Seward United Methodist Church
Friday, November 15, 2019
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Lost and Found

1 Timothy 1:12-17 and Luke 15:1-10

Think with me for a few moments, if you would. What is the last thing of value you lost? Did you find it again? If so, how did you feel when you found it?

The first thing I think of is the eyeglasses one of my campers lost on the canoe trip up in Ontario back in July. A canoe with three people in it was launching from a slippery rock shoreline. One person was off balance and another was standing as the wake from a passing motorboat hit them. They went over in about 7-8 feet of water, and the kid in the middle, the only one who was sitting still, lost his eyeglasses. Fortunately, I had my swimming goggles close at hand, and after about 8 dives, and a little bit of prayer, I finally found them. Was I happy? Hmm, I guess. I think more than anything I was relieved, since I didn’t want to be the one to tell his mother that we lost his glasses on my watch! But he was happy!

Jesus tells us that God also has great joy in the lost being found. But some others? Well, not so much.

We know from the Gospels that Jesus freely associated with the average person and even with those who were known as sinners. He spent time with tax collectors. He even had one as an apostle. Tax collectors had a terrible reputation of being cheaters and traitors to their own countrymen. Jesus spent time with prostitutes and other well known sinners; those who had a bad reputation.

Is there a risk to such relationships? Don’t we say with good reason that, “Bad company ruins good morals?” Well, yes. It can, but only if the influence is in the wrong direction. I think it’s important to say that we Christians should have relationships with people of questionable moral character so that we can be salt and light. But we also need to have strong relationships of accountability with fellow Christ-followers.

The Pharisees wouldn’t do that. The Pharisees referred to the common people, those who were not as committed to God’s Law as they were, as “the people of the land,” and that was not a complimentary term. As much as possible, they avoided contact with the average person. They didn’t enter into business with them. They didn’t welcome them into their homes. They didn’t go as guests to the homes of the people of the land. They tried to stick only with fellow “holy people.” And they most certainly would not have had relationships with tax collectors or notorious sinners.

And my goodness, they certainly wouldn’t eat with them! To eat together in that culture was a sign of equality and acceptance. No Pharisee would accept a tax collector or prostitute or call them an equal!

Jesus answers their attitude with three parables of the lost being found. The first is the story of the lost sheep. A shepherd is keeping 100 sheep. A flock of that size would probably be all the sheep of an entire village being kept by several shepherds. One goes missing, so the shepherd seeks it out.

It’s been said that Jesus introduced something new in his teaching; the idea that God seeks out lost sinners. Conventional Jewish wisdom was that God would welcome the lost home, but only if they came back groveling for forgiveness. And there were some who even emphasized God rejoicing at the destruction of lost sinners. But Jesus teaches us first that God also knows the joy of lost things being found. Second, he actively seeks out the lost. And third, he teaches that the friends of God share in his joy. If your friend is not happy when good things come into your life, then guess what? He or she is not really your friend! And if you don’t rejoice at the lost sinner coming home, then you are not really a friend of God!

The second parable is the one of the lost coin. In this case, the woman has ten coins. These are most likely her KETUBAH, a Hebrew word that basically meant dowry. When she got married, her father gave her these coins, and they are hers, not her husband’s. If her husband divorces her, she keeps her KETUBAH. But they were also worn as a sign of marriage. They would be woven into a headdress and worn much like we would wear a wedding band. The fact that there are only ten of them says she came from a poor family. So there is not just a monetary value to these coins, but also an emotional value.

Have you ever lost something with both great monetary and emotional value? Once I was playing a game of volleyball at a church picnic and one woman lost her engagement ring. She was enormously happy when it was found, and with good reason.

Now you know the third story Jesus tells, right? The parable of the lost son. In each story, the value of the lost thing goes up: One out of 100 sheep, one out of 10 coins, that also has an emotional value, and one out of two sons. I think Jesus was building to something there. We are each children of God. And as long as we are living apart from God, we are living apart from our true nature. We are not fully children of God until we return to relationship with him. And God’s joy is like that of a father restored to relationship with an estranged son. There is truth in all three of the parables, but I don’t think we really appreciate the truth until we hear the third parable.

In Paul’s letter to Timothy, which we heard earlier, Paul shows us how his own life is a reflection of this truth.

Paul was lost. He was living apart from relationship with Jesus. And he even did great harm to Jesus and his people in his ignorance of the truth. In Jewish thought, ignorance of the truth did not remove guilt, though it could lessen guilt. But while sins of ignorance could be covered over with sacrifices in Jewish thought, deliberate sins could only be forgiven through repentance. And I think Paul makes it clear that his ignorance of the truth, that Jesus is Lord, did not excuse his behavior toward the Church. The words he uses to describe his actions here indicate sadistic brutality, and the Book of Acts bears testimony to that. Paul calls himself the “chief of sinners,” he doesn’t say that about himself in the past tense but in the present tense. But now, he says, his life is a testimony to the grace, love, patience, and mercy of Jesus.

In this same chapter, Paul tells Timothy how he should deal with false teachers. They should be thrown out of the Church, and rightly so. But Paul also remembers that he himself was once a false teacher. No one is beyond the hope of redemption.

But repentance and remembrance are essential. We can’t return to right relationship with God without repentance, without acknowledging our sin, without acknowledging the holiness of God and our own sinfulness. To suggest that we can return to God without repentance is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called cheap grace: Grace without repentance, salvation without sacrifice, glory without discipleship.

And we must remember our past. To remember our past keeps us humble, grateful, and dependent on God. There’s a scene in the old King Arthur movie, Excalibur, that has always stuck with me. King Arthur gathers his knights and they set out to rid the land of their enemies and unite the kingdom. After they are victorious, they gather to celebrate their victory. And Merlin warns them not to forget all the hard work and sacrifice that made peace possible. He ends with an ominous threat, “It is the doom of men that they forget.” And of course, that’s what happens. They become rich and fat and complacent and they allow evil to grow right under their noses. We must remember our failures or we will not learn from them. We must remember our faults or we will be filled with pride.

There is nothing we can do to earn God’s grace or love, but we can and we should spend the rest of our lives showing our appreciation for them. God turns us from lost into found. But it’s our responsibility to live as those who are found. And we must share in the joy of God when the lost are found. Otherwise we risk becoming Pharisees, so self-assured of our own goodness that we despise the lost rather than remembering what it was like to be lost.

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