“There is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Lk. 15).
At my last church I had a former cathedral dean as a mentor. He told me that
good preaching is like the three-step process for candle making. First, you heat the wax, then you mold it and finally you harden it. This is what Jesus does with us today. The wax is our time-hardened picture of God. The process of heating and breaking down this idea may feel painful. After all, our understanding of God will always be close to our deepest assumptions about what the world is and what we should do in it.
Do you know the difference between a myth and a parable? A myth is not a fiction. It is not the opposite of fact. Instead, myths are about our identity. Myths explain who we are and where we come from.
People often ask how my wife Heidi and I met. It is a factual story about how we came to recognize each other, and how our very different stories became one story. We have myths about what it means to be an American, or an employee of Apple Computer Company, or a San Franciscan, or a white person, or any other identity. They show us how we belong.
Parables however, at least in the way Jesus uses them, overturn what we take for granted. They challenge our picture of ourselves. They force us to look for truer ways to understand who we are and who God is.
Sinners, sex workers, tax collectors, the collaborators of the occupying Roman army come to be near Jesus, to hear him teach. This deeply offends the religious people of his time. In Greek they diagonguzo, they mutter and murmur. In response to the complaints Jesus says, I came for the very people who offend you.
There is an old Celtic story about a monk who died. They buried his body in the wall of the chapel. Three days later the monks heard sounds coming from inside the tomb. They took out a brick and were amazed to find the monk alive. He exclaimed, “Oh brothers, I’ve been there! I’ve seen it! And it’s nothing like the way our theology says it is!” So they put him back in the wall and sealed the tomb again. People who try to change our idea of God can expect resistance.
Jesus tells us strange parables about seeking something small and insignificant, finding it and then having a celebration wildly out of proportion for the occasion. He turns the familiar trope of searching for God on its head and instead talks about how God seeks us. Rather than a religious community defined by its morality, he gives us a picture of a church as a kind of celebration for sinners rejoicing in new life.
“Which of you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the desert (eremos – like our word for hermit) to go after the one that is lost until he finds it” (Lk. 15)? Of course, the answer is that no one would do this. No supervisor at Intel, no water resource civil servant in Sacramento, no PG&E manager, no superintendent of schools, no reasonable person would put ninety-nine percent of her assets in danger to save one percent.
If this were not strange enough, the shepherd carries the dirty, cantankerous old ram home on his shoulders rejoicing and then tells everyone what happened. “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” Would anyone else really care the way that the shepherd does? The word for rejoicing repeated over and over here is xaris, as in the Eucharist, the rejoicing meal we share every week in which we are for a moment elevated to the presence of Jesus.
Or imagine a woman who only has one hundred dollars and loses a ten-dollar bill. She searches for it by burning a two-dollar candle and then invites her neighbors over to celebrate. The party probably costs more than the money she found. Three things stand out in these pictures of God.
- First, according to Jesus, we cannot comprehend God in the sense of being able to see all the way around the divine. At one level this is obvious. The duration of our life, what we are capable of experiencing is such a tiny crumb of everything. God has been at work making and sustaining the universe for 13.75 billion years. The edge of the observable universe seems to be 46.5 billion light years away.
We live in a strange world of surprising evolution, mathematical elegance, seemingly universal physical laws and unexpected beauty. God is unfathomable, extravagant, unbound by our understanding of reason. God’s ways are strange to us. They do not conform to our self-interested understanding of fairness.
- Second, Jesus seems deeply concerned about the way our ideas of fairness endanger our relationship with God. The parable of the laborers who work for a different number of hours and yet receive the same pay, the parable after this about the prodigal son who squanders his inheritance and comes back home and these two parables in which the ninety-nine unlost sheep and the 9 unlost coins seem superfluous – these all upset our ideas about God’s fairness. God does not conform to our idea of justice. At some level it bothers us that God loves people who are so much less lovable than we are.
Make no mistake, faith in God is not about belief, or analyzing evidence about a proposition. Our life is not a trial of God. Neither is it a process of earning rewards. More than anything in our time we worship success. If the tragedy of Jeffrey Epstein teaches us anything it should be that today in America you can do pretty much anything you like. As long as you are successful people will respect you and make excuses for your behavior. This makes Jesus especially hard for us to understand. One of our most deeply held, unexamined beliefs is our conviction that love is a reward for being good.
Faith means letting go of being offended that God is not the way we expect God to be. Really faith means beginning to see our self as one of the lost things in the universe, and trying to find our way home.
- So we do not know much about God. We have no idea how God creates matter, sustains the massive, complicated universe. We have no clue how God hears the prayers of all creation. But we do know one thing – that God is a determined seeker. It is in God’s nature to risk everything to recover what is lost. It is in a shepherd’s nature to herd sheep, it is in a householder’s nature to put a home in order and it is in God’s nature to seek us and then to rejoice at our homecoming when we change our heart.
This is good news for us, because even if you are on the right path at this moment, you know what it feels like to be lost. I am certain that you have friends and family who are lost right now. It could be the result of poor choices, sheer bad luck, or addiction. It could be because you desire something that is bad for you, or because you want something good too much. It happens for the teenager who cannot fit in and for the person facing her own death wondering what the world will be like without her.
The Kentucky farmer and poet Wendell Berry has his own parable about being lost. Berry writes about abandoned homesteads far out in the country. Every part of them that is not made of stone has rotted away. Foundations, chimneys, and cellars are all that is left. Often there is just a well.
We can imagine a hunter out from a faraway city, leaving a job he does not like in order to be alone in the country on a Saturday. On a perfect fall day, he feels free. He leaves behind his constraints, worries and fears. Nobody knows where he is. Anybody who wanted to complain, accuse him, order him around or collect a debt would not be able to find him.
Then he steps on the rotten boards covering one of those old wells and falls through. He disappears suddenly out of the lighted world. It happens so quickly that he does not even have time to wonder what is happening. He hits the water hard, goes under with fragments of rotten wood. He comes up, swims and clings to the wall with his fingers between the rocks. You can imagine how he would feel – the autumn sky so expansive and free only seconds ago is now “just a small picture of itself, far away. He calls out… and hears himself enclosed” in the echoes of his frightened voice.
So how does this story end? Does he save himself? Does he manage to climb out? Does someone pass by and hear his cries for help? Does he just give up and drown? In his despair does he pray the first true prayer of his life?
A person of faith believes that this man is not lost. A person of faith does not believe this easily or without struggle and doubt, or even a certain amount of pain. This belief is beyond any way of knowing. It is the faith that no one will remain totally lost to God – not the person in despair, not the one who believes that success will save them, not Jeffrey Epstein, not the monk in the wall, not you or me.
I remember a relatively young woman who was dying of cancer. She told me her fear of the dark and the cold that will come upon her as her life ebbs away. God brought us together because I firmly believe that she will not be lost either.
Jesus teaches us that life is not about earning love or a reward from God, or keeping the good ones in and the bad ones out. At the heart of our miraculous existence is the experience of being lost and then found, perhaps even coming to see ourselves as part of the way that God goes about the business of finding people. So “rejoice with me,” celebrate, take pleasure that, “there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Lk. 15).
 John Buenz was the Dean of the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Spokane, Washington. 16 Pentecost (9-12-10) 19C.
 Parker J. Palmer, “Taking Pen in Hand: A Writer’s Life and Faith,” The Christian Century, 7 September 2010, 25.
 From Lisa Keneremath, “Lost and Found” (Goodpreacher.com). The next four paragraphs closely paraphrase Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow (NY: Counterpoint, 1984), 356-8.