Jesus turns to the Pharisees and scribes and says, “Have you ever lost something?” I don’t think he’s talking about car keys, the overdue library book, scrap of paper with the phone number you needed. He’s asking, “Have you ever really lost something?” If you’ve turned around for a moment in the grocery store and your toddler is gone, even for five seconds, you are getting there. Maybe you’ve lost a relationship – its fallen apart right in front of you. Sometimes we say this when people have died, not because we don’t know where they are, but to name the absence, the pain we feel when someone we are used to counting on is not physically present, there is no longer a hand to hold, a shoulder on which we can lean.
Remember, in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, the walls of photos of the missing – posters with photos and messages, phone numbers and descriptions, plastered all over shop windows and subway stations? Here’s a picture of my father, he’s a firefighter. Here’s my daughter, she worked at the top of the first tower. Please call us if you know where she is. All of these flyers have been preserved, in plastic sheaves, alphabetized, and are kept in binders at St. Vincent Hospital. “The binders are in storage, emerging rarely save for one day a year. ‘We have a memorial Mass every Sept. 11 in the chapel, and we bring the books there,’ Sister Kevin said. ‘We let people look through them, and then we take them back’ – out of sight but never out of mind.”1 Have you ever really lost something? Jesus asks.
THAT is where today’s text begins. We’ve been working through tough texts from Luke in recent weeks, chapter 14 beginning with four episodes at a dinner party hosted by a leader of the Pharisees. Jesus spoils the gathering by reminding them, in a setting dripping with privilege that “those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Jesus has terrible manners, telling the hosts that they shouldn’t have invited the fancy people, but the poor and the crippled, the blind and the lame.
He leaves, but the crowds have been waiting. Jesus tells them that they have to give up attachments to their family, that they have to commit, that, and here’s the last verse, Jesus says, “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”
As chapter 15 begins, the scene shifts back. We’ve gone from the fancy dinner party to the crowds outside, and all the tax collectors and sinners, were coming near to listen. ALL the wrong people, Luke says. The Pharisees and scribes, the appropriate religious leaders, agreed. This fellow welcomes sinners and – because of the recent chapter we know how important table fellowship is – this fellow welcomes sinners and EATS with them, they spit. The folks with whom he had dined now don’t like the company he is keeping.
Then Jesus does something magnificent. “Diverting attention away from the social status of his new found friends, Jesus personalizes what he has to say next. ‘Which one of you,’ he wonders out loud, pointing an inquiring finger… he knows that more times than not, the story has to be about us before we begin to understand it.”2 Which one of you, having 100 sheep and losing one, doesn’t leave the other 99 in the wilderness? When he has found it, Jesus says, the owner lays it on his shoulders. That one sheep is worth all the trouble. He brings it home, crossing the stream, up the rocks. Then he calls everyone together. Rejoice with me! There is this kind of joy in the kingdom of heaven, over even one of us, Jesus says, who turns to follow. It is the same way with the coin. Which one of you, having lost ten silver coins – the word here is drachma, the average daily wage for a laborer, so we are talking ten days of work, likely months of saving.3 Which one of you doesn’t move the couch, lie down on the floor, scour the house on hands and knees, dislodging dust and forgotten toys or whatever is stuck in those places in your house, searching so carefully until she finds it. In both cases the story doesn’t end. Their rejoicing is shared with friends and neighbors.
These two passages are connected with a third, longer story that follows, of a son who asks for his father’s inheritance, and who wastes it, then comes crawling back, the prodigal returning, and is welcomed home with open arms. All three tell us something together about the reckless, irresponsible, boundless love of God. Our world operates on a schedule. Calendars control things, and are – or feel – essential to keeping things together. When the schedule is thrown into turmoil, most of us don’t do well. My family and our super staff will attest to the fact that I don’t do well. We need a well-oiled machine, everything locked into place, so many are so busy it can’t get done otherwise. Even then it doesn’t all get done. But God’s love, Luke says, doesn’t operate with an eye toward efficiency. In fact, it’s almost the opposite of that. It feels completely irresponsible. No cost-benefit analysis was done with the sheep. Doesn’t it endanger the other 99 to leave them alone? Why look that hard for the 10 coins, get to work and earn some more, if they’re gone, they’re gone? But Jesus says, it is this one sheep. It is these ten coins. They are worth it on their own. They matter.
Some of you might have seen this remarkable story week before last. As the school year was beginning, so was college football, and in the run-up to things a number of college athletes were visiting schools as gestures of goodwill. Hi, it’s nice to see you, do a good job in school, giving pleasant pep-talks. Florida State wide receiver Travis Rudolph visited Montford Middle School in Tallahassee Tuesday before last when he noticed a student sitting by himself. That student was Bo Paske, a sixth grader with autism. Travis sat down, got a piece of pizza, and sat with him the entire lunch period. A parent sent Bo’s mom a photo, and she wrote about it later:
…Now that I have a child starting middle school, I have feelings of anxiety for him, and they can be overwhelming if I let them. Sometimes I’m grateful for his autism. That may sound like a terrible thing to say, but in some ways I think, I hope, it shields him. He doesn’t seem to notice when people stare at him when he flaps his hands. He doesn’t seem to notice that he doesn’t get invited to birthday parties anymore. And he doesn’t seem to mind if he eats lunch alone. It’s one of my daily questions for him. Was there a time today you felt sad? Who did you eat lunch with today? Sometimes the answer is a classmate, but most days it’s nobody. Those are the days I feel sad for him, but he doesn’t seem to mind. …A friend of mine sent this beautiful picture to me today and when I saw it with the caption “Travis Rudolph is eating lunch with your son” I replied “who is that?” He said “FSU football player”, then I had tears streaming down my face. Travis Rudolph, a wide receiver at Florida State, and several other FSU players visited my son’s school today. I’m not sure what exactly made this incredibly kind man share a lunch table with my son, but I’m happy to say that it will not soon be forgotten. This is one day I didn’t have to worry if my sweet boy ate lunch alone, because he sat across from someone who is a hero in many eyes. Travis Rudolph thank you so much, you made this momma exceedingly happy, and have made us fans for life!4
God’s love is big and broad, for everyone, but it is also persistent, especially, I think, reaching toward the left out and left behind, the ignored, the tax collectors and sinners about whom the religious leaders scoffed. The youth with autism. The older man living alone who doesn’t get out much anymore. And we are awfully busy so much of the time. But what if God’s love has practically nothing to do with what is convenient for us? What if we could be a people, all of us, who could live that kind of reckless and inefficient love, pursuing the sheep, pursuing the coins, FOR the world, looking out for others, taking time, regardless of what we might have going on, of who we might want to see, or in whose company we might want to be seen? Who might you seek out? And then, after some school cafeteria pizza and a carton of milk, or maybe at table with bread and wine, we might rejoice.
All praise be to God. Amen.
1. Missing Wall; A Place to Remember the 9/11 Victims I am grateful to Rev. Jill Duffield of the Presbyterian Outlook in her “Looking into the Lectionary: The 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time,” for this connection.
2. From the Rev. Heather Shortlidge’s great paper on the from The Well, Davidson, 2010.
3. Fred Craddock, Interpretation: Luke, (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), p 185.
4. FSU WR joins middle schooler with autism who had been sitting by himself at lunch, For the Win, USA Today.