So, he told them this parable: “Which one of you….” Luke 15:1-10
It was the youth group trip from hell. It didn’t begin that way. In fact, I thought we were well organized: Adults for the three small groups, directions from St. Bartholomew’s in Trenton to St. Paul’s in Jersey City where we would park the cars, take the subway into New York City, visit the Empire State Building, have lunch in Central Park, the Art Museum and then home. But somehow between the Empire State Building and Central Park, one of the three groups got separated from the others. Even though this was in BCP time – Before Cell Phones — I didn’t worry. The adult, Pat Fletcher, knew the plan. Certainly, they would meet us at 59th and Central Park West. We waited. But no Pat and his crew of teenagers. We waited and waited. I found a cop to see if there’d been an accident. No accident reported. We waited and waited and waited. Asked another cop about missing persons. “Too short of a time period to make that report.” They were lost. I was frantic. We waited and searched. It was getting late when we gave up, went back to Jersey City, discovered that Pat’s car wasn’t there, and headed home down the Jersey Turnpike hoping everyone was all right. We stopped at a rest stop. I found a pay phone. Dialed Pat’s number. When he picked-up, I dissolved into tears, “Where were you?” He replied that they’d waited and waited and waited at 59th and Central Park East and then decided to head to the Museum where they hoped to find us. When they didn’t, they went ahead with the plan for the day. All I could say was “Thank you Jesus.” The lost were found.
We’ve all had experiences of being lost or of losing someone, or both. Think about them for a moment because these experiences are at the heart of today’s Gospel. Luke sets the scene. Jesus is in trouble once again for hanging out with the wrong people. As “all the tax collectors and sinners” come near to listen to him, the Pharisees and scribes grumble, “This guy welcomes sinners, and eats with them.” In response[C1] [C2] [C3] [C4] [C5] , Jesus tells the scandalized religious leaders two parables[C6] . In the first, a shepherd leaves his flock of 99 to look for a single sheep who was lost. He searches until he finds it, carries it home on his shoulders, and throws a party to celebrate. In the second, a woman loses one of her ten silver coins. She immediately lights a lamp and sweeps her entire house, looking carefully until she finds it. Then, like the shepherd, she calls together all her friends and neighbors to celebrate the recovery of the coin. “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.”
Surprisingly these parables are not about those sinners “out there,” beyond the church, beyond us. The lost sheep belongs to the shepherd – it’s his sheep. The lost coin belongs to the woman before she loses it. It’s her coin. These parables aren’t about lost outsiders finding salvation, but about us, the insiders – the church-goers, the bread and wine consumers, the Bible readers, the ones who put offering in the plate. Because the truth is, we get lost over and over again, and God finds us over and over again. Lostness is part of the life of faith.
It happens in so many ways. We lose our sense of belonging as have a number of our 8 am people with the time change. Who they knew, wear they sat has change. We can lose our capacity to trust, our openness to newness and our will to persevere. Some of us get lost when illness descends on our lives or when someone we love dies or when relationships fall about. Others get lost in the illnesses of anxiety, depression or addiction or in the throes of lust, unforgiveness, envy or bitterness. Some even get lost close to home, within the walls of the Church. We get lost when prayer turns to dust in our mouths, when instead of worshiping we evaluate and critique, when boredom sets in and daydreams take over[C7] [C8] [C9] [C10] [C11] [C12] [C13] .
We get lost, so miserably lost, the shepherd has to wander through the burr and tick infested bushes to find us. We get so lost the housewife has to get down on her knees and stick her broom into the disgusting muck under the refrigerator to discover what’s become of us. Jesus’ stories of lostness aren’t trivial for what is lost is really, truly lost. Yet, the seeker is God. Think about this – God cares about our lostness. God searches. God persists. And when at last God finds what God is looking for, God can’t contain the joy that wells up inside! So, God invites everyone to celebrate and throws a party to end all parties.
Anglican priest Debbie Thomas says the most scandalous part of these lost and found parables is not that we still get lost, but what they reveal about the nature of God. “If Jesus’ parables are true,” she says “then God doesn’t hang out where we expect God to. God isn’t in the fold with the 99 insiders. God isn’t curled up on her couch polishing the nine coins she’s already sure of. God is where the lost things are. God is where lostness reigns…in the wilderness, in the remotest corners of the house. God is where the search is at its fiercest, which means, if we want to find God, we have to seek the lost. We have to get lost. We have to leave the safety of the inside and venture out. We have to recognize our own lostness and consent to be found.”[i]
This isn’t easy. Not by a long shot. It’s so hard for us to believe we’re worth looking for – that we’re loved enough to warrant a long, hard diligent search, to trust that God won’t give up on us, that God seeks us out when we can’t even find ourselves, and then throws a party to welcome us home. In her book An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor argues that lostness makes us “stronger at the edges and softer at the center.”[ii] Lostness teach us about empathy, about humility, about patience. Lostness shows us who we really are, and who God really is. God the Good Shepherd. God the persistent woman. God!
Then comes the party…as it did on Sunday morning following the New York City Youth Trip disaster. There was Pat Fletcher with his crew of four teenagers kneeling at the communion rail, at the heavenly banquet of bread and wine, body and blood of Jesus. All of us, including each of you, are invited to the party of grace and mercy, of joy and delight where the lost are found and welcomed to the feast of victory, now and forever. Amen.
[i] Debi Thomas, “On Lostness”, posted 9.8.2019, https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay
[ii] Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World, Harper Collins, 2009, 84.