On Sunday evenings I like to watch Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. It’s a program on which a family in great need is selected to receive a completely new home, built on their existing property, to replace a house that’s pretty much falling down and otherwise unsafe. The people for whom these houses are built are not just in financial need, they are also people who genuinely deserve the help, people who dedicate their lives to helping others, sometimes despite rather serious physical handicaps. They’re often nominated by members of their community because of the good they do for other people while their own homes literally fall apart around. Hundreds of volunteers from the community come together with Ty Pennington and his team of designers and builders to demolish the existing home and then build a completely new home designed for that particular family in just one week, while the family is sent to Disney World or someplace for a vacation. Last Sunday Ty Pennington and his crew built a new home for the family of Jason Thomas.
Jason Thomas is one of the heroes of 9/11, an ex-Marine who spent the days following 9/11 working to save lives. Even though he was no longer on active duty, and even though his job had nothing to do with law enforcement or fire rescue, he immediately left his job and went to the Ground Zero to offer his help. He kept working for days, and long after most people thought there couldn’t possibly be anyone left alive, he just kept digging until two more men were freed from the wreckage. Because of his persistence, his refusal to give up, two New York Port Authority Policemen were rescued. Afterwards, he stayed and kept looking for more survivors, until finally he was told to go home, to let it go. There was no one else left. Those two policemen that he rescued were the last two people who came out alive. Do you remember the celebration when those last two were rescued? On the days following September 11th, Jason Thomas lived up to the motto of the Marine Corps – Semper Fi – Always Faithful. He would not give up.
In many ways, Jason’s story is like the story of the lost sheep, and the woman with the lost coin. Like the shepherd, he left everything behind to search for the lost. Like the woman, he left no corner untouched, searching diligently until he finally found what he was looking for.
The Lost Sheep and the Woman with the Lost Coin – we’ve heard these two stories so many times. We’ve wondered why a shepherd would leave a whole flock to chase one lost sheep. We may have been able to relate a little better to the woman with the lost coin – at least she probably had the other coins safely in her keeping while looking for the lost one. And then there’s the way the shepherd and the woman reacted to finding what was lost. I mean, normally if you lose a sheep, or a sum of money, or anything really important, you don’t throw a party to celebrate. You’re much more likely to keep it to yourself so nobody has to know you lost it in the first place!
When we look at these stories next to the story of Jason Thomas, maybe they make more sense. Most people didn’t just walk off the job and go downtown to dig through the rubble. Most people kept working, kept earning a living for their families, kept themselves safe. Yes – most people sent money or donated supplies or did something to help. And a lot of people from all over the country did go to do whatever they could. But most people didn’t go to the extreme effort he did. And of those who did go down to help with the rescue efforts, most had given up on finding anyone else alive long before Jason did.
If this man, who didn’t even know the people he was looking for, could be so dedicated to finding and saving them, how much more important must we be to God, who knows and loves each one of us. How much more faithful, even than a Marine, our God is, to offer forgiveness to anyone who admits their faults and asks for pardon.
Paul experienced this forgiveness personally, on the road to Damascus, and talks about it in his first letter to Timothy verses 12-17:
12 I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, 13even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, 14and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 15The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost. 16But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life. 17To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.
What we always have to remember about Paul is that he wasn’t what the world would have seen as “lost.” He wasn’t a tax collector, or a drug addict, or an adulterer, or a thief, or anything like that. He was a righteous man, a faithfully practicing Jew, who believed he was doing right in chasing down and arresting or executing people he believed to be blaspheming against God. Although Jesus taught much that was in accord with what Paul believed, he also taught things that turned Paul’s world upside down! Paul didn’t understand how anything could be more important than obeying God’s laws. He didn’t understand how the Messiah could come as a wandering rabbi from Galilee. He didn’t even understand that God’s kingdom was not a physical place, but a state of being. Talk about finding one who was lost! Paul is the perfect example, way better than a sheep or a coin or even two policemen. For here was a man who didn’t understand that he was lost. Who believed that he was right and would not be open to any other point of view. But Jesus chased him down, pointed out his errors, forgave him, and welcomed him warmly into the family of Christ – even sent him to other believers that he might be healed physically as well as spiritually.
Paul wasn’t made perfect that day. He would continue to get angry and to fight with people who didn’t see things his way. But from then on, he would search his soul, confess his faults, and ask forgiveness. From then on, he would understand that Love is the foundation for God’s kingdom, and he would really try to be loving even to those who opposed him. We know these things, because he put them in writing, and those writings have survived even till today.
I think that if we have a predetermined idea of who the Lost are, we’re missing the big picture. The sheep was part of the flock, and wandered away. The coin was one of 10 that was somehow misplaced. The policemen were human beings who were in clear and present danger. Paul was a righteous man whose understanding of what was acceptable to God was inflexible. All of these were lost. All of these were part of something larger – they weren’t just random units that someone went looking for just to be looking.
Who, then, are the Lost? Who are the sheep and the coin of these parables? Who are these sinners God is seeking so diligently?
There are the obvious Lost – folks who don’t go to church at all – the ones we’re told we’re supposed to evangelize. Non-believers and drug addicts and alcoholics and criminals and homeless folks. People who are angry at God. People who believe they’re doomed to hell, so why bother. People who don’t seem to be part of anything - loners.
But there are a lot of other Lost ones.
The Lost are members of congregations who feel alienated or disconnected somehow. They may still show up, but their hearts aren’t in it anymore. The Lost are the folks who find their church’s theology unbearable, or see more ambition and power seeking behavior than they think ought to be happening in church, and so they wander off. The Lost are the ones who have been driven out of their church, because they have a drug problem or got divorced or came out of the closet, who feel rejected but who desperately want to be part of Christ’s family.
The Lost are Us. Whenever we find ourselves feeling less than, or not a part of, or rejected, or unwanted – we are the Lost. Whenever we find ourselves feeling better than, or needing to be in control, or angry because others question what we are doing - we are the Lost. Whenever we are doing anything that will separate us from God and from each other, we are Lost.
The Good News, my brothers and sisters, is that we don’t have to stay Lost. We can find our way back and join in that celebration, for the path back is easy enough to find.. God has sent Jesus as the Light to guide our way. Through Jesus, through walking the path that Jesus has shown us how to take, God’s amazing grace finds us and bring us back safely from any danger we may encounter. Amen.
Hymn Amazing Grace