A number of years ago, when our children were much younger, we went annually for a week of Family Camp at a YMCA facility known as Frost Valley, up in the Catskill Mountains. One week with no TV, not having to cook and clean up, hiking, swimming, arts and crafts, horseback riding, campfires, it was great. The kids could disappear after breakfast and we would only see them at mealtimes – who could ask for anything better?
Then one year when Andrew was 13 he took a jog on one of the trails. He didn’t return. Dinner time came and went. We began to get worried and notified the camp. The rodeo event was cancelled so that all staff could participate in a search. With over 5,000 acres, mostly densely woods, and dusk approaching, it was a challenge. While waiting, my Manhattan mother’s mind went into overdrive. What if a bear had attacked him? (Black bears are not overly dangerous and would tend to stay away from a big guy like Andrew). What about snakes bites? No dangerous snakes or even poison ivy at Frost Valley. What if a demented drifter, just happened to wander on those 5,000 wooded acres and was holding Andrew by knifepoint? Or what if he tripped and fell, broke a leg and was in pain? My mind couldn’t stop racing. It wasn’t until about ½ hour later, when Andrew sheepishly jogged into the camp, obviously unharmed, that we learned that he simply got lost off the trail and it took him extra time to figure out his bearings. I wanted to hug him and strangle him at the same time – I was so relieved! Since then I’ve been called “Mama Bear” by my kids.
Our Gospel lessons today from Luke are often split up but should be read together. The tax collectors and sinners are coming to Jesus in droves. Jesus had just finished healing a man on the Sabbath and was teaching the crowds about the kingdom of God and about the cost involved to be a disciple. So people were responding – but not the right kind of people in the eyes of the official religious leadership. The Pharisees and scribes grumble and complain, “this fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” They can’t even bear to think of him by name, or as a teacher – Jesus has become “this man,” “this fellow,” or we can imagine other derogatory titles they which they devised for Jesus, like demon or crazy man. For that’s how they saw Jesus. They didn’t like the attention he was attracting.
So Jesus directs his attention to the scribes and Pharisees. He tells them three stories about being lost and being found. These stories are individually famous in their own right. The story of the shepherd with 100 sheep who lost one, and went out diligently to find out and when he does he lays it on his shoulders and says to his neighbors, “rejoice with me for I have found my sheep that was lost.”
Then there is the story of the woman who has lost one of her ten silver coins. The coins, called a drachma, is mentioned only here in the New Testament. It probably equaled a day’s wage, and most likely her dowry, worn as an ornament, and was vital to her family’s welfare. So the woman lights a lamp, not practiced in daylight to conserve precious resources, but she lights it anyway, sweeps and searches diligently until she finds it. She too, calls out to her neighbors, “rejoice with me, for I have found the coin I have lost.”
Then we come to the third story, the most famous and scandalous of all. We can imagine a sheep wondering off and a coin being lost. Now the ante is raised. A younger son demands his inheritance from his father. Such impudence! Such lack of manners and respect. Yet the father complies and the young son takes off for the bright lights and big city of foreign lands where he spends everything, every last cent of his inheritance, on riotous living. So this son spends everything and his friends desert him. Now in a time of famine finds himself in the low state of pig keeper, who are eating better than him. So he comes to his senses, devises a plan to beg forgiveness from his father in exchange for being a hired hand on his father’s property. So he returns.
Meanwhile the Father has diligently scanned the horizon every day. When he sees his son returning, the father runs to him, a very undignified and scandalous act for a man of his stature (men of wealth and prestige don’t run – others do the running for them); he, kisses his son, returns him to his state by putting a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet – highly symbolic acts of forgiveness and re-integration. The father orders a feast. Now the younger son would have expected that the townspeople would conduct a gesasah ceremony on his return. This is a ceremony for a son of the village who had lost his money to Gentiles or married an immoral woman. They would gather around him, breaking jars with corn and nuts and declare that he was to be cut off from the village. His entry into the village would be humiliating as his townspeople expressed their anger and resentment toward his actions (Stiller, 111). Instead his father counteracts this and orders the fatted calf killed, and soon there’s music and dancing. As we know, the elder son brims with indignation and refuses to enter into the joy and celebration of the feast. He wants the gesasah, he wants the party for himself along with his friends for all his faithfulness. The parable is left hanging. What will the elder son do? Does he change his mind and obey his father or does he hold fast to his self-righteousness and stay away? We don’t know.
All three stories tell us of the radical love of God and God’s relentless desire to restore the lost to the kingdom of God. Anyone who has been oppressed, sinned, are shut out, left behind have a place at God’s table. Those of us who are the regular faithful, who have never strayed, are just as welcome. However God is asking us the old faithfuls to shift our perspective from thinking of people in terms of right and wrong, to what is their proximity to the table? God wants everyone at the table. God wants us, us old faithfuls to be out there issuing invitations, to be seeking out the lost sheep, sweeping the floors diligently, to wait faithfully for the lost to return when they are ready, with the knowledge that there is a loving and forgiving home to return to in our midst.
Each of us knows what it’s like to feel lost, to have lost something, to be shut out. Women have been shut out of positions. Members of the LGBTQ community have been excluded from family, schools, church and harassed in many situations. People of color have faced racism. We have been looked over, passed over, shut out. We have lost precious friendships or have strained family relationships. We have lost precious jewelry or deals or jobs. So we can certainly, in a dim way, understand God’s love for the lost – for those who don’t realize how much God loves ,cares and accepts them us—and all who are lost or have been lost? If we look at the parables at a deeper level, it is the Pharisees and scribes who are lost, because they have forgotten and don’t experience the radical love of God.
This chapter of Luke, about being lost and being found, is central to Christian life and teaching. It is what should inspire and fire our understanding of mission. As we come to the table today, we are reminded no one is excluded. No one. As we come to our church annual meeting next week, the gauntlet is laid down – God’s radical love is our guide and measuring stick. As our Mission Review wrestles with important issues, embracing the lost is at the top of the list. Can we develop the determination of a searching shepherd, the diligence of a seeking housewife, the patience and forgiveness of a waiting parent – the force of a mama bear – to serve the kingdom of God? What a different faith community we would be if we stirred up that fire for the lost. The spiritual practice Jesus wants us to develop is to know the feeling of the lost lamb on our shoulders, the lost coin in our fingertips, the embrace of the lost son in our arms.
Jesus wants us to engage in the spiritual practice of rejoicing when someone or something is found, to keep the feast. We must be a people who know how to throw a party and invite the neighbors. We cannot keep our findings to ourselves.
So let us learn to be a rejoicing people, a people who not only seeks the lost but truly rejoices when the lost becomes the found. Let us be the shepherd with the lost lamb on his shoulders. Let us be the housewife beaming with joy with the coin now in her hands. Let us be the elder brother who puts all aside and joins the party. In this we learn to sing and dance with the angels. In this we bring a piece of heaven to earth. That, according to Jesus, is all that matters. Amen.