A farmer has 20 sheep. All but 5 die. How many does the farmer have left?
How many sheep must I have if I have two sheep before a sheep, two sheep after a sheep and one sheep in the middle? 3, in a straight line.
People don’t tell parables much anymore, the way Jesus did. The closest thing we have is the joke or the riddle. A a good riddle takes a little figuring out, you can’t reduce it to an equation, the answer sneaks up on you and there’s a little kick to it. The writer Frederick Buechner says that it’s only when we hear the Gospel as a wild and marvelous joke that we hear really hear it at all. Parables, he says, are jokes about God in that what they are essentially about is the outlandishness of God, who does impossible things with impossible people.
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? When he has found it... he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.
“Heard as anything else,” Buechner says, “the Gospel is the church's thing, the preacher's thing, the lecturer's thing. Heard as a joke - high and unbidden and ringing with laughter - it can only be God's thing.
Today’s Gospel reading is about being lost and being found. There are millions of jokes out there about men getting lost and failing to ask for directions. This one is features a man who just gets lost.
A bagpiper was asked by a funeral director to play at a graveside service for a homeless man. The deceased man had no family or friends, so the service was to be at a pauper's cemetery in the back country. The bagpiper wasn’t familiar with the area and got lost trying to find it.
Finally he arrived, an hour late. The funeral director had evidently gone and the hearse was nowhere in sight. There were only the diggers and crew left and they were eating lunch. He felt badly and apologized to the men for being late.
The bagpiper went to the side of the grave and looked down. The vault lid was already in place. He didn't know what else to do, so he started to play.
The workers put down their lunches and began to gather around. The bagpiper played his heart and soul out for this man with no family and friends. He played like he’d never played before for this homeless man.
As he played Amazing Grace, the workers began to weep. They wept, the bagpiper wept, they all wept together. When he finished, he packed up his pipes and started for his car, his heart full of emotion.
As he opened the door to his car, he heard one of the workers say, "I never seen nothing like that before and I've been putting in septic tanks for twenty years."
There are, of course, many ways of being lost. You can be lost geographically or spatially. My primary complaint about hospitals and assisted living centers is their endless, identically-decorated corridors. How often I’ve wished that I had dropped bread crumbs or left a long red string on the carpet behind me so that after a visit I could find my way back through the maze of hallways.
But you can also be lost emotionally and spiritually. It’s possible to have such a distorted image of oneself that we make decisions thinking they will take us one way, but they actually lead us in the opposite way. We can be too arrogant to recognize our own complicity in some destructive situation. Or we lack enough self-esteem to be able to protect ourselves from bullies or exploitation.
Jesus tells these two short parables about lost-ness to a group of people who are lost in all sorts of ways. According to Luke, Jesus is attracting crowds of ne-er-do- wells in droves. They follow him from place to place, disturbing the good citizens of Judah and driving the religious authorities a little bonkers. Jesus tells these stories to both groups – the sinners and tax collectors and the Pharisees and scribes. Some of the crowd probably thinks of themselves as lost. Others are sure the rest are lost, but can’t see that they themselves might be. Still others are quite sure it’s Jesus who’s lost.
“Which one of you,” he starts. “Which one of you, if you had a hundred sheep and lost one, would put the other 99 at risk to search for the stray?” That’s not how we read it, now, 2,000 years and many sheep-less generations later. We assume he means that we put the 99 into a nice, clean sheep pen first, and then go out looking. But Jesus is asking which of us would leave the 99 in the wilderness, vulnerable to all sorts of trouble, in order to look for the one who didn’t have the sense God gave...sheep. The answer, of course, is nobody. None of us would do this reckless, irresponsible, foolhardy thing.
“Which one of you,” he asks again. “Which one of you, would search all night for your single lost coin and then spend probably twice what it was worth hosting a party with your friends when you found it?” Again, nobody. At least, nobody with any sense.
That’s the punch line! Nobody would do this...except God: an outlandish God who does impossible things with impossible people. What Jesus is telling his lost- but-might-not-know-it audience is that when it comes to God's children, God has no sense. God will risk everything to find just one of them – one of us! And when God finds a lost and beloved child, God will give everything again to celebrate.
That’s not the end of the joke, however. There’s more to come once we really think about it. Most often these parables of being lost and then found are used to lead into a sermon about repentance. Oh, you sinners and tax collectors, you Pharisees and scribes, you are lost! Forswear your sins, rend your garments, repent so that you might be found.
We hear “repentance,” and we think “say you’re sorry.” “Say you’re sorry and promise to do better, then God will take you back.” But look again at what Jesus is talking about – a sheep, and a coin. Neither of which does, or even can, say it’s sorry. The stories Jesus is telling are not about apologizing and resolving to lead a life that allows you to be found. In both cases, it is the finder who does the work – the shepherd and the woman. The shepherd seeks, finds, carries, and rejoices with his friends and neighbors. The woman lights the lamp, sweeps the floor, searches carefully, finds the coin and rejoices with her friends and neighbors. The coin is an inanimate object with no “self” to initiate in the first place. And what does the sheep do but wander off?
It is not the lost-ness that’s central to these parables – it’s the found-ness, the being found by God – who searches, finds and throws a party every time one of us sinners is reclaimed and restored to God’s community.
Rev. Nancy Rockwell tells this story about a trip she took to Scotland. “I was walking on a country road past a sheep field, when one ewe – for who knows what reason – took a running start and jumped the fence. In less than a minute, elation turned to panic in the poor animal, whose only safety lay inside the fence among the rest. The road was a dirt path, too narrow to provide the space needed for running and jumping back. Frantically, the ewe began bleating and pacing up and down the length of the fence that separated her from her family. The rest of the flock turned toward the road, facing their lost sister, and matched her anxiety with their own. They, too, began pacing and bleating.
Clearly, Rev. Rockwell said, I had to do something. Wishing hard for a shepherd to appear was not working. I opened the sheepgate, a huge thing, wide as a barn door and about half as high. Nothing happened. I opened it more. Still nothing but more bleating and pacing on both sides of the fence. Not until I took the risk of opening the gate wide – wide enough for the rest to rush out – did the jumper feel safe enough to go in. And when she did, the whole flock looked up at me and bleated as one, in what I still believe to be the ovine form of gratitude and rejoicing.
To be lost is to be isolated and alone. To be found is not simply to be located, but then to be brought back into community. The shepherd with the 99 and 1 sheep knew that; the woman with the 9 and 1 coins knew that. God knows this: the sheep belongs to the flock and the coin belongs to the purse. Without them, the whole is not complete. None of us is fully at home until we all are. The search for the lost is a quest for restoration and wholeness. In this sense, all of us who are part of God’s creation should be just as anxious as God until the lost are restored and we are made whole again by their presence.
So welcome back you wandering sheep and rolling coins! Fall has begun, Sunday School is underway, the choir is back in the loft, and the parking lot is packed on home game Saturdays – rain or no rain. Some of you have been here all summer, others have been grabbing the chance to travel and relax and re-create. And truth be told – just showing up in the pews on Sunday mornings is not the same as being found and restored to community by God.
Indeed, one of the most insidious forms of being lost is not knowing that you are. Sometimes you don’t know you’re lost until you get found. And especially in that case, there’s not much you can do to get yourself found. Jesus doesn’t give us a formula about repenting first, or following certain spiritual rules, or even reciting a specific, penitent prayer. Why would it occur to you to do those things if you don’t know you need them?
It’s more than possible to be lost without knowing it. It’s probably happened to all of us at least once. But you do know when you’ve been found, ‘cause there’s nothing like the joy of feeling like you’re in exactly the place God wants you to be. And this means, oddly enough, that while there’s often nothing to do when you’re lost, there are all kinds of things to do once you’ve been found – tell, share, shout, give thanks, throw a party – in a word, rejoice.
If you feel at home here – if University UMC is a community that gives you a sense of wholeness and belonging – I hope you will begin to look for ways to share that joy.
Teach for a month in our Sunday School, Vicki Belloli, Anne Wade
Volunteer once/week at Red Cedar School Pam Baker, David Dekker
Pull weeds in the church garden John Boyse
Sew quilts for the homeless Emily Wolf, (Lisa Berg)
Greet our Sunday morning visitors Jeanne Maguire
or contact potential visitors by sending out press releases Susan Holloway,
Or updating our Facebook page Heather Hoshal
Answer the church office phone during the week Marti Abbott
Spend time listening to another’s hurt by training to be a Stephen Minister. Kathryn Kilpatrick, Carol Melson
Be part of a work trip to a place of need overseas or in our country. Scott McRee
Sing in the choir Susan Stinson
or serve communion Becky Jost
or make meals for someone just out of the hospital. Liz Doyle
There’s even something every single person here can do to share the joy of being found and invite others into our community...without attending a single meeting or donating a single dollar: you can wear your name tag every Sunday. (Shirley Lowery)
Jesus’ parables of the lost and found sheep and the lost and found coin are telling us that the primary character of the Christian life is not morality or repentance or discipline or obedience, or any of the other hundred things we might suspect. These things are all good, just not primary.
What is primary here is joy. What we are called to do, above all else, is rejoice –for my being found, for your being found, and for the promise that God is still searching and sweeping, looking for God’s lost and beloved children, and won’t quit until we’re all found.
Blessed is the one who gets that joke, who sees that miracle.
Jennifer Copeland. “Clean Sweep.” The Christian Century, September 7, 2004, p. 20. http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=3119)
Brian McGowan. Laterally Luke: Luke 15:1-10. http://www.angelfire.com/journal2/laterallyluke/LLK15110PENT15.html
Karoline Lewis, Rolf Jacobson, Matt Skinner (commentators). Sermon Brainwave #312 - Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost [Audio podcast]. Posted September 8, 2013. http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=432
David Lose. “Desperate.” Posted September 05, 2010. http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1555
Frederick Buechner, Telling The Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy & Fairy Tale. HarperCollins, 1977.
Nancy Rockwell. “Lost.” Posted March 3, 2013. http://biteintheapple.com/lost/