Lost and Found, or Somewhere In-Between Pentecost 17, Proper 19 9/15/13
Episcopal Church of the Ascension The Reverend Dr. Howard J. Hess
Introduction. I love what Jesus does. I really do. He often takes what on the surface is a simple idea, or story, and uses it to communicate a profound insight for those who have ears to hear and eyes to see. Is this not what he is doing in today’s Gospel reading? He tells two short stories, called parables of grace, in which he uses images quite familiar to his audience to make a rather profound point. Now, we have just had several weeks of hard Gospel lessons, lessons about hating one’s family, not burying your dead, and leaving all to follow Jesus. There have been some silver linings, such as Fr. Rob’s sermon point that he now felt justified in being able to hate his mother-in-law. But by and large, in the recent weeks, the Gospel readings have had a sharp edge. In today’s Gospel, there is a shift. Rather than talking about leaving one’s life behind to become a disciple, we are called to consider what it means to look for the lost and to bring them back home.
In today’s parables, Jesus describes a lost sheep and a lost coin. Both are found, and a dynamic cycle repeats itself in both stories – something of value is lost, an exhaustive search is undertaken, the missing object is found, and what follows is a grand celebration. Now, Luke lives up to who Luke is, and makes the two central characters of the parables – the seekers – marginalized persons on the edge of society. Generally in the time of Jesus, shepherds and women were of secondary importance. That which is lost is not only found, but found by someone who is not highly regarded by others. As Luke reports, Jesus is always turning things upside down. And later in this same 15th chapter of Luke, we have the beautiful story of the Prodigal Son – the son who was dead to his family, had been found, and thus came back to life.
II. Joy in Heaven. Now each of this morning’s parables ends with a similar statement: “Just as I tell you, there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, than over 99 persons who need no repentance” (vs. 7). In other words, this whole scenario of being lost and then being found is big for God. It is as if Jesus is putting an exclamation point in the text. The shepherd and the woman who lost the coin as well as the father of the prodigal son are all representations of God. Our God cares and loves us so much, that he goes searching for us, won’t stop until he finds us, and then celebrates our return home.
III. Modern Parables. Now there is absolutely no reason to believe that such stories/parables of grace only occurred during Christ’s ministry. Parables of grace are continuing as we speak. The question is not whether they are happening, but whether we choose to be a part of these stories. Here I’m going to make a “rhetorical jump;” I invite you to jump with me. The Church is the Body of Christ; the church as a whole and each individual church, such as Ascension, is charged to be the eyes, ears, hands, and feet of Christ. In other words, we are to be looking for the lost sheep, the lost coins, our lost sons and daughters, and others who are lost around us. I don’t want us to miss the radical, revolutionary point of today’s Gospel. This morning, Jesus is asking us to proactively seek and find the lost and welcome them home.
III. Let me share several modern lost and found stories. While in seminary, I attended a preaching conference where students from throughout the country gathered to hear mentors deliver excellent sermons. We also were given the opportunity to preach and to be critiqued. I vividly remember one faculty member’s sermon about her son, who had been lost. She was revealing, but not excessively so, and the story she told was gripping. Her son, who lived some distance from her, had been in deep trouble. He had an active drug addiction and had dropped out of numerous treatment programs. He would experience periods of remission and then relapse. His mother was desperate. Then her son called her to tell her this story. He had given up and was considering taking his own life. He was out in the evening, walking the streets of the city, and saw a church with glass doors. Beyond the glass doors there was a worship service going on. Out of desperation, her son went into the church. He was incredibly warmly greeted and over time became active in the life of that church. Our preacher concluded by saying that she thanked God that the doors to the church were transparent; that her son could look in and take a chance to join those worshipping; and that those who were gathered there welcomed him so warmly. She believed it saved his life. That which had been lost was found.
The second story is also about a young man who had left home to go a long distance away to college. He was rather naïve and got swept up in the temptations of a large, flashy city. Before he even knew it, he was in over his head with things that had looked alluring but actually, at best were dead-end streets, and, at worst, were lethal. This young man become frightened and confused and turned to a Christian college professor for help. She spent hours with him, listening, reflecting, praying, and offering him many different kinds of tangible support. The turn-around that resulted was not immediate, nor was the trajectory of moving from being lost to being found an easy or straightforward journey for him. But I know the story of that journey very well, because I was that young man. What is critical in both of these stories of grace is the willingness for Christians to step forward and make a commitment to the life of another struggling human being. Sometimes, we must actively see for those who are lost, but often, they come to us, hoping we will find them.
IV. Doing Church. Here is the good news. There are opportunities all around us to reach out to the lost. Because there are so many different ways of being lost, there are also multiple ways to be found. Jesus makes this clear in his ministry, doesn’t he; he heals those who are physically and mentally ill; he confronts destructive life styles and softens the harsh edges of the law while inviting the lost to repentance and reconciliation; he constantly tends to the needs of the hungry, the destitute, and especially to the folks living on the margins. And he expects the house of God to be a place of peace and healing.
As you have heard me say many times, we are profoundly blessed in this church – by the beauty of this building, the community of believers that make up Ascension, the financial resources we have been given, and living in a part of the world that allows us to worship freely, without fear of being attacked or imprisoned. But I do believe there is a danger for us. It would be easy for each of us to become self-satisfied as one of the other 99 sheep – the respectable ones who feel like things are just fine the way they are. So the question is what it always is – are we willing to go beyond our comfort zone and to join with Christ in ministering to one another and to a world where there are many and profound needs?
V. Conclusion. In conclusion, I want to reiterate that there are many ways of being lost and many avenues to being found. At times in our culture being lost is thought to be synonymous with being unsaved. I do not believe that is what our Lord meant. My prayer for us is that Ascension will continue to nourish and build upon a deep desire to love and minister to one another; to help each other find that which is lost and to celebrate together that which is found. I also pray that we will continue to be a transparent community of believers that collectively and individually is open to others to offer a warm welcome and a home to those who are struggling, have lost hope, or who are alone. This is our Lord’s request of us. Amen.