Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to [Jesus]. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable: “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? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
We all have stories of losing something important, and finding something important. Here is one of my stories:
When I was 16 years old, our family took a trip back to Maine, where I was born, from Seattle, where I was reluctantly taken at the age of 11. On this visit I was given the opportunity to drive the brand new Chevrolet Impala rental car! We were up in Deer Isle, where my mother was raised, and we had a picnic out on the Reach, that part of the island which faces the mainland across a stretch of ocean. After the picnic, we played around in the woods near the shore. Then it was time to leave. And I could not find the keys to the car. They had fallen out of my pocket somewhere in the woods. I panicked. I felt scared. I felt a deep sense of loss and dread. I raced through the woods, along the paths, searching for the keys. I was running so carelessly that I tripped and fell face down on the ground. As I prepared to get up, right there in front of my face, on the ground, were the keys. I was elated. I was incredulous. Even today, some 57 years later, I can remember the sense of relief I felt, the great fortune, the joy, even the grace and gift from something beyond my understanding.
The stories we have in today’s lesson are about being lost and being found, and the joy that comes in being found, or in finding. My story about the lost keys could easily be explained away or discounted as a minor inconvenience. But, to me, it means more. And, I imagine, you all have stories of a similar nature, times when you felt lost and despairing, times when someone said just the right thing, or showed you a path out of your closed-in and hopeless situation. I suppose it does take some element of faith to see these experiences as miraculous, on some level. But then, isn’t life itself miraculous?
Still, it is easy to forget the miracle, to think we are all alone in this thing called life. Even lost. And then, to make matters worse, we can lose sight of even the simplest signs of hope and promise. How do we deal with the challenges of life if we are alone or lost? Not well. And there are so many voices in our culture that promise relief for our pain and cure for our discomfort. It is only natural for us to try and find something or someone to fill the empty places in our souls and spirits.
People die. Relationships end. Dreams fade. Stuff happens. And so, the seeker in us looks both inward and outward to recover some of those losses, to find wholeness in the midst of our brokenness. But what is most fascinating about this seeking and finding business is that, while we think it is our job to seek some answer to a meaningful life, at the same time, (and all the time) God is seeking us, like the shepherd and the woman of our story.
Howard Thurman, the African-American preacher and theologian wrote:
A sheep was enjoying his grass . . . and then when he started feeling chilly, he didn’t recall, but the only thing that he remembers is that suddenly he became aware that he was cold, and there was a throwback in his mind, and he realized that he had been cold for some time. But, the grass was good. Then he looked around, and he discovered that he was alone. That everybody had gone. That is, that all the sheep had gone. And he began crying aloud.
And then the shepherd, who had many sheep, missed him when he got back to the fold, and he left his ninety and nine . . . to try to find this sheep that was lost. And Jesus says, “God is like that.” Nothing heavy and theological about that. Very little that is dogmatic, technically, about it. Just that here is a shepherd who loves his sheep, and one of the sheep in doing the most natural thing in the world—and that is to eat the grass—did it with such enthusiasm and over a time interval of such duration that he didn’t know when the shepherd called, and he was lost.
And why was he lost? He was lost because he was out of touch . . . with the group that sustained him, the group that fed him, that gave him a sense that he counted. That’s all. And as soon as he was out there alone, he said, “I’m just here by myself. Nothing but me in all of this? And I want to feel that I count with the others.” There’s a certain warmth in that. There’s a certain something that is creative and redemptive about the sense of community, about the fellowship.
Thurman goes on to say:
Insulation is something that is spiritual; . . . there’s something inside of me that pulls up . . . the drawbridge. . . . Sometimes I do it because I’m afraid; sometimes I do it because I’m clumsy and awkward, and I don’t quite know how to establish a relationship or relationships with my fellows that can float my spirit to them and bring their spirit to me. . . .
Now, Jesus says that God is like the shepherd, seeking always to find those who are out of community with their fellows, and when they have found it, when they have found their community with their fellows, then all the world seems to fit back into place, and life takes on a new meaning. . . .
Part of that community was Pauline McCurdy. Pauline sought people out, even as people came and went around her. Finding her and being found by her was a way God found us, and it gave us joy. And we thank God for the life of Pauline.
Another part of that community has been John and Nancy Daugherty. Whether listening to John play "Grandma’s Hands" or talking with him about how we can do church better, we have felt found by John and this gives us joy. And whether Nancy was directing traffic at coffee hour or pitching white socks for those in need, we saw God’s seeking in Nancy and this has given us joy.
Jesus was a great storyteller. But even better than his storytelling was his clear and obvious love for those to whom he told the stories, even those who were publicly labeled as sinners and outcasts, even the grumbling Pharisees and scribes. Because, Jesus included everyone. In his view, in the view he recognized as God’s view, we all belong. No one is excluded. No one is unworthy. Everyone deserves to be found. There is nothing we have done, and nothing that we are, that can separate us from God’s ever-seeking love.
If you have any doubt about God seeking us, listen to these verses from Psalm 139:
O LORD, you have searched me and known me.
2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
3 You search out my path and my lying down
and are acquainted with all my ways.
4 Even before a word is on my tongue,
O LORD, you know it completely.
5 You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is so high that I cannot attain it.
7 Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
9 If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
10 even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
God has created us for God’s own and seeks us to belong to one another in a mutual, life-affirming, relational existence. No person is an island. We are interconnected. We are all part of the web of life. There are times, too many to be sure, when we forget this and let go or turn away from God’s ever-seeking presence. These are times when we carry one another and show one another that we are precious and important and valued. We are a treasure.
And we have this treasure, as the apostle Paul wrote, in earthen vessels, in clay pots, in Gramma’s Hands, in white socks, in remembered conversations with Pauline, in this building and in this congregation. We have this treasure in the music we sing about Amazing Grace, and ways our pastors have prayed over us and sought us out to do acts of kindness, and deeds of justice. We have been lost, for sure, and we have also been found and known and loved. For this we thank God and lift our hearts in praise with joy and great thanksgiving. Amen.