Ordinary 24C — September 15, 2013

Wandering Toward Home

Luke 15:1-10
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3So he told them this parable: 4“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? 5When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 7Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. 8“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? 9When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ 10Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
I keep having the same dream.  Actually, it isn’t a dream – more like variations on the same nightmare.  Every few months, a terrifying dream will wake me up in the middle of the night for three or four nights in a row. 
All of these bad dreams have a similar trajectory.  One or both of my children are missing. Sometimes in my dream we are in a big, crowded, scary place and both of them slip away from me.  Or I dream that I wake up in the morning to find David’s bed empty and he’s gone without a trace.  Or we’re on vacation and Rachel doesn’t meet us where she promised to meet us and I look for her everywhere I can think of in an unfamiliar city.  But she’s gone.   Sometimes, in my dream, I am paralyzed and can’t even dial a phone to call the police to help me find my missing children. 
The power of these dreams to mess with me is really startling.  Even as I describe them out loud here today, my heart is pounding and my eyes are tearing up.  If a fleeting dream of losing someone precious is enough to cut me to the core, how much more shattering is it to experience real loss in real time, in real life? I know many of you could tell me stories of losses that have shaken you beyond what you could imagine surviving.  
That kind of lump in your throat, ache in your gut loss that messes up everything in your life is at the heart of the story we’re gently unwrapping today in the gospel of Luke.  Especially as we hold up this image of the woman in a darkened house, on her hands and knees, panic-stricken, looking everywhere, in corners, under chairs, in the garbage can, in coat pockets, in crevices on the floor, frantically searching for that one small coin.  A small coin of enormous value to the woman, because it is a coin that may be all that stands between her family and starvation.   The image of this unnamed woman quietly lurks in the gospel of Luke between two, much more famous stories of lost sheep and a prodigal son, and it’s easy to overlook her if you’re not paying attention.
And I wonder…if we can so easily see God as a shepherd leaving behind 99 sheep to find the one that is lost, and if we know God as the father welcoming back the prodigal son, then maybe we can also imagine God as a woman – maybe a very old woman – who has experienced the loss of something so precious that she will not rest until she find it.  Perhaps she can give us courage to proclaim that the treasures we believe are lost forever are not lost at all.  Perhaps she offers us the comfort in knowing that all our losses are precious to God, because God has been down on the floor with us on our hands and knees, searching and hoping that the lost coin will turn up. 
Just for a moment this morning, let us imagine God as this woman, an old woman.  Imagine a woman who is growing older, her face covered with lines, her steps slowed, her eyes tired and red from weeping.  Her hearing is not what it used to be and she must strain to hear even familiar voices.  Yet, she remembers everything.
The old woman pulls a scrapbook from her shelf, opens it, and slowly begins turning its pages, looking at the faces of her children, seeing all the beautiful colors of their skin, all of the varied sizes and shapes of their bodies.  She can still remember with incredible clarity when the world was brand new and her children were young.  And she marvels at their accomplishments over the thousands of years – the music they have written, the gardens they have planted, the skyscrapers they have built, the art they have created, the amazing and beautiful ideas they have spun over time.  Their philosophies and theologies and their vague, sometimes desperate stabs at truth-telling.  Every moment when the old woman thinks she cannot possibly love her children any more than she already does, she recalls something else about them – their bad jokes, their readiness to come to the aid of someone in need, their earnestness in trying to do good – she thinks of all their unique gifts and she loves every one of her children even more. 
But there are also pages in her memory book the old woman would rather skip.  There is so much she wishes she could forget about her beloved ones.  She remembers her children spoiling the beautiful home she created for them and all the ways in which they put one another in chains.  She sees her children racing down dangerous roads, unable to stop them.  She remembers the dreams she had for them that they never fulfilled because her children were too fearful or too stubborn.  And the old woman’s eyes fill with tears as they always do when she remembers the names – too many names – of her children lost through war and famine, earthquake and accident, disease and suicide. 
God remembers all the times she has sat alone and wept of love for her children because she could not, would not stop the process she set in motion.  It is God who gave her children an freedom out of her love and respect for them.  And in return, God endures the pain they have managed to create out of that great gift of free will.  
So when God goes looking for her children, she isn’t at all surprised that we do our best not to be found.  She isn’t the least bit put off by every excuse we give about why we stay away.  “We’re busy, “ we say.  “We’d love to see you but we just can’t come tonight.  Too much to do.  Too many responsibilities to juggle.”  
God knows that we avoid being found because we don’t want to look at that aging face.  God understands that we are disappointed.  She knows that we have a hard time facing a God of our childhood expectations.  God didn’t give us everything we wanted.  We didn’t get the success we wanted from our work.  We didn’t get triumph in every battle or a life free from pain and loss.  The old woman understands that we would much rather stay lost because we don’t want her to see our disappointment.  God knows all of this, she knows we’re tired and hurting and sick of sin, and yet her deepest desire is to see us, face to face. 
And what if we did allow ourselves to face God?  What would it be like to finally be found?  I mean really, really found?  What is it like to be caught in the light of God? What happens when we step out blinking into the brightest of lights after spending months or years in darkness, concealed like a sticky old penny in the seat cushions? 
If we imagine God as that old, old woman, we might imagine that she would invite us into her warm, comfortable kitchen and pour us a cup of tea.  We might be nervous about what she might say to us, but we might be even more afraid of silence.  I imagine we would fill the first hour or so with lots and lots of chatter.   
Even as we sat there, sipping tea, chattering away about nothing, God would see everything.  She would see us newly born and dying.  She would see our birth and our death and all the years between.  Our years when we were young and thought there was nothing we couldn’t do.  She would see our middle years when our energy was unlimited and every moment had a purpose.  When we worked and cooked and fixed and wrote and volunteered and cleaned and drove and it seemed like everyone needed us and we had no time to sleep, although what we really, really needed more than anything was to sleep.  And then God could see us in our later years when the chaos is replaced by relentless quiet when we no longer feel needed by anyone and we are lucky to sleep at all and when finally fall into a fitful sleep the nightmares awaken us and leave us shaken and makes us wonder if we truly are lost to everyone, even to ourselves.
God sees things about us that we have forgotten and things we do not yet know.  For no matter how hard we try to hide from God, nothing about us is hidden from God’s sight. 
When God has finished looking at us, she might say, “So tell me.  How are you?”  That is when our chattering stops and we are struck dumb.  We are literally frozen, afraid to open our mouths and tell her what she really matters about us:  whom we love, where we hurt, what we have messed up or lost completely, what we wanted to be when we grew up, how far away we are from being the people we wanted to become and how far away we are from the being the people our God intended us to be.
When we look into the deeply lined face of the old woman, all we can sputter out is, “I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry.”  And the old woman looks right back at us, the beloved child she’s been waiting for, longing for, even dying to see…and utters the only words we have ever needed to hear:  “I forgive you.”
Those three words make everything new.  And unbelievably awesome.
“I forgive you,” are the words uttered by the thoroughly exasperated yet utterly relieved shepherd when he finally manages to find, probably for the third time this week, that one, pesky, ornery lamb who keeps wandering off to find adventure and always manages to get himself good and lost. 
 “I forgive you,” are the words uttered by the father who finally wakes up from the unspeakable nightmare of the lost child he thought he’d never, ever see again but look – there he is! – that lovable goofball trudging up the hill toward home – no longer a reckless youth, certainly older and hopefully wiser.  How long do you think that prodigal son will stay?  Although the story doesn’t say so, I’m willing to bet that after a couple of months or years, that same reckless son will probably go back out into the world and maybe even get lost again. 
And even when we are in the company of the wise old woman who has spent our lifetime waiting for us to get it together, we will eventually get the itch to be lost again.  I am afraid that is just how we are made as human beings – full of curiosity, aching to learn and create and notice and wander into trouble as easily as we draw breath.  The old woman knows this better than anyone.  Yet, when we get up to leave, we promise her that this time we’ll do better.  We won’t let so much time pass between visits. 

But as we are about to leave, God will stop us, draw us very close to her, and hold our face in her two hands and say:

“Do not be afraid.  I will be faithful to the promise I made to you when you were young.  I will be with you.  Even to your old age I still will be with you.  When you are grey headed, still I will hold you.  I gave birth to you.  I carried you.  I will hold you still.  When you are lost, you will find me.  Because I am here.  I am here.  I am here. You are never lost from me.  No matter what happens, I will find you.  You are mine.”
I heard an interview this week with one of my favorite pastors, Nadia Bolz Weber who serves a church in Denver, Colorado.  What I love about her church is that they are very, very faithful to a traditional liturgy in worship, yet they innovate in ways that really make sense to even a traditionalist like me.  For example: her church celebrates the Easter vigil on the Saturday night before Easter using an ancient liturgy  — a three, three-and-a-half-hour-long service at night. The service happens outside in the parking lot of the church and everyone gathers around a new fire burning in the darkness.  As it gets close to midnight, the congregation parades up to the front door of the church.  They bang on the door, it opens up and everyone parades into the sanctuary where all the lilies are out and there are candles burning and all the people sing “Alleluia!” for the first time since Lent started.  They have communion together and baptisms. 
And then they have a huge dance party right there in the sanctuary. I mean, a hugeparty. As Nadia says, she and her congregation feel like nothing says Christ is Risen like a chocolate fountain in the baptismal font,.
9When she found it, the woman calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ 10Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
The parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin, and even the lost son all end with a party.  When the lost ones finally turn up, Jesus conjures up this great celebration of friends and families.  Because with God, the lost never stay lost.  What looks like death is redeemed and reclaimed and restored into a bright new life worthy of a really great party complete with dancing and laughter and bread and wine and maybe even a chocolate fountain in the baptismal font. 
We can grumble like Pharisees about the guest list and stare with resentment at this seemingly random crowd of sinners and saints that keep showing up with Jesus.
Or, we can consider ourselves blessed just to have found our way back home.  Again.
“What’s lost is nothing to what’s found, and all the death that ever was, set next to life, would scarcely fill a cup.”[1]
Thanks be to God.  Amen.
(Parts of this sermon were inspired by and adapted from,“God is a Woman And She Is Growing Older,” by Rabbi Margaret Moers Wenig, in Reformed Judaism, Fall 1992, pages 26-28, 44)

[1] Buechner, Frederick.  Godric.cf. “Tom Steagald’s Preaching Journal.”  www.goodpreacher.com on 9/14/13.