When we belong to an organization for a long time, we inevitably come across a phenomenon that is pervasive in most, if not all, human organizations and that is insular or isolated thinking. In the church, our thinking can become so isolated that we will only look for certain things when we engage with scripture. In Luke’s gospel we heard the importance of looking for the one lost sheep and the one lost coin and our well-trained minds probably took us right to the most obvious conclusion, which is that God will not leave one person behind. Well, that is true, but I also think that it misses the mark. According to G. Penny Nixon, the issue Luke is putting before us has nothing to do with God’s willingness to redeem the one lost soul, instead we need to focus on the very beginning of the passage where the Pharisees and the Scribes, aka the insiders, are grumbling because outsiders are moving into what they believe is their territory. The parables we heard today are tools used by Jesus to point out that the grumbler’s thinking is wrong and that they need to repent. The Pharisees and the scribes, who are the temple insiders, are clearly uncomfortable with the idea that outsiders, namely the tax collectors and sinners, are being welcomed into their territory. The temple insiders know exactly what the tax collectors and sinners need to do in order to fit in and they have never shied away from letting everyone, and especially Jesus, know when they are wrong, so why then do they appear to be uncomfortable now? The answer is likely that they are more comfortable correcting the behavior of people who are already a part of their world, than the people they never interact with. The sinners and the tax collectors have never been welcomed by the temple insiders, instead they have been ignored or shunned. Jesus’s parables are calling for the insiders to change their thinking about the outsiders, he is calling them to focus their attention on the people they think are lost and beyond help, instead of the people they think they can save. The people who follow the rules of the temple are the insiders and when they stray from the rules they can easily be brought back into the fold, but the sinners and tax collectors are considered beyond help and therefore not worth their time.
How often do we recoil at the sight of someone that doesn’t fit our definition of an insider? I see it every day in my profession. Teenagers come in many shapes and sizes and with a wide variety of skills and abilities. I have noticed an increase in anxiety among students and a tendency among staff to assume that the kids are simply overreacting or using their illness as an excuse. In other cases I have seen both students and staff assume that because a student avoids doing their school work they must not be able to do it, or that they are stupid, when the reality is that they are students who have suffered trauma in their home life, and that trauma is inhibiting their ability to focus and learn. Both examples reflect the concept Luke is exploring in his gospel. People who are on the “inside track”, the people who can function within the boundaries laid out by the institution are considered normal and worth everyone’s time and the people who are different, who are seen as outsiders or possibly even threats to the way things are supposed to be are either ignored or labeled. This attitude stems from several things, but I think the primary cause is that they are perceived as a threat. When we achieve a certain level of comfort in our lives and in the institutions that we belong to, we tend to want to guard the status quo. In the school setting staff members do not know how to accommodate students with high anxiety levels or students with a great deal of trauma, so they react by dismissing the student’s needs and try to fit them into their traditional view of a student behavior and ability. Don’t miss understand me, none of my colleagues want anything but the best for their students, but sometimes it is easier to give lip service to the desire to help everyone than it is to do it. I have no doubt that every teacher wants to help every student succeed, but the reality of doing it is a very different prospect. I think the same is true for the church. We all seem to be comfortable with the idea that everyone deserves God’s love as well as our own, that is after all what Christianity is all about is it not? However, how often do we extend our love of neighbor to people outside the church doors? How often do we openly and actively engage with people who look lost? How many people, that we know don’t attend church, do we talk to about God? In the parables of the lost sheep and coin Luke is not only telling us that God will not abandon anyone, he is also telling us that we need to change our thinking, we need to repent and ensure that we are not becoming so complacent that we allow others to become lost. I know it is far easier to talk about saving the lost than it is to welcome them into our midst’s, but that is what we must do. We must change our thinking and instead of waiting for the lost to come through the church doors so that we can welcome them into the fold in a safe and comfortable environment, we need to meet them where they are and bring them home, one at a time. To do that we first need to go where they are, like the shepherd we need to be willing to travel into the wilderness in search of their lost sheep and like the woman and her silver we need to be willing to turn our comfy lives upside down to find the one missing coin. Our willingness to ignore the parts of the world that seem scary or different; our willingness to ignore the trauma and anxiety of our young people; and our complacency in our belief that people will find God on their own is parallel to the scribes and pharisees belief that the sinners and tax collectors don’t belong anywhere near the temple. If God’s kingdom is going to thrive then we must stop talking about the lost and go look for them. Amen.