September 15, 2019
Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28; Psalm 14; Luke 15:1-10
I can remember one day, many years ago, grocery shopping with one of my children who was about three years old at the time. I must have become too focused on deciding on a particular item, because when I looked down, my child had completely disappeared. Frantically, I began to search. Racing down one aisle after another, he was nowhere to be seen. I’m sure others of you may have had a similar experience at some point, but we simply never stop searching until the child is found. The sheer panic, fear, and dread that is felt while the child is missing is unbearable.
I found him at customer service where someone had taken him, and where they were just on the verge of announcing his appearance over the store sound system. A tiny bit of me was furious because he had insisted on not travelling in the cart, then proceeded to escape the first chance he got. But my primary response to finding him was sheer joy; my immediate impulse was to wrap him in my arms, and hold him close. Ironically, all these many years later, that same son’s job is to jump out of planes in remote places in order to help search for people who have become lost.
I was reminded of this experience with my young son as I reflected on today’s readings, because they speak of a God who never stops searching for us when we become lost. And God does this because each and every one of us is precious. Each and every one of us is forever loved. Eternally. Always.
Our reading from Jeremiah this morning speaks of a time when the Israelite people have become about as lost as a people can become. The sins of the people are so all pervasive that the entire cosmos is being affected. But God sends the Prophet Jeremiah to find those who are lost. And even in the midst of such a lost and sinful people, God calls them ‘my people.’ God is intimately bound to God’s people. God will never abandon God’s people, no matter how lost they become; how lost we become. God is willing, time and time again, to continue to search for those who are lost, call them to repent and give them an opportunity to change.
Our psalm reinforces this theme as the psalmist acknowledges the sinfulness of the people, “every one has proved faithless; every one has turned bad; there is no one who does good; no, not one.” But despite this, the psalmist offers hope for this wayward, lost people. The psalmist points to a God who looks down from heaven upon us all; a God who will restore the fortunes of his people. A God who searches for the lost, and rejoices when they are found. In our gospel reading this morning we hear the Pharisees and the scribes, those who saw themselves as righteous, complaining because Jesus is not only welcoming sinners, as if that wasn’t bad enough, but he is actually eating with them. And by eating with them, this doesn’t simply mean catching a quick bite at the local coffee shop, or going through the nearest drive through. Eating here is a mark of the building of relationships. It is an act of welcoming, embracing, accepting and befriending.
There is a kind of societal intimacy that comes with sitting down and sharing a meal. So in eating with the most despised members of the community (tax collectors and sinners) Jesus is demonstrating a deep and abiding acceptance of those people society has identified as morally corrupt and therefore not worthy of befriending. To eat with these despised characters is seen as associating with them and somehow condoning their behaviour. Jesus’ critics are partly right. He is associating with them, even welcoming, embracing, accepting and befriending them. But he is not in any way condoning their behaviour.
This is the context in which this morning’s stories are told: the story of the lost sheep and the lost coin. In other words, maybe the folks with whom he is sharing meals are perceived as ‘lost sinners’ in the eyes of those who see themselves as ‘righteous’, but it is precisely those who are lost that Jesus has come to find and to rejoice over.
So in order to make this point, Jesus (as is his way) tells a couple of stories or parables. The first is the parable of the lost sheep in which one of ninety-sheep becoming lost and the second is of a women who loses one of ten coins. When the sheep goes missing the shepherd goes into the wilderness in order to find him. Not only does that shepherd return that lost sheep to the fold, but he carries it on his shoulders, and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbours, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost’. “Just so, I tell you,” Jesus says. “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”
And let’s make note here that this would not have scored him any points with his current critics. It is, indeed, a bit of a kick in the head to those who see themselves as righteous.
The second parable tells the story of a woman with a lost coin, who lights a lamp, sweeps the house and searches carefully until it is found and then calls together her friends and neighbours, 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.”
The shepherd and the woman in these stories are intended to help identify the very character of God and in particular, the character of God made known in Jesus. That is; the God we worship is one who not only actively seeks out individuals who are lost, but also rejoices when they are found –when we are found. This God is not a tyrant, but One who actively longs for and seeks restoration.
An important question here is: who are the lost that God is seeking to find? I think it is easy to identify the obvious, people such as tax collectors and sinners. But there are so many ways of becoming lost. For example, prison inmates doing time for any number of heinous crimes – while there is nothing in either of these stories to condone this behaviour, Jesus invites and welcomes these folks into fellowship at the table. But the Pharisees and the scribes - that is, the righteous - in effect claim that this is not fair. How is it fair that they are not seen in a more privileged place considering their perceived elevated moral conduct?
So here’s the clincher. To focus on these stories in terms of categories such as ‘sinner’ vs. ‘righteous’ is to completely miss the point, because this defines us according to what we have done. Rather, we are all called to understand ourselves as lost and found – this is who we are. Within the frailty of our human condition we all become lost, and the God we worship searches for us, finds us and rejoices each and every time. Those who know they are lost are actually closer to experiencing and accepting the transformation that comes with God finding them. But those who see themselves as righteous don’t recognize that they, too, are lost and need to be found.
So, how might those who are seen in society and throughout the church as righteous also be terribly lost?
Global warming is a symptom of a lost humanity. God is calling us to repent, to rethink and re-establish our politics and lifestyles so that this may be reversed. This culture in which we live, in which individual wants and needs are of primary concern, rather than identifying needs based on the common good, is a symptom of a lost humanity. I spent some of my summer reading and studying the Report on Missing and Murdered Indigenous women and girls. Canada’s original settlers were a strong matriarchal society. The rise and dominance of European settlers has, over time, taken these strong females filled with wisdom and rendered them disposable and invisible. This is a symptom of a lost humanity. Systems such as insufficient family agencies, or immigration policies that unjustly separate children from their families are symptoms of a lost humanity.
With each of these big picture issues, the church has - the perceived ‘righteous’ have - often been complicit, and silent.
And how might individuals be terribly lost? Might the career minded woman or man who has made moving up the corporate ladder the #1 priority be lost? Might the folks who work around the clock in order to give their family things way beyond what they need be lost? Might the senior who has a great pension plan but little sense of meaning since retirement be lost? Might the child, youth or adult who works so hard striving for perfection and is willing to do just about anything to fit in be lost? Might the one who engages in gossip that is hurtful to others, be lost?
In our own individual ways, we are all lost. We may not be serving time in prison, or engaging in any of the public sins that are socially taboo, but in our own individual ways, we are all lost. And we will only be receptive to the transformation that comes with God finding us when we acknowledge that we are lost.
Each time we say together the confession, we acknowledge that we are lost and the God of mercy, through Jesus Christ, has found us. Today, as we say this confession together, I encourage each of us to think long and hard about how and where we are lost, be open to God finding us however far we may have strayed, and then as we celebrate the Eucharist – this sacred meal - together – let us hear and experience the sense of rejoicing. Let us hear God’s voice as He says, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found him, I have found her, whom I had lost.’