Thursday, September 19, 2013

“Lost and Found” - September 22, 2013

Text: Luke 15:1-10

Several years ago, I went to the NCAA Final Four basketball tournament, held in Indianapolis.  I went with my good friend Bob Grizzard.  I was one of the winners in the ticket lottery, which gave me the right to purchase tickets far, far away in the upper deck of what was then the Hoosierdome, where we could look down on the little ants playing basketball. 

We arrived on Saturday afternoon for the semifinal games.  It was a beautiful spring day, the sun was shining, there was a nice breeze in the air.  We arrived early, just as the doors were opening – because how often do you go to the Final Four?  We got out of the car, I reached in the pocket of my jacket – and there were no tickets.  I went into a panic.  For a moment, I thought the tickets had somehow been lost.  It’s not a good feeling.  Then I remembered that I had put them in a briefcase for safe-keeping.  That would be the briefcase back in our hotel room, 10 miles away.  So we made the trip back to the hotel and got the tickets.  We had arrived so early the first time that we had plenty of time to make it back.

Sometimes, we lose something and quickly find it.  But sometimes, stuff stays lost.  I had an Indiana University sweatshirt that just disappeared.  It was gone for well over a year, and then one day I saw Zoe wearing it.  How did that happen?  And then there are those things that we never find.

The things we lose can be more important than sweatshirts and even tickets to ballgames.  The other day we saw some people looking somewhat frantically for their dog.  Maybe you have had a pet run off – that can be a painful experience.  You can see lost and found ads in the paper, which are mostly just lost ads, and some can be really sad.  Our dog Rudy is a rescue dog – we don’t know a whole lot about his past except that he was a lost dog found in the winter, with a completely matted coat.

Stuff gets lost – all the time.  By inattention or absent-mindedness or just dumb luck - sometimes through our actions and sometimes through no fault of our own.  What is hardest is when people are lost. 

What about you?  Have you ever been lost?  And now by lost, I don’t mean so much lost in the woods or lost in an unfamiliar neighborhood, though that surely happens.  By lost I mean, have you ever been so lost that you thought things would never be right again?  Have you ever been so low that you didn’t think you would ever really know joy or happiness again?  Have you ever been so lost that it seemed you would never find your way back to the land of the living? 

We can be lost in loneliness, lost from heartbreak, lost in grief, lost from our family, lost from our friends.  We can be lost from ourselves.  And we can be lost from God.

We are lost when we are in new and unfamiliar, and maybe intimidating and unfriendly territory.  The things is, we don’t have to actually go anywhere to feel lost – we can stay right where we are while everything around us is moving and changing.

You can be in a new city, or a new school, or new on the job – unfamiliar with how things work, not yet having made friends, and you can feel lost.  You can be trying to learn new material for a class or figuring out how a new job is supposed to work, and it is all confusing.  A person will say, “I just feel lost.”

Rebecca Ann Sedwick, age 12, was found dead at an abandoned concrete plant about a mile from her home in Lakeland, Florida.  She had been the victim of online bullies.  She had reportedly received messages on social media from a circle of girls that she was part that said things like, “Why are you still alive?” and “Why don’t you go kill yourself.”  After enduring that kind of abuse for months, she finally took her own life.  12 years old.

Polk County, Florida Sheriff Grady Judd told reporters, “She appeared to be beat down... And quite frankly, the entire investigation is exceptionally disturbing to the entire investigative team.”  12 years old.

Rebecca's mother, speaking with a local TV reporter, said, “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do next.  I just lost my world.”

The Center for Disease Control reports that nearly 1 in 6 high school students have considered suicide, and 1 in 12 has attempted it.  Oh yes, we can be lost.

There are many ways to get lost in life.  Pastor and noted author, John Killinger, tells the story of a man who is all alone in a hotel room in Canada. The man is in a state of deep depression.  He is so depressed that he can’t even bring himself to go downstairs to the restaurant to eat.

He is a powerful man, the chairman of a large shipping company.  But at this moment, he is absolutely overwhelmed by the pressures and demands of life, and he lies there on a lonely hotel bed far from home, wallowing in self-pity.

All of his life, he has been fastidious, worrying about everything, anxious and fretful, always fussing and stewing over every detail.  And now, at mid-life, his anxiety has gotten the best of him, even to the extent that it is difficult for him to sleep and to eat.

He worries and broods and agonizes about everything, his business, his investments, his decisions, his family, his health, even, his dogs.  Then, on this day in this Canadian hotel, he hits bottom.  Filled with anxiety, completely immobilized, paralyzed by his emotional despair, unable to leave his room, lying on his bed, he moans out loud:  “Life isn’t worth living this way, I wish I were dead!”

And then, he wonders, what God would think if he heard him talking this way. Speaking aloud again he says, “God, it’s a joke, isn’t it?  Life is nothing but a joke.”  Suddenly, it occurs to the man that this is the first time he’s talked to God since he was a little boy.

He is silent for a moment and then he begins to pray.  He describes it like this: “I just talked out loud about what a mess my life was in and how tired I was and how much I wanted things to be different in my life.  And you know what happened next?  A voice!  I heard a voice say, ‘It doesn’t have to be that way!’ That’s all.”

He went home and talked to his wife about what happened. He talked to his brother, who is a minister, and asked him: “Do you think it was God speaking to me?” The brother said, “Of course God is speaking to you.  That is God’s message to everybody.  That’s the message of the Bible.  That’s why Jesus came into the world - to save us, to deliver us, to free us, to change us and to show us that ‘It doesn’t have to be that way.’”

A few days later, the man called his brother and said, “You were right.  It has really happened.  I’ve done it.  I’ve had a rebirth.  I’m a new man. Christ has turned it around for me.”

Well, the man is still prone to anxiety.  He still has to work hard.  But, now he has a source of strength.  During the week, he often leaves his work-desk and goes to the church near his office.  He sits there and prays.  He says:

It clears my head.  It reminds me of who I am and whose I am.  Each time as I sit there in the Sanctuary, I think back to that day in that hotel room in Canada and how depressed and lonely and lost I felt and I hear that voice saying, ‘It doesn’t have to be that way.’

In our scripture from Luke, Jesus has been encountering criticism.  Well, what else is new?  There were those who didn’t like the company he kept.  “Why are you hanging out with sinners and tax collectors?” he was asked.  The Pharisees and scribes who questioned him felt like he should be with upright, respectable, religious people, not common sinners.

So Jesus tells them a couple of stories.  Actually, there are three stories he tells here in Luke chapter 15 about seeking what is lost – there is a lost sheep, a lost coin, and then a lost son.  The story of the lost son is known as the parable of the prodigal son.  The first two parables, the lost sheep and the lost coin, are in our scripture for today.

First, Jesus says, which of you, if you had 100 sheep, wouldn’t leave the 99 behind to go look for the one sheep that was lost?  Or what woman, if she had 10 coins and lost one, wouldn’t turn the house upside down looking for that one coin and then call her friends and neighbors to tell them she had found the lost coin?

Who here wouldn’t do that?  Well…to be honest, NONE OF US would do that.  It just doesn’t make sense.  Why leave 99 sheep alone and unprotected to go look for one lost lamb that has probably already been eaten by wolves anyway?  What does Jesus mean, who wouldn’t go do this?

And I’ve got to be real honest: if I phoned the neighbors and woke up the dog to tell them the missing quarter showed up, they would think there was something seriously wrong with me.

Put in a different kind of setting, what Jesus is asking is this:

“Which professor among you, if you have a student who is having difficulty in Introductory Physics, will not cancel all of your appointments and projects for the coming semester and put the grant-writing on hold and go search out the student in the dormitory, and spend every evening, late into the night, working with that student, until, on the day of the exam, the student makes an A?  And when that student makes an A, will you not run to all of your departmental colleagues and say, “Come party with me!  The one who was a complete idiot in physics has now made the best grade in the class!”
Do you get the picture?  This is clearly something wrong with this shepherd.  To care that much and give that much and risk that much for one little lamb either means that you’ve got a few screws loose… or that you have a love and compassion that go beyond anything we can imagine.

We have heard these stories so many times that they can lose their zing.  We can miss just how radical, just how outrageous some of Jesus’ parables are.  The stories Jesus tells in Luke chapter 15 tell us that none of us, none of us are lost to God.  None of us are beyond the reach of God’s grace.

The problem with the Pharisees and scribes who were questioning Jesus’ behavior and choice of friends is that they had put the world into such neat little categories.  They were in, tax collectors were out.  They were good; those who didn’t measure up to their idea of good were bad.  They were the ones God really loved; those who couldn’t do as many spiritual calisthenics, God didn’t have time for. 

The problem is that they failed to see their own lostness.  They failed to understand that we can all lose our way, and we all stand in need of God’s grace.

“Amazing Grace” is maybe the best-loved hymn, and I think part of its power is that it speaks us personally.  It doesn't say, "Y
ou are lost and I am found.”  It says, “I once was lost but now am found."  It speaks of continuing to live and grow in God’s grace.  “Through many dangers, toils and snares I have already come; ‘tis grace hath brought me safe thus far and grace will lead me home.”  Our experience of God is not a one-time event but a lifetime of living, and if we are honest, there are those moments all along the way when we may feel a little lost.

God would leave the 99 to go after one lost sheep.  God would search and search for that one little coin.  We might feel like there are billions of dollar out there, CDs and stock certificates and mutual funds, gold and silver bullion and plenty of hundred-dollar bills, and we are just a lowly nickel or maybe a not-so-shiny penny.  But God is like the woman who turns the house upside down until she finds that one coin, and then celebrates.

Each person matters greatly to God.  Each one of us is of great value.  And there are no degrees.  Those questioning Jesus thought they were the ones God really cared about.  And God cared about them, but God also cared for those sinners and tax collectors.

There is a story about a girl who was deeply troubled.  She became increasingly rebellious, increasingly distant.  Her parents were worried about her and didn’t really know what to do.  Late one night the police arrested her for drunk driving.  Her mother had to go to the police station to pick her up.  They didn’t speak until the next afternoon.  Her mom broke the tension by giving her troubled daughter a small wrapped box.

The daughter nonchalantly opened the box and found a little rock inside.  She rolled her eyes and said, “Cute, Mom, what’s this for?”

“Read the card,” her mother instructed.  Her daughter took the card out of the envelope and read it.  Tears started to trickle down her cheeks.  She got up and lovingly hugged her mom as the card fell to the floor.  Written on the card were these words: “This rock is 200 million years old.  That is how long it will take before I give up on you.”

We are never lost to God.  God never gives up on us, not even in 200 million years.  God keeps looking and searching and calling to us until we are found.  Because each one of us is precious.  Each one of us is valuable.  Each one is a person of great worth.

It can be hard to believe that about others.  There are those society has deemed worthless, beyond hope, lost.  They are not lost to God.

But sometimes, the person we have the hardest time seeing as valuable and cherished by God is our self.  We may feel lost at times, but we are never lost to God. 

David Haas’ hymn says it so well:
Do not be afraid, I am with you.
I have called you each by name.
Come and follow me, I will bring you home;
I love you and you are mine.

(Thank you to John Sumwalt for illustrative material.)

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