Dr. H. Stephen Shoemaker
Myers Park Baptist Church
Charlotte, North Carolina
October 10, 2010
LOST AND FOUND: SALVATION IN FOUR PICTURES
Texts: Psalm 139:1-12; Matthew 18:12-14; Luke 15:8-10; Matthew 13:44-46
What have you lost? What have you found?
When have you been lost? When have you been found?
These questions strike at the heart of life with all its heartbreaks and sunrises, its terrors and joys.
Did you ever as a child get separated from your parents in a crowd? Did you ever lose one of your children in a crowd?
Have you ever gotten lost in the woods, taken the wrong path, then suddenly everything looks strange? You don’t know where you are, and you wonder how to get back on the right path. I can feel now a bit of the panic, the disorientation of such experiences.
But there are those moments of finding and being found, and the relief and joy are so great it feels as if your heart would burst. And the tears that come feel like life itself returned.
Jesus told an unusual number of parables about losing and finding, of getting lost and being found. “I am sent,” he said, “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24), to “seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10). And his most famous parable was of the lost boy, the prodigal son, who took his inheritance and went to the far country. A Scottish preacher summed up the parable in five words: “Sick of Home, Homesick, Home.”
There is resistance we may feel to the word “lost.” Some Christians have divided the world into two groups, the lost and the saved, and they know exactly who’s in which group. Some Baptists in Alabama a few years back even gave percentages! And I’ve been in evangelistic services where the preacher’s goal was to make us feel as lost as possible so we would come down the aisle to get saved. He created salvation-anxiety, making us doubt our salvation – “Do you remember the exact moment you were saved? If not, you may not be saved. If you died tonight are you sure you would go to heaven? – Such preachers created a kind of spiritual “separation-anxiety” where we felt separated from God whether we were or weren’t. They made you feel sick to fit the medicine they had to offer.
But Jesus goes deeper. There are a lot of ways to be lost and a lot of ways to be found. And as for loss, the losing of something of great value – that’s part of life, isn’t it? Cheryl Patterson reports that poet/teacher Naomi Shihab Nye often begins her semester by asking her writing students to write on “What have you lost?” She says that it is one of the few times her students complain that the length of the assignment is too short! Page after page, a lost dog, a lost necklace, a parent who died, or brother or sister. What have you lost? It may be the profoundest question you can ask; and one that leads to life beyond loss.
I’ve collected four parables for you today: They offer four pictures of salvation. The first is Matthew’s version of the parable of the lost sheep. “What do you think?” Jesus says,
If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it... he rejoices over it more than the ninety-nine that never went astray.
What do you think?! Would you leave the ninety-nine to go after the one who was lost? What if you were the one who went astray? Then Jesus adds the words:
We talk a lot, perhaps too much, about the “will of God” when a person dies, especially in a tragic death, but we should always keep in mind these clear words of Jesus, “It is not the will of your Abba in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.” Say it after me: “It is not the will of your Abba in heaven / that one of these little ones should perish.”
God the good shepherd leaves the safety of the sheepfold and goes after every lost sheep, not because they are the fattest or best, but simply because they are lost. So God comes after us who for whatever reasons and in whatever ways are lost. And in the finding, there is joy, joy, unbounded joy.
Then Jesus told a second parable. A woman lost one of her ten precious silver coins. We do not know why the coin was precious. Was it one tenth of all she would have to live on the rest of her life, one tenth of her retirement? Was it handed down to her from her mother and father, a precious inheritance as well?
She turned the house upside down to find it. Lit a lamp, swept every inch of the floor, looked in every corner, under everything, behind everything. And when she found it she called her friends and neighbors for a party! Come celebrate with me!
Then Jesus adds, “I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
Luke loves to make sure we see the repentance side when Jesus meets people with the gospel. And for good reason. As the old saying goes: “God loves you exactly as you are, and loves you too much for you to stay that way.”
But the radicality and the startlingness of Jesus’ life and message was that he came offering forgiveness and offering the kingdom to those called “the sinners,” those beyond the pale, that is, to everyone, and before they repented, before they had any good idea about what repentance might look like.
The “repent” word is as tricky as the “lost” word. In the Hebrew it meant to “turn,” to turn toward God. Shuv, in the Greek it means a changing, a turning of one’s mind. Metanoia. Religious people always have in mind what repentance should look like for others! But God may have a different kind of change in mind!
We cannot miss the radicality and the reach of Jesus’ life and message: the giving of forgiveness and the offering of the kingdom come to people “just as they were,” to paraphrase a revival hymn. Then later in the healing power and presence of God comes the change we most need, the change God has in mind for us, not the change others have in mind for us, the change for our deepest healing and wholeness, as persons and in community.
I grew up in Southern Baptist religion which was highly moralistic and perfectionistic. If you were to be saved you must do this or that, you must be this or that. Even the greatest gift we could have, being born anew, emphasized the mustness, as if we could “must” it into being. “You must be born again!” We see on big signs along the highway. Spirituality was almost exclusively in the imperative mode.
Then I left the South and Baptistland and went to Union Theological Seminary in New York City and discovered the indicative of the gospel which precedes and grounds every imperative: “You are forgiven!” “The Kingdom of God is yours!” I remember receiving Holy Communion at St. John the Divine Cathedral, and as I received the bread and the cup I heard the priest say something like, Your sins are forgiven! Are!
And I remember reading the words of German New Testament scholar Günther Bornkamm in his Jesus of Nazareth:
Salvation and repentance have, however [in Jesus’ preaching], changed places.... So little is repentance a human action preparing the way for grace, that it can be placed on the same level as being found. 1
And I remember reading the words of another famous New Testament scholar Joachim Jeremias:
And the reversal happened in me, and still breaks through at moments even today. Salvation is being found! In whatever ways I most need to be found. And now as one “living from forgiveness,” I am able to be a child again, enter the kingdom again, and – can this be? – repentance is joy!
Jesus told two more stories of losing and finding. There was a tenant farmer plowing someone else’s land. His plow struck something hard. He probably cursed and said, “Another blessed rock to dig out and haul to the edge of the plot.” But as he began to dig he saw it was a box, a box of treasure. His heart began to race. He ran, and in his joy, in his joy, sold all he had so he could buy the field and own the treasure.
Then Jesus told the story of a merchant who sailed all over the world in search of fine pearls. One day in a seaport city a man came to him in the market. He unwrapped a cloth and showed him a pearl more beautiful than he ever imagined, the pearl he had been searching for all his life, but never expected to find. And he sold everything he had to buy this “pearl of great price.”
The treasure, the pearl? It is the kingdom of God. And it is also your own true and deeply loved self, the one deeper and truer than all your versions of yourself. Christ is the farmer in the field, and we are the treasure he finds, then goes and sells all he has to own. And you are the pearl of great price, beyond price, which the merchant finds, then sells all he has to own.
Yes you, yes me. The search for the kingdom is also the search for our own truest self. And grace upon grace, in Christ we find it, and are found.
Sometimes, maybe most times, we find and are found in community, in Christ’s community of the lost and found ones. Anne Lamott tells the story her black preacher, Veronica, tells about a childhood friend who when she was seven got lost and couldn’t find her way home. It was a big city. She ran up and down streets trying to find landmarks and couldn’t. She got very frustrated. A policeman saw her, put her in his car, and drove her around looking for her street. After a long search she said to the policeman, “You could let me out now. This is my church, and I can always find my way home from here.” 3
Last month we said goodbye to one of our charter members who died, Carey Dowd. He was a brilliant, sometimes combustible, man who deeply loved this church. Robin Coira told me this week about a meeting of leaders one night years ago. Carey got mad and stormed out of the meeting and went home. The group was upset, didn’t know what to do, angry themselves at Carey’s abrupt exit. Robin said, “I’m going to get him.” So she drove to his house a few blocks from the church and knocked on the door. When he opened it, she said, “Carey, come back to the meeting.” Carey began weeping, then came back. He told the group with tears in his eyes, “I was the lost sheep.” There was courage in Robin to go get him, courage mixed with compassion, and there was courage in Carey to come back, courage mixed with honest humility.
Sometimes we can lose our way so bad we can’t find our way home, not on our own. So Christ comes to find us, Christ and his people.
Carl Jung spoke of an experience some people go through that he called “the defeat of the ego.” I think I know what he’s talking about. In this experience the ego which is our constructed self, which has tried to hold our life, our self together, can no longer hold it together. Our life is unsustainable, or “unmanageable” as our friends in A.A. say when they finally are able to go to A.A. Our ego shatters, falls apart, disintegrates, and in this shattering we search for the deeper self in the Self of God, which we hope and trust is there.
It is like walking on a dark path and leaving behind us as we walk the shards of the ego, the broken pieces of the old self that has died. And here Christ comes tracking us by the broken pieces of self we’ve dropped behind us, like bread crumbs dropped behind us, not so we can go back, we cannot go back, only forward to a new wholeness of self. But look, here Christ comes following our trail of broken pieces! The bread crumbs are for him! And he finds us and leads us home to God, to self and to a truer, fuller, saner life. I’ve seen it happen.
Fred Craddock tells the story of playing Lost and Found as a boy. One person would close their eyes and count to a hundred. All the others would run and hide, then the person would set out to find them. Fred remembers one afternoon finding the perfect place to hide: underneath the steps of the back porch. He crawled through the small opening and hid in the shadows. He said that for awhile he gleefully said to himself: “No one’s going to find me! No one’s going to find me!” Then suddenly he said, “No one’s going to find me!” So he stretched out one leg so his toes peeped out from the edge of the back stairs.
Isn’t that what we most want in life? To be found? Not to win some game, but to be found? Found and loved and treasured.
So God has come in Christ to find us, we God’s treasure, God’s pearl.
1 Günther Bornkamm, Jesus of Nazareth (New York: Harper and Row, 1960), pp. 83-84.
2 Joachim Jeremias, New Testament Theology: The Proclamation of Jesus (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1971), p. 112.
3 Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies, (New York: Pantheon Books, 1999), p. 55.