Lost and Gathered: Sermon for September 11, 2016

We’ve all been lost before. I don’t mean that in a metaphorical sense. I mean, we’ve all been literally, physically lost.

The first time I remember being lost I was about six. I was at the grocery store with my mom, and I must have gone down one aisle while she went down the next. And if I had just stayed where I was, I’m sure she would have circled back in about five seconds to get me.

But of course I didn’t do that.

Instead, I started a pilgrimage. I went everywhere trying to find my mom. Dairy, produce, the cereal aisle. But I never found her. And, in my six year old mind, in this huge store, I resigned myself to the fact that I was now permanently lost, and I would never see my family again.

I apparently had a really vivid and tragic imagination for a six year old.

Obviously things turned out okay for me that day, but I learned then that being lost can be terrifying.

You probably know that too. So did Jesus. And so he told two stories about being lost.

People were questioning why Jesus spent so much time with the tax collectors and other outcasts. The good religious folks didn’t like that, and thought he was wasting his time. Why pay attention to these unworthy people instead of the more deserving?

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Fiber artwork by Kathy James.

And so Jesus tells this story about a shepherd who has 100 sheep, but who loses one. He asks them, what kind of shepherd wouldn’t leave the 99 together and go to look for the one that’s lost? And Jesus says that when the lost sheep is found, the shepherd will be so happy that he will celebrate.

He tells another story, this time about a woman with ten valuable coins who loses one. He asks them, who wouldn’t go looking, high and low, for that lost coin? And who wouldn’t rejoice when they found it?

That feeling of joy when the sheep is found, or the coin retrieved, says Jesus, is how God feels when someone who was outside the community is brought back in. And that’s why Jesus goes out and finds the people at the margins. People who were “lost”; people no one tried to find.

That time I was lost in the grocery store my mother was, of course, trying to find me. I just kept moving, so I made it a lot more difficult than it needed to be. I was good at that.

But, finally, I remembered something she had told me, which was that if we ever got separated, I was supposed to go to the front of the store, and tell them I was lost.

So, I did that. And the manager got on the overhead speaker that covered the whole store, and announced, “Will the mother of Emily Heath please come to the front of the store?”

I’m sure my mother died a little of embarrassment. But, she did find me. And once we were reunited, everything was okay again.

That day being lost was scary to me. But as I grew older, it wasn’t so frightening. Now I see it as an adventure. I actually like getting lost on backroads because I get to see things I’ve never seen before, and then I can try to find my way back. I feel like I’m sort of getting lost on my own terms, and learning new paths.

This drives Heidi crazy. She and my mother have a lot of empathy for one another.

But there are times when we get a kind of lost where not even a GPS can help us out. There are times when we might know exactly where we are physically, but when our hearts and our minds feel so far away from God, and from God’s love and grace.

When that’s happened in my life it’s felt far scarier, and far more hopeless, than even that day when I was six.

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Road sign in Dover, Vermont.

Even worse, there are times in our lives when we don’t even know we’re lost. We keep going down a path that is wrong for us, one that leads us further and further away from who we are meant to be, or what we are meant to do.

Sometimes we don’t know how lost we are until we’re standing in the middle of the wilderness, we don’t know north from south anymore, and we’re sure that we have somehow gone too far for even God to find us.

I’ve been there. Maybe you have too. Maybe you’re there now.

It’s tempting in those places to try to find a way out by ourselves. It’s like six year old me running around the grocery store. But sometimes the best thing we can do in those times is to stop running, and to go to the front of the metaphorical store, and to call out to God that we are ready to be found.

Just like any other good parent, God’s not going to leave us there. But unlike any other good parent, God’s known where we were the whole time, and God’s just been waiting for us to be ready to come home. God wants nothing better than to gather us in.

That’s a good reminder on this gathering Sunday. Because today we are gathered back at church after a summer in which we have been spread, literally, across the globe. But today we have been brought back.

Now, the church is not God. It’s not to be worshipped like God. But Christians do believe the church is the body of Christ on this earth. We believe that together we are Christ’s hands and feet and heart. And we can’t fully be that until we’re all here.

That’s why it matters that you have found your way back here this morning. You are not lost. And that’s good news. But it’s also a challenge. Because sometimes, we are the missing. We are the lost sheep and coins. We are the ones who get to get found, and get rejoiced over.

But sometimes, we aren’t the missing. Instead, we figure out that we are missing something. And in those times, we are the ones who have to go out and do the seeking.

I’ve been thinking a bit about what is missing in the world. Lots of things, of course. But what, in particular, have we lost that we can now find?

And as I was thinking about these two stories Jesus told about the lost being found, I realized something. Jesus is talking about community here. He’s showing us that community matters. And community is in short supply everywhere in our world right now.

We see it when we look at our nation, increasingly polarized. We see it when we are so busy with our long list of commitments that we start letting the things that matter most take a backseat. We see it when we don’t know our neighbors, and we don’t work together for the good of the places where we live.

We see it when we become so focused on our individual ambitions and pursuits, that we forgot that God calls us together, and not apart.

And that’s why church matters. And that’s why church is completely countercultural.

You’re not here because you are going to get something tangible in return. There is no reward to be had, no trophy to be won. It won’t do you much good on a resume or college application. It can’t make you any money.

Instead you’re here for community; with God and one another. You are here for what might very well be the lost sheep of lives in which we have 99 or more other very good things, but we still miss this one thing the most.

We are here because we are the church, and you cannot do church without being a part of community. Following Jesus is not, and never has been, a solo pursuit. And while that is somewhat inconvenient at times, that is very good news. Because when we have no community around us, we are far more lost that we will ever know.

And so, here we are, at the start of another church program year. We are gathered in. We are gathered in to worship. We are gathered in to learn and grow. We are gathered in to love and be loved, by God and by each other. And we are gathered in because God is also going to send us out into the world. We are going out to be the leaven in the loaf, the ones who can help make our communities and world better.

That’s why coming here every week matters. Think of it, on this football opening Sunday, as the huddle before the next play. You gather together in order to get ready to go out and execute the next big play: bringing God’s love a broken world. And then, next week, you huddle up again. That time, that space and that community…that is church.

I sometimes wish that God had an overhead speaker like that grocery store did when I was six. One that could get our attention and call us back. But the reality is that God does have one of those. It’s you, and it’s me, and we take turns calling one another in. That, too, is church.

And so, come home. Not just today, but every week. You don’t have to be lost anymore, and neither does this world. Amen?

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