SERMON 11 SEPTMEBER 2016
Lost. Confusion, fear, panic. The familiar has disappeared. There are no pointers that are recognisable, no-one to help. You are alone, or, even with others, there is still no help. You don’t know what to do, which way to turn.
There can be swirling mists, darkness, emptiness.
Or you can’t find the thing that is so precious to you, a thing whose loss would break a connection back to all that that thing signified: someone you loved, a place that was so special, an event that changed your life.
That’s all quite dramatic, but I suspect that all of us have experienced what it is like to be lost, and to have lost something important. How often have you lost your keys? Even briefly. There is a moment of heightened anxiety. If you are a woman you probably dig around in the depths of your handbag, your purse, and end up turning everything out, maybe discovering other half-forgotten things as you do that. If you are my husband you walk up and down stairs looking in different rooms, perhaps trying to remember where the “safe place” is that you put something in. Then, most often, whatever it was, turns up in a different pocket of the bag he had been using.
“Lost” means lots of different things: we talk about losing the plot, losing one’s cool, one’s mind or memory, one’s head, one’s temper, just “losing it”. As we get older we become all too aware of what we lose: health and strength, the ability to do things we used to take for granted, which can mean that we lose much of life’s enjoyment. We may lose our independence. We don’t lose life’s challenge, because that goes on.
We can lose our job, our home, our country, our sense of belonging.
Hardest of all is to “lose” someone we love, a life’s companion. We often talk about this as if we have mislaid them somewhere, but what we mean is that through their death our life has lost so much that gave it meaning, joy, companionship. It is loss that is like a big hole and we somehow have to shape our life around its edges.
We can lose trust in others as we are hurt by the brokenness of what we thought was a steady part of our life. And then we fear the loss of relationship itself.
We may lose faith at times, because it doesn’t seem to make sense any more; it has been stretched to a point of thinness that can’t seem to help us in our fragility. We can lose our sense of purpose and of life’s meaning; we can lose our self-belief and identity, and we lose our energy and vitality because we try to pretend that these things are not happening.
Lost. It is both a situation and a feeling that conveys great emptiness.
But we can become lost in other ways. We can become lost because life is too complicated, too full of things, too confusing. We are part of a culture that places great value on what we have, what kind of clothes we wear, what make of car we drive, what kind of house we live in. We live in a society where our economic welfare is based on growth, on consumer spending, and so we are surrounded by pressures to join in this current that can sweep us away. We can lose our spiritual self as we become overwhelmed by “stuff” and by the pressures and busyness that is required to succeed in this way. When we lose sight of the basic simplicity of what is important, we lose the things that feed our spirits. Something in us cries out. Here is part of a prayer I read this last week: “Unclutter our lives, Lord. We have too much, consume too much, expect too much. Unclutter our lives Lord. Give us spaces, simplicity, thankful hearts.” We know how easy it is to lose something fundamental.
Society can lose its heart too. And then we can lose our caring for those who are swept aside or cast adrift in this current. When we lose our caring and our compassion, we lose something vital of ourselves and we then lose our happiness. We can become angry because all this is too much and we have lost any feeling of power to change the way things are, or we wield the power we cling to in ways that are destructive to all around. How much loss, how much anger do we sense around today?
Paul fell into this last category. In the Bible Study group on Wednesday we were looking about how viciously angry the young Saul was. He led the charge against the new Christian community in Rome. He had them terrified. He dragged them off to prison, men and women. They were flogged, some were killed. It is not an unfamiliar scenario in many parts of the world today. What had they done? Believed in Jesus, risen, alive and continuing to lead them into loving. Families were torn apart. Some of them fled to Damascus where there was a big synagogue community to protect them. But Saul got letters of authority so he could pursue them, root them out and bring them back to Jerusalem for punishment. He was ferocious in his anger. And what happened? He encountered Jesus, or rather, Jesus waylaid him on the way. In whatever way this happened, Saul knew that he had indeed been met by the very one who was the focus of his anger, the one he had been persecuting. He discovered that this Jesus was not dead and gone, as he had been desperately been trying to prove. Instead he was met by a living presence that didn’t condemn him, but offered him a different life, a completely new beginning. From imagining a powerful entrance into Damascus and wielding his authority to round up these Christians, he found himself being led by hand into the city, helpless, having, for the moment, lost his sight. There, in spite of their fear of him, he was met with love and greeted as “Brother Saul”. Now he could begin to find himself again. It took him some time. He wrote about this event often in his letters such as we heard in his letter to Timothy and the church at Ephesus, and Luke records it three times in the book of Acts. Paul’s encounter with the living Christ became the heart of his living and his preaching wherever he went. The lost could be found, even one so dramatically opposed as Saul, through God’s amazing grace. And because he knew he had been found, none of the terrible hardships he then faced, the death threats, the floggings and imprisonments such as he had dealt out before, none of this could make him lose heart, lose faith.
Jesus knew there were lots of lost people. He gave his time to them, the lonely, the outcasts, the tax collectors and sinners. He wanted them to know that they were not lost to God and so they could find themselves again, in God’s love and grace. The two parables he told give different emphases to lost-ness. In the second one, the woman loses a tenth of her worldly wealth, one of her ten silver coins. We can imagine the impact of that. So she goes searching, carefully, turning the house upside down until she finds it. She needed it. In the first parable, one sheep wanders off and becomes separated from the flock. Then the shepherd goes searching for it. He is the one actively looking. He keeps looking until he finds the lost one. It is hard to comprehend really, the shepherd leaving behind the 99, abandoning them in the wilderness. What does that mean? Maybe the Pharisees were now being given a powerful message. It is they who have been criticising Jesus for associating with these outcasts and sinners. The Pharisees very name indicates that they were separate from the rest as they tried to live their lives in purity and devotion to the Law. But, in doing so, what had they lost? In the parable, it is the 99 who end up lost, on their own, in danger. The shepherd’s focus and love has been on the one who discovered it was lost. What hard lessons are there in that for those who were left behind, who didn’t know that they were not safe like they thought but indeed had also lost the way!
There is something that cuts through all the accumulation of words, of pressures, of emotions, of life in all its complexity. It is at the heart of the Christian message that we can all so easily obscure. It is that God is seeking us in simplicity of purpose, calling us out from so much that screens us off and confuses us. We glimpse it in those special moments of connection, the times we call an epiphany. These are the times when we know that God is right there for us, within us and around us, as God always was and always will be. It is only when we realise we are lost that we can be found. In words I read a few days ago: “True life comes only through many, many journeys of loss and regeneration wherein we gradually learn who God is for us in a very experiential way.”
There is another almost equally important aspect of Jesus’ parables. They both end up with celebration, with feasting and rejoicing. How much God waits and longs for the lost to be found! We believe that is God’s will and purpose, why Jesus lived among us and gave of himself to the end, in love. We talk about “celebrating” Holy Communion as we did last Sunday, celebrating Christ’s presence with us in the very fabric of our life, telling us that we are not lost, but loved, set free of all that causes us to be lost, and made part of a community based on loving acceptance and belonging. From our understanding of being lost and found, we can reach out to others, with God’s simple message of grace beyond our understanding.
I want to finish by sharing the words of a hymn that was written by Colin Gibson who, before his retirement, was Professor of English at Otago University, a church organist and musician. They were written after the death of his secretary’s young son who had suffered from a lung disease all his short life:
Nothing is lost on the breath of God, nothing is lost for ever;
God’s breath is love and that love will remain, holding the world for ever.
No feather too light, no hair too fine, no flower too brief in its glory;
No drop in the ocean, no dust in the air,
But is counted and held in God’s story.
Nothing is lost to the eyes of God, nothing is lost for ever;
God sees with love and that love will remain,
Holding the world for ever.
No journey too far, no distance too great, no valley of darkness too blinding;
No creature too humble, no child too small
For God to be seeking and finding.
Nothing is lost to the heart of God, nothing is lost for ever;
God’s heart is love, and that love will remain, holding the world for ever.
No impulse of love, no office of care, no moment of life in its fullness;
No beginning too late, no ending too soon,
But is gathered and known in God’s goodness.
© Colin Gibson