The Very Reverend Randolph Marshall Hollerith
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today is all about the lost, about being lost, about feeling lost, about those we have all lost and about God’s never-ending search to find the lost and to bring them home again. The people of Israel were lost. It didn’t matter that God had just freed them from slavery in Egypt. It didn’t matter that God had just liberated them from a life of suffering and bondage. As Exodus tells us this morning, despite all that God had done for them, they quickly lost their way. As soon as Moses went up the mountain to receive the 10 commandments, the people, they became restless, confused, frightened. They forgot all about what God had done for them. And they created for themselves their own God, the golden calf. And astoundingly, it was this idol, this false god, that they credited with bringing them up out of the land of Egypt.
In our lesson this morning from First Timothy, Paul admits that he was lost for a very long time. Before his encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, Paul, you’ll remember, was a persecutor of Christians. He was the person charged with wiping them out through imprisonment and even execution. It was Paul who approved the stoning of Stephen, the very first Christian martyr. During all this time, Paul thought that he was doing God’s will, when in fact he had strayed very far away from God’s plan. It was only when God literally knocked him off his horse and blinded him, that Paul was finally able to open his eyes, see the truth, and find his way back again.
Today is all about the lost. And truth be told, in our pandemic rocked world, where there is so much violence and hatred and prejudice and dishonesty and unbridled hunger for power, doesn’t it sometimes feel that most of us are at least a little bit lost much of the time? That we’ve lost our trust in our leaders, in our institutions, trust in our media to speak the truth. Trust that science stands for truth. Some of us even cling to conspiracy theories that lead us down paths that take us so far off track that we become even more lost. Today is all about the lost.
On this 21st anniversary of 9/11, we remember all those who lost their lives, when a group of very lost souls decided to kill thousands of innocent people in the name of God. As if God would have anything to do with such evil. We mourn the dead this morning, even as we honor the sacrifice of scores of first responders who charged into the twin towers, willing to lose their own lives in order to save the lives of others. Moreover, today, many of us who admired the commitment to honor, duty and service to country exemplified by Queen Elizabeth for more than 70 years on the throne, we mourn that we have lost an extraordinary human being and a powerful symbol of faith, stability, integrity. Yes, today is all about the lost. May God rest their souls.
In our lesson this morning from Luke, Jesus wants us to know that we worship a God who seeks the lost. A God who yearns to save the lost, the way a shepherd searches for his missing sheep, or a woman searches for her lost coin. In today’s reading the religious leaders, the Pharisees, are unhappy with Jesus. They’re often unhappy with Jesus. They’re unhappy this time because not only was Jesus’ ministry at attracting the wrong sort of people, but he was going out to dinner with those people.
In Jesus’ day, sharing a meal with someone was a sign that you found them to be socially acceptable. The Pharisees couldn’t understand how Jesus, a rabbi and a righteous man, could share meals with tax collectors and sinners. People deemed unworthy because they failed to live the righteous life. From the Pharisees point of view, as the protectors of the ethical foundations of Jewish society, Jesus had lost his way and his actions were destroying the moral order, they believed. How could he grant such extravagant grace to people who did not merit that grace? The problem was that the Pharisees looked down on sinners, while Jesus looked for them. In the parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin, Jesus makes it clear that God is much more interested in saving the lost and welcoming them home than God is in judging their behavior.
Have you ever heard the story of Shrek? Not Shrek, the animated ogre created by DreamWorks, but Shrek the sheep. True story. Shrek was a Merino sheep in New Zealand that wandered away from the flock one day and was lost for more than six years. When he was finally discovered in a high mountain cave, he was almost unrecognizable. In fact, he was blind and he could hardly walk. You see Merino sheep are usually shorn every year, but Shrek evaded shearing for more than six years. And in all that time, he accumulated over 60 pounds of wool that weighed him down and even blocked his vision. Truth be told, how many of us are like Merino sheep? How many of us when we lose our way in life become so weighed down by our sins or our mistakes, our regrets, our guilt, that it becomes very hard for us to see the light? And we stumble around trying to find our way home, our way back to the flock.
This is David’s plight in Psalm 51 that we heard this morning. In these powerful verses King David is honest and upfront with just how lost he is. David realizes that his sins separate him from God and he accepts full responsibility. He says, “For I know my transgressions and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight”. As Arlette Benoit Joseph points out, “David sets a great example for us to mirror. An example showing us that repentance is the first step to restoring and renewing our relationship with God. “Have mercy on me, O God”, he pleads, “according to your steadfast love, according to your abundant mercy, blot out my transgressions”. In this Psalm, David is appealing to the essence of God’s character. He’s appealing to God’s steadfast love and abundant mercy rather than think that he deserves it or has earned it”.
Because the truth is, God searches for the lost, the sinful, those carrying the heavy burdens. God searches for each of us and invites us to shed ourselves of these burdens in order to find health and wholeness. My friends, I don’t have the answers to all that plague our world. I can’t fix the grief that we feel for the people we have lost and for all the tragedy that we have seen. There are no easy answers. But I find great hope in knowing that we worship a God who goes in search of the lost and who desires to heal the sick and bind up the broken hearted.
Yes, today is all about the lost, but it is also about the love of God. A love that seeks us out in spite of our failings. A love that wants nothing more than to reunite us with God and to reunite us with one another. A love that gives each and every one of us an invitation to that great heavenly feast. This world of ours is a sinful and broken place and we have a lot to be sorry for. But the kind of love exemplified by Jesus this morning is not contingent on our remorse or our regret. Quite the opposite. It is a love offered without condition. Today is all about the lost, but it is also about the promise that with God’s help, we can find our way home again.
As we sang this morning in one of my very favorite hymns: “Perverse and foolish oft I stray, but yet in love he sought me, and on his shoulder, gently laid, and home rejoicing brought me. And so through all the length of days, thy goodness faileth never. Good shepherd may I sing thy praise within thy house forever.” Amen.