Sunday, September 16, 2007

First DMin Project Sermon, Year Two

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Luke 15
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3So he told them this parable: 4“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? 5When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 7Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. 8“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? 9When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ 10Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

September is the month of the lost sweater. It is also the month of the lost coat, lost bag and lost shoes. All the things that kids are unaccustomed to wearing or carrying will go missing in the month of transition from summer to school. The sweater is the most common lost item, needed in the newly crisp morning air and discarded in the warmth of a late summer afternoon.

This, of course, requires a trip to the school “lost and found.” Usually no more than a large bin, the lost and found is the final resting place for the single shoe, a tattered notebook or the aforementioned sweater. So you send them in, searching in vain for something that could certainly be anywhere in the school. There will be flashes of hope: “hey, look at this!” she will say, registering surprise that other kid lose things too. As parents, we fight the temptation to lecture, or to blame, or to grab some other kids sweater that might look better on my kid anyway. The lost and found is a sort of sacred trust: not a place to shop, but rather a place of mutual last hope for the parents of careless children.

For as long as there have been things, there have been lost things. During a long afternoon wandering through a dusty archeological dig in the Galilee, I was content looking at the surrounding hillsides and the interesting vistas created by newly excavated Roman dwellings. Then the guide threw this out: “just last month,” she said, “someone on a tour found a gold coin right around here.” I never looked up again. Imagine a tour of thirty ministers, heads down, searching in vain for the next lost coin. We didn’t find it.

I am tempted to suggest that we were living out a parable, a kind of modern “lost coin” parable out there amid the Roman ruins, but as an analogy it doesn’t really work. Parables are meant to teach about the kingdom of God, and this was merely a bunch of clergy looking for a cool souvenir. And it wasn’t a coin we lost, and so the parallel is even less workable. The one place where it begins to work is in the other purpose of parables: to convict the listener and teach them something about themselves. Here, we hit gold (so to speak). The “parable of the Galilean visitors” (as I will call it) teaches that years later I wish the tour leader hadn’t said anything and I would have much more complete memory of the site we visited that day, more than my feet and the dirt below.

So we’re looking for Kingdom insights and we need to stay open to the fact that the story may be trying to teach us something about ourselves, maybe something we’re unprepared to hear. Today we heard two parables, the parable of the lost sheep and the parable of the lost coin. It is part of a familiar set, with a third and final parable (which we didn’t hear today) sometimes called the parable of the lost son, but most often called the parable of the prodigal son. In each one something is lost, then found, followed by great rejoicing. We know these parables well. In fact, some would say too well: so well that they have lost some of their power.

Jumping to the lesson part, I can’t help but feel uniquely convicted by each of the parables: I don’t think I’d risk the 99 sheep for the sake of the one foolish enough to wander off. I’m not sure I would put that much effort in finding one lost coin when I still have the other nine in hand. And the rejoicing? I want to try to get excited enough about the coin to be polite, but a party to celebrate seems a tad much. And the prodigal? I want to imagine myself embracing him in the same way the father embraces him, but I know I have too much of the older brother in me to do all that forgiving.

God, of course, is shepherd and woman and long-suffering father. God is all of these, and cannot help but search and find and rejoice at every moment. And this is where we need to let God be God. The parables show us all the ways in which we are not God, and all the ways in which God is seeker and lover and companion. We can take comfort in this fact alone: that we are lost and God is seeking us yet, seeking to find us and celebrate when we are found.


Some habits are tough to break. For years, Dorothy made a point of stopping at the corner store to buy milk. It seemed that four children building better bones were like little milk sponges, and returning with a fresh quart on every return trip was the only way to keep up. Then something happened: she came home one afternoon to a fridge completely crammed with milk and the realization that Scott, Kent, Alan and Pam had grown up and left home. Something had changed and she hadn’t really noticed, something was lost and it only became obvious when she no longer had room in the fridge for a fresh quart.

Loss is like that. It sneaks up on you and catches you unaware. These kids weren’t lost, they were out having busy lives. The one experiencing loss was lost herself.


I recall mentioning from this pulpit the odd sensation of reintroducing you to your church. Renovations complete, it began with showing people how to get around the building, pointing out the new doors and stairs and almost every other space that had somehow been moved or changed in some way. There was the novelty of it, discovering new things and the excitement of the transformed space. Then there were concerns: people couldn’t find things, things were out of place or gone altogether. Routines were disrupted, tasks realigned or rendered unnecessary. Then came anger: some of you have expressed a sense of loss: lost space, lost sense of ownership, lost sense of belonging. The church with a mandate to “seek the lost” was filled with lost people already: and with this came loss of momentum and perhaps even a lost sense of purpose.

But loss is like that. It sneaks up on you and catches you unaware.

There will be other voices, of course, that play down a sense of loss. “We’ve all lost something,” they will say, stating a truism that hardly defeats the real feelings people possess. Still others will insist the good outweighs the bad, and the positive changes should more than compensate for any sense of loss. But it doesn’t work that way. Loss is loss, and while these feelings may not seen justified on the eyes of others, they are very real.

Like our parables, it may not seem completely obvious why we seek the lost. It is tempting to dismiss the lost, because it may be easier to overlook them than put a great deal of effort into finding them. This is where we need to return to the “lost and found.” In each parable we are confronted by the joy of shepherd, of the woman and the father – rejoicing that what the world may not value or even understand has been found. And this is where we can enter the parable: the joy comes from finding something profoundly important, even if it is only important to one seeker.

People who think about change and how it affects us say that most often we equate change with loss. Encouraged to “look on the bright side” of things, we hope that change will mean opportunity or hope or a sense of renewed purpose. And it can bring these things. But most often, in most situations, and for most people, change means loss. And while it may only be a transitional feeling, or something we feel while to learn to appreciate the changes, it is very real.
Through all of this, we meet the God who searches. “All we like sheep have gone astray” Isaiah says, but God drops everything to search for us one by one. Something of value is lost, and God is busy sweeping and lighting lamps and never ceasing to search. Children have wandered off, and then wander back, but God is there with a long embrace and the fatted calf to celebrate. The lost, in whatever form they take, in whatever feelings they experience are the subject of a careful and endless search: Seeking the lost, seeking the lost, Saving, redeeming at measureless cost. Amen.


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