He was mingling with the wrong sorts of people.
Not just mingling, mind you, but welcoming them. Eating with them. Clearly his parents had not brought him up well, teaching him that he would be known by the company he kept. He did not keep good company. Jesus didn’t just welcome these sorts of folks, he sought them out which sets the religious elite to grumbling. Jesus spent a lot of time with the kind of riffraff most of us try to avoid. “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them” they tut-tut.
So he tells them a parable. “Which of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and goes after the one that is lost until he finds it?” They stare at him with his opening question. “You’re kidding, right?” those religious insiders think to themselves. “Leave ninety-nine in the wilderness for one stupid sheep that ran off by itself? Then those others would be prone to attack or their own wandering off. No way.”
But Jesus continues. “When that shepherd finds 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 is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”
The religious types who look an awful lot like me begin to seethe. “Who does this backcountry rabbi think he is? He knows the laws about what’s clean and what’s not. About who’s clean and who’s not. Rejoicing in heaven, ha. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”
And so Jesus tells another story. This time it’s one silver coin out of ten, and poor woman who turns her house upside down looking in every nook and cranny until she can put that coin back into her change purse with all the others. And then she’s the one dancing a jig and calling her friends to tell them the exciting news of the lost being found. That’s just the kind of joy there is in the very presence of God’s angels when one sinner repents.
Jesus tells one more story, of course, the coup de grâs if you will of this triad: The Prodigal Son. We heard that mercy-filled story during Lent about those two sons and their father and being lost and repenting and being found, so we didn’t read it today. Next week we’ll be on to Luke’s next chapter.
The question before both Jesus’ first listeners and us is where do we find ourselves in these stories. What role do we imagine ourselves taking on? It’s not that hard, of course, in determining where those religious folk would put themselves: they’d be the shepherd, or perhaps that woman. But they would also be doing the calculus in their heads about the value of their time verses the worth of a single sheep amongst a hundred, or even a silver coin lost somewhere in the house. Did it make sense to leave other sheep behind, when new ones would be born next spring to take its place? Was it worth it to get all scraped up in the brambles for one stupid sheep? Or that silver coin? Couldn’t they just do some more work, or make a transaction of some sort to get a few more to replace it? Surely it would show up at some point.
But that would be a mistake, I think. Because Jesus is really inviting his listeners both then and now to see themselves as that lost sheep, as the missing coin. The one needing to be found and unable to do anything about it.
That’s not the place we often see ourselves in these stories, as we like to do the saving and finding. But maybe there’s a time in your life when you felt lost, when you couldn’t find your way, and you felt as if you were entirely alone. You can bet those tax collectors and other notorious folks had felt that way before. That they couldn’t get their lives together enough to be accepted by society and so struggled in life alone.
What Jesus is telling them is that just like that shepherd that left ninety-nine sheep behind, as that woman stopped everything she had been doing to focus on the missing coin, so God seeks us out. God turns up the cushions, and sweeps away the dust bunnies, and goes far into the wilderness listening for our whimpering cries. And God doesn’t stop until we are found.
Which isn’t how faith is often described. Usually we hear that we have to seek, or knock, or ask. We need to actively participate by looking for God, who far too often seems elusive. We sometimes think God is hiding from us, and we’re the ones trying to track God down. But that’s not the way things go according to Jesus. As the coin or the sheep, we’re the ones out there lost, waiting and it is God who is searching high and low for us.
And while this may sound passive, Jesus lets us in on the one thing that is asked of us: to change our minds. That’s what repentance really means in the Greek. To turn around. To go in a new direction. To change your mind.
In fact, I think that the more we try to find God on our own terms and in our understanding, the more elusive God becomes. Lancelot Andrewes, a bishop in the Church of England during the reign of Elizabeth I, included this line in one of his Easter sermons: “He is found of them that seeke him not, but of them that seeke him never but found.” Andrewes stumps us for a moment or two with his words, because he says what we don’t expect. Jesus can only be found by those who aren’t seeking him, and those who seek him never find him, but they themselves get found by him.
It sort of reminds me of that day long ago in the Hundred Acre Wood when Rabbit wanted so desperately to unbounce Tigger and so led him along with Pooh and Piglet into a dense fog in order to have Tigger become lost. Yet it is only Rabbit himself who gets lost and ultimately he is found by Tigger himself. It didn’t go according to the the great plan he had concocted for himself, and so is the paradox of faith.
For those who’ve been a follower of Jesus for sometime perhaps the thing they fear that they have lost is faith itself. That the faith they once had which felt so strong and true has wandered away and gone missing in the fog. Theologian Scott Bader-Saye explains it this way, “What is it to ‘lose faith’ but to lose the conviction that one has been found, to begin to wonder whether one is sought at all—whether there is in fact a shepherd or a peasant woman tracking us down? To those whose lost object is faith itself, these parables whisper that losing faith—that is, becoming like the tax collector and sinner rather than the Pharisee and scribe—is to have wandered into the place where one can [indeed] be found.” Jesus is in fact searching for you in order to restore your faith once more.
And when he does, well, there’s a party. That’s what Jesus is really saying to the religious types—when one who was lost is found by God, heaven erupts in joyous celebration. So rejoice! Turn up the music and kick up your heels! Grab a beverage and enjoy a great meal! For one who had been lost is now found by God. One who thought they were all alone now sees that they were always part of something so much bigger.
Friends, there’s really only one thing we need to do. Change our minds. We can decide to pursue a different course. We can let go of the anger or fear or doubt and trust that God is out there right now searching for us. And then we can also decide that when that party gets started for us or for someone else—no matter who they are—that we will join in. For our God declares: Rejoice! For my lost sheep now is found. A coin of great value went missing, but now it’s safe with me! Rejoice! Amen.