September 15, 2013
I don't do well with being lost. I cannot tell you the number of times that I have had directions to whatever location I’m trying to find, followed those directions, yet still found myself driving around and around -- usually crying -- because for whatever reason I have gotten hopelessly lost. As I am directionally challenged, I am often to blame for being lost. But I've also been lost due to the bad directions of others. When I first moved to Albany, New York I had a meeting with that presbytery's Committee on Ministry. It was a night meeting at a church somewhere in Albany. I asked the person who contacted me to give me very specific directions because I was so new to the area. He did. He just happened to leave out the fact that I took one interstate and then took a second interstate. That was kind of a big step to leave out. Not knowing that I was supposed to take that second interstate got me lost, really, really lost. So there I was, driving up and down the interstate, trying to find an exit where I could turn around and find a phone -- because this was in the days before we all had cell phones – so I could call the church. I talked to a lovely woman who gave me the right directions and I managed to get to the meeting. Late. Crying. Mad.
As much as I dread being lost in a strange city, what's worse for me is being lost in the country. The countryside in southern Minnesota is quite lovely in the summer. Gently rolling hills, the land punctuated by winding gravel roads and farms with crops in full flowering. The challenge is that these roads don't always have names, or if they do there's not an abundance of street signs to tell you what the names are. When I was serving there, we had two services in the summer at an historic church in the countryside. The first time I went I followed some parishioners. The second time I was pretty sure I could find it myself.
I was doing pretty well. I made the first part of the trip just fine, until I came to a curve in the road that joined with another road. If I went one way, I continued to follow the road I wanted to be on, the one that led me to the church. Going the other way led you further into the countryside. Guess which road I chose?
I had a cell phone at this point. But it was pre-GPS navigation smart phones. I didn't have a number for the country church because it didn't have electricity, much less a phone. To my dismay, I realized I didn't have cell numbers for any of the parishioners programmed into my phone. As the time for worship drew near and worried because the preacher still hadn't shown up, one of the members called me. Thankfully he had my number even if I didn’t have his. At this point I had pulled off to the side, crying, wondering what the heck I was going to do. He was sending out a search party, but I had no clue where I was, so I was wildly searching for some description of my location. Not being a country girl, in my eyes one stretch of farmland looks like any other. So I'm trying to describe what the crops look like. I drive a little ways and I see a mailbox with a name on it. The minute I told him the name, he knew exactly where I was. A few minutes later, two of the man's grown kids came to retrieve me. When they pulled up, I could see the sister emphatically saying something to her brother. He had his face in his hands, and his whole upper body was shaking. I knew she was telling him to stop laughing. When I got out of the car I pointed my finger and said, "Laugh, and I'm going home." That was an empty threat really, because if I couldn't find the church I probably couldn't find my way home either. But it all turned out fine. I followed them back, led worship. I followed someone else back to the main highway and lived to tell the story. I also got a GPS for Christmas.
As awful as it was to be lost, it was equally wonderful to know that someone was out looking for me. I wasn't going to stay lost, because they weren't going to let me stay lost. They were going to find me, no matter what.
That finding no matter what is the thread that runs through these parables from Luke 15. The third, the one that we don't actually read today, is the most famous one; the Prodigal Son. These two preceding parables are ones that we don't always hear as much about; the lost sheep and the lost coin.
Sinners and tax collectors were coming near to Jesus to listen to him. This made the Pharisees and all the other good and righteous people around him grumble. "Look at this guy Jesus! He even welcomes sinners." Jesus answers their grumbling with these stories. If a shepherd has 100 sheep and one of those was lost, wouldn't the shepherd leave the 99 in the wilderness and search and search for the lost one? When the lost one is found, the shepherd rejoices, laying the sheep across his shoulders, carrying it home. And when he arrives home, he calls together his family and neighbors and asks them to rejoice with him. The lost sheep is found.
As I've said before Jesus’ words in Luke's gospel are more radical than they may first seem. Jesus makes this shepherd searching for his lost sheep sound matter-of-fact and expected. But was it? Those listening to him may have been a bit shocked or bewildered by Jesus' story. Would a shepherd really leave 99 sheep exposed in the wilderness to find just one? That would have been reckless to say the least.
The story about the woman and the lost coin probably didn't help clarify Jesus’ point. A woman has 10 silver coins, but loses one of them. She lights a lamp, takes up her broom and sweeps the entire house, searching every nook and cranny until she finally finds the coin. When she does she also calls together her friends and neighbors to celebrate. Let's have a party! The coin I lost is found!
Coins in the ancient world were valuable. If we were to lose a penny or even a quarter, we may look for a bit, but it wouldn't be with the same intensity. It's just a coin. That wouldn't have been true for the people listening to Jesus so I imagine it mades some sense that the woman searched for it. But to search so intently, to go to such great lengths to find this coin? That was odd. To invite all of her friends and neighbors in for a party to celebrate finding a coin would have been odder still. Jesus ends both of these parables by saying that if the shepherd and the woman rejoiced over finding the lost sheep and coin, than the joy in heaven, the rejoicing of the angels, will be even greater over one sinner who repents.
The shepherd's search for the sheep was reckless. The woman's search for the coin was relentless. The reactions to both were extravagant. It seems to me that what Jesus is telling them is that if we would go to great lengths to find a sheep or a coin, God goes to even greater lengths to find the ones who are lost. God searches recklessly, relentlessly for the lost. God looks in every nook and cranny, God searches every path, recklessly, relentlessly seeking even one who is lost. And when that lost one is found the rejoicing is extravagant.
That's all well and good, except for one thing. Who is lost? Aren't we, by being here, proclaiming that we are not lost? I mean we're here, right? In church, in worship, in the pulpit and the pews and the choir loft. It's great to think that someone out there who has lost his or her way is found by God. It's wonderful to hear stories of those who see just how lost they are and realize that God has been searching and searching for them. And upon this realization they repent, they turn around and reorient themselves to God. They were lost but now they're found.
A second question is this: how do the sheep and the coin represent those who are lost and repent? It doesn't make sense. If we'd kept on reading and heard again the story of the Prodigal son, then repentance makes sense. The son took off, wasted his inheritance, wasted what he'd been given. But he came to himself. He came to himself and turned around. He went back. He sought repentance. He was definitely lost. Upon returning home, he was definitely found.
Did the sheep know it was lost? Or did it just wander away, looking down instead of up, seeking better grazing, greener grass? The coin was most likely dropped. It slipped out of the woman's hand or fell from a purse or a pocket. It could have been so easily forgotten. Yet both were searched for relentlessly, recklessly. Both were found. Both were reason to rejoice.
Maybe you don’t feel as though you’re lost now, but have you ever been? Have you looked up one day and not recognized the life you were living or the person you'd become? Have you ever felt forgotten, as though you’d slipped through the cracks of life and no one noticed your disappearance? That's being lost. Maybe the reason we're here is not just because we're supposed to be here, but because we were lost but now we're found. God searched recklessly and relentlessly for us. God never gave up or turned back. That's grace. That's how much we are loved. God searches relentlessly, even recklessly until all who are lost are found. Let all God's children, those who know they are found and those still being sought, say, "Amen."