Sermon preached for the Nineteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church.
All the tax collectors and sinners were gathering around Jesus to listen to him. The Pharisees and legal experts were grumbling, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose someone among you had one hundred sheep and lost one of them. Wouldn’t he leave the other ninety-nine in the pasture and search for the lost one until he finds it? And when he finds it, he is thrilled and places it on his shoulders. When he arrives home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Celebrate with me because I’ve found my lost sheep.’ In the same way, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who changes both heart and life than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need to change their hearts and lives.
“Or what woman, if she owns ten silver coins and loses one of them, won’t light a lamp and sweep the house, searching her home carefully until she finds it? When she finds it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Celebrate with me because I’ve found my lost coin.’ In the same way, I tell you, joy breaks out in the presence of God’s angels over one sinner who changes both heart and life.”
I’ll be honest. I know nothing about being a shepherd. And to be even more honest—I don’t know as much as I should about good housekeeping.
But I know a ton about losing things.
My keys. My phone. My shoes. My mind.
My final year of seminary, I asked specifically for small things for my birthday, knowing that I’d be moving several times over the course of a few months. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
But I forgot how good I was at losing things.
One of the gifts I got that year was a mug for serving soup, the kind with a lid for microwaving. The other was a selection of four small necklace pendants from a local artist from my hometown. My mom had carefully picked out each one for its meaning. I was truly touched.
And it took about three hours for me to lose every. Last. One.
I lived in a single room in seminary. I hadn’t left that room. But they were gone.
I didn’t worry too much about it. I was sure they’d show up.
They didn’t. Seven months later, I moved out of that room and back home, cleaning that dorm room top to bottom. No necklaces. I moved everything I owned from home to Kentucky. Still nothing. I felt terrible. The pendants weren’t particularly valuable, and it’s not like I needed them. I had other necklaces. But they were such a thoughtful gift, and I’d never had a chance to wear any of them once.
I knew it was probably no good, but I couldn’t help but be on the lookout for them last year when I moved into my first home. No joy.
I figured after all that, they were lost forever. Dropped down a vent somewhere, or into a crack in the floor. Left back in my dorm, or lost out in the wide world somewhere.
So imagine my shock when, just last fall, I decided to have a bowl of delicious soup and reached into my pantry for that soup mug I’d also gotten for my birthday that year.
…Which, it turns out, I’d never used. Do you see where this is going?
There, nestled in that soup mug, were the necklace pendants I had lost four years earlier.
I’d had them all along. Because I put them somewhere I thought I wouldn’t lose them—safely inside my other gift from that birthday. I’d had them in Richmond. I’d had them in Salem. I’d had them in Fort Wright. I’d had them in Villa Hills. Just in my pantry, instead of on my bureau.
They’d been right there, in my things. But they were also lost.
It reminded me of a difficult but important truth: just because something is where it is supposed to be does not mean it cannot also be lost.
Those necklaces had been in my home the whole time. Been packed into a box and and travelled with me for three different moves. They were where they were supposed to be, in my possession. But they were also lost.
Jesus told parables to engage with his listeners, to get them curious, to get them questioning. Parables open up doors to many interpretations, many responses. They are open doors to God’s kingdom, windows through which we can glimpse many rooms.
One of my favorite biblical commenters, Debbie Thomas, noticed this week that she had often been taught to see herself as the shepherd or the woman, searching for the lost lambs and coins that represented “sinners “out there.” Out there beyond the fold, beyond the home country I call Christianity, beyond the purview of God, the Church, and me. But no, [she says]. The lost lamb in the first parable belongs to the shepherd’s flock from the very beginning of the story — it is his lamb. Likewise, the coin in the second parable belongs to the woman before she loses it; the coin is one of her very own. In other words, these parables are not about lost outsiders finding salvation and becoming Christians. These parables are about us, the insiders. The church-goers, the bread-and-wine consumers, the Bible readers. These are parables about lostness on the inside.”
In other words, the people who are where we are supposed to be—in the sanctuary this morning, in committee meetings during the week, in prayer groups and membership lists—and yet still feel lost.
I say again: just because someone is where they are supposed to be does not mean they cannot also be lost.
We in have been conditioned to hear the word lost and assume it is a nicer way to say “unsaved” or “headed to hell,” but there’s no need to read that back into Jesus’ parables every time he says the word.
There is also just plain and simple lostness, a feeling we all know at some point or other—when we’re just not sure where we are, how we feel, what we believe. When we’re out of sight of our familiar landmarks and can’t seem to find our way back to the comfortable and certain.
And that kind of lostness can happen to all of us. Does happen to all of us. Even as we sit in this familiar sanctuary, or handle routine committee tasks. We can do it all with a sense of being unmoored, far off from the faith—or even the God—we used to hold close.
Jesus didn’t address this parable to the unbelievers, the outsiders. He was talking to the Pharisees, those inside the church. He was talking to those who were right where they were supposed to be, and were still lost.
Debbie continues, “lostness isn’t an experience exclusive to non or not-yet Christians. Lostness happens to God’s people. It happens within the beloved community. It’s not that we cross over once and for all from a sinful lostness to a righteous foundness. We get lost over and over again, and God finds us over and over again. Lostness is not a blasphemous aberration; it’s part and parcel of the life of faith.
But what does it mean to be lost? It means so many things. It means we lose our sense of belonging, we lose our capacity to trust, we lose our felt experience of God’s presence, we lose our will to persevere. Some of us get lost when illness descends on our lives and God’s goodness starts to look not-so-good. Some of us get lost when death comes too soon and too suddenly for someone we love, and we experience a crisis of faith that leaves us reeling. Some of us get lost when our marriages die. Some of us get lost when our children break our hearts. Some of us get lost in the throes of addiction, or anxiety, or lust, or unforgiveness, or hatred, or bitterness.
Some of us get lost very close to home — within the very walls of the Church. We get lost when prayer turns to dust in our mouths. When the Scriptures we once loved lie dead on the page. When sitting in a pew on a Sunday morning makes our skin crawl. When even the most well-intentioned sermon sucks the oxygen out of our lungs. When the table of bread and wine that once nourished us now leaves us hungry, cranky, bewildered, or bored.” (Debbie Thomas, On Lostness”)
I expect, at one time or another, all of us can resonate with Debbie’s words. One time or another, we have come to this church, and yet felt like we weren’t where we belong. And those moments—they are crushing. Terrifying, even.
There are many ways to get lost—by accident, like the lost coin; by distraction, like the wandering sheep; or through sheer dogged intent, like the prodigal son. Which have been part of your life?
In my own experience, I resonate most with the lost coin. While I have certainly occasionally wandered off distractedly like the sheep, or even taken the money and run like the prodigal son, more often than not I find myself lost without really knowing what I did to get there. I feel like that coin, feeling itself slipping through the hole in someone’s jeans pocket, sinking down between the cushions on the couch, finding itself in the dark under the couch with the lint and the stale popcorn, without any real idea of why it got there and no possible solution for getting out.
I do not how why I am lost. I do not know how I got there. I do not know how to fix it. I could no more get home all by myself than the coin could magically float back into its treasure box.
But then their comes that moment—that beautiful moment when the woman’s hand reaches down and picks me up and wipes the dust off and puts me back snugly in her pocket. That moment where I am found, and the world rights itself again, and I feel the warmth of God’s hand clasp around me, and the warmth of God’s joy radiating out to me.
The Good News, Good with a capital G, is that God is always out searching for us. Like the shepherd that combs through the wilderness for his sheep, like the woman who shines her lamp in the darkest corners for her coin, God is always out searching for us. Not because we are so valuable or needed. But because we are God’s. And God wants us to feel it.
This will happen, I promise you. This will happen over and over again, that unmooring, that feeling of lostness. It may last for a few minutes, or a day, or even years. But what will also happen, over and over again, is the finding. Is God reaching out to you from every angle, through every book and song and sunset, through every friend and neighbor and stranger, until you find a familiar landmark, and you know you’re exactly where God wants you.
Just because you are where you are supposed to be does not mean you cannot be lost. But just because you feel lost there does not mean you cannot be found again.
When I opened that soup mug, and found my lost necklaces, I laughed. Long and hard, a bit at my own silliness, but mostly just with joy—joy that these treasures were in my hands again. And about three seconds later I called my mom, to share my happiness with her, to share my joy. I get these parables a little better now.
In just the same way, God will rejoice over us each time we are found. Each time we open ourselves again to the truth: that we are God’s, and the feeling of being lost and separated is not the fact of it. We never left God’s arms. We only thought we did.
Lost and found, lost and found, lost and found. It is a rhythm of our faith.
So do not despair if you feel lost this morning. It will not last forever.
God is looking for you. Amen.