Lost and Found

A sermon for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost, Luke 15:1-10

Yesterday after conducting a wedding here in the sanctuary, I took a look at my own wedding and engagement rings, and to my surprise I noticed a bruise on my ring finger. I had to think for a moment about how it might have gotten there, and I showed it to my daughter as I remembered the situation. In my office there is a storage unit behind my desk chair. I opened one of the sliding metal doors to get something from the inside, which I took in my right hand, and then with my left hand I slid the door shut.

Except that I didn’t get my hand out quickly enough.

“I do that all the time with doors,” she said, and we both laughed, because it’s a relief to have that sort of thing in common with another person. When will we learn to be sure our hands are on the same side of the door with the rest of us? It doesn’t seem that it should be so hard.

But for some people it is, and we are the people in the world who also mislay our keys simply because we never put them down in the same place twice.

If you’re one of us, there’s no reason you need to admit it in public, but you know what I mean.

And you may be married to or friends with one of my kind; if you are you may wonder how otherwise clever persons can be so illogical about the placement of their belongings.

This topic came up when my husband took me shopping for a present. It will be our fifth anniversary on Thursday, and since he will be away at work from now until the end of October, someone suggested we celebrate early. He has beautiful taste in jewelry, but in this case he asked me to pick out something I liked, and so off we went to the Old Port.

I wanted to find something lovely but not so expensive that it would be tragic if an earring were someday mislaid.

You see, if I view a piece of jewelry as valuable, I live in the extremes with it. Either I wear it all the time, as I do with my rings, or I put it away carefully to wear on special occasions or to eventually pass along to my children.

I hoped to find a pair of earrings nice enough to mark five years together, but not so nice that I might fear having the Jewelry Police come for me if I take my earrings off half-consciously and can’t quite remember where I put them down.

They usually turn up fairly easily. But not always. Sometimes I find myself taking on the role of the woman who lost one silver coin out of ten. She turns the house upside down, sweeps every corner, shines a light in to otherwise dark places. I’ve been there, asking who has a flashlight (because, really, I don’t always know where to find things!), hoping to catch a glimpse of something shiny, hope the lost item hasn’t been batted under the china cupboard by a cat or, worse, eaten by a dog.

Some people and institutions are better set up than others to handle lost items. When you stand at the baggage claim and don’t see your suitcase, you can well imagine it circling the carousel at some far-distant airport. When your child looks in the closet for a jacket you last saw leaving the house, you wonder if it has met its reward in the Lost and Found box in the school administrative office or at the ball field or the dance studio. Sometimes you just give up, because finding whatever it was doesn’t seem worth the effort. It may not seem like a good use of your time.

I was about 13 and sitting in a Sunday School class when my minister’s daughter became so angry about the first part of today’s gospel lesson that she got up and stormed out of the room! But before she left, she made an impassioned speech about how unfair it was. Why should the shepherd care more about the one sheep who behaved badly than about the other 99, quietly sitting at home, being the best minister’s daughters, I mean sheep, they possibly could be?

There is nothing like adolescent rage against the system.

My friend named something that many of us feel. What is the point these stories are trying to make? Where is the Good News for the nice people who sit in church every week, for the professional good girls and good boys among us? Doesn’t God care about us? And, honestly, what shepherd would run off after one sheep and leave the rest unattended? He would soon find himself unemployed. Clearly the 99 matter more!

Don’t they?

I think we forget how much we have in common with the tenth coin and the hundredth sheep.

Everyone one of us has times of feeling lost. Isn’t it Good News to realize that it’s at just those times God loves us most?

Now that love may not take the form we would understand to be most just, by our human standards. We want to believe live in a market-driven, merit-based universe, and our culture and media reinforce that belief. Hard work, dedication, faithfulness, good grades if we’re still in school: these are the things that make us valuable. Aren’t they?

Many times I wonder why Jesus couldn’t have just been straight with us and explained it all in words of one syllable. We live in a very literal society. We think we know everything. Even those of us who majored in English may not always appreciate the artful tale designed to teach us a lesson. A list of answers to Frequently Asked Questions so simple that no one could question their interpretation would certainly help.

Instead he gave us stories.

Let’s ponder the coin and the sheep.

The sheep may be silly or naughty or simply clueless, but the sheep has for whatever reason gone off under his or her own power. Greener grass, cooler waters, something moving in the bushes, a whiff of something special on the air may have drawn him or her away from the flock.

Jesus tells us that there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine who need no repentance.

The coin, on the other hand, has no agency: no means of self-transport, no agenda, no shopping list. Through no fault of its own, the coin is lost, having skittered off the edge of a table or fallen through a hole in a pocket, it is lying in a dim corner or between the floorboards or under something someone has dropped.

The coin is lost through no fault of its own.

Let’s take a moment to consider Jesus’ original audience for this story. For several chapters in Luke’s gospel, Jesus has been journeying to Jerusalem, meeting with very different characters along the way. He shares his message at dinner with a group of well-educated Pharisees, and he talks on the road with a crowd attracted to his celebrity. Now we find him talking to a disreputable group made up of tax collectors and other assorted sinners.  Tax collectors worked for the Roman occupiers and collected taxes for Caesar, and their own people despised them for it. By sinners, the gospel writer means people who were on the outs with the listening Pharisees.  For the Pharisees keeping the law was everything, and those who did not observe it, whether because they chose not to or because they were not able to, were equally shunned.  Jesus tells these stories both for the outcasts and for the eavesdroppers.  And while he tells the stories, the Pharisees grumble about him.  He welcomes these people we do not, they say.  He even eats with them.

The coin is lost through no fault of its own.

Jesus wants these outsiders to know that they are not outsiders to God.  They are worth the effort of loving.

The world is full of people we might think of as lost, and if we mean disconnected from God, it’s true. There are too many people who believe God is a quaint, historic concept. There are even more who think church is a quaint, historic concept. If they happen to come through our doors, are we ready to greet them as open-hearted followers of Christ? Or will we seem quaint and historic, too?

Will we be able to overcome our own suspicions of people who seem different, who may not know the reasons we do things the way we do in worship? Will we be able to rejoice in their return or their arrival, their turning up we first perceive as a glimmer in a dark corner?

The coin is lost through no fault of its own.

"When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents." (Luke 15:9-10)

And that, my friends, is the Good News. If we can rejoice over God’s love for the lost, then Amen! But if we cannot, we need to think a little longer about who is really lost and hope that we, too, will be found. Amen.

9 thoughts on “Lost and Found”

  1. So glad to read your sermon since I missed church today with a cold. As a former church secretary I am familiar with a lot of thought (and not a lot of thought — it varies!) being given to how to make the “lost sheep” welcome when they come to church. How much we take for granted, we church ladies and gents! And…I learned this morning that a cousin, who’s about as lost as a sheep can be, is dying. It is a comfort at such times to think of these scriptures. Do you know the song “Master of the Sheepfold”? It’s on a recording by Anne Hills, Cindy Mangsen, and Priscilla Herdman. A lovely rendering of the story.

  2. Thank you for the sermon! I’ve been feeling pretty lost of late. My wonderful church is in transition and although I’m one of the lay leaders, I’m feeling alone and adrift. Our interim pastor is doing a great job with visitation and connecting with our aging members, but is not gifted with preaching. I really miss the challenges and wrestlings with scripture of previous pastors.

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