Lost People Matter to God

Sermon by the Rev. Marek Zabriskie on Sunday, September 15, 2019.

One of the interesting things that I did in August was to hike a remote trail along the northwest corner of Spain, which leads over mountains, clifftops and along secluded beaches while offering spectacular vistas. During eight and a half days, I walked 163 miles and climbed and descended 17,000 feet or half the height of Mt. Everest.

On most days, there was nowhere to stop and eat or refill my water bottles. I walked at a snail’s pace of 2.6 miles per hour and saw five other hikers at best in eight days. It was rigorous, but doable.

The trail is called the Camino de Dos Faros or the Lighthouse Way, and it passes 11 lighthouses on Spain’s Costa da Morta – Coast of Death – where hundreds of shipwrecks have occurred and countless sailors have been lost at sea.

On my last day, as I crossed a shoulder-less clifftop with 500-foot drop-off, I heard sheep bleating and looked down and saw two tiny creatures on a rock precipice 300 feet below jutting into the sea. They appeared to be lost, and while I don’t understand the language of sheep, I suspect that one sheep was saying, “Oh my God!” and the other was bleating, “How did you get us into this mess!”

I immediately thought of Jesus’ story of the shepherd who left his entire flock to rescue one sheep. I wondered if I could save these sheep, but realized that I would probably die descending to reach them. So, I continued hiking hoping that just as they got onto the rock precipice that they would get off it and find their way safely home.

But God doesn’t move on. God doesn’t give up on any of us when we are lost, say Jesus. God is like a good shepherd, who pursues us when we have dug ourselves into a deep hole, wandered far or done something foolish and brings us safely home.

Do you know how sheep get lost? They eat their way out of the flock. They put their head down and keep eating until they look up and realize that they have eaten their way out of the flock. Sometimes we do the same. We get so focused on something, work, school, success, a sport or hobby or some special project, that we literally cut ourselves off from others.

In the 15th chapter of Luke’s Gospel Jesus tells three stories about lost things – a lost sheep, a lost coin and a lost son. These three stories tell us about who is in and who is out, who is lost and who is found, what it means to be a sinner and what it means to be saved. They are stories about hospitality, joy and being part of God’s family.

Jesus tells these stories in the context of the Pharisees and Sadducees who were keeping tabs on his radical teaching and the people with whom he socialized. Jesus dined with sinners and tax collectors, who were on the fringes of society. No one wanted to hang around these folks for fear that it would sully their reputations. No one added them to their dinner list. The fact that Jesus spent time with people on the margins threw the community into a complete panic. Folks murmured, “Who invited them?” “Doesn’t he know who they are?”

Perceiving their fears and questions, Jesus told the crowd about the nature of God in ways that they could understand. He invited them to think about what is most precious in their lives – something that if it were lost, would leave them devastated. What or who if lost would cause you to search high and low until you found it or leave you crushed if you did not find him or her?

On Wednesday, I gathered with some 200 Greenwich residents to mark the 18th anniversary of September 11th at 9/11 Memorial in Cos Cob. The 33 Greenwich residents died that day. They were lost, but they will never be forgotten. And hundreds of first responders tried their best to save them. Not everything lost will be found. Not every person in peril will be saved in life. But God works through people like us when people are in need. There is a principal of love at work in the universe. We call it God.

In today’s lesson, Jesus offers two images of God – one masculine and the other feminine. God, said Jesus, is like a shepherd who searches for lost sheep. That’s masculine. But God is also like a woman who has lost a coin. Some scholars say that this coin was part of a necklace that served as her wedding ring. She searches until she finds it. It is Jesus’ only parable that presents a feminine image of God. No doubt, this shocked his audience.

For the first 600 years of the Church’s life, the predominant way of depicting Jesus in art was as the Good Shepherd, reminding believers that God is not like a highway patrolman waiting to bust us for speeding, but like a beloved shepherd who attempts everything to rescue us. The Twenty-Third Psalm ends with the words, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” The Hebrew word used for “mercy” is hesed, which means “steadfast love,” and the word for “follow” can be translated “pursue.”   Hence, God’s steadfast love shall pursue me all the days of my life.

In Louis Bayard’s new novel, Courting Mr. Lincoln, Mary Todd, Abraham Lincoln’s future wife, finds herself traveling from Alton to Springfield, Illinois. She had left her home like so many young women during that era and traveled to an unfamiliar city to find a husband. Seated beside her on the stagecoach was a woman who was a Presbyterian deacon, who quickly discerned the reason for Mary Todd’s trip and sensed her nervousness and her hope.

As they approached Springfield, Mary Todd was shocked to see the streets lined in mud with no sidewalks or streetlights. It was dark and dirty, and she suddenly regretted leaving her family and her hometown. She wondered, “What have I done?”, and she began to cry. The deacon tried to comfort her and said, “Why should you be crying, dear one? You are going to your future.”

At this time of year, many of us find ourselves going to our future. We have dropped children off at boarding school or college or have witnessed them move far away to begin their career. Some have dropped their child off at preschool for the first time and many are starting a new grade, or a new job or have just moved to Greenwich. For some of us, there is a feeling of being lost and things are no longer the same. So, if you are feeling like a sheep separated from the flock, trust that you are in a safe, loving, supportive community.

Lost sheep and lost people matter to God, and we are never out of God’s grasp. Sometimes we have wandered so far or become so consumed by regret that we feel unable to undo our mistakes or retrace our steps or make things right, but God is still there for us to guide us and bring us home.

There is a loneliness epidemic in our nation. Men especially feel isolated. The male suicide rate has spiked. Despite being so connected with social media, many people feel increasingly alone. A recent study reported that those ages 18-30 feel most alone despite being the most connected to social media. There’s definitely a correlation there. I want you to know that Christ Church is a place where anyone one who is isolated, hurt or lonely can come and be welcomed, fed spiritually, prayed for, supported and loved.

I close with a story. James Whittaker was a member of a B-17 Flying Fortress crew handpicked by Captain Eddie Rickenbacker that was reported missing at sea in 1942. Somewhere over the Pacific Ocean, out of radio range, the plane ran out of fuel and crashed into the sea. The nine survivors spent the next month floating in three rafts. They battled the heat, storms and water. Sharks rammed their nine-foot boats. After only eight days, their rations were eaten or destroyed by salt water. It would take a miracle to survive.

One morning after their daily devotions, Rickenbacker leaned his head back and pulled his hat over his eyes, when a bird landed on his head. Every eye was on him. He instinctively knew that it was a seagull. Rickenbacker caught it, and the crew ate it. The birds intestines were used to catch fish. The crew survived after being stranded with no hope or help in sight.

But there is a story behind the story. You see, crew member James Whittaker did not believe in God. He believed that sometimes you are lost and life is hopeless. Each day, crew member John Bartak read aloud from his Bible, which angered Whittaker. But as Bartak keep reading his Bible aloud while God softened Whittaker’s heart. For it was immediately after one morning’s Bible reading that the sea gull landed on Rickenbacker’s head, and in that moment, Whittaker first believed in God and realized that the Good Shepherd does indeed seek after lost sheep.

Think about that for a moment. In the midst of a world’s most global war, God sent a sea gull to help rescue a handful of men adrift at sea, like the dove that God sent to Noah to bring hope after the flood. Lost people truly matter to God. If you are feeling lonely, lost or disoriented in life, you are in the right place for our mission is to show you the love and kindness of God.

Both parables today end with rejoicing. They sheep that has wandered off has been returned to the flock. The coin that was lost is now found. Nothing goes missing, because when one in our community goes missing, we are all affected. When one is restored, we are all better off. This is how it is in the household of God. Amen.