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Luke 15:1-10, from the Common English Bible

        There are parables, and there are true stories—and there is meaning and truth to be found in both of them.

        Here is a true story 1 with all the meaning of a parable a modern-day Jesus might tell:

        Carole and Verne King took a trip to Kalispell, Montana, a small town near the western entrance to Glacier National Park and about 250 miles from their home in Washington State. They found a dog-friendly hotel so they could take their beloved Katie, a seven-year-old border collie.

        They went out one night, leaving Katie in their room and, when they returned Katie was gone. It appeared that she had been spooked by a thunderstorm and somehow managed to unlock the door and run outside. Chances are she was looking for safety; she was probably looking for them. But they were back and Katie was gone; the person working at the front desk said she had seen a frightened dog run out the hotel’s front door a few hours earlier.

        Carole and Verne were, of course, devastated. They searched nearby neighborhoods until 4 in the morning, but found no sign of Katie.

        Now if you’ve never had a beloved pet, or if you don’t particularly care for dogs, you might think that would be the end of the story. But it is not.

        The Kings sent photos to the hotel manager, who had “lost dog” flyers made up, and soon hundreds of them were posted all over the area. Other flyers were distributed by hand door-to-door and at sporting events. The information about Katie was also posted on Facebook and other internet sites. Meantime, total strangers joined Verne and Carole in walking neighborhoods and other areas searching for Katie. They looked in abandoned buildings; they walked alfalfa fields.

        Two weeks of that and still: nothing.

        “Every night going to bed, it was gut-wrenching,” Verne said. “Is she warm? Did she get to eat today? It tore us up.”

        Anything might have happened. Katie could have been hit by a car. She could have been attacked by a wild animal. She might have even started heading to Washington State.

        Carole and Verne kept searching.

        Instead of flagging in their pursuit, they upped their game: ordering two wildlife cameras in the hopes of catching sight of Katie; ordering friendly  animal traps and putting in them the cheese sticks Katie loved. Carole even began jogging and biking around the area, hoping that Katie would be attracted by the scent of her sweat. They put their dirty T-shirts and Katie’s bowl and blanket in key locations. They even got some of those night-vision goggles so they could search in the dark.

        People who had been strangers but who’d gotten involved in the search invited the Kings to stay in their home.

        Occasionally, they’d get a call from someone saying they had seen a dog that might be Katie, but nothing panned out. After a month of searching, there was still no sign of Katie.

        Finally, Carole had to go back to her job as a postal worker. She asked for more time off so she could continue the search, but her request was denied. So, she quit her job, and returned to Montana. Verne finally went home to take care of things there.

        After 53 days of searching for her lost dog, Carole was starting to lose hope of ever finding Katie. Still, she didn’t give up.

        Then, on Day 57, someone who lived near the hotel said there was a dog in his backyard, and he was sure it was Katie. Carole rushed to his house but by the time she got there, the dog was gone. So, she and some other searchers began walking the streets near the house. They encountered a couple who said they’d seen a border collie under a tree.

        The group began calling Katie’s name. And then they realized they should let just Carole call out, in the hopes that Katie would recognize her voice.

        “Katie!” Carole called, again and again. And then Katie came running at full speed, and jumped into Carole’s arms.

        Katie was dirty. Katie was dehydrated. In 57 days, she had lost 15 pounds.

        But she was found.

        And there was great rejoicing—at the vet’s office, all over Montana and in Washington state, and, I’m sure, in heaven too.

        Because Katie, who was lost, had been found. Because her humans gave up so much and worked so hard to find her. Because they wouldn’t be whole without her. Because she was a part of them, and they loved her.

        Because, as Jesus was trying to explain in his stories of the shepherd with one lost sheep and the woman with one lost coin, this is how much God loves every single one of God’s children. This is how God searches for the lost, the left out, the kicked out, the despised and rejected, the people who’ve given up on the church, if not God. This is how desperately and methodically God longs for those who are hungry and poor and afraid and don’t know where to go or which way home is.

        When it comes to finding us and loving us, God never gives up.

        It’s as if, every night, going to bed, God is wracked with worry and gut-wrenching love. “Are they warm? Are they safe? Did someone show them kindness  today? Do they know how much I love them? Did they find hope today? It tears me up.” And then God gets up and resumes her love-sick search., quitting his other job and calling all the angels and neighbors to help look for the lost.

        Jesus told these parables, and the one about the prodigal son, because the religious folks kept complaining about the company he was keeping. He was known to welcome outcasts and eat with traitors, and the religious folk were both offended by this and confused. They wanted to know why he would hang out with those bad people, those people who didn’t meet their high standards. They wanted to know why he didn’t give them more of his time and energy and love.

        So Jesus told them stories about sheep and coins. I don’t know from sheep, so I’m sharing a New York Times story about a lost dog.

        To strain the analogy, it’s as if the Westminster Dog Show snobs of Jesus’ day were upset that he spent so much time at the pound. 

        “Well, of course, I do,” Jesus said, “because that’s where the strays are, that’s where the unwanted dogs are, that’s where the lost and endangered dogs end up. You and your beloved pets are more than fine, but I’m all torn up about the dogs who don’t have anyone. I go where they are because, in God’s house, there’s no such thing as an unwanted pet or an unloved human. I will not rest until I find the lost, and—when I do—I’ll throw the biggest party you’ve ever seen.”

        Apparently, as Barbara Brown Taylor has said, “to be lost is to be precious in God’s sight.”

        Apparently, as Jesus was saying, the lost and left out, the oppressed and bullied, the unloved and rejected, the people we consider bad and unworthy should be precious in our sight, too. We should be like the area residents who joined Carole and Verne in their search for Katie. Apparently, we shouldn’t rest until we find the lost ones and bring them into the fold, safe and warm and beloved. Apparently, we should throw a big party whenever even one lost one is found.

        If you’ve ever been lost, if you’ve ever felt unwelcome or unaccepted, if you’ve ever been told you weren’t good enough, this is amazingly good news. This is cause for celebration and praise (which, by the way, is what worship is. This is reason not only for a party, but also for a whole new way of living, a whole new way of understanding who God is and what it means to be God’s people and Christ’s church.

        Now a funny thing happened to Jesus’ stories. He’s talking about sheep and coins, losing and finding, rejoicing and carrying on, and then the text goes on to say that this is how God and God’s angels and all God’s heaven rejoice when just one sinner repents, changing their heart and their life.

        But the last time I checked, sheep and coins are not capable of repentance. They just are what they are. Not even the smartest, most well-trained dog will come home if she’s been mistreated there.

        No, Jesus seems to be saying that God rejoices in us not because we are good, but because God is good. Jesus seems to be saying that we are to love people not because they’ve gotten their act together and have agreed to follow our rules and color within our lines, but because we aren’t complete without them, because we need what they bring to our community.

        There is joy in finding, and there is joy in being found.

        It’s not that changing makes us lovable, but that being loved changes us.

        It’s not about whether the church will accept us, but that we belong to God.

        I’m guessing many of us are thinking right now about someone we love who is lost. Someone who’s lost their way—for any number of reasons. Maybe someone who’s run away because folks like us rejected them, or didn’t see them, or mistreated them.

        Well, let’s round up a search party to bring them home. May we not rest until we find them and let them know they are beloved.