September 15, 2013, Pentecost 17 – The Joy of Finding and Being Found
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Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
When my daughter Emily was three or four years old, we were at a church picnic one Sunday afternoon, enjoying conversation with friends while Emily played quietly nearby. But suddenly, turning to check on her, we noticed that she wasn’t in sight anymore. And we called, and we all got up and looked behind and under everything, and no Emily. So we all split up and rushed madly around the park, asking everybody we saw if they had seen a tiny little girl with blond hair, about so high. And nobody had seen her. And then, finally, I found her in a sand pile, happily digging away and completely unaware that she had just taken a few years off our lives and added several new gray hairs to our heads. I don’t really know how long it took us to find her – probably only a few minutes, but it seemed like forever and ever, and the whole time my heart was breaking with the fear that something terrible might have happened to her, and I might never find her.
When we lose something that is precious to us, our whole mind and heart, and even our body, becomes focused on the object of our loss. Nothing else seems to matter; every other part of our lives, every other responsibility, every other source of our joy, fades into the background until we find what we have lost. Sometimes, like it was on that day with Emily, it is a potentially huge loss. But other smaller losses affect us in similar ways. Like the woman in the parable who lost one of her ten coins, the one item we lose suddenly seems much more valuable to us than all others, and we pour our energy into finding it. The book we can’t find on the shelf suddenly becomes the very book we most want to read right now. The earrings we can’t find in the jewelry box suddenly seem to be the only ones that really suit the outfit I want to wear. It even happens when I am writing sometimes, that the word I can’t come up with seems to be the only word in the world that will say what I want to say.
We human beings are grieved by loss. It is part of the stamp of God’s image that he molded into us as his creations, beings who are made to display his image. And it is such a mark of God’s character that it is not only true of us human creatures, but we can see it in other creatures that God made as well, the way our pets – I think especially dogs because they are so near to us humans – mourn when we are gone from them. I saw a video recently of a dog whose master had been away in the National Guard for six months. And when he first arrived home, someone filmed his dog’s reaction when he came in the door. The dog jumped on him and wagged its tail, as you’d expect, but it did more – it literally cried with joy and when the man sat down in a chair – to avoid being knocked over – the dog jumped into his lap and snuggled as close as it could and just absolutely trembled with joy.
Like that faithful little dog, our hearts are broken when we lose something we love; and we are filled with joy when we find again that thing or that person that we had lost. Jesus knew that, and he began this parable with that assumption. “Which man among you,” he said to them, “who had a hundred sheep, and who lost one, wouldn’t leave all the rest in the wilderness and go off in search of the lost sheep. And when you found it, you know you would carry it back on your shoulders in joy, and you would call all your friends and neighbors to share your joy.” “Who wouldn’t do that?” Jesus tells them. “Of course you would,” And even in the smallest of losses, Jesus said, aren’t our hearts troubled until we have found what we lost? “If you were a woman with ten coins, and you lost one of them, you know that you would stop everything you were doing and search your house from top to bottom until you had found that lost coin.” Haven’t we all experienced that feeling, that burning need, to find what was lost, and that restlessness that won’t let us stop thinking about it, trying to remember – we sit there in a funk, or we lie awake at night and we fret about it: where did I just see that? Where was I when I used it last? Did I lend it to someone? And who? And we go and look in the same places two or three times, just in case we missed it. Loss troubles us.
In the gospel reading today, the scribes and the Pharisees were grumbling about Jesus again, Jesus who had no sense of what was proper, and who let the most disreputable rabble collect around him, tax collectors who collaborated with the enemy and lived by preying on their own people, and sinners – prostitutes and drunkards and all those kind of people that any self-respecting man or woman of God wouldn’t want to be seen hanging out with. Jesus heard their grumbling – he always did – and that’s when he began to tell this parable. “Is there anyone here who wouldn’t leave everything else and go after that thing he or she had lost? Who wouldn’t do that?”
And I think it must have been that the power of Jesus’ teaching came most often at that very moment when he had his listeners nodding their heads in agreement. He was so good at telling stories people could relate to – yes, of course…sure, we would do that…I know exactly what you mean. And just when he had them all comfortably following him he would bring them to the brink of something utterly unexpected: “when God finds one of these lost ones – these “sinners”, these “disreputable people” you see here – there is more rejoicing in heaven than there is over a multitude of religious people who don’t even know they’re lost yet.”
Religion is very good at knowing God’s rules and regulations, but it never was any good at understanding his heart. To know God’s heart sometimes we need to look inside ourselves, like recognizing that pain that we feel in loss, and that joy that we experience in finding — to recognize that that is part of who we are, and to know that in that pain and joy we are seeing a glimpse of our Father.
But it doesn’t stop there. Because if we have really understood the Father’s longing for his lost children, we can never see the people in the world around us in the same way. Instead of seeing a welfare bum, or a brainless fundamentalist, or a cold-hearted capitalist, or a bleeding-heart liberal; a senior citizen or a twenty-something, or one of those teenagers, or any of the other labels we use to keep our fellow creatures safely boxed up and out of our hair – instead of that, if we even begin to understand what Jesus is trying to tell us, we will begin to see that person with the intense longing of the Father who sees all the lost-ness and all the sin and who wants more than anything to bring his child home.
Jesus said, “Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” We think of repentance as a matter of feeling sorry, but actually the Greek word doesn’t mean that; it means a change of mind. The angels of God have a party when one child of God is found and his or her mind and heart are transformed by his love. It isn’t the sheep in the story who goes out to be found; it isn’t the coin that sits in the corner and waves its little hand and says, “Here I am!” No, the first one to act is God, who goes out and finds the one who is lost, and in being found we are transformed as we respond to the joy and love of the Father. It isn’t that people don’t have to change; it is simply that we don’t have the power to change ourselves. God’s love always comes first – and then our hearts are able to repent. But it is the Father’s greatest joy and most urgent longing to do just that – to transform us into the people we were created to be, not the cringing, desperate, lost children we had made ourselves, but his free and joyful children, created in his image, created to share our Father’s heart and to reach out in the power of his love to those who are just like us, lost children who need to be found.
Every time I come up to the altar, and when I stand facing the altar before the recessional, I look up at the Good Shepherd window. I look at the little lamb safely in the arms of the Shepherd, and the kindness and love on his face. And I know that I am that lamb, not because I found him but because he found me. And I know that he desires to find every single one of the children that he has made, to find them, and to carry them home in his arms, to the great rejoicing of the angels in the heavenly places. The truth is that we are all sinners; we all wander away from God like lost sheep, and not only once, before we “got saved”, and then we were home free – but over and over again throughout our lives. We get lost in our fears and in our ambitions, and in our bitterness and in our busy-ness, and even in our pleasures. We turn our focus on the cares and urgencies of our lives and off of our dependence on God, until we find ourselves in that place where we no longer feel his comfort and strength and joy, and we don’t know the way back. But God will always find us. Never forget, each one of you sitting here today is that lamb that was lost, and the lamb that he has found. And the joy of the Shepherd is the joy your Father feels every time you are safe in his arms again.