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What Once Was Lost…: The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Sunday, September 11, 2022:
Luke 15:1-10

There was one summer a bit less than ten years ago when I was on an internship just north of Sauble Beach and Wiarton. [My wife] Leslie’s birthday is at the end of July, and she was up visiting. The tourism board was running a campaign that year where you got a sort of passport and visited different locations and attractions all through the Bruce Peninsula, and, like a treasure or scavenger hunt, you’d get a punch or a stamp at each place. If you got so many stamps you could submit your passport for a draw, and win a t-shirt or something like that.

One of the options was to visit part of the famous Bruce Trail. There were instructions on the coordinates of the particular stretch of trail and where to park. We did that, saw a sign that said we had to go a few minutes into the woods, and were on our way. We walked a bit, walked a bit, and walked some more. A couple minutes, a few minutes. Ten minutes. Didn’t see anything. Recognized that the trail runs about 1300 kilometres, so, sure, it’s not a big deal to have to go further. And we walked and walked and walked, and still didn’t find the scavenger hunt station. No one knew where we were, we weren’t dressed for exercise, we didn’t have any water on us, and my cell phone wasn’t getting any reception. The likelihood of winning a t-shirt was getting smaller and smaller… And I should clarify that the Bruce Trail isn’t a loop; it’s a big line that goes from Niagara to Tobermory. So by walking onward, we weren’t going to end up back where we started.

About three or so hours into our parched hike I finally got a bar of cell phone reception and was able to figure out our location. We were saved. Just an hour or so walk along country roads back to the car, and about half an hour drive to the cottage…

I hope people can learn from our mistakes (because the story could have ended much worse). My pride prevented me from admitting that we were lost. By the time I did, the cell phone was no help. And by the time it kicked in, it was a long walk back. Admitting, early on and with humility, our confusion and powerlessness, would have been the safest and smartest thing to do. “Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

My anecdote comes to mind when I come across parables like the ones we heard, because I can relate to being lost. But where my story goes astray (pun intended) is that we were never found. We got ourselves ‘unlost’ and it was a struggle. The temptation with these two famous, lovely parables is to hear them and fall back into thinking that they’re about getting unlost. About wising up. Doing something so that you can finally be acceptable to a God that is nothing but pure wisdom.

The thing is, the one lost sheep doesn’t lift itself out of the gutter. The one lost coin doesn’t improve its attitude and outlook on life. They’re both just found. We might learn something about ourselves from these short stories, but they’re primarily about God. A God that is wants nothing more than to find and welcome back the lost. The Pharisees and scribes of our day — whoever they might be (and it might be us, at one time or another) — will grumble. The sinner, try as they might to be godly and perfect, will never measure up to God. There may well be moments of wisdom and godliness. But there’s always the next day, and the challenges it will bring, the temptations, the moments of falling short. There is a tyranny to trying to maintain a level of perfection that just isn’t possible.

And yet the reading says: “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” To repent, to confess, to be absolved, is not to be perfect. It’s not about finally making yourself acceptable to God, through some behaviour, or some words. Repentance is about being lost. And having the courage or honesty of saying you’re lost. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said it was “taking off a mask.” It doesn’t have to mean that one has a low view of the human being. It isn’t wallowing in our sins or having a guilt complex. It’s about taking off that mask and being who we are, and accepting the gift of God that is being found and unconditionally loved.

Someone has said “He saves losers and only losers. He raises the dead and only the dead.”* The exiles in the Old Testament struggled in a strange land, and were brought home. The psalmist complained and lamented, but then at the end of the poem ends up making some confession of faith. And we confess: we confess our faith in the creed, and we confess our sins after that. But the worthiness that comes out of this isn’t that we’ve made ourselves acceptable in those acts, but that we’ve located ourselves in a history and a community that has already been found by God. Our worthiness is our unworthiness. Our lostness is what opens us up to being found.

In a lecture last year former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams said something like the Church is “one, holy, Catholic, apostolic, and [he adds] repentant.” Not because it is (or we are) unremittingly terrible — though occasionally we might be, or have been. But because repentance is that openness to the goodness of God, and the possibility of re-formation and resurrection. We hear of the lost sheep, and our minds go to the black sheep, the misfits, the people on drugs, the people behind bars. And they are all loved and searched out by God. But the parable’s not just about the predictably and obviously lost. It’s for “all sorts and conditions” of people. This week we as a Church have grieved and commended to God’s care the victims of violence from James Smith Cree Nation, and also Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth. From rural Saskatchewan to the head of the very centre of the Church of England, each one beloved by God and embraced by God. Each, as our funeral service puts it, “a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming.” Our love of beauty and power might have us leaning one direction. Our value of compassion and desire for equity might tilt us in the other direction. But the vision of God articulated in these parables is of a restored flock and a reconciled community. I was struck, amongst the coverage of The Queen’s death, and recollection of her life, her candour when she looked back on the events of 1992 and said “In the words of one of my more sympathetic correspondents, it has turned out to be an annus horribilis.” A woman and a leader of great stature, great wisdom, and great power. But also, especially in that moment, of great honesty. Assessing a situation that was amiss, and in doing so, opening herself and her family up to the possibility of new beginnings. And that is what we can learn today: be honest about the state of things. Take the mask off and stop pretending. Acknowledge when we’re lost. And, in doing so, be open to being found. 

* Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of Grace, p. 35.