by Lisa Wiens Heinsohn
Lisa is my older sister, my oldest friend, and such a gifted writer and pastor. The following is a sermon she recently gave at her church, St. Matthews, where Lisa preaches most Sunday nights. Feel free to drop by, either for the service at 7pm (it’s a very cool bluegrass liturgical evening service of night prayer & Eucharist), or the free, no rsvp required drop-in dinner at 5:30pm – or both, of course. Enjoy! Follow Lisa on twitter here.
I grew up Baptist. Growing up, I heard tonight’s parables a lot. We talked about people who were “lost.” “Lost” people by definition were not “us.” They were out there, and they were people whose doctrine was off. Whose beliefs were wrong. You were either “lost” (if you believed the wrong thing or didn’t believe in Jesus at all) or you were “saved” (we didn’t really ever talk about being “found.”) Does this sound familiar to anyone?
We have to get this thing out on the table right away. Jesus gave three parables, one right after the other in Luke 15, about what it meant to be lost and then found. The first is a story about the one sheep of a hundred who was lost, and the next is the story of the one coin out of ten that was lost. The third one is the famous one—the one we traditionally call the prodigal son. The story of the son who disses his father by taking his share of the will before the dad even dies and goes and blows it all on hookers and drugs and partying (I’m paraphrasing a bit). None of these stories have much to do with what you believe. They all have to do with something else. They have to do with arriving at a point of no return, a point where you cannot get back to the place you were before. The sheep is wandering, easy prey for wolves and God knows what, and it can’t get back without help. The coin is abandoned, useless, in some cat haired dusty corner under a sofa and will stay there forever unless someone goes looking for it. The prodigal son is literally starving, at the end of his rope, and he finally is willing to try the one thing he swore to himself he would never do: to go home, to admit defeat and acknowledge what a complete travesty he has made of his life—because the alternative is to stay where he is and to die with the pigs.
What these stories have in common is the sense of hopelessness, or failure. The sense that without intervention nothing will change. Maybe you’ve been depressed for years and even though you’re taking every antidepressant and anxiety med your doc will prescribe, you’re not getting better. You’ve tried several different jobs or several different boyfriends or girlfriends and none of them seems to be a good fit—so you are beginning to think that it might just be you who are not a good fit, not a good fit for this world, maybe. Maybe you discovered that when you had a beer you finally could relax enough at parties to open up to people and you loved how that made you feel, except that now you can’t not drink, and it’s wrecking your life. Or maybe these descriptions aren’t of you, but they describe someone you know, someone you love. This story, the story of failure and of shame, is a story that is completely alien to our culture. Our culture loves success stories. We love Bill Gates and Oprah and winning the Superbowl. When we find ourselves in the middle of a story of failure and shame, we try to hide it as best we can. We don’t like stories that stop when the prodigal gets home, stinky and starving thin, to have a robe and a ring put on him and a party thrown. We want to see him get cleaned up in the shower, put on a few pounds, maybe work out a bit and run a marathon to fundraise for other homeless folks. When we find ourselves in the middle of a story about failure, sometimes we want to stay lost. We don’t even want to be found. That would mean letting someone, anyone, even God, see us for how really broken we can become.
When I was 25 I went to law school. I went to law school because I had already been in a world of trouble and law school seemed like a prestigious respectable thing to do and I was good with words and arguing and books and grades. So I moved to New York and went to law school. The truth is I hated it from the get-go. I would walk the streets of New York and write and skip class. I wrote something called “Memoirs of a Fraud” because even though I was getting decent grades I worried that someone would figure out how completely I felt like I couldn’t fit in to the lawyer thing. Then I graduated and ended up working at this major law firm in downtown Los Angeles. I was 30 years old and making six figures and had an office on the 35th floor of a skyscraper that looked out at the Hollywood Hills. And I still felt like a fraud. Only now I didn’t have the fun of New York to keep me occupied. I worked insane hours and hated most of it. One day I remember being stuck on an hours-long conference call in a corporate merger negotiation and, without even thinking about it, I actually doodled in red pen on the several-thousand-dollar law firm desk behind which I was sitting. I had degenerated into this 4 year old kid doing graffiti on my own law firm’s furniture. It was completely embarrassing. Things went downhill from there. Eventually I felt so lost that what I was really scared of, the last thing I wanted at that point, was to be “found.” To be exposed and vulnerable and admit failure.
But the Christian story has never been a success story. It’s always been a story for people in a hopeless condition. It’s always been a story about how we don’t have to find God—how God has already found us. It’s a story whose climax is the story of the Messiah, the king who is supposed to restore the ancient throne of David, whose moment of glory is when he is stretched and dying on a Roman torture instrument. It’s a story about the sheep who doesn’t have to find her way home. The shepherd puts her on his shoulders and she can rest. Then there is a massive celebration through all of heaven.
When I first came back to church after a 20 year absence, I picked the Episcopal church because I knew it was a protestant church where I would be sure to receive communion every week. What I didn’t know was that the eucharist, which means “the great thanksgiving,” is the climax of the story. It is our fierce celebration of our acceptance by God, regardless of where we are. It is our unending gratitude that even if everyone else has managed to live their lives in productive ways and we have been a total screw up, that God fiercely celebrates with us, God delights in us, God has found us, God makes us new from there—and that IS the story.
How do you connect with this? You might have a dramatic failure story from your own life. But you might not. You might be doing just fine. What I think we all share—whether we ever feel able to talk about it or not—is that sometimes, our best efforts don’t get us anywhere. Maybe your own life has been pretty successful but someone you love, someone for whom you’ve poured out your best attempts at love and connection and generosity, is going downhill and nothing you do can stop it. Some of us react to this with shame; some of us feel bitter or angry. We have to hide this from our culture because our culture chews up lost folks and spits them out. We have to pretend that everything is fine, even though we know that it isn’t. Being lost is sadly the most ordinary thing in the world. It comes in so many different flavors. But in the end it’s all the same: it’s the experience of shame and failure and hopelessness, it’s the experience that no matter what you do, you can’t get better, or nothing will change.
The word “gospel” just means “good news.” The good news of the Christian story is that when we are at that place of hopelessness, we can stop. We can know and realize and literally experience that we can stop looking for God, because God has already found us. This thing that I am describing to you is real. I have seen it in my own life and I have seen it in the lives of others and even though I am never going back to the fundamentalist church I grew up with, I can be a liberal and a social justice junkie and still know that this Christian story thing is REAL. It is the foundation for following the way of Jesus. It is the experience of reaching the end of your rope and knowing that in that exact place, God finds you, picks you up, and calls you home.
by Lisa Wiens Heinsohn