Luke 15: 1-10
I have a distinct memory of Sunday afternoons growing up in the Lindsley home. It consisted of four things once we got home from church: Mom’s amazing Sunday meal, Redskins football on the TV, a fire in the fireplace, and puzzles. My Dad would pull the card table out of the closet and set it up right in front of the TV and the fireplace with a lamp close by. And then he would dive in, spreading the puzzle pieces out before him. And these weren’t the rinky-dink puzzles – we’re talking 1000, 2000, even 2500 pieces. Puzzles of mountain scenes and postage stamps. Puzzles where every piece was exactly the same shape. Puzzles that his father actually made by hand, with his jigsaw.
I was in awe of my father and his puzzles. Partly for the way his brain worked in assembling these masterpieces; partly with the patience it took to do it. I was particularly impressed with those instances when he’d be down to one last puzzle piece he could not find. There he would sit, for as long as it took, painstakingly scouring the table for that one missing piece. He’d check every piece to see if it fit; and then he’d check them again. He’d look back in the box to make sure he’d gotten all the pieces out. He’d look on the floor, and he’d interrogate the dogs in case they had helped themselves to one for an afternoon snack. He would even look in other puzzle boxes for it.
And eventually – I don’t know how – but eventually Dad would find that one piece he was looking for. The table would stay up for days so his masterpiece could be displayed in its completeness.
I couldn’t help but think of my Dad and his puzzles when I came to our scripture today. Turns out my Dad shared something in common with the shepherd in Jesus’ parable looking for his missing sheep, or the woman turning her house upside down to find that one lost coin. In these parables, Jesus is trying to communicate to his audience – and to us – a very important truth about the nature of God’s love. If we view God as the shepherd and the woman, as we tend to do, that truth becomes clear: that simply having most of the pieces in place is not enough. What matters to God is that one piece is missing. In other words, God doesn’t cut God’s losses and say, “Well, I’ve got 99 out of 100 sheep and almost all of the coins – guess that’s the best I can do!” That’s not how God operates.
And that is the scandal of God’s love. We don’t typically think of God’s love as scandalous, but it is. It absolutely is. In both his actions and his words, Jesus proclaims that all people are important in God’s eyes; no one is so unworthy that God would ever stop searching for them. The search continues until every last piece is found because what is most important to Jesus is that God’s puzzle is complete: that all 100 sheep are accounted for, that each of the ten silver coins is in possession. Once the puzzle is finished, and only when it is finished, is there reason for celebration.
Now it’s a good feeling to find what had once been lost, isn’t it? You comb the house for your keys and feel that sense of victory when you come upon them – usually in a place you swore you’ve already looked. Or how about the tears of relief you cry when you find your child who was separated from you in a crowded shopping mall? Or how about the geometry proof you were finally able to solve because the light bulb came on and you realized that one step that you had left out? Everyone is happy and rejoicing when the missing piece is found.
Or are they? Is everyone happy and rejoicing when the missing piece is found?
I know, it’s a weird question to ask. Except maybe it’s not. That’s the thing about the parables of Jesus – he doesn’t tell them because he’s looking for some sweet story to pass the time. Jesus uses parables to get his point across in a way that enables the listener to come to the conclusion on their own. And those conclusions are not always feel-good conclusions, either. They challenge the people they are directed to, inviting them to a deeper understanding of what it means to follow Jesus; what the kingdom of God is really about. They push folks a bit – and people don’t always like to be pushed.
Which is why it is so important to think long and hard about where we locate ourselves in the parables that Jesus tells. This will be something we’ll dig into further when we begin Lent next week and our Lenten theme – “Hands, Feet, and Heart of Jesus.” Rebecca and I will be doing a deep dive into the parables of Jesus, and the fact that our instinct is to identify with the protagonist, the one who receives grace, the one who is lifted up; because it feels good to be on the “winning side.”
But is that who Jesus intends for us to identify with? Or is it someone else?
I mean, I don’t know. It might be wise to pay attention to who his parables are directed to, who the audience is. In our parable today, for instance, we find it in the very first verse:
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
And that is when Jesus tells his story about the lost being found.
And it’s interesting, isn’t it, because you and I, we read this parable and assume that we are the missing piece Jesus is talking about – that we are the ones who were lost and now are found. Because it feels good to be found. Because we like stories with a happy ending for us.
But that’s not who Jesus is telling this parable for, is he? No – he’s not telling it for the tax collectors and sinners – he’s telling it about the tax collectors and sinners for the Pharisees and Scribes. The ones who were convinced they had already been found. The 99 sheep who stayed where they were supposed to stay; the nine coins who were right where the woman wanted them to be. That’s who this parable is for. They needed to hear a hard truth about God’s scandalous love.
As do we.
And so I want to invite you to imagine something. Imagine a conversation taking place between two of those 99 sheep while the shepherd was off trying to find the missing one. I wonder if that conversation might’ve gone something like this…..
Did you hear the news?
No, what’s that?
He got out again.
No! You’re kidding!
Nope. He did it again.
When did he get away?
Sometime last night. The shepherd was getting a snack. He turned his back for one
second. That’s all it took.
I can’t believe that!
Well, believe it, because it’s true.
Where was he going?
Who knows? And who cares?
Unbelievable. It makes me so angry when he does that.
Right?! It’s so inconsiderate. One sheep, taking up all the shepherd’s time. Pretty selfish if you ask me.
And pretty stupid! Whenever the shepherd goes running off like that looking for him, it
leaves the rest of us vulnerable, just waiting for a wolf attack.
I know, I know. I get scared every time it happens. (pause) You know what I think?
I think he ought to just let him go.
Of course! Think about it – what’s more important, finding one sheep, or keeping safe
the 99 you already have?
Exactly. It’s math, pure and simple.
And math is…..
Don’t worry about it; not important. It’s just – he’s one sheep, but he’s such a troublemaker. Why worry about those anyway?
Exactly. And here we are. We stay in our flock, we go where he tells us, we don’t
cause any trouble. And what do we get for our loyalty? Nothing – just abandonment when shepherd-guy goes off to find Mr. Troublemaker.
I don’t get it – what’s so important about one sheep that he’d keep going after him?
Beats me. He’s not from the Ewe family, is he?
No, no, nothing special about him. Just your ordinary sheep.
I wonder why the shepherd does it, then.
You got me. But he keeps going after him every time – every single time. And you
know what I think?
I think he’ll always go looking for him, no matter how many times it takes. Always.
Is this what it’s like to be part of the 99? The Pharisees and scribes, the religious leaders of the day, cringed in horror when they saw Jesus hanging out with the likes of tax collectors and sinners. In their minds they had drawn a deep distinction between themselves and that lot. They had no interest in being associated with them. Better to keep a few pieces of the puzzle out of the picture – some pieces, after all, are better left undiscovered.
And yet, God’s scandalous love flies in the face of that and challenges that way of thinking. God’s love makes us uncomfortable precisely because of what that love truly means for us and the world in which we live.
There’s a great short story by author Shel Silverstein that’s called The Missing Piece. It tells the tale of a circle who is literally missing a piece – it looks like a pie with a slice taken out – and it embarks on a quest to find its missing piece. Many times it comes upon a pie shape that looks like it might fit, but it never quite does – it’s too thin, it’s too fat. It keeps searching.
Until one day, lo and behold, it discovers the missing piece and it fits perfectly. Finally, it’s complete, and it is so happy! Well, for a little while, at least. And then it starts to notice how things have changed pretty dramatically since the missing piece was found. For instance, it used to meander along at a slow, leisurely pace, an almost-circle clumping along. But now, as a completed circle, it rolls way too fast for its taste. Where it once could talk and sing out of its pie-shaped opening, now it cannot because there’s a piece where the opening once was. The story ends rather abruptly as the circle decides to leave behind the missing piece because it preferred its incomplete life over the complete one.
It’s a disturbing tale, but if we’re honest it feels familiar, does it not? We like the idea of everyone being included, everything having its place, everyone being complete. In theory, we like it. But it’s a lot different in practice. Because when the missing piece is found, when the puzzle is finally complete, we are no longer who we were before. And so the question becomes, how do we deal with the fact that finding what was once lost and bringing it into the fold does not just change the one who was lost, but changes us as well?
The parable of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin thrusts in our face the hard reality of being incomplete and that completeness, while not always what we expect or what we want, is always what God wants. When we let God guide our searching, rather than looking on our own terms and searching with our own agendas, we enable God to complete the puzzle with the pieces God wants. With the people God loves, just as God loves us. People we may not think should be part of the completed puzzle; people we may not want to be part of the completed puzzle.
Who are those people for you, I wonder? And I’m not just talking about ethnicity or skin color or gender identity. I’m talking about people in your own family, in your church family, in your various circles. Who are those pieces that, if you had your way, might remain missing? Who are those that God wants so desperately to be found?
When Helen Keller was a young child, she didn’t go to church. She was deaf, could not speak and was blind – she had very little means by which to understand God. Then one day she was taken to visit Phillips Brooks, the greatest preacher of his generation, and he told her in the simplest possible language how God sent Jesus to show God’s love. As Dr. Brooks finished the story through the interpreter, it was as if the puzzle came together for young Helen. Her face lit up and she spelled into the hands of the interpreter this sentence: I knew all the time that there must be someone like that; I just didn’t know his name was Jesus.
Sometimes, friends, we stumble upon the missing piece because it is God who invites people to be part of God’s picture, and not the other way around. And it’s then – and only then – that the search for the missing piece is truly complete.
In the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.