Things go missing at my house all the time. We have two small people dedicated to relocating everything they can get their hands on, so things are rarely found where they’re supposed to be. Mostly, it doesn’t matter, except when the missing thing happens to be Pooh, or Roo. These are my children’s favorite toys. Unfortunately, some days Miriam hides Pooh behind a living room chair or Simon puts Roo into a kitchen cabinet, and so the bedtime search can become quite challenging. But no matter what, Pooh and Roo must be found if everyone is going to go to bed happy.
Today’s gospel reading contains two parables about losing and finding. A shepherd with a hundred sheep is so determined to find the one sheep that he has lost that he leaves the other ninety-nine in the wilderness until his sheep is located. A woman who has ten silver coins is so eager to find the one that she has lost that she lights a lamp, sweeps the house, and searches carefully until she has it in her hand. These are the parables that Jesus tells just before the parable of the prodigal son that we remembered together this past Lent.
You may have heard at the beginning of the gospel reading that Jesus tells all three stories about finding what is lost in response to a complaint. Some people are upset because Jesus has been spending time with the most despised members of their society. He’s been welcoming sinners, people known for flouting God’s laws. He’s been eating with tax collectors, folks who get rich by collaborating with the oppressive colonial government and fleecing their neighbors. But Jesus, as he tells these parables, makes it clear: he is seeking these outcasts on purpose. He noticed that they’ve become a little lost, and he wants them to know that they are desperately missed. He cannot rest without them.
One of the hardest parts of reading bible stories today is figuring out how to apply the story to our current context. When we look around us today, who are the folks that Jesus is seeking out for special care? And who are the folks who are trying to keep these outsiders from joining the party?
Often, when we read this story, we think of ourselves first. In this story, we may think of however we’ve become estranged from God and our neighbors; it’s happened to all of us. We think of how we’ve wandered away or been pushed out. It’s important for each of us to come to terms with the idea that no matter what has happened, we are God’s children, precious beyond measure. With millions of other sheep, our Shepherd God will still make a special effort just to come rescue us. With many other treasures, our God will still drop everything to recover us.
Another way to read this story today would be to turn our attention to our national situation. We are living through a season in which our differences and disagreements are being intentionally inflamed, when fear and estrangement are everywhere. We’re being encouraged in our prejudices, especially against recent immigrants, Muslims, racial minorities, the LGBTQ community, and women. We’re being taught to despise and oppose fellow citizens who plan to vote differently than we do. We can look around and see many who are specifically targeting the outsiders in our society. And we remember, today, another series of events that divided us both nationally and internationally, on the 15th anniversary of 9/11.
Maybe there’s a third way to look at this story, too. Maybe we have the most in common with were the ones who brought that complaint to Jesus. Like the Pharisees and the Scribes, many of us have been educated in the ways of faith and have done our best to live ethical lives. Sure, we’re sinners, but probably not notorious ones. The thing we need the most help with may be our arrogance and prejudgement. I can see myself as one of those 99 sheep, confused by a Shepherd who leaves our good company to seek out some other sheep to come and join our number.
One of the reasons Jesus was such a powerful teacher is that he taught mostly with stories and with questions. Really, the answer of what this story means today is up to you. What message do you need to hear? Do you need to be reminded that nothing can separate you from God and that God cannot bear your absence in Her flock? Do you need to be reassured that those who speak out in hate and prejudice are working against the will of God? Do you need to hear that God cannot bear the absence of even those who you struggle to tolerate?
The God we come to know through Jesus is always working to bring people together, with special concern for those who are isolated or vulnerable. In biblical language: the widow, the orphan, the foreigner, the sinner, the tax collector. Today, perhaps, we could say: the Syrian and those from Mexico; the Sunni and the Shiite; the incarcerated and the rehabilitated; the welfare recipient, the gender non-conforming, the young black man. God is hoping for truly mixed company when people gather in her name. That’s why Jesus went out of his way to seek out those who were least likely to feel welcome as part of his crew.
It sounds like at least a lifetime’s worth of work to me, wrapping our minds around this, opening our hearts to this. To believe that nothing within us is a barrier for God’s grace. To be assured that no message of hate has the final say. To trust that God’s grace is calling us to take down all of the barriers within and between us, until we’re all gathered around the same table.
This is why we’re here. Coming to church, it won’t earn you points anymore. If you admit to your friends and neighbors that you come here, you’re likely to get some strange looks instead. We’re here because it’s not an easy thing, to believe in God’s grace or to act on it. We need to come together to remind each other what we’re try to believe, and how we’re trying to live, and to practice little acts of grace and love and barrier breaking. We need to build our capacity together if we’re going to have any hope of truly acting with compassion in a world that desperately needs it.
Who knows what will happen in the next few months, in our political arena or in our private lives. But, friends, we are not alone. In this covenant community, we have God and one another. As a reminder of that, we’ll be using this creed from the United Church of Canada this season. Whenever I’ve shared it in small groups here, it has resonated with a lot of people, so I hope it will resonate with you. I invite you now to stand as you are able, now, and find someone‘s hand to take, or shoulder to touch. Let’s share this statement of faith together.