The following was my sermon Sunday Oct. 21 at First UMC Lexington, Ky. See what you think.
LOST—THE PARABLES, NOT THE TV SHOW— Lk. 15.1-10
If I were to ask you what the opposite of lose is, you would immediately reply—win’. But suppose I was to ask you what is the opposite of ‘lost’? If you said found, you would be right. Did it ever occur to you that often when we are lost, the only way out is to be 'found'? Have you ever been truly lost? I mean in a place where you had no clue either where you were or which way to go? I’m not talking about the kind of lostness you feel when you wake up from a vivid dream and are disoriented, and can’t figure out where you are for a moment. I’m not even talking about the lostness you may feel when you are in a strange building and someone turns out the light--- like in that great thriller with Aubrey Hepburn—‘Wait until Dark’. Men in particular, when they get behind the wheel of a car, have a hard time admitting they are lost. “Well this looks familiar… well, I think I have been here before…. Well I am sure we will come on something recognizable soon…” I’m not even talking about the kind of lostness represented in the popular recent TV show LOST-- on ABC.
Most human beings seem to think, almost innately, that when they are lost, they can find their way out of it, finesse their way out of it, talk their way out of it—but alas, our parables for today suggest this is really not so, at least if we are talking about a kind of lostness that a GPS device cannot cure. For in our parables for today, someone has to go out and rescue the lost sheep, or diligently search until she finds the lost coin. There is a kind of lostness that can only be overcome when someone rescues you. You see neither the lost sheep, nor the lost coin knew they were lost. There is no evidence they cried out for help. They were not looking to be found or rescued, nor were they hoping for a self-help scheme to come along so they could take care of themselves and have ‘their best life now’. These two brief vignettes are parables about how it is with us, when it comes to lostness, real lostness, spiritual lostness.
B. LOST TALES
Jesus told parables as his modus operandi for public ministry. The interesting thing is that the Greek term we translate parable could be a proverb, it could be an aphorism, or even a one liner (physician heal thyself is called a parable), or it could be a more extended analogy or metaphor in the form of a very brief story. The essence of the parables is that they are figurative or metaphorical speech meant to tease the mind into active thought. They are the ancient equivalent of brain teasers in some case, though the meaning of some of them seems to be a no brainer. In fact all the parables are parables of or about the Kingdom of God, by which is meant the divine saving activity, and its results. Jesus’ parables are not meant to be sermon illustrations, they are the preaching themselves. They don’t make some other point, they are the point. This is how Jesus wants to communicate with us, and it does not amount to him putting the cookies on the bottom shelf. Rather Jesus wants our reach mentally and spiritually to extend further than our present grasp. Hence, all things are spoken in mysterious parables so we must ponder things—including the meaning of our very lives.
One of the things scholars have noted about these wisdom sayings called parables is that Jesus seemed to like to tell them in pairs. In this case we have the parable of the lost sheep, paired with the parable of the lost coin, and in fact the real meaning of these two parables is basically the same—God seeks and saves the lost. But why tell that story in these two different ways? One reason, clearly enough is that Jesus was a radical. He is the first Jewish teacher we know of that had both men and women as disciples, and indeed not just casual disciples, traveling disciples (see Lk. 8.1-3). Strikingly, in the first of these two parables God is portrayed as like the male shepherd, leaving behind the 99 sheep to go and find the one lost one, whereas in the second parable he is said to be like the woman who is frantically sweeping the dirt floor of her house looking for a lost coin. We have here God portrayed as both a man and a woman seeking the lost. This must have surprised quite a few people in Jesus’ milieu, to say the least. It doesn’t surprise me though—not only was Jesus an equal opportunity redeemer of all sorts of people, both male and female, God, who in the divine nature is Spirit, neither male nor female, has no problems with being said to be like either a man or a woman who seeks to find what is lost. It’s some of us that get hung up on such a notion.
I like to ask my students—now what part of this parable seems odd to you, not really true to life? Immediately some will say, well, what shepherd in his right mind would leave the whole flock apparently unattended to go find one lost straggly sheep? Excellent question. Just so. The parable does not say the shepherd had helpers or a sheep dog named shep even. It simply says he left the 99 and went after the lost one. If you find the element in the parable which is NOT true to ordinary life, you will find the way in which it is commenting on our extraordinary God and his divine saving activity.
Now if you know anything about sheep, they are not notably smart. They do quite readily wander off when not supervised. Did you ever wonder why Jesus kept saying his followers were like sheep—this is not exactly the most flattering thing one could say about one’s disciples. Have you seen that commercial where there is a herd of sheep in the middle of the road, and the family van is stuck because the sheep won’t move out of the road? The father in vain gets out of the vehicle and tries to shoo the sheep into moving—then suddenly he has a bright idea, makes a few clicks on his picture phone, and suddenly a snarling wolf shows up, and the sheep hear it and run off—as in the background we hear a country singer singing “overcome the big things…” Yes sheep are not notably smart, and when they get lost, someone has to go and find them and rescue them. And the saddest part is that often the sheep do not even know or recognize they are lost.
In regard to the parable of the lost coin, Joachim Jeremias tells us that women wore their dowry in their headdress—perhaps you have seen such a picture on TV with a middle eastern woman with coins hanging from her headdress. Those are not fashion accessories, or baubles, bangles and beads. No, that’s her precious dowry which she keeps on her all the time. It’s her emergency bank account. In the parable this woman is frantically searching for the lost coin, because to her, it is exceedingly precious, worth a lot, and she can’t afford to lose it.
Now we need to stop for a moment and ask—is God really like the shepherd and the woman in these parables? Does God indeed see us as so precious, so valuable, so needing to be saved, that he would search frantically for us, even take great risks Are we really that needy, really that lost—and would God really take the trouble to make an all out search to find and rescue us? Does God really care that much about me, even me? Maxie Dunnam once said God love’s you as if you are the only person in the whole world he had to love.” Look at the emphasis in the parable about joy in heaven when one lost person is found. But to better answer that question let’s consider three stories. Since Jesus preached using stories, I figure that is one rather remarkable precedent for doing so.
C. STORIES OF BEING FOUND
C.S. Lewis is certainly one of my heroes, one of the great Christians of the 20th century or any century. And you can read the story of his coming to Christ, or better said, Christ’s coming to him, in his book ‘Surprised by Joy’. The title of the book is deliberately ironic, not only because he ended up unexpectedly marrying a woman named Joy, but even more unexpectedly, God found him. Now Lewis’s background was Northern Ireland, and if you know anything about Northern Ireland, even today, the Christian religion in that context is not seen as something that unites people, rather it divides them. It is not seen as something that saves people, it is seen as something that gets them killed if they are too vociferous about being Protestant or Catholic. Christianity as he grew up with it left a terrible taste in C.S. Lewis’ mouth, and it certainly didn’t lead to his going on a long spiritual journey trying to ‘find God’. Rather God, came after him, much like the description in the famous British poem, ‘The Hound of Heaven’ Listen to the opening stanza of the poem that speaks of one fleeing from God, and God in hot pursuit—
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
Up vista-ed hopes I sped;
And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmèd fears,
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
But with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbèd pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
They beat -- and a voice beat
More instant than the Feet --
THE HOUND OF HEAVEN
This is the way it was with Lewis, and when finally he gave in to the relentless knocking on the door of his heart by Christ, he said thereafter—“I thus became the most reluctant convert in all of Christendom”. You know sheep, don’t much want to be rescued—until they are, and finally the need for it dawns on them. And coins—they don’t care at all who finds them. Are we like that--- that lost, that insensible to the divine overtures?
I have a second story, and it is my own. I went off to Carolina in a turbulent time, and got away from the church. The Vietnam war was on, and I was angry with the establishment, angry with our government, angry with the church for being complacent or even complicit in such a war. My friends, some of whom were Christian were praying for me, and I honestly didn’t much want to be prayed for, but they did it anyway. Then there was a night as I walked across a quad in Chapel Hill, late one night, I actually heard an audible voice calling me--- it simply said ‘Ben’, ‘Ben’.
I looked around, and there was no one there. No one at all. No one even close. But I had heard the voice so clearly and distinctly. Later I remembered what Jesus said in John’s Gospel, “I know my sheep, and they know the sound of my voice, and I call them by name”. That in fact is true—sheep know the sound of the voice of their shepherd, and in Jesus’ world shepherd’s named their sheep, so precious were they to him. You see this image above me in that window--- that’s the Jesus I encountered that night. He had come for me, and I didn’t even know I was lost. He had come for me, even me. I wouldn’t be here this morning, were it not for that dark chilly night in 1972.
This experience was just the opposite of the time when I got a form letter from Time magazine asking me to renew my subscription. They had left the typing of my name into the letter’s gaps to the computer. The computer read my name Dr. Ben Witherington, III and figured it was too long to fit into the space, so it simply read as follows (I kid you not):
Dear Dr. Third:
Your magazine subscription is about to run out and we wanted to make this personal appeal to you Dr. Third to renew your subscription to our great American news weekly. Surely, Dr, Third, you will not want to miss a single issue and keep abreast of foreign and domestic affairs, so please sign your name at the bottom—DR. THIRD, and you will continue to get our great service without interruption.
I was very tempted to write them back a letter which began—“Dear Inc.” You see when the world tries to be personal it treats people like numbers and things, but when God is personal, he comes after you, and calls you by name, as he did with me.
I have one more story to share, and this one is from one of my favorite preachers—Fred Craddock. Fred and his wife Nettie were in the Smoky Mountains which both he and I dearly love, in a little town called Cosby, near Gatlinburg. It is not that far from where he currently lives in retirement. They were having a meal at the Black Bear Inn which has a great scenic view of the mountains out a big picture window. Early in the meal an elderly man approached the Craddock’s table and said ‘Good Evening’.
Fred said: ‘Good evening”
The man said “Are you on vacation?”
Fred replied “Yes,” (but under his breath he was saying ‘it’s none of your business’).
‘Where are you from?’ the man asked.
‘We’re from Oklahoma’ said Fred.
‘What do you do in Oklahoma?’ asked the persistent man.
Under his breath Fred was saying ‘leave us alone, we’re on vacation and don’t know who you are’, but out loud he said—‘I am a Christian minister’.
The man asked--- ‘Which church?’
Fred said ‘The Christian church’.
The man paused and then said: “I owe a great deal to a minister of the Christian church.’ (Clearly this man was relentless and did not know when to quit).
At that point the man pulled up a chair and sat down next to the Craddock.
Fred said feebly—“Yes, have a seat.” But in his mind he was asking—‘Who is this person?”
The man said: “I grew up in these mountains. My mother was not married and the whole community knew it. I was what was called in those days an illegitimate child, in fact they called me that ugly name—a bastard. In those days that was shameful, and I was ashamed. The reproach that fell on my mother, fell also on me. When I went into town I could see people staring at me, making guesses as to who my father was. At school the children said ugly things to me, so I stayed to myself at recess and at lunch.
In my early teens I began to attend a little church back in the mountains called Laurel Spring Christian Church. It had a minister who was both attractive and frightening. He had a chiseled face, a deep voice, and a heavy beard. I went to hear him preach, I don’t know exactly why, but it did something for me. But I was afraid I was not welcome, since I was, as they put it, a bastard. I would go just in time for the sermon and then quickly leave before someone could ask me—what’s a boy like you doing here? One Sunday however I got trapped in the aisle, there were too many adults in front of me leaving, and I felt a heavy hand on my shoulder. It was that minister. I caught a glimpse of his beard and face and knew. I trembled in fear. He turned his face around so he could look me in the eye, and seemed to be staring at me for ever so long. I knew what he was doing—he was sizing me up in order to guess who my father was. A moment later he said--- “well boy you are a child of…” and he paused there. I just knew what was coming, I just knew I would have my feeling hurt—again! I knew I would never go back to that church again. But then he said ‘Boy, you are a child of---- God! I see a striking resemblance, boy.” Then he swatted me on the bottom and said ‘Now go claim your inheritance.’ I left church a different person that day. In fact really that was the beginning of my life. I had been found, and found out, and I found out who I was.”
Fred Craddock says that he was so moved by the story that he asked the man “What’s your name?”
The man said “Ben Hooper”
Fred then said—“I suddenly recalled that my own father had once told me when I was just a child how the people of Tennessee had twice elected as governor a ‘bastard’ named Ben Hooper.”
You see, that one straggly sheep had been worth rescuing and God puts his hand on that little sheep that day and claimed him, and the rest, as they say, is history. God is a God who diligently seeks and saves the least, the last and the lost
And all God’s people said--- AMEN.