Who doesn’t love a good story? We tell them around campfires and dinner tables, on road trips and in coffee shops. We stream them on tv and download the best from our favorite podcasts. It’s one of Jesus’ characteristics that makes him so engaging: he was a great storyteller. That’s what parables are. They’re a particular kind of story told not to recall a certain event or to answer specific questions but to help those who hear the story think and act in new ways. The New Testament scholar C.H. Dodd wrote that a parable “leaves the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.”

The power of a good parable is that it transcends particular contexts. It meets listeners wherever they are: in first-century Palestine, in fourth century Rome or in 21st century Twin Cities of Minnesota. We heard 3 from Luke’s Gospel today: the lost sheep; the lost coin and the lost boys—better known as The Prodigal Son.

There are problems with a really good parable, though. The 3 we heard today are so well known that instead of being teased into active thought we settle into the familiar words. We find comfort in what the stories illustrate as they echo the apostle Paul’s words: “that nothing separates us from the love of Christ Jesus” (Romans 8)

We imagine ourselves as part of the story—that we are that lost sheep—who of us hasn’t wandered off now and then, away from community and God, from the very one who cares for us and protects us. That’s the reality. And our hope: God will find each and every one of us, the story assures and carry us home.

Or maybe you identify with the lost coin—under a couch or hiding in some dark corner until the woman finds you and sweeps you back into the light. Maybe you’re the younger brother who searches for a quick fix, or the older one —who follows the rules and does everything right, which leads you to resentment of others who short circuit the system that works for you. Maybe there’s some of each character in all of us.

But there’s good news for all—the lost sheep, the missing coin, the young brother and the older one too: God doesn’t give up on you or me. No matter how far we’ve strayed, no matter how well we hide, God actively pursues you. God is gracious—God loves you and welcomes you home with a loving embrace and a party to boot!

This is a story about the reality of being lost and the promise of being found. Jesus rescues each and every one of us again and again.

But remember—a parable isn’t a story with one particular point.

What if we imagined different endings that came as a surprise instead? What if the shepherd left the 99 sheep to find the one and when he returned home discovered that the 99 had scattered, and some had been eaten by wolves? Or what if the woman never takes the time to clean because really, what’s the point—she has some money—what difference does the one missing coin really make? Or what if the father—angry with his younger son, changed the locks and refused to answer the door? And annoyed by the goody 2 shoes son the father assigns more and more work to be done—keeping his older son out in the field, away from him?

These rewrites are ridiculous! They make no sense. They don’t describe the God we know through Jesus; they aren’t the stories we expect from him.

Now we’re catching a glimpse of how these stories were heard by the original audience. Luke informs generations who follow that the first audience was grumbling at Jesus’ actions and words.

These parables are told to grumblers—to the Pharisees and Scribes—God-fearing believers, devoted disciples who don’t just talk about faith. They live it. They follow God’s law, obey and respect it. They are the responsible ones who model for others the healthy alternative to the ways of the world. And Jesus’ behavior is messing things up. Grumble. Grumble. Jesus is hanging with folks from the wrong side of the tracks—sinners and tax collectors. Grumble some more. And he doesn’t just hang with them, he sits at a table and enjoys a meal with them too. Jesus, the rabbi, is well-versed in the law. But Jesus, the messiah, seems to have forgotten the rules.

There was a certain world order after all. Those who followed God’s law were rewarded by God. Those who did not grieved the heart of God and were on their own. The parables Jesus told blurred distinctions and turned the system upside down.

So what if this story is less about the reality of being lost and the promise of being found….and more about an invitation to seeking, sweeping, finding and rejoicing?

“Which one of you” Jesus asks “having a hundred sheep…” is a question that invites us to imagine ourselves not as sheep but as shepherds, who leave the flock to go after the one separated from the rest… to imagine ourselves as the woman who knows her treasure is not complete until she finds that missing coin… and to identify with the father who runs to receive the son even though that son rejected home.
Some conclude that these are parables about repentance. Jesus says so himself in his explanation about the lost sheep and coin. Except that sheep and coin can’t repent and in the story about the 2 sons…there’s no mention of repentance on the part of anyone.

Preacher Barbara Brown Taylor suggests that for these parables “repentance isn’t the issue, but rejoicing; the plot is not about amending our evil ways but about seeking, sweeping, finding, rejoicing…[the parable] is about joining Jesus in rounding up God’s herd and recovering God’s treasure. It is about questioning the idea that there are certain conditions the lost must meet before they are eligible to be found, or that there are certain qualities they must exhibit before we will seek them out. It is about trading in our high standards on a strong flashlight and swapping our good examples for a good broom. It is about discovering the joy of finding.” (The Preaching Life, pg. 151)

If Denis Estimon was here today he’d tell us about that kind of joy. He’s a Haitian immigrant and in an article in a magazine called The Week, he reflects about how isolated he felt when he first immigrated to the US. Now he’s a popular senior at Boca Raton Community High School. He’s founder of a club called “We Dine Together” whose members mission is to make sure no other student ever has to sit alone at lunchtime. They look for loners and strike up a conversation. The club has sparked hundreds of unlikely friendships since it formed last fall, and jocks and geeks now sit side by side. “It’s not a good feeling, that you’re all alone,” Estimon said of his own experience. “That’s something that I don’t want anybody to go through”

Sounds like his part of a salvation project to me. There’s another one just getting started here.
I had a conversation with Stephanie Kraynick earlier this week. She’s a member of Bethlehem Twin Cities who has initiated conversation about next steps for sponsoring families who are refugees. There was an informational meeting last week at the Minneapolis campus and one scheduled today at this campus, immediately following worship. I hope you’ll make every effort to go—to listen and learn about the record numbers of refugees in the world and what we might be able to do to help.

Stephanie shared with me that she’s been living with a growing sense of loss and alarm as she imagined life from the perspective of people who were not able to return to their homes due to well-founded fear of persecution because of their race, religion, nationality or political persuasion. She wasn’t sure what she could do on her own but she knew that as part of the church, she was part of a community entrusted with the power the Holy Spirit to change lives for good. “We need to show the world there are Christians who welcome refugees regardless of their background and history.”

The parables told today remind us of God’s call to us as church. They tease us into active thought; into a particular way of being in the world.

You and I are the lost and by God’s good grace we are also found again and again. You and I are also shepherds, women who sweep and fathers who see. For you and I are the church—called into community to join with Jesus in rounding up God’s herd and recovering God’s treasure, ready to run toward the one who is alone and with joy celebrate that another is found and brought into the fold.

For that, we give God thanks and praise. Amen