Lost and found

Good morning, Friends!

Last week we looked at a story Jesus told about a farmer. This morning, I want us to look at three stories Jesus told, which all have one thing in common. They’re all about something which is lost and then found.

You’ve probably heard all these before. They’re not something new. But I want you to hear these stories all together, the way Jesus told them. They’re about the way God works in the world. “If you want to understand God,” Jesus said, “listen up!” Here’s the first story.

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? 

And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep!’ 

I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.

– Luke 15:1-7

The first story is the one we call the parable of the lost sheep. You’ve got a hundred sheep in the flock; ninety-nine are all safe and accounted for. Just one is missing. What’s the shepherd going to do? Write that one sheep off?

An economist would probably say, “The shepherd didn’t know enough to cut his losses. It makes more economic sense to abandon the missing sheep, and save the rest.

An ethicist would say, “This is a clear case of where we need to practice lifeboat ethics. The greatest good of the greatest number. Save the 99, and let the one go.”

A biologist would probably say, “Sticking together is a survival mechanism. The survival of the fittest. Sheep that wander away don’t deserve to survive.”

The story of the lost sheep is one of the foundations of Christianity. None of the scientific or economic answers to this situation represent either the teaching or the practice of Christ.

Jesus doesn’t say “the greatest good of the greatest number.” Jesus says, “I want them all. They’re all mine.”

Years ago, when I was in high school, I worked on a dairy farm. It wasn’t a big operation. We milked about 30 or 35 cows every day. We knew every animal as an individual.

When cows give birth, they often do it out in the field at night. We’d try to keep the cows that were due in a field close in to the barn, but sometimes they’d be out in a pasture half a mile away, or more. One morning, one of the cows that had been expecting came in, and she looked like she’d been deflated. She’d given birth during the night. But there was no calf with her. So, my boss sent me out to look for the missing calf.

I didn’t find it. I searched all over the pasture, in the hollows, along the fence rows, and up by the old stone wall. Couldn’t find it.

That evening, same thing. The next day, same thing. We were starting to get worried, because if the calf got over onto the wrong side of the fence, it’s mother couldn’t get to it, and it would starve. So next morning, I went out early, before milking, to take another look.

And I almost missed it. I’d walked past the same spot two or three times before. But there, in the shade in among the ferns, I saw something shining. It was the calf’s eye, glittering at me. Then I saw a nose. And then I made out the rest of it.

I scrambled over the fence and caught it. It tried to get away from me, but it was pretty weak from not being fed for two days. I caught it, and slung it over my shoulders, and carried it back to the barn.

I felt just like the shepherd in today’s story. In that moment, the one that was lost mattered more to me than all the ones that were safe at home.

We didn’t quite toast each other at breakfast, with our orange juice and coffee – but it was kind of like that. The one that had been lost was found.

Did you notice, in the story, Jesus didn’t say that the lost sheep was a bad sheep? Getting lost – it’s just something sheep do.

Maybe we shouldn’t judge people who get lost in life. It happens. Sure, the sheep went the wrong way, and made the wrong choice. So don’t we all!

Jesus doesn’t talk about sinners as bad people. He says that God wants to save every last one of us. God never gives up. God never stops searching.

You think about this story, and it also makes you think about the jobs and careers that a lot of us hold. Think about what this story means for teachers. For people in medicine. For counselors and human service workers.

The lost sheep matter. They matter a lot. Go back and re-read this story, and think about how it affects your life, and your personal philosophy.

As Jesus said in the parable we heard last week, “Whoever has ears to hear, listen up!”

Here’s the second story in today’s Scripture. It’s kind of like the first, but different.

Suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? 

And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin!’ 

In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.

– Luke 15:8-10

Let me re-tell this second story to you in modern terms.

Suppose you’ve got a credit card. An important one, a gold card with a $20,000 limit. You’re in the store, you open your purse or your wallet, and it’s missing.

“Which one of you,” says Jesus, “wouldn’t run on home and tear the house apart till you found it?”

Well, I sure would! Wouldn’t you? Has anyone here ever been in that sort of situation? Don’t you wish you had a gold credit card with a $20,000 limit?

Something really valuable turns up missing. You tear apart your desk, empty all your drawers, look under the bed, empty out the trash, look under the seat cushions, check the pocket in every piece of clothing in the closet. Can’t sleep till you find what was lost.

Anybody here ever lose something like that? Anybody here feel that overwhelming sense of relief when it’s found?Jesus says, “That’s how it is with God.” God searches everywhere for what’s lost.

In the story, the woman lost one coin, out of ten that she had. Might not seem like much. But you have to remember what things were like back then.

I don’t know if you’ve ever seen pictures of women in some societies where they wear jewelry made up of gold coins, around their neck or around their forehead? Ever seen pictures of that?

In societies like that, they don’t have IRA’s or pensions or bank accounts. Gold is their life savings. It’s all they have, to keep them alive – and what a disaster if they lose even part of it.
In some societies, a young woman wears those gold coins as her dowry. If she loses it, she’s considered unmarriageable. All her hopes, all her future, would be lost. I think that’s the kind of situation Jesus had in mind.

“God is like that woman,” Jesus says. She doesn’t say, “Oh, that’s too bad, I’ll just go and get another coin!”

No. She tears the house upside down. She doesn’t rest till she finds it. And when she does find it, she calls all her neighbors and her lady friends and rejoices, because she’s found what mattered so much to her.

“Every one of you,” says Jesus, “every one of you, no matter how bad your life has been, is ten times more valuable, a hundred times more valuable, than any gold coin you can imagine. When one person turns back, the angels up in heaven throw a party!”

And if God feels that way, what are we doing, when we judge people for their past? What are we doing, when we blame people, for being in a fix?

Let’s go on to the third story. It’s the one we’re most familar with. It’s the story of the lost son. These are all from the same place, in Luke chapter 15.

Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.

Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 

After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.

When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 

I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ So he got up and went to his father.

But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.

The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’

– Luke 15:11-24

 

We usually call this third story the story of the prodigal son. “Prodigal” means wasteful. The younger son wasted everything his father gave him.

This young man took his share of the inheritance, and headed for the big city. Straight down to Charlotte! He had quite a time, it says, till one morning he woke up, flat broke and hung over. He tried to get a job, picked food out of the dumpster at McDonald’s, hoping for a handout, but nobody gave him anything.

We all know the rest of the story. He came back home, ready to apologize. He got off the bus, and he borrowed a couple of quarters to call home. But before he even got his apology out, his father came running to meet him.

His dad said, “Give this boy a Panthers shirt! Get him a new pair of sneakers! Heat up the grill! Johnny’s back! We’re going to have a party!”Actually, the father didn’t say that. That’s my own translation. But you all get the point.

The setting for all three of these stories – the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son – the setting is the same.

First, this is the way that God acts. Christ is the good shepherd, the one who looks for the lost, who lays down his life for the sheep.

God is like the woman who searches the house, with a flashlight in her hand, staying up till midnight, not resting until the lost coin is found.

And God is like the father, who comes running to meet us, when we have just started to turn back, who embraces us before the words of apology are even out of our mouths.

One of the things we forget is how active God is. None of these stories is passive. The shepherd is actively seeking. The woman is energetic. The father doesn’t just sit there on the couch, frowning,  with his arms crossed, not budging until the son comes crawling up the driveway. The father comes running to meet him.

God’s love is an active, seeking, searching, energetic kind of love. God comes running to meet us.

One of the things I like about these parables of Jesus, is that you can try them on in different ways. Turn it this way a little. Now that way.

One point is that God’s love is active. That’s what God is like.

Another point, in these stories, is what we are like.

Do you remember what it said at the very beginning of these stories? It said that “tax collectors and sinners were drawing near to Jesus.” And the Pharisees and scribes were murmuring about it.

“Did you know who came to Jesus’ place to eat last night?” “Did you see who he stopped to talk to?”

It was that kind of poisonous whisper talk, the stuff that gets said out in the parking lot, or in a corner during fellowship hour, that was going on. That’s the reason Jesus told this morning’s three stories.

I know we like to think of ourselves as pretty welcoming. But every now and then, I have to wonder if we’re really out there beating the bushes the way the shepherd did, or turning the place upside-down, the way the woman did, in order to look for people.

That’s what makes some churches different. There’s nothing wrong with being one of the 99 good sheep that never make trouble or wander away. I probably fall into that category myself.

But do we really have a heart for people who are missing? Do we care passionately about them?

Are we willing to turn the whole neighborhood upside down, to search for them, like the woman who lost that valuable coin? Do we see each and every person as being valuable?

The father came running to welcome the foolish son who wasted his father’s gifts. But God does that with each of us at times.

One son was wasteful and rebellious. But the other brother was judgmental and bitter. Remember the rest of the story, in verses 25-32:

Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’

The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 

But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’

‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’

I don’t think either son comes off well in the story. We might not be the prodigal son, but are we ever like the judgmental older brother?

I don’t think that God wants us to act the way either of the two sons did in the story. Except that if we do make mistakes, God wants us to turn around and come home. Don’t ever doubt your welcome. That’s a message God wants us to share.

The real choice in the parable of the lost son, is the choice between joy and jealousy. That’s what we have to decide. The real choice is whether to celebrate sincerely, when people turn back. People who can’t celebrate are the ones who are really out in the cold. That’s a tough word to hear.

I think there are a whole lot of lessons in these three stories. I’m sure I haven’t even begun to figure them all out.

Let’s take a few more minutes to let these words of Jesus sink into our minds and hearts.

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