Once upon a time the religious leaders criticized Jesus because he was spending too much time with the wrong kind of people. It was ok that they came to listen to his message, but when Jesus met with moral and social outcasts one on one and ate dinner with them, Jesus crossed the line. No self-respecting religious leader would break bread with Roman employees, traitors, foreigners, lowlifes, and persons of dubious morality and health conditions. Just meeting with these outsiders gave them all the evidence they needed to judge Jesus as a spiritual imposter and infidel.
We all remember adages like “birds of a feather stick together” or “you are known by the company you keep,” While there may be some wisdom in these sayings, they also can lead to humorous situations. I grew up hearing a family story from my uncle Curtis. When I was an infant, my family moved to a small town in the Salinas Valley, California, where my father was to be the new Baptist pastor. Not knowing where the parsonage was – in those days before GPS devices, he stopped at the only store open that Saturday afternoon – the liquor store. My uncle who was traveling with us told my father, “You can’t go in there. What will people think? The Baptist preacher going into the liquor store as his first stop in town?”
Now, thankfully, this isn’t a problem at South Congregational Church. A few weeks into my ministry here, I ran into a member at the Package store, and over the years, I’ve encountered most of the leadership there!
Troubled by the religious leaders’ challenge to his hospitality, Jesus told three stories – a lost sheep, a lost coin, a lost child – and portrayed the great joy in heaven when one person finds their way home, is recovering from addiction, or is found after a long search.
I know this to be the case: on a mundane level, I feel great relief when I find my cell phone, wallet, or keys after misplacing them, and my heart beats quickly at the market when for a moment I lose track of Jack or James, and then calms down when I see their familiar faces.
There is a saying in Jewish mysticism: if you save one person, you save the world. Though this saying comes from Kabbalistic thought, which emerged fifteen hundred years after Jesus, we know this saying to be true. Numbers were important to the Jewish people: three, seven, forty, one hundred, were all meaningful and pointed toward divine truths. One hundred is a complete number that designates healing and wholeness, return and recovery, for one and all.
While we focus on the lost sheep, coin, and son in these parables, we all know from experience, that when one member of our family is troubled, the whole family is in chaos, grief, or pain. When a companion, child, spouse, is in the hospital with a serious illness, the whole world shrinks to the size their hospital room.
When a child or grandchild is dealing with mental health issues or substance abuse, the whole family is off kilter. But, the joy of coming home, of welcome, of recovery. The table is set and everyone’s there. As Paul says in I Corinthians 12, when one member succeeds, we all rejoice; when one member falters, we all struggle.
The shepherd must go out into the darkness, not only to save the lost sheep, but to save the ninety-nine who are incomplete, dare we say lost, without return of the hundredth.
Jesus uses the word “until” to describe the shepherd’s quest. “Until” as Webster notes, means “up to the time,” some event occurs. This shepherd will not cease searching till the sheep is found – even all night long and into the next morning. And the divine shepherd will not cease searching for you or a loved one until infinity and beyond. That’s how important each of us is to God; that’s how important the fabric relationships is for God. As Martin Luther King asserts, we are joined in an intricate fabric of relationships. I cannot be what I am intended to be until you are what you are intended to be, and you can’t be what you are intended to be until I am what am intended to be. We are all in this together, despite our unique experiences and differences in values, politics, and lifestyle.
Three stories of lostness in Luke 15: sometimes you just wander off, you don’t know any better; perhaps you’re just born in a particular way and that puts you at odds with your community; sometimes you fall between the cracks and are forgotten; sometimes you simply do the wrong thing – you break the law, run away from home, become pregnant, get hooked on drugs or alcohol. And you are judged, or forgotten, but not with Jesus. With Jesus you matter, you belong, no one left out, you are home, even when you run away.
That’s why we have a ministry with the homeless, that’s why backpacks matter, that’s why orphans in India matter, and that’s why UNICEf families matter. That’s why it’s important that we welcome the LGBTQ community, a community bullied, rejected, condemned, and even killed by Christians falsely thinking they were following Jesus, even to this day. It’s about our welcome to the forgotten and maligned as God’s beloved but excluded children, but it’s about us and our wholeness and our ability to live in a world where all are pilgrims and none – not one – is a stranger.
As I was pondering this message, I thought of the song “We are the World,” the 1980’s song focusing on African famine relief – “there’s a choice, we’re saving our own lives. We make a brighter a better day for you and me.” When we welcome, we are welcomed; when we embrace, we are embraced; when we heal a division, we are reunited.
There is great joy in heaven when one lost is found, one forgotten restored, and one who has run away embraced and welcomed home.