Trinity 16 - finding what is lost

A sermon preached at St George's Campden Hill by Clare Heard on 15 September 2013

Have you ever lost anything? I have, frequently! Sometimes I find it again and sometimes I don’t …my daughter’s favourite bunny I found, her brand new shoe, I didn’t!

And then there is the loss of really precious things – the cross my grandfather, another cleric, pinned to his jacket or worse still, one of my children.

At the point I discover the item is missing the reaction is generally the same, panic, sometimes mild nausea. I usually resort to frantic prayers throughout my search but still the sense of stress, worry, even terror remains. It is not a pleasant experience.

It makes me wonder how God feels when we get lost. I can’t imagine he goes through the mild hysteria that I sometimes experience, but I also think it must, in some ways, be painful for him too.
I am quite sure that he cares deeply about those who are lost – the two parables in today’s gospel tell us how the woman turns her house upside down to find the coin –how the shepherd leaves all of his remaining sheep to find just one. They both go out of their way to find the lost item.

The shepherd in the parable has 99 other sheep, he could easily have given up on the one who was lost, but he doesn’t. So what does this parable tell us?

The parable of the lost sheep is addressed to people who knew about shepherding. Sheep are not the most intelligent of animals and are generally totally dependent on a shepherd to take care of them. When a sheep gets lost, it's a life-and-death matter. They can't save themselves. They can't find their way back. They have no sense of location and very limited intelligence (one could say they are rather dumb!).

So sheep are an excellent metaphor for human beings who frequently have that same character; they get lost and simply have no way of getting back to health, to wholeness.

We all need healing. This is particularly true in relation to the epidemic of addiction present in the world today. We can get addicted to so many things. Alcohol, nicotine, drugs, gambling, sex, food, money, work, all sorts of destructive substances or behaviors. And once addicted, if we even realize we are addicted, we can feel powerless to change.

These parables are about God's initiative in seeking those who have lost their way, those who may be trapped in a life of dependence or self-destructive behavior, or simply those who do not know his love.

The second parable is a little different from the first. The woman in the parable is clearly poor. She has only ten silver coins. She had to light the lamp in order to search for the coin probably because the house did not have windows. The floor is dirt so she has to sweep it to find the coin.

The losing of a coin like this for a poor woman was an absolute tragedy. It was the source of enormous anxiety and panic. The parable here is not about the choice the woman makes to look for it – this isn’t really a choice, but rather about her effort and determination to find it.

I will often go out of my way to find a lost item. I regularly turn the house upside down. If I am fortunate enough to find it the sense of relief is generally immense….but, if it a child I lose, I usually end up shouting at them for running off.

My reaction couldn’t be more different to parables we heard today. There is no talk of relief or even anger but rather celebration and joy.

Both parables conclude with the statement that there is joy in heaven over a sinner who repents.
We might expect God to judge and then offer forgiveness to the sinner. But the focus of these stories is not judgment and forgiveness but rather finding and rejoicing. There is no mention of sinful behavior. The Greek word translated “repent” is metanoia which refers to a change of mind or purpose, a shift in how we perceive and respond to life.

These parables are about the grace of God reaching out to the lost and allowing them to change their view of life in the light of his love.

So who are the lost? And do they even know they are lost?

Last weekend a friend was telling me about 30 minutes at a playground when she lost her somewhat strong willed 2 ½ year old. She had been watching her the entire afternoon and when she called her down from the climbing frame, the child disappeared. My friend searched all around the playground and finally called in help. The child was eventually found walking alongside a nearby pond – she had decided to go for a walk.

My friend was clearly somewhat traumatized by the event and sat down and cried. The child on the other hand was completely unperturbed and had spent a lovely time exploring.

Like that child, we too can be lost and not know it. There are so many ways in which this can happen but ultimately anything that separates us from God causes us to get lost.

I imagine we have all met people who seem blind to their situation, many will deny their need for help or their pain. For those with addictions this may be obvious to the outside world but for others the lostness can be harder to see.

If we are to share in Jesus’ ministry, to be his people here on earth, then we need to seek out the lost and offer help and love. Personally I find this immensely challenging … how do we find these people and even more importantly, how do we help them, help them to find themselves, as God intended them to be?

Perhaps the starting point has to be with ourselves. We too need God’s saving grace to set us free … that we may share his freedom and truth with others. So perhaps we need to start by asking … How am I lost?

The answer to this question might be obvious. If we consciously walk away from our relationship with God, or deliberately doing what we know is wrong….we are probably getting lost.

But it can be more subtle – we could try asking ourselves, is there anyone in our lives that we refuse to love or forgive, do we value our possessions more than our relationships, do we think we can be a Christian in isolation – cutting ourselves off from our church and community, do we refuse to give (either financially or with our time and energy), because it costs us something?

We get lost every time we go our own way and think we can do things in our own strength. We get lost when we find our value in other places than as a child of God. We get lost when we let differences divide us and give up trying to love each other. We get lost when we forget to be thankful, joyful followers of Christ.

In some sense we are all still lost and relying on God’s grace to bring light and love into our lives. I imagine it is a lifelong journey - we have moments of complete lostness – isolation from God, hard heartedness, selfishness, greed – and other moments where we experience the saving love of God.

That love which frees us to be the best we can be, to be generous, welcoming, patient, kind people – who love God and love our neighbours as ourselves, love them enough to reach out and find them in their lostness.

And in those moments when we are found by God, we may also share in the joy in heaven over the many lost that are now found, those who have turned to God’s light.

The end of each parable describes the calling of people from the town to come and celebrate. In Jesus day, you typically wouldn't go home and call the entire town and have a huge celebration, which would have included feeding everyone, just because you found one sheep.

In telling these parables Jesus is exaggerating (as he often does) and here the exaggeration is over the extent of joy that is expressed and experienced. He’s making a point. God cares, God loves us and God rejoices, wildly celebrates, when we are found.

Both of these parables move from loss, panic and anxiety to great joy. Their spirit is that of celebration, triumph and victory. That's the spirit of the Kingdom of God and by God’s Spirit we too are called to share in the finding of the lost and in the joy and celebration over all those who are found, healed and brought home. Amen.
Holland Park Benefice