To let ourselves be found

It’s nobody’s business whom you invite over for dinner. You send out your invitations, you turn on the front porch light, you open the door, and when the last guests have arrived you close it, and soon everybody gathers in the dining room.

Chances are, nobody cares whom you invite for dinner, unless, of course, they expected to be on your guest list and never got an invitation. They drive by your house at night and see all the cars parked along the curb on both sides of the street and they see silhouettes of people in every window, and they turn to each other wondering, why weren’t we invited? Or they drive by and see all the cars and notice two vehicles belonging to people they would never want to be seen with, and now they’re relieved they weren’t invited and they make a mental note never to invite you to their house again since you’re hanging out with those people.

Imagine a house where every time you drive by a banquet is in full swing, the lights are on and the door is open, and whoever wants to come in is welcome. What do you do? Do you just park the car and join the party? Or do you notice the cars belonging to people you don’t’ approve of?  

This is the house where Jesus is the host. And people who have become used to being left standing outside most circles are welcome at table with Jesus. People who have been labeled as outsiders for so long, they almost forgot what it means to belong, are flocking to him. They eat and drink with him, and they listen. “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him,” says Luke. Not just a few, but all, he says. They were coming because Jesus lived and told a story that counted them in, a story of God’s reign in the world. They were coming because in Jesus’ story everything was illumined by God’s mercy. They continue to come near to listen because at Jesus’ table they can sit down and not feel out of place.

Some folks drive by the house grumbling, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” A friend of tax collectors and sinners they call him, and they don’t think that’s a good thing.[1] What do you think? Your answer may depend on where you see yourself on the grand scale of righteousness, if there is such a scale. Is there?

Jesus tells us a story. Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? Do any of you own sheep? None? That’s what I thought. So let me tell you about Simba. Not long ago, Simba had his picture on utility poles up and down Woodlawn. Simba is a mighty name for a cute Jack Russel whose energy you could feel just from looking at the photo and you didn’t even have to stop and take a closer look. Simba was lost, and his picture was posted all over the neighborhood because Simba is loved. Somewhere between West End and Woodmont there was a home that wasn’t complete without Simba.

You wouldn’t expect a home with a hundred little dogs, though, whose owner noticed that one of them was missing, would you? And she left the ninety-nine at the dog park and went after the one that was lost, stopping by Kinko’s on the way to have the posters printed? Jesus’ story isn’t quite as fantastic, but it does stretch the imagination already with the opening question: Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? It sounds like he’s asking a rhetorical question, like it’s so obvious that anybody would do that. I don’t know. I can easily imagine hearing somebody reply, “Nobody in his right mind who has one hundred sheep and loses one, leaves the ninety-nine to the wolves, the thieves, and the coyotes, and goes combing the hills for the missing one. You cut your losses and go on with the ninety-nine.” Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it?

And I can see that Simba’s owner would call together her friends and neighbors to celebrate the day she got the call that little Simba had been found, but “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost” sounds a little over the top for a sheep owner who was able to track down a missing sheep, a little over the top – unless that particular one was extra special. Was it?

In an early Christian text not included in the collection of apostolic writings, this story is told with a different slant. According to the Gospel of Thomas, “Jesus said: The kingdom is like a shepherd who had a hundred sheep; one of them, the biggest, went astray; he left the ninety-nine and sought after the one until he found it. After he had labored, he said to the sheep: I love you more than the ninety-nine.”[2] That’s a very different story than the one Jesus told according to Luke. In Luke’s version, there’s no room for favoritism, only for determined love and great joy.

And there’s another take, moving the action from the pastoral to the domestic:What woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it?

Most women I know would not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search all day for a coin; they have other things to do. A coin is missing? Well, that’s just too bad. It’ll turn up eventually, probably in the washer or under the sofa cushion. But in Jesus’ story, the woman drops everything, she calls the office to tell them she’d have to take a personal day; then she gets the flashlight and the broom, and she sweeps the house, every floor from the attic to the basement, and she searches carefully – until she finds this one coin. And that’s not the end of the story. She gets on the phone, calls her friends and neighbors saying, “Come on over, let’s celebrate; I found my lost coin.”

Both stories end with the hope for shared joy. What the man and the woman are doing borders on foolishness, because they will not stop searching until what is lost has been found, and what is incomplete has been made whole, and until all their friends and neighbors rejoice with them. This is how God looks at people. This is how God looks at you. This is how committed God is to finding every last one of us. Every single one counts. And the world isn’t complete until you and I and everyone else are at the banquet in God’s house.

Jesus’ offensive table manners were performances of God’s will to redeem us and restore us to wholeness. And the proclamation of a God determined to find us and bring us home is the other side of Jesus calling us to repentance.

Once there was a little bunny who wanted to run away.

So he said to his mother, “I am running away.”

“If you run away,” said his mother, “I will run after you. For you are my little bunny.”

The Runaway Bunny, a children’s book written by Margaret Brown, was first published in 1942, and it has not been out of print ever since. A little bunny threatens to run away from home in an imaginary game of shape-shifting. The loving and steadfast mother promises to find her child each time he threatens to escape by doing some shape-shifting of her own.

“If you run after me,” said the little bunny, “I will become a fish in a trout stream and I will swim away from you.”

“If you become a fish in a trout stream,” said his mother, “I will become a fisherman and I will fish for you.”

Some parents are uncomfortable with some of the mother rabbit’s  responses – words like “creepy”, “obsessive” and “possessive” were used in some online comments.[3] “While the emotional tone is one of love,” wrote one reviewer, “the mother rabbit’s refusal to let her child explore could be seen as stifling — a midcentury ‘helicopter parent.’”[4] But then we turn the page to the little bunny saying,

“I will be a bird and fly away from you.”

“If you become a bird and fly away from me,” said his mother, “I will be a tree that you come home to.”

It is not easy for us to find words for a love that will not let us go – not because it doesn’t want us to go and explore, but because it does want us to run and swim and climb and fly knowing that we belong, knowing that we can trust the bonds between divine lover and beloved creation.

Jesus’ opponents called him a friend of sinners, not knowing that with that derogatory term they had stumbled upon the heart of Jesus’ life and mission. And why wouldn’t we who have been touched by his friendship, why wouldn’t we leave behind whatever scales of righteousness we carry around with us, and begin to see ourselves and each other as equally and joyfully dependent on God’s loyal love? Joan Chittister tells a story about this kind of friendship, without sheep or coin, puppy or bunny:

Once upon a time a Sufi stopped by a flooding riverbed to rest. The rising waters licked the low-hanging branches of trees that lined the creek. And there, on one of them, a scorpion struggled to avoid the rising stream. Aware that the scorpion would drown soon if not brought to dry land, the Sufi stretched along the branch and reached out his hand time after time to touch the stranded scorpion that stung him over and over again. But still the scorpion kept its grip on the branch. “Sufi,” said a passerby, “Don’t you realize that if you touch that scorpion it will sting you?” And the Sufi replied as he reached out for the scorpion one more time, “Ah, so it is, my friend. But just because it is the scorpion’s nature to sting does not mean that I should abandon my nature to save.”[5]

I see in the Sufi’s actions a reflection of Jesus’ friendship with sinners,  of God’s love reaching out to every last one of us with great mercy. And our true nature – our true nature – is not to sting, but to let ourselves be found by the love that will not let us go.

[1] Luke 7:34

[2] Gospel of Thomas 107.

[3] https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/58922.The_Runaway_Bunny

[4] Taylor Jasmine https://www.literaryladiesguide.com/book-reviews/the-runaway-bunny-by-margaret-wise-brown

[5] Joan Chittister, National Catholic Reporter, March 16, 2001

Looking for audio of older sermons? Check out our Sermon Audio Archive.