Have you ever been lost?
I don’t mean “get out the map” lost. I don’t mean “Siri, how do I get to my destination?” lost. I mean totally, completely, helplessly lost, with no idea how to reunite with your friends or family.
When you were a child, did you ever wander away from your parent at a store? Maybe you were at an event with friends, and you got separated, or they weren’t at the rendezvous spot at the appointed time. There’s a kind of panic that sets in, isn’t there? A kind of fear that’s unlike any other – a sort of formless panic that feels so big because there’s no shape to it, no limits or boundaries. No sense of how long it will last, or how it will end, or what productive steps you can take in the meantime to resolve the situation. There aren’t any. All you can do is wait. You can stay where you are and hope your companion finds you, or you can wander around aimlessly and hope you run into each other, but in the end it’s all waiting. And it’s scary.
Or maybe you’ve been lost in a more metaphysical way. I’ve been lost this way, more than once. This is the kind of lost where you don’t know where your life is headed. Maybe you lost something that provided meaning to you. Maybe you left a relationship or a job, or suffered burnout at work. Maybe it was just as simple and just as complicated as realizing that whatever you’ve been doing with your life may be paying the bills and meeting your obligations, but you’re not doing anything more than going through the motions.
This kind of being lost can bring with it a kind of existential dread – this sense of fear or anxiety that nothing we’re doing in this life really matters. Often, we react the same way we react to being separated from our loved ones. Either we sit still and wait for the crisis to pass, or we wander aimlessly, telling ourselves we’re searching for something to give our lives meaning. But are we really, or are we just looking for something to fill the void? For many of us, this takes the form of adding more and more activities, projects, or committees to our plates, until we are so frenetically busy that we fall into bed at night, too exhausted to even think about what might be missing.
None of this provides any answers. None of it provides any insight. None of it helps us be found when we are lost.
But the good news for us this morning is that we don’t have to find the answers! We don’t have to jump up and down, waving our arms and calling, “Here I am! Over here! I’m over here!” It is not up to us to go searching for whatever will finally bring us fulfillment, trying on activities like clothes, one outfit after another, until we find the perfect look.
We don’t have to do any of this because it is not up to us to find ourselves. We have already been looked for, and we have already been found. Jesus has been out searching in that pasture, and the next, and the next, and has picked us up and carried us home.
We were found before we were even created – God found me when I was just a twinkle in God’s eye. And then, God threw a party in my honor! God invited all of the people who loved me, and I was sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. And then God served bread and wine, and everyone was invited to the feast. And God threw this same party for you, and invited everyone who loved you.
God wants to make it clear to us just how extravagantly God loves us. And so Jesus tells us these parables today, of the sheep who wandered off and got lost, and of the coin that was lost in the woman’s house. The shepherd and the woman were so extravagantly grateful to have found what was lost, they threw parties, calling their neighbors together and probably spending far more than the market value of either the sheep or the coin. In both cases, it is clear that what was lost held much more value to its seeker than what it could provide, in terms of food or clothing or income.
Instead, it is about the relationship that exists. The shepherd loves the sheep, knows them all individually, and is responsible for their safety and well-being. In return, the sheep love the shepherd, and trust him to keep them safe. If a sheep wanders off, in search of tastier grass, the shepherd lives up to the commitment he made to the sheep, going and finding it in its aimless wandering, and returning it to safety. All the sheep has to do is wait.
Sometimes we wander away, too. We get caught up in the day-to-day, and sometimes we lose sight of the bigger picture, instead chasing whatever our tastier grass is – money, recognition, whatever we hope will bring us reward or fulfillment or a better life. But because Jesus loves us extravagantly, and because he has already found us, he always comes looking.
All we have to do is turn toward the voice that calls us. Sometimes that voice sounds like a friend who says, “I’m worried about you. I think you’re taking on too much.” Sometimes Jesus calls to us in a dream, providing comfort or hope. Sometimes God calls us just by being a quiet presence within us, a stillness that seems to say, “you are not alone. I am with you.” Or sometimes it’s someone saying, “Have you ever thought about trying this? I think you’d be really good at it.” And then we just have to give the Holy Spirit room to work.
This is easier said than done, though, isn’t it? We like to feel like we are in charge of our own destinies, that we can create our own fulfillment in the things we do. It can be very challenging to be faced with the reality that this is not true, but instead, God is calling us to a purpose. Sometimes, being lost can feel very much like looking for ourselves, or even like finding ourselves. And that can feel pretty good for a while, until we find ourselves wandering aimlessly again.
Once, when I was faced with this sense of unmooring, this sense of not knowing what was coming next and feeling pulled between what I saw as my path to fulfillment and the path that I saw that God was calling me to, I spent some time with the leader of a retreat I was on. She taught me a simple prayer that I have found to be very helpful ever since: “Lord, give me the desire to do your will.”
When we discover growing in us the desire to follow where Jesus calls us, we know that the Spirit is working in us. And we are empowered to repent – to turn back toward God, and away from the temptation of the tasty grass. We are empowered by God, given the capacity to take a step we would never be able to take on our own. We are found yet again, by the Shepherd who has already found us and never stops looking for us, and reminded that we are sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.
But what if what our faith is lost? What if we have not wandered off? What if we are not seeking personal fulfillment but instead are staying right here, going through the motions of confessing our sins and remembering our baptisms and receiving communion, and it all begins to feel…empty? Meaningless? What if our existential dread isn’t about this life, but the next life?
I confess to you today that I have felt this hollowness, this fear that the promises of God are no more than empty promises, that all we have is today…that there is no tomorrow, no salvation, no eternity of singing God’s praise. I suspect that, in the darkest corners of our minds and hearts, we all have felt this at one point or another. Some of us may be feeling this now. And yet, here we are, saying the words and singing the hymns and preparing to receive the body and blood of Christ.
Jesus has lit a lamp, swept the floors and dusted every corner, looking behind the TV, between the cushions, and under the sofa, to make sure none of us got missed. Even if our faith is tarnished, even if it is dusty, even if it is hard to see in the shadows, the light of God’s love has found us and will continue to find us. And just like the one coin that was reunited with the other nine in the woman’s purse, Jesus surrounds us with a cloud of witnesses who carry us along with their faith, believing the words “given and shed for you” until we can say, almost like waking from a dream, “Yes! I remember now! That is the meaning of these words. This is what it means to have faith, to lean on the promises of God and be comforted.”
No matter how many times Jesus finds us, he never stops looking. No matter how many times Jesus finds us, it never gets old. The Holy Spirit never stops working, turning us back toward God. God’s joy in our finding is never lessened. And if we thought God threw a party when God first claimed us, just wait until the last time, when we are finally reunited with God for eternity. What a party that will be!