Once again here we have an extended passage of verses we don’t usually hear together. And yet, these verses all go together very well. They are all stories of the lost being found, and the found being celebrated. The sheep that was lost was sought after, found, and celebrated as it was returned to the flock. The coin that was lost was sought, was found and was celebrated after being found. And the son who was lost, came to his senses, returned and was celebrated.
Can you think of things that you’ve lost that have really mattered to you? A small thing, perhaps like a necklace or letter that meant something to you, or a big thing, perhaps, like a house that you had to move away from or a car that was in an accident. Maybe it’s not a thing that you’ve lost but a situation: maybe a job, or a relationship. Maybe what you’ve lost is a cultural thing: days when children could play outside and visit their neighborhood friends without their parents helicoptering over them, the times when only one adult in a family had to have a job. Some of the hardest loses I think are the losses we experience when a deeply held belief is overturned: a belief that the world was a certain way, or the belief that God was a certain way. When those kinds of things are confronted and overturned, it can be incredibly painful, incredibly hard. Sometimes, we feel grief, or nostalgia for the past, and can’t identify what it is that is lost. We feel this nebulous, “I want things to be the way they were before!” without being able to really name what it is we feel we’ve lost. Sometimes those memories of the past are also incomplete or missing things. For example, that yearning for a time when only one adult per family had to work is also missing the fact that when women wanted to work or had goals or aspirations, they weren’t allowed to fulfill them. Those times when kids could play freely with neighborhood kids were not actually safer times, just times when we were less aware of the dangers that kids were exposed to and the traumas that our children experienced. I think for myself, there finally came a realization that my nostalgia for the past was often more about knowing how that past turned out… it turned into today, after all. Whereas I don’t know how today will turn out – I don’t know if I’ll survive this day, or if my children will, or if there will even be a survivable world left for any potential grandchildren. And so, I crave what seems like a simpler time, when in fact it was only “simpler” because I didn’t know as much, wasn’t aware of the problems to the same extent, and again, they ended in today, so I know that I survived it. But regardless, there is a sense of loss, a depth of grief, even when I can look at it in the face and challenge it for what it was, that grief is there. And sometimes it is unbearable.
In the face of that, what would you do to search for that which you’ve lost? What would you sacrifice to fill that space of grief, to find that which you valued once more? I think about Carol Weir, who would not let go of Ben when he was kidnapped in Lebanon, but who did everything in her power, talking to our government, raising awareness, fighting for the release of her husband. She gave up her comfort, her solitude, her anonymity, to stand up, to fight, to get her husband home. I think of the mother’s who began MADD. They found a world that was unsafe for children when a drunk driver killed their sons, their loved ones. And while they could not get their sons back, they could fight with everything in them to make sure other mothers did not suffer that same loss.
Did others always approve of what these women that I’ve named did? No. Carol got a lot of pushback and even hatred coming her way. But she would not give up fighting for her lost sheep, her lost coin of great value. MADD mothers also had pushback, but they, too kept fighting for what they had lost: their sons, those they loved.
All three of the gospel parables for today are a response Jesus tells us as he confronts a situation in which the pharisees and legal experts were grumbling against Jesus for spending his time with “sinners and tax collectors”. They were questioning why Jesus was spending time with people everyone had designated as “bad.” He was welcoming and eating with these “bad” people. In contrast to many people’s belief that some people are “bad” and some people are “good”, Jesus does not see it that way. Instead, he describes some people as found, and some people as lost. The lost people, those he is choosing to spend time with, are valuable to God, as he describes in these stories. They are a lost sheep of the flock, they are a lost coin of great value, they are a child of God. And Jesus is not content to just discount them as “bad”. He wants them saved, he wants them healed, he wants them FOUND.
And I would say this is a challenge for all of us. It is a challenge for us to remember that there aren’t “bad” people, there are only lost people. And how are we to interact with lost people, the same way that Jesus did – we are to try to find them, to seek them, to help them.
Who are those people for you? Who are the people you don’t want to be around, individuals or groups of people you don’t want to be associated with? Who are those for you? Do you struggle then, when you see people you want to respect hanging out with those “bad” people that you don’t approve of, that you’ve written off? And to take it a step further, when you see your friends hanging out with people you don’t approve of, what do you think? How do you feel? If it’s someone you admire and respect and then you see them eating with and spending time with people you really detest, how do you feel? Do you discount them? Do you lose respect for them when you see them with “undesirables”? Maybe it’s easier to think about this in terms of our kids. What do we do and how do we feel when we think our kids or grandkids are hanging out with a “bad crowd.” When it’s my kids, I have, historically, worried about them being corrupted. I’ll own that. I remember the time when I was really concerned about a friend Jasmyn had made. I was concerned because I saw this friend making really bad choices: lying to her parents, hiding inappropriate “hookups”, trying drugs and other questionable substances. She was running wild. And I was concerned. But in talking with Jasmyn about my concern with honesty and openness, Jasmyn said to me, “My friend needs someone to be here for her when her world crashes, as it will with all that she is doing. She needs someone solid to be here and show her there is another way. She needs me. And I will stay friends with her through this, offering another model for how to be, even offering advice, if she asks for it, until she, too, has finally found her way home.” Okay. I still worried, but at the same time, I was also impressed. She was doing exactly what Jesus said God would do in the stories of the lost sheep and the lost coin: she was searching deep into the heart of her friend for that lost soul, seeking her out, and helping her to come “home.”
I want to point out that there is a big difference between the stories of the coin and sheep, on one hand, with the story of the prodigal son on the other. In the stories of the sheep and the coin, both of these could not be found on their own. Both were sought after, with intention, with commitment until they were found. How do we expect to find the sheep if we don’t seek after it? Do we just let those we feel we’ve lost “go”? Do we give up on the one family member we can’t reach, can’t connect with, can’t “find” because we don’t agree, or don’t understand, or have “lost”?
I think that maybe the Pharisees and Legal Experts judged Jesus because they were, in fact, convicted by Jesus. We are told by all scripture that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves, that we are to love even those whom we don’t like, even those we hate. And by love that means we are to care for them, to want their highest good, to be kind to them, even when that is not reciprocated. They knew this. But they weren’t living it out. In contrast, Jesus was. He did not see people as beyond redemption, beyond saving, beyond help. He reached out to them, was kind to them and loved them. He was doing what the Pharisees knew they should, just as Jasmyn was doing with her friend what I knew I should. And that became judgement on their lips. Jesus’ actions convicted them. And instead of owning, they judged and condemned him.
The story of the prodigal son is a little different. That son had a lot more agency. That son had to return on his own. The father in the story saw him coming back and ran out to usher him home, to bring him back completely into the fold, but the son had to make some steps first, some intention towards turning home. And my guess is that the elder son in the prodigal story is the Pharisees and legal experts themselves. They have became so bound by the written law that they have forgotten the spirit behind it: the call to care for and love one another. They have become so lost, that when Jesus welcomes in the “lost” younger son, they just resent it, they want the father all to themselves, and all that is his, they have forgotten how to celebrate the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son returning. They have forgotten that those Jesus is spending time with are also children of God. They have forgotten that that lost younger brother is “this brother of YOURS”, not just “this son of the Father’s”. Jesus never finishes the parable of the prodigal son. We never know if the older son in fact does come into the house to celebrate with the son who has returned. We don’t know because we are still waiting to see. In the end, it will be up to them to decide to celebrate with the Father and the son the return home of the younger son, if they ever do. In the meantime, he is missing a great party, as are they!
And that is the final point that I want to make through another story. There is a wonderful video based on a children’s book. The book and video are entitled Lost and Found by Oliver Jeffers. I would love to be able to share them with you, but because of copyright issues I can’t do that through YouTube. However, if you are interested, I have bought copies of both and would gladly share them another time. In a rare exception, the video of this story is better than the book.
In the story, Lost and Found, a penguin walks into a little boy’s house. The little boy is not thrilled about this. And the penguin doesn’t seem to be leaving on his own, so he decides the penguin is lost and needs to get home. He takes the penguin to the lost and found, but no one says they are missing a penguin. Then he takes the penguin to the pet store, but then feels bad and doesn’t leave him. He goes to the library to find out about where penguins come from and discovers they come from the South Pole, so he tries to put the penguin on a boat, but the boy’s voice is small and the ship leaves without the penguin. So, the boy builds a boat to take the penguin there himself. As he is getting ready to go the narrator said, “And so the boy worked out an ambitious plan to get the visitor back to where he belonged. But he never stopped for a moment to considered just what his visitor was doing there in the first place.” They each “pack” a little bag, and they travel down to the South Pole, having adventures on the way, and in the end he finds a place with many, many penguins just like the one that has been with the boy. He leaves him there and gets back in the boat to travel home. But in the boat he finds that the penguin had left his suitcase. When he opens it, he finds the only thing in this “box of treasures” was a picture the penguin had taken of himself and the boy: that this was what he valued. The boy thought the penguin valued “home”, but what he found was that the penguin valued him, the boy. And so he found, “that perhaps someone wasn’t lost… just lonely. And maybe they weren’t the only one.” After another little adventure, the boy and the penguin finally reconnect and go “home” together. But the film ends with these words, “So, all began with someone lost and someone found. Who is to say which was which? There was a boy and there was a penguin, strangers from opposite sides of the ocean. And like the beginning of any friendship, theirs is a remarkable story indeed.”
Perhaps, then, like the boy in the story, we will find, when we choose to spend time with those we consider “lost” , those from the opposite side of the ocean, that we too will ask, “who is to say who was lost and who was found”. If it turns out that it was we, then, who were lost, and if we let ourselves be found, we can be guaranteed that God will celebrate with all the angels and heaven. Amen.