Sermon for Sunday, September 15, 2019 || Proper 19C || Luke 15:1-10
This is a sermon about being lost and being found. Every time I read and re-read the Gospel lesson for today this past week, my heart kept drawing me to the same words: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?” My heart just bursts with joy at those last four words: “Until he finds it.” These four words speak to the tenacious, undeterred nature of the shepherd who keeps looking and keeps looking until he finds the lost sheep.
Have you ever been lost? Of course you have. The question today is, have you ever been found? Let me leave that question hanging here in the air and share with you a quick story from the file labeled “Stupid Things Adam Did as a Child.”
Moundville, Alabama is so named for the Native American burial mounds that dot the landscape. The mounds are both eerie and fascinating, which makes Moundville a great place for Boy Scouts to go camping. I was waiting for my father to pick me up after one such camping trip; I was twelve or thirteen at the time. We had agreed he would meet me at the parking lot closest to our campsite, so that’s where I waited. And then I waited some more. He was running late, so I decided we could save a few minutes if I met him at the entrance to the park instead. (This was in the days before cell phones by the way. Ancient history, I know.)
I walked to the front of the park and perched myself on a stone sign with a good view of the road so I could flag down my dad’s car. Unbeknownst to me, he had already entered the park from a different direction. An hour later, I still had my eyes on the road when my father’s car came screeching to a halt behind me. He jumped from the car and ran to me, red-faced, eyes wide, yelling my name all the while.
Where were you…Didn’t we agree to meet…You scared me half to…I’ve been looking everywhere…
I had never seen my dad so upset before. It was just this side of terrifying. But then his hand touched my arm, and everything changed.
Now, fellow parents out there, you’ll identify with what happened next. When he touched me, it was as if he confirmed that I was really, truly there, that I wasn’t merely a figment he had been chasing through the mounds for the last heart-pounding hour. All the scenarios of kidnapping or being mauled by a wild animal or getting lost in the forest – all these scenarios that had been tearing through his mind vanished when he touched me. And with the touch came relief. And with relief came joy. And with joy came an embrace brimming with all the unspoken love of father for son. I was still in trouble, believe you me. My foolhardiness was the subject of quite the diatribe. But above and beyond all that, I was found.
I think about that day in Moundville, Alabama when I read Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep. Undoubtedly, I filled the role of the “sinner” that the scribes and Pharisees were grumbling about; I had broken my word to my dad, chose my own plan instead, and caused a rift between us. My action described (in a small way) the very definition of “sin” in the Book of Common Prayer: “Sin is the seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation.”
We all fall victim to sin, both personally and as a society; that is, we all take part in distorted relationships. We grant power to the wrong things in our lives, thus contorting ourselves around those things. We contort ourselves around objects. Or we contort ourselves around activities or chemicals. Or we contort the world around ourselves or around another person. Or we swim in the soup of societal contortions that elevate one group over all others, thus distorting relationships at micro and macro levels.
Every one of us lives with sin clinging to us; that’s why we confess our sins every week – to remind us not to get used to the way sin feels. It’s all too easy to live in certain patterns for so long that they become our norms. When that happens we don’t even realize we’re lost. We go about our lives living with the distortions like someone who breaks a high heel and then goes staggering about instead of taking their shoes off. The Confession of Sin becomes our outcry to God to reorient our hearts away from distorted relationships so that we don’t get too comfortable in them.
The good news is that the shepherd never gives up seeking for us in our lost state; remember, Jesus says the shepherd goes “after the one that is lost until he finds it.” Every one of us is the lost sheep. And better yet, we’re the found sheep.
Still, being found often involves a complicated jumble of emotions, as it did that day in Moundville. There’s first the utter and unspeakable joy of the finding, like when I melted into my father’s arms and knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that he loved me more than anything. And next is the fear or the sadness or the anger or the pain that pulls at us, enticing us to get lost again. For me, it was the fear of punishment. When God finds us in the midst of our contorted lives, perhaps there’s the fear of the unknown life that does not include chasing after idols or relying on chemicals or stapling our self-worth to the approval of another. When God finds us in the midst of our contorted society, perhaps there’s pain that comes with acknowledging our complicity in society’s great sins or anger at how we can’t seem to break free no matter how hard we try.
And yet, while these negative reactions to being found entice us to get lost again, the shepherd won’t let that happen. Because, as Jesus says, now we’re lying on the shepherd’s shoulders, and the shepherd is rejoicing. For truly, only the shepherd’s tenacious, undeterred searching could find us.
When we confess our sins together this morning, I invite you to imagine your way into the prayer of confession. Imagine yourselves crouching in a thicket of thorns. The thorns snag your wool and pierce your skin. You’re scared and confused. You don’t know where you went wrong, but you must have because the rest of the flock is nowhere to be seen. Then take a deep breath and imagine the shepherd reaching down into the thicket and pulling you free and laying you across strong shoulders and singing out with irrepressible joy. You were lost. Now you are found.