17th Sunday after Pentecost—Lectionary 24C—September 15, 2013
Preached at Lutheran Church of Framingham
Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer. Amen.
In this morning’s Gospel reading, we hear two parables of a triad, the one left out being the story of the prodigal son. All three of these parables reflect on separation and lost-ness. Many of you know the parable of the prodigal son well, so I’m glad that this morning we can focus on the first two. Although the three share a theme, the first two tell the same truth but with a slightly different focus than the prodigal son.
As you may know, my mom and step-dad are hobby shepherds. They have a small flock of Icelandic sheep in Northwestern Illinois. Every Spring they usher many new additions into the flock during lambing season. And every Summer, they spend hours searching for and chasing escaped lambs. You see, for those first couple of months, lambs are still very small compared to their moms. At the very beginning of their lives, lambs tend to stick close to their moms, bleating “baa-ing” incessantly if they cannot see mom. But quickly, they get bold, someone leads them to believe that the grass outside the pasture is a whole lot better than the grass inside. So their small size combined with their newly found curious adventurism, they squeeze through tiny holes in the fence and are free…or lost, depending on if you ask shepherd or sheep.
When the lost sheep are discovered, it is not always easy to get them back into the safety of the barnyard or pasture as quickly and as without incident as my mom and stepdad might prefer. So returning a lost sheep to the flock is less about the sheep turning around, making a decision to return, and finding their way home, but about being missed, being searched out, found, and then brought—sometimes dragged or even carried—home.
But the aspect of the two parables that I really want to focus on is the finder, not the lost item. In both, a valuable item is lost—a sheep or a silver coin, and the owner seeks the lost item out, finds it…and then throws a crazy party to celebrate!
My question is: how much lamb meat was consumed at the party thrown in celebration of finding the lost lamb? and similarly, how much money did the party to the celebrate the finding of the lost coin cost? Do you not think that it might have been more cost effective for both to simply write off the loss and not leave 99 sheep alone and vulnerable in the wilderness to find the one or lose sleep, burn fuel, and waste energy meticulously searching for the one lost coin?
But what does this question, these parables, have to do with you? Jesus tells these parables to describe God’s reaction to sinners who repent. And although as Lutherans, we believe that we are all simultaneously saints and sinners, are any of you, am I, a “real” sinner? In the 1st century, as Jesus uses it, the word “sinner” was used to refer to people who consistently and without hesitation or remorse would break the laws of society and the laws of God. So although we might sin, because we try to live a good life and do the right thing, we would have been considered righteous, not a sinner.
But Jesus is also talking about a different distinction, not the difference between righteous and sinner, but between the lost and the found. Most of us, I suspect would place ourselves in the category of righteous, but that does not preclude you from also identifying with the group of lost.
Even though you might be a God-fearing and loving person, you might feel lost…
– lost in debt
– lost in illness or injury
– lost in the pool of society’s expectations
– lost in the sea of obligations and commitments
– lost in the depths of trying to “make it”
– lost in addiction and recovery
– lost in relationships
– lost in grief
No matter righteous or sinner, no matter how lost you are, repentance/being found is not something YOU have to do. The lamb does not wander back to the flock and shepherd. The coin does not jump out from under the couch and show itself to the woman. The shepherd finds the lamb. The woman finds the coin. You do not have to do any specific deeds or find the right path yourself in order to be found by God. God comes to you, no matter where you are, in the darkest depths of depression, substance abuse, pre-occupation with fame and fortune and God finds you. Not just once, but over and over and over.
And every time you are found, God rejoices!
These parables are not ultimately about telling sinners how to become righteous, or the lost how to get un-lost, ultimately they are about God’s over the top, ridiculous, never ending, too big for words love for you.
No matter whether you think yourself righteous or a sinner, you might feel lost at times, and thankfully God finds you, re-claims you again and again a child of God, and welcomes you back into the love and safety of the kingdom. This does not mean that we stop wandering away or stop getting pulled away by outside influences, back out into the wilderness, the darkness, the lost-ness, the fear.
But these parables can serve as a reminder that no matter how many times bad things happen to us or we do bad things, God never stops loving us as the children of God we are. God never stops throwing a party, seemingly not worth the cost, in celebration of our found-ness.
Through water and word, bread and wine, community and prayer, God comes to us, holds us in God’s arms, and rejoices. Amen.