Fourth Sunday in Lent
“Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” Luke 15:6
I had breakfast at the Stirling Diner on Friday morning, and I’m not sure how, but I ended up chatting with the guy who runs the diner about the movie Jaws. He lived in Greece when the movie came out, and he remembers how there was a big outdoor showing of Jaws one night in his coastal town. People came from everywhere to see it. And there was no one on the beach the next day.
We talked about how effective the music is in that movie. All you have to hear are those two notes [Da-dum…Da-dum…], and you immediately react. Those two familiar notes can spike your heartrate.
I think sometimes the most familiar stories in the Bible can be like those two notes in the Jaws soundtrack. They are powerful, but as soon as we hear the first few words, we assume we know what’s coming. We’ve heard the story before. We know what it means. We have a built-in response.
Today let’s see if we can immerse ourselves in this fifteenth chapter of Luke. What is God saying to us on this new day with these old stories?
These are, of course, stories about being lost, prompted by the accusation that Jesus spends too much time welcoming sinners and – gasp– eating with them. With that accusation as the catalyst, Jesus tells some stories.
First we have the sheep. I doubt the sheep had some grand scheme to run away. The sheep probably just moved from one attractive eating spot to the next until he found himself in an unfamiliar place, disoriented and far from the flock. All he can do is wait. Wait for the shepherd to find him.
Then we have the coin, which definitely doesn’t choose to get lost. Some careless bump of the table or unseen hole in a pocket, and the coin goes missing. All it can do is stay where it is. Wait for the woman to find it.
Things get more complicated when there’s a family involved. (Don’t they always?) This may say more about me than the story, but I find it easy to judge just about everyone here. The father, who recklessly gives away his wealth. The younger son, who squanders it all on foolish choices and tries to manipulate his way back in. The older son, seething with resentment when his younger brother gets all the attention.
I tried this time to find some empathy for all of them. I can imagine how much a father would want his children to find their own path, even if meant making mistakes along the way. I can sense the younger son’s longing for adventure, his desire to make a name for himself apart from his family. I understand the older son’s need for affirmation, his yearning to be appreciated for staying the course and making responsible decisions.
When we put all three stories together, here’s the important thing: Everything and everyone eventually gets found. The shepherd does not say, “It’s only one sheep. I’ve got 99 others.” The shepherd goes searching through the brambles and the bushes until he hears the voice of that wandering sheep. When he finds the sheep, he does not berate it for getting lost. He picks it up, places it on his shoulders, and carries the sheep home.
The woman does not say, “It’s only one coin. I’ve got nine others.” She turns on all the lights and pillages her house and keeps searching and searching until she finds where the coin has slipped through the crack in the floor. She picks it up and brushes it off and holds it a little more tightly.
The father gives his kids – both of them – the freedom to find their own way. And he’s there waiting with open arms for both of his boys. At the right moment he seeks each one of them out. He runs to the younger son as soon as he spots that familiar silhouette on the horizon. And later, he steps away from the party to find his other son and reassure him that he is also loved deeply, even if he can’t see it at the moment.
One of the most powerful movies I saw last year was Ben is Back. It depicts 24 hours in the life of one family whose oldest son Ben has shown up unexpectedly on Christmas Eve, having been away undergoing a residential treatment program for his drug addiction. It’s not the first time he’s tried to get clean. Much of the movie is about Ben’s mother Holly and her desperate efforts to keep him sober. When the family dog is stolen by some people from Ben’s past, Holly literally has to chase Ben from one dangerous situation to another as he searches for their beloved pet and as she tries to keep him from being pulled back into his old life.
There’s a wrenching scene in which Ben looks at his mother and begs her to go home and leave him alone. He says, “Mom, you don’t know what you’re doing…I’m not worth it. If you really knew me, you’d be done with me.”
I’m not worth it. If you really knew me, you’d be done with me.
That fear is one we all feel at some point – the fear that we’re not worth someone else’s extravagant, persistent love. The fear that we will stay lost because we don’t deserve to be found. It’s a fear that often leads us to do dangerous things, to ourselves and to others.
What do all of these stories have in common? Rejoicing. The shepherd calls together everyone he knows and says, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost!” His friends and neighbors might have said, “Um. It’s just one sheep.” But the shepherd says: Worth it.
The woman does the same. She calls together everyone she knows, friends and neighbors, and says, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost!” You know someone among her friends rolled their eyes behind her back. I’m sure of it. It was, after all, just one coin. But the woman says: Worth it.
The father doesn’t hesitate to run down the road, to kill the fatted calf, to throw the party, to share all that he has. I bet the neighbors whispered about how foolish he’d been, giving away the inheritance prematurely and indulging his younger son. But the father only knows a love so generous that it holds nothing back. The father says: Worth it.
God looks at each of us and says the same thing: Worth it. You are worth it. Worth being found. Worth welcoming home. Worth rejoicing over.
That’s how much God loves us – beyond reason, beyond what we deserve, beyond measure. It is an extravagant love – a gift that cries out to be shared. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ