It is precisely when we are lost that God seeks us out. (Listen.)
When I first preached on this text at Sanctuary, I began with a story. It went like this: So Joshua was at the pub, eating and drinking and talking with whoever turned up. There were gay folk and trans folk and very complicated families. There were women who loved work more than children, and who liked nothing more after work than a drink with their friends. There were sex workers and drug addicts; blokes fresh out of prison; evangelical atheists; and people who had been burned by the church. All these and more were crowding around and listening to what Joshua had to say.
Just inside the door of the pub, a little huddle of priests and ministers and good Christian folk stood around awkwardly clutching glasses of warm mineral water and grumbling among themselves. ‘Who is this bloke?’ they were asking. ‘If he keeps hanging round these dodgy people, no one will take him seriously. And what’s this he saying? What’s with all his stories and questions, and no real answers? Doesn’t he know the importance of doctrine? Maybe he needs to rethink his connection with the church.’
Joshua looked across at them and said, ‘Supposing one of you has a hundred people in your congregation, and someone leaves. Maybe they can’t buckle down and live like everyone else. Maybe they’ve been asking lots of questions and rejecting pat answers. Maybe they’ve been hurt by religious folk, or patronized too many times. Maybe their kids are disabled; maybe they’ve lost their faith. Whatever the reason, what will you do? Why, you’ll leave the ninety-nine to fend for themselves, and you’ll spend Sunday looking for the lost one, won’t you? And when you find that person, you’ll be so delighted that you’ll throw your arm around their shoulders, and walk them home, and invite everyone over for a party!’
When I first told this story, it was in the month after our formation as a congregation; when I told it, I was reminding us of our task. That is, we are not called to be an insular group comfortably assured of our salvation. Instead, we are called to be like Jesus, actively seeking the lost and the lonely, the complicated folk, the vulnerable sheep, the precious coin: and to rejoice when they are found. And I still think this is a fair reading for this and every church.
But six years later, some things have changed. As a group, we’re less homogenous than we were: for some rare breeds have wandered in, bleating, and some interesting coins have rolled through the door. And the older I get, the less interested I become in building up the institutional church, and the more I understand that I, too, am very often lost myself. So I’d like to think through this story again.
The first thing to notice is who it’s directed at. Jesus is hanging out with all the so-called sinners, but tonight’s stories aren’t directed at them. Instead, he tells his stories to religious types who are grumbling. He speaks of a lost sheep and a lost coin; and of the shepherd and the woman who drop everything to go seek them. As church-going listeners, it’s easy to imagine the lost sheep is some poor misguided sinner outside the church, and the lost coin also, but notice this: The lost sheep was part of the flock, but went wandering. The lost coin was part of the collection, but rolled away.
So these are stories about religious insiders getting lost, and being lost, and not doing a thing to find their way home. The sheep is just a foolish sheep, as likely to walk towards the lion’s den as the sheepfold. The coin is not even sentient; it just lies passively on the floor in some dark and dusty corner. The scribes and Pharisees are just religious folk, so obsessed with right living and sin, they don’t recognize the deep humanity of the people Jesus hangs out with. All they can see are sinners, which tells us that they’re lost themselves; but they do not see their own lostness. As for me, I’m just a person who seems to get lost again and again and again.
I got terribly lost at university when I was told by evangelicals that women couldn’t preach and creation science was a thing and gay people had to change. I got lost again when my faithful mother suffered so terribly and died so young; and again when my friends didn’t know what to do in the face of my grief and for the most part disappeared. I got lost in a situation of church conflict; and again when someone betrayed me. And even now, I get a bit lost every time I go doom-scrolling, or when a church or pastor or Christian acts in a way which clearly displays their stone cold heart: which means I get lost pretty much each and every day. In fact, getting lost seems to be my specialty, and there’s not a thing I can do about it.
But does it matter? Because these stories tell us that God seeks the lost. The shepherd abandons the ninety-nine complacent sheep, the ones who are obedient and have ‘no need’ of repentance, while he wanders up hill and down dale, seeking that hopelessly idiotic sheep until he finds it by its piteous bleats. And when he does find it, he’s so delighted that he throws it over his shoulders and carries it to safety, then invite his friends and neighbours over to celebrate.
When the coin is lost, the woman abandons her housework. Instead of the washing and the cooking and the sewing and the cleaning, she turns the house upside down. Finally, hips aching, knees creaking, bottom sticking out, she bends down low and shoves her broom into the furthest corner under the bed. She hears a little ‘clink’. When she finally fishes out the coin, she’s so delighted that she invites her friends and neighbours over to celebrate.
And so we learn that it is the nature of God to know when we are lost. And when this happens, God doesn’t dismiss us. God doesn’t write us off as disobedient or fruitless or stubborn; God doesn’t reject us as hard-hearted or faithless or hopeless. Instead, God feels the loss keenly and seeks us out actively and rejoices so greatly when we’re reunited that even the angels sing. So there’s no need to worry when we get lost: because God seeks us out.
This points to something more. When I first preached on this text here, I was suggesting that it is our task to seek the lost in order to restore them to the flock. In other words, I was thinking of ‘the flock’ as church, and that we seek out strays to bring them home. Of course, for many folk at Sanctuary, the journey of finding or being found by, and then joining, this little flock has been incredibly life-giving and healing: and so I continue to affirm that reading. But now I reckon the story is even bigger than this: because God is so much bigger than church.
These days, what I see is that the shepherd leaves the ninety-nine who have ‘no need’ of repentance in order to find those who’ve left the fold. In other words, the shepherd doesn’t stick with the flock; the woman isn’t clutching her purse of nine coins; and Jesus doesn’t get a gig at the Temple. Instead, they’re off hunting.
And so if we want to encounter God, then we can’t limit ourselves to church or creed or doctrine or any sense of complacency. God’s off seeking the lost: and this tells me that we are found by God precisely when we ourselves are lost.
In other words, God finds us in our doubt and confusion; when we’re wandering the wilderness of dementia; when we’re in the depths of depression; when we’re bewildered and vulnerable and afraid. God finds us when we’re hidden in darkness and shadow and it seems that the world has abandoned us. God finds us in our questions, and when we are seeking, and when we are straying. God finds us not in the confidence of certainty, but in grey areas, in liminal spaces.
So if we want to encounter God, we can’t barricade ourselves in a religious fortress or holy huddle; and we can’t distance ourselves from others through smugness or arrogance or complacency. Instead, we must rattle about with other lost and vulnerable things: the lonely gloves, the odd socks, the broken umbrellas, the scruffy people; because we’ll be found when we’re among the waifs and strays and ratbags and ruffians who cluster around the raconteur Jesus.
And we will know we’ve been found when the words of a stranger, the love of an enemy, the kindness of a friend, or the sweetness of wine and bread open our eyes to the scriptures and set our hearts burning within us: for these are the hallmarks of the persistent woman who goes by the name of Grace.
Meanwhile, our friend Joshua is still at the pub, or the kitchen table, the drop in centre, the food bank. He’s over the hills and far away, and he’s in the darkest dustiest shadows of our lives. He’s even at the communion table, eating and drinking and talking with whoever turns up. Of course he’s in these places—because he’s longing to be united with the one who is lost, and he wants to throw a party. Ω
Reflect: Have you ever felt found by God? Was it in a situation or with a person you expected?
A reflection by Alison Sampson on Luke 15:1-10 (Year C Proper 19) given to Sanctuary on 11 September 2022 © Sanctuary 2022. Photo by Maros Misove on Unsplash. Sanctuary is based on Peek Wurrung country; full acknowledgement here.
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