Byron C. Bangert

March 25, 2001

Ezekiel 34:1-16; Luke 15:1-10

There is a story that comes out of West Virginia about an evangelist who was working the backroads in Raleigh County, in the southern part of the state, when he ran into an old Mountaineer. Their conversation went something like this (please excuse the ethnic and gender caricatures):

"Are you a Christian?" . . . "Nope, Mr. Christian lives up the holler. My name's Jukes."

"What I mean, brother, are you lost?" . . . "Well, I reckon not. I been here nigh on 30 years and know every cowpath in these here hills."

"Are you following the light of the Lord?" . . . "Sure, I don't go much for this daylight savings business anyhow. And besides it's gettin' hard to find kerosene for them lamps of mine."

"I'm not making myself clear. Are you living the good life? Are you ready for the judgment day?" . . "When is it coming?"

"Can't tell. It might come today and it might come tomorrow." . . . "Well, when you find out, Mr. Preacher, do me a favor. Don't tell the missus or she'll want to go both days."

According to Jesus, "the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost" [Luke 19:10]. There is a problem with the language of scripture. Its meaning may not be vivid for us. It may not be clear. What does it mean to be lost?

There is another story, this one out of New England, about a certain traveller somewhere in northern Vermont. After driving in uncertainty for a while, he became convinced that he was on the wrong road, and so, at the first village, came to a halt.

Calling one of the villagers to the car window, he said, "Friend, I need help. I'm lost." The villager looked at him for a moment. "Do you know where you are?" he asked. "Yes," said the traveller, "I saw the name of the village as I entered." The man nodded his head. "Do you know where you want to go?" "Yes," the traveller replied, and named his destination. The villager looked away for a moment, ruminating. "You ain't lost, " he said at last, "you just need directions."

Whether it's a question of not knowing where you are, or not knowing where you want to go, or not knowing how to get there, being "lost" is a terribly unsettling feeling. You may feel disoriented, without direction, abandoned, uncertain of what is going on and powerless to exercise meaningful control. To feel lost is to feel you are in a place where you do not belong.

It is also a terrible feeling to have lost something. When I was first preparing to write this sermon, I discovered that I had lost my notes, where I had recorded all the ideas that gave rise to this sermon. That is to say, I had misplaced those notes--they were not where they belonged--and it took me a trip home over lunch and a some mental backtracking before I returned to my office to find them.

Jesus surely knew about lost and found. He told the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin, apparently to illustrate the method of his ministry. The shepherd who has a hundred sheep, yet loses one, does not hesitate to go out into the wilderness to find it. The woman who has ten silver coins, but loses one, sweeps the house clean until it is found. We could all tell stories of things we have lost, and the lengths to which we have gone to find them. Once as a child I lost a prized steel marble in the grass of a nearby park. I must have spent hours combing that grass in my search to find it. The loss of something precious moves us to great effort, and when we have found it there is great rejoicing.

The point to the parables is that Jesus is about God's business of seeking out and finding the lost. That is why he welcomes sinners and eats with them. They are precious in the sight of God. They are worth going out of one's way. There is much rejoicing in heaven when they are found.

But, again, what does it mean to be lost? What does it mean, so far as the human condition is concerned? In Isaiah 53, the prophet declares, "all we like sheep have gone astray" [vs. 6]. Perhaps all of us are in some way lost. As best I can tell, however, Jesus was not given to calling people sinners. If he used the term, it was probably in rejoinder to those religious people who saw their world divided between themselves and those who lived outside the religious law. His society, like ours, made distinctions between "good" people and "bad" people. And the religious leaders of his day wondered why he hung around with the bad. But we should not assume that this is how Jesus himself saw his world.

The "lost" of Jesus' day were not necessarily worse sinners than the so-called righteous. They were more likely people who did not quite belong. They had no accepted place. They were like lepers, or the woman with the flow of blood, thought to be unclean, not necessarily sinful, but hardly the best of company, the sort of people that polite society does not want to be around. They were like Zacchaeus, the tax collector, despised for his occupation, known to almost all but accepted by hardly any. They were like the demon-possessed, the mentally ill, whom people want out of sight as long as they are out of mind. They were people on the margins, with little vested interest in the way things are. They were like exiles or aliens in their own land, in the midst of their own people.

It may very well be that Jesus uses the image of the lost sheep to remind his detractors that all Israel likewise once was lost. The people of Israel have known in their own history what it is like to be scattered, separated from the flock. They have known what it is like to be the dispossessed. They have known what it is to be a marginalized minority, to inhabit a land where they do not belong. The prophet Ezekiel had used the image of the shepherd and the sheep to speak of the dissolution of Judah at the hands of the Babylonians. That dissolution had been accompanied by military defeat. It had included the destruction of Jerusalem and Solomon's glorious temple. It had meant exile in Babylon for many of Judah's brightest and best, dispersion for others, demoralization for those who remained.

The exile events were surely the most traumatic in the history of the people of Israel, and second only to the exodus from Egypt in defining Israel's self-understanding. Like the other great prophets, Ezekiel sees these events as an expression of divine judgment. The kings and rulers of the people bear the brunt of Ezekiel's blame. They had enriched themselves at the people's expense, like shepherds feeding themselves instead of the sheep. They had not strengthened the weak, they had not healed the sick, they had not bound up the injured, they had not brought back the strayed, they had not sought the lost, but with force and harshness they had ruled. So their rule was taken from them, and the people were scattered. But God promises to rescue the people from such rulers. "I myself will search for my sheep," says God [Ezekiel 34:11]. God will become their shepherd, and will feed them, and will make them a flock again.

The experience of "lostness" in Israel's history was the experience of defeat, dissolution, and dispersion, and--for many--exile in Babylon. The people were dispossessed of their homeland, they were made to dwell among those who counted them aliens, they were without the means to govern themselves. They were thwarted from being the people whom God had created them to be.

In order to understand the biblical language of lost and found, we need to understand this history. We need to understand that there may have been a multitude of associations with this idea of being lost. The lost are those who are separated, cut off from community, excluded from meaningful participation in the lives of others. The lost include those who have violated the laws and forsaken the obligations of life together. They live outside the bounds of what had long been understood as God's covenant with the people. But the lost also include those who have been neglected or ignored, rejected or abused, through no special fault of their own. The lost include the hungry and thirsty, the sick and the imprisoned, the homeless and the stranger, those whom Jesus calls "the least of these" who nonetheless belong to the family [Matt. 25:40]. The new covenant spoken of in the New Testament, the new covenant in Christ, is one in which the boundaries have been re-drawn to include all who recognize God's gracious spirit in him.

In some very particular ways Jesus is to be identified with "the least of these." As a teacher, he is uncredentialed. As a Galilean, he is a provincial, a small town boy from the sticks. As a peripatetic, he has no institutional identity, no tenured position on any recognized faculty, no seniority with the company or the union. This son of Adam has nowhere to lay his head [Matt. 8:20]. Like many of those to whom he ministers, Jesus knows something of what it is like not to belong, to be an outsider, to be without much standing. He is even without the conventional comforts of home. On one occasion when his mother and brothers and sisters try to gain an audience with him, he gestures to those around him, saying, "these are my mother and my brothers [and my sisters]" [Mark 3:34]. It is not that he is without family, rather, he redefines the meaning of family. Those who follow after him are his family. That being so, then he belongs to them, and they to each other, and they too have a new home.

Who, then, are the lost? They are not so much sinners as they are those whom society has denied a place at the table. They are those who have nowhere to call their own, those who feel excluded, separated from community, alienated and estranged from those among who they dwell. They are those who do not yet feel a part of the human family, or God's family, or the family of those who are blessed. They may be visibly rich, like Zacchaeus, but they are more likely to be visibly or invisibly poor. They may have wandered astray, or they may have been scattered by vicissitude and misfortune, but they are yet to be found. They may dwell in dingy nursing homes, broken-down boarding houses, and ugly ghettos, or in urban anonymity, or in the splendid isolation of suburbia. But wherever they dwell, it hardly seems like home. Society, their neighbors, their relatives, have precious little regard for them. It is as if they do not belong.

There was surely a spiritual dimension to Jesus' ministry, but sometimes we ignore the very basic social realities that he sought to overcome. Those social realities had to do with the way in which his world denied equal citizenship, full membership, to all. In Jesus' teaching, the least of those among us are equally precious in the sight of God.

The human condition is also a spiritual condition. Experiences of homelessness, and exile, and alienation also afflict the human spirit. Just as one may never feel more alone than in a crowd of people, one may never feel more "lost" than when one possesses all the visible signs of place yet one's own human spirit is restless, divided, without clear identity. The person who does not know who he or she really is is lost to him- or herself. Also, the person whose identity is not recognized by others, who is somehow "different" and therefore not appreciated or affirmed is likely to feel homeless, unwelcome, a stranger to others and even to self. From this standpoint, Jesus means being found, coming to oneself, the gift of integrity in identity. The person whose relationships with others are marked by tension, who has not acted honestly and responsibly, who has done injury or failed to help, is bound to feel estranged, alienated, in need of reconciliation. From this standpoint, Jesus means restoration of integrity in relationships and renewal of possibilities for life together.

What we see in Jesus is the gift of acceptance, the gift of identity, the gift of belonging. Jesus accepts people where they are, and thereby gives them a place in the community of the people of God. Jesus attests that God not only cares about those whom the established order would just as soon write off and exclude, God has for them an abiding affection, a most tender regard. It is not God's will that any one should perish [cf. Matthew 18:14]. All this comes to us as gift of God. We cannot secure our own place before God, for it is not a human achievement. Jesus puts it something like this: "(T)hose who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it" [Matt. 16:25].

So God continually acts to reclaim the human wreckage of our world, to rescue the perishing, to gather the scattered, to bind up the injured, to restore the stray, to companion the lonely and rejected, to bring us back to ourselves and one another. In God's domain, the least and the lost find themselves and are found. Time and again we are brought up short by the words and deeds of Jesus. All our morality and ethics must be challenged, our whole religious life must be seriously questioned, if there is not engendered in us a compassion and solicitude for the lost whom he came to seek out and to save. AMEN.

Copyright 2001 by Byron C. Bangert