When my daughter was in middle school, she was torn between her natural thriftiness and a longing for the “it” lunch bag. In a storm of middle school angst, we talked about this dilemma day after day, until one day it solved itself. The longed-for lunch bag appeared in the school lost and found. It had no one’s name in it. It lingered there for a few days, unclaimed, until she made it her own.
In a weird reversal, she later left it behind in the lunch room, it went to the lost and found again, and another girl claimed it, and used it. Lost things want to be found.
Read the scripture here.
Read the Working Preacher commentary here.
As the parables begin, we can picture the tax collectors and sinners listening to Jesus, along with the scribes and Pharisees who have challenged him. Jesus has made people welcome, and do they become nervous, listening to the challenge? Is he going to change his mind now? Do the religious leaders think he’s going to take their side? Is everyone there listening hard, waiting for someone to get their comeuppance?
We can imagine the religious leaders’ blood pressure rising as Jesus starts to talk about shepherds and housewives, with perhaps a murmured “Doesn’t he know who we are?” In each parable, there’s a lostness on both sides. The shepherd who loses a sheep could be blamed for the loss; the woman who loses part of her dowry would be even more economically precarious. The older brother is as lost as the younger, in different ways. The younger son estranges himself from his family, and the older son insults his father by refusing to come in to the party.
The story of the brothers parallels the setting for the story. The so-called sinners and the religious authorities are all God’s beloved people, and only some of them realize it and are ready to celebrate that. There are so many ways for us to get lost.
As an oldest child, I have a lot of sympathy for the older brother. The younger son grabs his inheritance, skips town, lives it up, and comes back broke. Is he going to want more money? Does the older brother have to support him forever? Does he have to try to get the younger son to work on the family estate? I can see why he would be aggrieved. And most of us church people are a lot like the religious leaders who frame this story. The sermon might explore where God is talking to our own places of being lost.
Allison Funk has written a poem imagining the voice of the mother in this story, highlighting all the family complexity here. She begins: “When he returned a second time, / the straps of his sandals broken, / his robe stained with wine, / it was not as easy to forgive. / By then his father / was long gone himself, / leaving me with my other son, the sullen one / whose anger is the instrument he tunes / from good morning on.” The sermon might talk to anyone who has a complicated family situation, to people who have lost children of their own. This parable feels familiar to many fractured families.
Or, one year into our pandemic lives, the sermon might talk about finding joy. Finding a sheep or a coin may not seem like a big deal to us, and still the finders take time to rejoice, not alone, but calling other people to celebrate with them. How can we find occasions for joy, and become artful celebrators? How can we cultivate joy, and share its gifts with others, in such a bleak time?
Or, the sermon might look at loss, and how much we have lost in the last year. Beloved people have died, of course, but also time with each other, a year of school for children, the gift of supporting each other through days in the hospital, illness and grief. We’ve lost the ability to imagine each other’s days, each locked in at home. The parables have a subtext of loss embedded in them, and the sermon might talk about how loss is woven into our lives right now.
Where are your thoughts going this week? We would love to hear, and to continue the conversation, in the comments section below.
Mary Austin is the Pastor of Gaithersburg Presbyterian Church, in the Washington, DC area. The image above is via Pexels, by Kelly Lacy.
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