Hope for the Hopeless

Proper 19C-22
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

When they were little, I sang to my kids at bedtime. Always the same three hymns, “Silent Night,” “Spirit of Gentleness,” and “Amazing Grace.” I wondered, did the words and images seem odd to them? Dad, what’s a round, yon virgin? Or a Spirit of restlessness? What dangers, toils, and snares? When did grace saved a wretch like you? What’s that about? Fortunately, they didn’t ask and didn’t seem to mind. Although, for years, Leah insisted to her friends Silent Night was not a Christmas song because ‘dad sings it every day all year!’

I admit, I sang in those days as much for myself as for them. It was a once-a-day dose of spiritual medicine during divorce. Amazing Grace is the sending hymn today. When I wasn’t sure who I was anymore – or who I would become those words written in 1772 by John Newton, a slave ship captain turned pastor and abolitionist, sought me out, found me, and walked me out of the wilderness. “I once was lost but now am found. Was blind but now I see.”

I am a witness, Jesus, the Good Shepherd, laid me on his shoulders and carried me. God is with us when we are lost. God finds and brings us through disasters and upheavals like divorce, illness, job loss, or tragedy. God’s grace is truly amazing, not only in times of acute distress but also in the fast pace of every day. Because the truth is my lostness isn’t over. “We get lost over and over again, and God finds us over and over again.” Maybe the great good news of the gospel today is lostness is not a blasphemous aberration; it’s part and parcel of the life of faith. (Debi Thomas, “On Lostness,” Journey with Jesus, 9/08/19

Look at the children of Israel. They were lost, and found, and lost again. It’s one of the great stories of the Hebrew bible. In mid-conversation, on top of Mt. Sinai, God ordered Moses, “Go down [the mountain] at once!” (Exodus 32:7). Impatient at waiting for Moses to return, and with the help of his brother, Aaron, the people had melted their jewelry, molded it into a golden calf, and began to worship it in place of the living God.

Hadn’t they experienced the plagues of Egypt? Could they have already forgotten the pillar of cloud that guided them by day and the pillar of fire that led them by night? Didn’t they walk upon dry ground after God parted waters of the Red Sea? Had they not tasted the quail, or eaten the manna, or drank the water gushing from a rock which God provided to sustain them in the desert? God was, understandably, exasperated!

In fact, as the story goes, God was ready to destroy them—these children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He proposed to start all over again, beginning with Moses. You might think that would sound good to Moses. But Moses talked God down. And remarkably, scripture says, “the Lord, changed his mind” (Exodus 32:14) So, what did Moses say to persuade God to change their divine mind? Notice that he didn’t try to defend the people. In fact, he didn’t appeal to God on behalf of the people at all. Instead, Moses appealed to God’s own character. In essence, Moses asked God, ‘Who do you want to be? Do you want to be the God of steadfast love? –the God who keeps a promise? –or not?’ God relented and the people were not destroyed, and the divine-human drama begun with Abraham and Sarah, that always reaches forward to encompass the present moment, and stretches beyond it toward a hopeful future, continued up to and including this very day.

We, like the children of Israel, get lost. We, like sheep, will go astray. Like a precious coin gone missing, we are often unaware just how lost we are. Yet, the great shepherd, our great Father and Mother, the great lover of our life and soul, whom we know as Christ Jesus, seeks us out and brings us home. Like the children of Israel, lostness happens to God’s people. It happens in the most basic and exasperating ways. It happens within the beloved community. Yet, God has chosen the path of steadfast love, forgiveness, and mercy. God calls us to walk the same path showing forgiveness and grace to others.

“What does it mean to be lost? It means so many things. It means we lose our sense of belonging, we lose our capacity to trust, we lose our felt experience of God’s presence, we lose our will to persevere. Some of us get lost when illness descends on our lives and God’s goodness starts to look not-so-good. Some of us get lost when death comes too soon and too suddenly for someone we love, and we experience a crisis of faith that leaves us reeling. Some of us get lost when our marriages die. Some of us get lost when our children break our hearts. Some of us get lost in the throes of addiction, or anxiety, or lust, or unforgiveness, or hatred, or bitterness.”

If only we had learned the lessons of Mt. Sinai in the days following 911. How might we have responded differently to that tragedy? Instead of vengeance and righteous violence that led to two wars that stretched over two decades, I wonder, could God have shown us a different pathway bending more toward restorative justice?

It seems our lostness has only multiplied since then. Pandemic, systemic racism, climate crisis, a threat to democracy, and anxiety about the future of the church—to name but a few. We take comfort knowing “God is where the lost things are. God experiences authentic, real-time loss [with us]…God searches, God persists, God lingers, and God plods. God wanders over hills and valleys looking for his lost lamb. God turns the house upside down looking for her lost coin. God is in the darkness of the wilderness, God is in the remotest corners of the house, God is where the search is at its fiercest.” If we want to find God, we need look no further than to seek out the lost. We have to get lost. We have to leave the safety of the inside and venture out. we have to recognize our own lostness, and consent to be found. (Thomas)

In her book, An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor makes a strong case for these virtues. She argues that lostness makes us “stronger at the edges and softer at the center.” Lostness teaches us about vulnerability. About empathy. About humility. About patience. Lostness shows us who we really are, and who God really is. From lostness comes wisdom and maturity. The 16th century Spanish noblewoman turned Carmelite nun, Teresa of Avila, wrote, “When one reaches the highest degree of human maturity, one has only one question left: ‘How can I be helpful?’” Like a loving parent, God’s righteous anger on Mt. Sinai turned from destroying the children of Israel to guiding, reforming, and transforming them…very slowly, over time.

“The 13th century Sufi mystic, Rumi, said, “What you seek is seeking you.” This is true, and this is grace. But maybe it’s even truer that what I can’t or won’t seek is still seeking me. God looks for us when our lostness is so convoluted and so profound, we can’t even pretend to look for God. But even in that bleak and hopeless place, God finds us. This is amazing grace. And it is ours.” (Thomas)