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Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
No doubt, we have all lost something valuable in our lives: a phone, a billfold, a wedding ring. Sometimes, you just have to accept it and replace it with a new one. But occasionally, you find it again, either because you relentlessly kept on searching for it or because some good neighbor stumbled upon it- and found a way to return it to you.
In 1999, Kim Flanders of Massachusetts put her handbag on the roof of her car, loaded up her kids, then drove away. When she realized her mistake, she went back to the parking lot to look for the handbag, but no luck. 18 years later, Dondi Mitchell decided to go fishing and surprisingly dredged up Flanders’ handbag. Mitchell recognized the name on the ID as belonging to a woman whom he graduated high school with in Orange, Massachusetts. So Mitchell got in touch with Flanders on Facebook, and mailed the bag to her new home in Florida. The bag was filled with rocks, presumably to weigh it down after someone plundered and disposed of it, but it also contained two well-preserved rings from Flanders’ first marriage. The date of the marriage? June 2 – the same date Mitchell fished up Flanders’ pocketbook from the bottom of the lake.
This morning’s gospel may sound like a collection of odd tales of what once was lost. However, I believe the parables are truly a portrait of God’s nature and of his great joy when the lost are found. They are a reminder that even now there is someone searching for you to put you back on the right path or to keep you there.
St. Luke’s gospel begins with a colorful and provocative scene. The tax collectors and sinners were coming near to Jesus and listening to what he had to say. Now, tax collectors were not well respected public servants. These were collaborators with the Roman authorities. They were often crooks who excised large payments from the good citizens of the land. As for the sinners? Well, sinners meant what it means today. They were the freeloaders. The late night bar crowd, who seldom show up on the following morning in the Temple. Jesus spent a lot of time welcoming these people, eating and talking with them. Needless to say, the Pharisees and scribes were a bit confused about Jesus’ intentions. They grumbled and complained, and they said, “This man welcomes sinners, and he eats with them. By mere association- He too must be a bad person.”
In many people’s eyes, Jesus was thought to be the perfect candidate to become the promised Messiah. He would fulfill God’s will for Israel and do all sorts of wonderful things in the world. But people like the scribes and the Pharisees, simply didn’t think that Jesus could be much of a candidate if he would truly associate with tax collectors and sinners. In their eyes, “No Messiah would eat with sinners and welcome them!” It was a complaint that echoes through the gospels. Another critic came to Jesus and said, “The disciples of John the Baptist fast often and say long prayers. But your disciples are always eating, drinking, and making merry.” Yes, we can tell the disciples of John the Baptist. They are serious and are religious, and they look so piously miserable! But as for your disciples, why are they always so happy?
To these critics, and to the scribes and the Pharisees, Jesus says, “Which one of you, having one hundred sheep and losing one of them would not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the lost one until he finds it? Yes, imagine that you have one hundred vulnerable sheep prone to flightiness and attacks and that you lose one of them. Now, wouldn’t you go out after the lost one until you find it?” Well, the real answer to that question is “No, of course not.” Nobody in his or her right mind who’s in the sheep business who has one hundred sheep, and loses one, would leave the ninety-nine to the wolves and the coyotes, and goes chasing off after the lost one. You cut your losses. You forget about the lost sheep, and you go on with the ninety-nine. And, yet Jesus turns the story on edge and says, “And when you find that, what would you do?” No doubt, you would put that lost sheep on your shoulder, just as if you were carrying a newly found child, and when you see your friends, wouldn’t you cry out, ‘Come, rejoice, celebrate with me! I have found my lost sheep!’” Wouldn’t you do this, my friends, if you had hundred sheep and had lost one?
Then Jesus follows this first parable up with a second. “And what woman among you who had ten coins and had lost one would not search for it?” God in this parable is no longer a shepherd, but he is woman- and a very odd woman. If the shepherd was sort of crazy to go chase after one sheep and leave ninety-nine to the wolves in the wilderness, this woman is even more eccentric. The woman has ten coins. Yes, the woman has ten Susan B. Anthony dollars in a nice wooden case with red velvet lining and little recessed partitions for each of the ten dollars. And every morning she gets up, and she looks in there and pats them and polishes them and puts them back down again. She gets up one morning, and one of her precious Susan B. Anthony dollars is missing so what does this woman do? She stops whatever housework she was going to do, and she lights a light, and goes into all the dark corners. She sweeps and sweeps, and looks under everything for the whole day. And when she still hasn’t found it, she moves all the heavy furniture and the appliances out onto the lawn until she finds this coin. And what does she do when she does find it? She gets on the phone to her friends and her neighbors and says, “Come on over, I’m going to have a party. I put on the coffee and I have some fresh rolls. I have found my lost coin.” Wouldn’t you do this, my friends, if you had ten coins, and had lost one?
I’m sure that these friends and neighbors would have answered, “Gertrude, you found your coin, right? And we’re supposed to come?” And she says joyfully, “Yes! The coffee’s brewing right now. It’s Folgers’s. It’s the richest kind. And you’re going to come over, and we’re going to celebrate my lost coin.” Certainly they’d say, “Yes, Gertrude, we’ll be there.” But they wouldn’t be very enthusiastic.
They’re a bit like the Pharisees and scribes in their response. And that is Jesus’ point in this second parable. In the first parable of the lost sheep, you can develop some pity for the poor, little lost sheep. You can feel bad that it’s injured or hurt or fearful and all that. But you can’t work up much pity for a lost coin. A lost coin never knows it’s lost. One place is just as good as another. The parable of the shepherd and the woman together remind us, that God is far less concerned about the sin than he is about finding those who are lost- and celebrating when they are found. This is why Jesus eats with sinners and tax collectors, with the despised and undeserving. For that is precisely where God’s heart is, with the lost.
Now does that mean that God is uninterested in the 99 who do the “right” thing? Or the 9 coins stay in their place? No, God cares for all of us deeply. But it is really the key to understanding the parables. For God, as long as the one is lost, the other 99 are incomplete. As long as one of our sisters or brothers is broken by the world, cast aside as irrelevant, called a sinner by the rest of us, then we are all at a loss, and God’s heart is broken. God, you see, will never stop reaching for the one because his love is too wide, and his grace too rich to cease looking. And that is what he expects of his children.
That is the task that you and I have been given. We are called to a way of life of shouldering one another, of searching for and meeting the lost, wherever they may be found, and walking them home with us. We are truly about making the world whole again. Sometimes you’re the carrier, and sometimes we’re the one being carried. All the time, it’s a movement from being lost to being found. From being excluded, to being included, toward all being under one roof again. And what a joy it is at being found. God rejoices- and angels in heaven sing. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understand keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.