All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
So he told them this parable: “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? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And 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.’ Just 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.
“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? When 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.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
Elizabeth Bishop has a poem entitled “One Art” about losing things. In it, the narrator, many believe is Bishop, herself, describes one thing after another that she has lost, each one harder to lose than the next.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.
I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.
--Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
We don’t believe Bishop’s narrator, of course, and in the end she doesn’t believe herself when she says “the art of losing isn’t hard to master.” We don’t believe her because we hear in her words how difficult her losses have been, and we know how hard our losses have been. Precious things lost, precious places lost, precious people lost. We know that the art of losing is impossible to master and that oftentimes loss can feel like disaster.
And yet we lose things everyday. We lose them by accident or by circumstance or by choice and tell ourselves that learning to cope with our loss is part of the challenge of being human. And, of course, it is. We live in a world where change is happening all the time, happening to us and happening because of us. We live in a world where life is beautiful and frail, where we will lose things and where we will need to be able to lose them.
And yet, there is something in us that rightfully recognizes that loss shouldn’t be, that loss and the pain it causes us has something to do with the strength of the love we have for the world, its places and people. To lose any of this, is to be in touch with a yearning for a world that will come some day in which there is no more loss, there is no more separation from those we love.
At the beginning of our gospel for today, Jesus is eating with a group of people many regarded as lost souls, a raggedy crew made up of tax collectors, those who were ritually unclean and those who had committed offenses against others in the Jewish community. Luke says that this raggedy group of lost souls took the initiative to come and listen to Jesus. Seeing this, the Pharisees and scribes, those who decided who was regarded as lost and who was not, began to grumble. “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them,” they muttered.
In response to this, Jesus tells them two homespun stories called parables, one about a man and one about a woman, stories that are meant to illustrate how God responds when people get lost. God, we find out, has just as much problem with loss as we do. God will do everything in his or her power to seek out and find the lost. And once God finds them, then God will rejoice.
The first parable is about a shepherd who leaves 99 sheep in the wilderness of all places in order to go after the one who has wandered away. But this isn’t all. We’re told that once he finds the sheep, the shepherd throws it over his shoulders and returns home rejoicing. He then calls together his friends and neighbors and bids them rejoice with him over the one found sheep.
The second parable has a similar pattern. A woman has ten silver coins and loses one. She lights a lamp, sweeps the floor and searches carefully until she finds it. Upon finding it, she too calls together her friends and relatives to rejoice with her over the one found coin.
And so the art of losing, as Elizabeth Bishop puts it, is not an art our God cares to master. No, our God is forever engaged in the art of finding: finding the lost, whether it means slogging through the wild to find the one who obliviously wandered away or whether it means lighting a lamp and sweeping an entire house to find the one who fell into a dark corner. Our God is an expert in the art of finding.
And what of us? Well, at least in our gospel for today, we are either the ones who pride ourselves on never getting lost or we are members of that raggedy group of lost souls who feel drawn to Jesus, to who he was and to the things he said.
What our gospel seems to suggest is that the group that does not ever see itself as lost tends to look askance at others, tends to live in a not so generous space, tends to miss the reunion party altogether. But those who know what it’s like to be lost, they, our gospel suggests, will not only be found but will enter with open hearts into the larger joy of reunion.
And so this morning, dear people of God, where are you feeling lost? Where do you feel like you’ve taken a wrong turn into the wilds or have found your way into a dark and lonely corner? In these specific places, in what way might God be trying to find you? What new reunion and joy might God be offering you out of your specific experience of being lost?
While he’s no Elizabeth Bishop, 19th century poet Francis Thompson describes God as the one who seeks after us in his poem “The Hound of Heaven.” Thompson fought a drug addiction most of his adult life and so was well acquainted with what it felt like to be lost. Thompson refers to God using male pronouns.
“I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him down the arches of the years;
I fled Him down the labyrinthine ways of my own mind;
and in the midst of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter,
Up vistaed hopes I sped and shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasamed fears
From those strong feet that followed, followed after.”
In a few moments you will be invited to Jesus’ own table. You will be invited whether you count yourself among the raggedy group of lost souls that Jesus so loved to eat with or whether this morning you’re scratching your head and grumbling about all the riff raff that found their way to St. Paul’s today. You will be invited no matter which group you mentally put yourself in. You will be invited though you would resist seeing yourself in any group.
Once there, you will be offered a fragment of bread and a sip of wine. On one level this is simply a humble meal shared among a group of people whose lives are full of their own losses and joys, and who, as on any day, need to eat. But this meal is also a foretaste of the banquet we will all celebrate on that day when there is no more loss, no more separation from the ones we love, only the joy of reunion. And this bread and this wine are the tokens of the one who stood ready, who stands ready, to lose everything for the sake of finding us.
Works Cited or Consulted
Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art”
Francis Thompson’s “The Hound of Heaven”