It doesn’t happen very often thankfully, but once in a while some of our neighbours go away. It’s a nice house, big garden, swimming pool. Perhaps I should clarify... When the neighbours go away they leave their teenage children. Now a bit of basic maths for you - teenagers + empty house + swimming pool X alcohol, music and summer nights = PAAAARTY! Now this doesn’t happen very often but there have been a handful of times when I have grumbled like the old man I am becoming... There will be this sort of partying in heaven says Jesus when one who was lost to God returns...
I hate losing things. I live by a very special filing system which is far from infalible! When things are lost, it induces a sense of blind panic in me and utter relief on recovering the item in question. Jesus tells stories this morning that I think I can identify with - losing things. Important things...
These stories of the lost sheep and the lost coin are preludes to perhaps Jesus’ greatest story of loss and recovery. You know the one. It tells of a lad who loses himself; of an older brother who loses his temper and sense of values and of a good father that never loses hope... a Heavenly Father that trusts that things that once were lost, people who once were lost can still be found... Recognise it yet?
In the story of the lost sheep, it is clear that all 100 sheep are owned by the shepherd. As the flock makes it’s way across the barren wilderness the shepherd notices that one sheep is missing. He leaves the 99, taking an enormous risk in trusting they will be safe, and makes his way in search of the one.
But we all too easily miss the scandal. Jesus has been openly criticised for spending time with sinners by the scribes and pharisees. They loved God and lived in hope of the coming Messiah. Their job was to interpret the Law of Moses for keeping it would prepare the way for His coming. They criticised Jesus because in him they saw one of their own and yet here he is fraternising with sinners like leather tanners, tax collectors women and shepherds. But the scandal deepens... ‘Which one of you,’ says Jesus referring to the Pharisees, has one hundred sheep...’ Jesus is inviting them to identify with a shepherd, a sinner!
Jesus carries on speaking to the scribes and pharisees, ‘... Or what woman...’ Jesus now calls them to identify themselves with a woman, any woman, about whom they prayed each day, ‘Thank you Lord of the Universe, that you did not make me a woman...’ But this woman knows the value of what she is searching for - a silver coin. She lights a lamp and sweeps in the darkness and dirt to find her life and livelihood.
I am often asked things like - I have lost my job, please pray for me. My wife has cancer and I am frightened of losing her, please pray. I have lost my faith - if there is a God pray for me. I feel so lost and afraid please pray for me. I have lost my house please pray... In the stories that we hear Jesus tell today, we have an assurance that he is never indifferent to these contemporary pleas in their lostness.
Jesus doesn’t so much as teach about the scope of God’s love reaching out to those traditionally outside it’s orbit, namely to tax collector and shepherd, rather he gets the pharisees to empathise with the lost, and to ram the point home - Jesus models it by eating and speaking with them at table.
Friends, God is a God who doesn’t sit distant from us and condemn us, but when we are a long way from him, he comes to us. He sits and shares food and conversation with us. When we are lost he hunts us out. He searches high and low in the darkest and most unlikely corners of the universe til he finds us. How does that sort of seaching love make us feel? If someone goes out of their way to see me, to speak to me, I want to make sure that I stop what I am doing, face them and give them my full attention. So it with Jesus. God loves the world, love me so much that he sends me Jesus... God loves me so much that he went out of his way to search me out... I should give him my full attention.
One of the most wonderful experiences we had in New Zealand was stopping by the side of the road, and as we stopped watching a shepherd and his dog herd the sheep. The dog did not run barking after the sheep, but rather as the sheep wandered off, the dogs watched intellegently and intently, then they ran like hell to get in front of the sheep and they lay down across the path the sheep were wandering so when the sheep did wander that way they were gently turned back onto the right path. We are called to a double repentance, a double determinedness to live God’s way - by listening to Jesus, for that sends heaven partying, and the experience of being found by God’s never ending love for us in and through him.
Jesus invited the Pharisee and scribes to identify with his search for those who are lost and his joy and finding those who are currently unaware of God’s love for them. What would church be like if we did the same - going out of our way to meet with and share God’s love with those who are currently unaware of His it where they are? For that’s what Jesus does. He doesn’t ask us to go to him. He comes to us. This is what he calls us His church to do - to emulate his example and the example of his Father. If we are to be a church at all - this must lie at the heart of what flows out of our meeting with Jesus as sinners around this table sharing bread and wine. To go out of our way to meet people where they are to talk with them, to help them to listen to Jesus and to encounter his love for them, returning rejoicing.
Jesus doesn’t ask us to be like the pharisees - already aware of how they think God wants them to look - with the clothes of righteousness and an air of supercilious faith. Rather Jesus asks go with others just as you are, to be with him and to be found by him, to spend time with him, to listen to each other and especially to Him, and to rejoice with the whole of heaven as we seek to discover anew what it means to be loved by Him.
The challenge for our mission to care for the lost, all those we encounter in our daily lives and all those we seek to bring back to the sheepfold on Back to Church Sunday, but not just then. For seeking out the lost does not in the least need any book to be burnt, It does not ask us to rebuke, to admonish or even look down upon anyone, for that was not the way of Christ. It calls us to this: First, think and pray; Second, run like hell; and third, be found lying about.For the lost, it is a precious and costly gift to be found at the right time in the right place. “Rejoice with me,” says Jesus, “for I have found . . . that which was lost.” Amen.
I am indebted to Fr. Simon Rundell's sermon on the same passage for inspiration which can be read here.