In the name of God who loves us, finds us, and carries us safely home, Amen.
For those of you who have not yet heard this story, I recently became a foster mommy- to five adorable kittens. On a walk last week, I was admiring a neighbor’s early fall flowers when I saw something move beneath the leaves. It turned out there were four tiny kittens hiding there, frightened and dehydrated and starving. These four were relatively easy to capture- but there was a fifth one hiding under the porch across the road that I was unable to reach. I ended up bringing the four home and caring for them so that they would survive and going back later with my son Thomas, and we did not leave that place, despite the late afternoon heat and other physical discomforts and challenges, until we safely rescued this little one. Leaving her there, lost and separated from the others, was simply never an option- we were determined that she should be found.
This week’s Gospel reading gives us plenty to think about when it comes to being lost and being found, packing as it does two familiar parables into this one short section of Scripture. They are very similar in structure, drawing the listener’s attention to something that was lost, someone who searched diligently until the item was found, and the great rejoicing that occurred among the community as they celebrated with the person who’d found what had been lost. I’d like to focus our conversation on the parable of the lost sheep, which occurs in an almost identical form in both Matthew and Luke. A shepherd has one hundred sheep and one is lost, missing from the rest of the flock. The shepherd is distraught and cannot think of anything but the lost sheep, imagining it caught in all sorts of potentially life-threatening situations. Putting his or her own comfort and safety at risk the shepherd searches until the lost sheep is found and brings it home with great joy. We did not hear it today, but these two stories are immediately followed by the parable of the prodigal son, characterizing this entire chapter in Luke by these three great episodes of lostness and foundness.
Parables are so familiar and so beloved to us that the real challenge with them is finding something new to say, something not previously considered that we can wonder about together. I’ll begin with my fascination as I learned that this story- specifically verse five of this fifteenth chapter in Luke- is the only time in the entire Bible where Jesus is described as bringing the sheep home over his shoulders. And yet, this is probably our most beloved image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd- for centuries artists have loved to portray the lost sheep and Jesus lovingly bearing it home. Just now, we heard this very phrase in our hymn before the Gospel- with the fitting first line “The King of Love my Shepherd is.” This hymn is described as a paraphrase of psalm 23, yet the text of the third verse is this: “Perverse and foolish oft I strayed, but yet in love he sought me, and on his shoulders gently laid, and home, rejoicing, brought me.” There is no mention of a sheep on Jesus’ shoulders in the 23rd psalm. So pervasive is this image of Jesus lovingly carrying the wayward sheep that it has overflowed into how we see Jesus when we apply this story to ourselves. We see Jesus as rescuing us from all the dangers of our mortal lives to bear us to our eternal home, giving of himself to get us there safely, finding and loving and carrying us there with great rejoicing, all our past redeemed. We all know this- but there is way more to this story.
It starts to get tricky when we consider that many- most- of us who hear this story will immediately begin to think of what it means to be the lost sheep. We will think of times when we have felt lost, which perhaps may be right now, and we will be reminded of others whom we see as lost, people we love deeply. Our minds might stray to the many reasons why we feel lost, reasons that are as numerous and unique as we are. Upon hearing today’s Gospel story we might be drawn to the determination, the tenacity of the shepherd and the woman as they search for the lost sheep and the lost coin, putting aside their own needs to do so- and wonder why no one is searching for us like that. These are real and important questions that can separate us from the comfort and security of Jesus as our Good Shepherd and so I want us to consider them, because that is exactly the point of this story- that nothing should be separating us from the compassion and love of the shepherd who cannot rest until all are safely brought back to the fold, that nothing matters more to Jesus than that we are found. I want us to remember that there are times when we bring foundness to others and times when we need to be found.
I invite us all to come together into this in-between space between lostness and foundness and consider some of the things that are in here with us. In this story, Jesus was actually directing the lesson towards the folks who considered themselves to be religious and believed they were already “found”, while the “tax collectors and sinners” were the ones “coming near to listen”, clearly longing for foundness. The phrase “sinners” refers here to people whose questionable pattern of life was well known to the community- those who had disgraced themselves morally again and again. And by righteous, Jesus means those folks who have actively tried to live a life obedient to the law, the doers of good things. Yet, Jesus is telling them that leaving them to retrieve the one who is lost, to carry that one safely back into the fold with great celebration is exactly what Jesus will do- and if Jesus does it, we know it is a way of life meant for us as well. This in-between space is worth spending time in for it is a place when we too come very close to Jesus, a time when the sadness or pain of being lost dissolves into the joy of finding and being found, a homecoming worthy of the lavish celebrations so clearly described in these parables. It is a time when we remember that ALL are worthy of being found.
While these are the words of the story, some of the really beautiful things here are found in what is not said. Nothing is said about rebuking, or scolding about a past way of life, or a need for repentance before the lost can become the found. There is nothing about first being “saved”, to use that often-quoted and misunderstood term- there are no conditions, no qualifications, nothing we have to do to somehow “earn” our foundness. What we have here instead is radical grace, unconditional love, a chance for us all to place our identity squarely in Christ based only on our longing to be found. Neither what happened that caused us to be lost nor what happens after we are found is what matters- what matters is the fact that our Shepherd cannot rest until all are found and it is only by divine grace that we are found, over and over and over again. Here is the answer to our wondering from earlier, summarized in one beautiful sentence: the God we are seeking is already seeking us.
There is one more really important part of this story. I am a huge fan of artist David Hayward, who describes himself as “a graffiti artist on the walls of religion.” His art often portrays Jesus as bewildered and sad, overcome by the lack of compassion we often show to those whom Jesus loves but we choose to shut out of our churches and our communities. He uses his artwork to portray Jesus as separating from those who would choose Scripture or law over love, setting out to deliberately find and reclaim the one who is lost. Most powerful of all, his art often depicts Jesus as consoling a heartbroken sheep who tells Jesus: “Well, actually I’m not lost. It was clear to me I wasn’t fully welcomed.” Here we have what I believe is the most heartbreaking kind of lostness there is- when it is chosen on purpose over remaining in the company of those who are so certain they are found they have no love for finding others.
Dear ones, above all else, this is what we cannot allow. Our own lostness, our own knowledge that we are all fragile and broken and in constant search of foundness, is the greatest part of who we really are- our true selves. We need to accept this lostness in both ourselves and others and invite it to be, like the tax collectors and sinners, what draws us ever closer to Jesus. If we long to be found by our Shepherd, we can play a part in bringing others to a place of foundness as well. For Jesus to leave the 99 and go and find the one that is lost is to take tangible and loving action, an example for us all to find others who are separated by lostness and bring them to pastures where all can live in safety, nestled in joyful community and affirmed with great rejoicing.
Contemporary Christian music artist Cory Asbury has written and sings a song titled “Reckless Love” that speaks perfectly to this, and I’d like to close by sharing with you the words of the refrain. If you’d like to listen to it, this is the YouTube link included in our weekly e-newsletter. For indeed it is only by God’s reckless love that we ourselves experience foundness and have our model for carrying others to foundness as well.
Oh, the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God,
Oh, it chases me down, fights til I’m found, leaves the 99.
And I couldn’t earn it, and I don’t deserve it,
yet you give yourself away,
Oh, the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God! Amen.