"I Once Was Lost, But Now Am Found”
A Sermon Preached by The Rev. Douglas M. Donley
April 11, 2010
University Baptist Church
“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see.”
I once was lost, but now am found. How many of you have been lost? I know I have been. I have gotten myself all turned around, thinking I knew where I was going. Thinking I had it all together. And then something falls apart. We lose our job. A loved one departs this earth. No matter how hard we try the love we want and deserve never materializes. We have been lost. Our leaders betray us, our family lets us down, our health dangles on the precarious edge of the cliff. It’s no fun to be lost.
Jesus knew this. He hung out with people who are lost. And he gave them hope that although they felt lost, he had found them. In their despair, he gave them good news.
Jesus, we know, was a rabble-rouser. He woke up the teeming masses with his rhetoric, his wit, his compassion and his faith. That inspired rabble—the ones he found, went about changing the world. If you were one of the people with an inkling of societal or religious status, Jesus would probably not have made you happy. He chose to spend his time with the outcasts of the world--not to the exclusion of speaking to the rest of us, but he was clearly on the side of those whom society had called worthless—the lost.
In today's scripture, Jesus is seen sitting at table with publicans and sinners. If a publican is a tax gatherer, then what is a republican?
Jesus spent his time with people who by choice, by occupation or by situations beyond their control were considered the most unholy. Maybe today we would call them homeless, the immigrants, beggars, drug addicts, embezzlers, promiscuous or lazy sloths...
The Pharisees and the scribes, on the other hand were seen as the holiest. They certainly saw this in themselves. Who knows what everyone else thought. They were the politicians, the theologians, the clergy. In the Pharisee’s understanding of the law of Moses, holy people did not associate with sinners. They were unclean.
But Jesus was a rabble-rouser, and the rabble was being roused out of its quiet and controlled acquiescence. The Pharisees and the scribes scoffed at Jesus:
"This man receives sinners! We're not just talking about tipping his turban to these people on the streets and maybe giving them a coin or two, he's actually talking to them, sitting at a table and eating with them!" The Pharisees barked: "How can we call you a Rabbi when you eat with people who are not clean? Don't you see, Jesus, there are more important people for you to spend your meals with. With all of these holy, God-fearing people around, why do you waste your time sitting with outcasts? Don't you see how much there is to do among those of us who have been keeping holy? Don't waste your time with these people. God does have God's favorites, you know and we all know who we (I mean they) are, don't we?"
Jesus was intent on showing everyone a glimpse of what the reign of God is all about. Many times during his ministry, he called people to love each other. Love each other. Love your friends, love your enemies, let love be your guide. Judge not lest you yourself be judged.
We banter about that word, love, so often. We like to think we take it seriously, but it is hard. With the ways in which we are all pushed and pulled by our lives or by systems beyond our control, the simple message of love for all people gets foggy and increasingly difficult to achieve. Jesus' vision was of a love which seeks out the lost and creates something new when the lost are found.
So, Jesus tells a parable: "Which one of you having one hundred sheep and losing one would not leave the 99 behind while going out to search for the lost sheep?” The response was, and Jesus knew this, that they probably would not leave the other sheep in order to find this one sheep. First of all they weren't shepherds. The scribes and the Pharisees were probably the idle rich. They did not know anything about the life of a shepherd. They probably thought that one sheep wouldn't matter all that much. Jesus also uses a large number, 100 sheep on purpose. That's a pretty big herd. He was trying to speak their language. He was trying to talk to them about a shepherd's life which they could understand. The scribes and the Pharisees would have left the sheep behind.
It would not be business-smart to go after one sheep. It's better to play it safe and cut your losses. The numbers are important: the percentages; the size of the herd; the size of the church; the budget. We need to be successful. We can’t risk being unsuccessful.
If you’ve followed the news this past week, you’ve read the latest chapter in the clergy sexual abuse scandal. The latest is the case of alleged abuse by a priest many years ago. Then Cardinal Ratzinger stated that he had to consider the larger church before investigating and/or prosecuting the priest. What about the victims—those lost sheep?
But a true shepherd, a member of the rabble that was being roused, would act differently. A shepherd knows each and every one of the sheep, their individual needs, their names, their hiding places, their idiosyncrasies, their foibles and their faults. A true shepherd, a good shepherd takes care of all of the sheep. Each and every one of them count. Without that one who is missing, we are less than whole, incomplete.
The rabble, who often felt left out, insignificant, worthless, victims of the tyranny of the majority, they loved Jesus. For in him they saw a hope which they had never seen—someone who cares if they were lost.
"I know it doesn't make good business sense," Jesus said to the scribes and the Pharisees. "I know you want to be successful, but to follow God means attending to 100% of the flock.” We risk the ninety-nine, faithful that with the help of God, all who are lost will be found. That is how important each one of us is to God.
God calls us to be faithful, my friends, not successful. To be faithful in this day and age means risking our success, our status and taking a stand...all the while trusting God to help us find our way home.
Some of us are lost because, like the sheep, we have gone astray. In this city, others are lost because as they get older, people pay less attention to them. Many are lost--too many--because this society has kept them from being all they could be. The decline in jobs at a decent wage, let alone the elimination of the safety net for the poorest of the poor, causes more to be hungry, and live on the street; more to feel left out and possibly lost. Not only that, plenty of us are lost in other parts of our lives. We have lost our moorings and we are drifting.
We see all of this and we say, what can we do, poor, weak and insignificant as we are. It's too big. It's too much. It's too risky. All Jesus asks us is to be part of God's plan. Part of the solution. Seek out the lost sheep.
A great peace activist by the name of AJ Mustie used to get up early in the morning as part of his daily routine and go to the local nuclear power plant with a sign. On the sign was some anti-nuclear protest slogan, whatever was in vogue that day. He did this alone, every day, for months. It was his Christian witness. No one else came by. No one really took notice.
But AJ just kept on walking with his protest sign. His love sign. His faith sign.
One day, a reporter took notice of AJ and snickered, "You know you are not going to change the world all by yourself." He replied, "I know that. I don't do this to change the world. I do this to keep the world from changing me.”
Being faithful means seeking out those who are lost, even when seeking out the lost might seem crazy, risky and foolhardy.
So the shepherd in the parable searches high and low. Finally, hiding in some corner, behind some rocks in a field, cold and scared he finds the lost sheep. And what does he do to this sheep? Does he scold and punish the sheep for running away, for following someone or something else, for being distracted? No, he rejoices. He lifts the sheep up in the air, mounts the sheep on his shoulders and runs back to the herd weeping with joy. The joy of finding one who has gone astray makes it all worthwhile.
That’s what the church is all about. When we hold our worship services, we do so not to celebrate what we have—all of the gifts, all of the creature comforts. We come together to celebrate that we were once lost, but now are found. We were blind but now we see.
Victoria Erickson, before she was a seminary professor, used to work as a missionary to the aging people on the upper west side of New York City. Being a missionary takes a lot of faith, a lot of patience and a lot of persistence. A neighborhood landlord told her of a blind woman who had not been out of her apartment for about five years. She had a flagging system through which she would tell people what she needed from the store. She would stand at her window waving her flag until someone noticed her. Victoria would go visit her week after week. Each time she would get the same response, "Go away."
When Victoria mentioned that she was from the church and that she wanted to help her and that she cared for her, the old woman said, "You're lying. Nobody cares for people like me, especially the church!" Too often older people get forgotten--pushed to the side--told they are worthless. It gets to the point that they start to believe that they are worthless. In a situation like this, one begins to wonder who is lost: the woman who has learned the hard lessons of this world, or the missionary who has simply not gotten the hint.
But one cold rainy day, Victoria ran into a building lobby to escape the elements. She realized that she was in the lobby of the blind woman's building. She figured that she might as well make the trek up the five flights of stairs to see the woman while she was there. By this time, the woman had recognized Victoria's footsteps and said, "Don't even bother knocking, I don't want to talk to you." But Victoria said, "Look, I'm soaking wet and I'm cold and I need to dry off." Before Victoria could bat an eye, she was inside the woman's apartment. The tea kettle was on and they were sitting and talking-rejoicing in this new relationship which God had made possible. You see, it wasn't until the woman realized that Victoria was a lost sheep who needed to be saved that the relationship started. Both women were shepherds to each other, living out the love that Christ calls us to live by.
I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see.
We need a shepherd with the extravagance of God to call us home, to shepherd us to a new stage in life. To call us by our name. We have all been in that place where we have sat cold, waiting, lonely, stuck out in a field, feeling forgotten, thinking that no one cared for us.
My friends, we are a church of people who are wounded healers. We are people who see the welcoming of the lost sheep as a priority in our lives. It is such a priority that we give of our time, our talents, and our treasure to see to it that people see that they have life and have it with abundance. We do it so that people can see that though they may feel lost, there is a community here willing to try to find them.
We do it because we were once lost, too. And we met a God who knew our foibles and our shortcomings, our deception and loves us anyway. God sees our potential, our faithfulness-fragile as it may be. God sees our compassion, our love, our hopefulness, our persistent resistance our faithful witness. And God rejoices.
God rejoices when we see our potential.
God rejoices when we pool our resources to do things that continue to make things new.
God rejoices when we celebrate this world of ours and recognize it as being on the banks of the rivers of paradise.
God rejoices when we recognize God’s face in even our worst enemy.
God rejoices when we recognize that none of us can face this world on our own. We need each other. We need communities of faith. We need the church.
And God rejoices when we recognize that not only are we no longer lost, but we have found God just as we have found ourselves. And when we do that, then everything is new. Heaven and earth rejoice, and we are bold enough to claim a new place at God’s table.
So fill out those pledge cards, those ministry commitment forms. But don’t fill them out out of guilt. Fill them out in gratitude for what God has given you. Fill them out saying that we are giving back because God has richly given to us. We were once lost, but we are now found. And working together, we can help spread the good news that God and God’s people together seek out the lost.
My friends, the message that roused the rabble was not that some of us are lost and some of us are not, but that we follow one who seeks out all of us, especially those who feel lost.
And when we are found by the divine, God weeps for joy, embraces us and welcomes us home.
That is what the church is about. It is a place where we can come, lost as we are and feel that God who is the good shepherd can find us and we can have a new lease on life. When that happens, then things really begin to change. People begin to feel whole.
We begin to recognize not only what is wrong with us, but what is holy in us. And we begin to realize that God knows all of that and seeks us out anyway. And we are welcomed home with loving, empowering, extravagant and ecstatic arms.
All of us, the lost sheep and those found by a community of love, see the world in a whole new way.
And we can never be the same again.
And that is good news.
Amazing grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.