Finding the Lost
“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?”
In the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
When I spoke to you two weeks ago about God’s love for the stranger and our own need to welcome those outside our communities, I was looking ahead to this sermon. At that time, I said: “God is always seeking the outsider, the lonely, the lost coin, the lost sheep, the prodigal son.” We have now heard the parables of the lost coin and the lost sheep, along with readings about the forgiveness of our sins, so I would like to speak today about the grace of forgiveness that accompanies God’s welcome of the stranger. I will also say a few things about our current religious environment.
We are accustomed these days to assume that our natural state of affairs is peace with God. We might even think of various comforting, even Christian, images to describe this relationship: we are God’s children, at home with him, gathered in his arms. We are the sheep of the pasture.
In one sense, of course, that is right, those are our images, but they are not the whole picture. That idyllic scene we paint in our minds is the end result of the whole drama of salvation, begun in ancient times with our first parents, continued through the long history of humanity, particularly Abraham’s children, and enacted most supremely by Jesus Christ himself, in his ministry of seeking and saving, of dying for our sins and rising for our justification. That warm embrace, that peace, the grace in which we stand, comes by way of God’s forgiveness.
Apart from such grace, humanity stands much as Paul describes himself in our reading from 1 Timothy: at best, merely ignorant of God’s promises and action; at worst, actively blasphemous, violent, persecutory. Or, to put it in the terms Christ has given us: lost.
Lost like a sheep wandering from the flock into a landscape of great peril, where wolves threaten and stony crevasses loom. Lost like a coin, tumbling out of the hand, spinning through air, falling and rolling beneath the furniture.
In this fallen condition, our natural state is not kinship or friendship with God, but estrangement from God, even hostility. “Once, we were far off,” say the letters to the Ephesians and Colossians, before they go on to affirm that “now” — in faith, in baptism, in repentance — “we have been brought near by the shedding of Christ’s blood.”
Are we gathered in God’s loving arms? Yes, yes, but because God has sought out his wandering children.
And what are we now, if God has found us? To borrow the words of the hymn: “Ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven.” Ransomed from the power of every evil, healed and being healed from every ill, restored from our fallen state, forgiven of sins original, sins past and present, with the promise of forgiveness for sins to come.
Here is a great drama and struggle, worked out in the world of time, in distinct stages, at great cost to our Savior Christ and through no merit of our own. Here is the Christian message, with all its rough edges and all its comforts. It is this message that many of our contemporaries do not know and that some of them consciously reject.
I wonder how many of you are aware of the precipitous drop in church attendance and affiliation in the past 40 years. As a priest and as someone who has worked as a journalist, I have followed these things very closely. In this country, if you’re over 75, you most likely self-identify as a Christian; and there’s a 33 percent chance that you attend an Anglican church like this one. Now, if you’re my age or younger, you’re most likely to self-identify with no religion; and there is only a 3 percent chance that you’re an Anglican. Despite being a priest in the established Church, I am a religious minority.
Times have changed. People who were adults or children 40 years ago, that is, those of you 45 or above, lived in a completely different religious landscape. I’m sure some of you have observed this shift as it has occurred, even if it’s easy to think nothing has changed in a city like this with its dozens of chapels and churches, and its above-average level of visible faith.
Now the point of this statistical interlude is not simply to review some interesting, if depressing, facts, but to bring them in or alongside that drama of salvation I was describing earlier.
God loves and has sought out the stranger as a lost sheep or a lost coin, and 40 years ago most people in this country would know that. To some extent, they would recognize the message and the parables I’ve alluded to; there was a deep Christian grammar that underwrote the national culture, even with its flaws. And so people knew something of the love of God, his embrace, and the peace that comes from sins forgiven. Those lost and found knew that they were lost and found.
That is no longer the case. The “lostness of the lost” is on the rise, if I can put it that way. And it presents us with something of a problem — not simply an institutional issue, as if all we would like is to have full churches, loads of volunteers for charitable service, and bursting coffers of money for good causes. We find ourselves faced with a spiritual crisis, a turning point.
It is echoed by other troubling signs. My generation of people shows in poll after poll that it is lonely (see here, here, and here), depressed (see here, here, here, and here), and neurotic (see here), suffering from a lack of meaning, uncertain about the nature of the world and mostly convinced that a loving God does not exist.
We’ve got smartphones, we’ve got more entertainment than we know what to do with. The basics of material life and health are mostly within grasp, and various recreational drugs are both plentiful and cheap, should we need to numb our existential pain. But the rising generation is both unbelieving and unhappy. No wonder. “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes out from the mouth of God.”
When I meditate on these things, my friends, I feel moved to compassion and action. I think of Jesus Christ comparing himself to a woman lighting a lamp and scouring the household and searching carefully until she finds her lost coin. For every person is made in God’s image, and bears his stamp upon them as surely as a British pound bears the image of the Queen. Every person is precious in God’s sight, more precious than the material gold or silver for which many will labor without rest. God in Christ is looking, and when a single person is found, when one sinner repents, “there is joy in the presence of the angels of God.”
Rejoice, you heavens! (Isa. 49:13; Rev. 12:12) And let the earth resound with praise! Let us tell forth God’s salvation from day to day. Let us echo the song of the heavenly strain, so that there is joy in the Church over God’s seeking and finding. And as God in Christ gets down — even on hand and knee — to find what is lost, let us come alongside him, as he uses our hands and our eyes to search for his coins, his children. Something precious lies hidden.
Divine bliss is promised to those who know themselves forgiven, and who invite others into that same knowledge. We would do well this week to ponder these things, and ask God to reveal to us his will for our lives, for the Church, and for the world he redeemed.
“Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” How may we search with him?