“Lostness,” September 15, 2019, the Rev. Louise Kalemkerian

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Sermon preached by the Reverend Louise Kalemkerian
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (track 2)

In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer, Advocate.  AMEN.

Today is the 56th anniversary of bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL, a horrific event which killed four Sunday School students, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair on September 15, 1963.  This shameful act was one of a number of such intended to derail the Civil Rights movement, and was touted by the perpetrators as a response to the March on Washington that had taken place 3 weeks earlier. On that day the world lost four precious children of God.  And a big piece of innocence and humanity.  We will remember them in the prayers.

How much of your life do you spend looking for things? I sometimes feel that if you or I could add up all the time in our lives we have spent looking for car keys, glasses, wallets, the kitchen scissors, the office stapler(!); or looking for a person to love or someone to love you; if we could add up all this time, how many months, even years of our lives would it be?

When I lose things, I invoke St. Anthony; “St. Anthony, St. Anthony, please come around; something is lost and must be found.” Sometimes St. Anthony helps, and sometimes not.

I look at Marsha’s amazing filing system so enviously. It’s not that I don’t file things, it’s just I can’t remember where I filed them! When you are searching frantically to find something like your cell phone, people often try and be helpful by saying things like “Think back, where did you last have it?” To which I reply with frustration, “If I knew where I last had it, I wouldn’t have lost it!”

Lostness is frustrating, when it comes to things.  When it’s about people, it’s hugely painful.  There is that insult which people shout at each other: “Get lost.” It’s a horrible insult because it’s true – we do lose people , and we also get lost ourselves. It can happen so easily but when we lose people we care about, and don’t look for them, something deep in our God-given humanity dies. And when we are lost and no one looks for us, we taste one of the bitterest pains, the pain of abandonment and rejection is huge.

If ever you have been lost, or if ever you have lost others, chapter 15 of Luke’s Gospel is the most redemptive, hope-filled chapter you can read anywhere. If you’ve ever lost something really irreplaceable and precious, that you thought was lost forever, and then, like a miraculous gift, you found what was lost again, or are found by it, then perhaps you will know that joy, when it’s even worth  something just so you can experience the meaning of finding it restored again.

We read it side by side with a story from Exodus about how God’s anger turns against his people who have acted so perversely and who have turned to idolatry, and God’s wrath burns hot against them so that he wants to consume them and Moses has to plead for mercy on their behalf.  And God relents and changes God’s mind.

Jesus addresses his parable to devout people, the religious authories, who complain that he gives their religion a bad name by hanging out with and even eating with crooks and lowlifes. How can this be? This is outrageous, it’s unfair, it breaks the rules of respect. It undermines them, the Pharisees and the scribes. It does not honor their idea of righteousness; instead Jesus honors an inclusiveness that they cannot understand. To the it seems he is condoning sinner’s sinfulness.

In the eyes of the religious folk he’s bringing their faith into disrepute and they’re not going to allow it. What they don’t get is, that mercy, ultimately, is God’s foremost attribute. Mercy to those whom we think don’t deserve it, mercy for those of us who think we probably don’t need it.

Then Jesus tells parables that shock, two of which we read today. If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one goes missing, surely the shepherd would leave the ninety-nine and go after the one that was lost; and then, having found the lost sheep, he would lay the animal on his shoulders and rejoice; and on returning home he would have a great party with his friends and neighbors. Do you think?

Likewise if a woman has 10 silver coins, and one goes missing, surely she would search her house without pause until she found it; and on discovering the coin, she would have a great party with her friends and neighbors. Ya think?

Both of these stories sound a little off to me. Who would leave a flock of sheep to go chasing after one little lost lambie?  No one would do that. Think the stock market.   It’s insanity.  If you lost 1% of your holdings, you don’t risk the 99% of your holdings to get it back. By leaving the 99 sheep, you risk them roaming off, being stolen or killed and eaten by a wolf. It doesn’t make sense to do it.

And when you lose a coin, 10% of your life’s savings, yes indeed, I understand turning one’s house upside-down to find it. However, you don’t call your friends and neighbors for a celebration only to spend more money feeding them than what you found was worth.  It really is crazy.  Nobody does this. The only one who does this is Jesus.

The point of these two parables is not for us to identify with the shepherd and the woman. We are not the shepherd: we are the lost sheep. We are not the woman: we are the lost coin. God is the shepherd; God is the searching woman. God is the one who takes the astonishing risk of leaving the ninety-nine sheep and coming to look for us, a journey of danger, daring, and devotion, a journey we could call God’s passion. God is the one who carefully, thoughtfully seeks us out like a woman meticulously and methodically tracking down a lost coin.

What Jesus is saying is, whoever we are, wherever we are on our life’s journey, this is not a story about us. It’s a story about God. That God loves each and every one of us to search for us until we’re found. And the way to allow ourselves to become part of the story is to stop running away, to stop hiding from the one who yearns and searches for us. Because God wants to restore each and every one of us to wholeness, to unity with God.

This is what I hear Jesus saying to us all this morning: the best analogy for the depth of pain and longing God feels for you and me when we are lost—and by “lost” I mean the whole range of things from self-destructive behavior to loneliness, alienation, and sorrow—the best analogy for how God feels about us is the pain and longing we feel when we lose someone we desperately and deeply love.

Just as sheep and coins are valuable to their owners, so you and I are worth something to God beyond what we can measure. That is true no matter who we are. All of us are precious in ways we have not even yet begun to understand. And true human wisdom comes when we begin to treat each other—and ourselves—in the light of our true and abiding value.

God is like the shepherd who values each sheep in the flock, like the woman who accounts for every silver coin in her purse.  God treasures every child of the family.  When one goes missing, God goes into search mode. God’s nature is love, and love looks like one who goes out searching, because the one who is lost is so lost that he/she cannot find the way back home. And this happens in our lives. Again. And again. God’s grace is always fresh, new enough to startle us.

Thanks be to God.

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