We all know the joy of finding something that was lost. It can be something small like a set of keys or a wallet or a cell phone, and we give a hoot of joy or silent thanks when we find it again. The joy we feel can be for much more important things, not necessarily our own, and we can experience it as a wider community when the lost is found.
Jenna and Emma Kip made it back home to New Hamburg. They were missing for a frightening 30 hours in Bon Echo Provincial Park. The two sisters had gone for a walk away from their campsite and got disoriented and lost during a thunderstorm. The 16 year old and 12 year old knew that their family would be looking for them – so they built a lean-to for shelter and squeezed fresh water out of moss so they wouldn’t dehydrate. Thankfully, joyfully, provincial police search teams found them and brought them home.
The two girls were welcomed home with cheers, signs, noisemakers and hugs from family and neighbours. As Emma said, “I’m home and I’m happy.” This was a good news story. The girls made it home.
Jesus gives us two parables today about things lost and found. Our stories open with the grumbling of the Pharisees and scribes, those already righteous people, complaining about Jesus eating with sinners and hanging out with tax collectors. Why would he eat and associate with the unclean, the unrighteous? What was the point or value in doing so?
So Jesus tells these two stories in response to their grumbling. Well, he tells three really, but we leave the story of the lost son for another day. Today, we hear the one about a sheep, the other about a silver coin, both items of value in ancient society.
Did you know that sheep, a herding animal by nature and instinct, gets terrified when it is lost? No longer part of the herd, it can only stand and bleat when it doesn’t know where it is. It becomes immobile. So the shepherd has to go in search for it, often leaving for a couple of days to find the scared and stray animal. When he finds it, he picks it up, puts it over his shoulders and travels over rocky and rough terrain to get the sheep back home. The lost sheep does nothing, really, in the effort to be found. The sheep allows the shepherd to find it and to return it safely to the herd.
The second story Jesus tells the Pharisees and scribes, and us, is about a lost coin. It has rolled under something, or tucked itself in some dark corner. So the owner of the coin, the woman, gets out her broom, lights a lamp so she is able to see, and sweeps the whole house looking for it, confident she will find it. The coin is most likely a denarius, typically one day’s wage for a labourer or for a Roman foot soldier. Again, the work is the woman’s. She is searching for the item of value. The coin itself does nothing to be found.
But tacked on the end of those two parables is a word about repentance and sinners. What do these stories mean when Jesus associates them with repentance? Is this not the sinner doing something to be found? Must we not do something in order to be found?
To understand those questions, we must look at Jesus’ definition of repentance.
Repentance, in the case of these parables of being lost and found, as Jesus explains it, is simply our recognition that we are lost and our willingness to be found.
The problem with the Pharisees and the scribes is that they no longer believe they are the lost. They are the righteous, so there is no seeing a need for repentance, or for being found: certainly in themselves and most definitely in others. In Greek the word used for repentance is “metanoia” – meaning to change one’s mind, to change how you think. The Pharisees and scribes who grumble don’t see the need to change their minds or the way they think. They are already the found.
The problem with the sinners and the much hated tax collectors, the unrighteous in other words, is that they think it isn’t their place to be found, that they hold no intrinsic value, so they don’t see the need for it. Who would search for them anyway? They are the lost.
But Jesus tells both groups something different. Jesus knows they are the lost, and their only task is to be willing to be found and brought home. So he goes to them. He teaches in the synagogues. He breaks bread with them and sits down with them. He hangs out with them and tells them stories.
We know from our own experiences that we can be lost in so many different ways: lost to our own self-image, whether heightened or low, lost in grief, lost in addictions, lost in broken relationships. Many things can and do pull us away from ourselves, away from God, and from each other. And suddenly we find ourselves on a trail with no map, no gps, no cell phone, no food and water, and no way to get home.
Pastor and author Rob Bell tells this story in his book “Love Wins”.
Bell would make it a habit to sit on the stage and talk to people after his sermon and after the service. There was one woman in particular who would walk up to him and every Sunday would hand him a piece of paper. They had been going through this ritual for several years now.
She would smile, hand him the paper, and chat for a few minutes. She would always stay to watch him unfold the paper and read the number that was written there. Then she would walk away.
Sometimes the number would be big – like 174. Sometimes the number would be small – he remembered once it was 2. The number indicated how many days it had been since the woman has last cut herself. In her pain, she had been struggling with self-injury addiction for years, having suffered abuse at the hands of others first, and later inflicting it on herself. But a group of people had been helping her find peace and healing. She still struggled, some weeks more than others, but she knew she needed help and she was willing to accept it.
Bell writes, so when this woman hears about love, it isn’t a concept she’s familiar with. When she’s been told that God loves her unconditionally without reservation without her having to do anything to earn it, she thinks it’s a bit of a stretch. It is hard for her to believe given what she’s seen of the world and the story she’s been told about herself.
Jesus tells her and us a different story. He talks of repentance and joy, of being lost and found. He talks of our need to come home to God. The reason these stories from Jesus and about Jesus are so meaningful is that we recognize our own selves and our own need in them. Once having heard them, or experienced them, all we need to do is allow ourselves to be picked up from a dark corner or to be thrown over the shoulders of the One who searches us out and brings us home.
Today we hear these two stories about God’s love for us and God’s grace toward us – the care and protection of a shepherd, the diligence and hard work of a woman – God who searches us out and offers us this gift. And like with any good gift, all we need to do is reach out and take it. No more. No less.
That is a truly a good news story.
Pr. Katherine Altenburg