At the beginning of our Gospel reading, Pharisees and scribes grumble about Jesus welcoming sinners. Jesus responds with two parables about the joy we experience when we find what we had lost. Jesus says heaven is like that when a sinner repents.
By implication, that heavenly joy is happening in and through Jesus’ own ministry, right in front of his opponents. Jesus finds the sinners, helps them to see their situation for what it is, and redirects them onto the right path. They have a party. The Pharisees and scribes refuse to join in. But God rejoices along with the repentant sinners.
That’s already a lot to think about, but with Jesus we can always go deeper. What does it mean for us to be lost and then found?
Getting lost is very familiar to me. I have a terrible sense of direction, and routinely don’t know exactly how to get to where I am trying to go even if I have been there before. Often, I am unsure of where I actually am. But I get lost so often that I don’t worry about it too much. I figure I’ll eventually figure out where I am and get where I want to go. And of course, having GPS on my phone helps. So being lost has few terrors for me.
More surprising is the fact that I rarely lose things that I care about. Certainly, the specifics of the parables don’t do much for me. I’ve never had a sheep to lose. I’ve lost money, but never enough to get excited about. The modern equivalents could be wallets or phones or keys, but I haven’t lost any of them in decades.
But I will never forget the time I lost my children.
We were spending a weekend in a State Park in South Carolina with a big group of friends. Benjamin and Nicholas were that dangerous age when you don’t have to watch them all the time, but you really should know where they are because they aren’t safe on their own.
We all went for a short nature walk. The boys got ahead of us. I’d like to think that I or—and this is important since I was usually alone when bad parenting moments happened!—Carrie, or one of the six godparents with us at the time, warned them to wait for us at the end. And maybe we did tell them. But when we got to the end of the trail, Benjamin and Nicholas were nowhere to be seen.
I didn’t panic. I guessed they went back to our cabin, which was basically in sight. But they weren’t there. Our group fanned out in every likely direction. No sign of them.
It turns out they had enjoyed the walk so, when they finished, they decided to do it again. That option had not occurred to us.
After walking for a bit, they began to wonder where their adults were. They asked a random couple who, being strangers to us, had no idea. Thankfully, this couple had the boys walk with them to the end of the nature trail, where our sons found folks from our group. All was well. We just had to keep that story secret from DFACS until Benjamin and Nicholas grew up!
Two things strike me about Benjamins and Nicholas’s experience of being lost on that nature trail. The first is, they never even realized they were lost. They weren’t where they were supposed to be. They were walking in the wrong direction. They weren’t with the people they were supposed to be with. They were lost. But they were also oblivious to their lost-ness.
That is, I think, common.
When I look back at my life so far, the time when I was most lost was at the end of college. I wasn’t lost in a way that a GPS could have helped me. I was lost in a much bigger sense than that.
I was about to say goodbye to friends, many of whom I knew I would never see again. I had spent virtually my entire life in school, and that was ending. I was about to begin life on my own as an adult, and I had no idea what I wanted to do. I was lost in the big sense of the word.
But I didn’t think of myself as lost. There were people eager to guide me, but I refused help. After all, I was having a good time. And though I was scared, I didn’t want other people to know it. I couldn’t admit it even to myself.
I was lost, but didn’t know it, at least not consciously. I needed someone to help me see how lost I was.
I am certainly not as lost now as I was all those years ago. But if God is our destination, and Christ is our way, I continue to wander off track. I continue to need help. And often the help I need is for someone to show me that I am lost.
That is true for all of us. Often our problem is not just being lost. Our problem is more fundamental. Our problem is not realizing that we are lost.
Back to my children on that trail, just when they realized that they didn’t know where their adults are. My children still didn’t think of themselves as lost. But they did seek help. They went to the very first adult they saw.
That was probably the right thing to do, and it worked out well, thank God. But when we are lost, it’s not always a good plan to rely on whatever or whoever first comes to hand.
We are constantly bombarded with messages about what we need to buy or change or do to make our life right. Those messages can be bewildering. Many are flat out toxic. Others are innocent, but distract us from what really matters. Few point us to the right road, to the narrow way, to what truly gives our lives meaning and purpose and joy. And if they don’t point us in the right direction, they just get us more lost.
The good news of our passage is that Christ knows we are lost even when we don’t. The good news of our passage is that Christ comes to find us when we are lost. When we are lost, Christ comes from God to turns us around and lead back us to God. Christ finds us, and guides us, and helps us, and ultimately brings us home to our heavenly Father.
There’s still more good news in our parables, but we need to go back one more time to that day in the South Carolina State Park when Benjamin and Nicholas were lost. Carrie and I and our friends were getting more and more frantic. And then we saw Benjamin and Nicholas, walking along, still oblivious, chatting with the family who were bringing them back to us safe and sound.
You can probably imagine how we felt in that moment. We could all say to each other, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the children that I had lost.” That night we had a party.
Jesus is telling us God feels something like that when we repent, when we acknowledge our lost-ness, when we accept Christ’s guidance and help, when we turn back to God. God rejoices. God rejoices over us, God’s lost and found, beloved children. Let that love sink in.
I give thanks to Christ who find us, who guides us, who rejoices over us, and who invites is to share that joy. In His name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan