First United Methodist Church
Rev. MaryAnne Korsch
September 11, 2016
Of all the parables that Jesus told, the two we have heard this morning from the 15th chapter of the Gospel of Luke are among the most familiar. The parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin are followed, in the remaining verses of this chapter, by the story of the Prodigal Son, which is often reframed as the parable of the Forgiving Father. All three of these lost and found stories serve the purpose of reminding us of the nature of God. God is an active searcher, no matter what – or who – is lost. God rejoices when that which was lost has been found.
Friends, I have struggled with the text this week in a way that is new for me. The stories are familiar, and reassuring: God’s love never ends… God covers risky and rocky terrain to recover a sheep that has gone astray… God searches until that which is lost is found, even if it means sweeping the entire house from top to bottom in a seemingly fruitless search… God forgives us as beloved children even when we have squandered our lives with foolish decisions.
And yet, this week, right before our eyes, a lost and found story has unfolded very near to home – and this story doesn’t have a fairy tale ending. As a mother, my heart is grieving for the Wetterling family this week, and they have been in my prayers, as I am sure they have also been in yours. I am still working on finding some meaning in this 27-year-old Minnesota story. More on this in just a few minutes.
But first, think about this: Can you remember a time when you lost something that was really important to you? This is essentially the question Jesus asked his critics in this morning’s text. The multitudes are pressing in around Jesus to hear his teachings. All manner of people make up this crowd. Jesus is surrounded by his followers, of course, but also by a motley collection of onlookers and curious individuals who wonder, hopefully, if the message of God’s love and care and forgiveness which Jesus brings is for them too. The text says, “tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.” These are the people no one else wants to hang around with. They do not really belong anywhere because they have lived so much of their life on the fringes. These “outsiders” have crowded in the community, and here they are sharing a meal with Jesus. If you are known by the company you keep, Jesus has completely thrown the community into a panic. The whispering starts: “Who invited them? Doesn’t Jesus know what they do for a living?”
Perceiving the questions, Jesus begins to address the growing division in the crowd by talking about the nature of God in terms they can understand. He talks about things they value – in the section that Andrea read this morning, he refers to a lost sheep, and a lost coin. The shepherd values the health and safety of his flock, his source of income; the woman values the hard-earned money she has scraped and saved to feed her family. In both cases, the parable suggests that when something important goes missing, God goes into search mode. God’s very nature is to search, to forgive, to restore. God’s nature is love, and love looks like one who goes out tirelessly searching, because that which is lost is so lost that it’s impossible for it to find its way home.
Interestingly, the themes of joy and celebration are highlighted in both of these lost-and-found stories as well. Each account from Luke ends with a statement that “there will be joy in heaven over one sinner who repents.” The point of the stories emphasizes both the compassionate concern of a searching God AND the joyful celebration when anyone – tax collector, sinner, Pharisee – comes to faith… or when anyone comes to renewed faith. And, if we peek ahead a few verses in Luke 15, we remember the festive banquet prepared when the Prodigal Son returned to his father – fatted calf, gold ring, music, dancing, rejoicing.
Many of the authorities who were watching and listening to Jesus did not perceive God as a God who would rejoice at a sinner’s repentance. They were the ones who saw God as a great score-keeper, who tallied up our mistakes, kept track of where we fell short, and sat in judgment. This stern image of God stands in stark contrast to Jesus’ description of God in today’s parables – a God who actively seeks that which is lost, and who rejoices when it is recovered. The Pharisees and scribes do not take kindly to the possible repentance of those who lie outside their definition of “redeemable.” So they grumble. But Jesus draws another picture of God’s nature, and enlarges the circle of who’s IN.
Who are the sinners? The sinners in this story are the ones who need repentance, the ones who need their minds changed. God rejoices when the religious insiders (all of us, in a way) change their minds about who is in and who is out. The rejoicing happens when the community is complete and there is no such category as the one and the ninety-nine. True repentance happens when our minds are changed to such a degree that we cannot see a community as whole until all are included.
As a former teacher, I admire Jesus’ ability to tell stories that teach a lesson in a pointed and yet unassuming way. In this case, he even attempted to change people’s mind about God. He used an image of God as masculine in the shepherd and as feminine in the woman sweeping the house. By using two different parables, he made sure no one was left out, not even a feminine image of God.
Many years ago when our children were young, we took a family trip to visit the Mall of America. At that time, the amusement park in the center of the Mall was called Camp Snoopy, and Lego-Land was a big draw. Our son Steven was in early elementary school, maybe kindergarten, and he loved Legos, so it was an especially exciting event for him. When we got there, he was captivated by all the rides – roller coasters and merry-go-rounds and games of chance and all manner of wildness appealed to his little-boy heart. If you’ve ever been to the Mall of America amusement park, you know that it’s a maze of paths and rides and food vendors and benches for sitting-on and little kids and their parents everywhere – some pushing strollers, some sharing ice cream cones, some waiting in line for the tilt-a-whirl. We took turns taking the kids on the rides – well, to be honest, mostly it was my husband Charley taking the kids on rides and me watching, waiting for them at each exit and then deciding where to go next.
As it happened on that day, Steven got away from us. None of us can really remember exactly how it happened, but somehow, he wandered away unnoticed, and when we realized he wasn’t with us, I was terrified. Losing a five-year-old in an amusement park is truly a nightmare. We didn’t even know how to begin looking for him. I trotted around the perimeter path, calling for him, but it was so noisy that my voice just disappeared into the din. Charley went up one level and paced around looking down among the rides. Of course, twenty-plus years ago none of us had a cell phone, so we kept meeting up by the same bench to touch base. “Did you find him?” “I didn’t, did you?”
Interestingly, none of us can remember exactly how long this nightmare lasted – maybe we were too traumatized, but in retrospect I’m guessing it was between fifteen and twenty minutes. But suddenly Steven was back among us; he had been captivated by the remote control boat races and was watching some older kids move their watercrafts across a small pond. He was completely unaware of our panic. Can you imagine our collective sigh of relief when we were reunited? You can bet that there was some intense celebrating once we gathered our family together, as well as some stern admonitions to never do that again!
When have you lost something that was dear to you, something you valued highly? Did you, too, like the shepherd and the woman in today’s text, go into search mode, looking relentlessly until your prized item was found? Maybe you had misplaced something simple, like your keys, or your reading glasses, or as is often the case for me, a cell phone. Or perhaps it was something more significant – a relationship, your reputation, meaningful work. Put yourself back in that place for a moment, and feel your intensity, your commitment, your single-mindedness. Friends, this is how God searches for us, in our moments of lost-ness.
This is the same dogged determination that Jacob Wetterling’s family demonstrated almost immediately after his disappearance, and have displayed consistently for 27 years. With grace and faith, this family kept searching, kept hoping, and kept advocating for laws and practices that would prevent future crimes of this same nature. I have found myself being awed by Patty Wetterling, especially in the past week, especially because she’s never come across as bitter, and especially because she has always – somehow – managed to hang on to a shred of hope – at least publicly. Sadly, in this case, something important was ultimately lost – the innocent life of a child at the hand of a perpetrator who likely was deeply wounded himself. But some important things were also found as a result of this horrific crime – things like community, advocacy, determination to strengthen relationships, inspiration through turning grief into action, refusal to let fear or darkness have the last word. I believe that God weeps with all of Minnesota as we mourn this loss, AND that God rejoices when something good comes out of so much pain.
In the Luke 15 passage, the language used for the shepherd and the woman are in what my high school English teacher Mrs. Hawley called active voice. The searching is a vigorous reality. There is intentionality and purpose in God’s searching for whatever is lost. In all of the places where we feel lost, and wherever we are, God is actively and lovingly searching for us. May we allow ourselves to be found. Amen.