Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
1 Timothy 1:12-17
“I once was lost, but now am found ….” Lost and found are themes that run through today’s lessons. Jesus tells two parables about being lost and found in today’s Gospel reading—one about a lost sheep and one about a lost coin. While they seem similar at first glance, the two stories illustrate two quite different ways of being lost.
For instance, in the first parable, the sheep is lost, and knows she’s lost. She was probably grazing with all the others, looking down at the grass and slowly munching, gradually moving away from the flock accidentally. Sheep are born with a herd instinct, so she probably didn’t mean to get separated from the others; she was just concentrating her own food, when—all of a sudden—she looked up and nothing and no one around her was familiar. More than a few of us probably have childhood stories about similar moments in a grocery store or a ball game or a museum. We can imagine the kind of panic she must have felt at that moment. One moment we think we are safe and protected in familiar territory with our clan all around, and then, in a moment, we realize we are on our own in unexpected terrain.
The story of the lost coin shows us quite a different way of being lost. The coin is lost but has no idea that it’s not where it’s supposed to be. It never suspects that its being under the couch or behind the dresser is distressing anyone, and it has no intention of taking any steps to be anywhere else. It is oblivious to its location and its importance. We may be lost like this sometimes too—with no sense at all that we are not where we are meant to be, no awareness that where we are and what we are doing is wreaking havoc on someone else’s life.
So talking about these two parables at the same time is tricky, since they are not exactly about the same condition. The definition of “lost” is as broad as its incidences: it can mean unable to be found; not knowing where you are or how to get to where you want to go; unable to find your way; no longer held, owned, or possessed. There are so many ways to be lost and to lose.
Most of us probably have a wide range of stories about being lost or of losing someone or something else. They may vary from the very simple—lost keys or gloves or that one sock from the dryer—to the profound and deep: the loss of a good job or a home or a spouse or a dream. I bet I’m not the only one here who could speak of taking a few wrong turns and getting lost, both literally and metaphorically.
Alongside many different ways of getting lost and of losing, there are also myriad stories about finding and getting found. Sometimes we find what we’ve lost in no time at all; at other times the search seems excruciatingly long. Sometimes what we have lost is actually good riddance—and at other times we feel the weight of the loss only after the quest turns out to leave us empty-handed. Sometimes we can identify why we feel lost, and other times we simply feel unmoored — unable to give a name or reason for the confusion, disorientation, bewilderment, abandonment, loneliness—all of which can be manifestations of “lostness.”
So it’s important to remember—with all the variations on being lost or losing something or someone—that Jesus’ stories are not truly about losing and loss as much as they are about finding and being found. Although the circumstances of being lost are different in the two parables we heard today, the finding is actually quite similar in both. Both the shepherd and the woman who was searching for the coin have the same reaction when they found what they sought: pure joy, relief, gratitude, and a desire to share their good fortune. Both are images of God’s never-ceasing intention to rescue the lost. Both give us pictures of God actively rescuing us and throwing a party with all the angels in heaven when we are found. Isn’t it fun to picture a celebration in heaven in your honor?
The other important thing we miss if we focus on lostness in both stories is that there’s far less attention on what’s been lost than on the one who is searching. I mean, these stories aren’t about a lost sheep or coin, really. They’re about a shepherd who risks everything to go looking, and about a woman who sweeps all night long to find. These are stories about a God who will always go looking for God’s lost children, fervently and ceaselessly.
Notice how Jesus chose ordinary people to represent God in his parables—the central characters are not a king and a priest, but a shepherd who stands at the very bottom of the socio-economic ladder in first-century Palestine, and a woman with only ten silver coins to her name. Maybe Jesus chose these images deliberately. Maybe they aren’t just metaphors, but also reminders that God often works through ordinary people to do the extraordinary work of finding the lost.
On September 11, 2001, fifteen years ago today, an equities trader named Welles Crowther went to work the way he did every day to his job as in the World Trade Center. After the second tower was hit, the one he was in, Welles led everyone he could find down the steps to safety, even carrying an injured woman down 17 flights of stairs. After he’d left them in a safe place, he went back for more. And after leading more people to safety, he went back again, and again, and again, and again, until the tower collapsed.
On that day, this talented, athletic, good natured, but in so many ways ordinary person did an extraordinary thing—he gave his life to make sure others could live. On that day, God used Welles Crowther to find people who were lost.
Now it’s unlikely we’ll find ourselves in that sort of circumstances very often, but the point is still relevant. God can use ordinary people to do extraordinary things. Having been forever-found through the promises of baptism, and immersed in the grace of God, each of us is empowered to do the seeking work to which we have been called. We may feel like just one more in a herd of 99. We may not sense that our presence makes a difference to anyone else, one way or the other, but at work, at home, at school, through our congregation, in our places of volunteering, God regularly uses our hands to do God’s work.
After worship today we’ll collectively pool our efforts to make sure that the staff and volunteers of Triangle Ministries have what they need to do their own form of search and rescue among the vulnerable people of Madison. And we’ll write letters to our legislators about hungry children. We will seek and find those to whom God sends us. We will do God’s work with our hands. And I guarantee you there will be joy in heaven, more than we can even imagine.
~Pastor Susan Schneider