Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 19C), September 15, 2013. Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Grace Church, Amherst, Massachusetts.

Exodus 32:7-141 Timothy 1:12-17
Psalm 51:1-11Luke 15:1-10

Finding the lost sheep

Friends, it is especially good to be with you this morning after the accident that broke my wrist and the hospitalization that followed.  I am sitting in a pew today because clergy vestments don’t fit over this enormous cast.  Among other things, I spent the past week discovering what can and cannot be done when you suddenly lose the use of one hand – for instance, forget about tying shoelaces or opening a can, and, for now, at least, forget about driving a car.  But, God willing, I can still preach, and we have a beautiful Gospel passage upon which to reflect this morning.

Those of you who are familiar with the Bible probably remember that after the two parables we just heard – the parable of the lost sheep and the parable of the lost coin – comes the parable of the prodigal son and his brother.  If you ever forget how loved you are, if you ever want a refresher course in how eagerly and totally God longs to search you out, to heal and forgive you and make you whole, just sit yourself down with the fifteenth chapter of Luke’s Gospel and re-read these parables.  You can’t do better than that.  As you can hear from today’s text, they’re all about being lost and being found. 

To illustrate the first parable, I brought in a print that usually hangs in my office in the Old Rectory.  The artist is Marion C. Thomas, and it’s called “Finding the Lost Sheep.”  Fr. Henri Nouwen gave it to us as a gift, and I hope you’ll take a look as you come up for Communion, or after the service.  It’s a picture of the shepherd rejoicing as he carries the lost sheep home on his shoulders, and right now I particularly admire the shepherd’s two strong wrists. Then he calls together his friends and neighbors, and cries, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost” (Luke 15:6). 

Beside it we can place in our mind’s eye an image of the woman searching for her precious lost coin, lighting a lamp, carefully sweeping the whole house until she finds the coin, and then calling together her friends and neighbors, as she, too, cries, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost” (Luke 15:9).  Such is the joy in heaven, Jesus tells us, when a single sinner repents – or, to put this in more contemporary language, when someone who has been running from God or alienated from God turns around and receives God’s love.

As a way of reflecting on these parables of being lost and being found, I’d like to tell the story of how I ended up with this cast.  And because I enjoy listening on public radio to the show, “This American Life,” I’m going to do what Ira Glass does: to tell the story in two parts, and to give each part a name.

Part One: We get lost

I decided to go out for a run on a Friday afternoon.  It was a fine, sunny day; life was good, work was going well, and now it was time for some fresh air and exercise.  My husband and I live on a hill not far from Smith College, and so I put on my running shoes, jogged down the hill, crossed Elm Street, ran across the campus, and headed into the wooded area behind the athletic fields.  As some of you know, there is a wonderful network of trails back there that thread their way through forest and meadows and alongside the Mill River.  I jogged a trail that led through trees, and reached a choice point – I could take a path up the meadow to my left, or I could take a path to the right that led downhill, beside the river.  I decided to take the river path and kept jogging, reminding myself that I’d gone a pretty long distance by now and should probably turn around soon to go home.  Just then, from the right, an unleashed dog came bounding up from the riverbank to greet me.  He was probably being friendly, but it all happened so fast, I can’t even tell you whether he jumped up and knocked me over, or whether he simply got scrambled in my legs and I tumbled over.  All I know is that as I was jogging, I made contact with the dog, lost my balance, and let loose an expletive as I started to fall, taking all the weight of the fall on my outstretched right hand.  I landed on the hard-packed dirt, took a look at my weirdly bent right wrist, and repeated the expletive once again, for good measure. 

I knew almost at once that I was lost.  I had lost my balance, lost my footing, lost control – lost control of my body, lost control of my day.  I tried to stand up, but was too faint to do it.  I lay down again, cradled my right arm with my left, looked up at the trees, and started to go into shock.  Panting for air, with two broken wrist-bones and one bone breaking skin, I lay in the dirt beside the Mill River, lost.

Have you ever been lost?  Do you know what it’s like to feel lost?  Sometimes it happens quickly, when an accident or a diagnosis or the unexpected shock of bad news suddenly pulls the rug out from under our feet, and we feel helpless and out of control.  Sometimes getting lost is a gradual process – over time, we make a series of poor choices that eventually take us to a dangerous place in which we are as alienated and alone as the sheep in today’s parable that wandered away.  Sometimes we get lost when we deliberately choose the wrong path – when we consciously choose to do or say what we know to be unethical and destructive.  We may hate what we’re doing, but we can’t seem to stop ourselves. And sometimes we get lost by accident: we choose one path over another in completely good faith, and yet end up in a place where we feel overwhelmed and at sea.  Sinners, by definition, are people who are lost, and that would be all of us, for none of us is entirely righteous; all of us can step out of relationship with God and can refuse to participate in the love that God is always longing to share with us.  It’s not as if we can neatly divide the world into two camps, with sinners on one side and the righteous on the other, for, as the Soviet novelist and political dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn has written, “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart…”1 All of us get lost – all of us have moments when we lose touch with the love of God, moments when we feel helpless, trapped, off-course or confused, and can’t find our way home to the One who is always loving us.  

Part Two: We get found

So I am lying there in the dirt, unable to walk, struggling for breath, and dimly aware that the dog’s owner has rushed over to express her concern, that a nurse – can you believe it? – just happens to be walking by right then, and that he has a cell phone and can call 911.  (Incidentally, I will never forget how that nurse introduced himself: “My name’s Bob,” he said. “You can spell it either way.”)  Help from the outside was on the way before too long, and I am indebted to the kindness of strangers – to the dog’s owner, who kept me company; to Bob the nurse, who showed the EMT’s where to find me; to the driver of the all-terrain vehicle that carried me out of the woods to the ambulance. 

But what stays with me most vividly is the interior help that reached my soul.  As I lay on the ground, confused, in pain, disoriented, and in shock, the thought occurred to me: “I wonder where God is?”  Inwardly I turned my attention to God, and I did what I’ve been doing for some time: I breathed in, knowing that God was giving God’s self to me in and as this moment, and I breathed out, silently saying to God, “I love you, too.”  To my amazement, suddenly God’s presence was vividly real.  Our loving union was intact.  My wrist might be broken, but my relationship with God was whole.  I had a sense that no matter what might be outwardly happening, inwardly nothing could shake the love that had searched me out and found me.  What a discovery – a divine love that is always with us, no matter what we are experiencing and even if all seems lost!  I felt as if I’d been given the secret of the universe.  I was filled with gratitude and joy even as I lay on the dirt with a bent and broken wrist. 

When we reached the hospital, the EMT’s lifted the gurney off the ambulance and carried me through the emergency room and into the assessment area. I spotted an elderly woman lying in bed, looking grim-faced and blank in her hospital johnnie, and even though I don’t usually do things like this, and even though I must have sounded completely addled, I couldn’t help myself – my joy was overflowing.

“Hello, fellow patient,” I sang out.  “This isn’t how we planned to spend our day, is it?”  I have no idea how she responded to this salutation, for I was carried off to another room, but I can tell you that gratitude carried me through the rest of the day, as my husband waited with me, the doctor examined me, and as I underwent two hours of surgery and the installation of a titanium plate.  Despite the pain, deep down it was all about joy.  “Rejoice with me,” says Jesus the Good Shepherd, “for I have found my sheep that was lost,” and so does he rejoice with each of us, and all of us, whenever we come home. 

What strikes me now, looking back, is how helpful it is to have a spiritual practice in place before a crisis comes along.  Because I was used to turning to God, because I had a familiar form of prayer that readily came to mind, I was able to do something that helped God find me.  I didn’t have to waste time asking useless questions like: “Why did this happen?  What have I done to deserve this?  Why me?”  Instead I could simply turn my attention to the present moment, just as it was, and seek God there. 

I wish I could tell you that this epiphany in the dirt beside the Mill River was a permanent revelation – that since then I have always felt God’s loving presence.  But of course that’s not true.  I’ve had plenty of moments since then of being whiny, sad, impatient or frustrated – in short, plenty of moments of feeling lost, separated from any felt sense of the love of God.  But then I take up the practice that I find so powerful: I bring awareness to the present moment, just as it is, in all its pleasantness and unpleasantness, in its whininess or sadness or impatience or frustration.  I bring awareness to the moment’s particular flavor and texture, and I breathe it in as the very presence of God.  For if God were not breathing us into being in this moment, we wouldn’t be here!  If God were not loving us in and as this present moment, we would no longer exist!  Here is God, breathing life into us in each moment and saying “I love you,” and as we breathe out, we can reply in silence, “I love you, too.” 

In a few moments we will baptize Jackson Coleman into this mystery, the mystery of God the divine Lover who searches out the lost and the strayed, and who carries us home, rejoicing.  I invite us to take a few moments in silence and to receive each in-breath as God secretly says to you, “I love you.”  With each out-breath, we say silently in reply, “I love you, too.”  Practice this for a while and eventually we’ll come to see, as the medieval woman mystic Julian of Norwich saw, that “The fullness of joy is to behold God in everything.”

1. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Gulag Archipelago.