The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost—PR 19—Year C; Exodus 32:7-14; Psalm 51:1-11; I Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10
The Pharisees and scribes, they sure are a grumbly bunch. They’ve been grumbling over the fact that Jesus heals on the sabbath, they’ve been grumbling over who’s going to sit where at the dinner, and now, they’re grumbling over who Jesus welcomes and with whom he chooses to eat. Goodness, if you’re Jesus, who would you rather eat with—the grumbly Pharisees and scribes who are obsessed with protocol or the tax collectors and sinners who are eager to listen? Jesus could simply ignore the Pharisees and scribes, but he doesn’t, he engages them and tells them this parable: “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? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And 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.’ Just 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.
“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? And when 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.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
So, how many of you relate to the sheep who is lost or to that lost coin?
And how many of you relate to the shepherd who goes after that one lost sheep or that woman who sweeps and searches for that one lost coin?
Which is it easier to be—the seeker or the sought after?
How many of you relate to being both? At one time or another, most of us will walk in all of these shoes.
I haven’t lost a sheep, but in February 2001, we did lose a dog. It was an accident. We’d hosted a youth group event at our house and someone left the gate open. Both of our dogs jumped at the opportunity to roam the neighborhood. We couldn’t find them that night. The next morning, we searched high and low, and we got Heidi, the older dog, back. But our younger guy, Pablo, he was nowhere to be found. We searched and searched. We printed up fliers and we put them in hundreds mailboxes. We cried at night and our hearts ached. Pablo was special; he was our engagement dog. Then began this ritual. Three times a week for the next three months, I would drive the 40 minutes across town to search the kennels at animal control. I spent enormous amounts of time and energy and gas searching for that dog. But when your heart yearns, your heart yearns, and none of those rational, cost-benefit calculations matter. When you’ve lost something precious, you search for it. We never found Pablo, and to this day, I can still touch this place of yearning for him.
Losing something precious does something to us. The word for this losing is ἀπόλλυμι, and it’s intense—it carries a sense of destruction, a sense that something has perished, been destroyed, been rendered useless, it carries a sense of death and emptiness.
And when that person in the gospel passage goes after the one who is lost, the word is πορεύω, and it means “to pursue the journey on which one has entered.”
The woman who seeks for the coin, that seeking is ζητέω and embedded in this seeking is deep desire.
So, the process of losing something—it rends our heart, and it sets us on a journey, and even in the midst of our broken, aching heart, we are filled with desire for that which we have lost.
And we lose so much more than sheep or coins or even dogs. We lose someone to death. We lose a relationship. A dream gets lost. We lose a job opportunity. We lose a loved one to addiction. We lose a sense of joy or purpose or meaning. We lose the sharpness of our mind, the mobility of our body, our independence. On this fifteenth anniversary of 9/11, we remember that we can lose our innocence in the blink of an eye. And I can’t get the pictures of those children in Syria out of my head and the innocence they have lost. We lose so many things, and in the losing, we become lost ourselves. Sometimes we’re the seeker, but often, we’re just lost.
God even shows us what that can look like today. God had a sense of losing the very people he loved and had brought out of Egypt, and when God loses them, God becomes enraged. And in that rage, God can’t even see his connection to his beloved people. In talking with Moses, God calls them “your people,” like they’re Moses’ people.
Moses hears God’s anguish out, but Moses gently reconnects God to what is true—“God, these are your people, you brought them out of Egypt. Yes, they’re lost, but you don’t want to destroy them; you love them.” And God changes the divine mind.
You see, sometimes in the hurt of the losing, we lose our bearings altogether and all we can feel is our separation from that which we’ve lost. And both the seeker and the sought after have to come to terms with this separation. Both have to repent. Both have to change direction. Both have to turn. God had to change God’s mind and remember the depth of connection God had, and has, with God’s people. When Jesus talks about the sinner who repents, that’s speaking to us when we’re the ones who are lost.
Unlike a sheep who doesn’t know better, or a coin who can’t choose, when we’re the lost one, we do come to a decision point—will we continue to rail against all that we have lost or will we turn and allow ourselves to be embraced, by Jesus, by God, by community. Our pride, our defenses, our grief, our sorrow, our fear—all of these can keep at bay those who would seek after us and bring us home.
It doesn’t take much. Just a gentle turning, just a small desire not to skit away when the Divine Seeker draws close, just a willingness to experience the humility that comes when you are up against the limits of your humanity and grace comes crashing through and catches you by surprise, just an openness to that great paradox that it is often when we are most lost that we discover what it is to be found in the deepest parts of our being.
And the joy of discovering that being found, even when that which we’ve lost never comes home, well, that’s a joy that’s even deeper because that’s a joy that comes, not in spite of the loss, but that comes in the very midst of the journey that the loss started in the first place. That’s that strange space we all inhabit where the losing sends us out into the wilderness, where our yearning to find that which we’ve lost eventually ignites a yearning in us to be found; it’s that sacred space where our desire as both seeker and sought after meets God’s desire as seeker and sought after. This rarely happens in the normal confines of our life; it most often happens in the wilderness when we are wandering and searching.
We can wrap ourselves in protocols. We can grumble away. But these will not protect us from loss. Sooner or later, we will lose things precious to us, and we will be lost ourselves. And, if we are faithful to the journey upon which that losing launches us, then, we will find treasure that will astound us; we will be found in ways that will shake our soul and, at the deepest level, make us new.
Make that journey, and you will understand why there is rejoicing in heaven and why that joy just has to be shared and celebrated with any and all who will gather.
It’s that deep joy that defies explanation, and be assured, the loss that gives rise to it will break your heart. But know this, without a doubt, within your broken, lost heart, desire is brewing, yearning has sent up its flare, and God has already set out to find you and bring you home. Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
September 11, 2016