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. 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.