Lost & Being Found [sermon 3.6.16, fourth sunday in lent]

by susan on March 7, 2016

the-prodigal-sonThen Jesus said, ‘There was a man who had two sons. 12The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” So he divided his property between them. 13A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’ ” 20So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” 22But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate.

25 ‘Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27He replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.” 28Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29But he answered his father, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” 31Then the father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” ’  – Luke 15:11-32, NRSV

Getting lost can be a terrifying experience.

Last year, on my final afternoon in Israel before returning home, I left our hotel and ventured out into the Old City of Jerusalem one more time. I am terrible with maps, so I was completely at the mercy of my friend Jon to get us where we wanted to go. We wanted to finish buying a few more souvenirs. We were winding our way through the narrow streets, talking, looking, taking in our last hours there, when suddenly we realized we had wandered off the beaten path.

Not only that, but we were in the Muslim Quarter, a place that did not frightens us, but because of all of the unrest it was the one place our guide warned us not to go. A teenager saw us (two White Americans with a map) and could tell we were lost. He didn’t speak English, but was willing to help us find our way. We motioned for us to follow him and we did. We walked close behind, only to discover a few minutes later that we had followed him up to the city wall where he was directing us to climb over a closed off portion of fence. He meant well, but we were not about to end up on jail on our last night before returning home. We thanked him, gave him a few coins and parted way.

We might have been calm earlier, but now we were starting to freak out.

Somehow, we pulled it together and managed to calm down enough for Jon to re-read the map. We breathed a huge sigh of relief when we finally made our way back to familiar territory and back to our group for the closing celebration that night.

Being lost can be a terrifying experience.

I grew up being taught that “lost” had another, very particular meaning. It referred to the group of people who refused God’s gracious invitation to new life. Whether you refused or you never heard about Jesus, you were lost (and bound to spend eternity in hell).

You were either lost or you were found.

In Jesus’ day, the word lost wasn’t really used to describe a person’s relationship with God; however, there were some people in society who were treated like lost causes: sinners, prostitutes and tax collectors to name a few. These lost causes were often Jesus’ dinner companions.

No doubt, keeping company with them troubled the Pharisees. When they questioned Jesus about why he eats with such despicable people, Jesus tells a series of stories.

Each story was about something lost being found. The first story is about one of a hundred sheep getting lost. The second story is about a woman losing one of ten silver coins. Both stories end with an urgent search and recovery of the one which was lost. Herds of sheep and collections of coins are fairly easily put back together. People not so much.

In the third story it’s more difficult to determine exactly whose gotten lost.

We tend to focus on the younger son. He doesn’t exactly get lost though. He decides to make an arrogant, selfish and utterly offensive request. He asks for a premature portion of his inheritance. It was the equivalent to wishing his father dead so he could get on with enjoying his father’s assets. It was the ultimate insult.

Those hearing this story would have been disgusted by this son’s request. Yet, surprisingly the father gives in, only to be repaid by his son leaving home and wasting his entire inheritance in reckless living. That’s where the story’s common title comes from: “The Parable of the Prodigal Son” we’ve call it. It is a reference to the son’s extravagant & wasteful living.

When he finally hits rock bottom, like the rich farmer we heard about last Sunday, the careless son begins talking to himself. He comes up with a well planned and well rehearsed speech . Surely, his father will not be able to refuse him this time either.

This son seems to have lost his way.

But what about the father? He seems a little lost himself.

He has certainly lost all control of his household. At the very least, he too eagerly caters to the whims of his son at the detriment of everyone else. And, when it’s all said and done, he forfeits the ultimate teaching moment. When his son returns, he doesn’t even wait for an apology. Instead, when he sees his wayward son coming down the road, he rushes out to meet him in an over the top, humiliating display of affection.

No respectable Israelite man would do this. His actions are described using the same Greek word we heard describing the Samaritan’s extravagant response to the wounded traveler. He feels and responds from the gut, yet with no consideration for how his response might impact the son who stayed behind all these years. His behavior would have seemed ridiculous to those hearing this story.

It seems the father may be lost in his own way.

And, what about the older son? Like his father, we tend to give him the least attention in this story.
It’s interestig though, that his disappearance is the only one that prompts a search in this third lost and found story.

When his younger brother had nerve enough to ask for his inheritance, this older son would have also received his share. He was now part owner of the estate, but he was also the one left to manage all of the work.

It’s no wonder he’s not at the party to celebrate his brother’s return. For all we know, he may not have even been invited.

He’s grown bitter.
No one likes to be left doing all the work.
No one like to be left out either.
His loyalty has never prompted dad to throw him a party.

When the father searches and finds his older son, he tries to reassure him: “‘Son, you don’t understand. You’re with me all the time, and everything that is mine is yours—but this is a wonderful time, and we had to celebrate. This brother of yours was dead, and he’s alive! He was lost, and he’s found!’” (Luke 15:31-32, MSG)

The Greek word interpreted “lost” used in all three of these stories is apollumi and it means to render useless, to destroy, to kill. Losing or getting lost has serious consequences. Much is at stake unless the the missing animal or coin or family member is returned.

Apollumi is used 25 times in Luke, far more than in any of the other gospels.

Luke desparately wants us to know something. He wants us to know some good news: that what is lost is being found and that what is being destroyed can be brought back to life and that what we had rendered useless has meaning after all.

Maybe it’s past time we stop using “lost” to describe people and especially to describe their relationship to God. There is no lost OR found.

We all get lost in our own way and
yet somehow God is finding us,
bringing us back to life and
inviting us to a kingdom of God party
where we can celebrate things (and people)
being put back together.

Jesus leaves this final story unresolved, perhaps as an invitation to those listening in. Perhaps as a invitation to us. What’s left unresolved is whether the older brother will go to the party or whether he will miss out. Certainly, he had plenty of reasons to refuse the invitation:

Like resentment,
like “but, it’s just not fair,”
like wanting to prove a point,
like not wanting to give his brother undue attention,
like cynicism and doubt that hist brother could change.

These are the same things that can keep us from enjoying life in the kingdom of God. These are the same things that can keep us from diving into community, from seeing beauty, from transformative relationships and from following the Way of Jesus.

We are the lost and being found. Five years into this journey as a community of those practicing the way of Jesus together, I pray that we will move through whatever threatens to holds us back and that we will will dive even deeper into God’s reconciling ways.  I pray that we will be part of putting things back together and that we will discover once again the joy of new life.

Lent practice 4

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