Monday, September 17, 2007


(Here are some notes from which I preached at a Uniting Church last Sunday. Rowland Croucher September 18, 2007).

Luke 15:1-10, 1 Timothy 1:12-17

Losing something can be trivial – mildly frustrating – or deadly serious, even life-threatening. It all depends on the value of what you’ve lost.

Lost people are in the news headlines all the time. This week? Adventurer Steve Fossett, lost somewhere in the Nevada Desert, Madelaine McCann, a little girl lost – probably abducted – in Portugal (and now her parents – parents! – are suspects). A while back, three men in a boat somewhere off the Queensland coast, who have never been found.

We write songs, tell stories and make movies of people lost: David Livingstone, apparently lost in the middle of ‘darkest Africa’; an ‘ancient mariner’ lost at sea; aviator Amelia Erhart; explorers Burke and Wills; Little Boy Lost; the Chamberlain’s baby lost in the Northern Territory desert, ‘Lost in Space’…

We joke about being lost: men aren’t lost, they’re trusting their navigational instincts (women ask for directions). As a young taxi-driver in Sydney while at University, I was lost at least once every shift.

We lose objects all the time (more so, I can tell you, as you approach ‘threescore years and ten’). Everyone has lost something at one time or another. There is even a website now at that acts as a global ‘lost and found’ box.

I’ve lost a car three times: once when it was towed away because I was slow with hire purchase payments; another time in the Disneyland carpark (is it the largest in the world?) until with two little girls 7 and 9 we found it at 2 am!; and at the airport: I’d found a free spot out there, but one weekend they changed the parking rules and had towed my car away…

Losing things isn’t funny: a surgeon discovering after an operation that an instrument’s gone missing; if I lost my diary I think I’d lose my mind (it’s in there!); losing an important email (PTL for Google Desktop!); a loved one losing their memory; a parishioner I knew whose mother was lost, found with another identity in Adelaide. We’ve ‘lost the plot’ in Iraq…

Jesus’ parents lost him when he was 12. (One of our Sunday School hypotheticals: ‘Did Jesus ever lose anything?’ Silly question, like our other one: ‘Did Jesus the healer ever sneeze?’).

Psychologists tell us there are two kinds of lostness: ‘developmental’ and ‘situational’. We grow through various stages in life, and all of us experience a constant cycle of attachments/detachments, closeness/distance, togetherness/ separateness, loss of innocence when we collide with reality… It happens when a baby is born: they lose the security of intrauterine life; and it happens when we get older and various bodily functions don’t work as well any more.

But there’s also ‘situational’ lostness: which can happen to any of us at any time. I have clients whose grief is frozen: they’ve never gotten over the loss of a loved one. We must learn to ‘bury the dead’ twice: physically, and in terms of the grieving process. (We also must get over the grief of what our parents ‘were not’ for us…).

Jesus told three ‘lost and found’ stories in Luke 15: about a lost sheep, a lost coin, and two lost sons. This morning I want to make a couple of comments about the first story, and particularly about Luke’s setting for it.

Kenneth Bailey tells us that a single shepherd probably would not have owned 100 sheep – maybe 15 or 20. Here we have a clan or extended family and the ‘chief shepherd’ would have had ‘hirelings’ to help him look after this number of sheep. But it’s the shepherd-in-charge who goes looking for the lost sheep: note that!

Bailey says that when a sheep is lost in this part of the world it often lies down and refuses to budge. So the shepherd has to place it on his shoulders: he starts rejoicing even in prospect of a long and exhausting trip home. A wandering sheep was lucky it wasn’t attacked by wild beasts. In the meantime the other sheep have been moved from the ‘wilderness’ to the village, and the clan has a party to celebrate the whole event.

But did you notice the setting? Luke says Jesus was eating and drinking with ‘tax collectors and sinners’ – disreputables! – and the religious folks didn’t approve. These three lost and found stories are book-ended with not-so-subtle ‘digs’ at the Pharisees’ awful theology and attitudes: the elder brother in the third story is your prototypical Pharisee.

Now Jesus wasn’t merely consorting with sinners: he was acting as host, ‘welcoming’ these people. So he asks ‘Which one of you…?’ which was a naughty question for these people: they despised shepherds as well.

I was preaching once to a small very conservative congregation. They had big black Bibles and severe expressions. That night I involved them in a dialogue. I asked them to list all the good qualities of the Pharisees: they knew about Pharisees, but obviously hadn’t thought too much about Pharisees being ‘good’: after all, they were Jesus’ main antagonists.

They offered a brilliant list, which I wrote with chalk on a blackboard: most Pharisees knew their Bibles off by heart (our Old Testament); they were prayerful; they tithed (often up to a third of their income); fasted twice a week; were martyrs for their faith in Yahweh and their allegiance to the Torah; they attended ‘church’ regularly; were moral people: many could not remember breaking any of the commandments; they were ‘evangelical’ – they believed all the right doctrines (like resurrection); and Jesus said they were evangelistic missionaries – even crossing oceans to win converts.

There was a hushed silence in that little church. ‘Anything wrong?’ I asked. ‘Yes,’ replied the extrovert in the front row. ‘What is it?’ ‘That’s us!’ he said. ‘Is it?’ I responded. ‘If so, we’re in trouble, because Jesus said these Pharisees were “children of the Devil”.’

So what’s wrong with these Bible-believers? Well, look at the two diatribes against the Pharisees in the Gospels, and note particularly Matthew 23:23 and Luke 11:42. Their list didn’t include the ‘most important’ thing of all: justice/love. They didn’t understand the heart of God, who loves lost people, sinners, especially the little people on the margins of society…

They also don’t understand the varieties of ‘lostness’. One can be lost through no fault of one’s own: like the lost coin. Many sinners were actually ‘sinned-against’: my wife who visits women in prison each week says the vast majority are victims of sexual/physical/emotional abuse. Or you can be lost because you’re dumb/stupid – like the lost sheep. Or, as with younger prodigal, you can get lost through deliberate willful choice.

But there’s another category of lostness: the Pharisees, like the elder brother, were lost and didn’t know it. They arrogantly categorized everyone else as lost. I meet these people all the time: they assume they’re ‘saved’ because they believe all the right doctrines: the ‘heterodox’ are lost and going to hell…

You see, the ministry-description of Jesus (and it’s ours too) is to help folks ‘name’ their ‘lostness’ and to bring good news that God is searching for them in their wilderness.

And lostness is something we all experience all the time. The spiritual masters tell us that ‘conversion’ is more an ongoing process of repentance and change and spiritual growth, rather than a ‘one-off’ experience. Now those liminal or peak experiences do happen sometimes, but it’s the little ‘lost and found’ episodes which count most.

Let me finish with two examples, one from a story about Jesus, and another from my own experience as a not-yet-fully-converted Pharisee.

When they brought the woman caught in the act of adultery (John 8) what did Jesus say to her? After ‘Where are your accusers?’ he said something no Pharisee can say: ‘I do not condemn you’ – Pharisees have a ‘ministry’ of condemning others - followed by the Pharisee’s common mantra: ‘Go and sin no more!’ With Jesus, as John Claypool often said, ‘acceptance preceded repentance; with the Pharisees it was the other way around.’ The acid test of the Pharisee, ancient or modern, is this: when someone comes to mind who has committed, say, a sexual sin, do we always associate the person with their sinning, or view them as a loved child of God?

I don’t know about you, but the Pharisee in me rank-orders people according to their sinfulness or heterodoxy or some other ‘not-like-me’ criterion. I’m passionately committed to social justice, but not to violence: so I tend to despise the scruffy protesters police toss into paddy-wagons. I have several homosexual friends, but I’m uncomfortable when they greet one another in church with a passionate kiss. When I hear about Taliban fighters in Afghanistan getting killed, I tend to categorize them as human vermin who should be destroyed, instead of people loved by God…

Jesus welcomed sinners, he hosted a party for them, they were his friends… How many lost publicans and sinners are numbered amongst our friends?

Rowland Croucher
September 2007.


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