(Streaming on Netflix)
I had a habit while I was serving as a hospital chaplain serving overnight shifts that I’ve recently rediscovered: watching space documentaries as I’m falling asleep. When I was a chaplain, the space documentaries helped calm my nerves about what may lie ahead in the night by showing me the vastness of the universe. For some reason, reminding me of just how huge the universe is an even better way to get me to sleep than reading constitutional church law (my other cure for insomnia).
Lately, I’ve been watching another one: Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos on Netflix. He begins by talking about how long the universe has existed. Save for some religious groups with some strict interpretations of ancient Scriptures, most folks agree that the universe is really, really, really old — some 13.8 billion years old. Now, I know that some folks have different views on science, but personally, I must say that I love science, and to me, it just helps underscore the vastness, wonder, creativity, and sheer incomprehensibility of what and whom we call God, and I think that any of us who believe that “nothing is impossible with God” should have no problem signing off on good science.
As one of my United Methodist colleagues in Alabama, the Reverend Doctor Wesley Wachob once said at our assembly, in his deep Southern drawl, “My friends, good theology sings hallelujah when it hears good science!”
Still, it’s natural to be a little fearful of what we don’t understand, especially when it tells us how big the universe is, or how long it’s been here. It can leave us feeling kind of, well, small and lost.
In Cosmos, Neil deGrasse Tyson lays out the history of the universe as if it were a calendar year. In this analogy, January 1 is the beginning of the universe, and 11:59PM on December 31 represents the present, with all the other dates worked out proportionally over 14 billion years. On this particular scale, each month represents about a billion years. In this scenario, the earth wasn’t even formed until September, and on November 9th, life appeared on earth, and as for any recorded human history? Everyone you’ve ever heard of existed only within the last ten seconds before midnight on December 31.
So if the universe is a calendar year, recorded history exists only within the countdown to midnight on New Year’s Eve.
What this tells me theologically is that God has been creating for a long, long time. And so, relative to the universe, not to mention God’s own existence, I am tiny, minuscule, a blip in history. One might even say that when I consider all this, it makes me feel — a bit lost.
Of course, you don’t have to have a science-induced existential crisis to feel lost.
Just the other day while running at Dufresne Park in Granby, I was sure I had made my way back to the park from the trails when I rounded a corner and coasted down a hill, only to hear a very large animal huff, stand to its feet, and move away quickly. I thought I’d found the park again, but what I’d really found was a cattle farm.
We get lost all kinds of ways, literally and figuratively: we make a wrong turn. We don’t look at the trail map. We become distracted and lose sight of what’s important. We get addicted to something or become codependent on someone. Our getting lost may result in serious consequences, or it may be a little sneakier — it may just be our losing any sense of purpose in our day to day lives, feeling like our dreams have been left behind, or just generally feeling stagnant. We begin to feel small. Insignificant. Lost.
The images of the parables that Jesus tells in today’s Gospel lesson — especially the one about the lost sheep — are so familiar that we can easily lose their meaning. Paintings of Jesus with the lamb across his shoulders are among some of the most popular. “Leaving the ninety-nine to go and find the one,” for those of us who grew up in church, has been a phrase we’ve been hearing since childhood. This week, I found articles upon articles using the image as a metaphor for addiction recovery, for pastoring, for parenting. The second image Jesus uses today is a little less familiar: the woman who has ten coins and loses one, and COMPLETELY FREAKS OUT, turning the house upside down, until she’s found her lost coin.
These seem pretty straightforward: we get lost, and Jesus finds us.
I could end the sermon right there, but I don’t think that would be helpful to most of you. There’s more here, and we all know that getting lost is often really not as simple as the caveman-esque theology of “we lose, Jesus find.”
The whole episode begins with Jesus chatting with some of the biggest sinners of his day — some of the most outcast, hated people he could find. You know the pharmaceutical CEOs who have come under fire recently for upping their prices for no reason? You now how hated they were for price gouging? That’s about how hated the tax collectors were: they were fellow citizens of the Jewish people who willingly worked for Rome, the oppressive occupying force of Israel, collecting taxes. If that wasn’t bad enough, they were known for overcharging their fellow citizens, ripping them off, and skimming the excess off the top for themselves.
Tax collectors weren’t just your run of the mill “sinners” who maybe got caught in the wrong bed or got caught stealing once or twice. They were known as corrupt, terrible people. They were hated. And that’s who Jesus was hanging out with.
And so, understandably, the Pharisees, the religious folks, have some questions about that. But Luke draws our attention to something: the sinners and tax collectors, he said, were drawing near to Jesus, while the Pharisees, the good church folks of their day, were grumbling about Jesus keeping the wrong company.
Makes me wonder upon re-reading who was actually the most lost in this scenario: the sinners who drew near, or the righteous people who spewed self-righteous negativity?
Either way, Jesus tells three stories, two of which we have here: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and after this, the prodigal son. There are three different lost things here, and fault is assigned to no one: the sheep may have wandered away, but the coin certainly didn’t lose itself, while the prodigal son walked away willingly and willfully from his father.
In the same way, sometimes we find ourselves lost by our own willfulness and wrong choices, like the prodigal son. Other times, we find ourselves lost by circumstances almost or entirely out of our own control, like the coin. Still other times, we find ourselves lost or in a jam with absolutely NO idea how we got there.
And the results are similar too: sometimes we find our own way back to our purpose like the prodigal son. Still other times, like the sheep and the coin, the Holy Spirit grabs us by the scruff of the neck and carries our sorry tails back to camp.
We are each lost and found, over and over again. Lost and found, sinner and saint.
The strange thing about these two stories in particular — the sheep and the coin — is that both of the heroes of the stories (the shepherd and the woman) would have to have been pretty wealthy. To have ten coins, or especially to have one hundred sheep, one would need to be a person of means. And being a person of means sometimes means that you don’t notice when something goes missing: I doubt the woman sat around counting her coins all day, and yet, she notices when one is missing. In the same way, a shepherd may not notice one sheep going missing, and quite frankly, ten out of ten shepherds agree that leaving the whole flock to go after the one little lost lamb is probably not a good business decision. But the shepherd does it anyway, and calls his whole community to rejoice when he finds the sheep.
Part of our fear and insecurity in being lost is not feeling like we are worthwhile. If the universe is vast, and if God created it all, logic says that God probably doesn’t care much for a tiny speck in time like myself, one that will not last even one second on Neil Degrasse Tyson’s calendar of the universe. I am even smaller and more insignificant than one in a hundred sheep.
And yet, the Gospel tells the completely illogical story that each person, each lost sheep, is significant to God. And that each of us, tiny though we are in the grand scheme of the universe, are, somehow, significant to the God who created it all, and that when we find ourselves lost and then found, that vast, immeasurable God actually rejoices with us.
When we leave this place, we, a small church, will go into the world to do work that may, on the grand scheme of things, seem sort of small too. We do so on the fifteen year anniversary of September 11, 2001, a day that rendered us all small in the grand scheme of international politics, religion, and terror. But what we discovered on that day is that the smallest acts of kindness meant everything, and that individuals —- in fire and rescue, law enforcement, and the military — working together could do so much, and that really, though we may be small on the grand scale of it all, we were not insignificant. We all had, and have, a role to play.
And so let us first gather at this table where the vast, incomprehensible God of the universe searches and seeks and finds us all, because we each have a role to play in God’s vast universe. You have people to love, and work to do, not in order to be loved by God, but because you are loved by God, and whether you are lost or not, you are sought, and you are held, and ultimately, over and over until the end of time, we will be thrown over God’s shoulder and carried home. Thanks be to God. Amen.