There is a box in the fellowship hall outside our worship space with the words “Lost and Found” printed in marker on the side. In most churches I have served, the Lost and Found box has been filled with mittens and scarves, but ours is a repository for lost water bottles. I have found my own there several times.
The very words “Lost and Found” evoke a sort of sadness for me. The idea that someone would misplace a personal item of value that would then be located by some stranger and placed in a cardboard box in a dark corner is… well… just sort of sad.
Being lost implies disorientation and estrangement. The television series of several years ago with that name detailed the lives of a planeload of unfortunate travelers. They were crashed and stranded on a deserted island. Lost. For six whole seasons of primetime viewing followed by endless re-runs.
Do you remember when it was still legal for pet stores to sell little half-dollar-sized turtles? When I was seven years old, I was given a pair of those tiny reptiles and they lived in an oddly shaped aquarium with water and blue gravel and a plastic palm tree to shade them. One night while the family slept, the more athletic of the two apparently managed to reach its claws to the top of the aquarium and flip itself out. In the morning, there was only one turtle under the palm tree. I looked under the couch. Under the kitchen table. Under the refrigerator with a flashlight. Every room in the house, including those upstairs, was searched carefully. No turtle. After two weeks, the missing turtle was declared dead and a replacement was purchased at the pet store. The very next morning, a dehydrated but otherwise healthy little turtle was found crawling across the living room toward the aquarium. I couldn’t believe it! The dead turtle was alive! Now I had three of them!
Luke chapter 15 is composed of three stories about what is lost becoming found: the lost sheep and the lost coin which we read about a few moments ago, and the lost son, also known as the Prodigal Son. Each story is pretty much the same. Something of value goes missing, and whether it is an animal or an object or a family member, the result is great sadness and an all-out search to locate what is missing.
A sheep wanders away from the other ninety-nine in the fold and is found by a loving shepherd who searches persistently. A coin is misplaced and is found by a woman who sweeps the whole house until it is recovered. In each case, friends and neighbors are gathered for a party to celebrate the find. Jesus concluded his stories by telling the folks listening that day that there is great rejoicing in heaven whenever one sinner repents.
Nineteen years ago, I was interviewed at the Buffalo, New York airport by two men who flew in from a southern state to consider me for a doctoral program focused on preaching and church leadership with a heavy concentration on evangelism. The final question asked was this: “Do you have a passion for the ‘lost’?” I remember being taken aback by the question, and I honestly don’t remember how I answered. I did get into the program, so I guess my answer was acceptable. In time, I began to understand that the question sprang from the belief that those without a clear and specific commitment to the Christian faith were doomed to a life of supreme suffering in hell. In other words, LOST for eternity.
Over the years, I have struggled to reconcile that traditional belief of many Christians with the parallel understanding that God is merciful and loves all persons equally and unconditionally. A few years ago, Christian author and pastor Rob Bell wrote a book titled “Love Wins” which made a case for believing in God’s universal acceptance of all persons regardless of who they are and what they have come to believe about God. The book angered a lot of people who want to draw a line to make sure that they are in and others are out. Not only do many want to reject the possibility that Jews and Muslims and Hindus and others can know and love God, but that exclusiveness can extend to picking at the differences between those who claim to be Christian: rejecting the sincere faith of Catholics, Mormons, Baptists, and so on until we declare that only we have the purist, most true truth there is. Once we do that, we’ll probably find ourselves all alone. We’ll conclude that only we possess the truth and only we are worthy to be found by Jesus and celebrated by the angels in heaven. A very private and self-focused celebration!
When I read the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin, I’m not struck by the awfulness of lostness as much as I am by the wonder of foundness and the obvious message that individuals matter. The shepherd left the ninety-nine in order to find just one that was lost. The woman swept her house and looked under every chair and every bed for just one coin that had rolled away. Every single person created by God and inhabiting this earth is obviously a very high priority for God. Seeking out those who feel lost and alone and bringing them to a safe place is basic to our faith.
We know that today is the fifteenth anniversary of 9/11. Most of us remember where we were when we heard that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. I was sitting at my desk in my church office in Fredonia, New York when our office administrator delivered the news. I rushed home in time to turn on the television and watch the second tower fall. A young woman in our church was having major heart surgery that day, and I spent much of the afternoon in the hospital waiting room, watching the news coverage with horror and disbelief. That evening, hundreds gathered in the town square of our village to pray and share their grief.
A new acquaintance shared with me recently how his life had changed as a direct result of 9/11. He quit his job and pursued a degree and began a new career direction that was more in line with his values than his old one. I knew what he was talking about, because I decided in the weeks immediately after 9/11 that life was too short and unpredictable to live it inauthentically. I came out of the closet as a gay man as a result of what happened 15 years ago today. A woman whose mother attended the last church I served in New York was working in the south tower when it was hit. She survived but has suffered ever since from PTSD and moved as soon as possible to the west coast to try to escape and recover from the trauma. A pastor friend in New York City who saw the events first-hand from across the river told me a year later that he could not identify any way in which he was emotionally or otherwise affected by 9//11. He was bothered by that and had no explanation. Some of us find our way as a result of tragedy. Others seem forever lost or are left scratching their heads wondering what to make of it all.
When have you felt lost? What is your experience of being found?
A man named Bobby Gray was interviewed on National Public Radio yesterday. His job in September of 2001 was to guard the perimeter surrounding the rubble of the twin towers. He related that a woman handed him a photo of her son and asked him to call her should he find him. "All I remember thinking,” he said, “Is this is my mother. This is what my mother would do, and this is like everybody's mother whose son didn't come home that day.”
God is like a mother, searching relentlessly, walking the streets of New York City, tacking up missing person posters and asking everyone she meets if they have seen her son.
A lost sheep, a lost coin, a lost son. Each one represents you. No matter how many other sheep or coins or people are safe, you are worth pursuing to the ends of the earth. God considers that your life is of supreme value.
Today we dedicate gifts for one family. Just one. A home is being built for one family. We wish we could provide shelter for all who need it, but for that one family a home will make all the difference in the world.
I believe God wants us to be like the good shepherd and the woman with a broom, relentlessly hoping and constantly searching until the lost are found, the homeless are sheltered, the hungry are fed, the traumatized are healed, the grieving are comforted, and all are safe; each one brought back into the fold, one at a time. May it be so, and may we, too, allow ourselves to be found by the one who searches with an everlasting love.