Lost and Found
I want to reflect a bit on that story from Luke’s gospel, and to see what it might say to us, as a church, as we get ready for Alpha.
The first thing to note is that Jesus tells that story while he’s sharing a meal. In fact in Luke’s gospel Jesus spends a lot of his time eating meals; there are at least 10 stories that are set at a meal table (or in the case of the feeding of the 5,000, at a picnic).
Sharing a meal together at Alpha isn’t just an incidental extra - it’s a deliberate, essential and biblical part of why Alpha is so good. Something happens when we eat together.
And one way to get involved with Alpha will be to help with the cooking. It’s something we’re good at as a church - feeding people, and at Alpha we will be feeding a lot of people - we’re hoping for 50 guests or so, so anyone who would be up for helping will be very welcome. There’ll be more on that over the next few weeks, but if you already know you’d like to be involved, please speak to Helen Taylor, who is heading up the catering team with Angie, from Christ Church, or Caroline Davis, who is leading the Alpha planning team.
So that’s the context for this story.
Jesus is sitting at a meal table, and he’s sitting with some unexpected people - not good churchy people, but people who the Pharisees are very uncertain about, and he tells two stories, which are about the same thing. Usually they’re known as the parable of the lost sheep and the parable of the lost coin.
But they could just as well be called ‘the parable of God’s joy’. Notice how they both end. The lost sheep is found and Jesus says, ‘there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous people who need no repentance’ and when the lost coin turns up again he says ‘there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’
And, just to be clear, the word ‘repent’ - which sounds all gloomy and heavy, like this is a story about terrible people who need to walk on their knees all the way to church - the word ‘repent’ means something richer than that - literally it means to ‘change your mind’, and in both Old and New testament it includes a sense of ‘turning around’ or ‘turning away’. Like someone who is lost and heading in the wrong direction, changing their mind about where they’re going, turning around, and heading in a new and better direction - the direction that leads home. It’s a good news word, not a heavy gloomy word.
Back to the story. If you want to make God happy - if you want to see the love that lies at the centre of the Universe smile and laugh and leap for joy - help someone who has been lost, turn around and find their way home. What a vision. When someone discovers that God is real, that they are loved and loveable, that forgiveness is available, that they belong - when someone stops being ‘lost’ and instead finds that they are ‘at home’ - the whole of heaven celebrates. The angels laugh, heaven jumps for joy and God throws a party. That’s why we do Alpha - because for many people it’s a way to discover that they aren’t lost, they’re ‘at home’ in God’s love.
And I think that the experience of many, many people today is of being lost. Not lost in terrible, sinful lives, but lost in ordinary life. Things are changing so fast. New technology, social media, greater pressure to deliver and achieve, terrible threats from climate change, new political movements, economic tectonic plates shifting, so much being measured through financial value alone - these are all changing the world at a pace never seen before.
We’ve got everything we need and more - and yet so many people feel so lost.
And three things happen when we’re lost.
First, we feel alone. If you’re lost you feel like the only person in the world. And being alone - being lonely - is a horrible experience.
And we know that many, many people today feel lonely. For some people that’s a day to day loneliness - there’s nobody to talk to, nobody to hang out with, nobody to share the ordinary stuff of life with. For others, who have lots of people around them, it’s a different kind of loneliness - it’s more existential, like ‘nobody understands me’, or at an even deeper level, ‘what’s the point, I wander through life, in a Universe empty of meaning, except what I bring to it, and then I’m going to die and that’ll be that.’ That is a terribly lonely world to be in.
Julian Barnes, the author, opened his memoir with this line - ‘I don’t believe in God and I miss Him.’ I suspect there are lots of people who feel like that; lonely in an empty universe. They don’t believe in God and they miss Him.
And secondly, when we’re lost, we become unsure what to do next - should I go this way or that way? I’ve got all these choices but none of them feel right. I don’t know what to do next. Being lost can lead to an overwhelming sense of insecurity about what to do.
And I think I lot of people feel like that - that they’re not really sure what to do with life. They might have things sorted on the outside - a job, school work to do, friends - but they want more. They’ve got questions about meaning and purpose and direction.
One of the reasons for the epidemic of mental illness that we see around us, especially in our young people, is a genuine sense that the future is bleak. I heard about someone recently, a15 year old - someone with everything to live for; he’s smart, he’s getting great school results, he’s part of a happy family - and his Dad said, he can’t get out of bed because he thinks there’s nothing for him in the future. His next steps all look equally hopeless. He’s lost and he doesn’t know what to do next.
And then, thirdly, when we’re lost, we are acutely aware of how far we are from our destination - from our ‘home’. We just don’t know where ‘home’ is - each way we turn, each route we try leaves us feeling equally far away from the place we want to go. We’re home-less.
And some people have a deep sense of being ‘homeless’ at the moment. The things that we used to trust - government, political parties…the church too….. are no longer trusted. So where do we turn for truth, and for meaning and for direction and wisdom? Where is there a safe place for us to ‘be at home’ in the world
When we’re lost:
we don’t know what to do next
and we’re homeless.
And I think many people feel something of those things at a profound level these days.
Much of society has moved on from God, thinking that without Him we can be free of all the difficult stuff - a view summed up in the adverts sponsored by the British Humanist Society ‘There’s probably no God, so stop worrying and enjoy your life’. Just get rid of God and everything will be ok - then you can just enjoy life.
But it’s not true, is it. Get rid of God and people still get cancer, lose their jobs, split up, self harm, fight, argue and get hurt. People still suffer. People still struggle. People still mess up. And now, they do it in an empty Universe.
Of course the people that we love and that love us are still there to walk with us, and to be with us - but we’re not the most reliable of species are we?! Sure we can love and forgive and welcome - but we can also hate, hold a grudge and put up barriers against the rest of the world. We need something - someone - reliable.
And Alpha is a gift to a world that feels like that. Alpha is an opportunity to explore the possibility that God exists - without any pressure, without any hassle, just to sit with other explorers and to talk about the really big stuff; life, faith and meaning.
And for millions of people, that journey of exploration, that journey of discovery, has ended up with the life-changing realisation that they are not lost after all - that they are known and loved; that in fact, they can’t ever be lost because, however difficult life gets, God is with them. They can’t be lost, because God is guiding them, one stumbling step at a time through life. They can’t be lost because there’s a home made available - it’s God’s home and we’re invited to ‘dwell’ with him in it - in his love, his forgiveness, his grace.
It’s the possibility that Alpha has offered millions - you are not lost; you have been found. And heaven is waiting to throw a party every time someone says yes to that good news. Every time someone who felt lost discovers that they have been found.
So, here’s a question.
Who do you know, whose life could be changed by that kind of experience?
Who do you know who might benefit from knowing that they are never, ever on their own?
Who do you know who is up for exploring the possibility that they are known and loved and forgiven?
Who do you know that you could invite to Alpha?
Because that’s what’s on offer.
We can get a team together to organise Alpha. We can put posters up, post to Facebook, deliver cards through doors. But the best invitations are those that are personal; those that are given as gifts of love.
So we have postcards to give out, and you’ve been given two today - they’re not for you, nice as you all are - they’re for you to give to someone else.
So please, over the next few weeks, think and pray about that question….who can I invite to Alpha. who do I know who would love the chance to explore the possibility, just to explore the possibility, that God might be real, that they might be loved and that they are not lost.