Lost and Found (A sermon from Luke 15:1-10)
The fifteenth chapter of Luke has been called “the gospel within the gospel.” With the exception of the elder son, that which is lost is found. The lost sheep is returned to the flock, the lost coin is recovered by its owner, the lost son is restored to the father, and so there is good news all way around. We could say that God is better at finding than we are at getting lost and that is very good news, because we are pretty good at getting lost.
Robert Fulghum in his book, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten tells about playing hide and seek in his neighborhood growing up. He says there was one kid who always hid too good. After a while they would give up trying to find him. Later, after they had quit the game he would show up and he would be upset. Fulghum writes, “There’s hiding and there’s finding, we’d say. And he’d say it was hide and seek not hide and give up, and we’d all yell about who made the rules and who cared about who, anyway, and how we wouldn’t play with him anymore if he didn’t get it straight and who needed him anyhow, and things like that.” Fulghum says that it didn’t matter what they said, sure enough, the next time they played hide and seek he would inevitably hide too good. Some of us are really good at hiding. We hide behind our position, our place, our pride, our possessions, and our privilege. Many of us hide from our true selves. We may be lost, and not even know it, which is true of the Pharisees and scribes in our text. .
Luke says that the tax collectors and sinners were coming to Jesus, and Jesus welcomes them and eats with them, and the Pharisees and scribes grumble and complain. Why do the Pharisees and scribes grumble and complain? Because Jesus is calling into question their worthiness system. Jesus is all about inclusion, Jesus practices an open table, while the religious leaders restrict and control access as a way of exercising power and control. They set the rules, and Jesus breaks the rules.
Now, when the Jewish leaders talk about “sinners” they are talking about people who, for whatever reason, do not heed their (the gatekeepers) application of Jewish law, especially the purity laws and the laws surrounding eating – what you eat, how you eat, and especially who you eat with. For the religious leaders of Jesus’ day the laws governing eating and table fellowship became a test case for who is “in” and who is “out.” Jesus defied such laws, which got him in a whole bunch of trouble with the Jewish leaders.
It’s easy for us to be judgmental and dismissive of the Pharisees and scribes here, but what we don’t realize is that many of us do the same sort of thing. I know I did for years, and maybe still do in ways that I don’t even realize. What the Pharisees and scribes did with the holiness code, the laws of purity, we do the same thing with our particular religious beliefs. I just can’t understand why so many Christians can’t see this, though, I have to admit, it took me some time to see it. The majority of Christians today believe that God only accepts Christians, that if you are not Christian you are excluded, you are not a child of God, and we have seen in our history and especially today how that breeds feelings of superiority and exceptionalism and elitism, and has done far more damage in our world than bring help and healing. Most churches still do missions and evangelism on the basis of an exclusionary Christianity. We think we have to get people of other religious faiths or of no faith to believe like we believe about Jesus, and God, and the Bible and so forth. And if they don’t share our religious beliefs, we say they are lost. We don’t realize that in many ways we are just as lost or even more lost than they are. But when the light comes on, we realize then that we are all in this together. In our most honest and insightful moments we realize that that we are all lost in some way and need to be found.
Fred Craddock reminisces about playing hide and seek as a child on the farm: “When my sister was ‘It,’ says Craddock, “she cheated.” She would count, ‘One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, ninety-three, ninety-four.’ But Fred had a place under the steps of the porch. Because he was small he could get under there and never be found. He could hear his sister going to and fro, in the house, out of the house, in the weeds, in the trees, down to the corncrib, in the barn. He knew she wouldn’t find him. He would almost give himself away snickering to himself, “She’ll never find me here, she’ll never find me here.” Fred then says that it occurred to him that she would never find him. So after a while he would stick out a toe. His sister would walk by and see it and run back to base and say, ‘Ha ha, you’re it, you’re it.’ Fred would come out brushing himself off and say, ‘Oh shoot, you found me.’ Don’t we all want to be found?
Who can forget that scene where E.T. points his long, straggly finger toward the sky and says, “E.T. phone home.” It is a gripping image because we all identify in some way with E.T. We have all known that longing for home, the longing to feel that we belong, to be found by people who love us and miss us and want us to be with them. It is a poignant image of the spiritual longing in each one us because all our longings for home, for place, for a sense of security and belonging reflect this deeper longing for Love, which is actually a longing for God, even though we may not even know it or think of it as a longing for God at all. But it really is, because the essence of God is Love. As the Apostle John said, “God is Love.”
Do we want to be found? Do we want God or Love (with a capital L) to find us? The place where we are found, the place where we experience God’s love, is not just a one way street. In the postscript to both the story of the lost sheep and the story of the lost coin, where Luke is probably adding his interpretation, there is celebration in heaven over one sinner who repents. Everyone is welcome. No one is rejected or excluded. No one is turned away. But not everyone is found. There is the sinner who repents, but there is also mention of ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. Is that possible? Are there people who are so just, so righteous they need no repentance? Of course not. This is an allusion to the Jewish leaders who think they are righteous and need no repentance, but are just as lost, and maybe even more so, than the ones they labeled “sinners.” In fact, they are the hardest ones to find, because they (the Jewish leaders and those like them) are lost, but don’t think they are. Luke suggests that the finding requires some change, some effort, some recognition of our need and directional turn around on our part. Luke, and many other biblical writers, call this repentance.
Luke puts an emphasis on repentance throughout his Gospel. Luke’s Gospel begins with John the Baptist calling on all the people who came out in the desert to hear him to bring forth fruit in keeping with repentance. And at the end of the Gospel, the disciples are charged with preaching forgiveness of sins and repentance in the name of Christ to all people. Luke emphasizes “all people.” It’s proclaimed to all people because all are included. Unlike the Jewish leaders who divided people and labeled people “in” and “out” on the basis of their worthiness system, in God’s household, all are already in. Repentance is not necessary to get in. Repentance is necessary to experience what it means to be “in” and to live as God’s children in the world.
We can be found, or we can be like the ninety-nine and think we need no repentance. We can be like the elder son in the next story who refuses to join the party. In that story the Father welcomes the prodigal and throws him a party upon his return. But the elder brother refuses to join the party. The elder brother is bitter and angry and resentful. We know all about this kind of resentment today, because it is this kind of resentment that fuels our nation’s immigration policy and practice. It’s the resentment and bitterness of the elder son. But even the elder son is not “out.” I love what the Father says to the elder son. The Father goes out to persuade the elder son to join the party, just as the Father went out to welcome the returning prodigal. The Father says, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life, he was lost and has been found.” The elder son is “in.” The elder son is loved. But if the elder son is to join the party, if the elder son is to experience the joy of the party, he will have to repent of his bitterness. He will have to let go of his sense of entitlement and superiority. He will have to turn from his resentment and anger toward his younger brother. He needs to repent, just as the younger brother needed to repent. We all do. You can be a Christian and be just as lost as anyone else. In fact, many Christians today are just as lost as the religious leaders in Jesus’ day. And they are the hardest ones for God to find, because they don’t think they are lost, and they are full of a sense of entitlement and full of resentment.
God’s love is like radio waves. God’s love goes out in all directions and falls upon all. But in order to receive God’s love, in order to experience God’s love in your heart and mind and soul, you have to be tuned in. The question is: What will it take for us to be tuned in? The specifics of that will vary, but it’s going to take some kind of change of heart. It may involve a change in the way we think and relate to God. When you consider what some Christians believe about God and think about God, it’s no wonder they never personally experience the love of God, because the God they believe in isn’t very loving. Other folks, in order to receive God’s love, may need to get some help with some destructive habits or addictions. Others may simply need to think of others more and engage in practices of kindness and generosity. Still others may need to learn to be more grateful. Repentance, change of heart and mind and will can take us in many different directions, but they all converge in the experience of God’s love. The end, the goal is the same – to know and experience and share God’s love. That’s the goal. Getting there may take us along different routes. But that’s the destination.
There was a young man who aspired to be the student of a particular Zen master who was widely known as a man of great compassion and spiritual wisdom. This young man is invited to an interview at the master’s house. The student wants to impress the master with his interest and desire and so he rambles on and on about his spiritual experiences, his past teachers, and his capacity for spiritual insight. The master listens silently while pouring a cup of tea. As the young man goes on and on, the spiritual master keeps pouring and soon the cup is overflowing. The would-be disciple notices the tea spilling all over the table. He cries out, “Master, the cup is full.” The teacher responds, “Yes, and so are you. How can I possibly teach you?” When we are full or ourselves, then there is no room for God’s love. When we are full of pride, or when we are full of prejudice, or resentment, or jealousy, or greed, or our own accomplishments or even our own failures, there is no room for God’s love to abide.
These stories invite us to see ourselves as lost in one way or another, and they assure us that God will not give up until God finds us. God doesn’t quit the game when we hide too good. But these stories also invite us to experience God’s love by sharing the heart of God, who loves all God’s children with an inclusive, magnanimous, unconditional, and eternal love. As the story of the Father and his two sons teach us, being found means joining the Father in the celebration of the prodigal’s return. In the story of the Father and his two sons, there was one son who was lost and needed to be found, and there was another son who was found who ended up being lost, because he refused to share the heart and joy of the Father over the son, his brother, who came home. Christians today, who cannot feel hurt for God’s children who are being oppressed or joy when they are liberated do not have God’s love. If a Christian or for that matter anyone does not feel compassion or grieved by the way the undocumented are being treated by our leaders and by others in this country, then that person does not know and has not experienced the love of God. Because God’s love is not restricted or exclusive. It is inclusive and extends to all.
Knowing God and experiencing God’s love means sharing the heart of God. It means allowing God to love in us and through us. Thomas Merton puts it this way: “I who am without love cannot become love unless Love identifies me with Love’s Self. [God is love] But if God sends God’s own Love, God’s Self, to act and love in me and in all that I do, then I shall be transformed, I shall discover who I am and shall possess my true identity by losing myself in God [or we could say, in Love – capital L].” There are many persons, many Christians who really don’t know who they are or who God is, because they have never allowed God’s inclusive love to fill their lives.
The shepherd in our story is willing to take a big risk. He leaves the sheep in the sheepfold without protection, putting himself at risk and leaving the remaining sheep at risk in order to find the one that is lost. That’s not logical. It’s not good shepherding. It’s not even good pastoral care. But the shepherd loves the lost one so much that he is willing to take the risk in order to find it. Do we share the Father’s love? Do we want to? Are we willing to leave ourselves vulnerable, are we willing to take a risk in order to share God’s inclusive love?
Our good God, let us not make the mistake when we read stories like this in thinking they do not apply to us, but to someone else. Help us to see, O God, that we are all lost in one way or another. And may we all long to be found in your love, to know and experience your love. But help us to realize, O God, that the only way we can really enter into the experience of your love is by sharing your love for all people. Our hearts may need to change for that to happen. Give us the want and will to do what we can do to open our lives to your compassion and love. Amen.