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The Lost and Found

Jeremiah 4: 11-12, 22-28
Luke 15: 1-10

Delivered by Rev. Ron Coughlin

Holy God, in worship we sing your praises,
we listen to your word
and we seek to understand its message for our time and our place.
May we experience the wisdom of your word
and the power of your presence this day and forever.

When I was a university student in Montreal in the early 1960s, some friends and I wanted to start a Coffeehouse – which was very popular in those days. We formed a committee, drew up our plans, decided on decorations, entertainment, refreshments, rules, etc and were all set to go, except we didn’t have a place. We approached the High School, Elementary School, Boys and Girls Club, Legion and were turned down. Problem of janitors, cost, fear of damages, no room, we weren’t legionnaires. One boy went to his Anglican Church and got a “No”. I went to my United Church. The minister said he would consider it, but we would have to approach the Session, the Stewards, the Trustees and the UCW.

I said “Forget it!” But at his urging, I did go to the Session – and to our amazement, they said yes. And so we ran a very successful Coffeehouse in Montreal for several years and several well-known folk singers got their start at our Coffeehouse.

For me this was the first time in my life that someone was willing to take a chance and trust me. That church behaved in a surprising way. It did the unusual. It took a risk which the other organizations were not willing to consider. For me, this experience was a real turning point in my journey of faith. It opened up the path of ministry for me.

I was studying at the time to be a child psychologist and as I was considering my future vocation, I felt the tug of the church. I was drawn to this church which was acting in a counter-cultural way. This church, which seemed full of surprises. And so, I decided that I would offer myself to the church as a Candidate for ministry – I would take a risk with the church, who took a risk with me.

In the fifteenth chapter of the Gospel of Luke, we have three stories in a row. We hear two of them today, the lost sheep and the lost coin. Can you guess what the third one is? It is the lost son, or more commonly called the prodigal son or the loving father. This chapter is like a gospel within the gospel. It is good news all the way. Everything lost is found. The lost sheep is returned to the flock, the lost coin is recovered by its owner, the lost son is restored to his father, and the parties go on all night long.

I don’t know about you, but I think we love these stories because we imagine ourselves on the receiving end of them. I listen to the parable of the lost sheep and it is about me. I am the poor, tuckered out lamb, draped across my dear redeemer’s shoulders so full of gratitude and relief that I vow never to wander away again. Or I am the silver coin, lying in some dark corner of the universe until the good woman who will not give up on me sweeps me into the light. These stories are about me, and I treasure them, but in their original context it was not good news to their hearers.

Yes, we need to be careful how we read these stories into our lives today. They do not mean what appears on the surface!

Often when reading chapter 15 of Luke, we skip right over the first two sentences and launch right into the parables. But the introduction and setting is very important for understanding the message here. You see, Jesus is criticized for spending time with sinners – lepers, tax collectors, women of the night, those who are unclean for a variety of reasons. And in the Gospel of Luke, this is the third time he is being so criticized. Hear again, the opening sentences:
“Now all the tax collectors and all the sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’”

Yes, Jesus not only talks with them, but eats with them in open defiance of the religious laws concerning food. We need to remember that in Jewish practice who you ate meals with was a very important issue. It is interesting that in Luke Jesus seems to be always eating. In fact there are nine distinct stories of Jesus eating with others in the Gospel of Luke, more than in any other Gospel.

And we need to note that the phrase “tax collectors and sinners” is Luke’s way of describing those who are the outcasts of the society. The same phrase is used over and over again in Luke’s Gospel to indicate Jesus’ association with the wrong kind of people.

Doesn’t Jesus know that we are known by the company we keep? Doesn’t he remember his mother’s warnings not to hang out with the wrong crowd? Doesn’t he know the saying, ‘Birds of a feather flock together’? Doesn’t he know that separating the good from the bad, preserves the good? Well, apparently not. For here he is in bad company again.

How you understand these parables depends on where you are sitting when you hear them. Are you sitting beside Jesus, as though you are joining Jesus in addressing these parables to his critics? Or are you among the Pharisees and Scribes being addressed by Jesus? Or are you among the tax collectors and sinners, watching Jesus address the Pharisees and Scribes?

Now the Pharisees and the Scribes are not bad people. We need to visualize them as real people. They are expressing a concern. They are just following their religious rules and offering commonsense wisdom. They are God-fearing believers, devoted disciples of the tradition of Abraham, Moses and the prophets, who do not merely talk about the life of faith. They live it, giving God’s law their full respect and obedience. They believed that if people just repented and followed the traditions of the elders, then everything would be alright.

Then Jesus comes along and starts messing with the system and the rules. He treats the outcast, tax collectors and sinners like special cases He acts as if they are as good and important as other people.

You see the problem these parables cause! These parables are full of problems. They do not seem to mean what Jesus says they mean. One rule about parables is that if on first reading you think you know what they mean, you are probably wrong. The parables of Jesus are full of surprises and twists and turns, that they need careful discerning to find their meaning.

Now according to the standard explanation, these parables are about heaven’s joy over one repentant sinner. But there is a problem with this explanation. You see, I don’t believe that the lost sheep repents. There is no evidence of this in the story. And as I will explain later, this is standard behaviour for sheep. And the lost coin certainly doesn’t repent. How can a coin repent! They are both simply found – not because of anything they did, but because someone is determined to find them and does not give up until they are found. They are restored thanks to God’s action, not their own, so where does repentance come in at all? And how come the good, decent folks are not given a party or a rejoicing?

It is interesting to note that Jesus is here comparing God to a shepherd and to a woman. This is the only parable which Jesus tells where the God like figure is imagined as a woman.

There is quite a bit of humour in these stories. First you need to know that sheep are quite dumb. I have a friend, whose name is Royal Orr, in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, who raises sheep. You might know him as former the host of the United Church TV programme called Spirit Connection on Vision TV or as one of the announcers on CJAD. He shakes his head when he hears the preacher talk about the sweet innocent little lambs who respond lovingly to the tender gentle shepherd.

He says quite emphatically that sheep are not sweet. They are rude, insistent, and deeply stupid animals. They would rather try to walk through a fence than go around it. They will destroy their pasture if not driven off it (unlike cattle, who will move on after eating the grass). They will devour the grass down to and including the roots, until a flourishing pasture becomes a wasteland.

So you see this story has a problem. If you leave ninety-nine stupid sheep in the wilderness and go searching for the one lost sheep, how many sheep do you have when you find the one and bring it back? Most people think this is a math problem, and so they think the answer is a hundred. People who know sheep think the answer is somewhat less than that. My friend Royal Orr, says that, based on his experience the shepherd is likely to have only one sheep when he returns. The other ninety-nine will all have scattered and also become lost.

So when Jesus says, “Which one of you having a hundred sheep would leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go looking for the one that is lost?”, probably the whole crowd would say in unison, “No one in his right mind would leave the ninety-nine and go looking for the one stupid sheep who has no sense to stay with the flock.” Everyone in the crowd would have known that fact.

Secondly, you need to know that shepherds belonged to the lowest class of Jewish society. You could not be a shepherd and be a Jew in good standing. Think about this fact. In Palestine 2000 years ago, shepherds rarely bathed. In that dry and dusty land water was a luxury. It was used primarily for drinking and watering your sheep, not for bathing. The shepherd by definition would be thought of as dirty, dusty and smelly. Yet, Jesus points at the Pharisees and Scribes and says, “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep…” They would probably self-righteously blurt out, “But we are no shepherds!”

Let’s look at the second parable for a moment. The woman’s behaviour seems excessive. She turns the house upside down looking for one coin. In this society, before washing machines, stoves and dishwashers, this behaviour would have thrown off her whole week and maybe left the family without the evening meal. Even if she is searching for something precious, she has disrupted an entire world in her searching. Which one of you would stay home from work if you lost your wedding photos? “No one in her right mind,” is the answer the parable is seeking.

You see, Jesus is not inviting the Pharisees to imagine themselves as sheep or coins, but to imagine themselves as shepherds, who leave their carefully tended flock in order to chase one stray through the wilderness or as the woman who sweeps the house. Isn’t it interesting the way we listen to parables like these determines whether we wind up on the sheep or coin end of things instead of the shepherd’s or the woman’s side?

If you are willing to go with the possibility that these parables are about the shepherd and the woman rather than about the sheep and the coin then the story begins to sound different. The accent in what Jesus says falls on a different syllable. Repentance is not the issue, but rejoicing. The story is not about mending our evil ways, but about seeking, sweeping, finding and rejoicing. The invitation is not about being rescued by Jesus over and over again, but about joining him in rounding up God’s herd and recovering God’s treasure. It is about questioning the idea that there are certain conditions the lost must meet before they are eligible to be found, or that there are certain qualities they must exhibit before we will seek them out. It is about trading in our high standards for a strong flashlight and swapping our good examples for a good broom. It is about discovering the joy of finding.

A few years ago I went on a week-long hike in the wilderness with fifteen other people and trip leader, none of whom I knew ahead of time. We were a motley crew and as the days passed it became apparent that not all walkers are created equal. Some of us charged ahead, while others lagged behind, and while we encouraged one another along, we soon learned that we could only travel as fast as our slowest member.

Her name was Pat. She was the eldest of the group, and the heaviest and the most unpleasant. She like to walk alone at the rear of the group, which was just as well, since she had an irritating habit of listening in on other people’s conversations and then breaking in to correct their grammar, geography, history, botany, or any of the other subjects about which she knew so much. She liked a full hour for lunch and threatened to be sick if she were rushed. Most of the spots our trip leader picked to stop were too sunny, or too wet, or too steep for her, but she would plunk herself down anyway and announce she would “make do”.

Around the fifth day out we got good and lost, walking for close to ten hours over three mountains before we made camp. When we arrived – after dark, in the rain, in the middle of nowhere – Pat was not with us. We compared notes and discovered that no one had seen her since noon, when she had told the person assigned to bring up the rear to get lost and leave her alone.

Delighted, he had complied, but that meant no one had seen her for almost five hours. We were all trembling with exhaustion and soaked to the bone; no one could even imagine heading back up the last mountain in order to find her. But it was the trip leader’s job, so he did it. Armed with hot soup, a jacket and a first aid kit, he disappeared into the dark while the rest of us milled around, trying to stay away from the idea of what it would be like to be lost in the wilderness without a match or a map or a friend.

We paced and dozed until close to midnight, when Pat stumbled into camp hanging on to her shepherd. Those of us who had despised her at noon fell all over her in the dark, hugging her and welcoming her home. No one thought to ask her if she was going to be nicer person from now on, or whether she had learned her lesson. We were too glad to have her back. Imagining her out there in the dark, we had all felt more than a little lost ourselves, so finding her was as good as being found.

Pat acted rather nonchalant about the whole thing, but next morning she was up and dressed and on the trail before any of us, and from that day on she was part of the flock. Not everybody’s favourite member, by any means, but part of the flock. Maybe it was getting lost that changed her, but then again, maybe it was being found that did the trick. Maybe it was our welcome home that made the difference, that convinced her she was part of the flock, but at any rate it was hard to separate her repentance from ours, or the repentance from the rejoicing.

We all kept better track of each other from then on, and took turns walking with Pat. She even surprised everyone one night by bursting into song and leading us all in a medley of old camp songs.

Maybe some of us are destined to be shepherds and others of us to be lost sheep. But these parables tell us that God is kinder than humans. We write people off. God does not. We give up hope on someone. No so God. God seeks out the lost and rejoices when they are found. Yes, these parables paint a picture of a God who pardons us, forgives, us, accepts us. God forgets our sins in the darkness of the tomb. And in the power of Jesus’ resurrection, he puts us on his shoulders rejoicing and brings us home. And so God invites us to join in the searching, the seeking, the finding and the rejoicing.

I don’t want to miss the party, do you?


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