As we saw last week in our study of the Parable of the Lost Sheep, it’s a terrible feeling to lose something which is so very important or meaningful to you- whether we're talking about a wallet, a set of keys, or perhaps some precious heirloom that has been in the family for generations. You feel helpless, exasperated, and foolish all at the same time. You find yourself returning to places you’ve checked three or four times already and even searching areas you weren't in. You refuse to believe that something so important may be misplaced or worse, lost for good. Shortly before I left as pastor of Old First in Syracuse, NY to assume my new pastorate in Waterloo, Iowa, two friends from there bought me a round-trip ticket to London as a going away gift where we planned on spending a week together. The night before we were to drive to Kennedy Airport in New York City, Tom called to make sure that I had my passport on hand. I assured him I knew exactly where it was and that I’d be ready and waiting when he and Terry pulled up the next morning to get me. After he hung up, I went to the small built-in safe in my bedroom where I kept such valuable items as my birth certificate and the deed to my home only to discover that it was not there as I had supposed. With my anxiety level increasing by the minute, I tore apart every room in the house but alas, without any luck. I knew that without that passport, there was no way the airline would ever allow me to get on that plane. I spent virtually the entire night revisiting places I had searched over and over again, going through assorted bags and boxes and drawers until I painfully had to concede that I probably would not be joining them.
At six the next morning, my friends arrived with Tom bounding through the front door with a loud, “Dave, let’s go! We can’t be late!” I then had to give him the awful news I had been dreading- that I couldn’t find my passport and it looked like they’d be going to England without me. Unwilling to take no for an answer, he said, “Let’s let a fresh set of eyes look for it.” The first place he visited was up in the attic where there was an assortment of travel bags stacked one on top of another. I said, “Tom, don’t even bother. I’ve been through them four times already.” Well, he continued ANYWAY and he didn’t just open each one up and take a cursory look inside, he had to twist each bag and crush it in his hands convinced that such things as money and jewelry and even passports often find their way into hidden pockets and compartments that eventually get forgotten about. Within a minute, he exclaimed, “David, I think I’ve got something here.” He then proceeded to unzip a secret pocket that had been built into the bottom lining of one of the bags, a valise I had used some months before on an overnight trip to Canada, and, like Harry Houdini, he extracted my U.S. Passport from it. The excitement and joy I felt in that moment was indescribable. In a matter of minutes, I went from being one of the most despondent persons on the planet to one of the happiest as something so important as my visa had been recovered in the nick of time.
Here in Luke fifteen, this morning’s parable is the second of the three parables told by Jesus in this chapter. In all three, something very precious has been lost- in the first, it is a lost sheep, in the second, a lost coin, and in the third, it is a lost son. But then after an extended search, that which is lost is eventually located and this leads to great joy and celebration on the part of the seeker. In the first two verses, we are told that tax collectors and sinners were all flocking to hear Jesus. As a result, the Pharisees and the scribes complain that Jesus is not a righteous man; after all, he received sinners and ate with them. Now sharing a meal with someone was a sign of respect and friendship, but by welcoming those whom the Jews held in such contempt and disregard, by making them feel loved and accepted--some for perhaps the first time in their lives, the relationship between Jesus and these religious representatives over who was acceptable or not grew increasingly bitter. The three parables in this chapter are his response to all their murmurings.
In this second parable, the story under consideration for this morning, God is compared to a poor woman who goes to great lengths to find a lost coin. Because she is poor and a lost cent can often mean the difference between eating and going hungry, she sweeps every nook and cranny of her house until she recovers it. But notice there is a major difference between these first two parables. In the former, the shepherd has lost something in the fields OUTSIDE the house where in the latter account, the woman has lost something INSIDE it. This is a significant point that Jesus is making here- one that would not have escaped those Pharisees. You see, the house in which the woman lives and has lost her coin is MORE than just the place she happens to reside in. It was a deliberate reference to the "house of Israel, the house of faith" which the Jews--God's covenant people--were confident they ALONE inhabited. By placing these two parables side-by-side, Jesus is creating a contrast between those who are OUTSIDE the house- that is, the shepherd and his sheep, and those who reside INSIDE it- the woman with her coin. And WHO are those who reside OUTSIDE the "house of faith" but the GENTILES, the despised enemy of Judeans everywhere.
Thus Jesus is suggesting by the shepherd's relentless search for that lone lost sheep that God has a SIMILAR love and concern for the Gentiles, for all those OUTSIDE the house of Israel who may be lost, and that he will not stop until every last one has been found and brought safely home again. Conversely, by having the woman search for her lost coin INSIDE the house, Jesus is saying that even the JEWS, even those who reside within the "house of faith" (and that includes the Pharisees and scribes here)- they can be just as lost as the GENTILES. However, the good news is that as this God will stop at nothing until the very last Gentile has been found and returned, so this SAME God will not rest until he has located and restored every lost child of Abraham. Therefore, by telling these two parables back-to-back, we see how God's love is no longer the special prerogative of just the Jew but of ALL PEOPLE, EVERYWHERE- both Jew AND Gentile, men AND women, young AND old, rich AND poor, Black AND White, Christian AND Muslim, gay AND straight, slave AND free! It was a message those exclusivistic, self-righteous Jews did not want to hear.
Jesus seems to be saying that ALL people EVERYWHERE are lost at one time or another but the GOOD news is that God is no respecter of persons and will go to any length to make sure we are found and brought into his kingdom. But what does it MEAN to be lost? It can mean different things to different people. Some people become lost when like the sheep in last week’s message they are lost by reason of ignorance and stupidity. As we all know, sheep are fairly stupid animals. With head down, they are so busy nibbling from one patch of grass to another that they lose all sense of their surroundings, so MUCH so that they don’t even realize how far they’ve wandered far afield from the rest of the flock. Well people can behave just like sheep do. They can become so thoughtlessly absorbed in something that they never stop to figure out where they are in relation to everybody else. For instance, people can be so absorbed with their JOBS that they can think of little else; work for them is 24/7. And so they wind up neglecting significant relationships whether it's with their spouses, their children, their friends, or even their God. Relationships become ruptured and marriages get destroyed. Some people are so obsessed with ADVANCEMENT AND MAKING MONEY that they think nothing of abusing their co-workers and employees, and will walk over ANYONE in order to achieve their goals. Such people are not INTENTIONALLY mean or injurious- only that they’re so fixated on their OWN pursuit of things that they forget what’s TRULY important such as personal integrity and human relationships. When jobs and money and status and success become more important than human beings, to Jesus' eyes, such persons are lost. He said it best when he once asked, "What does it profit a person to gain the whole world and yet lose his soul?"
Then there are some people, like the coin in this morning’s parable, who become lost not by fault of their OWN but because of the negligence of OTHERS. That coin did not lose itself- it was lost because she was not paying attention and had become careless. There are people who become lost in the same way due to no fault of their own- perhaps it is the result of their upbringing or their environment or due to certain social policies that disadvantage them or keep them down. A young girl is raised in a home where the father was continually abusive towards her and for the rest of her life, she must carry the emotional scars of that relationship. This was never her fault and yet she is forced to live with voices in her head telling her that she's worthless and no good and will never amount to anything in life. Thus, she becomes lost- looking for love and acceptance and often in all the wrong places. Our prisons and asylums are full of persons such as these- people who are there due to somebody else's neglect, persons who are like lost coins. They may be the product of deep poverty or broken homes or long-time sexual abuse or constant bullying from their peers. Yet the result tends to be the same- they've become lost and don't know what to do about it.
Then there are those who go astray, neither through ignorance such as the lost sheep nor through the fault of others as is the case of the lost coin, but with their eyes wide open and by their own deliberate choice as was the case with the YOUNGER SON in the story of the prodigal. He was a self-willed person who wanted to be FREE- FREE from all the order and routine of farm life; FREE to live life on HIS terms and not his Father's or ANYONE ELSE'S. He was typical of those who are always looking for a party, always wanting for a good time whether it is found in the bottom of a liquor bottle, the high from a mind-bending opiate, or the comfort of a one-night stand. However, over time he began to realize that freedom can become its OWN prison. The world is full of such people who one disastrous decision after another eventually find themselves lost, no longer remembering where home was for them.
But then we come to the WORST example of being lost there IS. THIS person is represented by the OLDER SON in the story of the prodigal. He was the obedient and dutiful one who did everything his father asked of him; he stayed home and was the one who labored from sun up to sun down without ever uttering a complaint- unlike his lazy, wastrel brother. But when his brother returns after having lost his share of the inheritance and he is welcomed home as though he had never left, the older son's sense of justice and fair play is injured. He had his chance to stay on the farm and to keep slaving away at it as HE'S done but instead he chose to waste it on booze and gambling and women, and therefore he doesn't deserve another chance. You see, the reality was although he had ALWAYS been a treasured son, he saw himself as a servant instead, as nothing more than a hired laborer in his father's household. He never knew the love and freedom that comes from being a son. His BROTHER, on the other hand, had to lose himself in order to learn how ONCE a son, ALWAYS a son; that he was unconditionally loved by his father and thus he could never NOT be part of that family- even when he tried to escape it.
With this parable, Jesus was directly addressing the Pharisees and the scribes and saying to them, "YOU are that older son! YOU are the true prodigal, for you think that by keeping your laws and festivals and feasts that you have earned God's favor. The fact is that he never wanted your blood sacrifices in the FIRST place but rather he yearned for your LOVE, he desired above all the sacrifices of your HEART. God's kingdom is one of love and it is now being populated with people you've spent your whole lives despising and calling worthless- people YOU say don't deserve a second chance. The fact is that God loves Gentiles as much as he does YOU and this should be an occasion of great joy and celebration- not OUTRAGE." There can be no greater tragedy than to be like these Pharisees- persons SO proud and self-righteous that they have become lost themselves and they don't even KNOW it!
I want to end my sermon by sharing with you something that happened to Rose and me only a couple of winters ago. It was around noon and Rose was in the kitchen doing the dishes when she happened to look out the back window and see what she thought was a dog in our yard. She said, "Dave, come here. I think there's a coyote in our backyard. Quick grab the camera." Sure enough it WAS a coyote. Having never seen one in the wild before, I retrieved the camera and began snapping pictures of it when I realized something was terribly wrong with it. It began dragging its back legs as though they were broken into the open field behind our property. Assuming that it had most likely been hit by a passing car, I picked up the phone and called the police who referred me to Lake County Animal Control. However, both said it was a wild animal and there was very little they could do about it. "Either kill it yourself or just let it die," they said. I put on my coat and told Rose I wanted to pursue it. For about a hundred yards, I began following its blood-stained tracks when finally I caught up to it. When it saw me, it started hissing and heading for a thicket of bushes and trees for protection. I approached it cautiously with my camera in hand and began taking MORE pictures. As I got closer, I could see that its hind legs were horribly crushed and mangled. For around twenty minutes, I stood there just observing it. It would periodically look up, bare its teeth, and growl to tell me to keep my distance which I did. I really felt sad for it because I found it to be such a remarkable animal.
Now the perfect ending of my sermon would be for me to tell you that I somehow managed to capture that wounded coyote and save it from itself; that like the Good Shepherd, I was able to get it home, prepare a soft warm bed for it in the garage, provide it with some nourishment and liquid, and then summon a vet in the hope of eventually restoring it back to health- but I think you'd know better than that. The reality is that I was really helpless to do anything for it and I'd be surprised if it even lived through the night. However, there is ANOTHER reality we CAN trust and it involves One who has both the will and the wherewithal to save and restore whenever he is called upon. In THIS story, the lost and wounded one is not some wild animal but rather it is US, and the rescuer is none other than the Good Shepherd- JESUS CHRIST himself. Believe me when I tell you this is ONE promise we CAN trust. What's more, we have experienced his rescue OURSELVES, and not just ONCE but AGAIN and AGAIN as well as witnessed it in the lives of others. And so when we become angry or anxious or afraid; when we're tired and lonely and feel hopeless and depressed; when our lives seem out of control with all kinds of selfishness and sensuality and greed; when we're insensitive to the pain of others and have even begun to hate OURSELVES, then know there IS hope, that help is on the way. In those moments, we simply need to call out to him and soon we will hear his approach. WHEREVER we are, he will find us, place us upon his shoulders, and bring us back home where we belong REGARDLESS of how we got there or what condition we may be in. And once we are safely back, our voice will join the chorus of EVERYONE ELSE who has ever experienced such rescue themselves in singing: "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now I'm found; was blind but now I see!" Amen and amen.