1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10
September 15, 2013
Do you remember this line from Simon and Garfunkel’s 1968 song America? “‘Kathy, I'm lost,’ I said, though I knew she was sleeping. ‘I'm empty and aching and I don't know why.’”
Forty-five years later, that song is still downloaded and played over and over again, because people still resonate with its cry to be found by someone who can fill the ache.
When I was in college some students went off to find themselves: hitchhiking in Europe, living in a commune, backpacking the Pacific Coast or Appalachian Trails. Jon Kabat-Zinn captured the reality of the search for self in the title of his book Wherever You Go, There You Are.
Revivalist Christian evangelism speaks of saving the lost. Though Matthew 10:6; 15:24 quote Jesus describing his mission to “the lost sheep of Israel,” the broader use of “the lost” is unique to Luke. Today we see it in the lost sheep and the lost coin in Luke 15:1-10, and November 3 we’ll get to the story of Zacchaeus where Jesus said, “The Son of Man came to seek out and save the lost.” (19:10)
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to [Jesus]. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
3So 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? 5When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6And 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.’ 7Just 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.
8“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? 9When 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.’ 10Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
We are God’s Fellowship of the Lost and Found.
Don’t be too quick to come down on the Pharisees for labeling people “sinners.” It’s a human response to those who make us uncomfortable: homeless, addicts, mentally ill – fat cats, hot shots, opportunists. I’m sure you could brainstorm plenty more that are not so polite. In the Pharisee’s universe, they imagined joy in heaven if one sinner was obliterated, thinking them beyond repentance.
With ironic artistry, Jesus reversed this conventional thinking. Even the Pharisees knew that there were not 99 people who did not need to repent for every one who repented. Jesus implied that those who considered themselves righteous enough not to need repentance were depriving heaven of joy. So, if you want to make God happy, repent!
Because we have turned “the lost” into a label for people who are not like us, we miss that by reversing the language from “sinner” to “lost,” Jesus was humanizing those who came to listen to him. Like the sheep and the coin that always belonged to the shepherd and the woman, Jesus asserted that “the lost” actually belong to God.
Jesus is the host for God’s Fellowship of the Lost and Found. When the Pharisees complained that Jesus welcomed sinners, they saw that he was the host inviting them to be his guests. In that time, a generous person of wealth might feed a large number of poor folk, but would never sit down and eat with them. That would imply equality, identification and acceptance. That is exactly why Jesus ate with sinners.
What was it about Jesus that attracted the lost to him? I believe he took their plight seriously without demeaning them. He offered hope rather than advice. He called them to higher living, confident they could experience it. He was not embarrassed or awkward around them. He spoke to them respectfully – human to human.
A large church not far from where we lived in Milwaukee had a large neon sign that said, “Sinners welcome here.” Though they did seem to put that into practice, I wouldn’t recommend putting it on a neon sign. But we do need to ask what kind of church attracts people who are lost, empty and aching? One of the common criticisms of churches is that they are gatherings of the 99 who think they are too righteous to need repentance. So we have a public image problem to overcome if we are to attract those who are lost, empty and aching.
You may have friends who have been influenced by Roman Catholic folk faith for whom St. Anthony of Padua is the patron saint of lost things and people. People say prayers to St. Anthony to help find something that has been lost. Here are some cutesy ones:
- St. Anthony, St. Anthony, please come down. Something is lost and can’t be found.
- Something’s lost and can’t be found. Please, St. Anthony, look around.
- Tony, Tony, turn around. Something’s lost that must be found.
This superstition rests on a legend from his days with Francis in the Little Brothers of the Poor. A novice monk ran away from the community and took the Psalter Anthony used for his prayers. He prayed it would be found and returned to him. The legend is that the novice met a demon in the forest who frightened him into returning the Psalter and rejoining the community. And they welcomed him back with joy.
We read from 1 Timothy 1:12-17 how the apostle Paul went from being a Pharisee who would have counted himself among the 99 who needed no repentance to consider himself to be the foremost of sinners, inviting people into God’s Fellowship of the Lost and Found.
Shauna Hannan teaches preaching and worship at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Columbia, South Carolina. She tells how when she was growing up, as the oldest of five children, she was often told to keep an eye on her younger siblings. She says she would count, “One …two … three … four children” and breathe a sigh of relief. Large department stores and amusement parks worried her the most. Sometimes her Mom would turn around at the cash register and ask, “Where’s Brent?” Her heart would sink as she looked up and down the aisles. What a relief when she spotted her little brother playing with a truck in the toy aisle. While he did not even know he was lost, she rejoiced that he was found. She affirms that finding, especially a person, is more gratifying than being found. The Christian Century, September 4, 2013, p. 21
Like the sheep and the coin, we don’t find ourselves. God finds us. Perhaps, like Shauna Hannan’s little brother, we don’t even know we’re lost. We’re smart enough to know we’re not one of the 99 who need no repentance, but we don’t know what it is like to be found. Whatever joy there is in being found is an overflow of the joy God receives from finding us.
I want to end with a prayer from Brennan Manning’s 2005 book The Ragamuffin Gospel. (Multnomah Publishers, Colorado Springs, CO, p. 229)
O God our Father, be present with us, Your least disciples. On each page of this journey, in each thought and emotion, we go forward in the name of Your Son, Jesus Christ. Lead us into the mystery of the love in the heart of your crucified Son, the love that surpasses all knowledge and understanding. Cover us with His beauty. Grant us the grace of true conversion, to make a radical break from the darkness in our lives and move toward the Light, who is Your Son, Jesus, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever. Amen