September 15, 2019

Proper 19   

Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28; Psalm 14; 1 Timothy 1: 12-17; Luke 15: 1-10

The Rev. James M.L. Grace


In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  AMEN

Earlier this week, I lost my wallet.  It was an unsettling feeling as anyone who has ever lost a wallet understands.  It was while driving one of my kids to football practice when I realized where I might have placed it.  I called my wife, explained to her that I had lost my wallet, and then said, and - this is going to sound weird – asked her “could you check in the garbage can?” 

Earlier in the day, I had unloaded some garbage from my car, placed it into our garbage can.  When I am preoccupied in thought and not always paying attention, I will do things like, throw my wallet into the garbage along with the hamburger wrapper from Whataburger or whatever else ends up in my car.  Thank God she checked, and she successfully found my lost wallet.  This is an important insight into our marriage: I am good at misplacing things; my wife is much better at finding them. 

To rejoice over something that we have found, we must first experience losing it.  To lose something is rarely pleasant for us, and yet loss is a necessary part of our existence.  To live means that we will lose things – some things superficial, like a wallet.  We will lose things very close to us – parents, animal companions, children, relationships, dreams. 

Today we hear two stories about about lost things – a lost sheep and a lost coin – which invite us to consider the strange paradox that sometimes the way God gives us things is by us losing them.  I will give you an example.

Twelve years ago, I sat with my mother during the final days of her life which she spent at the Houston Hospice.  During that time, I told her everything I needed to tell her.  I told her I loved her, I thanked her for being such a wonderful, loving mother to me, for supporting me through really difficult times.  When she died a day or two later, I did not feel as if there was any unfinished business between us. 

As many of us know, grieving the loss of someone is very hard work.  For me, it was draining physically, emotionally, and spiritually.  Losing something so close to us is painful.

I know that Jesus understood loss, and the pain it created in the human heart.  Jesus lost one of his close friends John the Baptist.  He wept at the grave of another close friend, Lazarus. 

But I also think that Jesus understood loss as a pathway that can draw us closer to God.  I believe that is why he tells these stories of a lost coin and a lost sheep so that we might understand that losing things creates a space for us to receive God in a powerful way.  When the woman loses a coin, she lights a lamp and searches all over the house until the coin is found.  When the shepherd loses one sheep, he leaves the group to find the one that was lost.  These stories point to the reckless abandon which God demonstrates upon finding what was once lost.

I believe God demonstrated such reckless abandon to find me.  Prior to losing my mother, I struggled to believe, or to trust in heaven, and in life after death.  Years in seminary, which I thought would offer qualitative proof that resurrection was real, failed to do so.  I wanted proof, I wanted answers, and nowhere I looked could I find either.  Early in my priesthood, I officiated at many funerals where I wondered if I believed the words I was saying about Christ raising the dead to life.  I’m not proud of that, but it is the truth. 

That struggle for certainty and proof finally ended when I lost my mother.  I can’t explain what happened exactly, except to say that I no longer needed proof that there was life after death, I know longer needed answers to my questions.  In losing my mother, God with reckless abandon, found me, and I experienced, perhaps for the first time in my life, true peace and serenity.  Or to put in another way, I received a peace in losing my mother, a trust, that she was in Jesus’ hands, and that she would be okay.

For whatever reason, before her death, I struggled to believe this.  I wanted desperately to believe in heaven and life after death, to be like other Christians I knew who seemed to have no problem believing these things. When my mother died, so also died my need for proof, my need for evidence.  When the student is ready, the teacher appears.  I wasn’t ready before she died, but somehow, I was after.  I learned at her funeral (where I did believe the words of the liturgy the priest said, and believe them still), that sometimes we have to lose something close to us to find God. 

 As Jesus says elsewhere in another Gospel “those who want to save their life will lose it, those who lose their life for my sake will save it.” 

Only in Jesus is loss really a gain for everlasting life.  What are you willing to lose for the sake of Christ’s sake and yours?  AMEN.