This morning the passage of Scripture is a familiar one. It is a parable. Jesus uses this form of teaching most often. Parables appear to be safe, easygoing stories that start out almost warm and fuzzy. They have a way of drawing the listener into active thought; at the same time, the story has an unusual ending that requires those who hear it to pause and perhaps think differently from what they're used to doing.
What we have this morning are two of three parables about what it means to be lost and found. The first is the story of the shepherd going out of his way to find a lost sheep, while the second is about a woman who searches for a lost coin. The sheep and the coin are so precious the shepherd and woman go out of their way to search for that which is lost, and the point is that when the sheep and coin are found, there is much rejoicing. The third parable, which is not included in these verses, is probably the most famous of the three. It is the story of a lost son. If we read between the lines, these verses, tell us another story, too.
In this story, we see the religious authorities of the day, feeling threatened by the fact Jesus was fellowshiping with sinners. The leaders were always careful to stay clean according to Old Testament law. In fact, they went well beyond the law in their avoidance of certain people and situations and in their ritual washings. So you see, when Jesus associated with and related to tax collectors, when He touched people who were diseased with leprosy and other illnesses, and when He did not always follow the prescribed ritual washings, He made those in power uneasy. He really made them nervous, when God forbid, He seemed to include women within His circle of followers.
To the Scribes and Pharisees, there were certain conditions of membership that had to be met and upheld, but Jesus usurped the conditions and embraced what some societies call "the untouchables," the unwashed, the people born on the wrong side of town. He ate and drank with them. In those fellowship meal gatherings, love, hospitality, grace and mercy were extended. The authorities were offended by this radical kindness Jesus offered, and they began to mumble and grumble about His actions, teachings and followers.
Jesus went outside of tradition and in essence said to the outcasts and so-called lost who did not follow the Old Testament law to the letter, "You, too, are a part of the household of God." "No matter what your station in life, even you are loved by God." That is good news.
Let me share with you this modern parable that's true. A few years ago, a friend of mine who is a minister in the Methodist church was sent to a small-town congregation to pastor. It was his first church, and he was delighted to go and minister there.
The church had a membership of around 30 active members, all of them in their 60s or older. There was no youth program because the only children who attended the church were those who spent the weekend with their grandparents. Men's ministry did not exist, and women's ministry was weak. The church had a beautiful piano and organ, but no one could play it, and the church didn't have enough money to hire a musician. Denominational mission giving was down, and there was very little participation in local outreach programs. Alan was told within a matter of days by those who had been born and raised in that congregation that the church wanted him to draw in new, younger people to the church, especially young people with children. Alan realized he had a lot of work to do.
Now here is where the story gets interesting. Much to the surprise of everyone in the community, Alan began to hang out at the local poolroom, because that's where the crowd was. He made himself known to the people who worked there along with those who congregated almost daily for whatever reason. He learned their names and what they did for a living and in which part of town they lived. Alan got to be such a regular that he sometimes was asked questions about the Bible, salvation, grace and stewardship. Soon he was being asked to pray for someone's relative who was sick, in jail or out of work. Once, he was asked to preside at a funeral of someone who had no church home at all. From time to time, without the congregation knowing where the money came from, he was given a few dollar bills by a poolroom patron to place in the offering plate. Alan loved those people, and they loved him. Although at first he wasn't sure if they ever would come, he always encouraged them to attend his church, to call on him and his congregation if they ever needed help. Guess what? Some of them did start to come to church, unruly kids and all.
However, his church was not happy. They did not want a pastor who hung out at the poolroom with those kind of people. If fact, they did not want those kind of people in their church. He was told point blank that those kind of people were not the kind of people the church wanted for members. Their grumbling did not deter Alan.
From the poolroom population and their kin, he slowly began to have a few children for youth activities. He also found a few men who were willing to take him and the kids fishing. Much to the chagrin of the church, he found a family of six who agreed to play stringed music in church on Sundays for free. Complaints of, "Why can't you find someone to play the piano?" began.
Pretty soon, the congregation reported its displeasure of Alan to the higher church authorities, and they asked that at the next conference Alan be placed somewhere else and not return to their church.
Sometimes the church, similar to the religious leaders of Jesus' day, cannot always get past the fact that the circle of God includes everyone. Jesus was trying to teach not only by His words but by His actions,that the rich and poor, men and women, pool players and people who played bridge, young and old, black and white and everyone in between is loved by God.
Now I don't know how you feel about God's hospitality to everyone, but I sometimes have problems with it myself. I have problems because I can't always understand how God would ever forgive or love the drug dealer who destroys lives, the parent who abandons children or does not pay child support. I can't always understand how God would love and welcome someone who would rather steal for a living instead of getting a job. When I read in the paper or see on the news that a person deliberately has harmed a child or senior citizen, or that dictator of a nation uses poison gas to destroy his own people, I say to myself, "Don't do it God, don't show him any grace or mercy." Then I step back and look in the mirror and wonder out loud, "How can God love me?"
Years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. said the most segregated hour in America is 11 a.m. on Sunday. At the time he made the statement, our country was in the grip of the Civil Rights Movement. Everyone went to their own separate churches on Sunday morning. Blacks went one way, whites went another and everybody in between went their own separate ways, as well. Today if we look around, the comment is still valid. We may not be as segregated by color as we use to be, but we are very much so by social class, by the education we have or don't have, the part of town where we live, by the jobs we have or don't have.
Sometimes as individuals and as the whole faith community, we have to take an inventory and ask hard questions: "What keeps us away from people who need Christ? What keeps us from reaching past our comfort zone to seek people who are not like us? As a matter of fact, what keeps us from wanting to share the gospel at all?
These are hard faith questions, but they must be asked.