Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
We’ve been making our way through Luke’s gospel over the last couple months, watching for the good news of the kingdom Jesus proclaims, and noticing those for whom it’s especially welcome news.
Beginning with Mary’s song back in chapter 1, even before Jesus was born, we heard good news for the lowly who’d be lifted up as the proud were brought down, and for the hungry who’d be filled with good things. In Jesus’ inaugural address in the Nazareth synagogue, we heard him proclaim good news for the poor, for the captives, for the blind, and for the oppressed. Certainly, he brought good news for those battling illness and injury, too, as he moved from place to place offering the gift of physical healing. Jesus was also generous with his gift of forgiveness and thank God for that, since both from John the Baptist and in last week’s story of Jesus and the tax collectors, we’ve seen that getting to the good news can require us first to acknowledge the bad news about our sin and our need for repentance.
Today’s gospel texts offer good news for those who are lost.
Let’s return first to Luke 15. There are actually three “lost and found” stories in this same chapter. We heard two of them today – the parable of the lost sheep and the parable of the lost coin. (The third is the far longer story of someone we’ve come to know as the prodigal son, though it’s actually the story of a man with two sons, the prodigal and his brother.)
In last week’s text Jesus reminded his listeners that those who believe themselves well might not think to look for a physician, while those who are sick know they need one. And we noted that Jesus came to heal both sick bodies and sin-sick souls. In a similar way these stories in Luke 15 remind us all isn’t lost even for the lost. For the lost can be found.
After all, the shepherd could have decided 99 sheep in the sheepfold was plenty and called it a day. Instead, he goes out into the wilderness after that one, and finds it and lays it on his shoulders and rejoices, sharing his successful find with all his friends and neighbors. The woman could have decided 9 out of 10 silver coins was good enough and not worried about that one lost coin. Instead, she scours her entire house and when she finds it, she too calls together her friends and neighbors to rejoice with her that it is found. In both cases the value of the one (the single sheep or the single coin) was too great to simply let it go. And the moral of each story is the same. Jesus says there is joy in heaven over even one sinner who repents. Without them, something is missing; they’re needed for God’s kingdom to be complete.
It's interesting sometimes to consider our perspective when we hear Jesus’ parables. For instance, did you hear the first parable as if you were the one lost sheep, or one of the 99? With the parable of the lost coin, were you one of the nine coins safely tucked away in a change purse somewhere? Or the one coin buried in the dust under a corner of the rug, worried the homeowner wouldn’t see you and then relieved to be found? The beauty of parables is they allow us all sorts of interpretive possibilities. But whether you consider yourself the one out looking or the one needing to be found, whether you identify more with those never lost in the first place or those called to rejoice, again the point is this - without the lost ones, something is missing; they’re needed for God’s kingdom to be complete. And once they’re found, it’s party time in heaven. “There is joy in the presence of the angels of God,” Jesus says, “over one sinner who repents.” (Luke 15:10) To the one who’s been lost, I imagine the party could sound a little like this: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me…”
Speaking of lost and found, it’s hard to imagine anyone more lost, or in greater need of being found, being seen, than this unfortunate man possessed by demons in the country of the Gerasenes, back in Luke 8. And again, I find it helpful – not only with parables, but with biblical narratives too – to try imagining myself in the story. Granted, I’ve known far too much privilege to identify closely with the demon-possessed man himself. Privilege in my health, privilege in where I’ve been able to live and in the welcoming communities with whom I’ve been able to spend my time. But if I’m honest I can identify a bit with the onlookers. I’m not proud of it, but I can imagine being a little relieved that this poor man had been kept largely out of sight, out of mind. I can even imagine being a little frightened to see him suddenly freed from his chains.
Yet here again we find that the lost has been found. Or perhaps more accurately, one who’d lost everything has had his life restored to him. Remember how we were introduced to this unfortunate man? Shackled, naked, banished to live among the tombs, convulsed with demons or unclean spirits or whatever disorder it was that afflicted him. It’s difficult to imagine a worse existence. But he ends up “clothed and in his right mind,” “sitting at the feet of Jesus.” (Luke 8: 35) He’s restored to health, restored to human dignity, restored to community. Because Jesus is determined to teach us: those who are lost are valuable; they matter; and they can be found. Without this beloved child of God, something was missing; he was needed for God’s kingdom to be complete.
The healed man – quite understandably – begs that he be allowed to stay with Jesus after his dramatic transformation. But Jesus says, “return to your home and declare how much God has done for you.” Keep in mind, that’s a tall order. It can’t have been easy to have endured so much already and now to return to a place where his people had cast him out, and to a whole neighborhood that now feared him, but this is what he bravely does, “proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.” As powerfully as any of the parable characters in Luke 15, he once was lost but now was found. And he’s courageous enough to tell that story to anyone who’ll listen. I imagine his story sounded a little like this: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me…”
Naturally, we won’t all have experiences as dramatic as this man who’d been forced to live among the tombs. Though our hearts go out to him, maybe there are too many barriers between his story and your own to identify with him. But I bet you know someone lost who’s needed to be found.
If not afflicted by demon possession, maybe they’ve been controlled by alcohol, or painkillers, or another form of addiction? Or maybe they’re afflicted with a serious mental illness? If not banished literally to live outside the city, perhaps you know someone who’s otherwise been denied love, or respect, or community? Or someone from whom compassion has been withheld, or someone treated with outright cruelty, whether physically or emotionally? What about someone who just makes people a little uneasy; someone most people would rather keep out of sight and out of mind? There are so many ways God’s beloved children can become lost. But without them, something is missing; they’re needed for God’s kingdom to be complete.
And God’s rescue stories aren’t limited to the pages of Scripture, as we know. Jesus remains busily at work finding the lost, healing the broken, restoring those who’ve been shunned and excluded. If you look carefully, you’ll see them. If you listen closely, you’ll hear some of them declaring what God has done for them. It might even sound a little like this: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me…”
To be fair, God’s kingdom has room for the 99 sheep too, and for the coins that never thought they were lost in the first place. (At least - the way I read the Scriptures – there’s room for them as long as they are humble little sheep and coins who know they’re not worth more than the ones who’ve gotten lost!) But on nearly every page of the gospels we find Jesus absolutely determined to bring in those who are not already in the sheepfold or the change purse (pick your favorite parable). And God’s angels are standing by to celebrate each and every one as they are gathered into the wide embrace of God’s love.
If we suspect we’re safely tucked away in the sheepfold already, why do we think that? What makes us so sure? And if we are safely tucked in, who do you suppose Jesus is most intent on bringing back to the fold to join us? If, like that Gerasene community, we are a little thrown by those he’s most determined to embrace, it’s time to expand our understanding of God’s kingdom. Uncomfortable as it may make us, it’s time to take a seat with the-once-lost-now-found at the feet of Jesus. It’s time to listen to stories of what God has done for those we’d never have thought to invite home for dinner. We who have not known their degree of lostness or exclusion, their depth of pain… we have so much to learn. And I imagine some of their stories sound a little like this: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me…”
Meanwhile, if ever you feel frightened or lost, remember that the Lord your shepherd will be out there looking for you too. God’s also got her broom and dust cloth out, and if you lose your way God will turn her entire house upside down to find you. Even when you feel most alone, when it seems no one else understands your particular pain, remember that Jesus is well practiced at soothing tortured spirits and unfastening heavy chains. Without you, something is missing; you’re needed for God’s kingdom to be complete.
So if ever you do feel lost, I pray you’ll discover yourself found. If it happens, when it happens, declare what God has done for you. It may sound a little like this: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me…”
Let’s sing those words together now.