Some stories of Jesus are very, very familiar to us. The story of the lost sheep and lost coin are among those. Even if our culture is not that of the countryside, the picture of the shepherd carrying the sheep home tends to stir some emotion in us. Few of us can have escaped the experience of losing something important and turning our house upside down in an attempt to find it. We can relate to the frustration beforehand and the relief when it turns up. It’s this kind of feeling which God has for his children who are lost.
On Thursday at the 2pm service the readings were Philippians 3:3-8a, Psalm 105:1-7 and Luke 15:1-10. In my reflection, given below, I looked at various kinds of people and their state of being lost.
When our first child was two years old we lost him. Mercifully it was only for a brief time but it was enough, I assure you. One minute he was beside us as we chose items for the baby we were expecting, the next minute he was nowhere to be seen. We were in a busy shopping centre with lots of people milling around. We had absolutely no idea where to look for him. We rushed out of the shop and looked around, each going in a different direction but returning to the shop now and again. After a while I saw a woman with our son bringing him towards me. Relief flooded over me and I was very grateful. I don’t know how she knew where to bring him but I was not interested in asking questions, just in having him back. As you can imagine, we were extra vigilant on all future trips and never lost any of our children again.
If we feel so terrible when we lose sight of our children, it’s easy to understand how God feels when he loses his. Our love for our children is a poor thing compared to the way God loves each of us. He made us, he’s known us forever, losing us must cause him great pain. We see from the stories Jesus told that he was particularly concerned about those who were right on the edges of society: tax collectors, prostitutes, those who were unclean with disease or demon possessed. They were mostly Jews by birth but they were not part of mainstream society, they didn’t live in the right way and the nice people tried not to get involved with them. The Pharisees couldn’t really work out why Jesus wanted to be with them, to eat with them as though they were valued family members.
We don’t know how the people Jesus talked about ended up as they did, whether by being born into a certain kind of family, or by making poor choices, or by having no choice as far as they could see. We know in our modern society that it only takes two or three things to go wrong close together for a person who is well respected and well paid to find him or herself on the streets, homeless. Loss of a marriage, depression, followed by loss of job, and the deed is done. The rest follows as people try to ease their pain and find a way to survive. There are many who are now on the edges of society who have a good degree and once held a senior position in a firm and had a lovely family.
God demonstrates his love by searching really hard for the lost. We see this illustrated by the shepherd who is prepared to scour the hills, scanning them and calling, until he finds the lost sheep. The woman suspends her daily tasks and sweeps with great care across the baked earth floor of her home, using a lamp in order to examine every part until finally she sees the gleam of her silver coin in the dust. In both stories neighbours and friends are called to join in the celebration. This is too much good news to just keep to themselves.
There can be few of us who are not familiar with these stories. However, today I noticed two more things I would like to share about lost people, as illustrated by the sheep and the coin. In both these illustrations, the thing that was lost once belonged. We tend to think of God seeking those who have rejected him, never known him, never belonged, and I believe that’s what Jesus wanted to show to the Pharisees. I don’t want to detract from that message but I do want to look at this other aspect also. The man had 100 sheep we are told. We assume that each day he checked and found he still had 100 sheep until the day we are told about when one was missing. He went off straight away to find the missing member of his flock. And the woman had started out with 10 silver coins, sometimes suggested to be a dowry and worn around the head as an adornment. As soon as she saw that one had dropped off, she set about searching to find it. The story encompasses those who belonged only a very short time ago.
So why is this so important that I want to share it? Well, I would say that I am a member of God’s flock; I belong to the sheep who recognise him as their shepherd. Yet this week, while I have been on a conference I have felt like the lost sheep, the misplaced coin. We’ve had lots of worship interspersed between the talks. I’ve stood up, sat down, said the prayers, sung the hymns, taken communion, and I have felt as though I don’t belong and as though none of it makes sense or connection. It’s not a case of no longer believing in God or his love for me. I just don’t feel it, even though I know it intellectually. That’s been really hard but I know I am not unique in feeling this way. John of the Cross talked of the ‘dark night of the soul’. We mean it as a time of spiritual crisis which, though temporary, can last a long time. St Paul of the Cross experienced it for 45 years, Mother Teresa for nearly 50. Jesus possibly experienced it when he felt God had forsaken him as he hung on the cross. Setting aside the famous names, I have met people here on Epiphany who have lost God even though they have belonged to his flock and have not actually chosen to leave it. I believe it’s important to make it possible to admit what is happening in our lives.
And the third type of lost person also belonged to the flock very well indeed. It’s the type like St Paul. He makes it plain that he belonged to God’s chosen people by blood, by circumcision, by practice, by zeal. The trouble was that his connection was not of the right type. Perhaps the better picture for him would be not a sheep but as one of the coins if it were fastened to a headdress, as though it were attached in such a way that the wrong side of the coin showed. And so Paul had to be detached – taken away from that way of belonging, lost to his old life with God – in order to find a new way to belong, a better way. God had to stop him in his tracks, leave him blind so he couldn’t follow the way he had been doing before. Paul is not unique in this experience of finding that God is not as he thought.
Jesus declared that his mission was to seek and save the lost. It’s up to us to help him, to imitate him as best we can. It’s my sincere hope that Epiphany can be a place of welcome and acceptance for those who are lost in all of the ways I have mentioned.
For those who are just beginning to turn towards Christ, I pray that we walk alongside them, being patient as they ask their questions, not minding if they do things differently from us.
For those who already belong but find themselves wondering why they can no longer detect God, I pray that we can journey with them, holding on to hope when they find it hard to do so, allowing them to be honest about their difficulties, not being afraid if they express vulnerability.
For those who find themselves having to rethink their relationship with God, feeling lost as previous certainties are stripped away, I pray that we will be something secure and dependable in a time of change.
I know we will share in God’s joy at the end of the search: ‘Rejoice with me for I have found my child who was lost.’