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Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 11, 2016

I lost my USB drive not too long ago. For those of you who don’t know, a USB drive is a small piece of equipment that you can use to copy things from your computer onto and so have a backup copy in case your computer crashes. I had so many things on it that I couldn’t replace and many things that I could only replace with great difficulty. I was frantic. I really needed that drive. I looked everywhere. I combed through my briefcase where I usually carry it. I checked my computers at home and at work. I looked under the sofa and in all kinds of places it probably wasn’t, but might have fallen, just in case. Finally I looked in my laptop case. And there it was. I was overjoyed. I had found the lost.

Today’s gospel is about being lost and being found – not USB drives, but sheep and coins. But not really even things, but about human beings. Jesus is the representation of God’s love on earth and his words and actions speak about what love does when faced with certain situations. Love heals on the Sabbath because persons are in need that day as well as others. Love sacrifices itself for others because love picks up its cross. Love takes care of people and offers them hope.

At this dinner, Jesus is teaching both the Pharisees and the sinners and tax collectors what love does. Love welcomes, searches, finds and rejoices.

The Pharisees are grumbling because Jesus is hosting sinners and outcasts at a meal – the most important sign of welcoming in Jesus’ time. The Pharisees are legitimately concerned about Jesus mixing with those people. That is the part of society it is their job to protect people from – the collaborators with Rome and those who had done other things that repeatedly violated the law. Sinners and tax collectors are a general collective for us that we don’t think much about. Our people that we might legitimately want to be separated from might be pimps or drug dealers or gang members or sexual abusers (Rodney J. Hunter). That brings it much closer to home, doesn’t it? Who of us wants to be seen with, much less welcome, one of those people? We can have a little sympathy at least for the Pharisees who are trying to protect society in the best way they know.

But Jesus is a radical. Jesus considers these people – and the Pharisees – on an equal footing as children of God. That is why he welcomes them and does not ring down judgment on their heads as the Pharisees are wont to do. Welcoming a person is the first step toward drawing them into the message of repentance. This bunch of sinners and tax collectors had heard about Jesus’ welcome of them in the past and has drawn near to listen to what Jesus says, to receive the love that they so long have been denied.

Saving sinners is all about finding the lost and bringing them home. So the next thing love does is search tirelessly. Jesus tells two parables about searching. First there is the shepherd who has 100 sheep and loses one. Immediately he leaves his other 99 sheep behind and goes in search of the missing one. How strange this seems. A shepherd leaving 99 sheep vulnerable in the fields to predators. Perhaps there are hired hands to watch the sheep, but Jesus gives no explanation for this risky business. He just wants to emphasize the seriousness of love’s searching. Then a woman has 10 silver coins, each one representing a day’s wages, and loses one. She is in dire need of that coin. It is what she has to feed her family. She sweeps and sweeps, even with a lantern into the night to find it.

Saving sinners is all about finding. The shepherd went everywhere until he found the sheep and it was hard. Sheep don’t bleat when they are lost (Helen Montgomery Debevoise). They hide in a covered place to stay away from predators, so there were many places the shepherd had to look before he located his missing animal. The woman has something very small that she has to find in the house. Maybe it slipped through a crack in the floor or rolled under a piece of furniture. She worked hard and found the coin.

The two parables end with the shepherd and the woman rejoicing. They invite all their friends to come and help them celebrate that what was lost has been found. Huge parties for finding coins and sheep may cost more than the coin or the sheep was actually worth, but Jesus is making a point here. Whenever a sinner is found, there is massive rejoicing in heaven. And Jesus is inviting the Pharisees to rejoice with him over these sinners and tax collectors who are listening to Jesus’ words. One would imagine they had a very hard time of it.

The parables are about losing and finding, but sheep and coins can’t repent. However metaphors can only go so far. Jesus is definitely implying repentance in his stories. He tells the Pharisees how much more joy there is in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous people who don’t need to repent. Even the angels sing praises about God’s lost children who have been found, who have seen the error of their ways, who have come to believe in the kingdom way of life. And what of those 99? The Pharisees know he is talking about them. They consider themselves righteous people before God with no need to repent. Yet they are vulnerable too. If they are the 99 sheep left when the shepherd goes hunting, there they are, without the protection that laws and rules and traditions have offered them in the past. They too are sinners, in need of repentance and salvation.

How has it felt in your life to be welcomed by God? I feel a warm feeling sometimes during my prayer life or in the night. I feel help when I need it most. When I read the Bible I remember that I am God’s child, precious in God’s sight, no matter how imperfect I am. I am freed from guilt and shame as the sinners and the tax collectors were. I feel like I belong to God’s community.

What does it mean to your life to be sought by God? There is a poem called “The Hound of Heaven”, which I really like but cannot remember the author, that talks about God pursuing the author everywhere. Do you want to be pursued or are you doing just fine? Are you running from God or waiting to be found, knowing you are vulnerable and need God’s help. God’s relentless seeking is good news for those of us who get lost along the way and that is all of us.

We all need to be found by God too. God never gives up on us because we are all God’s children. And because God is God, God does not have to leave anyone behind to look for us. God can look for us at the same time God looks for others.

And when we are found, what rejoicing there is. God is so delighted to have us back from wherever we have been whether it is lost in our work, obsessed by success, frantic about our children, jealous of other people, angry at our neighbors, scared of what is going on in the world. Are we happy to be found? Do we like things the way they are or are we ready to repent and feel the joy of heaven? I remember someone I knew who said he didn’t have to go to church because he didn’t have any sins to confess. I hope God has caught him somewhere along the way and convinced him that we all sin and we all need to repent and come home.

Love welcomes and searches and finds and rejoices and we are the beneficiaries of God’s never ending love for us. Rejoice with the angels in heaven that God is determined to bring you home to be with God evermore.

Amen.

     - Rev. Ann Barker

Works Cited:
Rodney J. Hunter, Feasting on the Gospels, Luke, Pastoral Perspective (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), p. 80
Helen Montgomery Debevoise, Feasting on the Word, Year C, vol. 4, Pastoral Perspective (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), p. 70