Sermon preached by the Reverend Richard Tombaugh
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 12, 2010
Today’s gospel contains two of a series of three stories about God’s love for the lost; a story about a lost sheep and a story about a lost coin. The third story, the familiar story of the lost son who took his inheritance, spent it all in high living and was embraced upon return by his father, follows immediately after these two
This theme of God’s love for lost persons is further enhanced by the passage from Timothy in which St. Paul recounts his being lost in his passion to persecute Jesus and how Jesus forcefully confronted him and converted him to a disciple.
The framework of the two gospel stories and the story of St. Paul’s conversion is much the same: It depends upon four words: “Lost,” “Seek,” “Until,” and “Joy.”
The first word “Lost” tells the tragedy of human life and the wretchedness of the stray sheep. A city man met a farmer on a lane in the country. The farmer asked: “Have you seen my stray sheep?” The urbanite answer: “How do sheep get lost?” “They just nibble themselves lost,” the farmer replied; “they keep their heads down, wander from one green tuft to another, come to a hole in the fence – and never can find a hole by which to get back again.” The urbanite responded: “Like foolish people in every generation who keep their heads down, going from this tuft of greed, to that tuft of security to the other tuft of ‘comfortable standard of living’ – through a hole in the fence and cannot find their way back.”
I would venture to say that everyone here today has at one time or another felt lost, saying with some concern: “How in the world did I manage to get where I now find myself and how can I get out of here? Some folk are no doubt lost because like St Paul in his early years they are driven by a passion that runs counter to God’s will and they spend so much of their time tearing down that they forget how and what to build up. Others of us are lost because we are like foolish sheep with our heads down, not paying attention to the landscape of our lives. But lost we are, experiencing, if we are lucky, a thin and attenuated relationship with God, and, if we are not lucky, enveloped in confusion and loneliness.
The second word “Seek” tells us about the nature of God. It tells us that God is active not passive and dynamic not static. It tells us that God the shepherd will always leave the 99 sheep to nibble grass and search for the lost one sheep in the wilderness. It tells us also that in God’s sight every sheep, every coin, and every human being is a precious individual, worthy of an exhaustive search if lost.
It is however, the third word, “Until” that presents us with a defining view of God. “Until” tells us of the unwearying persistence of God love. It tells of the insistent and yearning love of Christ for every human soul. The shepherd will go after the one which is lost until he finds it. The poor woman lights a candle and searches diligently for her lost coin until she finds it. God’s search is never called off.
In 1870 a former opium addict turned Roman Catholic, Francis Thompson, wrote a somewhat complex and deeply religious poem called “The Hound of Heaven.” Here is how it begins:
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days,
I fled Him, down the arches of the years
I fled Him down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind, and in the midst of tears
I hid from Him.
The image here is that of a hound that is following a rabbit. The hound never ceases running and is ever drawing nearer in the chase. However the chase is unhurried and the pace is unperturbed. There is not the slightest suggestion that God will not ultimately find the lost soul of the poet. There is also not the slightest suggestion that God does not respect the freedom of the poet to try to avoid him, to hide from Him. God respects the integrity of the poet and the poet’s desire not to be found, but God will not abandon the pursuit. Gently and softly God persists, His hand of love stretched out unceasingly until at last he touches the soul of the poet and reclaims him.
“Until” reveals a dynamic characteristic of God. It matters little if we are lost through foolishness of grazing from tuft to tuft or if, like Francis Thompson, we are trying to escape from God. God’s love is so active, so persistent, so calm yet so focused, that God will continue his search or pursuit of us until we are finally caught by the warmth of his passion.
According to the two stories, the fourth word “Joy” describes the climax of the drama. The Shepherd and the poor woman summon their friends to rejoice with them when they have been successful in finding the lost sheep and the lost coin. The father of the lost son throws a huge party to celebrate the fact that “this my son was lost and now he is found.” Joy is the recognition that what was at one time incomplete is no longer. The pain of estrangement and separation is overcome by the recognition that there has been reconciliation – of a lost sheep with his flock, of a poor woman’s savings. The grace of reconciliation leads to the laughter of love and the music of rejoicing