September 11, 2016 – Year C – 17th Sunday in Creation
As a child, had you ever been lost? Perhaps you wandered away from your Mom on a trip to the supermarket. Or maybe you took a wrong turn on the path back from the lake on summer vacation. Do you remember what that felt like? All alone, not knowing which way to turn? Do you remember thinking about what your parents might be thinking about as they frantically searched for you? Do you recall what it meant to be found, when at last you were discovered, and claimed, and embraced?
Something like that has happened to each of us. God in Jesus beat a path to our door. God went out looking for us and didn’t stop until we were found.
Long ago, Jesus was hosting a dinner and the guest list certainly was surprising. There were tax collectors, social out-casts, and other folk of questionable repute as his chosen guests. As you can imagine he drew significant criticism for his choice of guests. Jesus brought together the 2 extremes. He chose people who were exploiting and those who were exploited. He says, “If we’re going to find the kindom, you 2 have to spend some time together.” This isn’t just, “Oh my, you are lost and we are saving you.” Instead, this is “we are trying to build something completely different. Do you get it?”
As you can imagine, the community leaders were astonished. In response to the criticism Jesus replies by telling 2 parables. In the parable of the lost sheep, 99 sheep are left in order that the shepherd, which is a symbol of God, can find the 1 lost sheep. Each and every one of the sheep is important. No one is expendable.
A year ago I watched a shepherd, a boarder collie and a flock of sheep work in perfect harmony. The shepherd would use hand signals and whistle to the collie to herd the flock and off the collie would run. Herding sheep is an art form, where every sheep is accounted for and the collie skillfully keeps track of each and every precious sheep. To lose even one precious sheep would be a loss in income and a breakdown in the flock. The shepherd would be devastated. We can imagine the shepherd directing the collie to keep an eye on the remaining 99 while searching for the lost 1. Falling on craggy hillsides and stumbling into invisible holes are all too common on the hilly terrain of the Middle East. But what joy in finding the lost sheep.
In Palestine the mark of a married woman was a headdress made of 10 silver coins, linked by a silver chain. The lost chain in the 2nd parable may have come from such a headdress. It would not be difficult to lose a coin in a Palestinian peasant’s home which was very dark, lit only by 1 small circular window. The floor was beaten earth covered with dried reeds. Looking for the lost coin would be like looking for a needle in a haystack. But the woman, again a symbol for God, would not give up, persisting until it was found. Neither sheep nor coin do anything. Salvation is God’s action – God’s gift of acceptance and love. God does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. This is not a God who withdraws when we do wrong, but one who actively seeks us. When the coin and sheep are found, the joy is so profound that others are called to share it. The joy of being loved and accepted calls us to love and accept others.
A colleague tells the story about her 3 year old nephew who was lost for 5 hours. He was finally found sitting beside the creek. His fist question was, “Where did my house go?” He didn’t have a sense that he had wandered, but that somehow his house had moved away from him. Perhaps that is how some of us feel about the church. We have been loyal to the church for decades but now feel alienated. With all the changes, the church seems to have moved away from what it once was. We yearn for younger people. We want to sing our favourite hymns. We seek sermons that comfort rather than confront. Oh – if only the church could stay like it was in the glory days.
William Willimon, a noted theologian defines Christians as “those who once were lost, who have now been found.” We who call ourselves Christian are all too aware that we have been lost and have struggled to follow the path of faithfulness. We have failed to act justly when it is so much easier to take shortcuts. We have made purchases that fail to uphold principles of equality and fair work practices. We have hesitated to turn our lives completely over to God’s way of love, compassion and gentleness. But – even though we once were lost, we have now been found.
It was a hot summer day, and a friend and her youngest daughter decided to do a jigsaw puzzle down in the rec-room where it was cooler. They worked on the puzzle all afternoon, and it came together quite nicely. It had been a good time.
But there was 1 piece missing. Almost in the middle. When you looked at the picture in the puzzle, that missing piece stuck out like a sore thumb. They looked all over, but couldn’t find that missing piece.
Several weeks later in her own room upstairs, while looking for something else, the daughter found the missing piece. She came racing out of her room with a whoop and a holler, and the 2 of them rushed downstairs to put that piece in. “That was the most important piece,” she said. “Now the picture is complete.”
Friends, the lost is found. And each one of us are the important piece. Our broken hearts are restored. Our missing ache deep in our soul is filled with God’s delight. God constantly seeks us and draws us close to the Divine heart. Accept the embrace of the Holy One and know that you are forever redeemed! Amen.