Lost and Found

Rev. Sarah Buteux
September 15, 2013
Luke 15:1-10

How many of you use GPS now when you drive someplace new?  It’s a Godsend, right? I used to get lost all the time. In fact, I am one of those people who, if I come to a fork in the road, will choose the wrong direction 9 times out of 10.

Back roads can be a nuisance. Highway exchanges give me a rash.

You’d think, as a general rule, that I would at least know whether I’m heading North, South, East or West, but no.

My instincts are so bad, that I’ve actually been known to try and trick fate by going the direction I’m 99% sure is wrong in the hopes that I’ll finally be right. For some reason that rarely works out either. I don’t know.

Well, I’d like to say that all this has changed now that I have a maps program on my i-phone, and in all fairness much of it has. In fact, it’s not the phone’s fault when my GPS lets me down; it’s still pretty much always mine.

At least twice in the last 6 months  - and maybe you’ve had this experience too - I have accidentally typed in the wrong address.  Not way wrong, just wrong enough; as in typing Springfield rather than West Springfield, or Moon drive rather than Loon drive.

The trouble is that these erroneous addresses I have fabricated are also apparently real places. Yeah. So I have twice had to deal with very intense feelings of dislocation as I have arrived promptly for an appointment at the very address I was searching for, only to realize in that moment that I am not where I want to be at all.

Has this ever happened to anyone else, or am I just uniquely and irrevocably directionally challenged? (Thank you, my misery appreciates your company.)

It’s not a good feeling, is it? No. It’s not a good feeling at all. But as a Christian I have to admit that it is a rather familiar one - not just because I get lost a lot out there - but because I spend a lot of time pondering Jesus’ parables in here (my heart); and Jesus is the master of dislocation.

Just when you think you have him figured out, he turns the tables on you. Just when you think you’ve pegged who is who and what is what in his parables, he pulls the rug.

Like a carnival clown in the fun house of your soul he’s always swiveling the mirrors, the better to make you see that what you thought you saw was not what you really needed to see at all.

And if that sounds a little scary…

well…

good.

Today’s reading from the gospels, as is often the case with Jesus, takes place somewhere with food.

This exchange may have all happened in the courtyard outside someone’s home or maybe just down at the local watering hole, but wherever he has set up shop for the day, Jesus is teaching and eating at the same time. The problem is that he’s teaching and eating once again with A.T.W.P.’s: All The Wrong People.

Luke tells us that; “the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him,” which sounds bad enough – what with all the sinning and the taxing - but that word listen is the really important word in that sentence because it is not an idle sort of listening. [1]

What Luke is trying to tell us is that these ne’er-do-wells who have gathered around Jesus – these sinners who really were bad people, (let’s be clear about that) bad people who had done bad things – these people are not just hearing Jesus talk, they’re really listening to what he has to say.

They are taking Jesus’ words to heart. They are starting to believe, truly believe that all these things he is saying about God’s love and grace, repentance and forgiveness, new beginnings and clean slates, could possibly include even them.

They are starting to believe that in spite of all they have done wrong that they might still have a chance to make things right.

These embezzlers and traitors, these men and women of loose morals and even looser tongues, are starting to believe that regardless of who they have become they might have a shot at starting over and becoming something more, something new: someone acceptable, someone honorable, someone who could once again be welcomed into the community, maybe even welcomed home.

Which sounds lovely and all, except for the fact that Jesus hasn’t exactly cleared this invitation; at least not with any earthly folks.

He hasn’t talked this through with any of the good people in the community, many of whom were standing right there in the crowd, the very people who would have to welcome and forgive this sorry lot in order for any of these new beginnings to become a reality.

It was one thing to say that God would accept these people.  It was a whole other thing to say that the rest of the people had to accept them too, especially when the truth was that they didn’t.  Not even a little.

There was no love lost between the good people in the crowd- men like the scribes and the Pharisees- and all the riff raff Jesus was inviting into the kingdom of God.

The Scribes didn’t want to take these people home.  The Pharisees didn’t want to worship with them. No one with any standing wanted to eat with these folks or even associate with them for that matter. 

And it’s hard to blame them.  I mean these were not the sort of people you’d bring home to mother, and if you did, you certainly wouldn’t leave them alone with her. Again, these were not good people. 

The Pharisees and the scribes knew it and they resented Jesus for trying to look past it. “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them,” they grumbled.

And they were right. But that didn’t stop Jesus from telling them a few stories they really needed to hear: a story about a shepherd, a story about a woman, and finally a story you all know well, the story of the prodigal son.

He told them a story about a shepherd who not only left his 99 sheep unprotected and alone in the wilderness to go after one measly stray, but had the audacity to brag about it afterward.

(For those of you who don’t know much about shepherding, you’ll just have to trust me when I say that that would be wrong and weird on all counts.)

Then Jesus told them about a woman who turned her house upside down in her efforts to locate a lost coin, and then threw a party for her neighbors, spending that much money if not more, because she was so happy she found it. Yeah, again with the weird.

These are odd little stories to be sure, odd little stories about strange people, odd little stories that seem at first glance to be about a very strange God or at least a very strange heaven. It’s hard to be sure. 

You’ll notice that unlike some of his other parables, Jesus doesn’t start out by saying that the “Kingdom of God is like a Shepherd,” or that “God herself is like a woman who lost a coin.” He just talks about this shepherd and this woman and their good pleasure before saying that, “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous persons who need no repentance.”

“… more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous persons who need no repentance.”

Now I’d like to think of God acting with the same abandon as the shepherd or the same level of diligence as this woman, but I admit it’s hard to tell exactly how God fits into the parable. 

And maybe that’s ok since it would seem that what this parable is really about is repentance. After all, that’s where the joy kicks in.

Thankfully, we’re all at least clear about who it is that needs to repent, right? Who it is, in Jesus audience, that needs to change? The lost coin and the lost sheep are definitely meant to represent the lost souls gathered around Jesus that day - “the tax collectors and the sinners.”

I mean they’re tax collectors and sinners. They’re the one’s who need to repent, right?

Or are they? 

As one of my favorite theologians – Sarah Dylan Brewer - likes to ask: if, at the end of the story, the shepherd is home partying with the lost sheep and the 99 are still out in the wilderness, well, “who’s really the stray?”[2]

(TCHAA! See what I mean about dislocating?)

OK, so let’s beep, beep back up the truck.

Is the point of today’s parables that God loves us no matter what and will go to any lengths to bring us back into the fold no matter how far we have wandered?

Or is the point of Jesus’ story that those of us who think we are righteous are fooling ourselves; that we are actually the ones who need to repent?

I’m going to go with YES.

I think this parable is as much for the lost as it is for the found. In fact, I suspect that if you think you’re found, at least more found than other people, you might well be more lost than you realize. 

But be of good cheer, because I’m also pretty sure it’s only the truly lost who can ever really be found, so it’s bound to work out for you eventually.

Actually, what I really think, is that we’re always a little bit of both. We all sin and we all judge. Some of us sin in ways that are more obvious than others. Some of us have more reason to judge others. But we all sin and we all judge.

In fact, if you could go back in time to this very moment in Luke, right after these parables were told, and ask all these people gathered around Jesus who the lost ones really were, I think - at least initially - that there would have been a lot of finger pointing.

I mean it’s pretty obvious that the scribes and Pharisees would have pointed at the tax collectors and sinners. What’s maybe not so obvious is that the tax collectors and sinners might well have pointed right back. 

After all, they were the ones really listening to Jesus and actually understanding what he was saying. They knew they had sinned and were ready to repent. They wanted to be a part of this new thing that Jesus was doing.

The question was whether the Scribes and the Pharisees would come along too. The question was whether they would see their need to change, whether they could ever come to realize that there actually are no righteous people; not even 99. 

There are just a whole lot of sinners knocking around down here: sinners in need of repentance, sinners in need of God’s grace. 

But also - coming back to the parable - sinners who somehow need one another if we’re ever going to be made whole, brothers and sisters who can never be complete without each other, because at the end of the day that’s how God designed it all to work.

I think the central truth Jesus is trying to communicate to everyone is that we were all created to be a part of the same flock, the same purse, the same family, the same kingdom – every last, lost, and lonely little one of us - and apparently God is not going to rest until that is so.

***

I heard a story this week. A friend sent me an interview that was done last summer at the Wild Goose Festival with Nadia Bolz-Weber.[3] Now for those of you who don’t know who Nadia is, I brought pictures.  Actually I brought her new book. She is the founding pastor of House for All Sinners and Saints, a Lutheran church plant out in Denver Colorado.

And Nadia is not what you’d call a typical pastor, nor is her church what you’d call a typical church. She’s a former addict/stand up comedian, her body is covered in tattoos, and she swears like a sailor. And (not but) I love the Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber. Hopefully, by the end of this story you will too.

When Nadia left seminary she felt called to create a church for people like herself, people who would never even think to go to church because they’re too loud or too lost or too gay or too tattooed up or too opinionated or too whatever….you fill in the blank.

It would be a church where everyone was welcome, but especially those who would struggle to find a real welcome anywhere else. It would be a community designed to welcome the stranger; as in the stranger the better. She set her beautiful unorthodox community of misfits into motion, but soon found herself becoming frustrated when it leveled out at around 45 people.

But then Nadia preached at a huge sunrise service, her picture landed on the front page of the Denver Post, and something about a tattooed lady in clericals caught people’s attention. The following Sunday the size of her congregation doubled, which is exactly what she’d been praying for, only there was a bit of problem.

The people who came were, A.T.W.P.’s. They were bankers in Dockers, soccer moms with kids, the sort of people who eat at Applebee’s.

They were attracted by how edgy and hip and real the worship felt, but Nadia was freaking out because these were not the demographic she was targeting, I mean the people to whom she felt called to minister. 

These folks could have walked into any church in Denver and been welcomed with open arms so what were they doing here skewing the vibe of her edgy little mission. And even worse, what if all these nice normal looking Christians decided to stay. What if their presence made the formerly marginalized, definitely not normal looking Christians start to feel like House For All Sinners and Saints wasn’t really for them?

Nadia didn’t know what to do. She was really freaking out, so she called her friend Russell who pastors a similar church up North and said: “Dude have you ever had normal people take over your church?”

She told him the whole story expecting him to help her strategize or at least empathize, but instead Russell said, somewhat sarcastically, “yeah that sucks, Nadia” “(Sounds like) you guys are really good at ‘welcoming the stranger’ when it’s some young transgender kid, but (Nadia) sometimes ‘the stranger’ look like your mom and dad.”

Well Nadia did not like that answer for whole host of reasons, chief among them being that Russell was right. Also, like any good pastor, she had already called a meeting to discuss the “demographic change” in their community.

She had secretly hoped that if she had all the weird, edgy, wounded people who had been part of the church from the very beginning get up and say why they were there, then all these nice, new, normal people would realize that they didn’t really belong and go away. But after that little phone call, Nadia realized she was wrong.

She set up chairs the night of the meeting, put out cookies, and when everyone arrived confessed about how this whole thing had messed her up and left her feeling. She told them what Russell said about the stranger sometimes looking like your mom and dad. And then, instead of having the original members speak, she had the new people talk instead.

She asked them to talk about who they were, why they had come, and what they had found at the church, so that the people who had been there from the very beginning could hear what their church was really about. The soccer moms and the bankers shared their stories. Hearts were changed. The stranger was welcomed.

And then a young man named Asher spoke up and said, “Look, as the young transgender kid who was welcomed into this community, I just want to go on record as saying that I’m glad there’s people who look like my mom and Dad here, because they love me in a way that my mom and Dad can’t.”

“…they love me in a way that my mom and Dad can’t.”

“Rejoice with me,” said the shepherd, “for I have found my sheep that was lost.”

“Rejoice with me,” said the woman, “for I have found my coin...”

“Rejoice with me,” says the Lord, “and again I say, “rejoice.”

 Amen and Amen.

 


[1] “Hearing’ for Luke is a sign of repentance and conversion.” (See Luke 5:1, 15, 6:17-18, 27, 47, 49) Charles B. Cousar, Feasting on the Word, p 69