Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable:
“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
Growing up, I had a dog – a mutt – named Princess, who liked to run away. (pic) My family got Princess from our neighbors when their mutt of dog accidentally had a litter of puppies. My brother and I convinced my parents to let us keep one of those puppies, we named her Princess, and she spent the first few years of her life chained to a dog house, out by the detached garage at the church parsonage. Winter, spring, summer and fall, she lived chained to the dog house my grandfather built just for her.
My brother and I were too young to be good parents. My dad might say he was “old-school” when it came to dogs, not believing they belonged in the house. We thought he was just mean. (I actually think it had something to do with the fact that we lived in the church parsonage.)
Anyway, when we moved from Ohio to Michigan and bought our own house, Princess all of a sudden became an “inside dog.” I think this was partly meant to be a consolation prize for moving us, in the first place, and partly because we moved from a house in the country to a subdivision in the suburbs where her constant barking would not be tolerated by the neighbors who were all of a sudden so nearby.
Still, Princess spent a lot of time in this suburban backyard, not chained to that dog house anymore, but confined to a postage stamp-sized lot by a pretty wimpy privacy fence. It didn’t take her long to learn she could dig her way underneath the fence, behind the bush in the far corner of our yard. And when we filled her favorite digging holes with bricks and rocks, it didn’t take her long to learn she could just rip the boards off of the privacy fence and make her escape. It happened so often, we kept a regular supply of replacement boards on-hand so we could repair it every time Princess got the urge to run.
Eventually, we bought a staple gun and rolls of chicken wire which we attached to the inside of the fence to keep Princess where she belonged. (We were the classy neighbors on Park Ridge Road.) The chicken wire finally worked, for the most part, but Princess was still, always looking to run. If the back gate didn’t get latched, she would notice and hit the road. If we had company over – and they weren’t fast enough – Princess would dart out the front door before they could close it. I think she even learned how to open that front screen door with her nose, if we didn’t remember to lock it. “Princess,” it turns out, wasn’t so aptly named.
And every time she escaped, it would send my brother and me into a panic. We would roam and race around the streets chasing after her: bribing her with treats, luring her into back yards where we could trap her, trying to beat her in a foot-race, frankly, and tackle her, if nothing else. I’m sure it was a spectacle to behold. (Did I mention we were the classy neighbors on Park Ridge Road?)
Well, I thought about Princess when I read, again, about the lost sheep and the lost coin – and about the parable of the prodigal son, which follows these two parables, in Luke’s Gospel, actually.
Because Jesus tells these parables about lost things – lost sheep, lost coins and lost children – in response to the self-righteous grumbling of the scribes and the Pharisees, who notice that Jesus welcomes and eats with sinners. In other words, they were surprised – if not downright disgusted – that Jesus would bother with the losers; that he would break bread with the broken; that he would slum it with the sinners. In other words, why chase after that stupid dog who doesn’t want to follow the rules, or obey your ways, or be with you in the first place?
Of course, I didn’t know when I was a kid – and it certainly wasn’t my motivation at the time – but chasing Princess around the neighborhood is likely the only time in my entire life that I might have been more like Jesus than my father. (I found out, after preaching this sermon at our first service, with my dad in the room, that he remembers this all very differently!)
See, my dad never joined us in these chases, probably because I’m not sure he cared if that dog ever made her way home again, for all the reasons you’ve already heard. And he didn’t chase after Princess because she knew that about him, so he was probably the last person she would come to anyway. But mostly, my dad didn’t chase after our renegade dog because he was always just convinced that Princess would come home when she was good and ready; when she was tired of running; when she was hungry enough; or tired enough; or lonely enough, or whatever. And, to be fair, maybe the story of the Prodigal Son bears that out.
But this morning is about lost sheep and lost coins and my brother and I were never so sure. We had lost another dog once when she got hit by a car on those country roads, back in Ohio. So we chased after Princess like her life was at stake. We searched for her. We called after her. We cried for her and worried about her and prayed for her to come to her senses. And time after time after time we brought that stubborn, stupid, sneaky, sinful dog back home – against her will – but home… and safe… where she belonged.
And that is the hope and encouragement and Good News in Jesus’ parables this morning. Coins and sheep and stubborn dogs don’t always know they are lost – or loved – or worthy. Coins and sheep and stubborn dogs don’t always make choices from a place of wisdom and understanding. Sometimes, coins and sheep and stubborn dogs need to be sought after, searched for, saved by a love that’s greater than anything some might say they deserve.
And the same is true for you and me and for the rest God’s children, too, from time to time. We don’t always make choices from a place of wisdom and understanding and deep faith. We don’t always know we’re lost, or loved, in need or worthy of rescue. So we need to be pursued… sought after… and saved by the love of God, in Jesus Christ, which is greater than anything we deserve.
And I hope – because I believe it’s God’s hope – that once we know the truth of that; once we learn about how mightily God has pursued us in Jesus Christ, that we will find ways to go after the lost and the broken, to seek out the hurting and the hopeless with the love of God, like their lives depend on it. The lives of some, may indeed, depend on it, after all – those lost to addiction or homelessness or poverty or injustice. But this is worthwhile, faithful, life-giving work, in any case, because the lives of all people – sinners, every one of us – will be blessed and better when we make way and make room for all people at the table of God’s grace.