Tell me a story. When our daughter was very young, her bedtime ritual always included stories. And for a while, she had a pretty good scheme in place: “I’m 3 years old,” she would say, “so read me three stories.” Fair enough. But she hung on to that formula. Four stories. Five stories. I think we finally pulled the plug around age eight.
Who doesn’t like a good story? I suspect that one of the reasons that the Gospel of Luke is so appealing and so accessible is that of the four portraits we have, the four life stories of Jesus, it is in the Gospel of Luke that we get the great gift of Jesus the storyteller. Luke is brimming over with parables, which are not just engaging stories but journeys along a path with a teacher and guide whose knowledge is eternal and infinite.
We find ourselves today in Luke chapter fifteen, which contains essentially the same story told three times: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. Of the three, the parable of the lost son has taken on a life of its own, so that even people who are not really familiar with the Bible and its stories know this one. Of course, we know it better as the parable of the prodigal son. But today’s reading doesn’t take us to that story. Instead, we hear the parable of the lost sheep, then the parable of the lost coin.
Jesus the storyteller is cleverly telling us the same story with differing characters. Today’s reading, by bringing our attention to the warm-up stories instead of the headliner, gives you and me a chance to consider what it means to be lost, and then found – even if you and I have no idea that we’re lost in the first place.
In 1983, Father Joseph Girzone wrote a parable of his own, pondering what it would look like if Jesus drifted into a small modern town. He self-published the book, called Joshua: A Parable for Today. Some of the people of God at St. Michael watched the movie of it here yesterday.
In a small town like any other, full of people like you and me, complete with relationships, struggles, and burdens, a young man arrives, seemingly out of nowhere, and rents a cabin, really more of a backyard outbuilding. He sets up a woodworking shop. And he hangs out. He’s quiet. He visits local churches. He doesn’t preach on the street corners. He doesn’t scold people he meets or hand them self-help books or lists of things they’re doing wrong. He simply meets people where they are. And their relationships begin to heal, their burdens begin to lift, their doubts and questions about the paths they are on begin to resolve, by his presence. Many of them had no idea that they were lost – but they certainly know that they have been found.
And maybe that’s why this reading for today does not include the story of the lost son, who will have to learn that he is lost before he can be found. Instead we get a sheep and a coin, who have no way of even knowing that they are lost. And that, as the movie shows us, is a lot like you and me.
What is it like to be found when we don’t even know we’re lost? Jesus, the great storyteller, tells us a story.
The search is persistent. It’s thorough. There is no giving up. If the shepherd is aware that the sheep is lost, he will do whatever it takes, risk it all, to find the sheep that doesn’t even know it’s lost. And the woman who knows she had ten coins and now she can count only nine, she will light the lamp – even if that burns up one coin’s worth of oil – to find it. And the sheep will be found, and so will the coin. God is relentless when it comes to doing this searching. Tireless. Stubborn, even.
God will find you, and God will find me, even if we don’t know we’re lost – even if our lives seem perfectly okay.
And then what happens?
Jesus is telling this story to Pharisees, religious leaders who are criticizing Jesus for breaking bread with tax collectors and sinners. In the movie Joshua, even as the people of the town are healed by the presence of this itinerant woodworker, some of the religious authorities are suspicious and critical. Can Joshua find them? Can God touch even their closed-off hearts? Will God keep searching, persistently, relentlessly, stubbornly, until even Joshua’s critics are made healed and whole without even knowing that they have been wounded and broken?
And where does that leave you and me? Is it possible that our life’s journeys unfold with Jesus repeatedly, persistently being present in our lives every step of the way? When we know we’re lost, like the prodigal son, we will come to ourselves and God will guide us along the road that leads to home. And when we’re burdened and burned-out, when we’re tired and tense, when we’re worried and weary, God’s stubborn persistent presence can heal our hearts so that the moment we realize how lost we are – is the moment that we ourselves are found.
Tell me a story. The sheep was lost – the sheep was found. The coin was lost – the coin was found. The son was lost – the son was found. Jesus the storyteller tells the same parable three times – stubbornly, persistently – making sure that you and I hear what we need to hear. And that means that for three stories’ worth of time, Jesus is also giving us his presence. Simply by living among you and me, he is healing, guiding, lifting our burdens and repairing the burnout, giving rest to our tiredness and relaxation to our tension, pouring out trust to soothe our worry and encouragement for our weariness.
Tell me a story. Unlike Mark and me as young parents, Jesus the great storyteller will not stop at three parables – or five, or eight. Jesus continues to tell his stories, to sit beside us, to grace us with his presence, for as long as we live – and then forever.