Episcopal Diocese of Virginia
The Episcopal Church »  |  The Diocese of Virginia

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 15, 2019

I lose my car keys. A lot. I have a certain place where they go in my purse, but often I don’t put them there. My purse is big, so I am often frantically searching for them. When I find them I am relieved and grateful. I also have many, many pieces of paper around my house, and it is a chore to look for something I have lost. But there is nothing like finding what I was looking for. It is truly a cause for rejoicing, especially when I really need it for some project I am doing. I don’t believe I ever lost Evan, but that finding would bring rejoicing exponentially greater than my keys.

Jesus knows the people he is eating with – the sinners and tax collectors – are lost. He has come to find them and bring them home. So he seeks them out and invites them to break bread – the symbol of full community in his time. The Pharisees know those people too, and they also know they are lost. Their solution has been to exclude them from the community. They were not doing a bad thing. They were doing what the Bible told them, which was to stay away from evil people.

Tax collectors and those that had broken religious and social rules may sound pretty tame to us, but what if we translated the lost people to today’s world – drug dealers, bigots, pay day lenders, murderers, terrorists (Rodney J. Hunter), and others. Wouldn’t we be uncomfortable eating with those people up close and personal? And who of us parents has not warned their children to stay away from bad influences and probably grounded them when they didn’t. There is a long history of staying away from the lost. No wonder the Pharisees are grumbling. Jesus’ invitation to those on the margins is a bad example and a breach of biblical rules.

But Jesus doesn’t feel that way. The Pharisees are out to separate the lost and Jesus is out to find them and bring them back into community. He tells two parables about God’s relentless effort to find God’s lost children. There is a shepherd with 100 sheep. One gets lost and he immediately leaves the 99, not in a fold but in the wilderness, to go crashing through the underbrush to find the stray. But what about the 99, we say? Won’t they be in danger of milling around and losing their way? Possibly, but perhaps the shepherd feels that if they are together in community, they are more likely to stick together, while the one, clearly alone, is in more danger. And the shepherd moves as quickly as he can to find the lost.

In the other story, a woman loses a coin. She searches in another way. She is careful, methodical. She sweeps and sweeps until that lost coin is finally found. She probably has gone over the same ground many times until the coin glints in the floor and she scooped it up.

Jesus is trying to tell us that God searches in whatever way we most need in order to find us.

The sheep and the coin can’t do anything to help themselves be found. Sheep do not bleat when they are lost, but hunker down somewhere and just wait (Helen Montgomery Debevoise). Coins cannot make themselves shine brighter. The finding is all about the shepherd and the woman.

But people, Jesus knows, can be receptive to being found. They certainly won’t be receptive if they are shunned. They are likely to say something like, “Well, I’ll just show you!” They gather together on the fringes of society and make some kind of community because people need it, whoever they are. Why would they want to be let back in to a community of hard liners, who might welcome them back grudgingly but would certainly treat them as second class citizens.

But people will be receptive if they are invited and welcomed and treated as valuable (G. Penny Nixon). They will be inclined to listen to what Jesus has to say about the kingdom and perhaps repent – not feel guilty, but change their mind – about how to behave. And with the forgiving God Jesus talks about, they know that they will be cared for and loved no matter what they have done. That’s Jesus again, reversing the rules in the face of the rule keepers.

But Jesus is not doing this to make them angry. This is Jesus working at finding the lost, at bringing the Pharisees back home to God. Of course they are lost too, as are we all, and they need forgiveness for their hard-heartedness. But the Pharisees are not receptive, as Jesus’ dinner companions are. They don’t want to be found; they want to be right. They can’t see that they are excluding themselves from community by excluding others. Jesus wants more than anything to bring them all together.

Paul tells his audience about his experience of being lost and found. He was a blasphemer, a persecutor and a man of violence. But Christ Jesus came to save sinners, and he looked for Paul in a way that was best for Paul – a dramatic blinding light on the road to Damascus. Paul needed a display of power from this Jesus and he got it. Then God’s grace made Paul receptive to God’s message and Paul was surprisingly given a very important job. He tells his lost-and-found story to help others who may feel lost. God uses Paul to say that anyone can be found; that God values every single person.

The best thing about finding is the rejoicing that goes on when something or someone is found. The shepherd and the woman call together their friends and celebrate because the lost is now found. And God, Jesus says, is even more delighted when a sinner changes his or her mind and is forgiven and found than over 99 people who don’t need repentance Jesus says. Of course that is true, because there is no one who doesn’t need repentance, but he is speaking to the Pharisees and trying to help those who think they are righteous see the value of finding the lost.

We are not the finders in this story. We are the lost ones. As anyone knows who has ever been lost, it is scary. I don’t think I got lost as a child, but this summer I got separated from my friend across the aisles of a huge department store. I didn’t know where she was and was afraid to move around in case I might miss her. Fortunately, that kind of finding is much easier with cell phones. She just called me and we hooked up. It was still a bit scary.

Jesus tells us that being lost when we sin is not forever. Hopefully, it is not for very long at all, because God is pursuing us every moment, hoping to help us see where we go astray and bring us back to God’s kingdom path. We are so valuable to God that God is willing to take big risks, as the shepherd did. God sent Jesus, his only Son, to find us and bring us back and he lost his life trying to do so. God is willing to search diligently as the woman did, and not stop until God finds us, no matter how long it takes.

We are all on equal footing in God’s kingdom. We may not be as lost as some, but we are all in need of finding all the time. Those who are particularly labeled as lost need our help. They need our prayers. They need our support in whatever way we can give. And they need our solidarity – our belief that they can be found, that God values them as God does us. It is scary to think about trying to find ways to help people we disagree with or are scared of, but God will provide the means, as God depends on us, as he did Jesus, to help spread the message that Jesus came into the world to save all of us. God rejoices in finding, and we are called to rejoice at being found. Jesus invites us all to the table. All we need to do is to take our seats and break bread with him.