Saint Anthony of Padua; artist: Raphael, c. 1502
Luke 15:1-10 Pentecost 17 September 11, 2016
I figure I’m as Presbyterian as can be. But there are a lot of Catholics in my family tree, and in the twigs and branches of my generation. I guess that’s why, when I lose something and I get really worked up about it, I pray to Saint Anthony of Padua. He’s the saint to turn to when you’re in distress over lost or stolen things. One popular version of prayer to Anthony is, “Tony, Tony, turn around! Something’s lost that must be found!”
Now, before you start to compose a letter that will set me straight about prayer to saints, let me tell you how it works for me. It’s not so much a prayer as a forced pause. I close my eyes. I slow my breathing. I visualize the thing I’m looking for. My memory usually clears. Sometimes I see what I’ve misplaced. More often, I find the clarity to look again, and really see what I need to see. I think God has more important things to worry about than the last location of my keys. So I say Saint Anthony’s name instead.
I hate to lose things. I panic. I feel really stupid when I can’t find something I need. When it isn’t where it’s supposed to be. I’m relieved when I find what I’ve lost. I’m happy. Maybe not happy enough to throw a party, unlike the two characters in the short parables we read today.
There are three lost and found stories in Luke 15. We love the longer one about the son who tells his father to get lost, only to lose himself. The son finds his own way home. Coins and sheep can neither repent nor find their own way home. Someone has to go after them.
Both the woman who drops the coin pinned inside her dress for safekeeping, and the shepherd who ends his workday one sheep short lose something of themselves. Some scholars say the woman’s treasured coin is the only hard currency she owns. Maybe a wedding gift. Maybe an inheritance. The sheepherder caring for a hundred is steward of a family or community flock. He’ll be liable and lose honour if he doesn’t find that lost sheep.
Does Jesus mean God loses something of God’s self when we wander away from the fold? When we leave the path of discipleship, does God grieve? Does Jesus want us to imagine God is desperate to find us, to bring us home?
How about this? Can we imagine God taking us good, stay-safein-the-fold sheep for granted, and taking off after the prodigal sheep? Does Jesus count on us being faithful and obedient so he can turn his attention to people we may not think belong in our pasture? He says, “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous persons who need no repentance.” (verse 7)
We’re the 99. We already know God loves us. We know God forgives our sins. We count on that. Most of us have never really been lost. We can’t imagine being anywhere but where we are, on the inside. Some of us have found our way, or have been found and led inside. We’re safe now. We can’t expect Jesus to be preoccupied with us when there are still so many treasured lost coins and sheep to be found.
Life lived safe on the inside can be really boring. How about stepping outside, following Jesus’ example, looking for the lost? We’ll probably find them, as Jesus did, where people who are different from us gather. Especially people insiders like to call outsiders (verse 2). One thing’s certain: If we go where Jesus goes, we’ll never get lost