A Sermon on Luke 15:1-10
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
3 So he told them this parable: 4 “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? 5 When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 7 Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
8 “Or 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? 9 When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ 10 Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
Jacob Wetterling was a kid I knew.
Not personally. Not like that. I grew up in Minot, North Dakota, several hundred miles from Saint Joseph, Minnesota. But he was a boy my age. He lived in a town that was a lot like the town I lived in. We were born in the same year. He looked like someone I could’ve gone to Sunday school with, a regular, everyday kid. When he went missing, it was an earthquake in the lives of every kid I knew, every parent too.
They had warned us about kidnappers. Don’t talk to strangers. Don’t take candy. Don’t get in somebody’s car that you don’t know. If you get lost, find a Mom to help you, not just any random adult. We’d seen kidnapping stories in made-for-TV movies, but this…. This was close to home. This was a real kid from a town like the town I lived in, who disappeared while he was riding his bike to go rent a movie.
Twenty-seven years later, his murderer confessed and showed the police and Jacob’s family where they could find his remains.
I read this week’s gospel passage from Luke’s gospel – about lost sheep and lost coins and all the rejoicing in heaven when what is lost is found – and all I could think about was Jacob Wetterling. About his mother Patty, the epitome of grace and dignity as she stood behind a microphone a few days ago and said, “for us, Jacob was alive until we found him.”
Yes, there is rejoicing in heaven when the lost sinner is found.
But where is God when a little boy is lost, taken from his happy home and subjected to ruthless evil?
Where is God when what is found is not a lost sheep or a lost coin or even a lost soul, but the remains of a boy whose parents have held out hope that he was alive for nearly thirty years?
Where is God then?
In Ecclesiastes, the Teacher says there is “a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.” And so I have to believe that in heaven as on earth, there is a time for joy and a time to weep, a time to mourn and a time to dance. And I believe that just as God himself rejoices at the repentance of a lost sinner, God weeps and mourn at the death of a lost child, at the long-suffering family, at the sinner who acts out on his evil desires and murders a helpless boy.
Last week I talked about how our God is a God who likes to celebrate. We heard Jesus’ story about the man throwing a banquet, inviting the poor, the lame, the crippled, all so that his house would be filled. So there would be a great celebration.
And our God is a God who loves to celebrate. Our God is a God of hope, of love, and a God of joy, beyond any joy we can touch here on earth.
But our God is also a God who weeps and mourns. Our God is also a God who truly knows and experiences loss, death, and evil.
Jesus is the Jesus of the great banquet and the loneliness of Gethsemane, the Jesus of Easter morning resurrection but also Good Friday-- when the sky went black and the temple curtain was torn in two and Jesus cried with a loud voice, giving up his spirit, breathing his final breath. Jesus is the Jesus who went down to death, who meets us in the middle of death and raises us back to new life, who defeats sin and death and will dwell with us in a new heaven and a new earth where mourning and crying and pain will be no more.
Lost sheep, lost coins, lost souls, but where is God when a little boy is lost? When a mother leaves behind everything she knew before to seek out her little boy, when she will move heaven and earth to find him, and to help other families who have lost children?
Does God, too, light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully, when a child disappears?
Does God walk the fields and forests, his eyes glued to the ground, looking for any shred of a clue, God's feet crunching through late-October leaves from sunup to sundown?
Does God enter into the wilderness of the unknown, the what-ifs that haunt late at night, the fear and doubt and horror?
Does God weep with a little boy while he is handcuffed in the back seat of a car, saying "What did I do wrong?"
Does God weep when his remains are found 27 years later, buried deep in the wilderness?
God is weeping with the Wetterling family, with all of the families whose children have disappeared and never been found again.
God enters into the darkest places in our world, and there God says, “I’ve been there too. I am here with you now. I am feeling this too. I am here with you now and I will stay with you through everything.”
On that day when the sky went black. When the earth shook. When God in Christ Jesus entered down to death because he so loved the world.
God meets us in our pain, and God feels that same pain.
God is present in our suffering and God suffers with us.
God weeps with us and mourns with us, and with all people who suffer, until the day when suffering is no more.