Seeking, Finding, Welcoming - September 11, 2016 - The 17th Sunday after Pentecost

In our Gospel today, Jesus tells these two parables: a shepherd who loses a sheep, a woman who loses a coin, and both go to great lengths to find them. Upon finding them, both call friends together to celebrate the good news: what once was lost has now been found! Parables are rich and thought-provoking. This is why they are such a powerful teaching tool. They have so many different angles and meanings that we can understand them differently different people, but also each of us individually at different times in our lives, or even different elements of our lives at any given time. Depending on your life experiences, or just how you are feeling today, you might hear this story from the perspective of the sheep or coin, or you might hear it from the perspective of the invited friends and neighbors, or you might hear it from the perspective of the shepherd searching diligently for a sheep or the woman sweeping furiously for a coin.

How did you hear the parables this morning when the Deacon read them to us? How do you imagine that Jesus would be speaking to you if you were a part of the crowd?

 Are you the lost sheep or the lost coin? Like John Newton, who on that slave ship in the storm realized what a huge mistake he was making, trafficking in humans, in beloved children of God, men and women made in God's very image. Who quit that work and went on to fight for abolition and penned those words:

                                    Amazing Grace! How sweet the sound

                                    that saved a wretch like me.

                                    I once was lost, but now am found,

                                    was blind, but now I see.

He certainly saw himself as the lost sheep, found by the shepherd; as the lost coin, found by the woman. Is that how you hear the parable speaking to you? In whatever ways that you are lost, Jesus, the shepherd, has sought you out to bring you back to the flock? Jesus, the woman, has swept the house to find you?

But maybe you didn't hear the parables and think of yourself as the sheep. Maybe you saw yourself as one of the friends invited to come celebrate. Like the Pharisees and scribes who had not wandered far away and grumble that the tax collectors and sinners get to hang out with Jesus, too.  You've been a good Episcopalian who is here every Sunday and you get a little miffed by those who only shows up on Christmas and Easter perhaps. Or you're upset by those who don't volunteer enough. Or you're upset by someone whose politics or manners or clothing or lifestyle or some other difference is anathema to you. And Jesus is challenging you to open that heart a bit more and celebrate with him. I sympathize a bit with the Pharisees and the scribes; they get a bit of a bad rap here. The tax collectors were not just annoying, sending you a 1040 for you to determine your liability after subtracting your deductions. Tax collectors were traitors. They were in cahoots with the Roman government, engaged in a huge transfer of wealth from the poorest to the wealthiest. And to make matters worse, their income wasn't set. They worked on a form of commission in which they got to keep everything above a certain point, encouraging them to take you for even more. With the backing of the occupying force, many tax collectors engaged in coercive and dishonest practices in order to enrich themselves. These are people who make your blood boil.

But Jesus is saying that yes, even they are included in God's family, and we are all incomplete without them. Jesus is going to try to get the tax collectors to stop engaging in the worst parts of what they do, like cheating the poor, but we are lesser when someone isn't in the fold. There is something broken in our community when someone is missing, and the shepherd is going to repair that. If you hear this story as one of the friends invited to celebrate, then this parable is a challenge to you. Challenging you to welcome and celebrate with who Jesus has found, who Jesus has thrown across his shoulders and brought them back into the fold, to see the presence of someone who frustrates you or who you even see as a traitor as a gift, as something worthy to celebrate. Jesus is challenging you to be grateful for the restoration of the community.

There is another way you might hear the story: you might be the shepherd or the woman. You've lost something. What is it? Maybe you haven't noticed yet. It isn't easy to notice one missing out of a hundred. Or even to see one missing out of ten. Until you intentionally go and count. Which you might not want to do. Or maybe you have noticed and are afraid to go find it. Afraid to leave the ninety-nine to go find the one. Afraid to risk losing everything else in the search, willing to take the one-percent, or even ten-percent, hit. Or maybe you're simply too tired and overwhelmed by the prospect of sweeping the whole house to find it. What have you lost? What is missing from your life that you need to go search out? Who is missing from our community that we need to seek? Jesus is telling you, Jesus is telling us, that it is worth it. Find the courage, find the strength and search.              

So, which is it? Are you the sheep, the neighbors, or the shepherd? Are you the coin, the friends, or the woman? How does this parable speak to your life? Or perhaps, can you see yourself in all three?

I would reckon that there is a part of all of us that is lost, that has wandered from our core, our center, of Jesus. We may not want to acknowledge it. It may be easier for some to admit than others. But I suspect deep down, there is a part of all of us that is the coin or the sheep. That could resonate with those words: "I once was lost, but now am found."

You might think that our own lost-ness would lead us to an empathy and graciousness for others, but that isn't always the case. Even in a community as welcoming as St. Mary's, I bet there are some folks that make us all uncomfortable. Might be a different set for different folks, but I wouldn't be surprised if there isn't someone to which you at least raise an eyebrow and say "really God, even them?" And Jesus is challenging us to work through that and to learn to rejoice and celebrate.

And I bet there is something that we have lost, individually or collectively, someone or something, that we may not even notice that we need to go search out, to light our lamps and diligently sweep until we find. And Jesus is challenging us to do the count and to go search.

Two parables; three elements; one Lord calling us in love. To be found or to welcome or to seek. To be found and to welcome and to seek. Maybe it is in allowing Jesus to fully find us that we can open our hearts in loving welcome and head out into the world and seek all that is lost. Amen.