context of the pharisees and scribes criticizing Jesus for associating with tax collectors and sinners.
Luke has a good message here, although I’m not sure that the parables serve it well, being as the sheep just wandered off, as sheep are want to do. They’re not the brightest of animals. And the coin didn’t sin. The woman lost it.
That being said, let’s listen to the parables, and explore the message Luke is trying to make here.
The Parable of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin
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 people 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.’
(sing together) Amazing Grace NCH 547 vs. 1
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see.
How many of you have ever been lost? (and remember, there are many ways of being lost). Reading over these parables this week brought back memories of the times and places I’ve been lost in my life - or have lost something or someone of value to me, --
Like the time my parents and I were driving through Ireland on vacation. It was the late 80’s and Irish road signs and maps left a lot to be desired. We thought we knew where we were going, but as the paved highway turned into a one lane road, then became a dirt path up the side of a hill surrounded by nothing but sheep as far as we could see, we knew we had strayed off course. In this case the sheep staring at us - probably wondering what we were doing there, weren’t lost - we were! It took a friendly sheep herder to redirect us to our destination.
In this case, no harm was done, but it made for a good story, one I remember fondly all these years later. Without getting lost we wouldn’t have spent time watching those sheep grazing. We wouldn’t have met that friendly sheep herder with a brogue so thick I could hardly understand him. We wouldn’t have explored their little patch of heaven in the countryside.
Getting lost isn’t all bad. Barbara Brown Taylor’s book An Altar in the World, (It’s in our library!) has a chapter entitled “The Practice of Getting Lost,” where she writes; “we find things while we’re lost that we might never have discovered if we had stayed on the path.” Our little detour proved her point. It also applies to those who have lost their way in life - those Jesus refers to as sinners in need of repentance.
Think of all the times and ways in which you have lost your way in life. Years ago, an old friend of mine was lost in the throes of alcoholism. His friends were worried about him at the time, but as he told me back then, an alcoholic has to be ready to quit. You can’t force them.
What was it that triggered that light to spark a wee, small voice in him saying, “I’m lost and I need to be found?” What was it that finally led him back along the path to sobriety? This morning’s parables shed a little light on the topic.
These are stories of God’s grace - how God never gives up on us even when we might have given up on ourselves - how God is there, a presence, waiting for us to find our way, searching for us until we are found - or you might say, until we find our way back into God’s presence, where the celebration begins.
(sing Amazing Grace, vs. 2-3)
’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed!
Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come;
’Tis grace has brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.
Brown Taylor observes “God does some of God’s best work when people are truly lost.... Popular religion focuses so hard on spiritual success,” she says, “that most of us do not know the first thing about the spiritual fruits of failure.” (and how many of us have lived without failure in our lives?) “When we fall ill, lose our jobs, wreck our marriages, or alienate our children, most of us are left alone to pick up the pieces. Even those of us who are ministered to by brave friends can find it hard to shake the shame of getting lost in our lives. And yet if someone asked us to pinpoint the times in our lives that changed us for the better, a lot of those times would be wilderness times.”
Through intensive rehab, years in AA, the support of family and friends, my friend found himself once again in a new life as a sober gay man, a life he had been denying himself for many years. Today he’s retired from a successful career and lives with a life long partner by his side.
The best way to grow empathy for those who are lost is to know what it means to be lost yourself. My friend knew that all too well, and for years after his recovery he mentored others in AA, guiding them down the path to wholeness.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that for many of us life is one long journey of being lost and found - continually learning new lessons along the way - growing spiritually - back-tracking at times, as we try to move closer into God’s presence. We die little deaths to old ways of being in order to grow into new life.
Like the woman who lost the coin, not only are we getting lost, we are continually loosing things, and people in our lives too - sometimes through our own carelessness, sometimes through no fault of our own - a job, a treasured possession; a child, God forbid, who wanders off at a mall, or runs away from home; a relative or friend who passes away unexpectedly. If we’re not living them, we hear their stories day in and day out. With each loss we loose a part of ourselves.
Loses are not easy to endure on our own. This is why it’s so important to realize how near God is to you when you’re lost. This is what Jesus was telling us in these parables. In order to do this though, Brown Taylor points out, “you have to be willing to recognize God in your neighbor.” Looking back on the shepherd out searching for the one lost sheep, I imagine his neighbors were looking after the other 99, for fear they too would wander off in his absence.
This is where, and I can only speak for myself, a church community is such an important, life sustaining part of my life. It is in a community of faith that I not only find God, I find myself. I come to recognize God in those I care about and those who care about me. My faith burns brighter when surrounded by and supported by other people of faith - and, I would add, when there are others to hold me accountable for my actions. Jesus talks about the one sinner in need of repentance here. I dare him to find me 99 who are not. None of us are perfect. Once we are able to face and admit that, we can learn from our sins. We can grow in compassion and understanding. We become more humble and perceptive. John Newton, who wrote Amazing Grace, was once a slave trader - once lost, and then found.
I’ve been lost many times, and I’ve endured more losses in my life than I care to count. I was lost for years when I left the Catholic Church, and again when I left the United Church of Christ for a time. I wandered in the wilderness for a while each time, until I recognized, and acknowledged God taping me on the shoulder, pointing me in a new direction.
Maybe that is why I feel so strongly called in my ministry to search out the lost souls - those who have been ostrasized by the church; those for whom organized religion makes no sense anymore, or seems to have no relevance in their lives. How do we make it relevant once more? How do we help them to feel God’s presence? How do we become the neighbor in whom they see the face of God? How do we make the Eliot Church a beacon of God’s light up on the hill?
Jesus spent his life rounding up lost souls and bringing them back into the fold, even if it meant eating with sinners and tax-collectors, much to the chagrin of the Pharisees and scribes. But how in the world was he going to bring them in unless he sat down with them to a good meal and conversation? You see, he knew that everyone of us is precious in God’s eyes. We are reminded of this by Henri Nouwen’s claim that “We are not loved because we are precious, but we are precious because we are loved.” These parables serve as an invitation to join Jesus in rounding up God’s herd and recovering God’s treasures.
“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 people who need no repentance.”
I asked you earlier to think about those times in your life when you had lost your way. Now I ask you to think of those times when you were found; when the veil parted, burdens were lifted off your shoulders. You could see clearly at last. You walked lightly upon the earth once again. You may even have danced, with a smile on your face. There’s great joy in being found, not only in heaven, but here on earth - great joy when you recognize the face of God in your neighbor and know you’ve come home.
Barbara Brown Taylor offers a word of encouragement to those of us on this lost and found journey through life - words I took to heart:
“You will think of other ways to get lost, or to accept that you really have gotten lost through no choice of your own. It can happen anywhere, in all kinds of ways. You can get lost on your way home. You can get lost looking for love. You can get lost between jobs. You can get lost looking for God. However it happens, take heart. Others before you have found a way in the wilderness, where there are as many angels as there are wild beasts, and plenty of other lost people too. All it takes is one of them to find you. All it takes is you to find one of them. However it happens, you could do worse than to kneel down and ask a blessing, remembering how many knees have kissed this altar before you.”
Let’s sing the last two verses of Amazing Grace.
My God has promised good to me, whose word my hope secures;
God will my shield and portion be as long as life endures.
When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise then when we’d first begun.