There are many ways to be lost.
We can be lost, literally, as in, not able to find our destination, just like the time when J. was driving, with the help of a GPS, which in its digital wisdom directed us through the woods and up a dark hill, to a deserted neighborhood, instead of to the restaurant we were trying to find.
We can be lost emotionally, like someone who is struggling with inner turmoil, or a difficult choice, or the untimely death of someone one we love; or with memories that traumatize us, memories like those so many people have of September 11, which was a bright, clear, crisp day, until tragedy struck.
We can be lost spiritually, like someone who strains to hear but cannot seem to discern the voice of God; or like someone who has replaced the risky business of trying to hear the voice of God with addictive processes or substances, or material possessions or even amusing people; or like someone who uses religion as a cudgel to beat others into spiritual submission.
We can be lost like a sheep that has munched its way over a hill, and looks up to find it is nowhere near those other familiar sheep.
We can be lost like a coin that has rolled behind a bureau and found a crack between the molding and the floor, where it lives now.
There are many ways to be lost. I haven’t named nearly all of them.
In this morning’s passage from Luke’s gospel, we have stories of the lost, but they are curious stories for us. A sheep—not the brightest of God’s creatures—and a coin—an inanimate object. They are not even nearly, remotely human, and it causes us wonder: What’s going on here?
What’s going on is, Jesus is under attack. Our passage begins, ‘Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him [Jesus]. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them”’ (Luke 15:1-2).
The professionally religious people almost never come off looking good in relation to Jesus. Here, they’re bothered because Jesus just isn’t hanging out with the right people. He’s eating with tax collectors (a group even more reviled in his world than in ours), and sinners (a term so broad it can include the full gamut from people who don’t take care of the poor, widows and orphans, to murderers). Jesus is putting something on display, something that makes the professionally religious folks very, very uncomfortable: Jesus is showing everyone the broad, expansive, scandalous love of God for everyone, no exceptions.
These are the ones considered “lost” in this parable. And Jesus’ point, with the sheep and with the coin, is that God will not abide it, that anyone be lost, and so God will go in search of us, every last one of us, until we are found and returned to the place where we ought to be—which, at the end of each parable, is a dinner party.
In Luke’s gospel, at the end of the road, there’s always dinner party.[i]
All of this is very well and good. But I am betting there is at least one person listening this morning—maybe forty people—saying to yourselves, “So why do I still feel lost?” Or, “Why didn’t it feel like God was looking for me when I was lost?” And maybe, “Being lost is supposed to be a gift?”
First things first. God is looking for us. Scratch that, God has found us, whether we feel it or not. But God, through the Holy Spirit (who, you remember, we might call, the Unexpected Love) is always seeking to let us know that we are already found… even though we might not always be in touch with those signals.
I want to interrupt myself at this moment to say: Depression breaks all the rules. Depression, a chemical imbalance in the brain, truly obliterates or twists the signals we receive, and we need professional help with that.
For those who are not in the grips of depression, Eric Elnes tells a story of feeling very lost in this chapter of Gifts of the Dark Wood. He was trying to put himself through college, and depending very much on a regular summer job he had at a salmon cannery in Alaska. He needed to earn $8000.00 each summer to pay his tuition, and most summers that happened. The summer before his last year he went up to the fishery, as usual, only to find that the salmon weren’t running—he writes,
Apparently, the salmon decided to go on vacation that year, or maybe someone told them we were waiting to greet them with nets, sharp knives, little tin cans, and hot ovens, and they didn’t appreciate the hospitality.[ii]
After four weeks taking any odd job he could, Elnes had only $1,200.00
He prayed and prayed and anguished and raged. He yelled at God, “I need a miracle!” and, as far as he could tell, God was silent. He was filled with fear and anxiety and the devastating thought that he might not be able to finish college, which meant to him that his dreams were destroyed. He felt utterly and hopelessly lost.
He writes about what happened next:
Three days before my departure, I was standing out on the bluffs literally taking a breath from yelling at God for abandoning me in my final year of college, when a thought fluttered in and out of my mind almost before I could notice it. But I did notice. It said, in essence, “You’re asking me for the wrong thing. Don’t ask for the money. Don’t ask for a cheap trick to avoid defeat.”
“Then what should I ask for?” I bellowed.
“Ask for assurance that I, whom you love so well, love you back, and that I will be there for you as much in defeat as in victory.”[iii]
He didn’t want to hear this. He didn’t want to hear this at all. But he tried. Halfheartedly, he started asking God for assurance, and at first, he had the tiniest, most miniscule “whiff of peace.” He kept trying. Finally, wholeheartedly, he was able to tell God that the presence of God in his life was worth more to him than being able to finish college. And at that moment, “an ocean of peace came rushing in,” which, Elnes says, he has never forgotten.
He returned to work a different person. For one thing, he had been released of an inner turmoil that had all but shut him off from the people and situations around him. Now, more open, more relaxed, he overheard one day a conversation about an upcoming salmon season in another part of Alaska, which, after all, is very big. And he figured, What do I have to lose? So he went there, and he applied for a job, and for the next four weeks he worked as much as 18 to 20 hours a day without stopping. At the end of the summer, he wrote that check for his tuition. He even had some money left over.[iv]
Please note: As far as Elnes is concerned, the money was not the miracle. Going back to school was not the miracle. Staying engaged with God until he finally heard a tiny whisper of something that cracked his heart open: that was the miracle. Trying to trust, trying and trying until suddenly an ocean of peace flooded him: that was the miracle. Standing still until he finally understood that he had never actually been lost in the first place: that was the miracle. “My best way forward,” he writes, “will most likely be found if I just stand still and let the Unexpected Love find me.”[v]
Jesus is us, again and again, the broad, expansive, scandalous love of God for everyone, no exceptions. God will not abide that any of us be lost. Our best way forward is to keep asking, to keep listening, to keep trusting that the Unexpected Love will let us know we have been found. And at the end of the story, there is always a dinner party, a celebration around the table. Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] David Schnasa Jacobsen, “Commentary on Luke 15:1-10,” Preaching This Week, Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2959.
[ii] Eric Elnes, Gifts of the Dark Wood: Seven Blessings for Soulful Skeptics (And Other Wanderers), (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2015), 91.
[iii] Ibid., 92-93.
[iv] Ibid., 94.