(Lay Leader Sondra read scripture: Luke 15:1-7)
What Sondra just read is called the Parable of the Lost Sheep and it opens chapter 15 from Gospel of Luke. This chapter has been called “the gospel in the gospel,” as it has at its heart the very essence of the good news Jesus came to proclaim. And, in very Jesus fashion, he shares this good news by use of parables, the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin, and the parable of the prodigal son. Fredrick Buechner defines a parable as a small story with a large point. And I would add a large point about God and God’s Kingdom, and about us, the listeners. And parables typically have many, many layers of rich meanings, with different understandings of what is being revealed depending on who you are. But they also allow us to step into the shoes of the ‘other.’ I even think these parables allow us to step into God’s shoes, allowing us to come to a deeper understanding of the nature of God and thus a deeper understanding of our relationship with God and each other.
Now each of these three parables has parallels but each can uniquely stand on its own. So today we are going to be looking at the Lost Sheep and Lost Coin, leaving the Prodigal Son for another Sunday. There has been a lot more focus on the Prodigal Son in literature, art, and even the movies then there has been the Lost Coin and Lost Sheep. There’s even a brew house in Pendleton called the Prodigal Son. Las Vegas could possibly be called the city of the lost coin, but the coin and sheep haven’t quite received the same level of focus as the Prodigal Son. My guess is it is because the prodigal parable has more of an individual focus while the other two have more communal understanding with it. The numbers are just bigger, as the parables start with 100 sheep, then down to 10 coins, and finally 2 brothers.
Now, let us hear the parable of the lost coin. (Read Luke 15:8-10)
Jesus is surrounded by a mixed bag of followers, the disciples, the Pharisees and the scribes, but also the tax collectors, the prostitutes, and others of less then savory backgrounds. It has become a crowd of insiders and outsiders and almost immediately the side conversations begin. “Who invited them?” “Doesn’t Jesus know these people are sinners?” The Pharisees and the scribes had a rule about dealing with people like that: Have no dealings with them!
Jesus hears the conversations and begins to address the growing grumblings in the crowds by talking about the nature of God in terms they could understand, turning the conversation toward things they held as valuable. He wants people to think about what is most valuable to them. The shepherd values the health and safety of his flock and the woman values the hard earned money she has scraped and saved for herself and family.
It may be hard to exactly come to an understanding of the value of the sheep and coins since we are separated by 2000 years of tradition and culture. But I had a lesson on the lost sheep from an old Basque sheepherder in the mountains of Wyoming. My brother, Dad and I hiked back up into this valley and came across this old Basque in his sheep wagon. The Basque had come to the states to work sheep and cattle in the lonely, isolated areas of the west, and this man had worked these mountains for most of his life. Even though he was excited to have some human conversation, he always kept an eye on the sheep that lined the ridges above his camp. Then with his broken English, he suddenly said, “Someone’s missing.” The three of us looked up at all the sheep scattered on the ridge and I blurted out, “How can you tell?” He went on to explain the groupings of the sheep that he watched for and after a bit of time, came to know each and every one. He could scan the hillside and notice which sheep wasn’t there. He went on to explain that when a sheep would look up from its grazing and saw another sheep, it would start bleating and catch up to the others. If it saw no other sheep, many times it would just sit down and quietly wait. It made no noise so as not to draw any attention to itself from predators. You could read the anxiety rise in the old man’s face as he got his horse ready to ride the draws and downed timber looking for this one lost sheep. That sheep had a deep value and worth to him.
But what would be a modern parable equivalent of the lost coin parable? It’s just a coin, right? How many of you ladies have lost a diamond out of a wedding ring, or even the entire ring itself? How many husbands have torn apart a trap on a drain looking for a gem or ring that went down the drain? It is very possible that Jesus used this image with 10 coins for a reason. The mark of a married woman was a headdress made of ten silver coins linked together by a chain, and it would be similar to the today’s wedding ring. It may have been one of these coins that the women had lost, so the search for it would be like searching for a lost diamond from her wedding ring. For this woman in Palestine, the value of this chain of coins was more than the coins itself. The headdress was inalienable hers; it couldn’t even be taken from her for payment of debt.
So what Jesus does is make this crowd think of that thing that is most precious in the hearers life and what it would be like to loose it. Think about it for a moment. What is most valuable in your life to you? Now what would it be like to loose it, whether through carelessness or theft? What would you do? How long would you seek for it? My guess is for a long time, until you felt that every possible rock had been overturned and every nook and cranny had been thoroughly explored. And you continue searching because it feels that part of the whole, part of you, is missing.
And as those who are listening to Jesus are contemplating the thing in life most valuable to them and what they would do to recover what is lost, Jesus tells them that God is like that in his search for them. God is like the shepherd who values each sheep in the flock, or the woman who accounts for every coin on her headdress. When one goes missing, God goes into search mode. God’s nature is love, and love looks like one who goes out and never stops searching because what is lost is priceless in his sight.
But these parables not only talk about the all loving, always seeking nature of God, it also speaks to nature of the one who is lost. The lost sheep that is curled up, not making a sound out of fear of the predator that might be lurking by cannot aid in its own rescue. Its rescue is dependant on the diligence of the shepherd. The lost coin is an inanimate object that cannot shine bright to get the women’s attention, but is only found because of the women’s careful cleaning of the house. They can only be found.
The Pharisees and scribes would have been flustered at this understanding of God and God’s love for these sinners. They deserved God’s wrath for who they were. Maybe if they came crawling to God in confession and self-abasement and prayed for pity, maybe, maybe God would forgive and grant mercy. But never would they conceive of a God who went out to search for sinners. One of the things Jesus is trying to teach the Pharisees, and even the tax-collectors and prostitutes, is that those on the fringe of the community are necessary and integral to what the community in all its fullness should be. Until they return, the community is incomplete. And when they do return, there is cause for celebration.
Now I can’t dispute that the core of each of these parables is an understanding of God searching and finding the lost. I’ve heard your stories, about the times in your lives you were lost and have had an encounter with the God who dived into thickets to pull you out or the God who crawled into the hole you dug for yourself and lifts you out. Alleluia and Amen! But I believe that the God does the searching to restore the lost to their community they were lost from. It isn’t a search to save per say, but also a search to welcome. Welcoming is about intimacy and focuses on the community over the individual. That is why the celebration can take place. It’s almost as if the finding and saving takes place so celebration can take place. They go hand-in-hand. The finding of the one isn’t just for the sake of the one who was lost, but for the sake of the entire community that is now complete and made whole.
These parables call the community to open its doors and rejoice and celebrate. Sinners and tax collectors gather at the table with Christ? Rejoice! Celebrate! A pew that was empty is now filled with a new face seeking a community to learn what it means to follow Christ together? Party time! Laugh! Hugs of welcome and invitations to a meal all around! An old familiar face that has been missing for months is back? Be glad! Delight in their presence and listen for the story of how God found them. You never know, God may have found them through the card you sent or the phone call you made. We can now feast! Hope and joy has been restored!
Lost or found? Friends, we are both. Praise be to the God that finds us and restores us into the household of God. Because when one is restored, we are all better off for it. Amen.