Jesus puts before his audience two stories of lost and found.
In each case, the one who loses goes to extraordinary efforts to find what is lost.
Having recovered it, the finder calls upon the surrounding community to join in rejoicing that the lost has been found.
Jesus applies both stories to what happens when even one sinner repents: There is abundant joy in heaven.
All well and good, we may say. There is reason to rejoice in such circumstances.
A shepherd leaves his big flock – in somebody else’s care, we hope – to search out a single sheep that is missing.
A woman turns the house upside down, sweeping in every dark corner to find a valuable coin that is part of her dowry.
There is abundant rejoicing when the lost sheep, the lost coin is found.
We want to believe in a God who searches for the lost and celebrates when the lost are found.
We want to believe that God feels it more deeply when people stray away than we feel it when our cell phone or car keys are nowhere to be found.
But there is another side to our reception of these stories: What happens next?
What happens once the sheep’s back with the flock, the silver coin is back with the others, when we have in hand once again our cell phone or our car keys? What happens after the sinner repents and does a 180-degree turn? Is there more to the story?
Jesus speaks of one sheep that strays and the 99 who do not. He also distinguishes between one person who repents and the “Ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.”
Maybe Jesus delivers that line with a slight smile on his lips. He may mean that those 99 simply believe they need no repentance, when, in fact, they need it as much as the one identified “sinner.” Their belief that they are righteous is mistaken.
If so, then the distinction is not between one sinner who repents and 99 other people who do not need to do so. The distinction is between those aware of their need for repentance and those unaware that they have this need.
Keeping all this in mind, therefore, we may reach the conclusion that the only options for any of us are two: We can be a single lost sheep; or we can belong to the flock who mistakenly account themselves righteous.
To say this only a little differently, we can be a single lost coin or we can be a coin that, along with others, rests self-satisfied in some secure place.
Indeed, these two options appear in the framework that surrounds the stories under consideration. The recognized sinners draw close to Jesus; these are people on the margins of society, condemned by the power structure, and condemned even by themselves. The Pharisees and scribes, on the other hand, keep their distance from Jesus and murmur against him. They enjoy positions of respect and, in general, hold themselves in high esteem.
Is there perhaps another alternative? What about those of us who are not blind to our failings, but whose sinfulness does not cause us to be exiled?
An alternative exists that is found close to the heart of the gospel. To recognize it, we must turn away from two misleading notions: The first is that repentance, conversion – call it what you will – is, at most, a once-in-a-lifetime event; the second is that a conventional lifestyle can replace radical obedience to God’s will.
This alternative to these two notions is that on a regular basis each of us turns out to be a lost sheep. Each of us is often enough the precious coin that disappears, the cell phone or the car keys that annoyingly cannot be found.
Yet God, like a shepherd with no common sense, leaves the rest of the flock and searches the immediate world in order to find us.
God, like a housewife gone crazy, tears the place apart, searches every dark corner in order to find us.
That happens in our respectable lives. Again. And again. And again. Grace is always fresh, new enough to startle us.
We can’t eliminate our need for this uproar to happen. All we can do is make repentance a regular practice.
We cannot cause the sun of God’s love to shine on us. All we can do is turn to the sunlight and be grateful.
Practicing repentance may sound burdensome. It may seem a practice oriented to the past, preoccupied with regret. Actually, we come to see repentance as the exact opposite of a preoccupation with regret. Metanoia, the New Testament term for repentance, means, literally, a change of mind, a shift out of the past that prepares us for a better future.
Our metanoia can be, needs to be, a matter of habit. We have practices to help us with this.
One of them is the regular recitation of the Lord’s Prayer with its request: Forgive us our sins, forgive us our trespasses. That’s metanoia, our request that we not be stuck in our sins, not be stuck in our mistaken sense of righteousness.
Another helpful practice is an expansion of this one, namely the Confession of Sin, which appears so often in liturgies of the Episcopal Church. We engage time and again in this communal exercise where we see ourselves and one another not as the 99 who supposedly need no repentance, but in every case as the one sheep that has strayed and needs to be brought back. This holds true of both the worst reprobate and the most splendid saint. We all need to repent. This prayer helps us to do so.
Furthermore, some find it helpful to confess their particular sins to God in the presence of a priest, whether at a time of crisis or as a regular practice. The Book of Common Prayer makes provision for this form of reconciliation, even as it also recognizes that “the care each Christian has for others” is a way we are restored to peace with our neighbor and with God.
Christianity is loaded with paradoxes. Here’s another one: Each of us is a sheep lost and found. A valuable coin lost and found. Car keys lost and found. A cell phone lost and found.
Later in this service, as we pray together the Confession of Sin, recall that what you are doing then as one person causes abundant joy in heaven.
Through continuing openness to the grace of God, our hearts are kept from being swamped by sin or hardened by self-righteousness.
Through continuing openness to grace, we declare allegiance to the One who never stops looking for us.
Time and again we decide not to trust in our own devices, but in the future God intends for us.