This text would not be considered one of the difficult sayings of Jesus by most folks. We are happy to look for the lost. We are happy that Jesus, at least, is willing to venture out to find those who have strayed and to bring them home for a celebration. This is a warm and welcoming sort of passage for us—at least until we look deeper and consider the radical preference for the outcast, for the wanderer, for the sinner. Experiments in local churches with a focus not on those already in the fellowship but on those not yet a part are often met with dismay by the membership. It is not unreasonable, most would think, to care for those who are members, those who pay the bills, those who are faithful to the programs of the church. Until Luke chapter 15 rolls around, and we discover just how unreasonable Jesus really is. It is one thing to be “seeker-sensitive,” which means being hospitable to those who find their way into our fellowship for worship or learning or support. But this isn’t about waiting by the door for those who come in; this is about going out, finding those who might not consider coming to a church, and making sure they know how welcome they are, how loved they are. This is about turning the church upside down or inside out in order to shift the focus from tending the flock to seeking the lost. This is a hard saying, indeed.
This message needs to be presented plainly, not to place guilt or add to a burden upon those who have already found a home in the body of Christ. If we can borrow a line from the third story in Luke 15, “You are always with me, and everything I have is yours.” We celebrate our place in the fellowship of the church. We live the party that is the kingdom of heaven right now. We claim the family that the kin-dom of God has given to us. We rejoice in the gift of the church that we enjoy as a part of our identity.
Yet we celebrate this gift as a treasure to be shared, not a right to be hoarded, not a due that is owed to us. But where do we begin as we gather for worship today? By asking God to open our eyes to the possibilities all around us, to the people we have overlooked, to the populations on the margins. Do our prayers cover only ourselves, our own needs, or our own forgiveness? Or are we lifting up our community and the opportunities for mission and ministry, evangelism, and comfort that we could provide? For whom do we pray?
What about erecting a prayer wall? Somewhere in the sanctuary or in the narthex or commons area, set up a place where people can post prayer concerns for the world around them. Post-it-notes or markers on newsprint paper could be available to any and all to draw attention, to help the whole congregation see the folks who are around them yet often overlooked. See all the people.
Do our songs celebrate the joys of the church and the gifts we have received? Or do we look out to the mission field, to the ravines where the sheep have wandered, or to the corners where the coin has rolled? Do we sing praise to the one who calls us to go out, to seek and to find and then to celebrate? Worship is not only about receiving marching orders or getting our weekly assignments. But it can be a reminder that we are a people with a mission and that we cannot be content with the status quo.
Rev. Dr. Derek Weber, Director of Preaching Ministries, served churches in Indiana and Arkansas and the British Methodist Church. His PhD is from University of Edinburgh in preaching and media. He has taught preaching in seminary and conference settings for more than 20 years.