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The Lost and Found Seep
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Scripture: Luke 15:1-7
He called himself Father Gabriel. He was a self-proclaimed modern-day prophet of God. He came to the town where we were living in the early 1980s.
He set up shop in a storefront and pompously announced that he had special gifts from God that no other living person in the world possessed. With TV and radio spots, with billboards and newspaper ads, he proclaimed boldly that all who followed him and put their faith in him and joined his church would be blessed with great wealth and perfect health.
The great wealth, he said, would come quickly to all those who joined his Father Gabriel Prosperity Plan. To ensure your place in the Prosperity Plan, all you had to do was pay $100 down and then send in $20 a week to keep you in the Prosperity Plan. When you paid your money, Father Gabriel would go into his special prayer chapel and pray for you, and then very, very soon, great wealth (out of the blue) would come into your life.
To promote his Prosperity Plan, Father Gabriel produced radio and TV spots during which people would announce that they had joined the Prosperity Plan, and then one week later, after Father Gabriel prayed for them, they had received a check for $100,000 in the mail from the estate of a distant relative; or they had gone on a quiz show and won $50,000; or they had found $75,000 buried in their own backyard.
Even though it all sounded like a hoax (and later was proved to be just that), still hundreds and hundreds of people fell for this and rushed to sign up and send in their money, prompting one cynic to say: "I don't know if the Prosperity Plan works for everybody, but it's working mighty well for Father Gabriel!"
Father Gabriel promised that all of his followers would have not only great wealth, but also great health. The great health would come, he said, from the special healing powers that only he possessed. With a single touch and a simple prayer, he had the power to make you well, he said. Furthermore, he announced that those who followed him would have no need of doctors or hospitals or medicines anymore, and that if any one of his members went to a doctor or took any kind of medicine (rather than coming to him), that person would be "kicked out" of his church immediately. Of course, there was a charge for the healing.
Most people in town were very suspicious of Father Gabriel and thought he was nothing more than a charlatan, a sham, "a fly-by-night, take-the-money-and-run" con man. Their suspicions proved to be right on target because two years later, Father Gabriel was arrested in another city. Weeks before, in the middle of the night, he had taken off with thousands of dollars he had bilked out of innocent, naive, gullible people. He had made off with Prosperity Plan money, with get-well-quick money, and with money people had given him to build a magnificent new church.
One of Father Gabriel's innocent victims was a member of the church I was serving at the time. Her name was Helen. Helen and her sister, Jane, were wonderful people and dedicated members of my church. They were both in their mid-sixties at the time. They were both widows, and after their husbands had died, they had moved in together to share expenses and to take care of each other.
One Sunday morning, I saw Jane in church alone. After the service, she said to me, "Jim, I'm so worried about Helen. She's gotten tied in with that Father Gabriel. I think he's a fake, but Helen can't see it. That storefront of his is just down the street from our house, and she was curious. I begged her not to go down there. I tried my best to warn her, but that Father Gabriel is a smooth talker with all those promises. He duped her and kept her coming back, and little by little she swallowed it all, hook, line, and sinker. And Jim, it breaks my heart, she went and joined that church (or whatever it is), and she's giving him all kinds of money."
Some weeks later Jane called me in a panic. "Jim, Helen fainted at work this morning. They called 911. The ambulance took her to the hospital. Her appendix was about to rupture. She's in surgery now. I got to the hospital as fast as I could. I'm really worried about her."
"I'm on my way," I said to Jane. When I got there, Jane and I prayed a prayer together, and then we waited. Soon the doctor came out. He smiled and said, "It was a close call, but she's going to be fine. The ambulance got her here just in time. Much later, and we would have lost her. The surgery went well. She will recover nicely."
"Thank God," Jane said. "Helen started having some stomach pains last week. I tried to get her to the doctor, but no, she went instead to that Father Gabriel. I wish he had never come to town."
Well, thankfully, the doctor was right. Helen did recover nicely and quickly, and a few days later Jane and I checked her out of the hospital and took her home. Helen was glad to see me there at the hospital, but she seemed uneasy and embarrassed in my presence. We had been in the house only a few minutes when the phone rang. Helen answered it. Shortly, she hung up and began to cry softly.
"That was Father Gabriel," she said. "He kicked me out of the church. He said I had disobeyed him and went to the hospital and relied on doctors and their medicines, and that was blatant disobedience of him and his laws.
"I tried to tell him that I passed out, that I did not call the ambulance. He told me that's no excuse, and he never, ever wants to see me again."
Helen cried some more. Jane and I hugged her, and at the same time we said, "Helen, forget about him, come on back to our church. Come on back home."
Helen looked right into my eyes and said, "Jim, I'm so ashamed. I'm so embarrassed. How could I have been so foolish and so gullible? I want to come back to our church, but I don't know how the people at the church feel about me now or how they will treat me after what I've done and after the silly way I have acted."
I said, "Helen, they will treat you like you have never been away."
But, actually, I understated it! The very next Sunday, the people of our church did even better! They treated her like the guest of honor at a great homecoming celebration. They hugged her and kissed her and patted her and complimented her. They acted like they had waited all year long for just this moment, to say with joy and thanksgiving and relief, "Welcome home, Helen!"
You know where the people learned that sort of compassion, don't you? They learned it at church, at Sunday school. They learned it from Jesus. They learned it from Jesus' parable of the lost sheep in Luke 15.
Like the lost sheep, Helen had just wandered off, just drifted away, and when she was found and brought home, there was a great sigh of relief, a great prayer of thanksgiving, and a great celebration because this beloved and precious sheep was lost, and now she was found and was safely back with the flock.
In Luke 15, Jesus is painting his best picture of what God is like and what God wants us to be like. In this parable, Jesus is dramatically showing us three great things about God and his love.
Let's take a look at each of these.
First of All, God's Love Is Inclusive, and God Wants Us to Be Inclusive in Our Loving
The Good Shepherd wants all of his sheep to be in the flock, even those who wander off. He can't rest until all the sheep are safely accounted for and safely included. His love is inclusive, and he wants us to live daily in that spirit. He wants us to be inclusive also.
Fred Craddock tells about how some years ago he used to go home to West Tennessee for Christmas. Each year was pretty much the same. He would go back to the town where he grew up, and he would always stop by a restaurant to visit one of his old high school buddies named Buck who owned the restaurant. Buck was always glad to see Fred, and he would give Fred a cup of coffee and a piece of chess pie for free.
But one year it was different. Buck asked Fred to go with him to a different place for coffee. Fred thought it was strange to go to somebody else's restaurant, but he sensed that Buck was thinking deep thoughts and wanted to talk. They sipped their coffee, and then suddenly Buck said to Fred, "The curtain has to come down."
The curtain Buck was referring to was the curtain in his restaurant that separated the black patrons from the white patrons. Buck's restaurant was like other buildings in the little town, a long "shotgun" building with a front entrance off the street and a back entrance off the alley behind the restaurant. The white diners came in off the street, and the black diners entered from the back alley. A curtain across the center of the building separated the black diners from the white. It had always been that way; but now Buck was saying, "The curtain has to come down." And as Fred Craddock tells it, this conversation between these two old friends took place.
I said, "Good, bring it down."
[Buck] said, "That's easy for you to say. Come in here from out of state and tell me how to run my business."
I said, "Okay, leave it up."
Buck said, "I can't leave it up."
I said, "Then, take it down."
"I can't take it down!" [Buck's] in terrible shape. After a while Buck said, "If I take that curtain down, I lose a lot of my customers. If I leave that curtain up, I lose my soul."(Fred Craddock, Craddock Stories, ed. Mike Graves and Richard F. Ward [St. Louis, Mo.: Chalice Press, 2001], 61.)
Thankfully we live in a different era today. But let me ask you something: Do you grapple with a similar ethical dilemma of your own? Do you have "curtains" in your life, curtains that separate and divide people? curtains that shut people out? curtains that hurt and shun and exclude other human beings? curtains that promote and perpetuate prejudice and discrimination or bigotry? curtains that poison your soul?
The parable of the lost sheep was told by Jesus to show us how loving and inclusive God is and to remind us that there are no "curtains that separate" in God's flock. All are valued. All are cherished. All are treasured. All are wanted. All are welcomed. All are included. That's the way God is, and that's the way God wants us to be. God's love is inclusive, and God wants us to be inclusive in our loving. That's number one.
Second, God's Love Is Forgiving, and God Wants Us to Be Forgiving in Our Loving
The lost sheep wandered off, and yet the Good Shepherd cared for him and went looking for him and found him and brought him safely back home. That's what God's love is like. Jesus tells us in this parable that God is always ready to forgive, eager to forgive, quick to forgive and that God wants us to live like that, to emulate his forgiving spirit.
Some years ago, I met an older woman who had a really beautiful spirit of forgiveness. She was an inspiration to everyone who knew her. One day I asked her about her gracious spirit of forgiveness. She smiled and told me that many years before, when she was a teenager, she had gotten into serious trouble. She was scared to death and didn't know what to do. She finally got up the nerve to tell her parents what she had done. She thought they might kick her out of the house and disown her; but to the contrary, they loved her more than ever. They supported her and encouraged her and loved her through that most difficult situation, and, the woman said, "They forgave me!" Their gracious forgiveness meant so much to her. Their merciful, compassionate spirit touched her deep in her soul, and this woman made a vow then and there to be a forgiving person like her parents were. She said, "Because of them and what they did for me, I have dedicated my life to the spirit of forgiveness."
As Christians, that is our calling. We have been forgiven so much by the Christ of the cross. How could we not be forgiving?
If you ever wonder, Should I forgive that person who has hurt me or wronged me or betrayed me? just remember Jesus on the cross saying, "Father, forgive them." That's the measuring stick for forgiveness.
In his life, death, and resurrection, and also in his teaching, Jesus shows us that God's love is inclusive and that God's love is forgiving and that God wants us to be inclusive and forgiving like him.
Third and Finally, God's Love Is Sacrificial, and God Wants Us to Be Sacrificial in Our Loving
One of my favorite stories is the one about the young professional baseball player some years ago who prided himself on being a great hitter. He knew he could make it big in the major leagues if he could just get his chance.
For several years, he bounced around in the minor leagues. Then one year toward the end of the season, the major league parent team brought him up to help them as they were in the thick of a heated pennant race.
Finally, this was his chance. But he was promptly put on the bench! Day after day went by as the rookie was itching to bat, to show what he could do, to show the world that he was a great hitter—and still he sat on the bench.
Then one day the manager called for the rookie to pinch hit. This was the dramatic moment he had dreamed of for so long—a crucial game, the last inning, the score tied, and a runner on first base. The rookie's heart pounded with excitement as he stepped into the batter's box. Routinely he glanced down toward the third-base coach—and he could not believe his eyes: They were giving him the signal to sacrifice! Here was his chance to show the world his greatness as a hitter, and the coaches were telling him to bunt, to make an out on purpose to advance the runner to second base.
The rookie ignored the signal, took three hefty swings, and struck out. When he returned to the dugout, he was met by a red-faced, irate manager. "Son, what's the matter with you? Didn't you see the signal to sacrifice?" "Yes sir, I saw it," said the rookie, "but I didn't think you meant it!"
"I saw it, but I didn't think you meant it!" Isn't that what we say to God? On page after page of the Scriptures, God says to us, "Sacrifice! Sacrifice! Love others! Lay down your life for others! Sacrifice yourself for the good of the team! Lose yourself! Be self-giving!"
That's what God says to us. That is God's signal to us. But we are not so sure that he means it. Well, God showed us he meant it on a cross!
The point is clear and obvious. In words and deeds, in parables and actions, Jesus taught us that God is the Good Shepherd who lays his life on the line with love to include and to forgive and to save his sheep, and that God wants us to be inclusive, forgiving, and sacrificial like that in our loving and in our living.CHAPTER 2
The Lost and Found Coin
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Scripture: Luke 15:8-10
Some time ago, ABC's Nightline presented a powerful and amazing true story about the redemption of a notorious drug addict who had been lost and then found. The program was entitled "The Doctor and the Reverend."
"The Doctor" was an African American man who was well known and much feared in one of the roughest and toughest sections in the United States, the Badlands of Philadelphia, a run-down inner-city neighborhood infested with drug addicts of all ages and drug deals of the most dangerous kind. This man was called "The Doctor" because he had been doing drugs and dealing drugs and shooting up heroin himself and in others for thirty-five years.
He had been thrust out onto the streets of Philadelphia when he was only thirteen years old, and he had been a drug addict and a pusher all those years. Although "The Doctor" was his nickname, in the Badlands of Philadelphia he was also known as "Seville" because of his habit of stealing Cadillac Sevilles and then selling them quickly to produce "ready cash" to support his drug habit and his drug business.
Seville, "The Doctor," was a rough, tough, hard, and hostile character, and when he walked by, people backed away to give him plenty of space. But then something amazing happened that changed everything and turned his life completely around.
A young minister decided to do something no one else wanted to do—to go serve God in the Badlands of Philadelphia. She had wanted to be a missionary to Africa, but she got married and had five children, and that door of opportunity to serve in Africa never opened for her. So, she decided to become a missionary in Philadelphia's harshest inner-city region, the Badlands.
It's noteworthy that she would undertake such a faith venture in such a dangerous place. She was an attractive young woman, and we can only imagine the horrible things that could have happened to her there. But in faith she went, and the very first day she did a very courageous thing. She stopped a drug addict on the street and asked him: "Who's the 'baddest of the bad' in the Badlands?"
The addict answered: "That would be Seville, The Doctor. No question about it, he's the baddest of the bad down here, but if you go near him, you be careful."
She got directions on where to find him, and boldly she went. She told Seville who she was and what she wanted to do, and how, in the spirit of Jesus Christ, she just wanted to help people find a better life. Seville was impressed with her and fascinated by her courage, her faith, and her servant spirit, so he put out an order in the Badlands that everyone was to treat her, The Reverend, with respect, and no one was to mess with her.
Excerpted from Jesus' Parables of the Lost and Found by JAMES W. MOORE. Copyright © 2006 Dimensions for Living. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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