PROPER 19, CLuke 15:1-10
“Let anyone with ears to hear listen” says Jesus to close out Luke’s Chapter 14. And then, “All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus”. And here we sit complete with our own faults and frailties, our own silent acquiescence to the status quo, our own moments of smug self satisfaction, at home with the tax collectors and the sinners and the grumbling pharisees and scribes, listening to the “The Lost Chapter” of Luke. The entirety of this chapter consists of parables about lost things. The most famous of all lost and found stories, the Prodigal Son, rounds out the chapter after the parables Mel just read.
Everybody knows the story of the Prodigal Son, but I really love these two parables. Lost is a quality I can identify with. I possess what may well be – and I don’t mean to brag here, but we are in a time and a place for truth telling – I possess what may be the world’s most impressively, mind bogglingly, abysmal sense of direction; an absolutely uncanny ability to get lost.
Within the last couple of years my brother taught me a life altering trick – you can tap on an address on a smart phone. If your phone is in the mood, it will offer to give you step by step directions about how to get to your destination. This is miraculous, although the pesky thing does keep saying things like, “go north to highway 100”, or “head west 200 feet to 3rd Street”. Understand, if I can’t physically see Canada or witness a sunset in real time, I don’t know North from West. This limits the utility of the phone’s function outside of waterfront I Falls. Still, most of the time with a smart phone I can get anyplace I can google.
15 years before Google existed and closer to 30 years before I bought a smartphone, I unofficially tagged along with my brother’s Explorer post for a backpacking trip in the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming. Dad served as a volunteer leader. He and I had been hiking together for a while. We shared the weight. He carried the tent. I carried the fly and ground tarp. He had the food and matches. I had the clean-up stuff and spices. I had short little legs (even shorter back then than they are now), so I hiked slower than my father and brother and my brother’s long-legged friends. The trail travelled mostly downhill that afternoon, making for a spot 9000 some feet above sea level called Teepee Pole flats. We all started off at the same time down the back country trail, but the other hikers soon hiked out of my sight. I toddled along at my own pace, lost in my own little world, alternately enjoying the scenery and cursing the rocks and branches in the trail.
As the day wore on, the grade of the trail evened out. Flat ground replaced the steady downhill. I eventually reached a subtle little carved sign. Teepee Pole Flats. Our destination. Except I was alone. Everybody else had been ahead of me, but I.was.alone. Maybe a scampering marmot shared my space, some buzzing insects. But no human. I hiked on a short ways. Hiked back. Read the sign again. Drank some water. Peered up the trail. And back. Remembered I wasn’t carrying the food. Or the main part of the tent. Or matches. Read the sign again. Teepee Pole Flats.
Finally my father and brother came busting down the trail with some speed, wearing facial expressions ranging from concerned to determined to grim; expressions which transformed to relief and sheer joy when they saw me inexplicably in the right place. They too remembered I did not have a tent, or food, or matches, and had remembered also the sheer scale of the country we traversed. I learned later that the trail had several turn offs. For anyone with a functioning sense of direction other trails seemed far more logical ones to follow. With no sense of direction to hamper my way, I mindlessly put one foot in front of the other all the way down the mountainside. I arrived at the designated spot first, complete with confirmatory signpost, but I cannot explain how very lost I felt.
C.H. Dodd wrote nearly a century ago that “A parable arrests the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaves the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought” (Parables of the Kingdom, 1935:16). The moral of this story, Jesus says, is “there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents”. So we happily make God into shepherd or housewife, and take on the role of sheep or coin, sought after and valued by God, as long as we repent and turn back again into the right way. Problem is, that coin, did not repent. My guess, the sheep didn’t either. That sheep mindlessly put one foot in front of the other until it found itself without ovine company. They, the coin and the sheep, were found because somebody wanted them found, insisted that they be found. And it is comforting, I guess, to think that our God will find us, our Savior save us even if we just sit around mindlessly sheeping. It’s comforting, but it puts me back at TP Pole flats, helplessly staring at the sign, wondering what to DO.
Which of you, Jesus says, “having a hundred sheep?” Not which of you buried in dust bunnies under the bed, or bleating alone in the countryside, but which of you having a hundred sheep or 10 coins. To imagine ourselves, not as bleating ruminant, nor as missing currency, but as trustworthy shepherd, as the diligent housekeeper, that puts the emphasis of the parable on a different syllable completely.
In this case, as Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “Repentance is not the issue, but rejoicing; the plot is not about mending our evil ways, but about seeking, sweeping, finding, rejoicing. The invitation is not about being rescued by Jesus over and over again, but about joining him in rounding up God’s herd and reviving God’s treasure. It is about questioning the idea that there are certain conditions the lost must meet before they are eligible to be found, or that there are certain qualities they must exhibit before we will seek them out. It is about discovering the joy of finding.” (Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life). It’s about finding and building and rejoicing in God and all God’s creation.
The 13th century Sufi mystic, Rumi, said, “What you seek is seeking you.”
We are sought and we are seeker. We are lost and we are found, shepherd and sheep, lover and beloved. We can rest in Christ’s peace and still reach out to welcome the lost. We can be co-creators of love in this world (paraphrased from Fr. Richard Rohr), sweeping every corner for the lost, the lonely, the frightened – and all this because of the crazy, mixed up, insane, upside down abundance of life and joy that is God among us.
Thanks be to God! Amen.