Sermon: Choosing the Lost over the Found

“A Peculiar People: Choosing the Lost over the Found”
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
September 15, 2019

Psalm 51:1-13 (from The Message)
Generous in love—God, give grace!
    Huge in mercy—wipe out my bad record.
Scrub away my guilt,
    soak out my sins in your laundry.
I know how wrong I’ve been;
    my sins are staring me down.

You’re the One I’ve violated, and you’ve seen
    it all, seen the full extent of my evil.
You have all the facts before you;
    whatever you decide about me is fair.
I’ve been out of step with you for a long time,
    in the wrong since before I was born.
What you’re after is truth from the inside out.
    Enter me, then; conceive a new, true life.

Soak me in your laundry and I’ll come out clean,
    scrub me and I’ll have a snow-bright life.
Tune me in to foot-tapping songs,
    set these once-broken bones to dancing.
Don’t look too close for blemishes,
    give me a clean bill of health.
God, make a fresh start in me,
    shape a Genesis week from the chaos of my life.
Don’t throw me out with the trash,
    or fail to breathe holiness in me.
Bring me back from gray exile,
    put a fresh wind in my sails!
Give me a job teaching rebels your ways
    so the lost can find their way home.

Luke 15:1-10
Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’

So he 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? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.

‘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? 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.’

This morning we are continuing our sermon series on A Peculiar People – God’s invitation to us to become God’s own particular people, but also to maybe be a little weird as we do it, a little countercultural, to go against the grain. 

Today we’re looking at choosing the lost over the found, and we have two parables to explore. As you might remember, a parable is a story with a lesson, but there’s always a twist, always something you might not expect. And that’s exactly where we’re going to get our peculiar moment this morning. 

First we have the woman who goes searching for a coin that she has lost. Though nine out of ten coins is still a pretty good average, still an A-, still $90 out of $100, many of us would want to recover that tenth coin. Money has value, after all; studies have shown that when we are forced to part with it, the pain receptors in our brain are activated. 

But who would throw a party after spending all that time searching for a lost coin? We’d be more likely to feel relief first, then stress that we’re so behind schedule after all that looking, or even embarrassment that we lost something so essential in the first place.

I had a boss who admitted that she once lost her car and house keys for the better part of a week, only to find them in the freezer, where she had stashed them while putting ice cream away after getting groceries. It took her a long time to live that down with her family; she wasn’t about to throw a party celebrating her foolishness.

Still, nothing is put at risk while the woman leaves the 9 coins on the table to sweep the house for the 10th. But it’s a different story with the parable of the one lost sheep. A shepherd’s job, especially in biblical times, was to protect the flock from danger – lions, jackals, wolves, thieves. What responsible shepherd would leave 99 sheep alone, exposed to predators and the elements, to go searching for the one sheep who’d been lost – who might take hours or even days to find in a scrubby wildnerness? 

The math doesn’t add up. Any good farmer would know that you care for your animals as individuals, yes, but you don’t put the whole herd at risk for just one wayward animal.

Jesus tells these parables to the Pharisees, who are grumbling because he’s eating with sinners and tax collectors. (That’s Bible-speak for extra sinful sinners, since tax collectors not only worked for the Roman occupiers but charged people more than was owed so they could line their own pockets.) The Pharisees’ job is to be keepers of the law, buffering those who follow the rules from those who might corrupt them, maintaining separation between what’s holy and what’s not. They’re supposed to keep sinners from contaminating the dinner table, the worship space, the community.

In the Pharisees’ eyes, someone’s holiness would be evident not just in their actions, but in the places they frequented and the people they surrounded themselves with. You couldn’t be holy, they thought, and hang out with rule breakers. That just didn’t compute.

My husband Chris spent his last few college years at a funky little institution called New College of Florida, the honors college of the Florida State system. To give you a picture of life at New College: students don’t receive grades. Chris didn’t wear shoes the entire time he was on campus, except sometimes in the dining hall where shoe-wearing was an on-again, off-again hygiene rule. There may have been an all-night party where partygoers wore liquid chocolate instead of clothes. And as Chris likes to say, no one had a drinking problem because they were using other, more adventurous drugs. 

There were Christian students at New College, attracted by its honors program but often totally bewildered by its free-wheeling spirit. Many kept to themselves and couldn’t understand why Chris, a committed Christian who didn’t drink or do drugs or engage in promiscuous behavior, would want to be friends with students who did. Their idea to reach out to these students was to commandeer a dining hall table and pass out tracts about repentance. Chris’ idea was to eat dinner with his friends. The Christian group voted Chris out of membership because he was hanging out with the rule-breakers. To them, his idea of holiness just didn’t compute.

We may not think the way to respond to someone who is set apart is to hand them a tract, but we might feel more comfortable staying with the 99 than reaching out to the one. It feels safer to stay at the lunch table with your friends than to go sit with the loner – to reach out to someone you don’t know and with whom you may have a hard time making conversation. It feels easier to ignore the one relative with different political beliefs or whose divergent choices have made them the “black sheep” than to engage them in conversation at the family reunion. What if other people see you and think of you as just as uncool as the new kid, or assume you condone the way that Uncle Bob voted or the way they took all of Grandma’s best antiques when she died?

I could go on. There are powerful social reasons why we don’t sit next to the homeless person on the bus or befriend someone with a drug problem or engage the coworker who earnestly talks your ear off about their obscure hobby and never lets you get a word in edgewise.

What if leaving the flock to go find the last sheep, that outlier, takes up so much of our time we end up neglecting the other 99 who need us, too? What if the 10th coin is never found and we’ve wasted all that energy reaching out to someone, searching for something that will never be restored?

That’s the heart of this scripture: going after the 100th sheep doesn’t make sense; there are a lot of good reasons not to do it. Looking for that last coin isn’t the best use of our time. It’s risky, it may not pay off, and even if we do succeed, who knows what success will mean – if it will throw off the balance of the flock or embarrass us in front of our neighbors. Why should we try? Why does it even matter, mathematically speaking that we go after the 100th sheep?

But man, haven’t we all been the 100th sheep, the 10th coin? Then it matters – then it’s the only thing that matters, that someone came looking for us.

I remember when I lived in Mississippi after college; I spent a few years doing Hurricane Katrina-related work. I didn’t know anybody when I first moved there; it was really lonely. I struggled with some depression because I felt like I didn’t have any connections, and I didn’t know what was next in my life. That was far from making me a “sinner” as the scripture describes, but it did make me an outlier. And I remember being so grateful when someone would reach out to me. “Hey, come play on the softball team with us! We need another player.” Or, “Hey, we know there isn’t a UCC church here in town, we’re UCC too, but we go to this Episcopalian church in the town next door and they’re pretty great. Come with us!”

Or the person the mattered the most, who also was the 100th sheep at some point in his life: my friend Gerald. I worked at a homeless day shelter and Gerald was one of the clients. He would just observe everything going on at the shelter: people fighting over who was next in the shower line, or who had taken whose laundry out of the washing machine; he just never participated in the drama.  And I think because he was such an observer, he noticed that I was struggling. So every day, Gerald would just come check on me. He would just come see how I was, talk to me – not about what he needed from me as a staff member, but as a friend. 

Gerald struggled with alcoholism and that’s ultimately what led to his death a few years later. By that time I had moved to Atlanta; I’d started seminary, gotten married, and had this whole new life, and when he would call and leave drunk messages on my voicemail, I just didn’t have the heart to call him back. I didn’t have the guts to go after the 100th sheep even though he’d come after me. 

And I regret that. I regret it a lot.

But it taught me something about God – about how Jesus comes after us no matter what. I have  no doubts that Gerald was – and is – deeply loved by Jesus, and that it was through  Gerald’s love for me that I could feel Jesus’ love when I was out struggling in the wilderness. 

I think Jesus tells these parables and reminds us about being lost because he wants us to marinate on who matters to God – and it’s not always the people we think, the people who look like they have the perfect relationship with God or that they’ve got it all figured out. When we feel safe, secure, like we already belong, it might feel strange or unfair to say that God has come specifically for or cares more for those on the outside, those who wander off or get lost. Yet Jesus says it, even more directly, earlier in Luke: “Who needs a doctor: the healthy or the sick? I’m here inviting outsiders, not insiders—an invitation to a changed life, changed inside and out.” (Luke 5:31, The Message)

Sometimes that doesn’t feel like the best news. But man, if you’re the sick one, it certainly feels like good news. And we have all been there before.

When we are not feeling sick, when we are feeling well and as if we belong and are grounded and have lots of good things going on in our lives, maybe that is the moment we join the shepherd in the search, that we might find ways to share what we have that we can  reach out, out of our own comfort and connectedness and sense of contentment and find someone who is feeling lost. Not because we’re going to fix them, but because God loves them. And we’re called to love them, too, and we’re called to love the parts of ourselves that have gotten lost along the way.  

Because that’s who God is: the shepherd who goes after number 100; the woman on her knees with a long broom handle trying to fish under the bed to see if she can find that tenth coin. 

Churches often talk about how they wish they were more racially diverse, or had more young adults, or wonder how they could be more welcoming to folks who are queer or transgender or fill in the blank. They wonder how they could welcome in the 100th – the person who’s felt shut out, the person who’s felt lost.

What we forget sometimes, though, is that we have to leave these four walls, this place, in order to connect with people who maybe haven’t felt welcome here, or in any church. And we have to think about, just as some of the Pharisees might have been thinking about: maybe it’s a call for sinners to repent or the lost to come home, but maybe it’s also a call for the flock to change its ways, for us to give up some of what makes us comfortable or what makes us feel at home so that others will feel comfortable and at home here too. 

It’s a peculiar way to think about church. It’s a peculiar way to go about life: looking for how we might round that average up to 100% instead of being satisfied with 90%. But i think we’ll find that in following Jesus, in going out with the shepherd, that’s where the very best stuff happens. That’s where we find that our lost places find a home, too.