Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Lost and Found: Sermon on Luke 15

In seminary I was part of a study group that decided to meet at an apartment in Brooklyn. I didn’t know Brooklyn at all, but I was game—I’m rather proud of my good sense of direction, and I got great step-by-step instructions from the hostess on how to take the subway from 116th and Broadway. So I set out, ready for a little adventure.

All was well until we were about three stops into Brooklyn. It abruptly became very clear to me that I had boarded the wrong train—the express, rather than the local—and we were in the process of speeding past the stop I needed, as well as the next two. This meant I would get off the train a considerable distance from my destination. Add to this the fact that it was a weekend—a Sunday evening—and some stations were closed for maintenance. I exited the train with a very slight sense of panic beginning to build.

I climbed the stairs and looked for an attendant, and something about my expression must have been screaming “LOST,” because a woman attached herself to me, began following me around and sort of mumbling under her breath, her purpose being, apparently, to scare the daylights out of me. “You better be careful here. I mean it, be really careful. Last time I was at this stop someone set my hair on fire.” I ran out of the station into the twilight of a strange street in a strange city. I was lost and I was afraid.

No one likes being lost. To be lost is to be without our orientation, our sense of safety and familiarity, our sense of belonging. To be lost is to suddenly feel very small in a big and scary world. To be lost is to miss those faces and voices and landmarks that tell us everything is as it should be, everything is alright.

The 15th chapter of the gospel of Luke has Jesus telling three stories, three parables, about being lost. Our passage today covers two of those parables. Everything that happens in scripture has a context, a reason for being there. The context for these parables is pretty simple. Someone’s complaining. Someone’s not happy. The religious leaders are grumbling to one another about Jesus, about his dining habits, specifically, the fact that he tends to eat with those they regard as unsavory characters. We’ve talked about this before. The grumblers say, “‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ So,” Luke tells us, “Jesus told them this parable. ‘Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?’” [Luke 15:2b-4] I feel pretty sure that every hand went up.

I don’t remember the first time I ever heard this parable, but I know I was old enough to understand the math involved. And it made no sense to me whatsoever. Why would someone leave ninety-nine sheep in search of one lost one? Why risk the possibility that even more sheep would be lost, would wander away while you are off in pursuit of that one wanderer? Wouldn’t it be better to simply cut your losses? Isn’t a bird in the hand worth two in the bush? Well, as I was to learn, Jesus’ math doesn’t always add up the same way mine does.

The second parable feels a bit harder to translate into an era when we are debating the wisdom of even having some of our coins. (I read last week that pennies lose us a billion dollars a year in productivity). Jesus says, “‘Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it?’” [Luke 15:8] The word “silver” is the key here: the coins in question are the equivalent of a day’s wages. The woman hasn’t lost a penny, or a nickel, or even a Susan B. Anthony dollar. She’s lost the equivalent of, maybe, $80.00 out of her total savings of $800. The sweeping of the house, blazing of the lights, turning over of the mattresses, moving of the tables and area rugs and knick knacks makes a lot more sense, in terms of the math (especially since her other coins are not in danger of wandering away while she looks). But still—my math and Jesus’ math are out of sync. I’m still not getting it.

The religious leaders complain about the company Jesus keeps. Jesus tells parables about things that are lost, and the lengths to which we will go to find them. I’ve shared a little bit of my own experience of being lost. But Jesus isn’t appealing to that instinct in the religious leaders. He isn’t saying, “Don’t you guys remember what it feels like to be lost? How frightening it is?” Instead, he’s appealing to their sense of the lengths they would go to recover those things that are precious to them.

I mentioned earlier that Jesus tells three parables, though our passage only deals with two: the loss of one out of a hundred sheep, and the loss of one out of ten coins. The third parable, the one we didn’t read today, tells of the loss of one out of two sons. And if the religious leaders are dense like I am, if they said, as I did, “Well, I don’t get why you would leave the ninety-nine sheep,” and then, sort of grudgingly, “I suppose it makes sense to look that hard for the coin,” they would surely have been stopped in their tracks by the third story. What would you do to look for a lost child? What wouldn’t you do?

It turns out, it’s not just the one who is lost who suffers. Yes, it is frightening to be lost, whether you are lost in a strange city at dusk or lost in a life that is killing your soul. But as much as we suffer when we are the one singular being who is alone, adrift, apart, those from whom we are estranged suffer as well. There is a restlessness in the flock at the loss of a brother. There is a queasiness about the future when the savings have gone missing. There is an emptiness beyond the power of description in the heart of the parent whose child has vanished. To be lost is to be apart from someone else who is suffering, too. We need each other. More than we know.

Jesus drives this point home when he ends each and every one of these parables with nothing less than an invitation to a party. When the shepherd returns home with the lost-and-found sheep on his shoulders, he “calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost’” [15:6]. When the diligent woman finds the coin and tucks it carefully away “she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost’” [15:9]. And this, in the final analysis, is what’s wrong with the religious leaders who are so dead set against Jesus sharing the table with those they deem unworthy. They are so caught up in their own sense of their righteousness, their purity, their perfection, they can’t bring themselves to celebrate when someone new, and different is brought into the fold. They can’t accept God’s invitation to the party.

I think part of what they object to is Jesus’ apparent definition of “repentance.” Jesus seems to think that, most of the time, the work is done by the Seeker, that it is enough to let oneself be found. There is certainly no useful way to think about a sheep or a coin “repenting” of past misdeeds. The lost-and-found son owns up to the ways in which he has sinned against God and against his father, and he offers himself as a hired hand. But the father wants none of that. Jesus wants none of that. For Jesus, as well as for the seeking shepherd and the diligent woman and the father, being found is enough. Letting ourselves be found is cause for celebration. Returning home, slightly stunned, to sit down in the midst of a big party that turns out to be all about us—that’s Jesus’ idea of how every lost-and-found story should end. A celebration. A party. Those who were incomplete are complete again, because the lost one has come home. This has profound implications for how we as a church ought to welcome everyone who comes to our doors. Unless we embrace our role as party-planning welcomers of all, we run the risk of being like those grumbling religious leaders, who wouldn’t know a party if it walked up and bit them.

We might wonder, what are the religious leaders so very afraid of? Why the fear about those they don’t want to associate with? I know I don’t have to tell you that the history of religion throughout the ages is a bloody one, and the bloodshed continues to our day. There seems to be a certain kind of zealot who cannot endure the idea of people with beliefs other than their own. Sometimes they fly planes into buildings. Sometimes they burn other people’s holy scriptures. Sometimes they herd people into death camps. Sometimes they just won’t even sit down at table with the “others.” Always, they allow their fear to become the determining factor in their actions. And Jesus, in his quiet way, says, “Let go of that fear. Don’t you know that God has invited us all to a party?”

I sat at a bus stop on a street in Brooklyn whose name I have forgotten, and I looked at every person who walked towards me as a potential evil hair burner. That’s the thing about fear, whether you view yourself as one of the lost or one of the never-was-lost-at-all: fear can turn every person you see into your enemy. I looked in vain for a cab, which never arrived, and for a bus of a certain number, which took its own sweet time in coming. And it kept getting darker.

All at once I heard a kind of joyous noisy eruption from a building behind me, as out of it streamed a group of maybe a dozen women—beautiful, dressed to the nines, wearing the most ornate and stunning hats I’d ever seen, which I have since learned are referred to as “crowns.” They were laughing and joking with one another. Their joy was infectious. They had just come from an afternoon at their church, and their talk was of bible study, the delicious meal, the fantastic music, the inspiring speaker. Something in me began to relax. When they surrounded me at the bus stop I felt my fear disappear entirely. I wasn’t quite “found” yet—I still had to get on that number-whatever-it-was bus and find my way to my study group. But I wasn’t quite lost any more either. I was safe. The party had come to me. Thanks be to God! Amen.

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