Several years ago I was locking up the building one Sunday after worship and before I had a chance to leave I saw the car of one of our members pull up in the circular drive out front. The woman got out of her car and came and knocked on the front door of the church. I unlocked the door and let her in. She explained that she had gotten home from worship and quickly realized that one of the bracelets she had worn to church that day was no longer on her arm. It was a very special bracelet that her husband had given to her when they were courting over seventy years before. I could see that the bracelet like that meant a lot to her and would warrant getting back in the car and immediately driving back to church to find it. She didn’t know where it was, she said, but since she hadn’t really gone many places that morning, she figured there were only a few places it might be.
Of course, I offered to help her look for it. Even though I didn’t know what it looked like, I figured a bracelet can’t be that difficult to locate. It’s not like an earring or a ring or something like that. We went in the sanctuary and she showed me where she had sat during worship and I got down on the floor and looked all around. She checked the racks where the hymnals are kept. We then did the same kind of searching in the pews in front of and behind where she had sat, and all along the wall in case it had fallen off and someone had unknowingly kicked it. She attended the 11:00 service that day, so we figured it couldn’t have gone far. Unfortunately, it didn’t turn up in the sanctuary, and she was a little bummed because that was the only place she had really gone inside the church. So we went outside and retraced her steps in the parking lot between the front door and where she had parked.
Nothing turned up. There was no telling where that thing could be. And then she remembered one other place she had gone: the bathroom. So we went and looked in the back bathroom there together. I got down on the floor while she picked up things on the counter and looked under them. No bracelet. We looked through the waste paper basket. No bracelet.
The funny thing is now I can’t remember where her husband was during all of this. In my memory she had left him back at home, but, come to think of it, she may have left him in the passenger seat of the car with the motor running while the two of us ransacked the church. In any case, she left that afternoon without her bracelet, but I promised that if it turned up we’d call her immediately.
About two hours later I was at home and the phone rang, and it was her. She was laughing as she tried to explain to me that she had found the bracelet. She had gone to use the restroom and found the bracelet, of all places, in her underwear. Apparently it had fallen off her arm in the bathroom at church but her undergarments had caught it. That whole time we’d been walking around together she had still been wearing her bracelet, she just didn’t know it!
Lost sheep, lost coin, lost bracelet. In one real-life episode, that woman managed to tie together all the important aspects of the first two parables Jesus told about God’s determination to find those who are lost. In coming all the way back to church, leaving her husband who-knows-where by himself, she was like the shepherd who leaves the 99 perfectly-safe-and-sound sheep to go rescue the one who had gotten separated. In carefully retracing her steps at church and turning over every hymnal and pew cushion and stack of paper towels she could find in order to uncover the precious item that belonged to her, she was like the woman in the parable who loses the coin. And, in telephoning me in great joy in order to tell me she found it—no matter how embarrassing that discovery may have been—she was like both the shepherd and the woman, go the extravagant extra mile by inviting friends over and throwing a party simply to celebrate the finding. She was like the shepherd and the woman. And therefore she was like God, becoming a sermon for this religious authority as I was locking up the church on the wideness of his mercy.
That’s the point of those two over-the-top characters in the parables Jesus tells the Pharisees. Jesus has found that he needs to make an important point about the basic character of God. The Pharisees and the scribes, religious authorities of Jesus’ time, are watching Jesus eat with people they think are deplorable. The tax collectors and sinners were the folks who, by their actions and by the company they kept, seemed to show open disregard for the laws of God. Everyone knew they were in sore need of repentance. The Pharisees were used to shunning these people, looking down on them, drawing a line to make sure they weren’t included in God’s circle. But Jesus takes the opportunity to explain in very relatable, ordinary terms, that God doesn’t look down on anyone. God simply looks for them. God looks for us. Both the shepherd and the woman—two run-of-the-mill, everyday characters—are symbolic of God the Father, who, as it turns out, is obsessed by what has gotten separated from him, fanatical about who has been lost, fixated on who has gone astray. That’s the basic character of God.
But here’s the thing: for as ordinary and run-of-the-mill as these two characters may be, they both do something very extraordinary and peculiar that surprises us all. It’s one thing to look for something that you’ve lost—that is, to sweep the house up one side and down the other, to leave the ninety-nine to traipse off into the wilderness—but to throw a party when you’ve found it? That’s a bit extravagant. In both parables, they are so overcome with joy that they invite their friends and neighbors to take part in it. In the Greek “friends and neighbors” essentially meant anyone around you, the people in your close peer group as well as those who share the village with you.
This is an over-the-top reaction to finding what you’ve lost, and Jesus wants the religious folk to hear that. When even one person realizes how lost he or she is…when even one person faces up to how unsafe they really are in this world when left to their own measly powers…when even on person comes to terms with how susceptible they are to chasing after that which is invaluable, God is filled with joy. That’s why God doesn’t look down on the lost and the least. God, in Jesus, looks for them. Over and over. Nonstop. Knocking on the church door and searching the bathroom with the pastor, if he has to.
This is the lesson about God’s character that Jesus wants the Pharisees to hear, as they look down on that crowd, and it’s a good one for us to reflect on again and again. I can’t presume to know what “being lost from God” looks like or feels like for anyone else. I imagine it feels different for everyone here. But I do know this: Repentance, however you like to define it—the changing of the mind or and turning around to realize the treasure of God’s presence—is something always open to us, and even more easy to undertake now that we know we have Jesus looking for us, now that we have a shepherd who wants to put us on his shoulders and carry us home when he’s found us.
I think most of us are aware that today marks the fifteenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on 9/11. I find a lot of conversations regarding that event still begin with questions like, “Where were you when you found out about the Towers?” and “What was that day like for you?” And yet I’m kind of shocked to realize that the 9th graders who will start confirmation with me this week have absolutely no memory of that day or its immediate aftermath. They were born after (or right before) it happened. It’s a historical event to them and to all the children younger than they are. There is a lot about the world now that seems to have just picked up and moved on. The feelings of camaraderie and compassion that flowed out of the response to 9/11 is basically gone. The spike in church attendance we experienced even here at Epiphany in the two years following the attacks as subsided. There have been additional terrorist attacks in other countries, there are wars still being fought today as a result of that event, and tens of thousands of people have died as the world starts to reshape itself in response to these acts of terror. With so many competing understandings out there regarding what God is like, let us be clear about our witness of God’s basic character. We need to proclaim more than ever that the shepherd is still looking for lost sheep, that this woman is still sweeping the floor for that coin because every single person is a child of God in need of a relationship with their Creator.
When I recall 9/11 I’m most moved by the stories of all those first responders who sacrificed their lives to go into the tower to search for people who were stuck in danger, people who were lost. Maybe that’s the best parable we can find today, For, as it turns out, Jesus doesn’t just look and look and sweep and sweep to find whatever belonds to God. He dies and suffers in order to have them, to bring them back, to save them from forever being separated from the God who loves them. He offers his own body on the cross to search out and rescue from the darkest corridors of life all those who belong in God’s care.
And he throws a party! Bread and wine are passed around, people share of themselves and rejoice in the love of the shepherd. Pharisees and scribes, sinners and tax collectors—we’re all going to be gathered in the feast of friends and neighbors.
And that leads me to the other way that woman here reminded me of God that day. God sweeps us up into his search-and-rescue efforts. We’re not just the sought-after. We’re also the seekers, his helpers, pressed into action, down on our hands and knees, searching high and low to invite, to welcome, to offer another blessed word of hope that God is still running into the dark to seek and to save. And that this good news is a reason to join the Rally, the party, the phone call to friends and neighbors. What was lost has been found.
Thanks be to God!