Does anyone think that the scribes and the Pharisees might be just a little bit jealous? For the past few weeks of story, Jesus has been at their house, eating at their tables, messing with their seating arrangements and telling them who they should and shouldn’t invite for dinner: and now he’s ditched them for this other crowd, and they are either not invited or wouldn’t darken the doorway if they were; and they’re feeling a little bit petulant. It makes you wonder, at least a little bit, just who it is Jesus thinks might be lost.
We lost my elder brother once. It was in a department store in Bristol, England, where we used to live. Our parents, in those seemingly innocent days, would park us in the toy department while they looked at boring stuff like kitchen appliances or clothes or goodness knows what. Anyway, that day they came back and found me playing with the teddy bears (I had a certain weakness for stuffed animals), and asked me where my brother was, and I looked around and shrugged – I hadn’t seen him in a while.
We searched the toy department. Then we went to customer service and got them to put out an announcement over the tannoy. We waited. Store security poked about in fitting rooms and unlikely corners, and came up empty. He was not in the store.
We went to the police station. I remember our parents giving them his description: it was strange, hearing him reduced to height and hair colour and the clothes on his back. There were no cell phones back in the olden days, so they told us to go home and wait there for their call.
We walked back through the department store, retracing our steps, searching and seeking about, until we reached the multi-storey parking garage where we’d left our old, maroon Ford Cortina, and there he was, sitting on the ground, leaning against the wheel arch. It turned out, he didn’t even know that he was lost. He was simply sitting, waiting to be found.
I believe that we ate chip-shop fish and chips out of the newspapers that night, a humble celebration saved for the most special of occasions, and a sure sign that our mother was both exhausted and elated.
In the readings that we heard this morning, we rehearse the cycle of a father, of a mother, of a lover who has lost the one most precious to their heart. Jeremiah proclaims God’s anger, God’s regret, God’s undoing of Creation: Genesis has gone into reverse – lo! Let there be no light! Lo! Let there be no land! Lo! Let there be no life! My children are stupid and foolish and leave me behind, and I will have none of them. (Oxford Bible Commentary, John Barton and John Muddiman, eds, OUP, 2001, 493)
But God has been here before, and God promised Noah never again to say never again; never again to make a full end, so that even in the face of betrayal and anger and grief and pain, God will not say, never again will I love you. Indeed, in the first letter to Timothy, the author (who may or may not have been Paul himself, but who considered himself at least under Paul’s mantle) describes himself in the terms of a foolish child, ignorant and in need of patience; but God sought out Paul when he was Saul, persecuting the people of the risen Christ, and saved him from himself. A Pharisee who thought himself firmly on the road of righteousness, nevertheless Saul was lost until he was found on the road to Damascus and blinded so that he might see. “Amazing Grace” might have been his theme song, if it had been written yet.
And then in the Gospel, the denouement: the lost child, the wanderer, the fool who in his heart said there was no God, has been found, and is brought home to great rejoicing, relief and tears, and dancing on the edge of heaven.
Have you seen those aging images that they use to portray how children who went missing ten or twenty years ago might look now? There are those who never give up searching, who cannot let go of hope. We had a lesson in that this year, after a decade of three girls gone who have been restored to their families; and despite the hardship, despite the horror, there was great rejoicing that they had been found. How could there not be?
And if we, who are sinners and Pharisees and scribes, know how to rejoice when someone is found, and brought home, how much more our Father, our Mother who is in heaven?
The scribes and the sinners and the Pharisees with their dinners can argue till the cows come home over who is last and who is first and who is lost and who is found – Jesus tells them, no matter what, no matter when, God delights in all of God’s children, even you, even me; God delights to receive us in a loving embrace, no matter how, no matter why; God never gives up searching, never gives up calling, gives up sweeping the floor to find us, no matter how, no matter who. God never loses hope.
It is a matter of great delight; it is a saying worthy to be received, that God never gives up hope of finding our faces turned toward heaven, and the joy that is freely offered from on high.
And we can grumble with the Pharisees – what, God loves them, too? – whoever “them” is for you – or we can say, Jesus Christ; my God; I never knew how lost I was until I was found by you. Amen.