Sermon: Lost and Found (Proper 19C)

Lost and Found

Lectionary Texts:  Jeremiah 4: 11-12, 22-28 / Luke 15: 1-10

Proper 19C

First United Methodist Church, Wharton

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Why Didn’t You Just Stop and Ask for Directions?

This week, a friend of mine sent me one of those little email stories that we all get, so some of you may have gotten this one.  I don’t usually use a lot of them, but I just couldn’t resist…It’s a story told by a bagpiper.  He says that as a bagpiper, he gets to play lots of “gigs” and that includes lots of funerals.  So one day, he was asked by a funeral director to play at a graveside service for a homeless man. The man had no family or friends, so the service was to be at a pauper’s cemetery in the Nova Scotia back country. Since the bagpiper wasn’t familiar with the area, he got lost and, of course, didn’t stop to ask directions.  He finally arrived an hour late and saw the funeral guy had evidently gone and the hearse was nowhere in sight. There were only the diggers and crew left and they were eating lunch. He felt badly and apologized to the men for being late. He went to the side of the grave and looked down and the vault lid was already in place.

He didn’t know what else to do, so he started to play. The workers put down their lunches and began to gather around. He said that he played out his very heart and soul for this man with no family and friends. He played like he had never played before for this homeless man.  And as he played “Amazing Grace”, the workers began to weep. They wept, he wept, they all wept together. When he finished, he packed up his bagpipes and started for the car. He felt really good about the way that it had all turned out.  And as he opened the door to the car, he heard one of the workers say, “I never seen anything like that before, and I’ve been putting in septic tanks for twenty years.”

Told you…I couldn’t resist.  It’s funny, but there’s a kernel of truth to it too.  We all have those times that we feel lost, that we don’t know where we’re going and don’t know where we are.  So we keep going, keep plugging along down the same road, trying to fix it ourselves, without stopping to ask directions and, sometimes, SOMETIMES, we end up in the wrong place or in a place that makes no sense in our carefully constructed world.  Our faith journey is no different.

Valleys of Darkness

Fifteen years ago…do you remember where you were fifteen years ago today?  I’m not sure when we will stop asking each other that question.  Where were you on that clear Tuesday morning with just a touch of autumn before everything came crashing down?  Where were you when you heard that something had hit one of the buildings? Where were you when you realized that planes were falling from the sky?  Where were you when the pictures of the two buildings with smoke billowing from them hit the news?  Where were you when everything began to tumble down, when our sense of safety, our sense of security, our sense of who we are as people and as a nation began to shake?  Where were you when news of how many had perished started drifting in?  Where were you when the world as we knew it changed forever?  Where were you when lostness began to settle in?

There have been other things that have happened that have shaken us since then—Hurricane Katrina in 2005, our own Hurricane Ike in 2008, the recent floods here and throughout the U.S., and, of course, what seems to be a never-ending stream of senseless mass shootings over and over again.  And yet, somehow all of these are viewed in light of fifteen years ago today.  And we work to continually try to make sense of it all.

And, yet, so often, it DOESN’T make sense. We look for assurance; we look for some sort of sign so that we know that we’ve gotten it all right and it just doesn’t come.  What, pray tell, do we do with that?  Benedictine monk Fr. Albert Holtz says that “one of the most basic of all human traits is the desire to make sense of things.  (He says that) we all want to know that our life has a meaning—that it has a plot.”[i]

The Unmaking

The passage that we read from Jeremiah is a lament.  Most of us don’t do that well with laments.  We have somehow convinced ourselves that our world should be a happy place.  We are often encouraged to “quit complaining”, “to move on”, even to “get over it”.  (Do any of those sound familiar?)  But a lament is a way of giving a voice to feelings of sorrow and pain and struggles.  It’s a way of stopping and letting us look around and perhaps finally standing up on our own.   It’s a way of being truthful about where we are and where we need to go.

This lament of Jeremiah that we read is in a sense one of those turning points for Israel.  It is a point where the people are trying to make sense of life.  It is part of a larger unit that describes the looming Babylonian threat on the horizon.  In sight of this threat, the people have not heeded warnings and have continued down paths that the prophet feels called to denounce and condemn.  In the context in which this was written, Israel was a virtual land bridge between Asia and Africa, a place of trade between East and West.  Look upon it as a crossroads, as a place where the decision could be made to go one way or the other.

You see, Egypt was the great power to the South and Babylon to the North.  Assyria had just been defeated by Babylon, the monster just north of Israel.  This was a time of rebellion after rebellion against Babylon, to which Babylon acted with greater and greater punitive measures until the Temple was completely destroyed in 587 BCE.  This began nearly three centuries of exile for the people of Israel.  Jeremiah tried to stave off this rebellion against a great power of Babylon and cautioned a more humble approach to international affairs.  He was reminding the people to not act so mighty and powerful and so sure of their “rightness” about everything that was happening around them.  He was trying to get them to look not at what was happening but at who they were.

We are told of a hot wind, an unbearable wind.  This is not a gentle flowing breeze like we begin to get this time of year.  This is the hurricane-force winds that come when we are near the eye of the storm.  This is a wind that is destructive.  This is their 9/11.  Jeremiah saw imminent political and military disaster for his nation and for the world around him.  He was trying a last-ditch effort to in some way turn the tide toward good.  He desired the kings to be more humble and the people more compassionate.  He was trying to open the eyes of his hearers that they might be honest with themselves.  No more looking for someone to blame.  Things were bad.  They needed to start paying attention, perhaps looking at things in a different way.

The prophet depicts a coming destruction of all of Creation, of everything that the people know.  It is literally the “unmaking” of Creation, borrowing some of the same language from the Creation story in Genesis.  But rather than “it is good”, it is proclaimed to be a desolation, an ending.  It is a bleak passage, seemingly void of plans for redemption or resurrection.  Instead, we are left with a desolate silence.

It’s hard to read this and place ourselves in this passage.  It’s so bleak and depressing.  SURELY we’re not that bad.  SURELY this is about another time and another people.  Well, it is.  It’s about a people that were sure that God was on their side no matter what.  They believed that this line of David would never be broken and that God would always dwell with them.  So, when Jeremiah enters, it shakes them to their core.  They didn’t want to hear it.  In fact, they downright rejected it.  And yet, we DO somehow belong here.  Maybe sometimes we’re a little too sure of our rightness, a little too sure that God is pleased with what we do.  Maybe, sometimes, we’re not really listening to the world around us or even to our own inner voices.  And, uncomfortably, the whole prospect of the unmaking of Creation is looming much more closely to us in our world today as fifteen years later, we still deal with violence and unrest and the prospects of what is to come at what sometimes seems to be escalating proportions.  Oh, I know what you’re thinking.  We don’t want to hear this in church.  We want to leave feeling good about ourselves.  We want to come and be protected from weapons of mass destruction and falling buildings and terrorist attacks.  We want to feel God’s presence.

I mean, aren’t Scriptures supposed to have some sort of good news in them?  The good news is that God patiently, oh so patiently, waits until we turn away from ourselves and toward God. Remember from last week? God is always and forever remaking us and unmaking us into what God envisions we can be.  But, have you ever thought that God might be unmaking not God’s Creation, but rather ours?   You see, God did not promise that the world would be easy; God did not offer a Creation that did not sometimes shake and tear and come down upon its people and itself; God never told us that the road would be straight and protected.  God promised us that when it was all said and done, we would have life abundant—here, now, for the taking. Life is not easy; life is eternal; and it is very, very good.  And the REALLY good news, is that God walks with us through whatever comes and through whatever times of “lostness” we encounter.

 The Sacredness of Our Lostness

But how do we get there?  What do we do when everything in our world seems so lost for us?  What do we do when that very presence of God seems more and more elusive in our lives?  What do we do when we find ourselves in that valley of darkness, when we find ourselves in a world that just makes no sense?

Lost and Found…the theme appears again and again in the Scriptures.  The people of God are continually amazed at the feeling of God’s embrace and then just as easily somehow fall back or fall away until they are found once again.  We read in Jeremiah of a lost people that are trying desperately to find their way out of the darkness.  And then in the Gospel passage for today, we hear two parables that Jesus told, both stories of losing and finding.  We celebrate the “foundness” that God does, that coming into the arms of God and feeling held once again.

But notice the story about the shepherd.  It is the finding of the lost one that causes the rejoicing.  It is not the keeping of the ones who are already found.  The truth is, we are all lost at times.  We all find ourselves buried in lament just as Jeremiah was.  Maybe those are the times when God can get to us.  We have to be so careful in those times that we feel that we are found, those times when we are so sure that the way we have it figured out is the way that God sees it.

But so often, we don’t want to talk about or admit our lostness.  It is uncomfortable to wander through unfamiliar territory.  It’s against our nature to admit to others that sometimes we struggle with our faith.  And yet Jeremiah tells us to look at it.  The shepherd comes to the one who has wandered away.  The woman turns her whole house upside down until she finds the one that was lost.  These are not stories of God putting things back right; these are stories of redemption.  And unless we finally allow ourselves to wander, finally experience that real feeling of maybe NOT being so certain, finally know that we cannot do it alone, finally know that this—what we have, what we know, is not the final “it”, it is much, much more difficult for God to redeem us.  But when we are lost, away from what we know, when we are looking for something, hoping for something, there is an opening for God to break into our lives.  And God rejoices that one who was lost is now found.

The truth is, we are both the lost and the found.  Which requires more faith?  In our lostness, we have doubts, we search, we question.  We feel uncomfortable and separated and desperately try to get back.  In those times when we find ourselves as one of the ninety-nine who are already there, already found, we may tend to become a little too comfortable with the way things are.  What if this is not just a story about God’s welcoming the sinner?  What if it is also a story about each of us seeing our own lostness, our own need for God?  What if it is a story about faith?  Do you know what the opposite of faith is?  Most would say doubt.  No, the opposite of faith is certainty.  The opposite of faith is being so sure of what we think or know or believe that we do not realize that we need God, that we need direction, that God is calling us through whatever happens in this world—our lamenting and our rejoicing–and walking us home.  What if our faith story is not about getting it right but about being redeemed?

Wednesday night, a couple of us sat and talked through these Scriptures, delving deeper than you can possibly do in a sermon.  We were in the parlor and we talked about how many of us are afraid of being “found out”, afraid of someone knowing that we are not the perfect Christian.  So we sweep the messiness of life, the pain of this world, the suffering of our hearts under the rug, so to speak.  I glanced at the rug in the parlor and I said, “I wonder what’s under THAT rug.”  (That is a metaphor, not a comment on the cleaning service!)  But maybe we, too, need a Jeremiah to call us away from ourselves.  Maybe we need to allow our lostness to show so that God can find us and rejoice.  Maybe we need to sweep out our minds and our hearts and find that one spark again.  Maybe we need our world to shake a little so that we will look at it with new eyes.

The other night, when we began, we opened our Bibles and one of the people that was there got this funny look on her face.  It took a few seconds to realize that the Bible had been printed upside down.  I told her that THAT would preach.  It does, because it’s a reminder that these stories of our faith are not always what we read into them.  Sometimes they literally turn our world upside down.


I once had a wonderful conversation with an Episcopal priest who had served as a grief counselor in New York immediately after 9/11.  In one of her books, she tells the story of a priest that was sent to serve St. Paul’s Chapel.  St. Paul’s Chapel had spent six months getting their building all ready to sort of resurrect an old historic church that had almost died.  They were set up for jazz services and media presentations and cutting edge studies.  The church was ready, set to open on September 17, 2001.   It was right at the foot of the Twin Towers.

The priest says that he returned to the area on September 12th, expecting to see all of his hard work in a pile of rubble.  But as he walked down Broadway toward City Hall, he amazingly saw the spires still standing.  Not only was the building standing, not one window had been broken.  It turned out that a homeless man had left an upstairs window open after he had slept in the church and it cut down on the compression of the blast.  All of his work had been lost but the building was intact.  What he thought in the moment was that this church had not been spared because it was holier than what was around it but because it had work to do.

So they went to work.  The church opened its doors for 24 hours a day and began serving meals at all hours to first responders or to those that were searching the streets for survivors.  They served half a million meals around the clock.  And instead of the church service they had so carefully planned, they sat in the sanctuary where people had slept and cried and questioned and they quietly prayed.  They opened their church to grief counselors and babysitters and those that just needed shelter.  And they did this for nine more months.  The church was finally closed for clean-up and refurbishing in June, 2002.

The church is remodeled now and looks a bit more like a church that we would know.  But in the remodeling, they chose to leave the old pews.  They are filled with deep gashes and marks made from the heavy buckles on the first responders’ jackets when they were thrown down there.  They are a reminder that God does not fix our wounds; God redeems them and recreates them in something that was much better than before.

Living in Hope

That’s our story.  It is a story of lamenting and rejoicing, silence and understanding, lost and found, endings and beginnings, death and redemption, cross and empty tomb.  And when we walk through those times when life seems to crumble beneath us,  it is there that we will find hope.  Those places and times that mark our way, those times that provide turning points for us, are there for us to notice but not to define us.  I pray that fifteen years later, in these times that sometimes shake us, that make us question “why”, that those things will never become routine to us, that we will continue to be bothered.  That was the message of Jeremiah.  Do not settle into this time and be content with something that is not you.  This is not the plan that God has for you.  We are called to be a people of peace, of acceptance, of unity, of compassion.  We are called to be the people of God.  So instead, see your lostness so that God can once again do the finding.  And then God will rejoice.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said this:  ““God says to you, “I have a dream.  Please help me realize it.”  It is a dream of a world whose ugliness and squalor and poverty, its war and hostility, its greed and harsh competiveness, its alienation and disharmony are changed into their glorious counterparts.” You see, there’s always good news in there.  There’s always finding.  There’s always grace.  Thanks be to God!

[i] Albert Holtz, O.S.B., Walking in Valleys of Darkness:  A Benedictine Journey through Troubled Times, (Morehouse Publishing, New York, NY, 2011), 1.