The Rev. Melanie McCarley
The parables Jesus tells in today’s Gospel are about joy. A shepherd has compassion for a single errant sheep and leaves the ninety-nine in order to find and rescue it. Later, we are told that a woman searches diligently for a coin until it is discovered. Understandably, we tend to focus on issues of being lost and of being found. But what I believe is so often missed is the common denominator of joy that finds itself expressed best in the context of community.
Listen again: When the shepherd finds the sheep and lays it on his shoulders, we are told that the shepherd rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors and says to them: “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” And Jesus goes on to say: “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.
As for the women who has lost a coin—we are told that 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.” And our Savior concludes by telling us: “Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” Do you hear it? These aren’t parables of judgment. These are parables of joy. And here’s the thing. I get that—as did the sinners and tax collectors listening to Jesus tell them these parables. I hope you do as well.
Have you ever been lost and needed the help of others to be found? This past week there was a dramatic story in the news about a family of three who found themselves stranded at the top of a 40 foot waterfall in central California. Curtis Whitson, his 13 year old son Hunter and Curtis’ girlfriend, Krystal Ramirez were on a four day hiking and camping trip in the Arroyo Seco tributary of the Salinas River, when they became trapped in an isolated area called the waterfall.
The water level had caught the family by surprise. The rope and carabiners that should have been fastened into the rocks were missing. Curtis and his son attempted several routs to hike to safety—none of them worked. They were trapped.
What to do? Yelling in such an isolated area wouldn’t help. No one could hear them. And so they turned to an old trick. Taking a water bottle, they placed a note inside with the date and the message: “Stuck at Waterfall. Please Send help!” On the outside of the bottle they scratched “GET HELP”. And they tossed it over the falls. Curtis says: “I looked at Hunter and said: “We’ve done all we can do. Now it’s just a matter of waiting to see what happens next and wait for people to come.”
Remarkably, two hikers nearly a half mile from the falls found the bottle downstream and notified a campground manager who alerted the authorities. At midnight, Curtis, Hunter and Krystal were awaken to the sound of a helicopter announcing over a loudspeaker: “This is search and rescue and you have just been found.” Curtis says that it was at that point he fell to his knees.
They were lost, but were found. True enough. But something else struck me about this story. The family felt the need to thank those who helped them. Of course, Curtis, Hunter and Krystal wanted to rejoice. But they also recognized that their rejoicing would be incomplete without including all those who helped to bring them to a place of safety. Joy and gratitude are closely related.
Recall the response of the shepherd who finds and rescues the lost sheep and the woman who locates the coin. Neither the shepherd nor the woman waste time blaming the ones who became lost. The sheep, after all, was being a sheep—what can you expect….really. And the coin—well, it’s a coin! It might be lost, but it surely didn’t wander off on its own. The Shepherd doesn’t scold the errant animal or make the sheep walk behind him, tethered to a rope. He places that sheep across his shoulders, and understanding that it is tired and frightened, comforts it and carries it to safety. The woman doesn’t simply throw the coin into the coffer where it belongs, slamming the lid shut for good measure. She calls her friends and throws a party. Here is what we don’t find in these readings: a grudging decision to help or irritation at the foolishness of others. Here there is no spite, no rancor, no animosity or reluctance to be of assistance. Instead, what we sense is a joy which is both deep and profound, and results in calling together other people (friends and neighbors) in order to rejoice. If there is judgment in this passage—it’s not for what was lost—it’s upon those who fail to enter into the spirit of rejoicing when what was lost—be it a sheep, a coin, a tax collector or a sinner, is found.
So here is something to notice, these stories are not simply about finding what is lost. They are also about the response of those who are invited to draw near and rejoice. They are stories about all of us—the lost, the found, those who search, and others who gather in gratitude and joy.
So, what does this gospel say to us? The truth is, there are plenty of lost in the world: those who suffer from drug addiction; and others in prison. But more than these there are those who contend with physical and mental illness, and others beset by unfortunate circumstances of fate—how, for instance, can we not be aware of the intense suffering of those in the Bahamas? For certainly, those who have lost everything, are themselves lost as well and in need of rescue. What do you think the Gospel is telling us to do?
Now, about the business of welcoming that which is lost, here is a small, textual note that you may find interesting. The passage for today begins by telling us that one of the main reasons the Pharisees disdained Jesus so much was because he “welcomed” sinners and tax collectors. The Greek verb for “welcome” is prosdechomai from the root dechomai, which literally can mean to bring into one’s arms. So, the image here is very nearly that of an embrace. This is not just a polite word of “welcome”, a grudging opening of the door; it’s a throwing open of one’s arms, a drawing in of others—it’s a welcome that fluffs up the pillows and brings out the scotch and conveys the heart-felt offer of a dram.
Sometimes we are the ones who search. At other times in life, we are the ones who are found. Today’s gospel is a lesson about the love we should take care to extend to everyone, knowing that it has already been extended to us by God. For it is in searching and finding, it is in bringing others home to God that the true spirit of rejoicing in heaven and earth can be found. In Jesus’ name. Amen.