September 19, 2016

Looking for the Lost


Text: Luke 15:4: “Which one 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?

wonder what is the most important, the most precious, the most valuable thing you’ve ever lost. I’m talking about the thing that made you turn the car around and go back to where you last were to search the ground over in desperation. Or the feeling of panic that you had when you realized you didn’t know where you child was in the store. 

I am the sort of nuisance who is always misplacing my keys, or my wallet, or something basic and essential to life. But there is a difference, you know,  between that and the kind of loss I’m talking about. It’s something that really matters, that you could not easily replace. It’s something personal to you—not an abstract loss, like hearing that a restaurant you used to like has closed, but of something of your own that you counted on knowing the presence of—and suddenly it isn’t where it ought to be. And it is something of real worth; the loss of it hurts, substantially and sentimentally.

And so it’s something you will search for desperately. Today, of course, the best way to bring to mind this idea is to remember the determination, the urgency, and the heroism of the fire fighters and the police who went rushing into the burning buildings in New York City, looking for the lost—looking for the people desperate to find safety. That is a little more immediate to us, and a lot more powerful, than lost sheep or lost coins.

For a shepherd, sheep are an investment; they equate to welfare, and livelihood, and the difference between comfort and poverty. Even if you have a hundred sheep, every one matters. While I was on sabbatical I visited with other rectors who have another job in the world, to learn something about how they make the balance work. One of those rectors is also a sheep farmer in Virginia, and I learned in talking with him just how closely calculated the whole sheep farming thing is—how much of his success depends on getting all of the sheep he began with along to the market. He had lost some of his lambs to coyote strikes this year, and when I visited with him he was still beating himself up about it.

It’s a little easier to understand the value of ten silver coins, just like it’s easy to understand the importance of losing ten percent of your savings than one percent of your sheep. But what really ties together these two stories is the deep understanding Jesus has in teaching these stories about how oriented we are around loss.

It means much, much more for us to lose something than to gain something. Behavioral scientists have known this for years. We will more readily choose a course of action that involves minimizing loss than one that offers the potential of great gains. Losing things, losing the things we value, hurts—in a visceral way.

The idea of what Jesus is teaching this morning is to try to help us understand something, not about us, but about God. That twinge you feel when you suddenly realize you’ve lost that precious thing—the panic, the urgency, alarm—it turns out that is exactly how God looks for us, thinks about us, worries about us.

That may sound comforting, but when you see it from our angle it might be a little, I don’t know, unsatisfying. After all, we are the found ones. We’re in church. We have some sense of God’s presence in our lives. We’re absolutely certain at all points of the year, or week, or day, just what that presence might be—but we know we belong to God, and we belong among God’s people, and so we aren’t lost. We’re found.

So looking at it from our perspective, sometimes it feels a little bit as though God is spending a lot more time and effort on urgency on, well, other people, and not us. Because we’re the found ones. We like the idea of being searched out; but if we’ve already been gathered in, we may not feel quite so... appreciated.

Seeing it from that perspective can make us a little, well, petulant. It can make us unappreciative.

But we have to remember that to be found by God is to be made part of God’s work. So instead we should think of it differently. You might try it this way:

Later today, when you go out to do whatever errands you have planned, or tomorrow, when you go off to school, or to work, or wherever it is you go, take a moment just to consider the crowds of people that you see every day—your classmates, your colleagues, your neighbors. Go to the mall and look at the throngs of people, or go and catch a plane and take a look at all the people in the TSA line ahead of you.

And then think of this: Many of those people—maybe even most of those people—are the people God is trying to chase after. Many of those people are lost. They probably have no idea of themselves as lost; they probably think they know exactly where they are.

But God sees it differently. God is interested in the navigation of our souls and not the clarity of our location.

Our task in the story is not to be the lost sheep, and it’s not to be the coin that rolled under the bureau. We are supposed to be disciples taking part in God’s work; and that means we are supposed to be seeking, urgently seeking, the people who are lost.

It may not be the best idea to tell them—You’re lost! Most folks will probably wonder just what you mean by that. But it may well help to share with them what we have found here—so that they may be found, too. Amen.

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