My college roommate was a Prodigal Son. At least that’s what some people said. Richard was admittedly restless. He often seemed to be searching for something. Sometimes these themes came out in his music, as he was an accomplished singer-songwriter around South Florida, who even let me tag along sometimes and play drums behind his one-of-a-kind voice and guitar.
He was restless with God, most of all, I think. He was a religion major like I was, but unlike me, he didn’t have a home church that encouraged curiosity and questions as parts of what it means to be faithful. Whereas my community had taught me about Jacob grappling with God, or the Bible wrestling with itself, or about how questions and doubts are healthy, even essential parts of what it means to love and believe, Richard’s fundamentalist background had prioritized 100 percent certainty, with no room for a young man’s wondering and wrestling. In fact, some of his home church members were the ones that had called him a “Prodigal.” He once laughed telling me about how they’d started a support group called “Parents of Prodigal children” partly with him in mind.
Well, he never went home — not to that church home, anyway. He wandered far — or at least to the far country of middle Georgia after college, where he continued to play music as front man for a rock and roll group that toured the Southeast. He developed a local following while managing a bar in Athens, then took his inheritance and savings and started a craft bar in Central Florida, which was wildly successful before he cashed that in and ventured off a year or so ago. No one heard from him for a while. Friends who stayed in touch said he had gone on what he called “a spiritual quest,” spending 6 months moving from place to place quietly and without notice. These same friends also said he came back different — more settled, at peace, like maybe he had found something, or something had found him.
I never got the chance to hear about it from him. Last December, my college roommate passed away, as a result of a serious case of Diabetes he had managed since his childhood. But a mutual friend shared that a few weeks before his death, Richard had shared with him a new song he had written. It was a rough recording of a song he called “Michelangelo’s Mistake.” In it, Richard imagines the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, filled with its biblical scenes, including its most iconic episode of Adam stretching out for God, trying to touch God’s hand. This is what Richard called “Michelangelo’s Mistake” and he wrote this lyric: “Adam, if you want to touch God, there’s no need to do the reaching… there is no distance in-between.” (1)
Our passage today is about lost things: a sheep and a coin, specifically. In Luke, these two parables are followed by Jesus’ best known and most enduring parable about a lost son. Together, these stories of lost and found form the heart of Luke’s gospel. They are “the gospel within the gospel” as one writer has said. They are the center of the kingdom of God that Jesus proclaims, which is a kingdom of losing and finding, searching and sweeping, looking and discovering.
It’s a kingdom of a lost sheep, so valuable to the shepherd that he would leave the ninety-nine to go and find the one who had gotten separated from the others.
A lost coin, settled in a crack somewhere, so a woman lit a lamp and swept the house, turned everything upside down, and wouldn’t give up until at last she had found it, throwing a party for all her friends and neighbors that cost more than the worth of the coin itself.
A lost son, who comes to himself and makes his way home to his father to find a robe, a ring, a homecoming dance.
Together, they tell us of the love of God for all of us who have ever been like a sheep cowering on a hillside, or a coin collecting dust in the quiet corners of the house, or a repentant child trudging up the road. It’s this last story that has especially captured our imagination. As much as any other in our scriptures, the parable of the prodigal son is a story in which many of us have found ourselves. For those of us who grew up as church kids, the parable has served as a cautionary tale — a warning not to be wasteful and squandering, lest we end up wallowing with the pigs. The prodigal child has been cast as a dramatic foil for those of us more dutiful, or a tragic figure who is needy, immoral, reckless and someone whose path is to be avoided. His story, his prayer, his journey home have become a narrative through which we understand our faith and what it means to be lost and then found. It’s written in our hymns, “Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling… calling, O Sinner, come home.” Sometimes this story of the lost son is so large that it overwhelms the two parables that come before it, subsuming them in one single unit about lost sinners straining, stretching, picking themselves up and finding their way home to God.
But then, the parables of the sheep and the coin present a wholly different story of what it means for lost to be found.
The sheep and the coin are less animated. One is an animal, the other an object, and neither is personified like this son. We can’t assign motive to livestock. We don’t know the backstory of the coin. In short, we can’t blame them. We can’t blame a sheep for wandering off beyond the gaze of the shepherd, and venturing out when the gate is cracked and freedom lies beyond. We can’t blame a small coin for slipping into the cracks unnoticed, amidst everything else going on. When we read of the lost son, so often we bristle at his entitlement, his irresponsibility, his selfishness. But in the sheep and the coin, we’re presented with two lost things that are simply lost, through no fault of their own. They’re simply lost because this world is full of lost things.
In the same way, there’s nothing the sheep and the coin can do on their own to be found. The lost son has to come to himself, realize what his life has become, make the journey home and will his way back to the father, rehearsing an apology speech under his breath the whole way. But a sheep and a coin don’t repent. They’re simply found. And they’re not found because they do anything to merit being found, or to make themselves less lost. They’re found because a shepherd leaves everything to find them, and because a woman turns the whole house upside down. They’re found for no other reason than that someone is determined to find them.
The great parables scholar, Bernard Brandon Scott, has said it this way: while the lost son travels to make his way home, in the case of the lost sheep and the lost coin, “the finder moves toward the lost.” (2) There is no distance in between.
God is always tirelessly, relentlessly, closing the distance between us. For we have all needed to be found — sometimes from our own wandering, but more often because the world is just full of lost things. In the same way, church is full of lost things — or people who have lost things, at least. And not the lost keys and coffee mugs that collect in the front office, but much more. Things like lost direction, or lost hope. Some in this church are experiencing a loss of perspective or a loss of purpose. And somewhere, maybe beneath the table or tucked in the quieter corners of this church, there are even those of us who have lost faith. We know what it is to be lost. Maybe especially here. In church.
Yes, we have all longed to be found. We’re like children playing hide and seek, giggling through our teeth from behind the door — lost and hiding, but ultimately wanting to be found. (3)
It’s deeply rooted in us. Psychiatrist and writer, Curt Thompson, is the founder of “The Center for Being Known,” which was established out of his conviction that being known is the deepest desire of the human soul. “We all are born into the world looking for someone looking for us,” he writes. “And we remain in this mode of searching for the rest of our lives.” (4)
I remember the profound moment on the second day of my first son, Jack’s, life in the New York City hospital, where he was resting on his mother’s chest when I came up behind and leaned down — “Hey, Buddy” — and for the very first time I watched him begin to try raise up his head and look for the person who was looking for him.
A few days later, I was the one who needed to be found. It was our home-going day, and we were tiptoeing along with every bit of new parent anxiety. We were escorted down the hall when he suddenly jolted in the cart, causing a particularly anxious nurse to wonder “Was that a spasm? Can he go home safely?” She took us back to the room and ordered some brain scans and extra testing that absolutely sent us into the corners, lost in our fear. About that time I remembered that our ride was downstairs waiting. Our good friends, Graham and Amanda, were our only friends in the city with a vehicle, and they had planned to take us home so Jack wouldn’t have his first drive in a New York City cab. I went down to explain. I was in a daze and Graham saw it right away. And I remember how within moments of my broken explanation of what was going on, Graham embraced me, right there under the portico of St. Luke’s Roosevelt hospital, and he began to say a prayer. In a moment as lost as I had known, there was someone there who was gentle, wise, who displayed the confidence of faith and the assurance that God was with me, as close as God had ever been, right out in public under the hospital entrance. I suppose it could just be a coincidence that my friend Graham Ashcraft also happened to be the Chair of Deacons at Metro Baptist Church.
We’re here on a Deacon Ordination Sunday, which is a time that we remember that sometimes we find each other. Sometimes we become like shepherds, as the 99 follow behind the Good Shepherd, out from the safety of the gate to see who they might find themselves. Sometimes we are searching women, joining our God in sweeping every corner until lost is found. Sometimes we can be the gracious parent, watching and ready to spring forth with the fullness of grace at the first sign of anyone who is wondering if it’s still there for them. Sometimes we find one another.
But more often in our lives, we feel like lost things.
The Gospel is good news for lost things. It’s the story of Jesus, who just before telling these parables is derided by those grumbling about, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” The great New Testament scholar, Bruce Metzger, has suggested that this single line sums up the gospel: “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” It reminds of the ancient rabbinical saying, “If you want to know someone, watch them eat” — and not how they eat, or what they eat, but who they eat with. “He welcomes sinners and eats with them.” It’s a welcome that defines him. The Greek word for “welcome” means “seek out” — as in, Jesus “seeks out” the sinners, the wounded, the maligned, the lost. He is active and restless, like a good shepherd who will leave the ninety-nine sheep in the wilderness to seek the one lost sheep until he finds it. Like a woman who upends the house looking for a single coin.
It’s who Jesus was. It’s who God is. God is love that tirelessly looks for whatever is lost, seeing in that one far from home not a misfit, or a cast off, or a sinner beyond reach, but one beloved and valued and worth everything that God has to give.
Instead of the lost son overwhelming the two parables that come before it, what if we read these parables in order? What if we came to understand this found son in light of the coin and the sheep — not as one to be pitied or avoided, but as the one who comes to understand, ultimately, there’s no road he needs to walk and no journey he needs to make to be found. The one who is so overwhelmed with grace and learns that there’s no losing the standing invitation, no distance you need to travel to access it, no earning it back with your words or your actions, no cleaning up your life before God will greet you, no condition on the love that is always there.
At times we’ve been a Prodigal wandering far. But the far greater truth is that more often we’ve been a coin, simply tucked into a forgotten space in this world. More often we’ve been a sheep, just isolated from all the rest, not even sure what happened, wondering “How did we get here?” And we have found that God is a sweeping woman. God is a searching Shepherd. We have found that there is nothing lost in God’s kingdom. Nothing can escape into the cracks. Nothing can drift isolated into a field. And there’s nothing we can do, ultimately, to find our own way home. There’s no distance we can stretch. There’s no reach we can make. Instead, we are found by the grace that is always right there.
What I’m saying today is don’t make Michaelangelo’s mistake. Right now, right here, “there is no distance in between.”
- With thanks to friend, Mike Dixon, who shared this story and lyric.
- Hear Then the Parable, 102.
- Image from Fred Craddock’s story on “Hide and Seek.”
- The Soul of Shame, 138.