The Ninety-Nine and the One

a sermon for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 19)

99 percent of the time, things are pretty good… at least for 99 percent of us.  But that’s not good enough for God.

99 times out of 100, people who hear the story in today’s Gospel reading will call it, the “Parable of the Lost Sheep.” That’s a pretty good description of the story. A sheep goes missing and the shepherd drops everything to find it.

99 times out of 100, people who hear the second story would call it, “the Parable of the Lost Coin.” A woman works and works, scrubs and cleans, until she finds a coin that she lost.

99 times out of 100, people would say that a score of 99 would be an A+ on any exam they ever took. It would be awesome! Great job! Super score! Hip, hip, hurray!

Pretty good… but not perfection.

The ancients believed that the number 100 was a mystical number. It represents “perfection.”

99 times out of 100, life is pretty sweet for us… at least for 99% of us. We live in a great country. We have beautiful homes, have nice cars. Our kids go to good schools. We all have enough to eat. We’re happy…

Back in the 1700’s, there was an Anglican priest named John Newton. He wrote the hymn, “Amazing Grace,” as a kind of spiritual autobiography. Before he became a priest, he worked as a sailor on a slave ship. He was one of the most profane sailors there was, causing even his crew to complain about his language! One night there was a storm that went on for 17 hours. It was so violent, he had to tie himself to the ship’s pump so he would not be washed overboard. During those long hours he cried out to God for mercy, and so began his conversion to Christianity. “I once was lost, but now am found,” he wrote.

All of us know what’s it’s like to lose something. We lose our keys, we lose our money. Sometimes we even lose our kids. (How many of you ever lose your kids in the grocery store?) And when we find that thing, oh how we rejoice!

Today’s Gospel is about being lost and found – about a shepherd who found a lost sheep, about a woman who found a lost coin. It’s tempting for us to imagine ourselves in their shoes, being the seekers, if you will. After all, didn’t Jesus tell us to “seek and we will find?” But I wonder if Jesus isn’t trying to teach us something different. Maybe these stories are less about us doing the seeking, and more about us being found. Maybe we’re more like the coin that went missing, the one that dropped through the cracks, waiting to be found.

There are lots of ways becoming lost, of course. Sometimes it happens because we’re so focused on our jobs that we miss our kid’s dance recital or ball game. Sometimes it happens because we’re saving so much for the future that we don’t take time enjoy the present. Sometimes it happens because we’re trying so hard to be perfect, or to fit in with the cool kids, that we really don’t know who we are anymore. Those are all ways of being lost.

And sometimes, it happens when we haven’t done anything wrong at all. Sometimes, things just don’t go right – there’s a layoff at work, or a car wanders into an intersection, or a cell goes haywire in our body. One minute, everything is fine and the next minute we feel like everything is lost.

When I was a kid, I remember going shopping with my mom. I had wandered off to look at something, and suddenly realized that I was lost. I had no idea where she was. I was panicked and started crying. A lady came up to me and could see that something was wrong, and she called out to everyone around us. Just then, my mom stepped out and found me. Of course she had been there all along, but in my panic I just couldn’t see her there.

God is seeking US! We are sought out, and indeed are found, not by our efforts, but by God’s. No matter how lost we may feel, God never stops searching for us. No matter how far we wander, no matter how far we fall, no matter how deep and dark and black the hole is that we fall into, God never gives up. God is always present, always near us, always looking for us, even in the deepest, darkest corners of our soul.

We once were lost, but now are found.

Of course, being found means more than simply being recovered. In order to be found by God, we need to turn around, to repent. Being found means being restored to our full relationship with God. And, being found means not only being restored to our relationship with God, but also our relationship with the community. We are joined in communion not only with our Creator, but also with the rest of creation and our fellow human beings.

God is always present, no matter how far we wander, how alone we imagine we might be, God is as near as our next step, our next breath, our next heart beat. God walks with us, and sometimes carries us, until we are able to repent and return to God.

One of the most interesting things about today’s parable is its name. In this country, it’s often called “the parable of the lost sheep.” But in some parts of the world, this same story has a different name. It’s called “the parable of the incomplete flock.” Being lost doesn’t only affect the individual. It also affects the entire community. As we look around, missing those who aren’t here, we are broken, too. This is how it is in the household of God. Whenever one of is lost, we are all affected. And whenever one repents and returns to the Lord, we and all of heaven rejoices. The lost one is now found. We are restored back to God. We take our rightful place back in the body of Christ in the world.

For 99 percent of the population, our lives are pretty good – 99 percent of the time. But God keeps searching for us until every last one of us is safe and found. God treasures every sheep, every coin, every hair on your head, every child of the family. God is right there, as close as the bread and wine, as close as the kiss of our child at night or the handshake of a friend, as close as the spirit that fills our souls at baptism.

God seeks us out and finds us, and restores us once again to the body of Christ in the world.

Thanks be to God.

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