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Years ago, before most people had GPS, a woman was visiting New York to attend a conference that was being held at Carnegie Hall. During her free time, she decided to explore the city, and, not surprisingly, she got lost. After awhile of unsuccessful attempts to find her way on her own, she decided to try using the brand new Onstar service that had come with the rental car. But Onstar took her down closed roads and into dead ends. So finally she stopped and ask a policeman for help and asked, “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?” He said, “Practice, practice, practice.”
It’s an old, old joke with a good, good answer. Practice makes us able to do things better. Repetition helps us remember. In today’s scripture, Jesus tells two stories about finding things that are lost. Can practice help us with this, too?
Jesus tells these two stories in response to some religious leaders who are grumbling about the company Jesus is keeping. By now they should know that Jesus doesn’t avoid people on the edges of society. One of his first disciples was a tax collector named Matthew. The religious leaders were focused on following the rules of purity found in Leviticus, and associating with someone who didn’t follow those rules meant that they themselves would become unclean, not allowed to go to the temple, and be temporarily unfit for worship.
Jesus seems to have to continually tell the religious leaders that they are missing the point. When Jesus called Matthew to be his disciple, Matthew threw a party and invited all his tax collector friends to meet Jesus. The religious leaders objected, especially because Jesus ate with Matthew and his friends, and eating food prepared by Gentiles was considered unclean. But Jesus explains that going outside the usual circles was his purpose. He says in Luke 5:32 “I have come not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”
In today’s scripture, Jesus tells them again, but uses a different approach. Again the Jewish leaders are complaining that Jesus “welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he responds with two stories about finding lost things. And he invites the religious leaders to put themselves into the story. “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?” (Luke 15:4) “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?” (v8) In other words, of course we would all search for something as valuable as a sheep or a silver coin. But people are more valuable to God, and when they are found, there is great rejoicing.
In Romans 12, the apostle Paul encourages us to rejoice with those who rejoice, and mourn with those who mourn. The religious leaders could have been rejoicing that Jesus was finding and transforming the tax collectors and sinners. They could have joined the party. But they weren’t seeing Jesus for who he truly was, God in the flesh. And they probably wouldn’t have liked that Jesus told a story in which God was a shepherd or a woman. Shepherds were too uncouth to be a metaphor for God, and a woman was too weak to be a metaphor for the all-powerful God, they might have said.
But that’s the picture Jesus is painting with these stories. God pursues lost people. God pursues us. That’s one of the most beautiful verses in the 23rd psalm. Verse 6: “Surely your goodness and unfailing love will pursue me all the days of my life, and I will live in the house of the Lord forever.”
God’s unfailing love pursues us. And it’s a good thing God does, because we are prone to wander and to panic when we get lost.
This is what happened to a woman who was hiking the Appalachian Trail. Gerry Largay was a 66-year-old retired nurse was attempting to hike all 2100 miles of the trail which runs from Georgia to Maine. She was missing for two years until a surveyor stumbled upon her camp. He found a collapsed tent, a skeleton in a sleeping bag, and a backpack with a cell phone and a journal. Using these, authorities were able to piece together what happened.
Gerry had planned the trip well. She was hiking with a friend, and her husband was shadowing them with his car, meeting them at prearranged locations to make sure they were ok and resupplied. A family emergency called her friend home, so Gerry continued alone. But one day when she went off the trail to go to the bathroom, she got disoriented by the trees and dense undergrowth and was unable to find her way back.
When Gerry didn’t show up at the next rendezvous, her husband alerted the warden service. Professional rescuers and trained volunteers searched for her for weeks and weeks with no success. 26 weeks later, when the surveyor found Gerry’s phone and journal, they were able to determine that Gerry had texted her husband asking for help, but there was no cell service in that area, so he never got the texts. She had heard the spotter planes and helicopters, but was unable to get them to see her through the dense forest. Her last campsite was only half a mile from the trail, but she didn’t know it. She did know when she was near the end of her life, and wrote this note in her journal:
“When you find my body, please call my husband George and my daughter Kerry, it will be the greatest kindness for them to know that I am dead and where you found me—no matter how many years from now. Please find it in your heart to mail the contents of this bag to one of them.”
The problem is that when we are lost, we panic and we don’t think clearly. And we walk in circles. That’s why the advice is always to stay put and wait for someone to find you. But we’re not very good at doing that. That’s why a good verse to practice is Psalm 46:10: Be still and know that I am God.
The Holy Spirit works through this verse. Along with some deep breathing, it can help us think more clearly, kind of like the way the woman cleared the way for finding the coin by lighting a lamp and sweeping. The more we practice trusting God, the more our faith grows. Our minds are changed in subtle ways when we pray or meditate, so we help our brains learn to panic less. Studies have found that prayer lowers our reactivity to traumatic events.
Whether we are physically lost, emotionally lost, or spiritually lost, we do our best to try to fix it ourselves. But when we are stressed, our decision-making can be impaired and we need help. In the stories Jesus tells in today’s scripture, he uses the word “repent.” The word in Greek is metanoeó (met-an-o-eh’-o) which means to change one’s mind. When we’re lost, afraid, panicking, we need our minds to change. We need to calm down so we can think clearly. We need peace. God’s peace.
God is never far away. Psalm 139 helps us to remember that God is always near.
O Lord, you have examined my heart
and know everything about me.
2 You know when I sit down or stand up.
You know my thoughts even when I’m far away.
3 You see me when I travel
and when I rest at home.
You know everything I do.
4 You know what I am going to say
even before I say it, Lord.
5 You go before me and follow me.
You place your hand of blessing on my head.
6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too great for me to understand!
7 I can never escape from your Spirit!
I can never get away from your presence!
8 If I go up to heaven, you are there;
if I go down to the grave,[a] you are there.
9 If I ride the wings of the morning,
if I dwell by the farthest oceans,
10 even there your hand will guide me,
and your strength will support me.
11 I could ask the darkness to hide me
and the light around me to become night—
12 but even in darkness I cannot hide from you.
To you the night shines as bright as day.
Darkness and light are the same to you.
What the psalm is telling us, and that I have found in my own life is that when it feels like we are lost and God is far away, it is our perception, not God’s reality. We cannot hide from God.
And so we practice seeking and trusting God in prayer, in Bible reading, in having spiritual conversations with friends. Sometimes in prayer we can be more honest about how we feel, which can then help us to sort out what’s happening and figure out what steps to take, or how to explain to someone that we need help.
Sometimes prayer helps us to settle down enough to see a situation differently, and to see new possibilities.
Honestly, I didn’t set out for this to be sermon about prayer, and I don’t want that to be the only way we think of getting help when we feel lost, because sometimes we are beyond prayer. I don’t think I will ever forget the day when I told my husband Rob that I was so tired of trying to keep going like everything was ok. He asked if he could make an appointment with the doctor for me. I said yes, and that was the beginning of changing my mind, of repenting and admitting I needed help.
The only words I was hearing from God during that time were these: Don’t give up. Remembering those words is good practice. Galatians 6:9 Don’t give up.
Today we may already have seen the memorial service in New York for 9/11. The 9/11 memorial in New York City is a great example of not giving up. Great care has been taken to identify all the remains. The process of matching DNA continues to this day. The names of everyone who died are engraved on the memorial, and they are carefully grouped so that those who worked together are remembered together.
The memorial is a plaza where they’ve planted 400 swamp oak trees, but there’s one tree that’s different. The Survivor Tree is a Callery pear tree that was found on the site as they were clearing the rubble. It was burned, badly damaged, and nearly dead, but the New York City Parks and Recreation Department removed it and cared for it, nursing it back to health. Now it has a place of honor in the memorial park, and every year seedlings from that Survivor Tree are given to cities where there have been tragedies. It is a living reminder of resilience, survival, and resurrection.
The giant reflecting pools in the memorial are built in the footprint of the twin towers. They are the largest manmade waterfalls in North America. The water continuously flows into a black void in the center. The architect Michael Arad calls his design “visible absence.” It’s a little like the empty cross that no longer has Jesus on it. His visible absence helps us remember that Jesus was resurrected from the dead. If God can do that, then we can trust God to find us and raise us up, too. And help us help others to know this same hope.
This is what we celebrate every Sunday, and every morning when a new day dawns. Thanks, God.
 By Ajay Suresh from New York, NY, USA – Carnegie Hall – Full, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=80043574
 Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash
 Read more: https://www.jewfaq.org/attitudes_toward_gentiles and https://www.gotquestions.org/Bible-unclean.html
 Lynn Japinga in Long, Thomas G.; Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship (p. 319). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
 Photo by Kirk Thornton on Unsplash
 Michael Bond, “Why Humans Totally Freak Out When They Get Lost,” Wired, May 13, 2020. https://www.wired.com/story/why-humans-totally-freak-out-when-they-get-lost/ accessed Sept. 10, 2022.
 Photo by Bradley Allweil on Unsplash
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 Photo by Alejandro Gonzalez on Unsplash