It’s Like Church

Sermon by Reverend Dr. John W. Mann | September 11, 2022

Luke 15:1-10

I remember the day I got lost. I was four years old at the time. My mother and I went to a department store downtown. It was a big store with many floors. We were standing by the elevators and somehow I got on one just as the doors closed. But that was being lost. That was just being momentarily misplaced. The elevator had an operator and he soon got me back to where I started.

Being lost came later that day. Remember, when you’re four years old you’re always looking up at the world. You can’t see over the top of things. One minute I was there with my mother and the next minute she was gone. I looked around, but I didn’t see her. Suddenly, in the midst of the women’s coat section, I felt very alone in the world.

The only course of action known to me at the time was to panic. I knew for certain that I would never see my mother again. So I needed to cry; to scream actually. But being an introvert, I was not going to be one of those lost children standing in the middle of things wailing my despair to the whole world. I went over to a rack of clothing and found a sensible wool coat into which I could bury my face and scream to my heart’s desire.

It was then, O miracle, that I heard my mother’s voice – “Oh there you are. Where did you get off to?” And the world was set right again. My relief, like my despair of a moment before, was beyond the containment of words. So I said nothing. But even now, all these years later I remember what it felt like to be lost. I remember what it felt like to be found.

I wonder why the folks who put together the Common Lectionary bring us back to the same text that we read back before Easter during the season of Lent. The lost sheep and the lost coin. What more can we say? Perhaps it is to remind us of our own stories of lost and found.

In these parables that Jesus told, we are reminded that whatever is lost is being diligently searched for. And in the realm of his storytelling, what is lost is not really lost in the sense of gone forever. It’s more like something being temporarily misplaced. The shepherd knows that one lamb is out there somewhere. It just needs to be found. The woman knows that one coin is somewhere in the house, she just needs to give it a thorough sweeping out.

So we are never truly lost in God’s realm. We might be misplaced at times. But if that’s the case, then that is when God is looking for us.

Research has shown that the sense of hearing can persist to the very end of life. When a person is at the very end, in an unresponsive state, there is still an awareness of what’s going on around them. If you have been with someone who is dying, you probably have seen that it is when we let go, that they let go. People will hang on for our sake. Many times folks will say, “We just stepped out to get a coffee and she slipped away,” or “We had just got down to the parking lot when the nurse called us back.” The dying perhaps know that they must leave to be a lamb in a different flock or a coin in a different purse.

Some people have a hard time with the idea of God being such an indiscriminate searcher for lost souls. It goes against the rules. The Pharisees and the scribes who were entangled in the system of their religion were angry that Jesus wasn’t playing by the rules. One of their complaints was that he “welcomed sinners.” They too “welcomed sinners,” but there were conditions attached. Sinners had to be made clean before they were acceptable to God. They had to follow the rules and then God would open the door and let them in – when God’s representatives said it was time to do so.

Jesus didn’t set any ground rules for tax collectors and sinners. He ate with them and associated with them. They listened to him and he listened to them. In the view of the rule-keepers, Jesus was just as unclean by association and thus just like the tax collectors and sinners. Even more frustrating was that their view of Jesus seemed just fine to Jesus.

One of the great fears of growing older is the possibility of losing memory. Alzheimer’s Disease and the various forms of dementia stalk the landscape of our fears. We think of how losing memory is to lose our sense of self; the ultimate loss.

If that should happen, it’s also true that one of the last memories we cling to is music. When I was working with hospice care, often how I spent my time with people was to play music. I have a small Bluetooth speaker and based on what music people liked, I would simply be there and share music with them. Some people, even though they couldn’t talk, would hum along. Even if they were in a seemingly vegetative state, I would play the music, because on some level in their heart and soul, they were listening.

Maybe another reason to revisit these stories of lost and found is to remind ourselves that the heart and soul of our religious practice is community. We have our individual beliefs and practices, but coming together is a different sort of renewal. Shared music, shared prayers, and shared fellowship; even the sermon, I like to think, is a sort of dialogue. I’m talking and you’re thinking. Even if you’re thinking about what’s for lunch, it’s a kind of call and response.

People followed Jesus not because he laid out some new religious dogma; people followed him because he provided them with a sense of belonging. His welcome was for everyone. That was a real gift for people who were used to feeling unwelcome.

I was reminded of this recently during lunch with a friend in Duluth. Mark and I grew up in the same church in Portland. His family had been there a long time and his grandfather had been the minister. I was from the neighborhood. He asked what it was that attracted me to it. I told Mark that the church was like a family to me. People welcomed me; they knew my name; there were positive role models. At church I learned how to sing with gusto. Church was where I got over my fear of public speaking. Church was where I first played my harmonica in public. When I went to seminary, my fourth grade Sunday School teacher wrote to me regularly.

When classmates at my reunion in July asked, “How did you end up as a minister?” I could have answered in one word, “Church.”

Did Jesus tell the story as if the sheep did something in order to be lost? Did he tell of how the sheep managed to work its way back into the flock? No and no. The shepherd never said, “You’re going to have to be a better lamb from now on.” The shepherd hoisted the sheep on his shoulders and carried it back to the flock – rejoicing at finding that which had been lost.

And then he went on to add another angle to the story. A woman loses a coin, one of ten. That equation is a less affordable loss than one of a hundred. She searches diligently – she lights a lamp to look in all the corners – she sweeps out all the nooks and crannies. The difference is that while the sheep is lost somewhere out there, the coin is lost somewhere in the house. She knows it’s there somewhere – it’s not gone – it’s just misplaced. But she’ll find it if it’s the last thing she does.

When I was visiting with my sister and brother this summer, my sister said she wanted to give me my inheritance. She handed me a small box containing eight silver dollars. My grandparents used to send us silver dollars on special occasions. My mother hid them away for safe keeping. Like a lot of things my mother hid away for safe keeping, my sister found them after my mother died. She researched their value and divided them up evenly between me and my siblings.

Maybe during this time that I’ve been talking, you have thought of your own lost and found. The items, the people, even yourself. You know what loss is; you know the joy of finding. Jesus ends his stories on this subject with saying that there is joy in heaven when one sinner repents.

Some religious rule keepers would see that as the need crawl through the path of remorse and eat the dust of shame. They might be heard to say, “We can’t associate with just anybody! We have to have some standards. What good are the rules then?”

Perhaps as Jesus told the story, repentance from being lost is simply to realize what it means to be found. To realize that God will go to great lengths to search you out because you are too valuable to be lost. To repent then is to turn around and simply live into the reality of God’s love. It is like being carried on the shoulders of the shepherd; it is like being held in the loving hands of one who treasures you. It’s like church. Amen.

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