29 September 2013

Being Evangelical

Isaiah 40:6-11; Mark 1:1, 14-15; Romans 1:1-6, 16-17

19th Sunday after Pentecost/ 29th September 2013

Evangelical. It’s a theologically-politically-emotionally charged word, isn’t it?  Some Christians are eager to claim it for themselves; others are quick to disown it and run far away from it. It’s sad, really, because it’s one of the most beautiful and significant words found in the Bible. Yet, oddly, it looks like the word “evangelical” is standing in the need of prayer—and healing, even redemption. The word needs to be reclaimed and habilitated by the Church. 

            What do you associate with the word evangelical?  Someone who’s excessively emotional about the faith?  Someone too eager to tell you about Jesus? Talks a lot about Jesus and wants you to believe the same thing about Jesus?  Reads the Bible literally? Generally, theologically conservative?  Are your associations negative or positive?  Do you use the word to articulate your faith or are you reluctant to use the word?

            It’s unfortunate that the Church has to take the time to flesh out the meaning of this word.  It will have different meanings depending upon where you sit along the theological spectrum between conservative and liberal. 

            It’s also unfortunate that the word has become associated with what is known as evangelicalism, which is a particular current within the wider Protestant movement.  Evangelicalism has been a part of American Christianity since the early 1730s, represented by great preachers such as John Wesley (1703-1791) and George Whitefield (1714-1770), both Methodist, and the Reformed theologian Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758).  Evangelicalism informed the great revivals and camp meetings held out on the American frontier that sparked the Second Great Awakening in the early 19th century.  In the late 19th century and early 20th century, evangelicalism merged with the rise of fundamentalism, making it difficult, at times, to distinguish the two.  After the Second World War, evangelicalism gained more visibility in American society through the popularity and success of Billy Graham crusades and the emergence of evangelicals in politics.  Evangelicalism as a movement then became fused with a conservative political ideology. Think of the Moral Majority. One became associated with the other, which is ironic given that evangelicals in the early 19th century were social and political liberals/progressives who led the abolition movement in the 1840s and 1850s and urged the reformation of society, including the care of children and women working in the dark Satanic mills of New England.

            One of the leading historians of American evangelicalism is Randall Balmer, who teaches at Dartmouth. Randy was one of my professors at Rutgers College (he was among the first to ask if I ever considered a call to the ministry).  He’s currently writing a biography of Billy Graham.  Randy suggest that evangelicalism “is a quintessentially North American phenomenon, deriving…from the confluence of Pietism, Presbyterianism [of course], and the vestiges of Puritanism. Evangelicalism picked up the peculiar characteristics from each strain – warmhearted spirituality from the Pietists (for instance), doctrinal precisionism from the Presbyterians, and individualistic introspection from the Puritans – even as the North American context itself has profoundly shaped the various manifestations of evangelicalism: fundamentalism, neo-evangelicalism, the holiness movement, Pentecostalism, the charismatic movement, and various forms of African-American and Hispanic evangelicalism."[1] As you can see, it’s very complex.

            But what is an evangelical?  If you go to the website of the NationalAssociation of Evangelicals, an extremely powerful, influential organization in American society, you’ll see that evangelicals emphasize conversion (having a “born-again” experience); missionary zeal and social reforms; a high regard for and obedience to the Bible; and a stress on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ for the redemption of humanity.  Depending upon how one articulates these theological claims, my guess is that even a theological liberal can affirm many of these views.  In fact, the first sentence on their page under the heading “What is an evangelical?” reads the following:  Evangelicals take the Bible seriously and believe in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.” Hearing this you might be saying to yourself, “That’s me!”  Maybe you’re an evangelical and didn’t know it. 

            I can affirm that sentence.  I take the Bible seriously and believe in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.  By that definition, that makes me an evangelical too.

            Actually, I have no problem taking on that label (providing it’s correctly defined). Much harm has been done by adding “–ism” to the end of the word, turning it into an ideology.  The fact that we might be reluctant to take it on tells us how much the word is in need of redemption.  I’m under no illusion that one sermon from me (or even many) can redeem the word in the Church and the wider culture.  I think it’s too late.  The damage has been done.  It’s been coopted and usurped by forces, particularly political ideologies, which have seriously distorted the faith.  But I’m not giving up the word.  The Church shouldn’t, can’t give up the word.  I’m not willing to concede its meaning.  I can’t concede it because I take the Bible seriously.  And the Bible is explicitly clear:  an evangelical is someone who shares the euangelion, and the euangelion is the message of good news.  That good news is the gospel.  It is God’s good news, the good news that God is faithful, forgiving, full of grace and truth, a God whose undying love comes to bring good news to the captives and release to the prisoners and ushers in a new kingdom, a new realm.

            An evangelical is an evangel, a herald, someone who announces good news.  We heard it in Isaiah, “Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, 'Here is your God!'" (Isaiah 40:9). Isaiah was an evangelical.

            When we read from the first chapter of Mark we find that Mark, too, is an evangel, a messenger.  Listen again to 1:1, “The beginning of the good news (or gospel) of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”  Mark’s gospel is telling the good news.  Mark’s an evangelical.

            Later we find that this is, indeed, what Jesus came to do:  “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent [meaning, change your mind, change your way, turn], and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15). And note the order of salvation (ordo salutis) here:  the good news is proclaimed, the kingdom has come near, therefore repent and believe – not (!), repent, believe, and then God will show up.  (So many Christians get the order wrong.  Getting the order right makes all the difference.)  Jesus came to tell the good news of God.  Jesus was/is an evangelical.

            And look at Paul, he, too, was an evangelical because his love for the message of God runs through the center of his life and through every epistle.  The message of God, what God reveals to us about God through Jesus Christ, the new life he offers in and through him, that’s the gospel, the good news for Paul.  The gospel is his treasure. He’s ecstatic over it, full of zeal, eager to live it, eager to share it, even suffer for it if it’s unpopular, if it makes people uncomfortable.  In fact, he says, “I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16).

            When an army of the Roman Empire was engaged in battle, depending upon the outcome, a message was sent to the nearest city or back to Rome.  When the Romans won, an evangel was appointed, someone who would run and spread the news, saying, “Good news! Victory! Good news! Victory is ours!”  It’s this notion of telling good news, not the good news of Caesar (which could be really bad news if you were on the losing side), but the good news of God, which influenced the early church’s use of this word.  Caesar doesn’t have good news for us, even when he wins. It’s God who has really good news. This is a word worth spreading and sharing and getting excited about. This is a message of power, which demonstrates the proper use of power fused with love (unlike the raw, destructive, oppressive power of empire).  The early church, Paul, the writers of the gospels, picked up this image, this role of the evangel as a way to say this is what we’re called to do, this is what we’re doing when we share the gospel, tell the gospel, articulate the meaning of God’s good news, engage in mission and advocacy and seek the reform of society.  It means we are being evangelical.  That’s what we’re called to do.

            During the Reformation of the 16th century, “evangelical” was the term used to designate a follower of Martin Luther (1483-1546) and others seeking reform of the Church.  Evangelical was synonymous with being Protestant.  The label Protestant came later.  To this day, the major Lutheran denomination in the United States (which is a theologically liberal denomination) retains in their name the word evangelical, the ELCA is Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  In many Roman Catholic countries, especially in the Latin world the term evangelical is still used to refer to a Protestant. In some places, evangelical means specifically “reformed” or Calvinist, not Lutheran.  Today, the Evangelical Church in Germany, formed in 1948, is made up of Lutheran, Reformed (Calvinist), and other Protestant denominations.  But it means more than just being a Protestant.  Anyone who shares God’s good news is an evangelical.

            Dorothy and I are evangelical every time we proclaim the good news of God.  You and I, together, are evangelical every time we proclaim and share and embody the good news of God, whether it’s here or where we work or live. 

            It’s important for us to reclaim this word (at least internally, for ourselves) because there are far too many people who have not heard God’s good news; sometimes the news people hear about God’s people is not good.  There was a time when Presbyterians and other Protestants didn’t have to worry about sharing the gospel—it was assumed.  The majority of Americans grew up in the Church, identified themselves as Christian.  We didn’t have to think about the gospel.  It got to the point that to be American meant to be Christian.  Because we already “have” the gospel, our call was to spread the gospel elsewhere, overseas.  But those days are over.  The Church of the 1950s and 1960s, even the Church of the 1970s and 1980s is gone and there’s no going back.  For many of us the Church of our childhood and youth is gone, and it’s never, ever coming back.  This is difficult to accept.  It’s tough to hear.  The Church I was trained in seminary to serve is gone.  But God isn’t calling us to go back, but to be present in order to open to the future that God is offering us.

            On Thursday evening, Baltimore Presbytery gathered for worship in Glen Burnie, MD.  It was Peter Nord, our general presbyter’s last meeting with us.  Peter preached a powerful and challenging sermon.  After ten years here in Baltimore and forty years of ministry, he gave witness to the changes that are occurring all around us.  He reminded us, ministers and elders together, that close to 50% of Americans have never walked into a church, have never studied the Bible, do not know the stories, do not know the gospel.  How will they know unless they hear it?  Or see it?  Or feel it?  How will they know unless someone tells them, shows them, demonstrates it in tangible, life-changing ways.  And why would anyone want to step into a church?  Being kind and nice are not enough.  “Why would anyone step into a church when so many Christians are filled with judgment and go to war in the name of God?” Peter asked.  Why would anyone want to be Christian?  Why would anyone want to be a Presbyterian?

            What if one of the 50% approached you, what if one of the 50% invited you to coffee and a slice of cheesecake at Atwater’s—their treat—(Atwater’s has the best cheesecake, by way, but I digress)—and she asked you: tell me what is this thing you Christians talk about…the gospel, the good news?  What is this good news?  What would you say?  What would you say?  She probably wouldn’t want to hear you repeat what you learned in church school or hear what the Church teaches, the “party line.”  She would want to know what you know—in here, within your heart and soul—what you believe, but more than what you believe, what you know, what has gripped you and claimed you, and won’t let you go, this gospel that you treasure and cherish.  What is this good news for you?  At this point along your journey, whether you’re 13 or 93, what is God’s good news for you?  What would you say? What would you say?

[1] Randall Herbert Balmer, Encyclopedia of Evangelicalism (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), vii-viii. See also The Making of Evangelicalism: From Revivalism to Politics and Beyond (Baylor University Press, 2010).

22 September 2013

Treasure in Clay Jars

Isaiah 6: 2-8 & 2 Corinthians 4: 5-12

18th Sunday after Pentecost/ 22nd September 2013

In Paul’s time the city of Corinth was known for its pottery.  By Paul’s time the industry was already centuries old with a reputation for exquisite pottery. Strategically located on the isthmus between the Peloponnese and Attica, with easy access to the Adriatic in the west and the Aegean in the east, Corinth was a major city in the Roman Empire, situated on a major east-west trade route, which allowed Corinthian pottery to end up all over the Empire. Most of the surviving vessels produced in Corinth have been found in lower Italy and Sicily.

            Paul knew about the Corinthian ceramic industry.  His “treasure in clay jars” statement here in 2 Corinthians 4 alludes to this.  This was more than just a convenient metaphor. When the church gathered in Corinth and heard his letter read during worship, that allusion to clay jars probably jumped off the page for them. It hit home. We hear “clay jars” and perhaps think of simple, ordinary terracotta pots or containers.  But that’s not the kind of pottery produced in Corinth.  The city was known for developing what is known as the black-figure technique, which emerged around 700 BC, when pottery vases with figures and scenes painted on them were replacing costly metal tableware. The black-figure technique allowed the ceramic pieces to retain that look, metallic and shiny.  Then they were painted, often with red or white paint. This style became very popular. Over the centuries Corinthian ceramics were known for their colorful ornamentation and beauty. It dominated the Mediterranean market for centuries. In this sense, for the Corinthians, there was certainly treasure in clay jars, at least in the making of clay jars.

            That said, throughout the ancient world pottery was ubiquitous. Everyone but the very rich used common clay vessels for everyday use and storage.  The members of First Church, Corinth would have had many jars and pots in their homes.  Today, if you walk around Corinth (or any ancient archeological site) you can find broken pieces of pottery everywhere.  I have a bag of pottery shards that I picked up over the years from Turkey and Greece and Israel.  As we know, fired clay can be very fragile, but it’s also extremely durable.  In Paul’s time, a well-made pot could keep things safe because they were nearly watertight and resisted decay and corrosion. Many clay pots more than 5,000 years old have been found discovered nearly intact.  In 1947 a shepherd boy wandered into a cave overlooking the Dead Sea and discovered large clay containers with a treasure inside: scrolls that were more than 2,000 years old—one of the greatest archeological finds ever.  It’s a discovery that has transformed the way we understand First Century Judaism and the emergence of Christianity.  Those scrolls survived, in part, because they were stored in clay jars.

            Fragile, yet durable and resilient.  Just like you and me.  Clay jars.  Human beings.

            God has placed a treasure, Paul writes, in clay jars. 
            God has placed a treasure in human beings. 
            God has placed a treasure in you and me.

            Now it’s easy to hear this text, especially verse 7, “…we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us,” and come away feeling that the container, you and me as human beings have no inherent value relative to the treasure, that we’re fragile and valueless as broken pottery shards.  I think that’s projecting too much into the text and might say more about us, how we view ourselves, than what Paul is really saying here.

            What is Paul saying to the church?  That we have a story to share, a promise to extend, a message to proclaim which is God’s good news in Jesus Christ.  The story, the promise, the message, the Word that we proclaim and preach and share and embody with our lives is Jesus Christ and what he has done for us and what he continues to do through us.  The message, the story we offer the world is not the Church, but Jesus Christ, “the glory of Christ,” as Paul says, “who is the image of God” (2 Cor. 4:4).  “For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake.” 

            And the reason why the Church has a story, a promise, a message to proclaim—and the only way the Church can really tell the story or offer the promise or proclaim the message—is because the light of Christ is shining in our hearts.  And the light shines within us because it’s being reflected back to us from the light of God shining through Jesus, the image of God. Listen again to Paul’s words: “For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts”—for what purpose?—“to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God”—where?—“in the face of Jesus Christ.”

            And this is the treasure: the light of God shining in our hearts.  It’s the good news, the gospel, the glory of Christ, the image of God, is illuminating our hearts, enlightening our inner lives, God shining through the center of our lives.  This is the treasure—this knowledge, this truth, the reality that this is so.  In the next chapter Paul puts it a different way, “in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5:19a).  This message, this reality, is the treasure.  The treasure is not religious beliefs, dogmas, or creeds; the treasure is not Christianity; and the treasure is certainly not the Church as an institution.  The treasure is God, the light of God, the presence of God, the love of God within us. This treasure is God and with God comes God’s power—the power and energy of light itself, the light that illumines the darkness, the power and energy of love that forgives and restores human life, that shatters the chains that bind us and breaks open the tombs that entrap us, the power of God who gives us a new day, a new horizon, a tomorrow.

            And God risks placing this treasure in the human heart, which is fragile, yes durable and resilient, yet very fragile and easily broken.  It’s the fragility and brokenness of the human heart, often hurting and struggling to survive, that often grasps after whatever power it can get its hand on, in order to be strong or to survive—including the power of God.  Even though God knows the wayward tendencies of the human condition, God still entrusts God’s power to us, God has confidence in us, God hasn’t given up on us. Yet, there’s still something within us that confuses or conflates being God and being human.  We shouldn’t be surprised by this. The story of the Garden, of being banished “east of Eden” (Genesis 4:16) is never far from the human condition.  It appears to be our permanent address.  We live “east of Eden.”

Paul reminds us that while the power of God has been entrusted to us, we must not confuse the container with the content.  Treasure is placed in clay jars “so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.”  When we forget this, we fall all over again.  Don’t fuse or confuse the container with the content.

And, yet, in the long history of the Church this is precisely what happens time and again: confusion and inflation.  It happens in the lives of individuals who think they are God’s gift to the universe, that they hold power by some kind of divine right to rule over lesser mortals, they assume too much power and don’t know how to fuse power with love.  With inflated egos these individuals wreck havoc upon the world.

This confusion and inflation also occurs in the institutional expressions of the Church. There have been far too many times when the Church has confused the container and the content, when the Church has assumed too much authority and power, when the Church viewed itself as the treasure it contained, instead of the container pouring out the power of God’s love to redeem the world.  We can see this in the abuses of the Church leading up to the Protestant Reformation. Despite the Reformation, this is still an issue for both Roman Catholic and Protestant Churches, indeed all Churches, whenever they view themselves as the end-all and be-all of the gospel, at times taking priority over Christ.  The Mainline Protestant Church, in decline since the 1960s, self-satisfied with its cultural hegemony, membership rolls, and influence, might be guilty of confusing the Church with the gospel.  In our age, so many people are leaving the Church and giving up on Christianity altogether because they’re beginning to see that the container and the content are not the same.  From the outside, they have looked at us and watched the way we carry on, seeing only jars of clay, without a glimpse of the treasure; or others spent time among us and left because they discovered the treasure that we’re supposed to contain is missing, some communities lost it a long time ago.  People in our day are looking for treasure—real treasure. Have we become too preoccupied with the container?  Are they finding only a container?

It’s natural to confuse the two, content and container.  On the top of one of my bookshelves in the Church House is a blue, clay jar made by Presbyterian potters in Nairobi, Kenya. I keep it there to remind me that there’s a difference between the two.  I need to remember this (every pastor does).  We all need to remember this, because it’s so easy to forget.  When we do, we suffer for it and the Church suffers for it and the power and glory, the treasure of the gospel gets lost.

This text has a special meaning for me.  This passage from 2 Corinthians was read at my ordination, which took place 23 years ago tomorrow. It’s stayed with me as a companion and guide over these years.  It’s a powerful metaphor for what ministry, for what being a Christian is all about.

            However, I noticed something new this week.  Yes, there’s the danger of conflation, of confusing the container and the content.  This is something we must be continually cautious about.  But there’s a problem if we go too far the other way, separating the two too much. I remember feeling at my ordination that this power to proclaim the message does not come from me (and it doesn’t). I’m just a container and the container is expendable (which is true), I’m just a means to an end.  It’s not about me—and it isn’t about me.  I went into a kind of either-or default mode—either God or me; either treasure or container.  I assumed which was favored.

            But I heard or perceived or realized something else going on in this text (and I alluded to it earlier in the sermon). There’s a tendency for verse 7 to stand on it’s own.  But I wanted to see how it connects with what follows.  Verse 8 reads, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed…” Linking the two, there was something about thinking of clay jars, fragile, broken shards and these words “not crushed.”  “Afflicted…but not crushed.”  What accounts for this claim?  “Afflicted..but not crushed.”

            Yes, we need to remember that the extraordinary power belongs to God and not to us, the treasure of the gospel is God’s, it does not belong to us, we didn’t create it or craft it.  This treasure, this power belongs to God.  But perhaps we miss hearing what Paul is saying here by worrying too much about confusion and inflation.  In other words, fearful of assuming too much for ourselves, we over compensate by focusing only upon God, the treasure, forgetting that the clay jars are also valuable.  Paul turns to the clay jars analogy to remind them who has the power, but he also turns to this analogy to illustrate his earlier point that “it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”  This is the key verse.

            In other words, the message that Catonsville Presbyterian Church or any church offers the world is that the power of God, this treasure is doing something to us, clay though we may be. There is a power at work within us.  By virtue of your baptism, the power is there. In fact, this extraordinary power—again, that does not belong to us—is alive within us and working through us and allowing us to do far more than we could ever possibly imagine, allowing us to love more deeply than we could ever possibly imagine, enabling us to do more, give more, risk more, accomplish more, forgive more, serve more, endure more than we could ever think possible.  Because, you see, “we are afflicted” but because God’s power is at work in us, “not crushed.”  “Perplexed,” but because God’s power is at work in us, “not forsaken.”  “Struck down,” but because God’s power is at work in us, “not destroyed.”  “Always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.”  Jesus’ life and death, life from death, the power of God’s redeeming love, is at work in us.  There is power here, dunamis, in Greek—from which we get the words dynamite and dynamic—a dynamic power at work in us—that’s the treasure—more than we can possibly imagine!  And, to be honest, the thought of this probably scares the heck out of us—or, scares the heaven out of us—as it should.  But just because we shudder at the thought, like Isaiah did (Isaiah 6:2-8), doesn’t mean it’s not true.  It is true and we’re asked as a people, as a Church, to share it, to use it, to live from it, to risk with it.

            This, I believe, is God’s calling for the Church of Jesus Christ, for this particular church: to bear the life-giving power of God, revealed in the face of Jesus Christ, to one another and to the world, to make the treasure visible, through us, in us.  May it be so!

15 September 2013

Finding Your Way Home

Luke 15:1-10 & 1 Timothy 1:12-17

17th Sunday after Pentecost/ 15th September 2013

No one likes getting lost. I know I don’t.  One of my first memories of getting lost was when I was around five years old.  It took place at a department store in Kearny, New Jersey, called Two Guys (once a small store chain in Northern New Jersey).  I was there with my mother, Grace, and my brother, Craig. Somehow, I don’t remember how, I got separated from them.  What I do remember is sitting on the customer service counter, which was located on the first floor, in the center of the store, and that I crying and very worried.  I was scared.  Eventually my mother showed up with Craig in-tow. She reached out to me, I reached out to her, and I cried all the more.  That really shook me up.  It took me a while to calm down.  I think we stopped to get some ice cream before making our way home. My mother always knew what to do.

          It’s not fun getting lost, especially having all the associated feelings that come with lostness. Feeling separated, feeling abandoned, cut off, alone.

          One time I abandoned someone.  Unintentionally, but it happened.  It was the first tour of Scotland I led back in 1996.  We had 35 in our group.  We were on the Isle of Skye, way up in the north.  We had stopped for a tour of the Clan Donald Centre, on the south end of the island, and then headed north to Kyle of Lochalsh, back on the mainland where we were to spend the night.  When I lead tours, I always have the group count-off before the bus pulls away from a stop (much to the consternation and frustration of the group).  One time we didn't count, we drove off.  Soon, someone asked, “Where’s Madeleine?” We thought she was in the rest room on the bus.  But she wasn't.  Twenty minutes en route we had to turn the large bus around on a very narrow single-track road we were on, using a farm lane to do a K-turn, and then headed back to collect her.  She was sitting there in the parking lot, alone.  The bus stopped, I ran out, wrapped my arms around her and said, “Madeleine, I’m so sorry!” She laughed. She didn’t seem too concerned.  She said, “No worries, Ken. As a mother of nine, I’m used to leaving one of my kids behind.”  That’s the last time I left someone behind on a tour (at least I think I so).

            No one likes getting lost. With GPS systems in our cars and Smartphones and the use of MapQuest or Google Maps, fewer of us run the chance of getting lost these days.  I wonder, though, if people are losing the ability to read maps.  They just go wherever OnStar sends them.

            But sometimes we do get lost. Lost, not on the way to the Columbia Mall or to Costco, but lost in terms of purpose, direction, and meaning.  Increasingly, I sense that there are more and more people who are wandering aimlessly through life, not really clear about who they are or what they feel called to do.  With the crisis of contemporary Christianity upon us, with fewer people going to church, or practicing any faith, so many turn to other things to fill the cravings of their soul:  materialism, careerism, consumerism. Thinking we can shop our way toward meaning, or that things will make us happy, or work our way toward purpose, or medicate our way out of the anxiety of life through addictions.   The signs are everywhere, we have lost our moorings and we’re set adrift.

It might seem that it’s worse today than ever before.  Each generation, I think, feels it was better in an earlier time.  Sometimes that’s true. What’s clear though is that this feeling of being lost, of searching and wandering in a world coming unhinged is not new to human experience.  It’s universal.  In fact, it’s part of the human condition.  It’s been with us for a very long time.  Poets and prophets are usually the ones who are in touch with these feelings.  The poet John Donne (1572-1631) wrote:

 Tis all in pieces
 all coherence gone.  (“An Anatomy of the World”)

Several centuries later, William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) wrote:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre,
The falcon cannot hear the falconer.
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.  (“The Second Coming”)

Perhaps it feels like things are falling apart, that’s things don’t make any sense, that we’re set adrift and lost, because we have a deeper memory or deeper feeling that there was a time when we were whole,  when things made sense, when we felt at home.

            When I speak of being lost, I don’t mean in a metaphysical sense, that is lost to God, the opposite of being “saved.” I know plenty of Christians who trust in Jesus who yet feel lost and confused. While they were “once lost, but now found” by grace, it doesn't mean that they know where they are or where they’re going.

            For the truth is, there are times, even as faithful Christians, when we lose our way.  We forget who we are and whose we are and we fall, fall away from ourselves, fall away from God, fall away from the things that matter most.  There are times when life becomes so overwhelming and complex or times when everything is going so well, that we start to stray from the straight and narrow path; we lose our way, lose our footing, and begin to wander away from who we are, wander away from God, wander away from the things that give us life and meaning and purpose.  It happens. 

            If we wander away for too long, go down other paths, take detours, get stuck in cul-de-sacs, it’s difficult making our way home, back to our true selves, back to God, back to a life of meaning.  What happens then is that we settle for living with falsehoods and falsity, in service to false and lesser selves; we know we miss that relationship with God that we had at one time; we remember those former times, but we’ve been away for so long it feels impossible to go back; perhaps tempted by false gods and meaningless, mindless ways of living, you forget the way back.

            The Pharisees and scribes were grumbling one day about Jesus.  “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:2).  From the perspective of the Pharisees and their scribes, Jesus associates with people who have lost their way, who have left the straight and narrow, who have left the fold, as it were.  Not only does Jesus welcome them, he eats with them; he hangs out with them, which infuriates the religious leaders.  Jesus probably prefers the company of honest sinners than self-righteous religious.  And so what Jesus does is remarkable: instead of judging them for being sinners, instead of keeping them at arms’ length, instead of being moralistic about it all, Jesus offers them a still more excellent way (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:31).

            Jesus tells the Pharisees a parable: “Which of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices.  And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying…, ‘Rejoice with me…’” (Luke 15: 4-6). 

Many here have heard this parable before, of the shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine to go after the one lost sheep. We know about the story, but the text requires more than knowledge.  It asks for something more: Are you in the story?  Is this your story? Is it your experience?  Can you feel what Jesus is saying here?

To help us get there it might be useful to compare Luke’s version of the parable with Matthew’s.  In Luke 15, we have three parables, the lost sheep, lost coin, and the lost (prodigal) son.

Matthew’s take is different. Turn to Matthew 18:12. The parable of the shepherd is given in the context of Jesus’ teaching on how we care for our children. “If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray?  And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices…”  Looks plain enough, doesn't it? Appears the same as Luke.

Now turn again to Luke 15:4, …does not the shepherd “leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?  When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices.” 

Did you hear it, do you see the subtle yet significant difference, the contrasting theological slant of Matthew and of Luke?  In Matthew, the shepherd goes looking for the lost sheep, but it’s uncertain whether or not he’ll find it. “And if he finds it…”  The outcome is in doubt.  What does Luke say? The shepherd will go after the one that is lost until he finds it and he won’t stop until he finds it.  There’s no question about the outcome because it says “when he has found it” he will place it on his shoulders, rejoicing all the way home.  Luke adds, “And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost” (Luke 15:6).

My sheep that was lost.  My sheep that was lost.  My sheep!  Luke’s version makes bold theological claims. From Luke’s perspective, there’s no question that the lost will be found.  In fact, Jesus says that even when lost, the sheep still belong to him.  Even when we’re lost, we’re not really lost because even when we stray, we still belong to the Lord.  The psalmist knew this truth when he affirmed, “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there” (Psalm 139:7-8).   But when we do get lost (and we do and we will), the good news is that the Lord never rests until we’re found and brought back home. You see, this is who God is, this a profound image of God that Jesus is placing before us. This is who God is and this is what God does.  Indeed, God never rests until all the lost have been brought home.  The lost might not know it or even feel it—when you’re lost, it feels like you’re all alone—but the Lord of Love is searching for you.  You might feel that you’re not worthy of such love, that you’re beyond hope, beyond help, you might feel that, but that’s not the full story.  The full story, the deeper, broader story is that you are worthy, worthy of God’s hot pursuit to find you and bring you back, up on his shoulders, rejoicing all the way home.  There’s no judgment for getting lost, only rejoicing over being found.  It’s a joy that the shepherd is eager to share with his friends and neighbors:  Come and see who’s back!  Look who is here! Look  who’s home! This is what Scripture means by grace. Grace finds us when we’re lost, lifts us up, and then takes us home rejoicing.  And this is what grace feels like.

The irony here, though, is that for us to know what grace feels like, really feels like, we first have to be lost or acknowledge that we are, already, lost.  It’s no mistake that Dante Alighieri (c.1265-1321) begins the Divine Comedy, his story of descending into hell and ending before the beatific vision of God, with these words. The first lines of the Inferno, part one of the Comedy, are:

In the midway of this our mortal life,
I found me in a gloomy wood, astray
Gone from the path direct: …. (Inferno, Canto 1).

He lost his way.  And now the journey begins.  The one’s who have been to hell and back know what it means to be found. The prodigal had to leave home and fall, badly, hit rock bottom, eat with the pigs, in order for him to discover who he was and discover how much his father really cared about him. We have to get lost in order to be found.  This is what theologians call the happy fall,” felix culpa.[1]  Those who are never lost never know what it feels like to be found.  The history of the church is full of women and men who give witness to this truth.  Look at John Newton (1725-1807), who wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace.” He knew what a wretch he was as a slave trader.  It’s in the midst of his sin, his brokenness, his apparent alienation from God that he discovers God’s transforming love.  The same was true for the apostle Paul. Even though he was, as he admits, a “blasphemer, persecutor, and a man of violence,” (1 Tim. 1:13), he still received mercy. “…and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me,” he said, “with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.  The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance” - in other words, Paul says, trust me, I know - “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners - of whom I am the foremost” (1 Tim 1:15).

            I wish more people in the Church knew that they’re not really lost, but are already found, that they ultimately belong to the Lord.  As J. R. R. Tolkien (1892-1973) knew, “Not all who wander are lost.”  I wish more people in the world knew that they’re not really lost, but already found, that they ultimately belong to the Lord.  Always have. Always will. And that the Lord will not rest until he finds us, until we know that we've been found, until he gets to rejoice with us and over us.

            But knowing about all of this is not enough.  We need to feel it within, to see ourselves within the story. This might help, a guided imagery, a way into the story.
I invite you to close your eyes.  Relax.
Imagine that lost sheep wandering from the fold…
Look at that lost sheep…
Imagine it found. 
Imagine the weight of the sheep on Jesus’ shoulders,
being carried along…
Now, imagine that you’re that lost sheep,
afraid, alone, cut off, anxious, worried…
See yourself found by the one who loves you
and has been searching for you…
See yourself lifted up by the Shepherd, feel his strength underneath you,
as he carries you on his shoulders, maybe the way your mother or father used to carry you as a girl or boy.
Imagine the Shepherd rejoicing because you've been found…
Now, see yourself arriving home,
hear the joy in the Shepherd’s voice,
hear it with the ear of your heart,
“Look who I've found.  Look who’s back.  Rejoice with me….”

Home.  Home, indeed.



[1]Cf. Aldo Carotenuto, To Love, To Betray:  Life as Betrayal (Wilmette, IL:  Chiron Publications, 1996), vii-viii, 145.  G. W. F. Hegel (1770-1830) also referred to this as the “upward falling.”