“Who Counts?”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

July 15, 2018

Luke 15


If you’re like me, you may have spent an inordinate amount of time in the last few weeks following the plight of the twelve youth soccer players and their coach who were trapped in a flooded cave in Thailand for 18 days.  From June 23, when the team first went missing, to this past Tuesday, when the last four boys and their coach were brought to safety, people the world over were glued to the updates on their news source of choice.

Watching in fascination as pumps were installed and the water level was lowered in the cave…  Cheering when divers located the boys alive after nine interminable days…  Lamenting when a diver perished after his oxygen ran out while he was placing supplies for later rescuers to use…  Poring over the weather maps as monsoon rains fell…  Waiting and hoping as teams coordinated and prepared for the mission ahead…  Holding our collective breath as the rescue began…  Sighing or shouting in relief and joy when the first group emerged, and the second, and finally the third…  Continuing to watch and pray as the team recovers in quarantine in the hospital…

It has been captivating.  It has been moving.  It has been beyond inspiring—it has restored my faith in humanity—to witness the dedication, the selflessness, the devotion of so many people, the mobilization of every conceivable resource to find those lost children, to keep them safe, and to bring them home.


In the gospel of Luke, chapter 15, Jesus tells three parables.  Leilani read them for us this morning, retold in this wonderful children’s book (Who Counts? by Amy-Jill Levine and Sandy Sasso, illustrated by Margaux Meganck).

Jesus tells of a shepherd whose sheep wanders off.  So committed is he to the welfare of every one of his charges that he goes in search of that lost lamb—over hill and dale, through briar patch and swamp, until he finds her and carries her home and throws a party to celebrate.  Some people ask him why he’s so excited.  “What’s so wonderful?  It was only one sheep.  You had ninety-nine others.”  “One sheep makes a difference.  Without her something is missing.  Now my flock is complete.”

Jesus tells of a woman who loses a coin.  Her neighbors wonder why she is so fussed about it.  It’s just a little copper penny.  What’s the big deal?  But when that coin turns up—PING!—she celebrates, for what was lost was found.  “What is so important?” people ask.  “It was only one coin.”  “Just one coin matters.  Without it, something is missing.  Now my coin collection is complete.”

Jesus tells of a father who has two sons.  One son demands his inheritance early, then goes away to a far-off land and squanders it.  He comes home a mess—body filthy, clothes tattered, pride wounded, ego deflated.  Expecting a sour reception, the son intends to beg his father to take him on as a hired hand.  But the father, seeing his son trudging homeward, goes sprinting down the road to fling his arms around his long-lost child.  He gives him extravagant gifts and throws a huge feast to celebrate his son’s return.

But the older brother, the responsible one, is left out in the cold, feeling cranky about his indulgent father being soft on his screw-up wastrel of a brother again.  Until, that is, the father realizes that he is still missing a child, and he goes out to find him.  “I have two sons—one, two.  I paid attention to my younger son, but I discounted my older son.  I didn’t realize that he felt lost,” he thinks to himself.  Then takes his son’s hand and says, “Please come and join the party.  I love you.  All I have is yours.  Come and be with me and with your brother.  Without you, something is missing.  With you, our family is complete.”

In the realm of God, no expense is too extravagant, no price is too high, to search out a lost child and bring him home.  It doesn’t matter how they got there—by waywardness or by ignorance or by accident or by choice—no cost is too great to find the one who is lost and bring her back to the fold.  A sheep who wanders off… a coin dropped into a dusty, shadowy corner… a son who willfully rejects his father’s affections… a soccer team who go spelunking in a flood-prone cave during the rainy season…  No matter who is lost or why, in the realm of God, no expense is spared to search them out and carry them to safety.

People of God, this is what it means to be followers of Jesus.  It means that we are responsible for one another, responsible to keep one another safe, to protect and care for one another whenever a child of God is in need.  This is how God’s people respond to a sibling who is in trouble:  by mobilizing every conceivable resource to find those lost children, to keep them safe, and to bring them home.

Not by taking children from their parents and locking them in cages.

Not by medicating children who are agitated at their parents’ absence, or by barring those charged with their care from offering physical comfort when those same children cry.

Not by forcing toddlers—children the age of my son, who doesn’t know what a country is, let alone which one he comes from or why he might have left it—to represent themselves in immigration courts.

Not by requiring parents to consent to deportation, to be returned to the violence or poverty or abuse or hunger or desperation they fled in search of asylum or refuge, in order to have their children returned to them.

Not by saying, “What’s so wonderful?  What’s so important?  It’s only one sheep, one coin, one child…”  But by saying, “One sheep makes a difference.  One coin matters.  One child is more precious than anything else under heaven.”

This is what it means to be followers of Jesus.  That when a child—any child—is in trouble, when a human being—any human being—is in trouble, when any part of this God-so-loved world is in trouble, we go there, we search them out, we bind their wounds, we bring them home.  It may cost us our resources.  It may cost us our privilege.  It may cost us our pride.  It may cost us our jobs.  It may cost us our lives.  But in the realm of God, we do it willingly.  We do it joyfully.  Because that is how God first loves us.


Because this, too, is what it means to be followers of Jesus.

That when you are in trouble…

When you are in need…

When you are lost…

When you are afraid…

When you wander off the path in a moment of inattention and don’t know how to find your way back…

When someone drops you into a dusty, shadowed corner, and you find yourself alone in a way you never thought you’d be…

When you take a wrong turn and the landscape looks unfamiliar and you don’t see any signs that would point you toward home…

When you’ve messed up so many times that you’re not sure home would take you in, even if you managed to get yourself there…

When the floodwaters are rising and you can barely reach the air and you’re not sure anyone knows where you are, let alone whether they will come looking for you…

The God who knit you together, who made you in God’s own image, who breathed life into your body and kindled the spark of your spirit…  The God whose creativity animates every part of creation, who looks around at this world and calls it good, very good…  The God who has brought you this far will not give up on you now.

The God who seeks out the lost sheep, who finds the lost coin, who welcomes the lost child—that God seeks, and finds, and welcomes you, too.  And God will continue to seek, and find, and welcome you, no matter what it takes.  For one sheep counts.  One coin counts.  One child counts.  You count.  Without you, something is missing.  With you, with you, with you, with you, with me, with every child of God, God’s family is complete.

Thanks be to God.


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