The scripture referred to is Luke 15:1-10.
Not many of us own sheep or livestock of any kind, so it is difficult for most of us to identify with the loss of one farm animal. And few of us are so poor that the mislaying of one coin would be a major disaster. I was thinking of illustrating the concept of losing something, finding it and rejoicing with the common phenomenon of misplacing one's phone today. Then I thought a better parallel would be my recent misplacing of my paycheck which meant driving all the way back to the jail to find where I left it. That was rather harrowing especially since I could swear I had brought it out to the car. But the first example is not a real tragedy. The worse case scenario is you have to get a replacement phone. So it's really just a major pain in the neck, specifically re-entering all your phone numbers. And the second, while it would be painful financial blow, would probably mean I would have to wait until I could get the check reissued.
A better example can be found in the BBC America series Broadchurch. It is a different kind of mystery, showing the aftereffects of a murder on the family, the town, and even the police. And it begins with a parent's worst nightmare. As the family gets up and gets going in the morning, nobody misses Danny. He has a paper route. It is only when he doesn't show up for a soccer game that his mother wonders if something is wrong. She asks other kids about him and they haven't seen Danny. She calls his other friends, parents, various people in the small town, looking for him, with panic rising in her voice, eyes and movements. This being a murder mystery, her quest does not end happily. But to any parent whose ever lost track of a child and gone on a frantic search, the feel of that sequence is exactly right. As is pretty much the rest of the series.
This week's episode takes place 2 months after the murder. The father has returned to work and the teenaged daughter goes back to school for the first time since her brother's death. But everyone is glancing at her, speaking to each other under their breath, and she abruptly walks out of class. When her mother comes to get pick her up and finds her gone, she is instantly anxious. She has just lost one child. Only bad scenarios are playing out in her head. She calls her husband, who leaves work and together they try to track her down. When they find her, at the home of a new boyfriend, they are upset. Then she explains that, as much as she loved Danny, she could not stand everyone looking at her as “the dead boy's sister.” The parents understand only too well. They are known as the dead boy's parents, both in town and in the national media. So the dad proposes they go to the local arcade to just have some fun as a family, something they have not done for a long time. They are rejoicing over finding the daughter they had feared lost.
It's odd that our Gospel reading from Luke 15 cuts off just before getting to the parable of the prodigal son. Because in it Jesus moves from rejoicing over lost things and animals to rejoicing over a lost child. And that is crucial. The prophets of the Old Testament spoke of God's people as a wild vine, or straying sheep, or occasionally as an unfaithful spouse, but rarely as sons and daughters of God. But Jesus does, often. “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called sons of God.” (Matthew 5:9) “But love your enemies, do what is good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High.” (Luke 6:35) Paul really develops this theme. He says, “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.” (Romans 8:14) And in 1 John 3:2 it says, “Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared, but we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.”
C.S. Lewis, paraphrasing St. Athanasius, the champion of the Trinity at the Council of Nicea, put it this way: “The Son of God became a man to enable men to become the sons of God.” This does nothing to diminish the unique sonship of Christ. He is the only begotten, the unique Son of God. We are adopted children as Paul put it. He chose us out of his great love. But we are nevertheless his children and his heirs.
Which is why he is so dead set on saving the one, though 99 are safe. If you had 6 kids you wouldn't think the disappearance of one was an acceptable loss. You would concentrate all your efforts on that one kid. At that point, to quote Captain Kirk, the needs of the one outweighs the needs of the many. The lost cannot be dismissed as the least of our problems.
A lot of the drop in the number of churchgoing Christians is due to people not perceiving themselves as lost. You don't feel that you are lost if you don't think there's anywhere you have to be. One of the advantages of my ministry at the jail is that most of the people there know they are not where they ought to be. And many realize that it is all or mostly their fault. They know they have sinned and fall short of the glory God intended for us. And they are looking for a way back to God and his path through life. They are eager for help in the form of prayers, scripture and Bible study.
The average person may not think they are lost because they do not think that there is somewhere else where they can be. Part of this is do to the increasing secularization of people's outlook. If they don't think there's a God or heaven, then they aren't going to think they have gotten off-track or that there is a destination in this life.
But what I tend to run into is people who have drunk the Koolaid of cheap grace. They fully believe that God loves them as they are and so see no reason to change. They will get into heaven with no trouble because God is a big softie and a pushover when it comes to excusing sins.
Dumbing down the gospel and making “converts” but not disciples is largely responsible for this trend. Easy evangelistic tools like the “Four Spiritual Laws” and methods that over-emphasize “being saved” while de-emphasizing the crucial aspect of taking up one's cross and following Jesus have led to a large number of people who think because somewhere in the past they prayed the “sinner's prayer” or attended church when they were younger, they are Christians. That's like the guy who thinks, because he played football in school, he is still an athlete, despite the fact that he weighs twice what he did then and his involvement in sports consists almost entirely of his watching them on TV.
In life, you grow. You can either grow stronger or grow weaker. You grow more flexible or you grow more rigid. You grow more knowledgeable or you grow more clueless. The spiritual life works the same way. You grow stronger in your faith or weaker. You grow in integrity or you grow more lax. You grow wiser or you grow more foolish. But if you're alive, you don't stay static. Only the dead do.
The biggest cause of preventable deaths in the US is smoking tobacco, killing 435,000 Americans, which is nearly 1 in 5 deaths. Poor diet and physical activity are responsible for another 365,000 or 15% of deaths. Alcohol kills 85,000. Together they make up about 37% of the deaths in this country, way more than car crashes (43,000), firearms deaths (29,000), sexual behaviors (20,000) and drug use (17,000). In other words, though they kill 10s of thousands of people each year, the things that kill most people on TV and in the movies kill a small minority of people in real life. The really dangerous causes of death are gradual and don't involve violence or criminal activity.
The things that kill our spiritual life are similar. Most folks drift away from God. They stop praying or reading the Bible the way the high school athlete stops running or lifting weights. They stop going to church or go sporadically or go to one that feeds them spiritual junk food rather than the solid food of a deeper understanding of the God of the Bible. As with a high school acquaintance, their relationship with God was often rather thin to begin with and over time, it slips away. That's the average lost sheep today.
And increasingly, the lost in the West are young people who never went to church unless they were going for the baptism, wedding or funeral of a family member or friend. Or on those occasions where they were with their grandparents and went to a Sunday service. Their parents, professing to give them a choice, presented them with nothing, took them to no smorgasbord of churches, synagogues, mosques or ashrams, presented them with no selection of scriptures to read, spent no regular time giving them a comprehensive world view or ethical system. They never developed a relationship with any religion, much less with God.
I encounter people from this millennial generation at the jail a lot, people whose whole understanding of religion was gleaned from cultural references in movies or TV or comic books. Their exploration of God begins when they've hit rock bottom. I've put together little handouts with the most basic beliefs and practices of Christians to help them get a start. That way they can read the Bible—and they read it more avidly than most churchgoers—provided with a kind of Mapquest or basic itinerary to find their way through the 66 books and 31,000 verses of the Bible, a daunting task for the unchurched.
I field a lot of FAQs, frequently asked questions that you or I learned in Sunday School or through the Catechism. I give them basic concepts and tools for understanding the Bible. Such as: some passages in scripture are descriptive and some are prescriptive. Some merely describe behavior and we needn't and sometimes shouldn't see them as examples to follow. Like large swathes of the historical books in the Old Testament from Judges to 2 Chronicles, which depict the depths to which God's people sink when they don't listen to him. Other passages are prescriptive. We read them and, as Jesus said to those who heard his parable of the Good Samaritan, we are to “go and do likewise.” Usually when we read this passage in Luke 15 we think we are reading a description of God as the shepherd who seeks the lost lamb or as the woman who scours her home for the lost coin. And that's true. But with the Great Commission Jesus passed the torch to us. As the Body of Christ, we are now delegated to find and rescue the lost. He doesn't need us to accomplish this task. As he did with Paul, God can and does speak to individuals and turn their lives around. But he has elected to let us in on his mission. He has chosen to give us roles in his plan to bring the gospel to all people. It is a privilege for us to be entrusted with this charge. It is also our duty. There is no “if you'd like” or “if you have the time or inclination” in the Great Commission.
But the way to find the lost is to look where they were last seen, not put up a place and think, “If we build it, they will come.” We don't want to be like the guy in the old joke. You know, the fellow on his hands and knees one night under a lamppost, searching the ground. Someone approaches and asks what he's doing and he says he's looking for his keys. The person asks where he lost them and he says, “Way over there.” “So why aren't you looking over there?” the person asks. And he says, “Because the light is better over here.”
The lost aren't looking for us. We need to look for them. And we need to look everywhere. Jesus went were people were: seashores, fields, hillsides, roads, wells, homes. Paul went to riverbanks, forums, marketplaces, palaces and prisons. Philip did a little drive-by evangelism. Well, it was the Ethiopian who was driving by in his chariot but Philip saw his opportunity and took it. They didn't hang around a church waiting for folks to drop by. They didn't wait in the light for the lost to come to them. They brought the light to the lost.
And when they found them, they talked the lingo of the lost. Paul used sports analogies and quoted popular playwrights. Jesus used stories about everyday life and filled his parables with the things and folks you'd see in his world: farm workers and plows and shepherds and slaves and seeds and vines and children and widows and wine and tax collectors and builders and nets and wedding banquets and sheep and crosses. We will have to translate those into the stuff we find in our not so rural and agricultural world, like salespeople and computers and divers and checkout clerks and emails and Facebook and the homeless and single mothers and beer and IRS agents and construction workers and crab traps and receptions and cats and lethal injection.
Jesus was also aware of his audience's needs. He could be harsh with religious hypocrites and those in power but he didn't take those who sought him out and rub their noses in their sins. He acknowledged that the woman at the well had 5 husbands and was living with another man but didn't get sidetracked onto the subject. He didn't further humiliate the woman who had been grabbed in the act of adultery and stood in a public place awaiting her execution. He didn't dress down Zacchaeus for cheating people under the guise of collecting taxes. When the disreputable woman was washing his feet with her tears, Jesus didn't ask what she had done that made her such a pariah. These people knew their sins and shortcomings and under Jesus' influence they turned their lives around. Jesus knew when to afflict the comfortable and when to comfort the afflicted.
That's an essential truth to remember. “God is not willing that anyone should perish...” Why did Jesus hang around with tax collectors, let women of dubious morality wash his feet, touch lepers, heal on the Sabbath, pardon women taken in adultery, reattach the ear of a member of the mob who had come to arrest him, and do other scandalous and surprising things? Because God is not willing that anyone should perish. Why did he tell us to welcome immigrants and visit those in prison? Because God is not willing that anyone should perish. Why did he send out the Twelve and later the 70 to preach the good news and heal people? Because God is not willing that anyone should perish. Why did Jesus give us the Great Commission to go into all the world, making disciples of all nations and baptizing people and teaching them? Because God is not willing that anyone should perish.
We can stick with the 99 sheep who are sensible and safe. We can enjoy the pastoral setting and good food and fresh water our shepherd has led us to while tut-tutting over those foolish enough to stray and sending up an occasional prayer for them. Or we can plunge into the woods and do a grid search of the wilderness and scour the deserts and look among a sea of faces for the lost. We can look for those who are clueless that they have taken the wrong path and those who are trying to their hardest to find the way home and those who have given up on ever getting back. And if we bring just one person home, be they tired or hungry or thirsty or sick or fresh from prison or from another country or all of the above, then...THEN there's going to be rejoicing in the kingdom of heaven, from the cherubim and seraphim around the throne to the stars singing and the spheres ringing all the way down to every sinner saved, which means all of us, who have heard his voice and felt his touch and known the undeserved, unreserved grace of Jesus Christ, our chief shepherd, who owns the sheep on a thousand hills, and who keeps a watchful, loving eye on every single one.