First United Methodist Church
Plymouth, Indiana

Lost, Luke 15:1-10
Plymouth First United Methodist Church, September 15, 2019
Pastor Toni Carmer

I read something this week that suggested that one of the reasons Jesus was put to death was to stop all the stories he kept telling!

When Jesus told stories, he had this annoying tendency to make the wrong people either the heroes or the bad guys.  

Two people go up to the temple to pray, one a pious, biblically learned religious leader, the other a compromised, evil collaborator with the Roman overlords.  One man went back home made right with God—the crook but not the pious believer.

A loving father is insulted by his disrespectful younger son who abandons him and his older son and wastes all the father’s money. When the younger son returns home, he’s welcomed back with a party, a party the older son refuses to attend, but instead, stays outside pouting.

A man lying half-dead in a ditch is ignored by a Bible-believing lay person and a distinguished member of the clergy.  He’s ministered to by a despised Samaritan.

Why would Jesus tell stories like that?  Hmmm.

The setting of the stories he tells in today’s reading is described like this: “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”  

So, the tax collectors and sinners are gathered around listening to Jesus, while the scriptural experts and devout religious insiders are criticizing and grumbling about the riff-raff Jesus is attracting.  How can he be God’s Son, savior of the world, Messiah of Israel?  A prophet is known by the company he keeps!  If this man were a real Messiah, he would attract the right kind of people!  People like us!!

It’s interesting, isn’t it, how often Jesus is criticized for the company he keeps!  Not only here, but throughout the Gospel, he’s disparaged for having meals, eating and drinking, going to parties with sinners.  Bad sinners, like tax collectors who were considered to be criminals in Judea, traitors to their own people, collaborators with the Roman occupation, collecting money to help them pay for the military power oppressing their own people!  Jesus hung out with them.  He hung out with sinners who didn’t know scripture, who didn’t attend to their religious responsibilities.  Yes, THOSE people.  They’re the ones who Jesus spent time with.

We might expect Jesus to respond to the criticism, saying, “yes, I’m going to clean up these sinners, redeem them, help them see their wayward ways.  I’m going to teach them to be more like you, the faithful!

Instead of saying that (which may or may not have satisfied them), he told a couple of stories.  Yeah, THOSE kinds of stories.

Which one of you shepherds, if one of your sheep should wander off would you not abandon the other sheep, (who lack the curiosity to wander) and go and beat the bushes, to search high and low until you found that lost sheep?  And when you found that one sheep would you not put it on your shoulders as if were a little child and rush back to your friends and neighbors, shouting, ‘I found my one lost sheep!  I’m throwing a party such as this town has never seen!  Come party with me!’?

Which one of you wouldn’t do that?

And which one of you women if you misplaced a quarter would not move all of the heavy appliances out of your house and onto the porch, push the furniture out into the yard, and rip up the carpet? [That would be okay with you Trustees, wouldn’t it?  If I lost a coin and needed to find it?]  And when you found that coin would you not run up and down the street calling to everyone, “Hey everybody, I found that lost coin! All of you are invited to a party at my place—the likes of which you have never seen—as soon as I get the furniture back in place. We’re going to have such a good time!!

Which one of you wouldn’t do that?

Which one of you teachers if you had a student who’s having difficulty in your Algebra class would not search out the student’s home address, follow the student home, and kick down the door to the student’s house, push aside his shocked parents, rip that TV out of the wall, push the student into a chair at the kitchen table, and begin teaching him algebra page by page, problem by problem?  And at the first light of dawn, as the student finally got through his thick head basic algebraic equations, would you not say, “Okay, this student of mine who was flunking is now on his way to a good grade.  Bring out the chips and salsa, turn up the music, and let’s have a party that will wake up the neighbors?

Which one of you wouldn’t do that?

So, of course, the answer to my question is nobody.  Nobody would do those things.  None of us here would ever behave like that teacher, like the woman or like the shepherd.  If you abandon the flock to go beat the bushes looking for one lost sheep, you’re going to lose a lot of sheep: they’ll all be wandering off somewhere, or they’ll get stolen or something.  That wouldn’t make any sense at all.  And tearing your house apart for one lost coin?  No, I don’t think so.  And stalking a student to teach them algebra isn’t an option no matter how sincerely you want them to learn: not a good idea.  

No sensible, responsible person would behave like this. 

So here’s the twist: these stories aren’t about us.  They’re about God!  God is the seeking shepherd, the searching woman, and the enthusiastic algebra teacher.  

We tend to think that church is about us.  We think of church being the place where we come to be reminded of our responsibilities, to be encouraged in our faith journeys, to help us start our week out right, to help us walk the right path.

Those aren’t bad things, but instead, church is primarily about God.  About who God is, about what God is up to, and how we might be a part of what God is doing.

What God is doing in these stories is seeking the lost.  

I’ve lost several things this summer that have disappointed me.  I’m fairly good at misplacing things, including my glasses, but most things I eventually find.  But this summer, not so much.  I bought a nice pair of noise canceling ear buds when I went on Sabbatical 4 years ago. I’ve always been kind of compulsive in taking good care of them because they were a splurge, but somehow they didn’t make it home with me from Guatemala.  I also bought a couple of bracelets while we were in Guatemala that I liked a lot.  They weren’t expensive, but they were hand-beaded, and I lost them both by about the third time I wore them.  I looked for all three of these lost things, retracing my steps, contacting the airline and their lost and found department for the earbuds and then I had to give up.  They’re gone. In the great scheme of things they weren’t a huge deal, and yet I couldn’t help but think—why wasn’t I more careful, if only I were more aware, more focused, then maybe I’d still have them.  

I’ve noticed a pattern in the churches I’ve served along the way.  Someone will go missing, long enough for folks to start asking me about them.  I encourage them to reach out, to make a phone call, to send a note, to let the person who’s been absent know they’ve been missed. Sometimes the person will show up for a Sunday service or a special event, perhaps making a last-ditch effort to connect.  If they don’t make a special effort to reach out to others, I don’t know, maybe they’ll be ignored.  They were missed but not welcomed back.

I wonder if the returnee’s church friends feel guilty that they went missing in the first place?  Do the friends wonder if there was something they did wrong?  Are they embarrassed they didn’t reach out sooner?

I remember being taught by a church growth guru years ago that it’s not a good strategy to go after people who have left your church. Better to seek out new people. Maybe there’s truth in that. But it’s not what the shepherd and the woman do.  They keep looking.  The shepherd doesn’t make excuses about having turned his back for just a second; he just searches in every valley and on every hill for the missing sheep.  The woman doesn’t berate herself about being more careful; she just sweeps under the table and shakes out the blankets until she finds the coin.

There’s no guilt in the story:  this seeking God isn’t a Guilt-Trip-God who berates himself for not shutting the sheep gate, or for not being more organized in putting the coin in its’ designated place.  And there’s no guilt for the one who is lost, either: no finger shaking to the sheep, and why would you waste your breath to scold a coin?  What happens instead, is God relentlessly seeks and once the lost is found? There’s a great celebration in heaven.

So with this seeking God in mind, I want you to be thinking and praying about who has missed coming across the alley when we had to make our move from the sanctuary and into this space.  We have some who are lost and who need to be welcomed back home.  Join the search party.  

I’m guessing there are some folks, as well, who didn’t make it into a “new” church after First Presbyterian closed.  They may feel a little lost.  If you know someone who hasn’t found a place yet, invite them here.  We’d love to help them find a home in this space.  
Or maybe you’re feeling a little lost right now.  I want you to hear the good news:  God is searching for you right now and won’t give up until you’re found.

Finally, let’s not forget there are folks in our community who are very much like those who were listening to Jesus that day.  Let’s invite them to come hear more about Jesus. Let’s invite them to find a place in this space.  We’ve added some more chairs and it would be a joy to add some more.  And while we do these things, let’s be thinking about celebrations.  We need to do more of those: because we have this seeking God who will never give up.  

Amen.