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Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Child

PREPARATION: A wool cap or sweater LESSON: Boys and girls, I read recently about a blue homing pigeon that was transported from Saigon, Vietnam, to Arras, France, in the dark hold of a ship. That’s a journey of 72,00 miles. And yet this homing bird found its way back to Vietnam in 25 days without a single familiar landmark. That is amazing to me–that a bird can somehow know its way back home from nearly the other side of the earth–even though it could not see how it got to its starting place.

Unfortunately Jesus didn’t tell a story about a homing pigeon, but a dumb sheep. We prize sheep for their wool–like this wool cap. But sheep are not very smart. If they wander off, they probably will not find their way home.

Jesus told about this sheep that wandered off. And the shepherd cared about that sheep so much that he left his other 99 sheep to find that one. Of course, Jesus wasn’t really talking about sheep. He was telling about God’s love. He was saying that God’s love for us is like the shepherd’s love for that sheep that wandered off. God would do anything to bring home anyone who is lost. If God can plant a homing device in a pigeon’s brain so that it can find its way back home from the other side of the world, surely we can find our way back to God when we wander off.

 

Adult

Have you ever been on a flight where the airline lost your luggage?  It’s a helpless feeling. In most cases, the lost piece of luggage is returned . . . eventually.  But every year, thousands of items are lost or left behind on America’s airlines and never claimed.  Eventually, all those lost items end up in the small town of Scottsboro, Alabama, at a store called the Unclaimed Baggage Center. 

This store, which takes up an entire city block, has arrangements with nearly every airline to buy luggage that cannot be returned to its rightful owner.  Any unclaimed piece of luggage that is left behind on a major airplane eventually ends up at the Unclaimed Baggage Center, where it is sold to the general public.  Laptop computers, cell phones, CD players, clothes, jewelry—those are some of the more common items at the Center.  But absentminded passengers have also left behind such things as a bag of live rattlesnakes and a trunk of rare Egyptian artifacts.

What is the strangest item found in lost luggage at the Unclaimed Baggage Center? Would you believe–a guidance system for an F16 fighter jet valued at a quarter of a million dollars. It is an interesting store and, according to many tourists, definitely worth a stop if you are passing through northeast Alabama. (1)

One of the sad truths of life is that there are millions of people in this world who don’t see any light. In a very profound way, they are ready for the Unclaimed Baggage Center. They are truly lost. That is, there are millions of people wandering about in a kind of moral and spiritual fog. They may be professing Christians, they may be loving mothers and fathers, they may be responsible citizens, but they have a tremendous feeling of helplessness in the face of the shifting values of our affluent and rapidly changing culture. 

Jesus understood about the tragedy of being lost. In the fifteenth chapter of Luke we read three parables–about a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost boy, also known as the Prodigal Son. Jesus indicated in these parables that our being lost is of grave concern to the One who created us, and that there is a way by which that which is lost may be found. 

Let’s consider for a moment our own feelings of being lost and ask three basic questions:  How did we get in this predicament? Does anybody really care? Is there an answer for any of us? 

I believe our feelings of being lost as a people can be linked directly to our declining faith. Many people today are experiencing a faith crisis. We have lost faith in other people, we have lost faith in our institutions, we have lost faith in God.

Wouldn’t you agree that we have lost faith in people—people we used to admire? We no longer have heroes, do we? Not heroes in the classic sense.

On July 17, 2009 legendary television news anchor Walter Cronkite died at the age of 92. His death marked the end of an era that I suspect we will never see again.

Cronkite was the face of CBS news from 1962 to 1981. He’s remembered as the “father of television news,” as well as—now get this—“the most trusted man in America.” In a day when the phrase “fake news” has become a mantra for many people and journalists are labeled “the enemy of the people” do you think there will ever be a person in the national media who will be elevated to that level of trust again?

We used to look up to Hollywood stars. No more. We once idolized sports heroes. In our naiveté we imagined that people in leadership, particularly in government rarely did wrong. There was a time when clever press agents and acquiescing journalists would hide the weaknesses of our best-known personalities—but no more. Now we see them, warts and all. We are still inspired by their athletic prowess or their acting ability or their political acumen, but we no longer look to famous people for moral or spiritual inspiration. Indeed, who do we look to? Everyone in our modern world seems to be confused.

It’s too risky to simply follow the example of someone else. They may be as lost as we are. Young in life we think our parents are perfect, but with maturity we realize their limitations as well. Where do we turn? 

Some of us are on the verge of losing faith even in those closest to us. Half of the marriages that take place this year will end in divorce. That represents a lot of broken hearts and shattered dreams. That represents far too many men and women who stood at an altar and vowed before God, “Till death us do part . . .” who for one reason or another have lost faith in one another. Along with our loss of faith in people is a profound loss of belief in institutions—including the church. 

The great tragedy of our lives is that along with our declining faith in people and institutions, there has been a corresponding decline in our faith in God. Even many of us who are faithful in church, who are tithers and who would fight to defend the major tenets of our faith have put some distance between ourselves and God. Friday night I was with a young adult group and all of them could list more friends who no longer go to Church as compared to those who do.

For some of us, the distance is intellectual. We have been intimidated by the scientific advances of our time and have allowed our faith to be weakened by the seeming contradictions between Biblical faith and modern science. We forget that scientists are limited to the world of the observable. The scientist may be able to explain “How” but he or she can never say “Why.” 

Some of us have put intellectual distance between ourselves and God. For others of us the distance is emotional. Some of us have experienced disillusionment with God somewhere along the way . . . or with the church. We turned to God in a moment of need and we experienced what everyone who is intent on finding God experiences at some time or another, we discover God’s silence. And our faith in God is strained.

Or maybe it was someone in church who has hurt us. A thoughtless word, an inappropriate action—I wish that church people were perfect. But if that were so, we wouldn’t need the church. As it has been said, the church is not so much a refuge for saints as much as it is a hospital for sinners. Remember that priests and bishops are sinners too and they too need the healing power of prayer from those in the Church.

Or maybe we have distanced ourselves from God because it is too much bother to fit God into our busy lives. We’ve found what we need in the toys and gadgets of the secular world. We’re here in worship because this is where we have established ties with people who mean much to us, not because we have a fresh and lively relationship with God.

The idea that God really could be the kind of personal, living Deity that the Bible describes—rejoicing like a shepherd over finding a lost sheep, rejoicing like a woman recovering a lost coin, rejoicing like a father over a lost boy who has come back home—if God really were like that, think how much responsibility that would place upon us. We couldn’t go on playing our games, building our empires, wasting our opportunities, trampling on the hearts and lives of other people. Think what a difference it would make in our lives if suddenly we were confronted with the fact that it all really does matter! And it does matter. It matters to God. 

Look all about you at the miracle of creation. Look at the loving hand of God at work in every tiny leaf on every tree. Look within your own soul. Look at the way you have been wonderfully made. Ask yourself if a creature with your yearnings, your dreams, your aspirations could have simply happened. Does anyone care about your lostness? Yes, God cares. He really does care. You are the crowning work of His creation. You are His immortal masterpiece. What you make out of yourself and your world is of infinite importance to God.

But this brings us to our last question:  Is there any way out of the fog? Is there a cure for our lostness? Obviously there is or Jesus would not have told these parables. There can be no rejoicing shepherd, no rejoicing woman, no rejoicing father if that which is lost cannot be found.

Joanie Yoder has worked for many years with drug-addicted youth. It can be frustrating work as you might imagine. Yet Joanie says she was never tempted to give up on anyone—until she started to work with a young man named Sam. Sam had what she called peculiar problems and was extremely rebellious. Without realizing it, she began to pull away from this young man whose attitude was such a stumbling block. Then, she says, God alerted her to the mistake she was making.

It happened like this: She was staying overnight with friends when she lost a ring that was very important to her. She hunted frantically for it. She even pulled the bed apart and remade it, but still no ring. Finally she decided that her search was consuming too much of her time. She asked God for help.

She knelt by her bed. She opened her Bible to Luke 15 and began reading about the woman who hunted diligently for her lost coin. When she thought about the parable, it seemed as if God was saying, “You’ve given a lot of effort looking for your lost ring. Are you willing to work that hard seeking after Sam?”

And she realized how important Sam was to God. With closed eyes, she earnestly answered, “Yes, Lord, I am!” (3)

Do you understand that you are also important to God? What you do with your life really matters to Him. If it seems that there is more distance in your life between yourself and God, it is not He who has moved. His desire to rekindle His relationship with you is more intense than you can imagine.

There is a story of a man who was driving along the highway. Along the way he hits a big bump and hears a clang, but he ignores it and keeps on driving. When he gets home, he discovers that one of his hubcaps is missing. So the next day he goes back to the spot where he hit the big bump, and sure enough, there is his hubcap propped up on the side of the road. When the man walks over to get it, he notices a note which some stranger has attached to the hubcap. It reads like this, “Hi there! I’ve been waiting for you to find me!” (4)

That is the message that we invariably discover each time we return to God. “Hi there! I’ve been waiting for you to find me!”

Of course, a few moments’ reflection will tell us that there is a difference between a lost hubcap, a lost sheep, or a lost coin and a lost person. The prodigal son could not be found until he took responsibility for his own life. It was up to him. He was out there feeding pigs—which for a nice Jewish boy would be the ultimate humiliation. Pigs were unclean not only physically but religiously as well. Until he was willing to take responsibility for leaving the pigpen, however, there was no hope for him. Once that decision was made the essential victory was won.

You can escape your lostness this morning by a simple decision. That decision is simply to believe the good news. There REALLY IS a loving God who cares deeply about you as an individual. It REALLY DOES matter what you do with your life. You CAN TRUST those values that you were taught as a little child. You may want it to be more complicated than that. Perhaps Scripture is right. Many prefer darkness. But if you want to walk in the light, it can be done.

There is a hand with nail prints in it that reaches out to each of us this day. It is a hand that represents the very heart of God. We don’t have to wander through life as one who is lost. God is with us if we will only reach out to Him.

An elderly gentleman was out walking with his young grandson. “How far are we from home?” he asked the grandson.

The boy answered, “Grandpa, I don’t know.”

The grandfather then asked, “Well, where are you?”

Again the boy answered, “I don’t know.”

Then the grandfather said good-naturedly, “Sounds to me as if you are lost.”

The young boy looked up at his grandfather and said, “Nope, I can’t be lost. I’m with you.” Ultimately that is the answer to those of us who are lost too. We can’t be lost if He is with us.

 

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  1. Adapted from “Tag It or Bag It” by Henry Canaday,Selling Power, April 2000, p. 56.
  2. Ken Trivette,https://www.sermonsearch.com/sermon-outlines/49380/nicodemus-a-man-who-found-light-in-the-night-4-of-18/.
  3. “Lost and Found” byOur Daily Bread,https://odb.org/2001/10/26/lost-and-found-2/.
  4. Volker Heide,God’s Punch Line(Madison, CT: King of Kings Publishing).