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Lost and found. There seems to be different understandings in this text of who is lost and who is found, doesn’t there?
So much depends on the inflection of your voice. The text tells us that the Pharisees and the Scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
But if you change the tone of your voice, it becomes a celebration, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them!!”
What is Good News to some is decidedly NOT Good News to another.
This dinner scenario typifies what is so difficult about living together as community, because some days we can’t even tell who is lost and who is found. And every time we seem to get a handle on who is lost, Jesus goes and eats dinner with them.
So Jesus hears the grumbling. He’s talking with the sinners, those people who weren’t following the laws, who weren’t obeying the religious rules.
And he’s also talking with tax collectors. These people were more than religious rule breakers, they were political problems, because they were Israelis who collected taxes from other Israelis for the Roman authorities. They were employees of the occupying power. The Vichy French.
The sinners and the tax collectors faced shame and exclusion from their society.
And Jesus eats dinner with them.
You can see why there was grumbling.
And so, Jesus tells a story.
Which of you, he asks, when you lose a sheep, would’t leave the rest of your flock to go after the lost?
Or, if you lost one of your ten coins, wouldn’t you turn the house upside down to find it?
He tells this story to the Pharisees and the Scribes. And to us.
And we’re left wondering, once again, what Jesus means with these cryptic stories he tells.
One thing I’m sure about in these stories is that we are never the finders. The finding of lost sheep and coins is not our call. Certainly, we are to be welcoming and we are to share the Good News we’ve received, but that isn’t the same as going out to save someone. That is clearly God’s role in these stories.
I hope that will free us up from feeling responsible for saving people.
We aren’t the finders.
We are the found.
And there is no indication the lost objects were worthy of saving. Doesn’t say it was a good sheep, repentant sheep, or born again sheep. It was a lost sheep.
The “found” in this story aren’t very helpful in their own finding. The lost coin doesn’t shout out, “here I am! Over here! Look at me! Look at me!”
I’ve heard conflicting accounts of the intelligence of sheep, but all seem to agree that a lost sheep wouldn’t be putting his own picture on the side of a milk carton to help rescuers in the search.
In this story, God is cast as the shepherd and the woman.
We are the barnyard animal and the inanimate coin.
It may not be very flattering to our egos to be compared to sheep and dirty money, but it is GOOD NEWS, friends. We once were lost, but now we’re found. What news could be better?
Yet we often act as if it isn’t good news. In those moments when we are one of the already found sheep, or one of the no longer lost coins, we don’t always celebrate and rejoice over the finding of our lost brother and sisters.
Why is that?
Even when we’re happily gamboling about in the fields without a care in the world, safe in the fold of God’s care and mercy, why do we get upset when the shepherd’s attention is focused on finding one lost sheep?
Why, even when we’re safe in our owner’s wallet, do we get upset when she starts trying to find the missing coin?
I have no idea.
But I know I’m as guilty of it as the next Scribe or Pharisee.
Jesus ends his parable with this sentence: “Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
When we are found, when our brothers and sisters are found, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God.
How does God’s own joy about us translate into how we live with joy, how does it translate into whom we invite to dinner?
Where are the sinners and the tax collectors in your lives? Where are the Scribes and Pharisees?
Who are the people our society wants to remain lost coins? Some states’ legislators are actively making life difficult for people who are transgender, barring them from healthcare, name changes, and other public safety that many of us take for granted. There are churches who join in on that exclusion.
We’re at the end of Black History Month, and there are supposed leaders in our country who want to keep the stories of black Americans from being taught, on top of the many other ways racism harms black bodies in our culture.
It’s easier, of course, to find ways that other people want to exclude. It’s harder to see it in myself.
I confess that for me, I turn into a Scribe and Pharisee at the idea of Jesus having dinner with Pat Robertson, the Westboro Baptist folks, or a bunch of white supremacists.
There would be much grumbling from this Pharisee were I to see that dinner party.
But I have to allow for it.
Because I was once lost too. Some of you have heard me tell this story before.
When I was in college, to make a really long story short, I got pregnant my sophomore year. Today, that doesn’t feel so much like being lost. But 30 plus years ago, I felt terribly lost. And unworthy of being a part of God’s flock. Shame is a powerful tool that can separate us from each other at the time we need each other the most.
And a Presbyterian congregation was a big part of my being found again. They loaned me maternity clothes. They visited me in the hospital. They took me out to lunch after worship, to make sure I was eating enough. They helped me hear the shepherd’s voice, walk away from shame, and back to God’s flock.
In this parable, that congregation was the sheep in the flock who went up to the Shepherd and nudged him over my direction, making sure he and I were close enough for him to hear my cries and find me. Or the other coins who jumped out of the woman’s hands and landed near where I was lost.
That’s a lesser-known verse of the parable.
I was supposed to be joining that church when I figured out I was pregnant and I went to Pastor John Miller and told him it just wasn’t the right time for me to join the church after all. He asked me why. I told him about the pregnancy. He said, “when could you possibly need a church family more than you do right now?”
And so, I was welcomed home. I was found. I will be forever thankful that congregation rejoiced with the angels over this sheep who found her way through a thicket of a year.
I placed my son for adoption. He will be 34 in June. I’ve been a part of his life the whole way through. In large part because of that congregation, this is a story of rejoicing.
If God can call me daughter, if Jesus searched far and wide to bring me into the fold, then I have to leave room for “those” people who I think are doing it all wrong to be found as well. If God’s economy has room for me, I need to do everything I can to support the other people God has searched for, found, and brought home.
Jesus interrupts our complaining about those “other” lost sheep and coins to remind us of our own found-ness, to remind us to celebrate more, and to remind us that nobody is lost beyond hope of return. “You’re already my beloved child. If I made room for you in the flock, in my coin purse, don’t you think there is also room for these other children of mine? Let’s celebrate!”
The reminder in this text is that in God’s economy there is more than enough grace to go around and we do not have to serve as bouncers at the gate, determining who gets welcomed into the flock.
We are called to rejoice that we’re included too.
There’s a story I saw on the internet, so it must be true:
There was a farmer who grew excellent quality corn. Every year he won the award for the best grown corn. One year a newspaper reporter interviewed him and learned something interesting about how he grew it. The reporter discovered that the farmer shared his seed corn with his neighbors.”How can you afford to share your best seed corn with your neighbors when they are entering corn in competition with yours each year?” the reporter asked.
“Why sir,” said the farmer, “Didn’t you know? The wind picks up pollen from the ripening corn and swirls it from field to field. If my neighbors grow inferior corn, cross-pollination will steadily degrade the quality of my corn. If I am to grow good corn, I must help my neighbors grow good corn.”
So is with our lives… Those who want to live meaningfully and well must help enrich the lives of others, for the value of a life is measured by the lives it touches. And those who choose to be happy must help others find happiness, for the welfare of each is bound up with the welfare of all…
This is at the heart of God’s economy. The welfare of each is bound up in the welfare of all. We can celebrate the seeking of the lost coins and the lost sheep, because we, too, once were lost, but now are found.
All week, I’ve been thinking about the statement from the complainers at the beginning of this text.
“This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them!!”
How can we live our lives so we take this phrase and turn it from a complaint to a celebration?
Maybe our church signs should read “This congregation welcomes sinners and eats with them!”
Maybe we should make t-shirts.
But I think we’d need some way to make clear we know we are among the ‘sinners’ in question.
Maybe it should say “Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with us!”
And “There’s room for you too.”
Friends, we who were once lost have been found. There is joy in the presence of the angels of God because of that truth. Let us live our lives in gratitude because of that great news! Amen.
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.’
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