Pentecost 18 C Luke 16:1-13
Today is the 15th anniversary of the September 11th attacks in New York city an Washington DC. The fall of the twin towers in New York, the destruction of part of the Pentagon in Washington, and the one plane diverted from its goal and crashed in rural Pennsylvania, all of these are etched into our memories. There have been and will be many stories of remembrance, both personally told and recounted on television shows. Sometimes these stories are almost too much to bear.
The remembrance of this day, along with other terrible and heartbreaking things in the news like storms whipping into hurricanes that walk across the water and land like great monsters, flood waters rising to sweep away lives, viruses transmitted by mosquitos, and the constant turmoil of debate and argument over who is right and who is wrong on any given topic, makes for depressing and very stressful news. Of course, the truth is that any given week has stories like these and sometimes far worse.
Where do we turn to find ways to understand all of this? Our personal struggles, struggles of our nation and all people, and the troubles of the natural world?
A few years ago I remember reading a statement by Stephen Hawking, the world renowned physicist and genuinely brilliant man, who stated that as far as he could tell, God is redundant. Yes, you see, the world works so well on its own that God isn’t really necessary. Respectfully, I disagree with that logic.
One of the interesting things about Christianity and, to some extent, all three of the Abrahamic religions, is that, unlike many of other religious movements in the world, we focus a good deal upon questions about evil. We could say that Christianity has as its central theme this question: what is God doing about evil and suffering in the world?
There are lots of questions we can ask about evil. Natural evil, humanly contrived evil, why bad things happen to good people and why good things happen to bad people. For most of these, we may never have a full answer and I suspect that most of the neat little solutions we come up with in order to answer the big “why” questions fall short in many ways. So, though I would love to give an answer as to why things like September 11th, “natural disasters”, long suffering physically painful illnesses, and other things like these occur, why there is suffering, loss, loneliness and pain, why there is such brokenness in this world, these are answers I do not yet possess.
However, where there is much I do not know, there are things of great importance that we DO know. We know that our God, the good shepherd, seeks and saves in this dangerous and broken world.
In our gospel lesson for today, Jesus is eating once again and this time it is not at a prominent Pharisee’s house but with a bunch of tax collectors and sinners. And, of course, all the “good people” in town were grumbling and gossiping about him saying: did you see who that rabbi was eating with? Why, he welcomes those people to eat a meal with them!
And then Jesus then tells them a parable about lost sheep. Who among you, he says, though you may have a hundred sheep, wouldn’t still go searching for one that was lost? Good shepherds do not say, well I’ve got 99 sheep, what’s one more or less? No, a good shepherd will leave that herd together and go looking for that one lost sheep; will not stop until he finds it! Then, coming back, lifts it high upon his shoulders and caries it home safely. He celebrates with his friends that he’s found the lost sheep.
Jesus also tells another parable of a woman searching for one lost coin and, when she finds it, calls everyone to say, “Rejoice with me! For I have found the lost coin!”
One of the things Jesus is speaking about here is repentance. That’s more than just confessing sins but is actually running away from sin itself. And that is, indeed, a very important part of this text. However, there’s something else very important here, too.
I once participated in an excellent bible study about the parable of the lost coin. I learned a great deal and we all saw meaningful things in this parable thanks to the study. At the same time, I was amazed at how quickly we all wanted to jump to the last line about repentance and seemed so eager to make the entire parable not about Jesus’ action but about ours.
Indeed, we should think about and enact the ways in which we need to and can turn our lives around, but these parables are about Jesus’ action; Jesus‘ search for us. Even here, in the face of such grace as a God who leaves everything to search for, reclaim and bring home the lost for no other reason than the fact that he loves us, we can concern ourselves with ourselves so much as to risk entirely missing a big message about God grace and love.
Whenever we look at a piece of scripture the most important thing we can do is look to see what it says about God. Often times, the bible will tell us lots of things about right and wrong, human nature, right ways to live our lives, etc., but more important than all this—far more important—is what scripture tells us about our God. Who God is, what God is like, and what God is up to in the world.
So let’s look at this gospel lesson and see. Who is God? What is God up to? Well, we know from other places in scripture that Jesus says he is the good shepherd. The good shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep. And here we see that a good shepherd seeks for those who are lost. Searches until he finds them. Not until he is tired, not until daybreak, not until everyone tells him to give up. He searches until he finds them.
And then he brings the lost one home.
Several years ago, I served for a summer as a Hospice Chaplain and a large part of my job was visiting Hospice patients in their homes. Day after day I’d go out, armed with sketchy maps and scant directions, and head for the day’s visits. But the dusty, unpaved back roads of South Carolina can be a lonesome labyrinth and I spent far more time lost than visiting. Some places were completely off the map and cellphone and GPS service was non existent. More than one afternoon was spent driving up one dirt road and down another in a near panic, frustrated tears on my cheeks as I fought that dread feeling of being lost. When I would finally arrive at the home of one of the people I was to visit, I worried that I would not be able to bring a sense of peace and presence of God into their home with me. And yet, time after time, I would enter their home and realize that God was already there. That no matter how lost I thought I was, no matter how lost the patient thought they were, we were never too lost to not be found. That the good shepherd had been seeking them and seeking me all along. We were never really beyond his saving shepherd’s crook.
When we feel like we are lost, lonely, alone, afraid, like we do not know which way to turn, we can know that God looks for us when we are lost. When God seems far away—and there are times that it seems we cry out Where Is God In All This?—when it seems like we cannot find God no matter how hard we try, we know that God always finds us. No matter what, no matter where. Whether it is because we have wandered down some unknown path like a curious sheep and cannot find our way home or if, like a lost coin, through no particular fault of our own, we wind up far from where we ought to be, far from those who love us, God searches until we are found. We are each precious to God, each one of us valuable, every one of us, in his eyes, worthy of ceaseless searching. Until we are found and he can bring us safely home.
Our world is a dangerous and sometimes frightening place—a fact of which we are reminded almost daily. It is naïve to think that the world is always a good place where everything and everyone is hoping for the best and doing good. However, it is also foolish to believe that there is only evil and darkness in the world, too. God is also active in this world. Very active. We may not know the answer to why things sometimes are the way they are, but we do know that our God is good, our God acts on our behalf, our God, every single day, seeks and saves in this world.