RCL Year C, Proper 19
I just returned from an overnight trip to the wilderness, two days of solo backpacking I took as a retreat. When I go by myself into the wilderness, I’m especially aware of God as my companion and guardian – otherwise I get too scared and lonely. So it’s a good way for me to take a spiritual retreat, because I’m thrown a little more into a state of need, less able to fend for myself. Along the way, I was meditating on this gospel reading we just heard, and I found the idea of the lost sheep being found in the wilderness very reassuring. Except that I noticed on further reading that in order to find that one sheep who goes missing, the shepherd leaves the other 99 sheep alone in the wilderness. And then carries the one missing one home and has a party. It doesn’t say what happens to the rest of the flock. Are the other 99 still out there, being eaten by wild animals? Or is the idea that they’re already so righteous that they can take care of themselves? I started to wonder.
The thing is, sometimes we feel like the one lost sheep. But sometimes we feel like the 99 who got left behind. It may be that a big part of it is whom we’re relying on – are we convinced we’re righteous and competent and just fine in the wilderness, thanks? Or do we know we’re lost and in need of saving?
I think that’s the point of Jesus’ stories about the sheep and the coins. He tells them to the grumbling scribes and Pharisees, the ones always busy pointing fingers in the gospel stories. He leads in with, Which of you wouldn’t do this? And then he tells two stories that are nothing like what the Pharisees would do – or probably what any of us would do, either. Leave the 99 sheep alone in the wilderness to find the one who got lost? Throw a big party because you found one missing coin? You’ve got to be kidding.
But Jesus isn’t trying to give them rules and proscriptions for behavior. He’s pointing out something important about how they, and we, are with God. They, the grumbling Pharisees, are sure they’re righteous – they’re doing the right thing and following the law. It’s other people who are clearly notorious sinners, and Jesus is flagrantly consorting with those sinners day and night. So Jesus is trying to explain to them, yet again, that not only are those other sinners welcome back in God’s eyes, but even you Pharisees, grumbling and righteous as you are, are welcome back. All you have to do is acknowledge that you’re lost.
Well, for many of us, this is easier said than done. I’m in the midst of reading the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous – I’ve been familiar with the Twelve Steps for some time, but never read the book. I’m impressed by its absolute frankness, for how straightforward it is about human nature and how we fool ourselves. And one of the very first things it lays out, in the first three steps, is our need for a higher power. The writers go to some lengths to address the atheist and the agnostic, saying look, we used to think like you too. We used to think we were in charge and all this stuff about God and the supernatural was ridiculous. But look where it got us – and look where it’s gotten you. You can’t do anything to help yourself. You need God, in whatever way you want to define God, to get you out of this, because on your own, as you have shown numerous times, you can’t do it.
I know lots of people who ought to read this book. But it’s not just people addicted to alcohol or other substances – it’s all of us addicted to our own competence. Admit it – you don’t know everything. Admit it – you’re not in control. Because once you admit it, God has a chance to work with you and show you the right way, lead you home, throw a party and celebrate.
For some reason that seemed to be what God wanted to show me on my trip this week. I’ve gone out alone a few times; I know what to do, how to find my way, read the weather, feed myself, shelter myself, all of that. The last time I went out alone, it was a relief to realize how much I did know and could do for myself. But this time, I kept having trouble. Finding the right trail to start on took me an hour the first day. Finding my way up the trail to the lakes I planned to stay at took a while too, because it turned out that trail hadn’t been maintained for a few years and was nearly impossible to follow. Deciding whether to put up the tent or sleep out put me in a frenzy, with clouds pouring in as the sun went down and then disappearing later to leave the sky full of stars. Finding my way back down the slope from the lake was even harder than finding my way up. And then I turned the absolute wrong way on the trail to head back out – and only by a sheer quirk ended up getting back going the right way. It was like over and over I was being confronted with my incompetence, instead of my abilities. And that, God seemed to be saying in my ear, was my message for this trip: you don’t always make good decisions, smartypants. Sometimes, in fact, you’re completely lost. You need me to come looking for you and redirect you. So get over yourself!
I don’t know what this will mean for the next time I go into the wilderness. But I did take the point about my life as a whole. It’s ok to admit I’m lost. It’s ok to say I made a mistake. And it’s really ok to say I need God’s help to get back to where I should be. It is, in fact, the whole basis for my relationship with God – what I do when I pray, and worship, and try to live faithfully. And when I do that, God is all too ready to come find me, to turn me around and bring me home.
Today in our month of celebrating ministries, we’re focusing on worship and music. It’s central to our life as Episcopalians, to our Anglican tradition. We gather regularly and we worship, singing praise and praying to God. We do this because we know what God has done for us, and we respond to it with celebration. We don’t do it because we’re righteous and because it’s the right thing to do, following the rules – we do it because we’re lost and found and we’re grateful for it. So sing it like you mean it today – give thanks for how God saves us, over and over again. Amen.