September 12th, 2010

This week, St. Andrew’s played host to David Mainse, of Crossroads Television. He is probably best known as the former host of 100 Huntley Street, and I found him to be a fascinating man. Theologically, we are a bit different, but on the essentials we agreed. We believe in the same God, and we believe that his son, Jesus Christ, died to save us, to rescue the lost souls. We found, despite our differences, that we could agree on many things. And we found, despite the many differences among the churches in Quebec City, we could all agree on the essentials. One of the essentials is found in today’s Gospel reading, in which we heard two stories of things that were lost and now are found.
Now, to us, the lost sheep and the lost coin are not all that important, but to the people concerned, they were vital. One sheep among one hundred may not seem like very much, but my cousin, who has a small sheep ranch in Tasmania, could tell you differently. She counts her sheep at the end of every day, and if one is missing, she doesn’t go to bed until it is found. It seems that sheep know each other, and if one goes missing, then the others will be restless, because they think that a predator has taken it. It is even worse if a mother goes missing. The baby bleats in a pitiful voice until its mother is returned. And let’s not even talk about what the mother does if her baby disappears! Suffice it to say that Tracy can identify completely with the shepherd in the first story.
As for the coin – well, we need to know a bit about the economy of Jesus’ time in order to understand its importance. You see, in those days, the wealth of a family was often judged by how many coins they had. And the woman of the house would wear the coins as ornaments. Ten silver coins was a nice amount, and losing one represented losing one-tenth of the family’s wealth. When it is put like that, it sounds like a lot more than just one coin, doesn’t it? So by losing one-tenth of the family’s wealth, the woman could be putting the family in serious jeopardy, as people would start to think that she didn’t care about her family. Therefore, the search was really necessary, and the rejoicing afterwards was heartfelt.
Now, of course, the point of these stories, of course, is to show how God and the heavenly host rejoice when one person who is lost is found and returned safely where he belongs. All Christian denominations believe in this, and to illustrate it in a concrete way, I want to tell you a story about a Bible camp. Not the one I went to this summer, but one which I think was similar, in many ways. There were boys and girls at this camp, and on the very first morning, one of the campers was missing his camera. Later that day, another camper went to get his baseball glove, only to discover that it, too, was missing. It wasn’t hard to figure out that there was a thief in the camp. The counsellors went on a hunt, and discovered the missing items in the sleeping bag of a boy we will call Terry. They confronted him, and said, “Why did you take the things?” “I didn’t take them,” replied Terry. “Look, we know you took them,” said the counsellor. “They were in your sleeping bag. But this is only the second day of camp, so we’ll give you a break. I’ll return the things, and we’ll act as if none of this happened. Nobody needs to know that you took them.”
Terry insisted, “I didn’t take them.” But the worst thing was that, the whole time he was talking to the counsellor, he had no expression on his face. You could tell that his life away from camp wasn’t easy, and that he had to behave in a certain way, just to get along in his home and in his neighbourhood. Did I mention that Terry was from what we call the Inner City? And that’s not really a good place to be from.
So the next day, Terry was out in a boat with another camper, and he stuck a fishhook in the other camper’s leg. Back he went to the counsellor. “Why did you do it?” asked the counsellor. “I didn’t do it,” said Terry.
Well, clearly, the counsellor was at his wit’s end. What was he going to do with this 12-year-old? It seemed as if the only solution was to send him home. But any of you who have ever been to camp know how much counsellors and camp directors hate having to admit defeat. Did I mention that this was a Roman Catholic camp? And one of the people working there was a retired nun – Sister Ruth. Even though she was officially retired, she showed no signs of slowing down, and during the summer, she worked at the camp, doing the chores of a handyman. That’s what her father had been, and he had taught her everything about repairing things, so that is what she did. The kids called her “Sister Fix-it”, and it turns out that she could fix just about anything.
The counsellor mentioned Terry at the staff meeting that night, and the next morning, Sister Ruth – who got up before anyone else – went to Terry’s cabin, and woke him while the other campers were still sleeping. “Get up and come with me,” she said, “I need you to help me.” And that’s the way things continued. The other kids would be playing baseball, and Sister Ruth would appear and say to Terry, “Come with me. I need some help in the garden.” The other campers would be swimming. Sister Ruth and Terry would be painting the chapel. The other campers would be eating. Sister Ruth and Terry would be having their lunch outside, while they took a break between their chores. Wherever you saw Sister Ruth, you saw Terry. Wherever you saw Terry, you saw Sister Ruth.
Instead of sending the kid home when the new campers came in, the parents and camp director agreed to leave him another two weeks. The new batch of kids did not know the history of the kid with who worked with Sister Fix-It, and they would ask him, “Do you want to play baseball?” He would look at her and she would say, “Go play baseball. Then meet me back here. We have work to do in the garden.” The other kids would be going horseback riding and would say to him, “Want to come riding?” He would look at her and she would say, “You go riding. Then meet me back here and we’ll paint the bench down at the lake.”
And that’s how it went for another two weeks. She let him out and she reeled him in. She let him out and she reeled him in. At the end of the two weeks, the kid was integrated into the life of the camp.
The day his parents came to pick him up, they waited with the camp counsellor and director on the hill overlooking the camp. They all saw them at the same time. The old nun known as Sister Fix-it and the kid with no expression on his face. They were coming up the path that led down to the lake. Even at twelve he was taller than she was. She had her arm around his waist and a glow on her face like a woman who had found a coin she had long searched for. With each step she pulled him against her. She was hip-hugging him all the way. And he was letting her do it.
Now can you just imagine the rejoicing? This kid, who had come to camp as prickly as a porcupine, this kid, who seemed determined to do things to upset people, this kid was suddenly a valued member of the community. He was lost, and, thanks to the persistence of Sister Ruth, was found.
I think that this story about the bible camp, as well as the stories Jesus told in our Gospel reading for today, all talk about love. Jesus is letting us know that we are loved; that no matter how far we stray, we will be welcomed back. We need to know that his love for us perseveres. In Timothy’s letter, which we also read today, the evangelist wrote: Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Jesus Christ. We all need to hear this; we all need to be reminded that, no matter how bad we think we are, God won’t give up. He will keep calling us, and calling us, until we finally respond.
And he will keep answering our prayers, even when we fail to keep our end of the bargain. Just think about it for a minute. How many times have you said something like, “God, if I pass this test, I’ll go to church every Sunday.” But something comes up, and you miss first one Sunday, then another, and then another. Or you say, “God, make this interview lead to a better job, and I’ll pray more often.” The interview worked, but because the new job demanded more time, you actually prayed less. God kept his side of the bargain, but you didn’t. And that happens more times than not, with all of us. And you know what is really funny about this of bargaining? We actually think that we CAN bargain with God, that we are on an equal footing with the Creator of the universe. Talk about arrogance! Of course, even if we keep our side of the bargain, that is not going to guarantee our salvation. Jesus Christ already did that, when he died for us. That is something that we, as Christians and as Presbyterians, believe. That is something that we, as Christians and Presbyterians, know.
But there are times when we feel lost, when we feel cut off from God’s love, cut off from God’s goodness. We sometimes feel as though we are truly lost, and probably not even worth saving. But, you know, we are probably not really that bad. I remember hearing a story about a kindergarten teacher who said, “Let’s pretend that the bad boys and girls are painted red, and the good boys and girls are painted green. What colour would you be?” Think about that for a minute. What colour would you be? I think that most of us are like the little boy who replied, “I’d be striped.” Those of us who claim to be good, really aren’t that good. And those of who think we are bad, still have some redeeming qualities. God knows this, even if we sometimes don’t.
John Grisham is a well-known author, and one of the reasons his books are so popular is because many of us can see ourselves in his characters. When I was preparing this sermon, thinking about the lost things being found, and the lost people being saved, I couldn’t help remembering Grisham’s novel THE TESTAMENT. In this book, Grisham paints a portrait of one man’s surrender to God’s will. Nate O’Reilly, a disgraced corporate attorney, is plagued by alcoholism and drug abuse. After two marriages, four detox programs, and a serious health crisis, Nate acknowledges his need for God. Grisham describes the dramatic transformation in these words: With both hands, he clenched the back of the pew in front of him. He repeated (his) list, mumbling softly every weakness and flaw and affliction and evil that plagued him. He confessed them all. In one long glorious acknowledgment of failure, he laid himself bare before God. He held nothing back. He unloaded enough burdens to crush any three men, and when he finally finished Nate had tears in his eyes. “I’m sorry,” he whispered to God. “Please, help me.” As quickly as the fever had left his body, he felt the baggage leave his soul. With one gentle brush of the hand, his slate had been wiped clean. He breathed a massive sigh of relief, but his pulse was racing.
Perhaps, like Nate, you have a list of things you need to bring to God. Perhaps, like Nate, you are burdened down by what you see as the bad things in your life. Perhaps, like Nate, all you need to do is to let go, and pass things over to God. Don’t even try to make bargains with God. It doesn’t work like that. Just go to him, tell him you are sorry, and you will be forgiven, and welcomed home. That’s the good news for all of us. No matter how many times we mess up, no matter how many times we think that we should be painted all read instead of striped, God isn’t going to give up on us. Rather, God will keep on being there, keep on welcoming us back, until we finally get it, until we realize just how boundless is his love and forgiveness. Jesus himself said it: There is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents. Thanks be to God.


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