Five years ago, in March 2011, a devastating tsunami struck Japan, killing nearly 16,000 people. Another 2,500 are missing, presumed dead. One man who lost his wife in the disaster continues to search for her body. After scouring the mountains, forests, and shoreline looking for her, he has turned to the sea. Now in his late 50s, he regularly ventures into the dark, cold, deep looking for what is lost.
He is not alone in this quest. He is joined by the father of a 26-year-old bank worker named Emi. Emi’s father also learned deep sea diving, and goes out on weekends, seeking his daughter. Meanwhile, Emi’s mother faithfully prepares “special lunchboxes for Emi that she delivers into the sea.… They are packed with Emi’s favorite meals… in special boxes that decompose. She tosses the boxes off boat ramps, piers or rock ledges or set them gently adrift on the water. Always someplace hidden, where no one will see her.”
“You will do anything for your child,” she says.
* * *
In today’s reading from Luke, Jesus conveys the determination of two other people in different situations who individually tackle the problem of seeking what is lost. They disrupt their regular routines to dedicate their energies to looking far and wide in the hope of retrieving something precious, important. Both succeed.
Yet we know that, despite our best efforts, the search for what is lost does not always end in success. Some things that are lost are well and truly lost, lost forever.
This forever-lostness is on the minds of many who were affected, directly or indirectly, by the events of fifteen years ago, when 3,000 lives were lost in New York, In Washington, in a field in Pennsylvania. Take each one of those lives and multiply it by factors of mother – father – sister – brother – husband – wife – friend – neighbor – colleague and the number is staggering. A universe of forever-lostness.
* * *
In the smoldering rubble of the World Trade Center after the attacks on 9/11, workers in the area known as the pit held a single-minded focus on finding what was lost. They combed through the ruins using everything from heavy equipment to hand trowels.
Early on, it was clear that all that remained were fragments: fragments of buildings, of office equipment, of bodies, of lives, of hope. Much had been lost, yet the search continued, day in, day out. The determination that drove the searchers never seemed to flag.
For some, the memory of that time is sharp and clear. For others, dull and distant. And for still others — those not born at the time, those too young to remember — it’s simply a story told by those who do remember.
It seems every generation has at least one of those defining moments, often grounded in tragedy, that establish a common reference point. Sadly, there are many: Pearl Harbor. The assassinations of President Kennedy and of Martin Luther King. The Challenger explosion. The Boston Marathon. San Bernardino. Pulse in Orlando.
No matter how difficult or painful, these moments shape our identity, culture, and traditions. We honor and preserve them through narrative and story telling. When the stories are scholarly and detailed, we may call them “history.” When they are intimate and personal, we may refer to them as memoirs. And when they focus on the experience of God’s love for us, God’s presence in the darkest corners of our lives, it’s witness or testimony, or Gospel.
This passing of stories from one generation to another is a particularly human endeavor, helping us find our identities, and identify what’s important, what matters. It is about making meaning.
* * *
So here, today, we commission our church school teachers: Tell stories! Listen to stories! Share your lived experience of God’s love and mercy. Exercise that love and mercy in your ministry.
We bless the backpacks that represent the students’ entering into a new school year:
Listen to stories! Write your own stories! Love the stories you hear, and the people who tell them.
Over the course of our years on this planet, we learn that loss is an inevitable part of life.
We lose someone dear to us. We lose sight of a dream. We lose reason, or resiliency. We lose pride or purpose.
Along comes Jesus, saying, No matter how lost you are, I’m going to look for you. No matter how little value you think you have, you are precious to me. No matter what you have done, or failed to do, in your life, I am going to seek you out and lead you home. No matter what stories you tell about yourself or others, I am listening, and am part of that story — whether you know it or not. No matter how much you have lost, I am there to comfort you, to wipe away every tear.
* * *
The two vignettes from Luke’s Gospel are not simply about the happiness and relief we may experience when we find what is lost. It’s not so much about us, as is is about God: how God shatters any restrictions we may place or expectations we may have on how God should act toward sinners. “God’s mercy is as foolish as a shepherd who abandons 99 sheep to save one, [as persistent] as a woman who turns her house upside down in order to recover a paltry sum.”
If you, like me, grew up with the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, you undoubtedly remember the “comfortable words” spoken by the priest immediately after confession and absolution. We heard them earlier in the reading from Paul’s letter to Timothy:
This is a true saying, and worthy of all men to be received, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.
Paul wrote those words to Timothy just a generation or so after the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Through the grace of God and the faithfulness of story-tellers, this ‘true saying’ comes to us thousands of years later across the fragments of our lives. The words are as true now as they were then. Never lost, these words of God’s inestimable, soul-searching love are newly found each time we open our hearts to hear God’s ceaseless, insistent invitation to draw closer.
1. Drawn from article http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/07/magazine/the-lost-ones.html
2. http://www.history.com/topics/ground-zero. By May 2002, when the cleanup officially ended, workers had moved more than 1.8 million tons of rubble to a Staten Island landfill.