1 Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3 So he told them this parable: 4 “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? 5 When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6 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.’ 7 Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. 8 “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? 9 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.’ 10 Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
Tuesday morning there was a voicemail waiting for me on my phone. A woman who had attended a wedding here last weekend had called to say that she was missing a bracelet, and she believed she had left it here at church. I asked around about it. I went and looked in the parking lot. And then I called her back and said, “I’m sorry; it isn’t here. I’m afraid your bracelet is lost.” I kept her number, but I don’t have much hope that I’ll be using it. Maybe it will “turn up,” as we like to say, but chances are slim. Typically in situations like this, “lost” is the end of the story. Truthfully, if it hadn’t been for this Gospel passage today, I probably wouldn’t have given that bracelet another thought. Why waste time and energy on something like that?
But the Gospel invites us to think about lost things and even the nature of lost-ness itself. Specifically, it asks us to consider lost-ness as the beginning rather than the end of the story. In the first parable we heard from Jesus, it’s a sheep who has wandered away from the flock. In the second, one of ten coins has gone missing. Although to be more accurate, “wandering” and “gone missing” is not how the parables are told. Jesus doesn’t place the action on the part of the missing, as if they were somehow to blame. Instead, they are simply lost. Lost-ness, we are reminded, happens in life. Who could blame a sheep for wandering away, when looking for patches of grass to eat is what sheep are supposed to do? Even more, how could you blame a coin? No, this isn’t a parable of warning or judgment for those with a tendency to wander. Even the parable that follows it, the famous story of the lost, so-called “prodigal” son, is much richer than merely a cautionary tale against wastefulness or restlessness, as we discovered after spending a lot of time with that parable last spring. Lost can happen, often through no one’s fault, the result of a constellation of events and conditions. The real question left for us this morning, though, is do we consider lost to be the end of the story or merely the beginning?
For the past week, many of us have been reflecting on the life of Jacob, a boy who was lost so suddenly and tragically. Those of us who have lived in Minnesota these past 27 years have seen how strong a family’s love and hope can be for one who is lost. It was a hope that motivated them each day during the long period of waiting and wondering and searching, and it motivated others to join them. And even despite the sad developments we’ve learned about this week, the story of that hope has not come to an end. It is a hope that has already prompted other victims to tell their stories and to seek healing for themselves and others. It is a hope that informs the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center in its work to build a better, more compassionate world. In memory of Jacob, they’re asking people to commit to eleven things: “Be fair, be kind, be understanding, be honest, be thankful, be a good sport, be a good friend, be joyful, be generous, be gentle with others, be positive.” You can’t commit to pursuing these kinds of things in our world unless you possess a real, deep hope. This hope is bringing communities together in ways they haven’t before, and it continues to inspire many of us, too, as the family asks us to pray, enjoy one another, love one another.
This kind of persistent, loving hope is a defining characteristic of the God we worship. Our God never tires in seeking. Rather than leaving us and our world to chance or anything else, God persistently seeks each and every one of us in times when we are lost and disconnected from a relationship with God and with a community. This is what Jesus wanted people to know through his teaching and his example: what God is like. And after we’ve understood God in this gracious, hopeful, loving way, then and only then if there’s something for us to do suggested by the parables he told, it is to join the One who seeks. Look for others in their lost-ness.
There are many ways to be lost, so I don’t think we can neatly categorize people into lost or not. Any of us may have parts of our lives that need to be discovered and restored back to ourselves. Some of us may have guilt about something in the past, and so we remember God’s grace and forgiveness. But again, feeling lost is not always about something we have done. Some of us may feel a bit lost in grief. On this September 11th anniversary day, we may especially remember the thousands who lost loved ones in the World Trade Center or the Pentagon or flight 93. We remember how life changed for all of us, the fear we felt and might still feel. Some of us live with illness and feel isolated because of it. Some of us live with addiction or depression or poverty or a loss of meaning. Some of us feel overlooked by a society that privileges others. Any of these things can lead us away from the life God wants for us. But no matter what the situation, each of us is beloved by God and a valued part of God’s community. God continues to seek us out, especially in these difficult places of pain and loss. This isn’t to deny the feelings or the reality of the suffering, but God reaches out to us and invites us to carry all that we have back into a loving relationship and back into a place of authentic hope and even joy.
And the amazing thing is that God often does this work of grace through people like us. Even if we feel a part of ourselves is off wandering, we can participate in God’s seeking activity.
Luther Seminary’s Matthew Skinner wrote a blog post on Huffington Post saying, “I know what God looks like.” He described how a bookkeeper in an elementary school near Atlanta spoke to a troubled 20-year-old who showed up at the school intending to commit a violent act. Anoinette Tuff had “no choice but to be present to someone who was—on that day, at least—very lost.” She kept saying to him, “I can help you. Let’s see if we can work it out.” She listened to him. She told him about her life and what she was going through. And when it was all over, with the situation diffused, she comforted him, saying, “It’s gonna be all right, sweetheart. I just want you to know that I love you. And I’m proud of you…We all go through something in life.”
Skinner writes, “That’s what it’s like when God becomes present to someone who is lost…God looks like a person just doing what she can. No extraordinary talents. No special training. No obvious privileges. Nobody larger than life. God looks like someone who shows patient commitment.”
Given what we know about God, I think we can all say that we know what God looks like. It looks like a community that seeks justice and peace, nurtures relationships and faith, tries to build a better world beginning with ourselves. I’ve seen what God looks like in all of you. No, I’m not saying that we are a perfect community; no community is. Like any other congregation, we might fall short or grow impatient from time to time. But at our best, we seek one another out when needed. We worship together. We participate in Sunday School and confirmation and forums. We bake cakes and hotdishes. We listen. So as we begin another year together, we should expect nothing less than to experience God in this community, the very God who so patiently and lovingly seeks relationship with us.
Take a look around. Look at the people worshipping with you, sitting in your pew, behind you, in front of you. These are the people with whom and through whom we will experience God’s grace. That means your presence in this community matters. The more we’re in relationship, the more we’ll experience God.
I’m going to sit down now. We have a lot to do today during the education hour, and I want to leave plenty of time for it. But before I do, I just want to point out the recurring theme of joy in what Jesus has to say about God. The shepherd rejoices. The woman throws a party, probably blowing far more than the one silver coin she had initially lost. And there is joy in the presence of the angels and God when one who was lost is found. If we’re expecting to encounter God this year, then we should expect a whole lot of joy, too. In our life together, with all of its complexity and ongoing learning, to be sure, we will have reason to celebrate.