Lost and Found
1 Timothy 1.12-17 Luke 15.1-10
If you happen to find yourself walking in the University Parks, occasionally you can hear a plaintive cry, a voice in the distance, sometimes betraying a hint of irritation and exasperation: ‘Fenton!’ ‘Fenton!’ Its a sound that occasionally provokes amusement, partly because it echoes a YouTube clip that went viral a couple of years ago – a man crying “Fenton, Fenton”, and occasionally shouting something else which it would be unseemly to mention. In the screen shot, a herd of about thirty deer pass by at high speed into the path of oncoming traffic driving through the middle of Richmond Park. A Labrador dog is in hot pursuit.
Well, I also have a dog called ‘Fenton’, who occasionally brings an element of chaos and anarchy to life at the Vicarage. A few months ago, the dog ran off and flew past a group of students, who had had a bit to drink, and they started to laugh and shout out ‘Fenton! Fenton!’ quoting the Youtube clip. When I got him back, I saw the students again. One of them said, ‘So what is he called?’, to which I answered, ‘Believe or not, he’s called Fenton’. How we laughed.
But last week, I lost him. Completely. We were in familiar territory, in the University Parks. I had let him off the lead. He had gone into the woods. My mobile range and I took a brief call. I was distracted. And by the time I had finished, the dog was nowhere to be seen.
The curious thing about the experience is that the dog was lost – but I felt lost as well. I paced around asking people if they had seen a yellow labrador. I followed the usual path of the walk. I searched down by the river, where the dog usually likes to chase away the ducks so that he can eat the bread that has been left for them. But he was nowhere to be found. I felt alarmed, and then a sense of mild panic began to take hold. I was going to be late for my next appointment. I would need to cancel it. And then I realized that the dog didn’t have his identity disk on. He was chipped but if someone found him, they wouldn’t be able to phone me.
People could see my distress and that secret guild of dog walkers came into action. People began to help and join in the search. In the end, it turned out that Fenton had left the park completely. He was found entertaining a group of 30 Spanish language students outside Lady Margaret Hall. As always, the centre of attention.
But I had lost him. And that sense of loss, of being lost, of losing something precious, goes to the heart of our gospel reading today. Luke offers a sequence of parables, which begin with the parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin, and culminate in the parable of the lost son, or as its popularly known, the prodigal son. This sequence is described justifiably as ‘Luke’s pièce de résistance’. Of course, we find the parable of the lost sheep in Matthew as well, but the context which Luke provides for these parables is instructive. And I want to suggest that the setting he provides serves to amplify their meaning.
In Matthew, the parable forms part of Jesus’ response to the question, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ He has some sharp words for those who prove to be a ‘stumbling block’ to others, particularly those who despise the ‘little ones’. For Matthew, the ‘little ones’, the marginalised and the oppressed, always have a privileged place in the Kingdom.
But Luke…. Luke describes a different setting. He places these parables about the lost sheep, the lost coin, and then the parable of the prodigal son in the context of a row about sharing bread with sinners: ‘Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them”.’
And yet, in the face of such controversy and conflict, these two parables seem almost banal in their mundane detail: a lost sheep, a lost coin. But it is important to remember that the parables we find in scripture are stories which take the familiar and push the everyday beyond the bounds of its customary meaning in order to disclose something of the mystery of the kingdom. They reach beyond realism to the extraordinary beyond the ordinary.
And these stories are no exception. So you might be forgiven for imagining that these parables are stories about careful, cautious and conscientious stewardship: being responsible, watching the pennies. For a Yorkshireman like me, the story of the lost coin looks at first glance like a little bit of good old-fashioned thrift.
But that completely misses the point. These stories are not about thrift. They are about that entirely human reaction when we have lost something that is important to us. And our response is almost completely out of proportion. It is prodigal, even extravagant, in recovering what has been lost. The shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine sheep – recklessly… to wander off – in order to search for the one sheep. The woman who expends a degree of energy and effort out of all proportion to the value of the penny she has lost, turning her whole household upside down in the process. It’s the great irony at the heart of the parable of the prodigal son. It is the father’s response to the recovery of his younger son which is prodigal, reckless, generous beyond measure.
Each of these stories speak of the reckless extravagance of divine grace. For Luke, this extravagance is an occasion for joy. This is a constant theme of Luke’s gospel. It’s why Mary’s song, the Magnificat, resounds with joy and wonder in the face of the sheer abundance and exuberance of God’s grace and compassion.
And these parables speak of God’s joy in the face of such extravagance. ‘Rejoice with me’, the shepherd says, ‘I have found my sheep that was lost’. ‘Rejoice with me,’ the woman says, ‘I have found the penny I lost’. ‘Rejoice with me’, the father says, ‘this son of mine was lost and found.’
All these voices echo the voice of God. And, we need to listen to this voice, particularly, at a time when so many people seem so lost, so anxious, so uncertain about the future. We seem to be governed a political class that is lost, worn down by restless competition and anxious self-defence. We see young people who seem lost, who seem overwhelmed by the judgement and scrutiny of social media and the uncertain choices as they work out who they are and their place in the world. We see institutions like the church lost in their own internal affairs and byzantine procedures, anxious about a world out there which it struggles to understand and comprehend, and which isn’t really interested in what it has to say because it seems incapable of listening and paying attention to the genuine realities and struggles of our lives.
But however ‘far and distant’ the country we find ourselves in, whatever our experience of exile in a world of fear and anxiety, these stories remind us that there is nothing lost that God cannot find again, no heart so lost or broken or hopeless that it cannot be enlightened and brought back, warmed back to the life of love.
‘Rejoice with me. This son of mine was lost and found’. Luke teaches us that there is joy in generosity, there is joy in kindness, and there is joy whenever we accept our Lord’s invitation to be an honoured guest at his table.