Saturday, September 11, 2004

Pentecost 15 - Year C

Luke 15:1-10

“Todd”, one of the characters in Douglas Coupland’s novel Life After God is a restless wanderer. Todd dropped out of university a decade ago and began scamming full time between tree planting and E I – a way of life he shows no interest of ever altering. He shares a wartime house off Commercial Drive in East Vancouver “with an ever-changing ragtag ensemble of ecofreaks, slackers, Deadheads, Quebecois Nationalists, and part-time musicians,” as the narrator describes Todd’s life, not so much judging his friend, as despairing of him.

“But then” the narrator says, “every so often, through the fog of drugs and a downwardly spiraling life style, the real Todd will shine through, and then I remember why I make the effort to see him through the years. For example, I will ask him what he thinks about while he plants baby trees in the lobotomized northern clearcuts. He will snarl and laugh and say, ‘The money.’ And then he will stop and say,

“I know you guys think my life is a joke – that it’s going nowhere. But I’m happy. And it’s not like I’m lost or anything. We’re all to F***ing middle class to ever be lost. Lost means you had faith or something to begin with and the middle class never really had any of that. So we can never be lost. And you tell me – what is it we end up being, then, - instead of being lost?”

That’s a good question, don’t you think? So what does it mean to be lost? “The lost” is a term that gets thrown about among church folks, and to be honest, I’m not sure I know what it means. I know that some folks like to use it as term to describe the “unsaved” or those without a “personal relationship with God” (another term, I confess, I don’t really understand). And after reading today’s gospel, I’m even more at a loss of what that means than when I started.

But I do think Todd is on to something. In our gated, well- maintained, neatly manicured, middle-class world, we’ve put up safeguards that protect us from ever being lost. I’ve always wondered if being lost was perhaps a little more exciting than a pursuing sheltered way of life that may shield us from the debris that often is hurled at us; and where we sedate ourselves with such banalities as Reality TV, making our way to the next day relatively unscathed, but also uninspired.

In today’s gospel, Jesus tells a few weird little stories about being lost and about being found. A lost sheep, a mis-placed coin, a wayward son, all were lost and then found, and, it is said, the angels rejoiced. Jesus told these stories about God to those who grumbled about the company he kept. But as Jesus told these stories, the questions that hung in the air that everyone probably asked, but not out loud, were: where am I in his stories? Where is God in all this?

But, the question that has always bothered me is: Do people know when they are lost? If they don’t know, then are they really lost? Can we be arrogant enough to suggest to folks like Todd that they can be lost without even knowing it? If they are happy with their lives, who are we to suggest that they are lacking in some way? Wouldn’t that be rather presumptuous? Or to turn the question back on us: What would it look like if Todd was “found”? Would finding a stable job, getting married and raising a family, attending church, make Todd more “found?” or at least less “lost?” Does Todd have to join the ranks of middle class respectability to be “found?”

As Barbara Brown Taylor so astutely points out, “These two parables are full of problems, not the least of which is that they do not seem to mean what Jesus says they mean. According to his explanations, they are about heaven’s joy over one repentant sinner, but the lost sheep does not repent as far as I can tell and the lost coin certainly doesn’t. They are both simply found – not because either of them does anything right, but because someone is determined to find them and does. They are restored thanks to God’s action, not their own…” (BBT, The Lost and Found Department)

Taylor goes on to suggest that Jesus probably told these stories as we read them, but then maybe his editors wanted to make sure that the reader didn’t miss the point with such open-ended-ness. Or, she says, these parables are not stories about lost sheep or misplaced coins at all, “but stories about good shepherds and diligent sweepers.”

I think she’s right. Jesus may have been talking to the multitude on that hill, but he was directing these stories to those standing just outside the perimeter, those with their arms tightly folded across their chests, their eyes squinting, and their ears perked, ready to pounce on anything that came from Jesus’ mouth that didn’t fall in line with official religious pronouncements.

I wonder if we do the same thing when we confuse middle-class respectability or a Canadian version of the American dream with the Kingdom of God, settling for a comfortable lifestyle, pouring cold water on the passionate faith that so many people yearn for. I wonder why we turn our energies toward working so hard building ourselves a life that we loose the intimate contact with those whom know we should cherish.

For us middle-class Canadians, “lostness” has more to do with the worry and busyness that dominate our lives, so the flurry of activity that marks our days drowns out the anxieties we have for the future. Busyness has become a hallmark of strength and achievement. If we’re busy, we’re valuable. We contribute. If we’re not busy, we’re lazy and don’t contribute. If we don’t contribute, we’re worthless.

Do we keep schedules so hectic so we don’t have time to think about our lives because we are too busy living them? Our calendars are too full for us to stop and think about where we’re heading because we are moving full throttle through life. Are we moving away from something painful or towards something beautiful? Because the way we deal with what is behind us is crucial to how we understand our lives as Christians. What about the past? You past? Our past? If we are honest we know that the past is filled with both blessings and curses.

As individuals and as a culture, no generation in history is more conscious of the curses inflicted on us – wittingly or unwittingly – that have left their scars on our lives. Perhaps it was an abusive parent who left you with a bruised soul. Maybe it was the spouse who left you for no good reason. Possibly it was when you were a child and you got really sick, leaving you weaker than the other kids. It’s easy to live in the past, to let those moments of defeat or loss or pain define our lives. Some of us compensate by running so fast from the past thinking we can outrun the pain that has chased us all our lives. Others stay in the hurt, stuck in the moment, using it as an excuse to stop living or making good decisions. It’s easy to make these experiences defining moments in our lives, moments where one can easily mark a “before” and “after.”

But I think an encounter with Jesus changes the defining “before” and “after” moments. Jesus tells a story about a son returning home after insulting his father and frittering away his money. Jesus also talked about a woman throwing a party that cost more than the coin she found because she was so happy that she found it. And Jesus tells a tale about a shepherd doing something stupid like leaving 99 sheep vulnerable to wolves and thieves just to find the one sheep that was lost. But like the good shepherd and the diligent woman, Jesus keeps searching for us, because he knows the joy that God wants to for us. Jesus knows that part of being “found” is leaving behind the past that hurts us for a future that heals us.

There is no one way that Jesus searches for us and no one way that Jesus finds us. Sometimes Jesus knocks us off our feet, blinds us with his love, and re-names because the old person within lies smoldering in the grave while the new person rises to new life. For others, coming to faith is more like a pot boiling, slowly, and almost imperceptibly, with the odd bubble popping to the top but soon bubbles over and the lid is blown off by the sheer force of its collective power. Still for others, Jesus is mostly a rumour, a voice barely heard, a song scarcely understood, and a promise half-believed. Holy gossip whispered between friends searching for the presence and promises of God.

I think that’s how most of us experience being “found.” Most of us wouldn’t want to explain or mark it on our calendars, but slowly Jesus our shepherd leads us past the ever present “before” and “after” moment, making our way from the painful events that shaped our lives to the God-haunted joy of a new beginning, unfolding like a slow summer sunrise, until we find ourselves immersed in the warmth of God eternal love, returning to that one holy and defining moment when we were drowned in the waters of Holy Baptism and raised to new life in Jesus. Maybe that’s what it means to be found. Amen.

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