Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Lost and Found Box

Our scripture reading today is from Luke 15:1-10.
I want to set the scene a little bit, so when you hear it you can really listen.
Jesus has been walking around and talking to people, teaching them, and healing them. But he isn’t hanging around with the rich people, or the important people, or the leaders, or the most religious goody-goody people.

In fact, Jesus is hanging around with a bad crowd! These are not nice people. They do bad things. They steal. They cheat. They don’t follow God’s word.

The rich people and the nice people and the religious people are upset about this. They don’t think Jesus should be hanging around with those awful people. They think that if Jesus were a really nice person, he would be spending his time with other nice people – namely, them.

You would think, wouldn't you, that the really good people would be glad that Jesus was helping the really bad people to change their ways. But instead, they are grumbling and muttering about him. Jesus doesn't argue with them.

He doesn't point out how wrong they are. He tells them a couple of stories. One is about a lost sheep, and the other is about a lost coin. Both of them get found. You know how Jesus tells stories, how he wants people to really pay attention, and learn something from his stories. He always says, “Those who have ears, let them hear.” Let’s listen with our hearts to Jesus’ story about losing and finding.

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.
And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying,
“This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
So he told them this parable:
“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’
 Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’
Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

Jesus told those stories about being lost and found, and when I turned in my worship material earlier this week, I was picturing a lost and found box – a box with a car key, one purple mitten, a really nice pen, a Cubs baseball cap, one earring, and Lego. I was going to talk about how the items in that box don’t know they are lost. But that’s not the sermon I ended up with. So the title in the bulletin is “The Lost and Found Box.”

But we’re going to have a little contest today – “Name That Sermon.” You can come up with the perfect title after you hear it. The winner gets a free cup of coffee and scone – on me! and of course with me! -- at Air Play. Judges’ decisions may not be fair, but they will be final!

I really like these lost and found stories.
Especially because I find that as I get older, I lose more stuff. I just hate losing things – except for weight! I hate losing my stuff. When I lose something, I get a little crazy. I’ve spent hours hunting for things, just on principle. Not like car keys, that I need in order to leave the house, but the jar of cinnamon that I just KNEW I had bought, or an earring that I wasn’t even planning to wear.

Losing a pet, like a dog, is even worse.
We had a dog once who just loved everybody, so if he got out and wandered away, he’d go with any human who wasn’t scaring him. He once spent two weeks living with a little boy named Johnny, while I was hunting desperately for him, putting up posters, running ads, walking the neighborhood and calling for him. When we finally found him, he was really happy to see us, but I’m not sure he ever knew that he was lost. In fact, that dog was nowhere near as happy to see me as I was to see him. I didn’t throw a party, but I felt like it.

Of course, nobody throws a party over finding a missing dog or locating some lost money. That would be ridiculous. I mean, what would be the point in spending money on party hats and cake to celebrate that you found money you had lost? And what farmer, having located lost livestock, calls the neighbors in for a celebration?

It would be much easier for all of us if Jesus wouldn’t tell stories like this.
These stories don’t make any sense – for two reasons.

First of all, if you want to start a movement that is going to last, you need to establish some vital partnerships with leaders in the community – have a meeting, invite the stakeholders, cast a vision, and mobilize support. Maybe even draw up a strategic plan. Everybody knows that going down to the pub and having a beer with a conman, or having dinner with a prostitute, is not going to get your program going.

Besides which, if you want someone to change their ways, you need to make an obvious point to them. Refuse their invitations. Be polite but curt. Withhold your gifts or assistance unless they shape up. If you attend their social gatherings or go to their homes or join their clubs, you are giving the message that you approve of them. If you want to make someone change, you need to point out to them that they are wrong, then consistently, relentlessly put the pressure on them to change, right? So the Pharisees have a legitimate complaint.

Second, these are ridiculous stories.
Who wouldn’t leave their 99 sheep and go looking for one that is lost?
Everybody wouldn’t!
The percentages tell the story.

You have 100 sheep. Let’s say each one of those sheep is worth ten dollars.
(I don’t know what sheep are worth to shepherds. They are not my sheep so I’m just placing a random value on a sheep.) And let’s remember, if you have 99 sheep, it is pretty darn easy to get more sheep, because, well, where do little sheep come from? Big sheep, right?! So you have 100 sheep, each worth ten dollars. Your flock is valued at one thousand dollars. One sheep goes missing. Do you risk an investment of $990 in order to regain $10?
Of course not!

And then, let’s say you are crazy enough to go out into the night and hunt up this one lost sheep that is worth ten measly bucks. Do you throw a party, invite the neighbors over? Even if you just give them a cup of coffee and some leftover cornbread, you are out ten bucks right there. No percentage in that at all.

Or let’s say that you have lost a check – maybe a check for a couple of hundred dollars. You’ve looked in all the obvious places – coat pockets, purse, wallet, top of the dresser, the kitchen counter mixed in with yesterday’s mail, Finally, you realize that you left it in the pocket of your navy blue jacket.
Which you left on the back of the chair.
At lunch.
In a restaurant.

So you go tearing down to the restaurant,  skid into the parking lot minutes before they close, and sure enough, they found your jacket, and the check is still in the pocket. Score! What a relief! Time to shout out “I found my check! Lunch is on me!” to everybody in the restaurant, right? Of course not! There’s no percentage there – it’s two hundred dollars! Nothing to sneeze at, finding that lost check, but there is no gain in finding it all if you spend it all. No percentage – no party - not a chance!

Jesus has just talked about that, about counting costs, in the chapter right before this story.
He talks about how silly it is to start building a foundation and then not be able to finish, and about a king going to battle without considering that his army is fifty percent of the army of the opposing king. Percentages is what this is all about. You compute the potential gain against the potential loss, and weigh whether the risk to reward ratio makes it worthwhile.

We are a people who understand percentages. We have entire international organizations devised for the entire purpose of computing percentages of success. They have inspiring names: ISO – the International Organization for Standardization. The ISO has standards for quality, the environment, energy, social responsibility, food safety. They help you measure performance.

We “get” percentages, and apparently God does not. Ninety percent is strong. It gets you an A. Ninety nine percent is excellent. Gets you on the Dean’s list, the honor roll.

Maybe you’ve seen the list that goes around sometimes about 99% - how you might be happy with 99% or even 90% from yourself, but you wouldn’t  be satisfied with 99% from others. Here are a few of those 99% statistics – if 99% were acceptable, we would see
114,500 mismatched pairs of shoes per year
18,322 pieces of mail mishandled/hour.
2,000,000 documents lost by the IRS every year.
Two unsafe planes landing at Chicago's O'Hare -- every day.
20,000 incorrect drug prescriptions annually.
12 newborns given to the wrong parents daily.

Ninety percent may be acceptable for a spelling test, but even 99% isn’t very good when it comes to your pilot, or your surgeon.
Ninety-nine percent isn’t acceptable to God, either.

Who wouldn’t leave their 99 sheep and go looking for one that is lost?
Everybody wouldn’t!
Except God.

Who wouldn’t turn their house upside-down to look for a lost coin?
Everybody wouldn’t!
Except God.

Who wouldn’t throw a party when they find what they’ve lost?
Everybody wouldn’t!
Except God.

God won’t leave one single person out in the cold dark night, whether they are on the street corner hustling for a buck or working late at the office putting together the next big deal.

God goes out and hunts for that lost one, and carries them home, rejoicing. God won’t leave even one little coin in the dark dirty corner or down in the couch cushions or in the pocket of the pants that got thrown away. God lights a lamp and sweeps and gets out the attachments to the Hoover and turns out all the pockets of all the britches.

What kind of God would load us all up on a bus and take us on a field trip to the museum, and then, after lunch, when the headcount is short, say:
“Oh well, she made her choice not to get on the bus…she’ll be left behind.”
Not our God.

And even if we are all sitting on the bus, grumbling in the heat, waiting for that lost one to be found, and peeved that she didn’t follow the rules, when she knew what she needed to do, God goes looking for her, goes looking and looks until she is found, never gives up, not even on one little lost lamb.

God isn’t satisfied with 90 percent, or even 99%.
So God sent the Good Shepherd out to look for those lost sheep, out into the dives and the dumps, the slums and the swamps, out to look for them and bring them home.

God’s not satisfied with 99%.
So Jesus comes to us, comes to us in many forms, in the shape of a story, in the voice of love,
in the care of a friend, in the recognition that we are lost, or even in the absence of our awareness of him.

God sent the Good Shepherd out to look for us, the lost, out into the banks and the boardrooms, the venture capital firms and vacation homes. He comes looking for us in the classrooms, and condos, retreat centers and retirement homes.

And when we come home, proud as Pharisees or broken as the lowest junkie, there’s a party. It’s a celebration that welcomes and rejoices and sings and dances, for that which is lost is found. The son which was dead is alive.

God’s not satisfied with 99%.
And that means, if you’ve been in the lost and found, 
and claimed by the one who never gives up, now you are
part of the search party,
part of the homecoming party,
part of the welcoming party.

God’s not satisfied with 99%.
We were lost – all of us, and God is going to keep searching and seeking and saving and welcoming until we all are found – and when we are found, we belong to God – work and vacation time, skills and talents, checkbook and pocket-change, heart and soul and mind and strength, saint and sinner, we belong to God, one hundred percent.


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