Note: I preached a version of this sermon on September 1, 2016 (Proper 19C) at Messiah Lutheran Church in Wauconda, Illinois
Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
As we begin today I have a question for you: What is something in your home that you would know instantly if it were missing?
I asked myself this question and I sort of struggled to answer it. I have some treasured possessions, but most of them could be missing for a while before I noticed (I actually peeked around the corner while I was working on this sermon to check on my new guitar, which I’ve been too busy to play for the last week). I have some kitchen equipment I’d miss pretty quickly, and a few things on the walls that would be pretty obvious.
It can be hard for us to keep track of things, even things that are important to us. We have full, busy, lives and a lot of us have more stuff than we know what to do with or even where to put. Valuable things can just get lost in the shuffle.
So something really strange started happening to me after the birth of our daughter. I would be out with her somewhere, usually with one or both of the boys, and I would become obsessed with the thought that I had left her in the parking lot before we went home. And it was crazy, because I had just buckled her in. But your mind plays tricks on you. For one thing, Marina is quieter in the car than her brothers were at that age. No gurgling or screaming would be coming from the back seat. And beyond that, my life was crazier and more demanding than it was when the boys were her age. So my natural tendency to forgetfulness would sort of haunt me.
Now it certainly does happen, sadly, that frazzled or exhausted or impaired parents will sometimes forget a child somewhere. Now of all the things I am liable to lose track of, my children are certainly the very last. But I think, anyway, that there’s an honest fear at work: it’s easy to lose things, even things you love and would do anything to protect. Because as a parent you come face to face with your own frailties and limitations.
I mention all this so that we can try to take a fresh look at Jesus’s parables today. Because there is a way we are accustomed to hearing them. Look at the introduction:
“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 we’re primed for a story about sinners. And after each of these two parallels, Luke the gospel-writer records Jesus making a point about them: that there is joy in heaven over the sinner who repents.
So when we hear these stories, we seem to be invited to identify with the sheep—either the ninety-nine sheep grazing safely on the hill, or the one sheep who goes missing. We seem to be invited to identify with the lost coin. I once was lost but now am found, and so on.
But a sheep can’t repent, and neither can a coin. So maybe there’s more going on in this story.
What if, after all, Jesus is inviting his hearers to identify with the shepherd who leaves the safe sheep to find the lost? What if he is inviting his hearers to identify with the woman who looks for the lost coin?
Which of you, if you were missing a sheep, would not leave the safe ones and go after the lost one? Which of you, if you lost one of your ten silver coins, would not do as the woman does and light a candle and sweep the house to find it? And which of you, if you found the lost coin or the lost sheep, would not celebrate?
And this is a bit of a tricky question when you look at it that way. How would you know you were missing one out of a hundred sheep? For that matter, how would you know you were missing one out of ten coins? You would have to count them. You would have to be very attentive.
The first thing you’d have to do, in order to find the sheep or the coin and then have the party, is notice that it’s missing.
So what happens to this parable if we don’t hear it as if we’re sheep or coins, but shepherds or shrewd housewives? Its almost as though Jesus is saying to his audience, “Who is missing in your community?”
And I’ll be the first to admit, it was hard to ask myself this question. I would much rather be the little sheep out in the wilderness, waiting for Jesus the Good Shepherd to come pick me up. But Jesus is also addressing me and you as fellow shepherds. Who is the one who isn’t here? Who is the part of this community who is lost to you? Who have you overlooked?
I don’t know about you, but it doesn’t take me long to answer this question in a lot of different ways: who’s missing from family gatherings, who’s missing from the circle of friends I’m in touch with, who’s missing from church. And not only individuals but whole groups.
The second question Jesus puts to us in this parable is this: “What are you willing to do to find the person who is missing?”
This question is just as hard. The shepherd in the parable needs to make sure his sheep are cared for, and then go off to find the lost one. The woman needs to light a candle and sweep the house and leave no stone unturned. What would it mean for any of us to take the missing person that seriously? To want them back that badly? Perhaps there are difficult conversations that need to be had. Perhaps there are steps that need to be taken to make sure someone, or some group of people, knows they are welcome and wanted.
And finally, Jesus puts a third question to us in this parable: “Will you rejoice to find the person who is missing?”
A Jewish scholar of the New Testament, Amy-Jil Levine, writes really movingly about this:
What is infectiously appealing about Jesus is that he likes to celebrate. He is consistently meeting people not at the altar but at table, whether has host, guest, or the body and blood to be consumed. He is indiscriminate in his dining companions, who include Pharisees, tax collectors, sinners, and even an upscale family consisting of two sisters and a formerly dead brother. The Feeding of the Five Thousand is the one miracle story recounted in all four Gospels. To be in his presence is not only to be challenged and comforted; it is to celebrate at table.Amy-Jil Levine, Short Stories by Jesus
So three questions come out of the parable: Who is missing? What are we willing to do to find them? And will we rejoice to find them?
This is the act of faith that is behind our sometimes difficult attempts at Messiah to reach out to gay and lesbian Christians and assure them that they are cherished here. And it is behind our attempts to reach out to the Latino community and welcome them, not as guests but as members of the family who belong. But here’s the thing: this is the same act of faith that pushes us to have long, prayerful conversations with people who are not comfortable with these efforts. The point of Jesus’s parables is not that we should be perfectly united or without any differences. The point of Jesus’s parables today is that we should strive to be whole. And as long as some of God’s children are missing, for whatever reason, we can’t be whole.
Now before I conclude I want to add one note of caution: I am not urging anyone to go out and try to mend every single broken relationship. No one is obligated to look at the person who uses or abuses them or who brings out the worst in them as a lost sheep needing to be found. And I am not urging anyone to go out and try to drag people who are unwilling to church. We have to live with the reality that wholeness is never perfect in this life.
But the story of the faithful shepherd and the frugal woman teach us something else: They show us what God intends—that God intends this wholeness within his family. And we participate in bringing that about. In our flawed, inadequate ways we are part of that. And I hope from the bottom of my heart that you have had that experience of being found when you were lost. That you have had that experience of being brought back so that the community might be whole—whether it’s a family, whether it’s someone you love, or whether it’s the church. I hope this is an experience you’ve had. I know that I’ve had it, and that I’ve felt the touch of God in those moments when someone was willing to open the door for me and bring me back. This is how God shows himself: as the one who wants the flock to be complete, and wants no one to miss the party.