“Lost” Colchester Federated Church, September 15, 2019, Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Luke 15:1-10)
Today Jesus tells two parables about being lost and then found—the lost sheep and the lost coin. These stories are told in response to some Pharisees and legal experts grumbling upon seeing that tax collectors and sinners were gathered around Jesus. They observe the crowd and say, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Remember that we recently talked about how Jesus eats all the time in the Gospel according to Luke and that the image of the banquet where everybody is invited is an important metaphor for the Kingdom of God and how those in power didn’t exactly appreciate that Jesus ate with anybody and everybody? Well, Jesus is apparently at it again this morning, socializing with folks that weren’t viewed as moral exemplars. Jesus either overheard the grumbling from the religious leaders who were present or perceived it—their being personally offended that Jesus welcomed sinners and tax collectors and even deigned to eat with them—and Jesus launches into parables about being lost and getting found.
Now as someone who’s directionally impaired, I get lost from time to time. Though the worst experience of being lost happened while studying abroad in college. Six friends and I visited Paris during Spring Break and toured the Eiffel Tower at night. Somehow I got separated from my friends and couldn’t find them. Taking the elevator down to the base, I waited and waited and still couldn’t find them. It was getting late, so I decided to just go back to our cheap hotel in a not-so-nice neighborhood. Unfortunately my cell phone only worked in the United Kingdom and not in France, so I couldn’t find anyone or communicate my plan. (This was back in the Dark Ages before many people had smartphones and Google Maps and Google Translate and all those apps that save us now.)
The CliffsNotes version of what followed is that a man got uncomfortably close on the metro, speaking away in French (which I can’t understand.) He got off at the same stop and I zigged and zagged to lose him, and I did. But got completely turned around in an unfamiliar neighborhood in a foreign country at night where everyone communicated in French. (Thanks for nothing, four years of high school Latin.) People tried to help me, realizing that something was wrong. For anyone who says that Parisians are snobby, that was not my experience at all. But people couldn’t understand the name of the hotel or street address that I kept repeating. Exhausted from roaming the streets, I went into a 24-hour internet café and discovered that the only other person there was a taxi driver. At that point, he felt like a Guardian Angel. Getting into the back of his taxi and looking at his detailed map, even he couldn’t find the street. We circled the neighborhood and finally found the hotel down an alley on a “street” that one can’t find on a map of Paris.
I was lost for around four hours. Though as I discovered later—my friends had split into groups and made sure one person in each group had enough high school French to get by. Three stayed behind at the Eiffel Tower and three went back to the hotel. Those at the Eiffel Tower described me to the police and once the Eiffel Tower was closed to the public, they apparently swept it floor by floor looking for me. The three who went back to the hotel spoke to the manager and one called her father who had connections in the FBI. So when I finally showed up at the hotel—my friends yelled and cried and poured me some wine and I was almost in shock and rather touched at all they had done to find me during those hours that I was lost and alone in Paris.
Maybe you’ve been there before too. Maybe you were lost at one point or another, and things started to get scary. Maybe a friend or family member got lost. Maybe there’s been times in your own life when you felt spiritually, mentally, or emotionally lost. Yes, you could point to where you were on a map—but there was a feeling of not being exactly grounded and secure in where you were in your life.
When Jesus tells the parable about the woman with the lost coin, that’s pretty understandable. She only has ten silver coins and one goes missing. So of course she lights a lamp and sweeps the house looking carefully for that one lost silver coin. Jesus actually used the word drachma here, so that one coin amounted to ten days’ wages. Wouldn’t most of us search high and low for a coin whose value was that high?
Though when Jesus tells the parable about the one sheep that gets lost it wouldn’t have made sense to his audience at first. Maybe it doesn’t even make sense to us at first. This shepherd has one hundred sheep, a substantial flock in Jesus’ time. So this shepherd is doing well for himself. It gets interesting as Jesus asks, “Wouldn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the pasture and search for the lost one until he finds it?” The logical answer may be no. The woman who had ten coins and lost one in her own house, well of course she’s going to go looking for that coin. But that one lost and wandering sheep is kinda out of luck and who knows where that sheep may have gotten to? They could have even wandered off and gotten hurt or stranded on some treacherous cliff or something who knows! Perhaps the shepherd should focus on the smart, loyal ones who stayed together and close to him.
Additionally, what we hear in English as “the pasture” (wouldn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the pasture) is translated elsewhere in Luke as “the wilderness.” The shepherd would be leaving the ninety-nine sheep in the wilderness—in a dangerous place to go searching for the lost one who may have found themselves in an even more dangerous place. So the logical answer here is that of course the shepherd wouldn’t leave ninety-nine sheep to fend for themselves out in the wilderness to go searching for the one that is lost.
But apparently that’s how God works. God isn’t an ordinary shepherd. Because as Jesus tells the parable, the shepherd does go searching for that one lost sheep (even though the ninety-nine are in the wilderness themselves.) “And when he finds it, he is thrilled and places it on his shoulders. When he arrives home he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Celebrate with me because I’ve found my lost sheep.’” The shepherd can’t leave that one sheep behind, lost and alone out there encountering who knows what dangers. He goes out looking because every sheep is important. Every sheep has worth. Every sheep needs to be found. Jesus uses this as an opportunity to pointedly tell those who judge him for hanging out with tax collectors and sinners that there’s more joy in heaven over just one sinner who changes both their heart and life than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need to do so.
Now sometimes it’s jarring to hear language about sin and sinners. Keep in mind that we can view sin as separation. Separation from God. Separation from one another. Separation from ourselves and being the people God created us to be, being the people that we want to be. So one way to think about how we view ourselves as Christians is that we do sin and we are forgiven sinners. The point Jesus seems to be making here is that when someone recognizes the inevitable separation, when someone realizes that they are lost and somehow make their way back to God, to their neighbors, and even to themselves—that is cause for joy. Perhaps more joy than someone who never has experienced being lost in the wilderness in the first place.
The reality is that the shepherd does go looking for the one lost sheep. That is good news for all of us to hear. Because maybe that sheep couldn’t get back to the flock on their own. When I reflect on that night in Paris (13 years ago by now) I know that I couldn’t have made my way back without that taxi driver who was the only other person frequenting that internet café late at night. He was willing to help a foreigner who was clearly lost. And I needed help to be found, and he was that person for me.
Because sometimes we will realize that we are lost (spiritually, emotionally, or mentally lost) or we will see someone we love who is lost, and that’s when we can throw someone a lifeline and help them find their way again. For those who have been lost before, the gift is to be able to see when someone else is lost and respond with compassion. It’s like a story once told on The West Wing:
“This guy’s walking down the street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep he can’t get out. A doctor passes by and the guy shouts up, ‘Hey you. Can you help me out?’ The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a priest comes along and the guy shouts up, ‘Father, I’m down in this hole can you help me out?’ The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a friend walks by, ‘Hey, Joe, it’s me can you help me out?’ And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, ‘Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.’ The friend says, ‘Yeah, but I’ve been down here before and I know the way out.’”
Perhaps some of those religious leaders in Jesus’ day had never been truly and utterly lost before. So they see people (who may or may not be behaving wonderfully or working in their preferred occupations) and they meet them with judgment. But not Jesus. Jesus tells parables about a sheep and a coin getting lost and then found. He lifts up the example of that woman searching for that lost coin and throwing a party when it’s found. And the shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine sheep to go out searching for the one who is lost and alone in the wilderness. And when that sheep is found—when we are found—the joy simply cannot be contained. Thanks be to God. Amen.