Lost, then found, now celebrate! (Luke 15:1-10)
My Mother had three sisters and two brothers and they were brought up by my grandmother on her own in Edinburgh during the Second World War and in fact the eldest brother served in the forces during the war. Everyone had their own jobs to do to keep the family going during this period of rationing and of bombing and they would sleep in the Andersen Shelter in their back garden during bombing raids. The consequence of this upbringing was that they became extremely close and supportive of one another and especially supportive of their mother, my grandmother.
When my grandmother died it was a huge loss for the whole family and each daughter including my mother inherited a ring from my grandmother. Each ring was gold and in the shape of a wishbone. They were very distinctive and each sister wore their ring continuously. Well you can probably imagine the anguish and heartache when my Mother came to visit Kath and myself and then found as we emerged from seeing a play at the local theatre that she had lost her wishbone ring. We couldn’t of course leave it like this and we all split up and retraced our steps; it was like a quest to find the ring! Eventually Kath came back triumphantly with the ring in her hand having rescued it from behind the cushion of the settee in the waiting area of the restaurant we had eaten our pre-Theatre meal in. My Mother’s reaction was one of extreme joy and happiness at getting this ring back and Kath received lots of hugs, adoration and thanks. My Mother then proceeded to tell us of the other times she had lost the ring and then she told us the ‘lost ring’ stories from her sisters who had all incredibly found their ring again. These stories became something of a family drama that we all shared in.
Most of us, I suspect, will have experienced the loss of some article that is precious to us and remember how that feels; but most of us thankfully can only imagine how this sense of loss is magnified when it concerns a child who has disappeared and the sense of extreme joy and relief that would occur when that child is returned. Jesus talks about this loss and joy in the two parables we have heard from Luke’s gospel. He talks about the sadness of loss and the expression of joy when something is found, when something is redeemed, but he goes much farther as this joy is expressed in a welcome and a celebration.
These stories from Luke’s gospel come after the message of discipleship, the message about putting God through Christ as our priority, at the centre of our lives even over our family so that God can work through us to bring his kingdom crashing into this world. The stories in our passage are ones that Jesus tells to those who call themselves righteous and are rooted in a rural farming community where there is also poverty. Jesus is being accused by those righteous people of associating with those who are outside of the righteous circles, those people who are outside of the Synagogue or outside of the Church. These people who Jesus associates with are two groups; the tax collectors who at this time often defrauded people, which of course is not the case today, although if you have just received a letter from the Inland Revenue you might be thinking differently, but tax collectors are honest people today. The other group were classed as sinners, those people who were not part of the inner circle, and those people who didn’t religiously follow the Law of Moses, those people who didn’t know about God or ignored God or those people who behaved badly. Paul in his letter to Timothy (1Timothy 1:12-17) writes about his own experience, he consider himself a righteous man but carried out much persecution of those who followed Jesus Christ only to be confronted by Christ and brought lovingly back into the flock where he is redeemed and repents of his actions and is then commissioned to spread the good news of who Christ is.
We are of course all sinners looking to be better people.
The people who called themselves righteous wouldn’t associate with sinners, they were exclusive in their behaviour; whereas Jesus, God on earth, behaved inclusively and associated with everyone even to the extent that he describes his behaviour as one like a shepherd where everyone is part of the same flock, everyone belongs to God, but some have become lost, some have gone another way, some have become separated.
I have no idea about farming or sheep or being a shepherd. But what I have seen in the farming communities where I was a Curate, is the care and the long hours that go into the sheep business. Modern Shepherds drive around their flock on one of these great quad bikes, they own sheep dogs of high quality and training, they will put great efforts into the selection of ewes for breeding, they will spend much time inoculating their sheep to prevent illnesses, they will make sure they have high quality pastures to graze and high quality feed to be healthy, they will work many hours during lambing and care for those lambs whose Mum has more than one to feed, they will be vigilant to rescue lambs in difficulty and they will put great effort into bringing motherless lambs to mothers who have lost lambs. All of this illustrates the care for the whole flock, not just individuals and in the time of Jesus it was known that the flocks were much smaller and the shepherd would lead the sheep and know them by name. The loss of a lamb or sheep consequently hurt deeply.
Jesus uses this illustration to describe how God thinks about all of us. How God thinks about us as the whole flock and feels the loss when one is distant, or in pain, or travelling another path, or in difficulty or need, or doesn’t know who God is.
What I find revealing in this passage is that God does not take the stance of judging those who are separated from the flock, from the Church, from Christian circles; he does not take the stance of sitting back and bringing bad things onto those who oppose him and celebrate when they fall on bad times; God actively seeks those who are separated, he goes out to them, he looks for them and he is there to carry them and to hold them when they recognise his presence and his goodness and want to be part of it. Jesus by his behaviour illustrates God’s care for those in need by actively seeking those who have been separated whether it is through their own behaviour, or because they don’t feel part of the Church, or have never have been part of the Church. This of course can happen to any of us, we can feel lost, separated from God and his Church.
But God seeks us out, his Holy Spirit wants to work in our lives and bring us back to him. Jesus says that when this happens ‘there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God’ even if it is just one person who turns towards him. Can you imagine what that worship would sound like, how exquisite it is; can you imagine how powerful that love is, can you imagine how thankful and welcoming the whole of heaven is when only one person turns towards God? Can you imagine the rejoicing when you first turned towards God?
The reaction of my mother on the return of her ring or the reaction of a parent on the recovery of a lost child is tiny compared to the worship in heaven when someone wants to know God through Christ. The whole of heaven celebrates and we are called to celebrate with them and to also exhibit the same attitude and behaviour.
Jesus illustrates how valuable we are to God through the story of the woman who lost a valuable coin and searched her unlit house for it until it was found. When you first came into Church you were each invited to take a coin from a group of coins. We are not paying you to come to Church by the way. This coin is from me to illustrate how unique and valuable you are in God’s eyes, it is something to hold onto to remind you of how much God loves you and welcomes you into his family.
But Jesus is also illustrating in these stories how we. who are part of the Church should behave. He is bringing us the challenge of thinking about how outward looking we are, of how welcoming we are to those who are unfamiliar to us and turn to the Church and turn to Christ or want to come back. What do you think when someone unfamiliar walks into Church, is it the Clergy’s job to talk to them or do we make the effort to welcome people and to introduce them to our friends, do we show them how valuable they are?
As you hold your coin remember how valuable you are to God, but also remember that he is asking you to show others how valuable they are to God and to rejoice with the Angels in heaven when they turn to him. Invite people to Back to Church Sunday next week or make an effort to welcome those you have not seen in a while or those you don’t know and above all let’s celebrate together this wonderful love.