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?

Lost and Found: Sermon for March 8, 2015 on Psalm 23

Psalm 23

1 The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2 God makes me lie down in green pastures;
God leads me beside still waters;
3 God restores my soul.
God leads me in right paths
for God’s name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.

If someone were to say to you, quote a line from the Psalms, chances are good that the first answer that popped into your head would be something from Psalm 23. That’s not surprising. There are 150 Psalms, and yet this is the one we all seem to know. And often we can recite it, in 16th century English, with “leadeth”, and “restoreth”, and “maketh” and all.

In six lines, the Psalm says something that seems to comfort us. It points to a God who is protective and giving. One who keeps us safe. One who leads us down the right path. When I was a hospital chaplain, when I asked people if they would like to hear a particular passage from Scripture, nine times out of ten, they asked for this one.

And when I talk to people about funerals, either their own, or that of someone they loved, they ask for this Psalm too. Because unlike perhaps any other piece of Scripture, Psalm 23 gives us comfort in the most difficult of times. The Psalm reminds us that our comfort comes from God. It comes from the God who allows us to say that, “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil.”

640px-Flock_of_sheepSo, to be honest with you, that’s why for a long time this wasn’t my favorite Psalm. After years of being a chaplain, I just sort of thought of it as the Psalm you read when someone was sick or dying, and I really only thought about it then. I mean, really, nearly every time you hear this Psalm something bad is happening, right?

But then a couple of years ago, that changed for me. It was the week that the Boston Marathon bombings happened, and coincidentally it was also a week when this same passage came up in the lectionary, the church’s calendar of Biblical readings. And for the first time, I heard it with new ears.

Because, yes, I heard what I had always heard in it. The part about God comforting and protecting us, even in the face of evil. And I needed to hear that. I had friends who were at the finish line who narrowly escaped injury, and Heidi’s home church, the church where we were married stands right where the bombs went off. And that whole week it just seemed inconceivable that such evil could happen in front of a place that had become, for me, a green pasture.

I think in times of pain, in times when we are asking why, in times when nothing makes sense, the words we have relied on in our hardest times come back to us. Words like “the Lord is my shepherd”.

And that’s a gift. We need that assurance. We need to know that God is here with us, and that God will comfort us, and that we will “dwell in the house of the Lord forever”. We need to hear those words, because they are true. And they are true especially in our hardest times.

But, especially in times like this, we also need to hear something else. And this is where I heard this Psalm with new ears. We need to hear that the Lord is our shepherd, but maybe we also need to hear that we are more than sheep.

Now, not to be mean to sheep, but sheep aren’t the smartest animals. They sort of just follow the herd until they’re scared, and then they’re known to panic and run away. Really, if you’re trying to find an animal to emulate, sheep aren’t the way to go.

Instead, we are called to follow God, to follow the true shepherd, in a different way. Not as a part of a scared flock that reacts with panic to what frightens us, but as a group of beloved children of God who keep our focus on that shepherd, and on the teachings of our faith, and on the one who truly wants for “goodness and mercy to follow us all the days of our lives”.

This Psalm is not just about soothing words, or blindly following like a barnyard animal. This Psalm is about who to look for when you are feeling lost. This Psalm is about being found.

Downstairs today we are teaching our elementary school classes about this Psalm and about the idea that God is always walking with them, through good and through bad. But we are also teaching them that when they are lost, and they feel alone, and they don’t know what to do next, God is with them even then, helping them to get found.

In other words, we are teaching them that this Psalm is not just about sickness and death. This Psalm, most of all, is about life, and about choosing to follow the one who will always bring you new life. We are teaching them about what to do when you feel lost.

And that is not a lesson that is only for the smallest among us, because I would guess that all of us, no matter our age, have felt lost in the world at times. Maybe you are even feeling that way now. Maybe there is something in your life that you aren’t sure about, something that you are trying to figure out but you are not getting clear answers.

Or maybe you are lost in other ways. Maybe you are lost in an addiction, lost in depression, lost in anxiety, lost in grief, or lost in hopelessness. Maybe you are wondering where those green pastures are that Psalm 23 talks about.

You aren’t alone. I think all of us at some point in our lives has felt profoundly lost, often by no fault of our own. But hopefully, we have also felt found.

I know that’s true for me. At one point in my 20’s I felt so lost that I began to wonder if God really existed. I was studying theology at the time, ironically, but God never felt further away. The fact I was reading so many books for school all telling me about the grace and mercy of God, and I couldn’t feel it, made it even worse.

So what made it better? I believe God found me and, like the shepherd of the Psalm, led me back to the path. But it didn’t happen in some overwhelming religious experience with lights and angels. And it didn’t happen in an instant. Instead it happened slowly, over time. And I honestly believe it happened because God sent others into my life to help show me how to get found. And that’s why I really believe that God acts through us to change the lives of others.

And so that’s the question for you today: do you need to get found? Or do you need to help find others? Or, do you maybe need a little of both?

That’s a good question for Lent because Lent is all about the wilderness. But it is also all about getting found. It’s about getting found by God, and it’s about being found by one another, and for one another.

How we do that can look like a million different things, but at their core they are all the same.

A few days after the Boston bombing, I was walking on Newbury Street about a block away from the worst of the damage, trying to understand what happened. And there were these chalks drawings and words of support and hope everywhere on the sidewalk. I saw two women kneeling down, writing. And they wrote simply, “We are very sad.”

They saw me watching, and they turned to me and asked, “Is it okay?” I didn’t know what they meant at first, but then they explained that they were from Brazil and they didn’t speak English very well but they wanted to write to the people of Boston and let them know that they were sorry. Because they knew what it was like to hurt, and they chose to love instead.

And there, next to the yellow police tape and the armed police officers, somehow I knew, it would be okay again.

In the same way, today we recognize our prayer shawl ministry for all they do to help make the Good Shepherd real to so many. Together they knit prayer shawls for people they may or may not ever meet. With each stitch they knit their prayers for those who need them into the shawls. And then they give away the work of their own hands to those who need a reminder that there is love, and there is goodness in the world.

And someone on the receiving end, somehow, knows that they have been remembered, and they have been found.

And so, for those of us who once were lost but now are found, how can we shine the light for those who need it the most? How can we be the ones who go out on the shepherd’s behalf, telling the world about the one who is waiting to welcome us home? How can we help on another to find our way back? And how do we love one another until we shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever?

That is the job of the church. When people are hurting so badly that this Psalm doesn’t make much sense to them, when they feel so removed from the path, when they wonder whether God and grace are real, that is when we live out this Psalm. We live it, so that others may believe, and so others may be found. And we pray the Psalm for those who cannot yet pray it for themselves. Because God is not just my shepherd, or you shepherd. God is bigger than that, because:

The Lord is our shepherd; we shall not want.
2 God makes us to lie down in green pastures: God leads us beside the still waters.
3 God restores our soul: God leads us in the paths of righteousness for God’s name’s sake.
4 Yea, though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we will fear no evil: for God is with us; God’s rod and thy staff they comfort us.
5 God prepares a table before us in the presence of our enemies: God anoints our heads with oil; our cup runs over.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our lives: and we will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

Amen.