Have you ever been lost? I do not mean lost like when your GPS leads you in a different direction than you know to be right, but you follow it anyway. When you end up driving along in the middle of the Achafalaya Basin Bridge, and the GPS calmlysays, “In 500 feet, turn right!” That is not the kind of “lost” I mean. I am talking about the kind of “lost” that makes your heart beat fast and causes you to break out in nervous sweat. Have you ever been that kind of lost?
When I was about five years old, my parents took my older sister and me to a drive-in theater in Austin. Now for those of you who have no frame of reference, a drive-in was an outdoor movie theater. Patrons would drive up to a little post, on which hung speakers on long cords. You would roll down the driver’s window of the car, take the speaker, hang it on the glass, turn up the volume (and listen to it crackle and hiss), and then (if you were lucky) you would hear the movie dialog while you watched through the windshield, as it was projected on a gigantic screen. In the late fifties and early sixties, it was not uncommon for drive-ins to have small playgrounds near the screen, so that the kids could burn off a little energy before the sun went down and it got dark enough for the movie to start.
It was at such a playground that my older sister and I played on this particular night at themovies. When it started to get fairly dark, my sister told me that it was time to go back to the car. Unfortunately for me, either I was not paying attention and let the eight-year-old get too far ahead of me, OR, she left me in the dust just to mess with her younger brother. Either way, I did not know where our car was,or how to find it. I walked up and down the rows of the theater, calling my sister’s name. Then I called for my parents. Then I started to cry. After what felt like hours, but which was probably no more than five minutes, a man came out of one of the cars and tried to comfort me and tell me that they would find my family. At almost the same time, my dad appeared out of nowhere and found me. I felt complete and total relief. He took me back to the car – back to the family – and all was well. But I NEVER forgot the feeling of being lost. Nor did I ever forget the feeling of being FOUND.
The parables in today’s Gospel are told, in part, to let us know just how powerful God’s desire for us to be found really is. Jesus was eating and talking with tax collectors and other sinners, when the religious leaders objected. They wanted Him to know that He should not consort with these people who were estranged from the community of the faithful. But Jesus knew just how important each one of His dining companions was in the Kingdom of God. He recognized the intrinsic value that every human life has in God’s eyes. Unlike the religious leaders, who believed that they could somehow earn their way into God’s good graces, Jesus understood that ALL people ARE in God’s good graces already.
So Jesus tells the Pharisees and Scribes about shepherding. He says that every time a sheep goes missing, the shepherd goes after that sheep. Sometimes that means leaving the whole flock for a little while, until the wayward sheep can be found and returned. Now that may sound like it might turn out bad for the profitability of the business, but it is what the good Shepherd always does. Meanwhile, that one lost and frightened sheep desperately needs to be brought back into thefold – and the flock will never be complete and whole unless every sheep isback where it belongs.
The world is made up of lost sheep. We are not all lost all of the time. But make no mistake, each of us is lost at one time or another – some for a short while and some for very long periods. And through it all – all our times of being close to God (being part of the flock) and all our times of being lost, God constantly cares deeply about us. God’s wants us back because we are God’s own creations, and therefore eminently valuable. And that fact is true, even when we seem the least loveable and the least valuable.
There is a wonderful story of John Henry Newton, an Anglican priest in the 1700s. Newton began his work life (before ordination) as a merchant sailor. He worked ships that were part of the “triangle trade,” running rum from England (or New Englan) to West Africa, slaves from Africa to the Caribbean, and sugar from the West Indies to New England. During one of his voyages, a huge storm hit his ship, causing it to hit a rock, which knocked a hole in the hull. Newton cried out to God for help and suddenly the cargo shifted around covering the hole. Shortly after that, Newton’s Christian journey began with a study of the Bible and theology. Although he became kinder and gentler, he continued his work in the slave trade as he studied. It is important to remember that at that time, the slave trade was respectable to most white people. Newton was later ordained to the priesthood after finally retiring from the slave trade. It was years later that his faith finally convinced him that slavery was wrong. He wrote a pamphlet Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade, that was a catalyst for Parliament’s outlawing of slavery. John Henry Newton’s growing anguish over what had done for a living resulted in his writing of perhaps the best known hymn in the world – and its classic line, “I once was lost, but now I’m found – was blind but now I see.”
There is not much that could conceivably be worse than being a slave trader. It is man’s inhumanity to man writ large. There is no way to be more lost than being a slaver. But even when a man trafficked in human beings, God did not leave him. God hunted him down and brought him back to the flock. God found and returned this lost sheep because God LOVED him. And the great wonder of it all is that God loves every human being just as much as God loved the lost and found John Henry Newton.
Max Lucado, in his book, A Gentle Thunder: Hearing God in the Storm, wrote that there are many reasons that God finds and saves us.
But one of the sweetest reasons God saved you is because he is fond of you. He likes having you around. He thinks you are the best thing to come down the pike in quite a while … If God had a refrigerator, your picture would be on it. If he had a wallet, your photo would be in it. He sends you flowers every spring and a sunrise every morning. Whenever you want to talk, he'll listen. He can live anywhere in the universe, and he chose your heart. …
Face it, friend. He's crazy about you!
No matter how lost you may ever be, God is always there to find you; to return you to the flock; and to keep you in the love of God, forever.
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.