Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The Lost and Found

Sermon for July 27, 2014 – The Lost and Found
Luke 15:1-10 (NRSV) 
The Parable of the Lost Sheep
15 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.
The Parable of the Lost Coin
8 “Or what woman having ten silver coins,[a] 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.”

I know a little about how the shepherd and the woman felt…
About 15 years ago, our family was on vacation in Florida.  We drove down to Sanibel Island, after visiting with my mother in the Orlando area.  It had been stormy driving down and we were pretty delighted to see the weather clear up as we came across the bridge onto the island.  After checking into our little cottage-like hotel, we put on swim suits and walked down to the private beach area.  My sons Cameron and Blake were about 6 and 4.  It was just the four of us on the beach.  The waves were pretty big as the tide was rolling in, and little did we know how great the shelling would be as a result of the storm that had just passed.  Cameron was fearless and a lover of all things water.  He and my husband, Paul, were in the water digging up conch shell after conch shell.  Blake was tiny and the size of the waves was overwhelming to him.  He and I were finding shells on the shore.  All of the sudden, my husband, Paul, said, “Where’s Blake?”  My heart dropped – he had been right there.  Paul had been with Cameron in the water, and now we both were near panic.  Paul had been a lifeguard and waterfront director for many college years, and was worried about Blake venturing into the waves and getting swept out.  I was worried that he was in the tall sea grass that was growing between the cottage and the beach.  With no hesitation we searched.   I started up the boardwalk, surveying the grass and calling his name, while Paul was searching the beach.  As I got back to the cottage, there I saw him, sitting with legs dangling in a big Adirondack chair on the porch.  Joy and relief flooded me, and I ran back to tell my husband.   Relief flooded us and we rejoiced in the knowing our precious child was safe and happy.
Jesus is trying to teach us something through these parables, both the ones we have today and the ones we have studied the last 2 weeks.  Why doesn’t Jesus just come out and tell his disciples, and the crowds that have gathered, just exactly what he means – what it is that he wants them to get out of the story he is telling. Well, if he did that, the point he is trying to make would be in the context only of the time and place in which he was speaking.  In other words, the story would have specifics to it that would skew the point that he was trying to make, and it would be valid only the time period of Jesus’ life, around 28CE.  As it is, the truths, or the principles he is making are sufficiently vague enough to inspire you to think about how it might apply to your setting – your life. 
So what do we know about these stories, and the context in which they were told?  First we can consider the background in scripture up to the place where Jesus was sitting down to dinner with the tax collectors:
We know from the first chapters of Matthew that Jesus has been baptized by his cousin, John the Baptist, and endured the temptations of the devil -- in the wilderness, the pinnacle and the mountain.  He’s come down and gone to Capernaum, which is located on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.  The whole area of Galilee is under the rule of the Roman Empire.
It’s while Jesus is in Capernaum that he calls the first of the disciples – Peter, Andrew, James and John, and most recently Matthew. 
Now Matthew is a tax collector.  Here’s the thing about tax collectors in the Roman Empire – they were not well-liked.  The reasons no one liked tax collectors was two-fold:  first because taxes were being used to subsidize the lifestyles of the emperors and governors who were not Jewish. The second reason no one liked a tax collector was because they padded the tax assessments in order to pay themselves.   It was a very unethical system that was subject to distrust, extortion and fraud – hence, the bad reputation of tax collectors.
But there’s a flip-side.  Remember when Jesus came to John the Baptist to be baptized?  Well, in the crowd of people also seeking baptism (Luke 3:12), tax collectors were among those who had come out.  By their baptism they were signifying a submission and allegiance to God – the one true God, which also meant they denied the worshipping of multiple Gods in the pagan tradition of the Roman Empire.  What the Pharisees and other Jews should have seen was that even tax collectors could receive repentance and align themselves with God’s purpose. 
So now in Luke 15, Jesus has been making his way to Jerusalem, doing a lot of teaching through parables along the way.  At this point he has just sat down to have dinner with some tax collectors and sinners when some Pharisees come along.  Now the Pharisees are a sect of jewish zealots who believed in literally living out all of the laws of the Old Testament.   The name Pharisee in its Hebrew form means separatists, or the separated ones. They were separatists because they were extremists in their literal interpretation and application of the Hebrew law, and very self-righteous. 
The Pharisees come upon this scene and are embarrassed and exasperated.  Verse 2 tells us “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them”.  The Pharisees perspective is that Jesus has no regard for the values and norms of his peer group.  Jesus is ignoring the social and religious boundaries by not only eating with this despicable group, but going so far as to extend hospitality to them as well. Jesus is hanging out with a bunch of social outcasts, in a culture that was focused on class, hierarchy, exclusion and exploitation. 
  David Lose, a seminary professor and author in Minnesota, describes the scene like this: 
“Eating -- that is, sharing table fellowship -- is a mark of camaraderie, acceptance, and friendship. And so in eating with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus is demonstrating a deep and abiding acceptance of those whom society has deemed beyond the moral turpitude.  Secondly, while we’re used to thinking “we’re all sinners,” that’s not the way Luke sees it. Rather, when he describes someone as a “sinner” he’s talking about someone whose pattern of sinning is so habitual, even second nature, that the whole community knows of it. All of which means that Jesus is welcoming the local untouchables, the moral disgraces and public outcasts -- welcoming, accepting, and befriending, to the point of embarrassment. And the Pharisees, who consider themselves the “decent folk”, are -- quite understandably -- concerned.
 So now Jesus is going to try to help these Pharisees gain a new understanding;  – and he does this through the telling of two parables, not finger-wagging or lecturing, but rather story-telling through stories about a lost sheep and a lost coin.
In the first case, a shepherd has a flock of 100 sheep and he’s lost one of them.  He leaves the 99 sheep, putting them at risk, risking their existence in the wilderness with no protection or shelter, to seek out the one that is lost. And when he finds the missing sheep, he rejoices, and carries that sheep on his shoulders while he herds the whole flock home and calls his friends and neighbors to join in his celebration.
Here’s what we know about this situation in the reality of Jesus’ day.  If someone owned a hundred sheep, they were pretty wealthy.  And the owner would not be personally out herding them.  The owner would have hired a shepherd.  So this shepherd is like a farmhand who was looking after his owner’s sheep, and he was responsible to the owner for the well-being of the sheep. 
In the second story, a woman has lost a coin.  Now she only has 10 coins so this lost coin is 10% of her wealth.  She lights her lamp and sweeps all night searching for the coin. She finds it!!! In rejoicing, she also calls together her neighbors and invites them to celebrate.
The reality of this story in Jesus day is that this woman would have been part of a family and the coins were her dowry.  Losing one of them would be a disaster for the whole family because it would jeopardize a crucial aspect of a marriage contract for her – dowries were about money, but also about honor and status.  Marriages were public arrangements where the honor of the family would be on display for the community, so if she lost one coin, the dowry would be less adequate and she was risking the family honor. 
What is extraordinary is that in both cases, the shepherd and the woman could have kept quiet about their lost and found.   But they are anything but quiet, and they go about telling everyone what is actually shameful, private business. 
So given the context for each story, what is the truth or truths that are so important for people of this world to understand?  Truths that will transcend the context of the first century and continue to be true to readers centuries later? 
I think there are several options for interpretation of these parables, but my interpretation is based on my experiences, my background, my context.  My interpretations, and anyone else’s interpretations are starting points for your consideration.  The parables are told to be truths that are timeless and of continual encouragement to you, whatever your experience, background and context is. 
Here are some themes I have interpreted that you may want to consider…
·         The joy of finding something so precious that has been lost, is so much greater than the shame and embarrassment of losing it, that the parent, or the shepherd, or the woman is willing to share their joy with people all around them. 
·         The item that each person is searching for, whether it is a son, a sheep or a coin, is so precious that there isn’t a second thought about whether it is efficient or practical to look for them or it.  The searching parent, shepherd or woman jumps into action as a reflex to losing something they value highly.
·         There is no judgement about how the lost got away, or where they were found.  There is only grace and joy in finding them. There is no blame or guilt, and there’s no repentance. 
·         There is an element that even though there are others surrounding those who are searchers, their life is incomplete without the one thing that is missing.  The missing child, sheep and coin are so needed and wanted.  The stories have a component about being inclusive. 
·         Finally, all the stories share a theme of restoration. 
What if we were to think about the person doing the searching as God, and we think of the son, sheep or coin as those folks among us who are lost, or not a part of us?  That would make God a God of extravagance, who is willing to risk the status quo to search for the lost person.  That makes God a God of great love, grace and joy.  That would mean God is inclusive, and actively values each of his children above all else.  That would mean each person is important to God, and has a place in God’s world.  
I think we can be the most righteous people on earth and still at times feel lost.  We like to think we have it all together, but life throws some distractions at us and we can find ourselves alone, apart and without direction.  So how do we get found?  We reach deep within ourselves and admit our lost-ness, confide our fears and dashed hopes and dreams to this God of joy, and peace and restoration.  God is so in love with each of us that he wants nothing more than to have you be in harmony with him.  And if we just can’t do it on our own, we use our church and our pastor to help us find our way back.  Because it’s not about what we’ve done, or what happened to get us to this lost point,  it’s about who we are.  And we are people who are meant to be part of the whole.  God’s dream and celebration is in relationships.  God will go to extravagant risks to seek us out and catch us up in God’s mercy, grace and love.  
So think about the themes of the parables and what they might be telling you.  Maybe you are finding yourself to be the lost, or maybe you are helping someone else be found.  Whatever it is, rejoice in the restoration. Thanks be to God!  Amen