Lesson: Luke 15:1-10
I must have been younger than 4 years old when I got lost in the grocery store, because we moved to a new neighborhood with a different grocery store around my fourth birthday. It’s easy for adults to forget how the world looks when you’re eye-level with people’s kneecaps or belt buckles. It’s easy to lose track of the right pair of knees. Somehow I didn’t notice that my father had moved on to another aisle, and he didn’t notice that I didn’t notice. All of a sudden I was lost. What I still remember is my sense of panic. I ran and threw my arms around a pair of knees that I thought were my father’s but they weren’t – so then in addition to being lost, I was humiliated. Odd, isn’t it, that we feel shame even when we’re doing the best that can be expected of us? I don’t even remember what happened when I found my dad, or he found me – the panic at being lost is what I’ve retained ‘til this day.
This morning’s two parables explore what it means to be lost, and what it means to be found. The set up for the parables is important. The Pharisees and scribes notice the company that Jesus is keeping. The genuinely admirable life work of these faithful men is to be holy, to achieve holiness. Choosing the right people to share a meal with them is one way to do that. In Jesus’ time, in the ancient Middle East, to invite a man to a meal was an honor. It was an offer of peace, trust, brotherhood and forgiveness; in other words, sharing a meal meant sharing life, just as it does today. So the Pharisees say to Jesus, “Why do you always hang out with sinners and tax collectors? That’s no way to be holy. If you hang out with these unholy people, it might rub off on you.” Maybe they’re thinking, “After all, what’s the point of religion except to separate the sinful from the righteous?”
Jesus’ response is amazing on so many levels. First, he asks the scribes and Pharisees to imagine themselves as a shepherd who was unclean, and then as a woman who was inferior. “Which one of you,” he says, and then tells the story so that they have to imagine what the world might look like and what their response would be as people they try very hard to avoid.
Then, Jesus poses his questions as though there is only one obvious answer. But there isn’t. Doug Adams illustrates this with a variation of the shepherd parable he used at a conference of army officers: “Which one of you commanding a company, if one soldier goes AWOL, does not leave the ninety-nine on the battlefield and go after the one that is lost until he finds him? … And when he comes home, he calls together his fellow officers and commanding officers, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my soldier who went AWOL.’ One captain at the conference responded, ‘My general would say sternly, “Where are the other ninety-nine members of the company under your command?” and I would end up in the brig!’”
So Jesus says, “I want you to imagine that you have one hundred sheep and that you lose one of them. Now, wouldn’t you go out after the lost one until you find it?” The real answer – the answer the scribes and Pharisees would give to that question is, “Of course not.” Nobody in his right mind leaves the ninety-nine to the wolves and the coyotes to go chasing off after the one. You cut your losses, forget about the lost sheep, and go on with the ninety-nine. So Jesus’ question is ironic. Who among you would do this? Nobody would! And he goes on: “And when you find the sheep, wouldn’t you put the sheep on your shoulder, and rather than return to the ninety-nine, go home and throw a party?” Jesus’ audience knows that’s crazy, too. Jesus is suggesting not only that they’d confess this foolish decision to their friends, but celebrate it? I kinda think Jesus is messing with the Pharisees and scribes a little bit. I can picture them, looking puzzled, their brains clicking and whirring.
People sometimes get offended about the ninety-nine being left to the wolves. Especially people who don’t think of themselves as “lost.” You can imagine the scribes and Pharisees heading down this trail, thinking, “Wait a minute, what about me? I always try hard to do the right thing.” It’s precisely the response of the sulky older brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, which follows these two parables and which really completes the set of three. All three parables challenge us to define who is “lost,” and what it means to be “lost.” This is a tricky question, because it’s easy to confuse being “lost” with not going to church. It’s equally easy to confuse being “lost” with not being Christian, and being “found” with being converted to Christianity. But when Jesus told this story there was no Christian church; there was no Christian movement – in fact, he was talking to Jews that he didn’t expect to be anything other than faithful Jews.
So who is lost? What does it mean to be lost? In her book, Amazing Grace, Kathleen Norris notes that the word “wretch” has become so unpopular in recent years that some hymnals have removed it from the first line of the hymn, “Amazing Grace,” and replaced it with the word, “someone.” “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved someone like me.” Norris writes, “Is there a fabled ‘someone’ who only thinks of good things in the middle of the night, who never lies awake regretting the selfish, nigh-unforgivable things that he or she has done? … Maybe there are people who are so thoroughly at home in themselves that they can’t imagine being other than comfortable, let alone displaced or wretched in spirit. But I wonder. I suspect that anyone who has not experienced wretchedness – exile, wandering, loss, misery, whether inwardly or in outward circumstance – has a superficial grasp of what it means to be human. … It seems to me,” she continues, “that if you can’t ever admit to being a wretch, you haven’t been paying attention.”
I’m really okay with it if you don’t like the word “wretch” or “sinner,” because they’re labels that have been used and abused by the wider Church to exclude, separate and manipulate people, just the way the scribes and Pharisees try to do in this passage. In Jesus’ time, “sinners” just meant people who didn’t follow the law closely, or at least not as closely as the Pharisees thought you should and believed they did. There were all sorts of reasons people might not follow every last one of the 613 laws of Torah, and some had to do with economic situation. Affluent people could afford the proper sacrifices, the proper tithes, the exacting Sabbath expectations, the dietary restrictions; less affluent people could not. Jesus’ point here is not that we are miserable or fallen sinners; that was never Jesus’ view of people. He’s only saying that we’re all in the same boat: tax collectors, so-called “sinners,” Pharisees, everybody. All equally worthy of God’s love. Because when people start thinking they’re actually better, more deserving of God’s love and attention than other people, things inevitably go poorly. That is the basis of classism, racism, anti-Semitism, white supremacy, misogyny, homophobia and every other kind of dehumanizing hatred.
But I love the words Kathleen Norris uses to define wretchedness: “exile, wandering, loss, misery.” In other words, “lost.” Who are the lost? The Pharisees might assume it’s those tax collectors and the sinners, the people without the obvious marks of holiness, the people whose lives are a mess and can’t hide it. A couple of weeks ago I heard from a person who’s just coming to grips with the fact that he doesn’t think he deserves good health, good relationships, a good life. Daily, he’s plagued with this and it adds up to a tragic sense of being lost. But maybe the lost also include the Pharisees, the scribes, the people who have an easier time hiding the mess. It’s easy to hide corrosive hate or anger. It’s easy to hide loveless relationships, or loneliness, or pain or fear. It’s easy to hide all sorts of things behind self-righteousness and propriety and a conviction that you’d “never be like those people.” Jesus concludes the parable of the lost sheep with, “I say to you that there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” And again, I think he’s messing with the scribes and Pharisees here, because did you ever meet any single one of those ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance? No repentance at all, ever?
No, you didn’t. So I think the ninety-nine sheep are a brilliant set-up. I think the real meaning of the one and the ninety-nine is that the one lost sheep is all of us: the whole human race as it really is. The ninety-nine sheep who never get lost are the whole human race as we think we are, or maybe wish we were. The ninety-nine, therefore, are not really at risk here; they don’t exist; they don’t represent a real group of people. The one lost sheep stands for all of us, because in different ways, at different times, certainly to different degrees, we all get lost.
Jesus says it is more important to God than anything else that we be found. Found and brought to the table. Found, and restored to life lived in the presence of God, so that we can be transformed bit by bit into kingdom people – people who live our lives, day by day, as though God is our ruler. Who live as though God is our God, instead of all the small “g” gods that we allow to rule our lives – the gods of money, status, possessions, popularity, fear, hatred – anything we let rule our lives instead of God. Just as for a three-year-old in the grocery store, sometimes it’s easy to lose track of the right pair of kneecaps.
And Jesus says that our God is the God who rescues us, who pursues us, who, like Winston Churchill, will never, never, never, never give up on us, because we are precious to God. Every last one of us. A nineteenth century poet, Francis Thompson, wrote a poem called, “The Hound of Heaven,” depicting God as a hound in relentless pursuit of a hare, the human heart. It’s an odd image but it’s what Jesus is talking about here. We may think of ourselves as searching for God but it is God, says Jesus, who searches for us. Like the coin, we may never even know we’re lost. We don’t even have to hunt for the right set of kneecaps because they are looking for us.
And so we aren’t supposed to give up on each other, either. If God thinks we’re worth pursuing, then we are. And when all is said and done, Jesus’ real critique of the scribes and Pharisees is that they won’t come to the party. The lost have been found! “It’s time to celebrate God’s amazing grace!” says Jesus. A celebration for all, because we are so inextricably bound one to another: the church leader to the stranger, the hungry to the full, the joyous to the mean-spirited, the faithless to the faithful, and all of us filling those roles in turn.
In the end, writes Mary Schertz, Jesus tells the scribes and Pharisees “check your superiority at the door and join the dance.” Don’t you love that? Check your superiority at the door and join the dance. When the lost coin and the lost sheep are found, the joy is contagious. And the 99 sheep have an excuse to throw a party, which is what we come together to do, not just last week at our ice cream social, not just when we welcome new members or baptize new babies or say goodbye to retiring pastors, but every single week. God loves us with a love that will not let us go, and it all ends in a party.
May it be so for us, today and every week. Amen.
© Joanne Whitt 2019 all rights reserved.
 Kenneth E. Bailey, Poet and Peasant (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1976), pp. 142-143.
 Gary E. Peluso-Verdend, “Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost,” in New Proclamation, Year C, 2007 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2006), p. 198.
 Bailey, ibid.
 Doug Adams, A Prostitute in the Family Tree (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), pp. 32-33.
 Robert Farrar Capon, “The Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin,” http://www.csec.org/csec/sermon/capon_4012.htm.
 Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998), pp. 166-167.
 Capon, ibid.
 Martha P. Sterne, “Seeking the Lost Sheep,” in The Christian Century, August 26-September 2, 1998, p. 781.
 Mary H. Schertz, “God’s Party Time,” in The Christian Century, September 4, 2007, http://www.christiancentury.org/article.lasso.
 Mary Hinkle Shore, http://maryhinkle.typepad.com/pilgrim_preaching/2004/09/care_and_joy.html.