Tomorrow I am flying down to Adelaide to lead the clergy in the Diocese of the Murray in a retreat from Monday to Friday. I will be keeping the notes for my addresses with me in my hand luggage as I travel. I have kept my notes with me whenever I travel to a conference or a retreat every since I made the mistake, years ago, of packing a lecture in my suit case when I was flying to speak at a conference in Switzerland. When I arrived in Geneva my bag was nowhere to be found on the airport carousel. I went to the conference and had to stammer through an hour of trying to appear intelligent without the bag or the notes. When I arrived back in England some days later I was telephoned by the hotel in Geneva to say that my bag had finally arrived with them. And it took a further week before the bag was finally back with me at home long after the trip had concluded.
30 million pieces of luggage associated with air travel go missing every year. In most cases the lost luggage normally finds its owner in the end. But so many things that are lost are never found. I think of the six sun hats that one of my boys managed to lose in just one academic year at school, or the mystery of the chair that has never arrived since our move from Newcastle to East Maitland. I don’t give much attention to the sun hats, but every now and again I do wonder how a chair could have been lost by our removalists between Newcastle and here, and where it might be today.
These lost and found stories that we have heard today from the Gospel of Saint Luke are so familiar to us that we can forget how challenging on the one hand, and actually how absurd and foolish they are on the other. We heard two of them in our Gospel reading today, but those two are part of a set of three well known stories.
Firstly, the shepherd who has 99 sheep leaves them and goes off to find the one that is missing. Secondly, the woman who loses one coin sets the other nine to one side and cleans out her house meticulously until she finds the one that was missing. And thirdly – the parable that brings all of this together, which we did not hear today but which we know so well – the story of the son who takes his inheritance and goes off and spends it recklessly, whilst all of the time his father is at home, waiting, longing for his return.
The common theme that weaves its way through all three of these parable stories of Jesus, is that they end with a party, with a great celebration, because it is complaints about this celebrating to which Jesus is responding by telling the stories. The tax collectors and the sinners were coming to Jesus to listen to him, and the religious leaders of Jesus’ day were watching on, wondering, grumbling about why Jesus was bothering about them and eating with them, and spending time with them. It is in response to this grumbling and questioning that Jesus tells these stories, each of which ends with a great celebration.
The shepherd returns with the one lost sheep held securely and tightly around his shoulders, and he gathers his family and his friends, and says to them, “rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost”, and they celebrate together.
The woman lights up her house, so that the light shines into the darkest corners, and after looking diligently she finally finds the coin that was lost, and she gathers her friends together and says to them, “rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost”, and they celebrate together.
And we know about the great party for the whole household when the prodigal son finally comes to his senses and returns home, and instead of being given a job as a servant or hired hand, is instead welcomed back by his father, and his sonship is restored, and there is a great celebration, for the son who was lost has now been found.
Jesus says to those who are listening, both then and now, that these parties, these celebrations, are not just momentary events, but even the angels in heaven are rejoicing. They are a sign of the inauguration and the living out of the Kingdom of God. A Kingdom in which the lost are found, and in which there is much celebration.
As I have already said, if we get past the familiarity that we have with these stories, then we will detect in them both a great challenge, and also sheer foolishness. The presenting problem is that Jesus is spending too much time with the wrong kinds of people. The tax collectors are widely hated in the time of Jesus. They are symbols of the oppression under which the Jewish people are living, in their land that has been occupied by the Romans.
In our own situations we might begin by resenting the taxes that we pay, and we might have in our minds a better formula about how the responsibility of funding our society should be shared out. But we know – when we stop and think about it – that paying taxes is both necessary and good. I do not need to say to you that it is entirely compatible for people to work in the Australian Tax Office or in the financial services sector and also be good Anglican Christians, and so there is always a bit of translation needed when we come across this anti-tax collector rhetoric in the Gospels. We want roads, we want hospitals, we want national defences, we want those who are less fortunate than us to be assisted by a minimum safety net. We may disagree about the specifics of our taxation system, but we all agree that some form of taxation is what is required to build up the common good.
But what if we perceived that the taxes that we paid gave us none of those benefits, that they were used to fund an army that didn’t protect us but rather oppressed us? What if our taxes were used to keep a small number of people wealthy and did not do anything to help the needs of the poor? That’s how taxation works in some countries in the world today, and that is how it was experienced by the Jews in the time of Jesus – whether the taxes were paid to their puppet King Herod, or to the Roman Emperor. So the tax collectors were despised as a symbol of all that was wrong when people collaborated and colluded with the Roman authorities. They were seen as the people who were helping the injustice that they experienced in their daily lives continue.
And yet here is Jesus, eating and drinking with them and with others who are regarded as sinners, outcasts and undesirables. Of course the important thing to say, is that through their connection with Jesus, these sinners don’t remain sinners, they turn, they change, they come to repentance. They are sinners no longer, they are forgiven sinners. So the problem that Jesus is responding to is that he is spending time with the wrong people.
The challenge that he gives in these stories, is that these are his people too. It isn’t that the shepherd goes off in search of someone else’s sheep, it isn’t that the woman goes into someone else’s house to try and find a coin that does not belong to them. At the heart of these parables is the clear message of Jesus that all people – in whatever condition – are his people, God’s people. Lost yes, but loved too.
The second problem is that, when we get over our over familiarity with these stories, and hear them as if we were hearing them for the first time, is that what they depict seems to be so foolish. Why would a shepherd leave 99 sheep wandering in the wilderness in the hope that he might find the one that is lost? Think of all that might go wrong with the 99 whilst the shepherd is gone. Think of the risk, and the danger. Who would be so foolish? Well, Jesus says that he would. And the reason that he would is because God does. It may seem foolish to us, but that is how God sees and loves and acts in our world.
Saint Paul, in his first letter to the Church in Corinth says, “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God… For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”
It is the crucial line of each of these stories – the conclusion of each of them, that cements the blue print for how we are to live out our lives. We yearn each one of us, for the reign of God as it is experienced in heaven, to be truly manifest here on earth. Each time we pray, ‘we ask that God’s kingdom will come, and God’s will will be done here on earth as it is in heaven.’ It is the earnest prayer of Christians down through the centuries, and the prayer that I suspect each one of us has had the most on our lips and in our hearts during our lifetimes: ‘thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’.
Here we see it being worked out in front of us in the actions of Jesus and in the stories that he tells to explain how God is working in the world. The lost are found, those on the margins are brought to the centre, the sinners repent, and all have a place at the table of celebration. The angels cry out in joy in heaven at the end of these stories when the lost are found, because in heaven there are no lost, all have been found, and that is how it will be when God’s kingdom comes on earth as it is already now in heaven.
What seems to be foolishness is what we are called to celebrate, the sign of God’s presence amongst us.