Thursday, 5 November 2009

Lost and found

A sermon for mid-week communion

Luke 15:1-10

The tax collectors and sinners were gathered around Jesus. The Pharisees and ‘teachers of the law’ were grumbling – it was absurd - Jesus was so welcoming to people who were so obviously not up to scratch.

The Pharisees and teachers of the law considered themselves to be ‘righteous’, but Jesus knew that wasn’t the truth, and he tried many times to point out to them what it really means to conform to God’s will. They just didn’t get it. I wonder what the Pharisees thought Jesus meant when he said there would be ‘more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent’.

There are three ways of locating our selves within the parable of the lost sheep in today’s gospel reading from Luke 15. We can think of our self as one of the 99 sheep who are not lost: that’s those of us who are safe and sound with perfectly worked-out non-heretical beliefs and behaviours. Or we can think of our self as the shepherd, whose responsibility it is to seek and to save the lost. Or we could think of our self as the lost sheep, that which is not forsaken, but is searched for until it is found and made safe.

Earlier this year, our beloved cat Mary went missing. We contacted the RSPCA. We contacted the vet who had tagged her with a microchip ID. We made notices to put in shops and on signposts. My daughter made a huge poster for her bedroom window, which said ‘COME BACK MARY!’ It was visible to everyone passing on our busy road. My husband produced over 500 leaflets with Mary’s photograph, and together we posted them through people’s doors all over the village. Every evening the family went out searching, and calling out Mary’s name.

Strangers were so willing to help – some even held stray cats in their homes and phoned us to come see if it was her. But none of them was Mary. Each night we went to bed wondering where she was, and if she was ok.
Ten days after Mary had gone missing, she suddenly turned up at the door, frantic to be let inside. She was very thin and much the worse for wear and tear, but she was home, and we were overjoyed! We told all our neighbours and friends that Mary had come home! My daughter took down the ‘Come back, Mary’ poster from her bedroom window and put up another one that said ‘MARY IS BACK'!!! Everyone was so happy, and all seemed right with the world.

Most of us can relate to stories of lost pets, or a lost sheep or coin, and even more powerful is that parable which follows in Luke’s gospel – that of the prodigal son. These three parables are all about how much God loves us. The lost sheep and the lost coin are immensely valuable to the shepherd and to the woman. Both the shepherd and the woman in these parables represent God, who goes to great lengths in pursuit of us.

Ezekiel chapter 34 describes well the shepherd-like qualities of God:
For this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them… I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down, declares the Sovereign LORD. I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak…

And in chapter 10 of John’s gospel our Lord Jesus says: ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep’. Christ’s mission, as he says in Luke 19, verse 10, is ‘to seek and to save what was lost’.

The word ‘lost’, of course, isn’t just about losing track of your global location. For Christians, it’s when we aren’t able to ‘locate’ our identity as God’s children; when we don’t feel secure, and have no sense of God’s direction.

I would guess that many of us have felt lost at some stage in our Christian journey, probably more than once, and in different ways. Sometimes we can go down the wrong path in life, away from God’s will for us, and be guided back so gently that we didn’t even fully realise we were getting lost. Other times it can be more dramatic – in several of the Psalms, the psalmist speaks with painful honesty of crying out from ‘the Pit’ of despair.

I want to tell you now about a time when I felt most aware of being lost, and most aware of being ‘found’ in the end.

Nearly 11 years ago, I gave birth to our second child. Everything should have been perfect – we already had a healthy daughter and now a healthy son. But something went wrong. I didn’t realise at the time, but it was post-natal depression.

I wanted to keep it hidden. I wanted things to appear to be all right. I pretended I was in control, but that even made things worse. Anyone who has experienced depression will recognise the feeling, it’s like living in a vortex that spirals down and down, with no way of controlling the descent. Feeling disconnected from other people and from the world; alone, even when not alone. And I had tremendous guilt over dark thoughts and resentments that I would not normally have entertained. I thought I was going mad – I thought I was a terrible mother and a failure. I let my pride get in the way of seeking medical help. Eventually, while on holiday with family in the States, things were so bad that I couldn’t hide it any longer and I told my mother what was going on.

She recognised my sense of being lost, and she told me her own ‘lost and found’ stories, especially one of how she coped after her mother died. She told me how important Jesus was to her during these times. I had been acquainted with Jesus on and off since I was baptised as a baby, but at this point I hadn’t yet come to follow him.

A few weeks later I was at the point of being crushed by the weight of my depression. In desperation, I cried out to Jesus for help from what felt like the bottom of a pit, but was actually the kitchen floor. And from that moment, my life changed. I’d like to be able to say that my condition went away in an instant. It didn’t. But the vortex slowed down, and I gradually crawled out of that pit, holding tightly to the outstretched hand of Jesus. I didn’t know at the time, but God had been pursuing me for years through certain people and circumstances, seeking and calling out, until the time came when conditions were such that I would turn to him. What characterised that moment was that it was a moment of surrender, of turning to Jesus, of yielding to him, and that is what repentance means. And I was lifted up, I felt carried, like the sheep in the parable that was found and lifted onto the shepherd’s shoulders and brought home.

In the parable Jesus tells us of the joy in heaven when even one sinner repents, or turns to the Lord. Surrendering to God’s way is not easy, and perhaps it comes easier when we are desperately lying at the bottom of a Pit. But what about other times, when life is running smoothly? What about at times when we’re feeling really ‘righteous’? Jesus doesn’t rate self-righteousness very highly, does he? It’s something we have to guard against. God’s children have a curious habit of getting lost - returning to God is a continual necessity.

So where do you locate yourself in the parable of the lost sheep? Probably at times we are amongst the 99, and at times we are the lost sheep. But also at times God needs us to work with him as the shepherd, helping him to seek out and save the lost.

Those of us who have been lost, and found by Christ are called to share our stories, and so to point people towards Christ, who is the way, who is our safety and our salvation – he will search for us no matter how often we get lost, and lead us home each time we give in to him. And God wants to use our stories to make a difference in someone else’s life. This is a challenge for us all, but this is part of our mission as a church. It’s our personal witness to our faith. As St. Paul says in the letter to the Romans, chapter 10:

…how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent?

So, whether your 'lost and found' story is gentle or dramatic, share it! Share it with your family and friends, with neighbours and strangers, with tax collectors and sinners! There will be someone, somewhere, who needs to hear it. You may not see the return – you may not know when that person has been ‘found’, when they turn to Christ and all heaven rejoices! But you just might be the instrument God needs to use in that circumstance, as he seeks to find that person and turn them towards home – our true home, where we are secure in the knowledge of God’s love for us and of our identity as his children.

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