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A Sermon by the Rev. Barbara Mraz
St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
St. Paul, Minnesota
September 15, 2019
Many years ago, I went to pick up my four-year-old daughter from her play group at Lynnhurst Park in southwest Minneapolis. She liked going there twice a week, usually with her friend Sarah, but Sarah was home sick today.
Arriving promptly at three with several other parents I went into the classroom to get Emily, but looking around, didn’t see her. The tightness in my stomach began and I went to one of the teachers and asked where she was.
“Well, she’s right here…oh wait” and she started searching the room, looking more and more concerned.
“Was she supposed to go home with one of her friends?”
She wasn’t in the next room or in the hallway. She wasn’t outside. Finally, after what was only minutes but seemed much longer, the teacher opened the door to the courtyard adjoining the classroom and Emily was standing outside the door, nose running, tears streaming down her face. It wasn’t a shrieking crying; it was so quiet, almost silent sobs. Who knows how long she had been out there?
“Oh, thank God” I said grabbing her, kissing her, my tears blending with hers, carrying her all the way to the car, telling her how much I loved her and how brave she was for waiting patiently at the door (but next time it would be okay to bang on it.)
And then, “Your sister will be home when we get there. Should we get some ice cream and have a little party?”
Even talking about this, some thirty years later, I still feel my shoulders tighten and that fear in the pit of my stomach. That is the vulnerability to which love dooms us all. (1)
The incident I just described is also a summary of today’s Gospel from Luke and its refrain: lost, found, celebrate. Repeat.
What have you lost that has reduced you to breathless fear before you found it (IF you found it?) A relationship? A beloved pet? Your health? Your faith? Your innocence?
The Gospel from Luke is about being lost and being found, about seeking and finding and the often-anxious time in between. To be a human being is alternately being a seeker and being the one sought; and to be God is evidently to play the same roles — puzzling, to be sure. How do we live in the interludes between lost and found, between losing and finding — or not finding — that mark most of our lives? These are the questions before us today.
The lesson begins with a search: the tax collectors and “sinners” were seeking Jesus. Jesus welcomes them and eats with them. This is the reason for the grumbling from the Jewish leaders. These are not bad men, not villains; they believe in the importance of rules and procedures, and the Jewish Scriptures.
Search. Find. Celebrate – in this case with a meal. (Meals are a big deal in this Gospel; there’s even a book called “Eating Your Way Through Luke…”)
So Jesus tells two stories to help the Pharisees and us understand the importance of what can be lost.
After losing one of his hundred sheep, a shepherd finds the lamb and tenderly places it on his shoulders where the sheep’s soft fur warms his neck. Then he calls for his friends and neighbors to share his relief and his joy. Search, find, celebrate.
Next, a woman loses one of her ten silver coins and sweeps and searches “carefully” until she finds it. She, too, calls her neighbors together to celebrate when she finds it. Search, find, celebrate.
I must pause and gratefully acknowledge the contributions of the two Bible Study groups that have just begun who helped me understand these stories. This next idea is from one of them, a possible explanation for why the woman searched so urgently and carefully for the missing coin. It is that women often wore a headdress of coins on their foreheads or as a necklace, a dowry of sorts. She wore it on her wedding day and thereafter, even while she slept. The coins were an indicator of financial status and faithfulness to her husband, because if she used a coin for a financial transaction not approved by her husband, he could use the missing coin as a reason to divorce her. (2) Hence her urgency in finding it.
What about repentance? The lost things — the sheep and the coin — cannot repent. In the New Testament, the word “metanoia” (from the Greek) is often translated as “repentance,” not about regret or guilt or shame, but about making a decision to turn around, to face a new direction.
The Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, “Grace isn’t about God creating humans and flawed beings and then acting all hurt when we inevitably fail and then stepping in like the hero to grant us grace–like saying, ‘Oh, it’s OK, I’ll be the good guy and forgive you.’ It’s God saying, ‘I love the world too much to let your sin define you and be the final word. I make all things new.'” (3)
The Rev. Debi Thomas observes that the lamb belongs to the shepherd’s flock already and the coin belonged to the woman before she loses it. Thomas says, “These parables are not about lost outsiders finding salvation and becoming Christians, insiders, the churchgoers, the Bible readers. They are parables about lostness on the inside.”
She goes on, “Some of us get lost within the very walls of the church. We get lost when prayer turn to dust in our mouths. When the Scriptures we loved lie dead on the page. When sitting in a pew on Sunday morning makes our skin crawl. When even the most well-intentioned sermon sucks the oxygen out of our lungs. When the table of bread and wine that once nourished us now leaves us hungry, cranky bewildered, or bored. We get lost.“ (4)
Church is a place where our vulnerability, our sense of loss, surfaces. Maybe it is the words of the liturgy that pierce our hearts; maybe it is the music; maybe it is the sense of sweet, silent support we sense around us. Maybe it is one of the few times that we are quiet and nothing is demanded of us and the thoughts creep in that are crowded out when we keep busy. It has happened to me here more than once, when I’ve experienced a major loss and am afraid. It may happen anywhere when our best efforts have been misunderstood and criticized and we feel abandoned.
One person writes this, “If you are powerless or are losing power, or if you live without privilege, or if you have lost something significant in life – lost a loved one, lost an ability, lost being attractive, strong, agile, dexterous, competent, healthy, desirable – then you will hear what Jesus says about the last becoming first, not as an arduous judgment but as a welcome invitation. You still belong.” (5) In God’s eyes, what you have lost does not define who you are.
It’s more difficult today to get physically lost. I have a GPS, use MapQuest, Triple A, other devices and strategies. I find GPS one of the ten greatest inventions of all time because I truly do have a negative sense of direction, can’t seem to read maps, and no intuitive sense of where things are.
Several years ago, I was going to an appointment with my spiritual director who had recently moved to the Benedictine monastery on the east side of St Paul. I got really turned around, had no GPS, the Benedictines weren’t answering their phones and there were no gas stations to stop at for directions — nothing — but I spotted a bar, it was called “Slugger’s Saloon.” it was three in the afternoon but I walked tentatively into the darkness of the bar area, peered through the cigarette smoke, and saw two harmless-looking older gentlemen seated there with beers.
“Hi. Okay, I know this is really weird but l am so lost. I need some help. I’m trying to find the Benedictine Center.”
“It’s a big place – Roman Catholic? Probably a church there? Some other buildings?”
“You mean the place with the nuns?”
“Yes! Yes! The place with the nuns!”
“It’s only a few blocks from here. Just turn right out of the parking lot. Can’t miss it”
“Thank you so, so much”
“You look pretty stressed. Can we buy you a beer?”
“Nope…Gottta go. Thanks,” although I think I missed a pretty interesting conversation.
The writer Barbara Brown Taylor says that allowing yourself to get lost – that is, to move outside of the boundaries of the known, of your time schedule, of your usual pursuits, can be a spiritual practice. She writes, “When you are lost you are exquisitely vulnerable to the moment. Your carefully-maintained safety net has ripped part; your expensive armor has sprung a leak. You are in need of help and your awareness of this is not a bad thing…Sitting in the wilderness brings you into contact with people you have never met.” If you have trouble welcoming the stranger, she notes, it is likely you have never been a stranger yourself — or even left home at all. (6) Oh that we could wander again without such fear for our safety, but we have to be sensible about it.
Like Taylor, I have been lost in countless ways: I set store by getting married and ended up divorced – twice. I cherished health and ended up sick. I wanted to be financially secure and ended up being a teacher and a preacher. And I have found things—precious things—that I would never have found if the original plans had stayed primly in place. I have been lost a lot, and so far at least, always found, so many times so blind that I could only see what I was missing until I was helped by encountering the faith of my mothers and the wisdom and kindness of so many in the Church.
I admire the work of documentary filmmaker Ken Burns and his films about American history. One of his series is about the explorers Lewis and Clark, barely thirty-year-old commanders that he tasks with finding a waterway connecting the Atlantic and the Pacific.
President Thomas Jefferson noted, “However our present interests may restrain us within our own limits, it is impossible not to look forward to distant times…” and what we will find there.
So in 1804, Jefferson sent four dozen men in two oversized canoes up the Missouri River to encounter the new land and the people who lived there. They got lost many times, were rescued by the native inhabitants, and pushed on to the Pacific.
For Lewis and Clark, getting lost provided amazing gifts, the discovery of the land, the people who lived there, and undiscovered resources within themselves. Theirs was a journey of Biblical proportions with the accompanying questions and complexities, not unlike the smaller journeys we undertake each day of our lives.
Burns’ co-producer Dayton Duncan writes:
“They carried the most modern weapons of their time, but in their two moments of greatest need, women would intervene on their behalf; and time and time again, they would be saved by the kindness of strangers.
They told people who had been occupying the land for hundreds of generations that the West now belonged to someone else; yet they would meet more friends than enemies, and only once fire their guns in anger.
They were led by two utterly different men, who representing a new nation that celebrated individual achievement would rely instead on cooperation and teamwork.
They called themselves the Corps of Discovery, yet they would fail to find the thing they had been sent most of all to discover. Their real discovery would be the land itself – and the promises it held.” (7)
We are lost; we re-found, again and again. Sometimes the pain is severe and the journey almost kills us. We lose, we find, we celebrate. Sometimes it takes a minute; other times a lifetime.
But we are called to step outside of our well-worn paths, the rigid schedules that dictate our days, and encounter whoever and whatever meets us in the unknown, to seek the lost, in the sure and certain hope that God is with us, and when the time is right, God’s amazing grace, will lead us out of our wilderness and will bring us home. Amen.
- John Updike’s phrase.
- Nadia Bolz Weber, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint.
- “On Lostness,” the Rev. Debbie Thomas, Journey with Jesus, September, 2019.
- Brother Curtis Almquist, Society of St. John the Evangelist newsletter
- Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World, 2009.
- Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns, Lewis and Clark, companion volume to PBS series.