By now, most of you know that Banu and I lived with my mom during almost all of 2015 and a little bit at the beginning of this year. It was a learning experience for each of us.
The Nashville area was flooded in 2010. That included my mom’s basement, which took an extremely long time to dry. Her house contains many possessions, with a huge percentage of them in the basement. So if you combine abundant moisture, very little light, and plenty of items, including carpets on the floor, what do you get?
My sister and her sons had already done some hauling out of moldy stuff and cleaning of walls. But rest assured, there was still plenty for us to do. Open space began appearing in the basement. There was room to breathe. The energies of feng shui became more harmonious. However, the garage had hardly been touched.
Items disappeared, some under mysterious circumstances.
We were justly accused of clearing out some stuff which, truth be told, contained little mold. But we did need some walkways!
Here’s to my main point. There was a box of tapes and CDs, containing some of my mother’s beloved music, including the bluegrass and gospel musician, Doyle Lawson. Amazingly, it had vanished. The finger of blame was first turned toward my sister, who had no idea where it was. After she successfully argued her case and being cleared of any wrongdoing, the eye was turned toward Banu and myself.
Intent on proving our innocence, Banu led my mother on a search of her bedroom, which also had a pretty good number of…artifacts. Lo and behold, the long-sought box was discovered. Not unlike the woman in our gospel text who was overjoyed to find her lost coin, so was my mom after discovering her own treasure.
So, speaking of things lost and found, of Luke 15 it’s been said, “If the Gospel of Luke comprised only this one chapter, it would still be precious beyond all estimate.” Very high praise! Precious beyond all estimate, like something lost and found.
Here’s the scenario. We see a motley crew gathering around to listen to Jesus. This crew is featured by tax collectors and sinners, folks who are relegated to the category of undesirables.
This crowd hasn’t escaped the attention of some Pharisees and scribes. They are simply indignant at the attention Jesus gives them. They are grumbling. One translation says that they are “murmuring their disapproval: ‘This fellow,’ they said, ‘welcomes sinners and eats with them’” (v. 2, Revised English Bible). If he wants to have any influence among the people that matter, this crap has to come to a screeching halt!
So, who are these tax collectors? The disgust toward them goes well beyond the occasional (and perhaps frequent) irritation we might have about the IRS. No, this is on a whole different scale.
These tax collectors are instrumental in funding the hated Roman government. They could rightfully be called traitors. It would be bad enough if it were simply a matter of helping keep the imperial machine going. The Romans tell them how much they need to raise—so just get it done! As you might guess, this tends to lead to corruption and extortion, to plundering the poor.
The Pharisees also despise them for the same reasons. The New Testament usually gives the Pharisees a bad rap, but they really do want justice for the people. They are no friends of the empire. But they also have other reasons for looking down on the tax collectors. These guys also violate religious obligations and spiritual sensibilities.
Now, how about these “sinners”? As for them, Walter Bowie says they are “the general run of people: not notorious evildoers, but the careless and unconcerned about religious proprieties,” earning the disdain of “the sanctimonious.” The sinners aren’t necessarily bad people. That label doesn’t mean they engage in, for example, slander or thievery. Sometimes the rules are stacked against them.
But there’s something praiseworthy about these folks. Unlike the elites, when the sinners are drawn to Jesus, they do so out of a felt need to seek more. They’re done with pretending. When they come to Jesus, they mean it. When they ask him questions, they really want answers; they’re not doing it to be argumentative or to play games.
Jesus addresses that earnest desire by telling two parables. And like the story about my mother, he uses examples from everyday life—things that people can relate to.
The first one is about a lost sheep. He asks, “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?” (v. 4). At first glance, that might seem to be wrong way up. Why risk the ninety-nine to search for the one?
Regardless of practicality, it does speak to the value of each individual. Every single sheep is treasured. Every single one of us is treasured. Jesus says, “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” (v. 7). And yes, Pharisees, I’m looking at you.
The second parable is about the woman who loses a coin. She’s desperate, and she turns her house upside-down until she finds it. She’s searching; she’s tearing stuff apart. And when she does find it, she calls everybody together and says, “Let’s have a party! I found my coin!” (And wouldn’t you know it? She finds it in the last place she looked.)
Doesn’t it seem like a lot of trouble to find a single coin?
Again, this is where Jesus knows his audience. That silver coin is half of the temple tax that was paid every year. And for that woman, that coin would be a big chunk of whatever savings she might have had. “To the poor, therefore, the loss of one coin could be a major calamity.” Jesus knows all about being poor.
And again, he brings his point home. “Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (v. 10). There is joy when someone comes to Jesus.
There’s a quote which I’ve heard attributed to St. Dominic, St. Francis, and St. Thomas Aquinas. (Who knows, there may be others.) As the story goes, one of them is visiting the Pope. The Pope gestures at the treasures in the Vatican, and says, “We no longer have to say, ‘Silver and gold have I none’” (3:6). He’s quoting St. Peter from the book of Acts. The response to him is, “No, and neither can we say, ‘Rise up and walk.’”
If we depend on our possessions, if we become complacent, we lose our joy; we neglect our power in the Holy Spirit. Our worship and prayer become lackluster. Possessions don’t always have to be physical things. They can be a feeling of safety, of comfort. Do we become satisfied with our relatively stable well-being? Are we unaware or indifferent to what has slipped away? I have a sneaking fear that, too often, that might characterize me.
“[J]oy breaks out in the presence of God’s angels over one sinner who changes both heart and life” (v. 10, Common English Bible). Do we rejoice when a sinner, one just like us, comes to faith or has a recommitment of faith? Does it move our hearts; does it stir our spirits? Have we ourselves ever had such an experience? Have we lost something precious? Do we need to tear apart the house of our lives in order to find it?
“I once was lost, but now am found, / Was blind, but now I see.”
Today is a day of “recovenanting.” I’m not sure about the origin of that, but “covenant” is a word filled with meaning. It’s not simply a contract; it also has the sense of something solemn, something sacred. It’s about two parties entering into an agreement in which they make pledges to each other. It isn’t businesslike. It has the elements of artistry and beauty.
We might, and indeed do, fail to keep our side of the covenant. But the covenant remains intact. God is faithful; God keeps faith. God does not break promises. For that reason, our faithlessness does not nullify the covenant.
It might make sense to “recovenant” with each other, but with God, there’s no need to re-invent the wheel. The covenant with God is one and everlasting, beginning with Adam, and extending through Noah, through Abraham, through David, to Jesus Christ.
In our baptism liturgy found in the Book of Common Worship, the language of covenant is front and center:
“Through baptism we enter the covenant God has established. Within this covenant God gives us new life, guards us from evil, and nurtures us in love. In embracing that covenant, we choose whom we will serve, by turning from evil and turning to Jesus Christ.
“As God embraces you within the covenant, I ask you to reject sin, to profess your faith in Christ Jesus, and to confess the faith of the church, the faith in which we baptize.”
It’s a covenant in which we celebrate being lost and being found. That’s the upside-down, inside-out, backwards-forwards way of Christ in which the first will be last and the last will be first.
This past week, the fiftieth anniversary of Star Trek was observed. The first episode was aired on September 8, 1966. This enterprise has been fifty years of pushing the envelope in issues of ethnicity, gender, nationality, and ethics, among others. (Though I think the recent J.J. Abrams movies have fallen a bit short in that regard!) One of the best-loved characters has always been Spock, the Vulcan who quotes words of wisdom based on his philosophy of logic. One of the Vulcan principles is that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.”
This business of risking the ninety-nine in order to find the one, according to that way of thinking, clearly doesn’t make sense. It’s just foolish and irresponsible.
And this matter of tirelessly rummaging around to find a single coin might be deemed as much ado about nothing—similar to a woman who, amid her numerous possessions, is focused on finding her treasure trove of music. (Though I suppose referring to it as a “treasure” might explain the concern!)
Yet, that is exactly how it is with God of the covenant in the kingdom of God. God will not let us go. God will pursue us relentlessly. Because God’s love does not depend on what we have done or left undone, we can rest in the promise that those who are losing will always be found.
 Bowie, 202.
 Bowie, 205.