I can sympathize with the characters in these parables Jesus tells us today. Losing things is something I have a knack for doing. Usually it’s pretty trivial stuff, though. I lost my earbuds for my phone some time ago—not sure where they went. I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of losing a pair of scissors or nail clippers, and the only way to find them is to buy a new pair. I’ve managed to misplace more pairs of sunglasses than I’d care to count. But there was one time when I lost something really, really important: my car keys.
It was last month when Annie and I were in Milwaukee for the Churchwide Assembly. We drove, but we had no plans (or time, really) to drive anywhere during the week. So, knowing how prone I am to losing things, I put the keys on the nightstand and swore to leave them there so we’d know where they were when we got ready to go at the end of the week. Only, when I was packing up the last day, the keys were nowhere to be found.
I searched the entire hotel room. I pulled every item in our suitcase, and in Hazel’s suitcase, and even checked the tote bags they gave us at registration in case I put them there. I even tore the car apart looking for the keys and couldn’t find them.
Let me tell y’all, there’s a real sense of panic when you can’t find your car keys and you’re a six hour drive from home.
The kind of urgency to find the lost coin or the lost sheep comes across in these parables only because the things that are lost are really, really important. The coin that the woman found after she swept the whole house was worth a whole day’s wages. The sheep that had wandered off probably wasn’t the property of the shepherd who went to find it. Each one of them had every reason to keep looking until they found what was lost, because it was a loss that they could feel.
So I have to believe that the tax collectors and sinners who were sitting around Jesus when he told these parables to the Pharisees and the scribes felt pretty good about what these parables said about them. These people, who had in one way or another wandered from the hope and comfort of God’s presence, were being told that they were important. No matter how far off they had gone, God would seek them out. God would look in every nook and cranny, in every cave and wadi, light a lamp and sweep the whole house—all because each and every one of them were worth every moment spent looking for them.
God doesn’t leave anyone behind. And the way that God searches for us isn’t some kindly beckoning, soft-focus look to bring us home. No, God is relentless. God will risk leaving the ninety-nine sheep behind to go and find the one that was lost. God will burn the midnight oil for however long it takes to clear the house and find where we’ve fallen. God will follow us when we leave the church to go and be a Wiccan for a while, or when we wander into the dangerous world of drugs, or when we start getting on our high horse thinking we’re righteous enough to pass judgment on others. God’s search for us is without end, no matter what road we’ve gone down, no matter how far we’ve wandered.
But it also begs the question: why did the sheep and the coin get lost? Pastor Emmy Kegler in her book One Coin Found offered up that sheep do not wander for no reason. They wander because they’re hungry, or because they’re sick, or because they’re looking for something that’s not where they are. And coins are inanimate objects. They don’t lose themselves; they are lost by someone’s carelessness.
What if, as another way of seeing these parables, we ask the question of why we have wandered, or who we’ve lost by our carelessness? What if we ask how our church has not fed the sheep, or how we’ve let a coin fall behind a crack? Over the years people have left churches for lots of reasons, and they rarely if ever have anything to do with rebellion or being determined to sin. Instead, like sheep, it’s because something wasn’t there that they needed. Like the coin, they were forgotten and ignored. How are we called to be part of Jesus’ work of finding the lost and bringing them back?
It probably starts with doing what Jesus did. The tax collectors and sinners came to him, after all, and I can pretty much guarantee it wasn’t because he pointed out what sinners they were. He drew them in by the hope we have in God’s kingdom. He brought them back to the fold because he fed them with the words of eternal life, the truth that God desires life that really is life for all of us. He shined a light on them by seeing them as people, bearers of God’s image as much as the most righteous Pharisee was. He sat down at dinner with them and listened to their stories! And he didn’t grumble when they came back to the fold.
Instead, he rejoiced.
Notice how each parable ends like that? “Rejoice with me!” There is greater rejoicing in heaven at one sinner returning than a hundred righteous who never left. And not just a little happy dance, but a straight-up party! The shepherd finds one sheep and he throws a party for it. The woman finds her one coin and breaks out the champagne! Do we rejoice when others return? Do we rejoice when we return? There is joy in finding life! We should rejoice when God restores the one who wandered away!
Now, not sure how many of y’all kept track of it, but I did eventually find my car keys. And it was on a whim, after every other place had been searched, that I looked in my work bag. And do you know where I found them? Right underneath my bible.
It’s not often that the world gives a sermon illustration that blunt, but there it was. And I think this is what Jesus was telling me in that moment: sometimes, before you can find what’s lost, you have to revisit the promises God makes. Look at the salvation hope that we read in the pages of the Bible. See how God’s whole story is about sharing the life that really is life with all people. And when you get that, when you want to throw a party for everyone who wants to be part of that story, then you’ll find what you’re looking for.
Thanks be to God. Amen.