Ralph Connor Memorial United Church

The Little White Church on Main Street, Canmore, Alberta

Sermon: September 15, 2019 – Luke 15: 1-10

The experience of lost-ness is one that resonates at so many levels in so many lives.

Most of us can recall a hike that didn’t quite have the landmarks you’d expected, or missing your exit then getting turned around in an unfamiliar city.

I hear stories from adults about their earliest or most striking memories from childhood, and becoming separated from their parents in a store or separated from friends exploring the woods, is a really common early memory, along with visual and visceral remembrances of the panic of that separation.

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At the other end of life’s journey, feeling lost is also a common experience.  I recall how lost my Mom felt as my Dad’s physical and cognitive abilities slipped away. We build our lives around  people and places and practices that ground and orient our lives, and when things change – by loss of relationship, or loss of employment, or by death – we feel alone, lost, bewildered.

Often originating in an addictive household, or trauma or illness of some sort, a palpable lost-ness takes up residence in some lives and just stays there.  It shows up in the eyes, or the voice, or the posture, or even the aura, of someone who is really struggling to find direction in life, often with scant supports and few places in life they would call “safe.”

And then there is the experience of being pushed to the outside so many times – or being tracked by a social circle for the sole purpose of abusive bullying – that you look for your chance to finally “get lost” and go someplace where nobody knows you, where you can get lost in the crowd and either turn completely invisible, or finally begin the life God always intended.

In the 15th chapter of Luke, there is a series of three stories by Jesus, that talk about the lost-and-found motif, and we heard the first two of those stories today: the lost sheep, and the lost coin.  The third story in the sequence is a much longer one that will get its own treatment one Sunday, the story of the lost or “prodigal” son. In all three of these stories, something gets lost: a sheep wanders off, a coin gets misplaced, a son chooses to cash in his inheritance and live the wild life.  In all three of these stories, there is a reunion: a shepherd rescues the sheep, a woman’s diligence finds the coin, a Father rushes out to embrace his disgraced son.  And each of the stories tells us about being lost, and the God who so deeply wants us to be found and restored to a place of health and love.

We’ll let that longer story of the lost son remain in our consciousness, but focus this morning on those two smaller ones.  And a really helpful guide to the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin, is Emmy Kegler, Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, who has authored a book entitled One Coin Found: How God’s Love Stretches to the Margins.   It’s a very personal first-hand account of a girl who was unsettled and misdiagnosed from an early age, who then grew into an adolescent who needed to be the “third adult” in her home due to a parent’s alcoholism, a teenager who found God through a great big rule-bound Church that she needed to leave when she came out as gay at age 16, then a college-aged woman who heard and answered a call to Ministry.   Shannon and I experienced Emmy as one of the headliners at this summer’s annual gathering of Affirm United, at Hillhurst United in Calgary.

Pastor Emmy’s interpretation of this passage from Luke, has three parts to it: how the lost came to be lost, the responsibility of the one who had been assigned to care for that which became lost, and the nature of the one who seeks and finds.  She walks a bit of a tightrope at points, because in scripture it’s clear that God is both the shepherd who finds the sheep and the woman who finds the coin, and both the Bible and Emmy are careful not to fault God for the sheep’s wandering or the misplacement of the coin. Yet Emmy must remain true to her experience, in which there are people and institutions who said they would be diligent and watchful, yet  failed to provide the care that had been promised.  God may not be at fault for the lost-ness of the sheep or the coin, but people who have taken on the responsibility of acting in God’s name do bear substantial blame.

So, in the words of Pastor Emmy Kegler (pp.2-3), we read “[Sheep] wander.  That’s what they do, it’s in their nature.  Most herd animals do it.  That’s why, when humans domesticated cattle and goats and yes, sheep, there arose a new role: the shepherd, the rancher, the cowboy.  Someone’s got to keep the herd together, because otherwise they’ll go wandering off.

“And sheep wander for good reasons.  They wander because they’re hungry.  The shepherd didn’t bring them to a fertile enough field, and they’re fighting with each other for good grass or sweet water…If the shepherd isn’t careful, the sheep end up starving.

“Sometimes the sheep are sick, or injured, or cold…. They drop to the back of the herd, lie down somewhere to rest.  If the shepherd isn’t watching for those on the edges, the group might move on without them.  You’ve got to have a good shepherd…who’s watching the sheep that are hurting.

“And sometimes sheep run.  A hundred sheep are a hundred potential meals for the wolves..[and so] the sheep run, fleeing as fast as their hooves can take them, getting them lost but keeping them alive.  If you don’t have a shepherd watching for the wolves, the sheep can end up missing – or a meal.”

And then she writes words (pp.3-4) that are particularly painful for those of us in Ministry or Church leadership, or for those for whom the story resonates in their faith life or family life:  “We’ve all known shepherds like that.  Shepherds unable to see that we’re hungry or hurting or hounded by wolves…. Leaders and friends who, through passive or active indifference, see our hunger and our hurts and write them off as inconsequential.  We’ve known this too well.  We have hungers and hurts that people who have not struggled as we have, can’t imagine.  And so, we go wandering…to find something that will feed us, somewhere safe to rest, someone to protect us from a world that wants to devour us.”

We hear these words and remember that this author speaks, both as a child whose emotional struggles were misdiagnosed, and as a Lesbian woman serving in Ministry.  In her book she speaks (pp. 75-77 etc.) of the daily emails and letters and social media rants that she still receives, from Christians calling her to repent from her sinfulness, and assuring her that there is a place of eternal torment awaiting her if she doesn’t.   And aside from that, I am embarrassed to remember those times in Ministry when I’ve been one of those shepherds who didn’t notice the ones who wandered because their needs were being ignored or minimized or judged… and am determined to be more intentionally involved with those who have ended up on the edges and ledges of society for whatever reason. It’s hard, but important, to notice someone who disappears from view, or entire populations who keep their head down in order to keep safe.

Continuing in her exploration of Luke 15, Emmy Kegler writes (pp.4-5) “The funny thing about coins is that they can’t get lost by themselves.  They can’t roll away on their own.  Coins get lost because  their owners aren’t careful…. Covered in years of grit they fall…to the floor or a car or the sand of a sidewalk, dropped and forgotten.”

And again, focusing on leadership, she writes, (pp.4-5) “We’ve known leaders like that, too.  There were leaders who saw our value as something to be squandered, something they could be careless with.  They saw the beauty of our bodies as something to be used, but our wounds and trauma to be whitewashed over.  They saw our hope and devotion as a way to build their own platform, but our questions and concerns as something to be shoved aside.  They saw the richness of racial diversity as a way to prove their own skill but refuse to face the systems that perpetuated division and oppression.  And for nearly every member of my queer family, there were friends who watched without interfering when accusations of abomination and sinfulness battered us until our shine was hidden beneath layers of other people’s hatred.”

Here, I find a three-fold connection, between what Emmy has written, and our experience as Church.  (1) I name our collective sorrow for the abuses of the Residential Schools, which most definitely saw and took advantage of vulnerability and left behind trauma. We are on the walk of reconciliation, but the walk will be long. (2) I feel accountable, to make sure that our desire as a congregation to connect with the diverse community around us is authentic, and not just driven by demographic studies.  Emmy’s line about ‘seeing the richness of racial diversity as a way to prove their own skill’ is a wise caution. And (3) I realize that there are people in this room at this moment, for whom these words trigger traumas that you have experienced, and want to find ways to support you in that. Indeed, as Emmy writes, when coins get lost it is not of their own free will but by some other factor, and I hope to be part of the finding rather than the losing.

One of the advantages, perhaps, of mainline Canadian Churches having much less status than we had fifty years ago, is that these motifs of a shepherd seeking wandering sheep, or a woman searching for coins of externally-derived value,  isn’t a particularly accurate description of our current dynamics, for in both examples the power is held by the shepherd and the woman.  By contrast, the mainline Protestant Church in Canada is not widely regarded as holding any kind of authority or power, which places us right where Jesus would have us be: in a place where we can learn and grow and be re-formed, by those who have been told to “get lost” by their family or their community.  Our power at this moment will be shaped by our willingness to be open in sharing the Spirit-given love that is present when we gather, not as something we control but as a gift from the God who wants everyone to know their inherent belovedness, an expression of solidarity with the Christ whose wounds connect to the human condition.

While calling Churches to account, Emmy Kegler expresses great trust in God.  We recall that at the beginning of today’s reading we heard that a group of power-brokers had adjudged that the people who sat and ate with Jesus were inappropriate, and  Emmy writes (p.40), “Jesus died because the religious and political elite hated him.  He died because he intentionally aligned himself with those on the edges.  He placed himself among the poor…among the tax collectors who colluded with the empire, among simple smelly fishermen, among those whose skin puckered with leprous scars…among women who were Samaritans or bleeding or caught in the act of adultery or foolish enough to sit at his feet and dare to learn.  He dared to declare the kingdom of God was at hand and that it was among the last and least.” And then she says most personally, “I needed someone to tell me [in the name of Jesus] that my differences, my impossibilities, my queerness, everything in me that pushed me to the edge of society was not going to prevent my inclusion…. I needed to hear that no matter how despised and rejected, no matter how acquainted with suffering, no matter how oppressed and afflicted, I was still worth something.” Please let that sink in for a moment, as we ponder our role from here forward.

And she reminds us that in this gospel reading, the sheep and the coin were not just left to be lost forever: God the seeker went looking.  She writes (pp.5-8), “God has never been careless with us, [even if] those who claim to speak for God have. … God has donned a shepherd’s cloak, …clambered over rocks and climbed down cliffs.  God has found us, [hungry] and … hurt and terrified, and cradled us close to say: No matter why you left or where you went, you are mine.   [As] lost and dusty coins, we have gone unnoticed, rusted from others’ indifference, misspent and misused, and our friends and leaders did not see our neglect. But God has picked up a woman’s broom and swept every corner of creation. God has tucked up her skirts and flattened herself on the floor, dug through dust bunnies and checked every dress pocket.  God has found us, dustier and rustier and without any luster, and held us up to the light to say: No matter how you rolled away or what corner you were dropped, you are mine.”

The hymn we sung* just before this sermon, included the line, “seeking the lost, seeking the lost, saving, redeeming at measureless cost.”  Much as I have loved this hymn over my lifetime, I’ve found it to be terribly old-fashioned and locked into old ways of thinking.  Until now.   As I think of what Pastor Emmy Kegler has written, I think of lostness not as rebelliousness on the part of the individual, but as evidence of the brokenness created by a culture that is so clear on who is IN and who is OUT, who is acceptable and who is unacceptable, who is entitled to more and who will always be kept subservient.  I think back to the work we did a year ago with the writings of Marcus Borg, reclaiming Christian words, and am reminded that the words “saving and redeeming” are not isolated out there in some other-worldly process, but describe the very real process, initiated by Jesus, of overcoming whatever keeps a person away from fullness of life, and restoring them to a community of love.   And with that I hear those old hymn lyrics with new warmth, acknowledging God’s heart to always reach into fearsome places and find those whose lives, for whatever reason, are shaped by lost-ness.  In these words I now picture, not those whose shame has led them to sorrow, but those whose sorrow was sown by family or  culture or Church, who were trying to shame them.  It is our task, to be the human face of Christ’s openness, to be the human embrace of Christ’s welcome, to be the human companions on a journey with Jesus that will be shaped by new encounters.

On this day, we will consider who we are to be, as a community gathered in the name of Jesus.  We will choose how to best follow, and will do so held in a holy love that desires and enlivens integration, and love, and abundance for all.  May God bless our choices, may God inhabit our actions, may God let us and all her children know in our lives, that we are loved.  Thanks be to the God of seeking and finding.  Amen.

 

References cited:

Borg, Marcus.  Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words have lost their meaning and power and how they can be restored.  San Francisco/New York: HarperCollins, 2011. (esp. p.19 of the eBook edition)

Kegler, Emmy. One Coin Found: How God’s Love Stretches to the Margins.  Minneapolis: Fortress, 2019.

*Walmsley, Robert. “Come, let us sing of a Wonderful Love.” #574 in Voices United, v.2.

 

© 2019 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church.