Contributed by Scott Mims, Virginia Beach, VA
- Describe one of the best parties you have ever experienced. Who or what was being celebrated? What made it such a great time?
- Tell about a time when you were “lost,” perhaps as a young child or maybe while you were driving. What was it like? How did it feel to be “found?”
When Children Go Missing
On July 26, Ariel Castro pleaded guilty to charges of kidnapping and rape over the long-term abductions and captivity of three women from Cleveland, Ohio. Michelle Knight was 21 years old when she disappeared in 2002. Amanda Berry was just 16 years old when she was abducted in 2003, and Georgina DeJesus only 14 years old when she disappeared in 2004. It wasn’t until May 6 of this year that these women were rescued and reunited with their families.
Around the same time that Ariel Castro’s trial was concluding, national media attention was focused on the case of Hannah Anderson, a 16-year old who was kidnapped by James DiMaggio, a long-time family friend who also allegedly killed Hannah’s mother and little brother. After a six-day, frantic multi-state search, Hannah was finally found and rescued, though DiMaggio was killed in the encounter. (See the link below for a collection of articles published by the Los Angeles Times on this story). http://www.latimes.com/topic/crime-law-justice/crimes/hannah-anderson-PEOCVC000313.topic?page=1&target=article
Of course, not all who are lost are abducted. Some “wander” away as in the case of two Michigan teens, Braxton Wood and Jayden Thomas. On August the 26 the pair took off in a Ford Explorer and, as of the writing of this Faith Lens, have yet to be located. “It’s tough. It’s kind of crazy. You just can’t imagine not having your child in your house,” Ed Wood, Braxton’s father, is quoted in a news article. “Or imagining life without your child,” said Sarah Kiley, his mother. (http://www.wnem.com/story/23295890/isabella-co-missing-teens-parents-speak?hpt=us_bn9)
It is a parent’s worst nightmare to have a child go missing, and often times it is only a hope against hope that sustains a family until the lost one is finally found. When that happens, there is great rejoicing which is exactly the point that Jesus makes in our gospel lesson.
- Have you ever lost something that was very important or precious to you? How did it feel? What did you do? Did you ever find it, and if so did you celebrate?
- Read or sing the first verse of Amazing Grace. What kind of “lost” do you think the author is talking about? Can you think of other ways in which people can either “wander” or be “lost”?
- Jesus used the word “Abba” when he prayed to God (Mark 14:36), and Paul indicates in his letters that the earliest Christians also addressed God as “Abba” in their prayers (Romans 8:15, Galatians 4:6). Abba is a term of intimacy something along the lines of “Dearest Father” or “Daddy,” without any sense of childishness associated with it. What does this suggest to you about the sort of relationship God longs to have with us? Is it easy for you to think of God is such a way? Why or why not?
Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, September 15, 2013 (Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost)
(Text links are to Oremus Bible Browser. Oremus Bible Browser is not affiliated with or supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can find the calendar of readings for Year C at Lectionary Readings.)
For lectionary humor and insight, check the weekly comic Agnus Day.
This week’s gospel contains one of the best known stories of Jesus, the Parable of the Lost Sheep. Along with its companion story about a lost coin and the equally famous following story, the Parable of the Prodigal Son, we get, not only a picture of God’s great love, but also a window into how Jesus understood what he was doing. In all three stories the “lost” and the “wandering” get found, but that is not the only similarity. Each ends in a party, a joyous celebration in which even the angels take part. Could this truly be how all of heaven responds when sinners repent? Jesus says it is, but his opponents are not so sure.
The setting for these stories is important. Jesus’ actions of welcoming sinners and tax collectors to the point of demonstrating his total acceptance of them by sharing table fellowship scandalized the Pharisees and scribes. As experts in the religious laws and traditions, and self-appointed guardians of the faith, they do not connect such actions with Jesus being either a righteous teacher or a prophet. Tax collectors were not just hated for being…well, tax collectors; they were agents of the very people who were oppressing the Jews. Besides this, they often gouged the people, stealing from them by collecting as much as they possible could. “Sinners” in this passage is a more general category for all sorts of people whom the Pharisees and scribes considered to be living outside of the demands that God had made on Israel through the law. Together, these groups symbolize all of the lost ones to which Jesus’ stories point, people who have wandered or who have perhaps been “abducted” by their choices or life situations and now live outside of a relationship with God.
So what’s a sinner or tax collector to do? Come to Jesus! Come to Jesus, and in his person and way of living receive a second chance at living a new life. Jesus does not say that those who are lost and wandering are simply to be accepted as they are and to leave it at that. God takes us just as we are, this is true, but God also loves us too much to let us stay there. The shepherd scours the rocky terrain looking for the lost sheep, the woman sweeps every nook and cranny of the house, even though its nigh on midnight, searching for the lost coin, and God’s relentless love and amazing grace will not stop until everything possible has been done to bring his lost and wandering child home. “Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
Repentance is not finding God but rather turning back to the God who is on a rescue mission to find us. In personal terms these are stories of the change in a person’s heart, mind, and life that comes as a result of an encounter with God’s grace through Jesus Christ. Whereas the scribes and Pharisees might well have considered repentance to mean adopting completely their standards of purity and their stringent observance of the religious laws and traditions, for Jesus true repentance happens when people believe in him and follow is way of life. That is, aligning oneself with Jesus is aligning one’s life to God; living in a relationship with Jesus is living in a relationship with God.
This brings us finally to the party that heaven throws when sinners repent. If calling everyone together to celebrate with you over finding a lost sheep, or waking the neighbors to party over finding a lost coin seems over the top, then put things into the perspective of a parent finally holding that lost child in their arms. Relief overflowing with joy, tears of love and gratitude, a new day and a new beginning, is there any greater joy? Perhaps only in knowing that no matter who you are or what you’ve done, God loves you this much…and indeed, so very much more.
- Who are the outsiders – the “sinners and tax collectors” – in your world? What sorts of things put people in positions of being judged as unwanted or “unworthy?”
- What do you think of when you hear the word “repent”? Is it a positive or a negative word for you? Why? How does your answer change if repentance looks more like a change of heart and life that focuses on following Jesus and less like keeping all of the rules?
- Are you one of the 99 who “need no repentance” or one of the ones who is lost? How does this gospel lesson help you understand the basic Lutheran theological point that we are at the same time both “saints and sinners”?
- In the Lord’s Prayer we ask that God’s kingdom and come and will be done “on earth as it is in heaven.” What is the picture that Jesus gives us of heaven in these stories? That is, who are what is God and “heaven” concerned with? As followers of Jesus, what sorts of things should we be saying and doing so that God’s will gets done here on earth accordingly?
- As school has just recently begun in many communities, engage your group in a discussion concerning actions that they can take in order to embody the grace and love of God who seeks out the outsider and who celebrates with great joy whenever a wandering and lost child returns. In his Working Preacher post for Sunday, September 1, David Lose lists some great ideas for how students might do this (http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2719). What other ideas can your group come up with? How would such actions make a difference in the lives of other people? How might they make a difference in your own? Can you covenant together to try a few of them out and see?
- Hide a small object or perhaps enlist the help of a volunteer to be a “lost sheep.” Split your group up into teams and have them search until what was lost is found. Throw a party complete with refreshments/treats to “celebrate.” Does it seem odd to make such a big deal of finding your object/ “sheep?” What types of things, do you think, would be worthy of such a celebration? Read through the gospel lesson together.
Gracious and loving God, in the waters of baptism you name us and claim us and make us your very own. Thank you for your relentless love and for the gift of new life that is ours through Jesus. When we wander or get ourselves lost, help us to turn around. Place into our lives people and events that will remind us of who and whose we truly are, and lead us, in turn, to be living signs of your grace in the lives of those around us. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.