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Joy in Heaven, Joy on Earth
Sermon on Luke 15: 1-10
24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
“If you must tell me the truth,” said Emily Dickinson, “give it to me slant, so that I can bear it.”
Parables are the Bible’s way of telling the truth “slant.” Parables can open doors to us on truths we might not otherwise be willing, or able, to see.
So when some of the Pharisees were “grumbling” about Jesus taking his meals with tax collectors and sinners, instead of defending his actions he told them a string of parables, hoping, evidently, that some doors of understanding would open for them.
You might think the Pharisees were being picky and unreasonable in their rejection of the people Jesus chose as dinner companions. After all, we’re all sinners, right? And while IRS agents may not be on our list of favorite people, we wouldn’t snub them at a party. Well, in New Testament times tax collectors were not just government functionaries doing a necessary job; they were more like racketeers, making profits off the poor and powerless. And the “sinners” Jesus was consorting with were in all probability people who were involved in the sex trade. So these were not just vaguely roguish, colorful figures – they were, in fact, deeply into sin, and wouldn’t have been welcome in decent society anywhere. They were lost, beyond the pale. Yet these unsavory, irreligious people were coming to see Jesus, to hear him speak, to be around him. It was a puzzle, and from the Pharisees’ point of view, an alarming one.
So Jesus told them three parables about lost things that were found, a trilogy of joy. The third parable, the story of the so-called Prodigal Son, was the climax of the two brief stories we heard today. These two parables form a “perfectly matched pair.” In each one, something is lost, it is searched for with great diligence and perseverance, it is found, and then there is rejoicing. The rejoicing is an earthly echo of the rejoicing that goes on in heaven whenever a lost person is returned to God.
When you think about it, there is a touch of divine absurdity in each of the parables.
A shepherd leaves ninety-nine sheep unprotected in the wilderness to go after one stray. “Which one of you,” Jesus asks the Pharisees, “wouldn’t do that?” Well, really…no one would do that. If you have a hundred sheep and you lose one, you don’t risk the other ninety-nine for the sake of the one – you take the loss and rack it up to the cost of doing business.
And the woman: She turns her house upside down to look for one coin, and then when she finds it, she uses it to throw a party to celebrate finding it? The lost coin represented about a day’s wages for a laborer – the woman would probably have to spend more on the celebration than she got back when she found the coin. “What woman wouldn’t do this?” Jesus asks. The answer is, no woman we know would do such a thing.
The point, of course, is not the animal husbandry skills of the shepherd or the financial management skills of the woman, but the joy of the finder.
The other quirky note in these parables is the tag line about repentance. The parables themselves say nothing about the lost things’ behavior, emotions, reasons for being lost, or responses at being found. A sheep can’t repent, much less a coin. The focus of the parables is not on the found things, but on the finders’ determination to find. What is the value of one sheep out of 100? Of one silver coin out of ten? Incalculable, it seems. Their worth is given by the searcher’s desire to find them, and the searcher’s joy in finally succeeding.
The desire to search for and find the lost seems to be in the nature of God. Much of the Hebrew Bible is about God’s steadfast search for the lost children of Israel, exasperating children who won’t stay put, who go running after other gods or making foolish alliances with other nations. They suffer for their actions, but God always goes after them. When their leaders proved false and self-serving, God set out to find the people and rescue them: “I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak” (Ezek. 34:16).
It seems that it is God’s business to find, just as it is a shepherd’s business to herd flocks and a housewife’s business to take care of the family finances. Finding the lost is what God does.
That is a very good thing for us, because it’s easier to get lost than some of us may think.
How does it happen? Somewhere along the way, we can fall off the path. We make a decision, or fail to make a decision, and the making or not making just derails us, dumps us into a void, a desert, a place of spiritual emptiness. We may recognize this state as a fatigue that sleep doesn’t cure, or an anxiety that seems to have no object. The great poet Dante, a spiritual genius, said at the beginning of The Divine Comedy, “Midway along the journey of…life I woke to find myself in a dark wood, for I had wandered off from the straight path…How I entered there I cannot truly say.”
It happens. You make a wrong choice, or you simply lose your sense of desire and purpose. The writer of Ecclesiastes knew about this, too, the sense of lostness that can overtake a person when youth is past and “the days of trouble come,” when “terrors are in the road” and a person says, “I have no pleasure in my days” (Eccl. 12:1, 5). It’s when all your life’s work, all your love and trouble, seem to have come to nothing, and there you are, lost in the immensity of the universe.
It can happen at any age. You could be a teenager, and you wake up one morning to find that the bright, noisy world that seems to fit everyone else like a glove is so tight and itchy on you that you think you can’t stand it, that you are a misfit, and so you find a way to drop out, a hard and dangerous way, and you end up lost, in drugs or alcohol or friends that don’t love you. You are in a dark wood wandering. How will you find your way back?
Anyone can get lost, even Pharisee-like people who are in control of their lives and always try to do the right thing.
The Kentucky writer Wendell Berry tells his own parable of being lost. In parts of rural Kentucky there are abandoned homesteads scattered through the wooded slopes and hollows. Most of them have no buildings left – all the wood has rotted – so what you come upon in those places are “the things that were built of stone: foundations, cellars, chimneys, wells…Sometimes the well is the only structure remaining, and there will be no visible sign of it,” because it is covered with decaying old boards that are green with moss or covered with leaves. Berry imagines a hunter,
“somebody from a city some distance away, who has a job he doesn’t like, and who has come alone out into the country to hunt on a Saturday. It is a beautiful, perfect fall day, and the Man feels free. He has left all his constraints and worries and fears behind. Nobody knows where he is. Anybody who wanted to complain or accuse or collect a debt could not find him….And then, not looking where he is going…he steps onto the rotten boards that cover one of those old wells, and down he goes.
He disappears suddenly out of the lighted world. He falls so quickly that he doesn’t have time even to ask what is happening. He hits water and goes under, comes up, swims, or clings to the wall, inserting his fingers between the rocks. And now, I think, you cannot help imagining the way it would be with him….The sky that was so large and reassuring only seconds ago is now just a small blue picture of itself, far away…He calls out…and he hears himself enclosed within the sound of his own calling voice.
How does this story end? Does he save himself?...Does he climb up and fall back? Does somebody…chance to pass by and hear him? Does he despair, give up, and drown? Does he, despairing, pray finally the first true prayer of his life?
...A man of faith believes that the Man in the Well is not lost. He does not believe this easily or without pain, but he believes it….His belief is a kind of knowledge beyond any way of knowing. He believes that those who make their bed in Hell are not lost, or those who dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, or the lame man at Bethesda Pool, or Lazarus in the grave, or those who pray, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”
The man in the well, the confused and frightened teenager, the grown person who’s lost the zest for life, the person who has strayed from the straight, lighted path and finds herself wandering in a dark wood – if you are that person, if you know that person, take heart: God will leave no stone unturned, no corner unswept, in God’s relentless search for the lost. And when we are found, and God puts us tenderly over the divine shoulders to carry us to safety, there is rejoicing in heaven, a cry of triumph and jubilation that resounds through all eternity.
Manassas Presbyterian Church
September 15, 2019
 Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991), 240.
 Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy: Volume I, The Inferno, trans. Mark Musa (New York: Penguin, 1984), p. 76.
 Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow (New York: Counterpoint, 2000), 357.