Lost and Found
Scripture: Luke 15:1-10
When I was about 5 years old, my parents had to do some shopping in the city near where we lived, and so they took me with them to a large department store. My dad needed to go to one side of the store to pick up some things, and my mom needed to go to the other. And in the confusion of the moment, my mom assumed that little 5 year old Nathan, cute as can be, had gone with my father - and my dad assumed that little 5 year old Nathan, cute as can be, had gone with my mother.
After they had finished picking up the items they needed, my mom and dad found each other and quickly discovered that their youngest son was lost.
No sooner had they begun to point fingers and panic, as any normal parent might do in this situation, the intercom came on over the store, and a voice called out - “Would the parents of Nathan Hill please come to the front of the store. YOU ARE LOST.”
This morning, I want to claim the good news that Jesus is calling out across the intercom of life to all people, “YOU ARE LOST.”
Calling out to those who are lost in unfulfilling work
calling out to those who are lost in regret and shame because actions that have hurt others
calling out to those who are lost in fear and despair in this world of violence, terror, and injustice
calling out to those who are lost in their search for truth, love, and purpose
Jesus knew lost people well and it often got him into trouble.
In our scripture this morning, the Pharisees and scribes criticize Jesus for spending too much time with the lost, with the wrong kind of people, with sinners and tax collectors. Now, I know some of you in here may have worked for the Internal Revenue Service as a contractor, but tax collectors in Jesus’ day were not like tax professionals in our day (I hope). They were known as cheats, as people without integrity, who would take a little extra for themselves to benefit an unjust system.
Likewise, “sinners” is a broad term, but it means Jesus was hanging out with the people better left to the Lost & Found box. People who deserved to be lost. The kind of people you didn’t invite over for dinner, and you didn’t trust.
According to the wisdom of the day, you became like the company you would keep, so the more Jesus hung out with these good for nothings, the more it seemed to reflect on Jesus’ lack of character, at least according to the Pharisees and scribes. If Jesus was truly righteous, he would hang out with other holy people, not those dropouts or gang members or Wall Street bankers or Dallas Cowboy fans or whoever.
Jesus hears this criticism and decides to push back by telling a couple of stories. These stories are unusual stories - we call them parables. Parable sounds like a fancy word, but it means a story with meaning, a story that offers us a glimpse of the character of God. Our Children’s Worship & Wonder curriculum teach our kids that parables have lids - they need to be opened to discover their meaning. Writer Richard Beck makes a case that parables tell us who God is and what the God’s community looks like. These are stories that can change us if we aren’t careful.
In both stories, Jesus talks about things that are lost.
In the first parable, Jesus describes a peculiar shepherd with a herd of 100 sheep who leaves the 99 that are safe and accounted for to go out and search high and low for one sheep that goes missing. If any of you have ever worked in retail business, you know that most businesses expect that some products get damaged or go missing - you account for it. But this shepherd wasn’t having any of that - he didn’t give up until he found that one wayward sheep. When he found it, he placed that sheep on his shoulders and came dancing home, calling to all of his friends, inviting them to celebrate the good news that this sheep that was lost is now found.
In the second parable, Jesus talks of a widow with ten coins who loses one. Relentlessly, she sweeps and scours her house, looking in the deep dark corners of her couch and between the seats of her car until she finds it. A more rational person might have shrugged their shoulders and expected a single coin to turn up in the laundry, but this widow doesn’t rest until the wayward coin is accounted for. When she finds it, she calls to her neighbors and throws a wild party for what was lost is now found.
In both parables, Jesus makes this point - God and all the angels in heaven throw a party when one sinner who was lost turns their life around. God’s agenda of grace isn’t about rewarding those who have it all together. God’s agenda is about relentlessly pursuing and searching for those who have been abandoned, forgotten, and shuffled off in the Lost & Found boxes of our world.
Earlier in his ministry in Luke 5:32, Jesus tells the same critics, the same Pharisees and scribes, “I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.”
Deeper than that, Jesus challenges those same Pharisees and scribes - and challenges us - to understand the depths of God’s love for this hurting world. Are we going to stand there grumbling and judging, or will we join in the celebration when someone who was lost finds their way home? Do we get excited when one who has made a mess of their lives turns to God and turns their life around?
These parables remind us that God is love, and when God sent Jesus into this world, that love became flesh. And Jesus spent almost all of his time with people who were considered lost and rejected, over and over again reminding them and telling them that they are loved. They are worthy. That someone is calling their name.
Scripture doesn’t tell us what happened to these grumbling Pharisees and scribes, but maybe a few of them began to rethink things. Maybe that day the alternative wisdom of Jesus’ parables pierced their hardened hearts and they began to realize that they were more like those tax collectors and sinners than they first realized. Though they knew scripture and saw themselves as faithful believers, maybe they realized they were missing something.
The Apostle Paul in Romans 3:23 makes the bold claim that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”
Paul’s profound theological statement isn’t to condemn us as awful and worthless - but remind us that we all know what it is like to be lost. We all know what it is to sin. We all know what it is to fall short. We all know what it is like, in some way, to be placed into this world’s Lost & Found box.
Paul’s statement instead affirms that all of us need Jesus.
Even the scribes and Pharisees.
Especially those who think they’ve got God figured out.
My colleague Rev. Nathan Day Wilson said it this way on Twitter recently, “If you want to be assured of being wrong, try to determine the boundaries of God’s grace.”
Our spiritual journeys should always begin and end in humility, aware of our need to be found, aware that there is so much more of God’s love available than we can imagine.
Psalm 136 says, “O, give thanks to the Lord, for God is good, and God’s mercy endures forever.”
Our invitation as a church and as people is to proclaim and join in with this divine mercy that endures the scandals and brokenness of our world and lives.
Can we live with more humble gratitude for those we encounter, putting away our self-righteousness and seeing the image of God even in those who we think have chosen the wrong paths in life?
Can we be the kind of a church that doesn’t go looking for respectable people with good resumes and spiritual lives that are neat and tidy but delights in hanging out with all the wrong kinds of folks in hopes that God might turn their life and our lives around?
I heard a story from a pastor recently about a moment of transformation in his life. He was in college, studying to be an engineer, and things were good. He was interning for a large government contractor, making electronic components. The company was offering him a job. He would make more money than his parents ever had. But something wasn’t right - he learned, for instance, that the components he would make were going on smart bombs and that didn’t exactly sit well with his Christian values to love your neighbor. But it more than that - something was missing in his life.
One day, he was walking past campus on a street lined with bars, when a stranger called out to him, asking for help. This stranger looked like he had just blown in from out of town with a few belongings to his name, the smell of alcohol on his breath. This college kid instantly thought - oh no, he’s going to ask me for something. He’s going to scam me.
But by some compassion, the student began an exchange with this stranger who was trying to figure out how to get to a halfway house. He had just been released from prison, and he wanted to get his life back on track. The two sat and talked for a long while, sharing a little bit of their stories, opening up to each other. The longer they talked, the more comfortable they got. Finally, as the conversation began to wind down and the evening turned to night, the stranger asked this young man to pray for him. And he did, offering the best prayer he could come up with as he clasped this stranger’s hands. As they parted ways, this college kid took his last $20 in his pocket and handed it to this man to help him on his way.
The pastor realized in that moment, that he had met someone who by all accounts the world would regard as lost, someone who had done wrong and should be distrusted and kept at arm’s length - but in that exchange, the two realized how much they had in common. Two lost human beings created in the image of God, looking for help to find a way home, a way to hope, a way to wholeness.
That college kid would go on to turn down that job offer and enroll in seminary to serve a God who loves the lost.
I don’t know if you came to worship today expecting to be told that you are lost, but God is calling out over the intercom of this world and your life. “Would you come down to the front? YOU ARE LOST.”
And even more scandalous, would you join our Living God in creating a world where no one is lost, where all human beings, all colors, backgrounds, and stories, are loved and affirmed?
Will you join in the heavenly celebration when even one of God’s children finds their way home?
(posted September 15, 2019)