No Place Too Far

In 2016, ABC News ran a story about a woman named Tiffany Otterbeck.  Tiffany and her husband had had a baby, she’d gone on parental leave, and now, she had returned to work. 

One night, even though she was exhausted from working all day and then caring for her young daughter, she decided that she was going to make dinner. They had eaten far too much take-out in the last week, and she wanted to make something!  Comfort food!  Meatloaf!

As she began preparing the meal, Tiffany took her wedding ring off her finger and wrapped it in two paper towels for safe keeping and set it on the edge of the counter.  

You can probably guess where this story is going.  After the meatloaf went into the oven, she started cleaning up, and she took the paper towels on the counter and threw them away with the rest of the trash.  

After dinner, she gave her daughter a bath and went to bed.  It was mid-morning at work the next day when she went to grab a fresh cup of coffee, and she reached to adjust her ring…and it wasn’t there.  She said, “Instantly, I knew.  I knew what happened.  I knew it had gone into the garbage…I knew it, and I was immediately sick to my stomach.”  She got in the car and raced home, but it was trash pick up day, and her can was already empty.  In a panic, she called her husband, who immediately got into his car and began driving the neighborhood, looking for the garbage truck.  No luck.

“I was hysterically crying as I called the garbage company,” she said.  She spoke with the supervisor, who was sympathetic, but not hopeful.  He was able to identify which truck had done her pick up, and he called them and instructed them to pause their route, take the truck to a designated area, and walk away from it.  Under no circumstances, dump it out.  

So at the end of the workday, dressed in old clothes, she and her husband met the supervisor…and five other sanitation employees who’d volunteered to help, at the truck.  After 45 minutes of digging through piles of bags, they figured it was about 7 tons…there was a shout!   The ring was found.  

“It was the best 45 minutes of my life, and the most disgusting 45 minutes of my life,” Tiffany said.  

“I was just so relieved, and I was so happy!  I can’t believe I lost it. I’d hoped to pass it down to my daughter one day. I was so touched by the fact that these men really helped us. I’m so grateful.  And…I’ll never be able to think of meatloaf the same way ever again.”

Grace and peace to you from God, our creator, and from Jesus, who searches for you and me.  Amen.

Have you ever had a lost and found experience like Tiffany’s?  I’m great at losing things:  my keys…my phone…my dog…my car in a mall parking lot once…what are the emotions I’ve felt when I’ve lost something?  I’ve felt frustration, irritation, sometimes nervousness…and what do I feel when I find something I’ve lost?  Almost always, it’s simply relief.

But Tiffany Otterbeck felt more than relief:  She felt joy!  Joy at finding her missing ring.  Joy at the return of her heirloom, and the symbol of her marriage.  Joy!  Hang on to this idea of joy for a moment…we’re going to come back to it.  

As I studied Jesus’ parables this week: the lost sheep…the lost coin… something caught my attention:  Who is Jesus talking about in these stories?  You see, I think I’d mis-read this scripture for years.  I always assumed that the lost sheep, or the lost coin represented those who were outside of the faith.  I’d assumed that the lost were those who had rejected the faith, or who maybe were apathetic about the faith.  

And my assumption about the meaning of the story was that when God found these people…these outsiders, and when they came to faith and entered the community, there was joy.  And that does happen.  But I don’t think that what Jesus is talking about here.

In an article about these parables, Pastor Debi Thompson reminded me of a simple piece of common sense that I’d never considered:  Before it was lost, he missing lamb had already been a part of the flock.  And the lost coin? It had already belonged to the woman.  The shepherd and the woman, in their searching for the lamb and the coins, were simply hoping to retrieve what was already theirs.  Understanding this little detail changes the meaning of the story.

“Lostness,” you see, isn’t an experience exclusive to those outside of the family of faith…outside of the church.  Not at all.  Jesus is reminding us in these parables that lostness happens to Gods’ people.  

So what does it mean to be lost?  Pastor Thomas writes that it means many things.  Think about times that maybe you’ve wandered…perhaps without even realizing it.  Think of how maybe you have lost your moorings, and found yourself in strange situations, with no markers to guide you home.

  • Sometimes we lose our sense of belonging.  
  • Sometimes we lose our capacity to trust.  
  • We lose our ability to experience God’s presence.  
  • We lose our will to persevere.  
  • We lose the capacity to discern right from wrong.  
  • Some of us get lost when illness descends on our lives, and when we start to question God’s goodness.  
  • Some of us get lost when death comes to a loved one without warning, and we experience a crisis of faith that leaves us reeling. 
  • Some of us get lost when our marriages fall apart.  
  • Some of us get lost when our children break our hearts.  
  • Some of us get lost in the midst of addiction, or anxiety, or anger, or hatred, or apathy or bitterness.  
  • Some of us get lost very close to home…even within the very walls of the church.
  • We get lost when it feels like God is not hearing our prayers.
  • We get lost when the community we’ve loved lets us down.

We get lost.  

We wander. We are the lost sheep…and the lost coin.  You.  And me.

Pastor Thomas writes that “We get so miserably lost that the shepherd must wander through the wilderness to find us.  We get so wholly lost that the woman has to light her lamp, pick up her broom, and sweep out every nook and cranny of her house to discover what’s happened to us.”

Can we just pause for a moment and just take in how incredibly astonishing this is?  That the God of the universe stops whatever God is up to, to look for us when we are lost.  God searches and God persists. God wanders the hills and valleys looking for the lost…God turns the house upside down searching.  For you.  For me.

On September 11, 2001, twenty-one years ago today, a man named Welles Crowther went to work, just like every other day.  He was an equities trader and he worked in the World Trade Center. After the second tower was hit, the one he was in, Welles led everyone he could find down the steps to safety, and then he went back for more. And after leading more people to safety, he went back again, and again, and again, until the tower collapsed. 

On that day, this talented, athletic, good natured, but in so many ways ordinary person did an extraordinary thing, giving his life to make sure others could live.  He persisted.  He kept looking.  He was relentless. He never gave up! 

Our God does not give up.  God is persistent.  God is relentless.  

This is an image of God we don’t often get.  We think of God as the stationary one, and we are the ones who can choose to move close, and away…near, and far…intimate, and distant.  

But Jesus tells us today that this is not how it is.  We move farther…and God follows.  We go distant…and God searches.  We are lost…and God finds us.  Every day.  

Every single day.

Ok.  Let’s come back to this idea of joy that I talked about earlier.  When God finds us, there is joy!  Jesus says: “Just like in these parables, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” When the lost are found, when we are brought back…God experiences joy!

Never underestimate the power of joy!  The joy that God, and that we, experience when we’re found brings light, and hope, and love.  It moves us.  It empowers us.  Joy heals the world.

It feels like joy is in short supply right now.  When I look at my newsfeed, when I read the paper, when I watch the local, the statewide and the national politics, I don’t see a lot of joy.  I see anger and frustration, but joy?  Yeah, not so much.

I think it’s because we forget what God does for us.  It’s because in the midst of everything going on around us…we don’t see God looking for us.  We are content trying to go alone.  We deny our own lostness.  We think we don’t need God.  And so, we miss that God is looking…and that God finds us.  We miss the joy.

That is not how God intends for us to live.  God wants us to recognize our lostness…our brokenness…and to see God looking for us, and to let ourselves be found, and then to experience the joy that comes from that restored relationship.

My friends, there is no place so far away that God will not look for you and find you.  Jesus went all the way to the cross, and gave up his life, to find you, to give you the gift of new life, and to draw you close.

Open your eyes to see.  Open your hearts to receive and open your arms and let yourself be found.

And experience the joy that God feels, when God is close to us.


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