In Search of the Lost

A Sermon by Revd Richard Carter

I wonder if you are a person who loses things and spends a lot of time looking for something that you have just put down but just can’t remember where. Or perhaps you are a person that has put something important away in a place carefully. The only problem is that now you can’t remember where that safe place was. There are things that you use occasionally in life that always seem to go missing just when you need them like scissors, or Sellotape, or sun glasses or  umbrellas that are just so losable. Then there are things that you may search for on a regular basis like keys, or glasses, or your mobile phone or wallet. I think there would be several weeks added to my life if I could put together all the times I have spent half asleep in the morning trying to find my keys or mobile phone. There are people when you lose thinks who try to be helpful. Like when you say to those in the house “ Oh damn! I’ve lost my keys and I’m late!” and they reply something like: “O dear where did you put them” and you try without getting too irate to point out that if you knew where you had put them you would not be rushing around the house looking in every jacket and trouser pocket three times over and throwing all the sofa cushions on the floor in the mistaken belief they may have fallen into one of the cracks. It’s interesting to see in our Gospel that losing things happened in Jesus’ time too- not mobile phones or car keys perhaps but sheep (which could be far more problematic) and coins (also problematic in the days before chip and pin.)

I love the way Jesus confronts the Scribes and the Pharisees- they are grumbling about him eating with sinners. Judging him.  They are expecting him to justify the way he is behaving, to offer some erudite defence of his actions in terms of the law and statutes- instead Jesus picks his examples from the common place- the daily actions of his time. If they honour their ancestor King David the shepherd boy who became king,  and if God is indeed the Good Shepherd as Psalm 23 indicates, this means that like a good shepherd God will search for the lost and carry them home on his back. God like a shepherd will rejoice most in the finding the lost one, the one who has gone astray more than for all who have not gone astray. It is a brilliant defence of his actions. The next example  he gives of God is even more humbling and down to earth . He compares God to the care and attentiveness of a poor woman searching for a coin she has dropped who sweeps  the house, searching until she has found it- diligent practical, attentive- totally committed to finding it because every coin is needed.

But this is a parable not just about losing things but also the joy of finding.

A couple of years ago I was flying to Lampedusa and I arrived for the first time in my life in Palermo, Sicily with plenty of time to spare and queued up all ready to get on board the once a day flight and then started checking all my pockets, and then all my pockets several times over, because somewhere in this large airport since getting off the plane from Heathrow the hour before I had lost my passport. I kind of accelerating heart rate ensued and I found myself madly sprinting round the airport visiting every seat, toilet and coffee shop, or duty-free counter, where I may have taken it out. In my head was the thought- “well that’s my holiday over.” I mean where will I get a new passport in Sicily. I found myself pleading with Saint Anthony and then St Jude of lost causes and then all the saints who may be listening. There is just one thing that redeems losing something valuable and that’s finding it again. I remember the  Sicilian airport policeman walking towards me waving my passport, I could have kissed him and danced with joy all the way back to my check in counter.  Finding something precious as the Bible tells us is the cause for genuine celebration. Such rejoicing that it sometimes feels that the loss was worth it because it has made you value the finding and what you have found more than ever. And Jesus is using these parables to show us that finding the lost matters- whether a tax collector or a sinner, or a Pharisee -God will search for the lost, attentively and rigorously and the finding surpasses any blame or condemnation. The finding restores us to God and one another.

Sometimes the thing you are searching for is a person you cherish or love and that searching can be the most heart rending and traumatic of all searching. I remember when we were on a family holiday in Brussels losing my young brother in the central market. He was only four years old at the time and still all these years later I can still feel the panic as we searched the crowds for him. It ended like the parable of the lost sheep because one wise Frenchman who found him lifted him up and put him on his shoulders and suddenly we saw him above the crowd and were reunited. All these years later I can still remember the joy. No anger he had wandered off, no blame, just thanksgiving that he had been found. The next story in Luke’s Gospel is the story of a father and his lost sons, a father who unconditionally watches and waits for those sons to return. In our lives sometimes we are the ones who have gone astray, sometimes we are the pharisees judging- but can we become the shepherds who search for the lost?

What happens in our lives when the lost one does not return? A parent, a child, a partner, a loved one, a friend. Someone whose life is completely irreplaceable and without whom our lives are bereft and forever incomplete. I wrote a book twelve years ago called In Search of the Lost which some of you may have read. It describes waiting for those you love and then discovering that they are dead and will not return to you and that your life will never be the same again. I am sure that there have been those you have loved in your own life whose loss leaves a great hole within you. A sense that you have lost something that is and was irreplaceable. And whose parting means you will always be searching.  I know in this church today many are feeling that sense of loss for Ali Lyon who was such a vital and essential  part of this community for so many years and was loved and  cherished by so many. Sometimes for the grieving there is no immediate finding, no words that fill the gap, or take away the sorrow. We sometimes simply have to live the pain of loss, and go on watching and waiting, if we possibly can, in the knowledge that actually real love is never ever lost. Sam Wells writing to us about Ali’s parting wrote our consolation in loss is that God loves her even more than we do.

There are some words by St John of the Cross that I have always held onto and they are these:

…if I am lost tell them I will be found by love…if I am lost tell them I will be found by love.

It is love which finds. It is love which never ends. It is the knowledge of the shepherd who does not give up but goes on searching and seeking in life but also in death itself. The love which will one day carry us all home on its shoulders.

We are living through a time in the history in which  I think we are becoming very aware of the loss that faces us as a nation,  and as the planet earth. The loss of things that are deeply precious- indeed beyond all value.  Often the temptation when facing loss is to give up and think its pointless- it’s out of my hands- it’s gone forever. But it’s here that our Gospel holds out its promise- that the one who looks out for us is always watching and waiting, always searching, ready to leave everything behind in search of  the lost. You see the love of God does not give up on us or on the world. And that love is the only power that can find us again and heal our incompleteness.

When I searched for those I lost I have found over many years not that they were dead, though they had died, I found rather that they had been found, found by God and that finding was my finding too.

At the time of loss I remember writing these words trying to describe not only the losing but somehow in the loss also the finding.

There is grief

There is uncertainty

There is fear

In the mind and stomach

The yawn of despair

And I cannot find who I am looking everywhere for

And there is the terrifying dread that I will never find him again

And then Christ comes

Comes so simply

Simply present in that place of emptiness

As though to share that tomb with you

He does not remove your loss, rather he gently comes to dwell

He comes without introduction

So gently that perhaps you did not realise he was there at first

He comes, like soft rain on a dry brittle land,

He comes patiently untangling you from all that holds you in the past

He comes like light even in the darkness

He comes with balance a beauty

And the smile of his presence is now and forever

Christ comes in search of you

He comes with no explanation

And there is a song

And a future

And a rejoicing in the finding

We are always surprised by Christ’s love

But he is not

For though he kept us waiting and searching

He always knew he would never leave us.

For if we are lost

We will be found by love

You see when you love

You never lose love

Love is the thing you think is lost but in fact finds you and brings you home.

You are the sheep that Christ is carrying across his shoulders- carrying you home rejoicing. But you are also the shepherd searching for those who are lost. And you are the sheepfold, the family the community, the nation celebrating the return of the lost one whose finding will be your joy and your salvation too. Remember Christ does not promise us that we will never be lost but he does promise us that nothing will ever separate us from his love.