Note: I preached a version of this sermon on September 12, 2010 (Proper 19C) at Wicker Park Lutheran Church in Chicago, Illinois
Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Sometimes in the Gospels we hear Jesus saying things that are hard to understand and even harder to live by. And sometimes we hear Jesus saying things that sound immediately familiar or even intuitive to us. Today’s Gospel lesson is one of those. Few images in Jesus’s teaching are as moving as the parable of the man who leaves ninety-nine sheep in the wilderness to find one lost, and carries it home on his shoulders, and throws a party out of his joy. It’s a powerful and enduring idea. No doubt everyone here remembers Star Trek III: The Search for Spock as well as I do. Mr. Spock asks how it can be that the good of the one outweighs the good of the many. And, we are given to understand, this is just his wacky Vulcan-logic talking, because our heart breaks for the one, not for the many; for the lost, not for the ones who are safe.
As a society, we seem to have over-learned Jesus’s lesson about leaving the ninety-nine to find one who is lost. Or maybe it sounds more familiar than it really is. The stories that attract the heaviest tears and the loudest applause in our society are not stories of steadfast virtue. They are stories of ruin and redemption, of being lost and found. Think about it: would anyone have watched VH1’s series ‘Behind the Music’ if it featured a musician who stayed true to his wife, drank iced tea, and read books while he was on the road? Probably not. Rather, we desire stories of addiction and fragile recovery; of the husband who strays and yet makes amends; the hard-charging executive who comes to learn about the things that really matter in life; the young adult who parties too hard and makes bad decisions because she was “going through some stuff.” And isn’t this what Jesus tells us today–that there is more rejoicing in heaven over one repentant sinner than over 99 righteous? Does he really mean by this that it is somehow better to be a sinner who comes home than to just resist temptation and live a good life in the first place?
We’ll come back to that question in a bit. As I mentioned, our world has learned Jesus’s teaching in today’s lesson too well. We are fascinated with the idea of being lost. At the same time, we are fascinated with the idea of finding ourselves. Today this is a lengthy, often expensive and self-involved process. Perhaps you are lost in boredom, depression, compulsive behavior, but there is a way out. It may involve specially-formulated smoothies, or radical changes to your diet. It may require daily yoga or an international vacation or yet more drastic steps, but the solution is out there somewhere. With enough work and the right spending habits, you can find yourself. This is the message we learn from so much self-help literature and so many self-improvement gurus. In our world’s stories of being lost and finding ourselves, we are invited to be not only the lost sheep. We are also the shepherd who goes off to find the lost sheep. We are the angels in heaven who rejoice over the fact that we have found ourselves. And we are the Pharisees and scribes who must be reminded to be patient and indulgent as we work at being lost and finding ourselves. And lastly we are Jesus, spreading the good news that the lost sheep may be found and the lost coin returned, and we are invited to express our own experience as evidence of this truth. This is a lot of work! And people think that Christianity is demanding.
What Jesus is talking about in today’s lesson is rather different. First of all, Jesus is talking to the righteous people in this parable. He is not saying to the sinners, “How splendid that you’re lost! That makes God search all the harder for you!” He is rather trying to teach a lesson to people who want to exclude the sinners and the lost from fellowship. Second, Jesus is not talking about people who are suffering from anxiety, depression, or addiction. Sinners and tax collectors were not groups who suffered from spiritual malaise. They were people who were cut off from God and their community because of the way they made their living or because of the way they worshipped or didn’t worship. Being lost for them was not a state of mind. Being lost for them was a state of total nakedness before God. It was having no status, no nothing to protect us from God’s judgment and human scorn.
Likewise they had no means to find themselves. They could not afford to unplug and go on a journey of spiritual self-discovery. They would not have known what those words even meant. These lost, naked souls do not find themselves. Rather, they are found by Jesus Christ and laid open to the grace of God which he bears. Jesus does not mend their broken families or heal their childhood traumas. He does not tell them how they can earn closure or balance or enlightenment. He only invites these lost, naked souls into his fellowship, into a new community where both the sinner and the righteous may break bread together, share in the forgiveness of sins together, and look together with hope for the world to come.
Does this mean that it’s better to be lost and found than never to be lost at all? Probably not. To be well and truly lost, to be cut off from your world by your own actions or your social status, is a dreadful thing. If you’ve lived your life so far without cutting yourself off from your friends and family and making yourself a pariah, good for you. Keep it up. Don’t develop an addiction or become homeless or go to prison or emigrate to a country where people will hate you just so the Good Shepherd will come out to the wilderness to search for you. To be lost is no fun. And to repent of your sin is an excruciating experience. Don’t do something terrible so that the rejoicing will be extra loud when you mend your ways. All the same, to be found against all odds is the most wonderful thing. Someone here today, I imagine, is needing badly to be found–not to find yourself through lots of advice and lots of work and lots of money, but to be found by the grace of God in the midst of your own existence. If so, consider this your invitation to the new community of grace. Somebody, perhaps many people here today, are anxious or depressed or struggling, not sure whether they are the one lost or the ninety-nine others. You are invited forward to the meal as well. And some of you perhaps have never lost yourself, never ruined your own life or someone else’s with cruel or stupid behavior. Maybe you wonder whether there is blessing in this story for you, too, and there is. You are welcome to the feast just like everyone else. That is the true blessing, not to walk our own road of self-discovery–however important that may be–but to be found by grace, to be taught by grace, to be carried on the shoulders of God’s grace thus far and to the end. To share this grace with everyone who wants it, righteous or not, anxious, depressed, compulsive or not. And to rejoice together, both lost and found–the sinners without shame, the righteous without pride–to rejoice over every precious coin and every member of the flock. Amen.