Nothing is Lost

A sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 12, 2010. The lectionary readings are Exodus 32:7-14, Psalm 51:1-11, 1 Timothy 1:12-17, and Luke 15:1-10.

As we all know, yesterday was the ninth anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. In one way or another, many in our country have paused to remember those who lost their lives that day in New York, Pennsylvania, and our own area. Each of us probably has our own particular memory of that day. We go on about our lives until something – usually some little thing—surprises us with a memory of that day. We remember where we were and what we felt.

For me, there is one thing in particular that sometimes jolts me and reminds me of September 11, 2001. It’s whenever I see a homemade sign on a post or a wall announcing that something has been lost. Maybe it’s a bicycle, or a dog or a cat. Sometimes the announcements are graver, and appear on milk cartons or on television, announcing the tragedy of a lost child. But wherever I see them, those little posters remind me of coming up out of the subway on 9/11 at the 14th Street Stop, the farthest downtown one could stop. There, near St. Vincent’s Hospital, and on just about every flat surface from there on southward, were quickly made (desperately made), homemade signs announcing that someone was lost. Someone was missing. Someone was unaccounted for.

Over the next few days, there were a few stories about people who were found; people who had simply not been able to communicate with loved ones. Some had been evacuated from downtown and sent over to Staten Island, unable to reach worried loved ones until later. I would imagine there were similar stories from this area, of people temporarily out of touch, temporarily lost, who happily, were later found to be shaken, but very much alive.

People become lost in different ways. Alzheimer’s or dementia takes a person to some far away place. Disease, drugs or addictions contribute to loss. And we lose people through death. But however the loss happens, whenever it feels like someone’s been lost, the question arises (the questions arises in a lot of us, anyway), “Where is God?” Where is God when someone can’t find their way out of addiction? Where is God when someone’s brain allows her no longer to recognize her family? Where is God when people die senseless deaths?

Our scriptures today tell us exactly where God is. God is there. God is here. God is wherever God needs to be, seeking the lost, doing whatever it takes, changing divine plans, changing the course of history if it takes that, just to save and find one lost person.

In the first lesson today, the people of Israel feel lost. They feel afraid and cut off from God. They feel so lost that they begin to substitute other things for God—stuff of silver and gold. They begin to worship pretty things, expensive things. Finally Moses returns and he gradually helps them find their way again. And God actually changes his mind—changes his plans, changes the course of history—just to make a way so that his children can find love again, can find God again.

Our Gospel also shows us a God who will go to desperate means for us. God will do whatever it takes to find someone, and to bring that person home.

Jesus tells the story about a shepherd who has 99 sheep. One wanders off and can’t be found, so the shepherd leaves the 99 and pursues the one.

Jesus also talks about a lost coin. A coin has fallen out of reach, or has gotten behind something, or has seemed to disappear altogether. So, the woman stops what she’s doing and basically turns her whole house upside-down to find the lost coin.

The point in all of these stories is that God goes out of his way to find what is lost, to re-claim what is lost, to recover and restore anything and anyone who is lost. God reaches out for us. God looks for us. God does not stop calling our name.

The past week was unusual in that we had two funerals, one on Monday and another on Friday. At both, we used Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” At each, we invited people to read it in unison. It’s always amazing to me that even when there are people who might not have been in church in a while, the words to Psalm 23 sound familiar.

God leads us into green pastures—not that we’re cows or sheep, but the green pastures become a symbol for whatever is for us a place of rest and refuge, a place of nurture and sustenance. God lead us beside still waters, stilling the rapids of our life, slowing us down, and collecting us in one place. God restores our soul. Even when we walk through the “valley of the shadow of death,” we have nothing to fear, because God is there. Even if we don’t see God, even if we don’t particularly feel God in that moment—God is there. Even when there are those who die all too suddenly, those whose lives are taken, God calls, God loves, and God welcomes by name.

Psalm 23 reminds us that God leads us into a place where there’s an enormous feast, a feast so big that it includes not only everyone we’ve ever loved, but even our enemies, transformed into friends. There in the full presence of God, in the fullness of love, God anoints us and calls us by name.

Throughout scripture, names are important. Sometimes a person’s name is changed when they encounter God in an important way, and that might even be the case for us. We carry many names, after all: names we have been called by our parents, names yelled on playgrounds, nicknames we might try on for a while until we grow out of them. Then there are names we might try to grow into, and find that they don’t quite fit us. We might go for a while under a pseudonym – for safety, or for fear. But throughout it all, if we listen, if our hearts are open, God is calling our true name. We may not even recognize it at first, but if we strain to listen, we’ll hear it.

No one and nothing stays lost from God. God seeks and searches and calls out by our truest name, and calls us into love, into laughter, and into life everlasting. As the church, it’s our job to help one another hear God’s calling. Whether we are the lost who are found, or whether we are among those who fling open the door and welcome those who return—we are, all of us, called to join in the celebration.

We gather in this place at one table, eating from one bread and drinking from one cup. What we do is variously called the Mass, the Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper. But throughout all, it is the Eucharist, that Greek word meaning “thanksgiving.” We give thanksgiving because we were lost but are found, perhaps because we were kept out or left out, but now are welcomed. We give thanks because through this meal we are invited to be more forgiving, more merciful and more welcoming. Thanks be to God for finding each one of us and for bringing us home.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

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