Luke 15:1-7
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
September 15, 2019

Nine months ago, NPR broadcast an amazing story. A San Diego father (identifying for the story as “Frank”) believed that his son, a homeless heroin addict living on the streets of Denver, was near to death. So Frank contacted Chris Conner, one of Colorado’s leading homeless advocates. Conner had helped many parents find their lost children; but, he said, “I’ve never had a parent who went so far to descend into homelessness themselves.” Conner connected Frank with Jerry Herships, whose church serves lunch to the homeless in a Denver park across from the state capital.

Frank described his finding his son on a Denver street: “He has no idea I’m walking toward him. I can see he can’t stand up without the support of a building. He’d appear drunk to most people. I know from past experience he’s on heroin – heavy. I go up to him, and he starts to turn his back on me. I don’t care. I just grab him and squeeze him as hard as I can.”

For a week, Frank accompanied his son everywhere, wandering the streets and sleeping on the river banks. He ate hand-out sandwiches during the day, and swatted away rats during the night. His son got sick, and checked himself in and out of the hospital. Then, he stole what he could to buy more drugs. At one point, Frank told him, “If you die, your mom and dad die with you. We might still be breathing. But, make no mistake, we’ll be dead inside.”

When asked why he immersed himself in his boy’s hard life on the streets, Frank said, “The only thing I could do was go be with him and love him.”

Frank finally returned home to San Diego – without his son. I haven’t been able to find out how things turned out, but I know that father did all he could. He had engaged in a search and rescue effort that looks like what Jesus once did in the flesh – and still wants to do in the Spirit through us His community.

Every community is defined by its core convictions and fundamental values.

Every community wants to add members.

But every community wants to do that without compromising or misrepresenting those convictions and values. Thus, each fears it might, by too readily including people who are only beginning to learn how to act in line with its convictions and values. Concerned to show its true colors and to portray itself winsomely to outsiders, each wrestles with how patient it can afford to be with those who want to be a part of it but who are just coming to embody what it stands for.

The Pharisees and scribes were, at their best, all about making better people by bringing them into a life of obedience to God. But they held themselves back from embracing those who had made scant progress in turning their lives around and improving their behavior. In fact, they frequently treated such would-be participants like outcasts or lepers.

By contrast, Jesus reached out to people where they were and accepted them as they were. He got up close and personal with those still failing morally and spiritually in order that, by experiencing His loving support at each step, they might over time become different.

Every community has two competing interests between which it must find a balance. On the one hand, it wants to be open and receptive to new folks who might not yet fully “get” what it’s about. On the other hand, it is concerned about such people putting it in a bad light, muddying its message and confusing those to whom it desires to deliver a clear, consistent and accurate communication about its convictions and values.

Jesus struck a very different balance between those competing interests than the Pharisees and scribes. He so wanted to reach out to, and welcome in, everyone, even the worst, that He regularly exposed Himself to misunderstanding. Because he left the 99 “righteous” sheep and made an all-out effort to bring in the wayward sheep, many saw Him as one of the worst people, even an agent of the devil.

Jesus struck that costly balance, not because He prefers “bad boys” (or “bad girls”), but because He wants to bring everyone into His fold, knowing that only there can anyone gain the chance to be changed into a good person.

No one is so bad or so lost that the Good Shepherd does not deem them worthy of His utmost effort. For even the worst, He spares no trouble, pain or sacrifice; and, when He succeeds in rescuing one of them, He rejoices with all His heart and soul.

If the Head of the church is like that, shouldn’t His community be like that?

Let me suggest three ways we can grow more like Jesus in seeking to bring in those who’ve gone missing.

First, we can prioritize people missing from the fold. We can persist in reaching out to them, saving a place for them in our circle of friendship, and extending to them an invitation to come join the party.

I know a church in San Diego that so wants to bear in mind that it also exists for those not yet a part of it, that it always makes sure that there is, in every room set-up, one extra, empty chair. That chair reminds people of those who are missing and whom church members should acutely miss until they find their way into the fold.

Second, we can patiently put up with those who join us in our life together but who still have long way to go before they’re much put together in Christ. We can accept them without condoning their every behavior; we can bear with them in the life-long process – that we too are undergoing! – of growing up in Jesus.

Third, we can put ourselves out to show others what God’s love looks like.

Long Beach-born Patti Sok had always identified herself as a “Cambodian Buddhist girl” because that’s what her parents had told her she was. When, however, she entered the University of Texas, she embraced atheism and became an “evangelist” for atheism.

In an attempt to convert them, Patti befriended some Christians. Despite her negativity toward their faith, they kept telling her about Jesus and saying they were praying for her. She told them to stop it.

The longer, however, she lived with her atheism, the more she felt her life to be empty of meaning and hope. She eventually decided to determine whether there really might be Someone like Jesus after all.

One day she entered an off-campus ministry house and wandered into a closet that had been turned into a prayer room. There she found a bowl filled with slips of paper on which people’s names were written. Over and over again, she came across one on which her name was written…and she was undone. She was stunned at how people had loved her and prayed for her despite her animosity… and suddenly she wondered whether Jesus truly was there reaching out to her. She resolved to see if she could know Him…and one evening she chose to take the leap of faith and to enter His sheepfold.

We the members of Jesus’ community talk about following His example. So let us…and go out to bring in those who are missing!

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