Fifty years ago, many of us were fascinated by a set of images or words coming from our media that became part of who we were. Images of the far away moon and representatives of humanity walking there have become part of who we are. Eighteen years ago, a set of images became part of our culture. The collective consciousness of the world expanded to include images of buildings and people falling, images of planes crashing and exploding, images of exhausted first responders. Alongside those images are sets of mental pictures, where we were and who was with us on September 11, 2001.
In the days of the exodus, a set of images became part of Israelite history. God’s chosen people amassed images of their escape, of the destruction Yahweh brought down in plague after plague, of an angry pharaoh chasing after his slave labour as they fled into the desert. The exodus created images of walls of water piling up for the weary nation to cross a riverbed; and in the journey to their freedom, the people of God gathered up images of pharaoh’s great army swallowed up in an unforgiving sea.
Yet in Exodus 32, we struggle to understand a people who conspired together to form a more concrete image of a god, one they could create and touch, one they could understand and control, one they could move and manipulate. The images of past deliverance were not sufficient for their faith. They sought more than the image of a past experience. They pursued an image of God’s presence; but like many of us searching for certainty, they shaped an image of God’s absence. The disturbing, living quality of Yahweh, God is that no image can hold God’s full presence.
And, while images of our life and world will replay around us, we are challenged to see God somewhere in all of them— in that first step onto a far celestial body by humanity, in the first responder’s courage, in the trembling wall of water on either side, in the idea that sometimes we need to change our minds. But as we come back to earth and focus on what is important what are we asked to do by our God.
As we pick up on the reading from Luke 15, we are given a challenge to our focus in life. What do I owe the ninety-nine? I wander far, slipping heedlessly over sliding gravel, jumping doe-like over crevices, relying upon my own grace. Maybe not so much wandering as running away. Panic obscures my memory and my motives. I descend through the canyons until I’m immobilised by abysses that stretch too wide to cross, rock buttresses too narrow to squeeze through. Weakened, I can’t retrace my steps. Just as I surrender to despair, there you are. You sought me and found me and carried me home. Our God has been with us and supported us as we have taken this journey to seek those who are lost.
Here’s my question and a challenging question for us all. What do I now owe the other ninety-nine? The ones waiting patiently, staying obediently with the flock? Did you see their looks of envy and reproach? How do you get to nuzzle against his shoulder, carried on his sweet back? You don’t deserve it! We were faithful, we stayed with the flock and look at you carried shoulder high like a triumphant athlete, laurel leaves for your lies and selfishness!
Like the prodigal’s older brother, they refuse to come to the angelic party given in my honour. What do I owe them? I’d drink to their happiness—if I hadn’t given up drinking. They reject the gift of my gratitude. The ninety-nine banish me to the solitude I sought in the first place. They turn me into a fool. A fool for love. And wiser than I was. Our world can gape in awe at events both positive and challenging in our history, but they pale in the eyes of our God and yet again the question comes of how we acknowledge our God’s presence.
In these scripture readings Jesus and the writers tell us that there is a God who comes to save the lost. God knows us, knows our hiding places and the little nooks and crannies that we slip into from time to time, and he comes to save us. Salvation always looks different than we expect it to—sometimes pleasantly different, and sometimes it looks like rehab, marriage counselling, a job you wouldn’t ordinarily want—but a job is a job is a job.
We should also never forget that God has a body, the church, and that sometimes God retrieves us through this body. Pastor is Latin for “shepherd,” and in a sense, we are all called to be pastors, shepherds— gatherers of lost people—through our comings and goings, our liturgies, our various gifts. As Christians we ask that our God may give us the diligence to search for the lost and the wisdom to know what to do after we find them.