I wonder if you can remember a time when you were literally, and obviously, lost. Perhaps you have a memory from childhood or from more recently, a memory of being lost, and you can summon up in your stomach that awful sense of panic, that sinking feeling..
Perhaps you’ve broken down on the motorway and can’t find a way to tell the emergency services exactly where you are. Perhaps you’ve been out on a walk with an OS map, but the path that was supposed to be there just wasn’t and you were faced with a field of bullocks and no sense of how to get out. Or perhaps some of you have been lost more seriously, in a place where the weather might have changed, where you might never have been found or where you seriously thought this might be it. I’m sure you can remember or imagine that sense of what it is to be lost.
And of course there are plenty more kinds of human experience where that same sense of fear and disorientation and despair – that same sense of helplessness – can grip you. Bereavement can feel a great deal like being lost – with the usual marking places of your life suddenly taken away. Redundancy too.. or injury or hearing a diagnosis. You can feel lost. Think of that TV advert with the man with cancer who feels like he’s in some kind of wild place.
And lots of other things feel like being lost. You can set out to be married for life and find yourself divorced. You can plan a great career and then find that you’re doing two jobs and have no pension plan. You can imagine yourself strong and self assured and find that you are gripped each day by inexplicable and agonizing anxiety. You can plan to be happy, contented and fulfilled, but this feeling of emptiness in the pit of your stomach won’t go away. You can be clever and educated and wise, but find that your memory is going and occasionally you can’t quite remember where you are anymore.
I remember once that when I was about 6 or so I went to a party with my little brother. The party was run by the naval base where my father was stationed and it was in a huge barn of a place – probably an aircraft hangar. And there were many children there – or at least what felt like many to me then. My parents told me to hold onto my younger brother, but he wriggled away as little brothers do and I lost him. I searched for a long time, feeling increasingly worried and imagining all the bad things that might have happened – I can’t remember finding him, though I must have done because he’s alive and well to this day, but I can remember the feeling of panic and lostness in my stomach, the feeling that nothing mattered but finding him and being found. It comes back to me in dreams, that feeling. And I recognize it coming back to me when life is hard or when I experience the kind of lostness that we all of us feel on some of our days.
I heard the sound of being lost this week, in a home where I visited one of our members who is now very deep in dementia. I heard it on a train this week when a young woman discovered she was in the wrong place, had no money left for a ticket and didn’t how to find her friends.. and panicked. But I’ve seen the look of lostness too in all our faces sometimes at moments in our lives, as we struggle with being human and with what life brings. I’ve seen it in all kinds of people, from university professors to those living on the streets, from El Salvador to East Reach.. You can find the lost everywhere.
And of course none of this is at all about our guilt. And none of it is really about any kind of need for repentance. Like the lost sheep and the lost coin we haven’t chosen to be lost. We are not the grievous sinners of Victorian fantasy, not ‘the lost’ of the hymn writers’ imagination. We are simply human, and we find ourselves sometimes in the wilderness. This is not, I think, an experience for the exceptional few, but for all of us. We are not all prodigal sons and daughters, deciding to leave and throwing ourselves away, but we are lost coins and lost sheep, gathering dust in life’s corner or suddenly finding ourselves in the wild places, and when we looked around there was no-one else to be seen.
We’ve got used to reading these two parables alongside the parable of the prodigal son, but if we forget that one for a moment and listen to these parables on their own, we hear something different. We hear about a woman who will turn the house upside down for a lost coin, lost perhaps because of her carelessness, and of a shepherd who goes out of his way to find a sheep that’s somehow got itself lost. And we learn, if we can learn anything at all, that God is somehow like that woman and that shepherd. When we find ourselves lost, in whatever way, God will find us. It doesn’t matter how stupid we’ve been, or how much we’ve suffered, or how hard it is to find us, God will be there. Jesus must have known better than we do the twenty third psalm – and he knew about the God who stays with the sheep even through the valley of death. He knew because that God was with him and in him – and that God stayed with him when he was lost in the wilderness for 40 days…
And perhaps this means even that God is especially close to us when we are lost. That we are not abandoned or lost to God at all, but that God is with us.
One writer has put it like this,
The practice of getting lost has nothing to do with wanting to go there. It is something that happens, like it or not. You lose your job. Your lover leaves. The baby dies. At this level, the advanced practice of getting lost consists of consenting to be lost, since you have no other choice. The consenting itself becomes your choice, as you explore the possibility that life is for you and not against you, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary.”
~Barbara Brown Taylor, from An Altar in the World
The lost sheep and the lost coin do no more than be lost, just like us, sometimes. There are times when we can do more than admit that we are lost, and that we must wait where we are, in the hope and trust tht we will be found. We will be held in the hand of the one who rejoices to find us, just as we feel most particularly lost.
These parables turn out, perhaps, not to be like the street preacher who calls the lost to repent. Those who are lost in the sense that we all know about lostness, don’t have a need to repent at all – they just want to find a way to survive in the darkness and the wilderness – and this is what God promises and offers. The message today is not a demand, not a burden, not an exhortation, but a word of grace to those who find themselves lost. God, it turns out, comes looking for us, whether or not we are able even to move. The woman didn’t wait for the coin to find her – she swept the room like a compulsive cleaner. The shepherd didn’t wait for the sheep to come back – he even risked the other sheep out of care for this one. We don’t need to find ourselves before we can come home – God will find us first. It is the lost, the dead, the empty, the poor, after all who God brings home to the feast.
There’s a Gospel that didn’t make it into the New Testament called the Gospel of Thomas. In that Gospel there is a slightly different version of the parable of the Lost Sheep – and in this version the sheep that gets lost is the largest one. So the shepherd goes searching for his finest ram. That makes sense of course – there is a reason then for finding this particular sheep. But the Gospel doesn’t make sense in the same way. God doesn’t need a reason to find you – you don’t have to deserve it. We don’t have to be the best, the one with the wooliest coat or the cutest bleat. We just have to be loved by God – and that’s what we are. God comes looking for us, in the very places and at the very times when we are lost. In fact that might be when we have God’s special attention – and God rejoices to be with us.
God’s grace is not there just for the righteous, or even particularly for the penitent (which can become just another way of being righteous), but for the lost. It’s open hospitality and that longing kind of a love that won’t leave us alone when we need God most.
Most of us spend much of our lives trying to avoid those experiences of being lost, those times in the wilderness, those moments of anxiety. But if these parables are true then these might just be the times when God is particularly close and when we might grow as human beings. If that’s so then perhaps the moments of lostness are moments to be treasured and to be lived through in the hope that we will grow in love and grace.
Barbara Brown Taylor, has said this;
“Popular religion focuses so hard on spiritual success that most of us do not know the first thing about the spiritual fruits of failure. When we fall ill, lose our jobs, wreck our marriages, or alienate our children, most of us are left alone to pick up the pieces. Even those of us who are ministered to by brave friends can find it hard to shake the shame of getting lost in our lives. And yet if someone asked us to pinpoint the times in our lives that changed us for the better, a lot of those times would be wilderness times.”
I found those words spoke to something in me. There can be a kind of shame of being lost in life, in whatever way we find ourselves lost. There are things we don’t speak about often to one another, things we hide behind bright faces and smiles. But we have all been there. So perhaps we need to hear today the good news offered and preached by these parables – that it is the lost who are found even when they are helpless. It is God who searches and hunts and never lets go to find us and hold us and bring us home. Of course there is joy over repentant sinners. But even more perhaps there is joy in heaven when one of us is lost and when God stands beside us. God reaches out to join us in the places where our fears gather and in the time when we go into that space between the cracks of our lives.
So if you have ever been lost, if you are feeling lost right now, or if you fear being lost in the future, then know that God will sweep every room to find you and climb every mountain. And God will rejoice. Amen.