Lost, lost, lost. I’m sensing a pattern in today’s text. Everybody is losing something! A sheep is lost. A coin is lost. A child is lost. What’s the matter with these people, anyways? They need to learn to keep track of things, don’t they? Isn’t that what this reading is telling us? Be responsible and learn to keep track of your stuff! Seems pretty straightforward to me.
Well, except for what we talked about last week. If there seems to be an easy answer to a complex question in the Bible then the easy answer probably isn’t where the Bible story is leading us.
If keeping track of things isn’t the point, then what is?
It’s a long reading today but I think it is important to keep all three stories together to catch the overall arc of the message we’re getting. Each of the stories gets told as standalone, particularly the last one commonly known as the Prodigal Son. But there is real power in telling all three together so we do get the idea that losing something is important. Finding that which is lost is even more important.
For churches this is a big concern in many circles. Go find those people who are ‘lost’ in their faith and save them. So they don’t go to hell. I’m not too worried about other people going to hell. That’s kind of up to God to sort out and I’m pretty sure I don’t factor into the equation very much. Now this way of thinking is a huge departure from our evangelical brothers and sisters who do take personal responsibility for everyone else’s salvation, for saving everyone else from the so-called fires of hell, and they are literally broken hearted when they deem that someone is at risk of going to hell. I’m not being facetious or poking fun here. They are strongly committed and deeply desiring that every person go to heaven.
My point of departure with that approach is that there is generally a checklist for doing that. There is usually a do this and don’t do that list of things that will get you into heaven. A Lutheran view of God suggests that God sees us differently than sinners that are in big trouble. As we’ve noted last week and many times before, humanity has proven time and again that we are unable to follow the checklist approach to stay on the good side of God. I can’t even follow the checklist approach to stay on the good side of my to-do list much less use that approach to stay on God’s good side. God knows all this and sent Jesus to save us. Not because we deserved saving but because we don’t. And God saves us anyway. We are saved by grace through our faith.
What then is all this concern about something or something being lost? I mean, that pattern really is here in the readings isn’t it. Over and over and over. Lost sheep, lost coin, lost child. If we’re not lost to God thanks to our sin because we’re saved by grace through our faith then what exactly is lost?
In 21st century USAmerica what has been lost is our collective connection as people of faith. I’m not talking about the number of churches that close every year though that is a problem. I’m not talking about people who move from one church to another for whatever reason. Unless you’re younger than 7 ½ and were here after Spirit of Hope started we call came from somewhere else, didn’t we? I’m talking about people who, for whatever reason, have walked away from a community of faith and are not connected anywhere. I think they are collectively labled as ‘Dones’.
Now I suspect there are a few people in the Done category who are just lazy and don’t want to bother. Fair enough, that dynamic exists in any group of more than say 7 people. But what about everyone else? We, that is the church, has tended to point fingers at these exceptions to the rule and absolve ourselves of any responsibility for people not finding church a place they wanted to be connected to. We’ll keep doing what we do and if they really love God they’ll get in here. They’ll straighten up and fly right! About that time we, the church, lost lots of people.
That didn’t and hasn’t worked out so well. Using guilt as a motivator rarely does in the long term. So what have we, the church, done since then? Well, the keep people happy at all costs approach came up big, and still does in many times and places. You know, take a committee vote on everything to meet everyone’s personal desire so that everyone stays happy. The pendulum swung from the guilt side of the arc to the have zero expectations as long as everyone is happy part of the arc. In the long term, attempting to keep everyone happy didn’t and hasn’t worked out very well either. About that time we, the church, lost lots more people.
Just as today’s reading gives us a pattern for setting our focus on that which has been lost we also begin to see a pattern in which the church has lost lots of people. And that pattern is centered squarely on the idea that the church focused on itself and its own survival, rather than focusing on Jesus. And therein guaranteed its own demise.
I don’t know exactly what the church should do about the mess it has created. Actually, I do and it’s very simple. We, the church, must quit guilting people and quit focusing on what makes us feel good and what keeps people happy and instead focus on Christ. Because we, the church, are the body of Christ on earth.
This is no less true for our own lives as it is in the life of the church. In and amongst all the distractions of our busy lives it can be easy to set Jesus to the side a little bit on occasion. That rarely has a good outcome. This Lenten season is a good time to focus our lives on Christ. When we focus on Christ we become transformed people. And it is transformed people who transform churches into the true body of Christ. And transformed churches change the world. That is our ultimate hope in Christ.
All is not lost, thanks be to God.