The following sermon was shared on January 24, 2016, Pastor Matt McKimmy’s final Sunday preaching with our congregation:
Adventures in Lostness
This week we’re continuing to follow along with Brian McLaren’s 52-week exploration of the entire narrative arc of the bible “We Make the Road by Walking.” We began back before Christmas and it just so happens that today’s suggested texts present us with the story of Jesus entering into public ministry.
I find this quite a coincidence.
On this very week that I am preaching my last sermon with you, preparing to return to my hometown, we hear about Jesus facing a difficult time of trial, returning to his hometown, and preaching. His first. My last. Quite appropriate, actually.
What I would love to do with this morning’s sermon is to sit down and tell you a story. A long story, connecting all the dots, chronicling my own call to ministry, my time with this congregation, looking back at all the amazing ways we’ve continued the work of Jesus together over these past seven and a half years.
I’d love to tell that story, and end with a heartfelt good luck and goodbye, looking forward to all of the ways you’ll continue together in ministry long into the future.
But I can’t.
I can’t really say goodbye quite yet, since we still have one more week together.
And I can’t predict what this church’s future ministry will look like, because that will be entirely up to you, and you’re only just beginning to dream and discern where God is leading you next.
But most of all I can’t tell the story I’d like to tell because it would take far too long, and it would probably end up being more about me and about us than about the redeeming, reconciling, world-transforming God-in-Christ.
So while I face this great temptation on my last opportunity to preach with you, I will try my best to resist and to keep our focus on the good news. After all, that is the center of this crazy, wonderful thing we call church.
Instead, as we follow McLaren’s theme of joining the adventure of Jesus, let’s talk about losing and getting lost.
We tend not to look very favorably on losing and lostness. In fact, it seems you can build an entire presidential campaign on not being losers.
When we hear about lost souls we generally think of those who are distanced from the church, or God, or perhaps both.
We go to great lengths to avoid getting lost both spiritually and physically. Within the last 50 or so years we’ve advanced from map and compass to satellites, GPS, and navigation apps that we carry around in our pockets, all to ensure we never get lost.
When I was in the Boy Scouts, I vividly remember one backpacking trip where our whole group got lost … in the woods … at night.
It was only supposed to be a short hike. From the parking lot, maybe a mile, to our campsite.
My mom was one of the adult leaders. I don’t remember who the other adult was, though I know there was one. But then I was the next-eldest – the oldest of the scouts on the trip.
As we wandered through the dark, not sure where we were, my senses were hyper-charged. What was that noise? Where does that path lead? Is everyone still with us? Which way should we turn next?
It would have been an exciting trip even without the lostness, but being uncertain where we were or where we were going, even for just an hour or so, completely transformed the experience.
For example, I can’t remember anything else about that trip other than what I’ve mentioned, the parts relating to being really, truly lost in an unfamiliar wilderness.
It’s a powerful, formative experience, being lost.
We go from being certain to uncertain. Knowing to unknowing. Safe and secure to vulnerable.
It can happen in an instant, and the results can change your life forever.
Just look at the many, many stories from scripture that involve time spent wandering, lost, in wild and unknown places.
Abraham and Sarah. Hagar and Ishmael. Moses – both before and after aiding in the rescue of the Israelites from captivity.
Elijah gets lost in the desert. The people of God spend decades lost in the cultural wilderness of Babylon.
And here, in today’s scripture, we have Jesus spending 40 days lost in the Judean desert being tempted, tested, and transformed.
When I first moved to Richmond in 2005 I felt so lost. I knew no one other than my wife. The landscape was unfamiliar. I had never studied theology and felt in over my head. I was stumbling through this wilderness I’d been called to, trusting God to see me through.
By the time I took the job pastoring with this congregation, Richmond had started to change from being a place where I was lost to a place I could be found.
Being a pastor felt strange and new and wild and weird. But, I kept hearing the words of the prophet to those in exile: Settle down. Plant fruit trees and gardens. Seek the good of the city and people you are living among.
And the words of the ancient desert mystic Abba Anthony: “wherever you find yourself – do not easily leave.”
Ten and a half years later, this place feels much more like home. A place where I’ve carved a niche, put down roots, and found ways to increase the common good. And leaving is certainly not easy.
In fact, leaving this place and these people feels much more like a new invitation to lostness.
Though I’m technically returning to a city I once called home, I feel more like the Israelites returning to Jerusalem after exile. The place the left had changed dramatically, and so had they.
I imagine it was probably similar for Jesus, returning to Nazareth after his time in the wilderness. Preaching that first sermon, which they loved at first, but then pissing off all his old hometown folks. Bringing some of that wildness back with him as he revealed that the mission he is called to is greater than just their good and salvation.
Following along with that story, soon afterward Jesus starts calling his first disciples.
First he calls them into deep waters for a miraculous catch.
This is no doubt a metaphor for the other deep waters he’s about to call them to: fishing for people, wandering through the Galilean countryside, going places they’ve never been, spreading and showing the good news of God’s new way.
This call to leave behind what is familiar and follow Jesus into the unknown is at the very heart of being a disciple.
Joining the adventure of Jesus is often talked about as getting saved, or being found, but it’s really about getting lost. Being disoriented and reoriented. Challenged and changed.
Sometimes it’s a process we enter into willingly, even excitedly. But other times our lostness is thrust upon us. Sometimes when we least want it. Feeling lost may come from having a tire blow out on the side of the road, an unexpected medical diagnosis, or a friend moving away.
Popular religion often looks down its collective nose at those who end up lost. Lost in uncertainty. Lost in poor life choices. Lost in misfortune. Lost in grief. Lost in marginalization.
Which is why especially us “church people” could all use a little more practice at the spiritual discipline of getting, and being lost. The prayerful practice of acknowledging our lostness.
It’s part of the adventure. Like it or not.
In her book An Altar in the World Barbara Brown Taylor has an excellent chapter on “The Practice of Getting Lost.” I’d quote it at-length if I had the time. But I don’t. So I’ll just share one quick snippet and you’ll have to read the rest of it yourselves:
“The best way to grow empathy for those who are lost is to know what it means to be lost yourself.”
“However it happens, take heart. Others before you have found a way in the wilderness, where there are as many angels as there are wild beasts, and plenty of other lost people too. All it takes is one of them to find you. All it takes is you to find one of them.”
To truly join the adventure of Jesus is to consent to being lost.
Sometimes we’re lost by leaving what we’ve known and heading toward new horizons.
Sometimes we’re lost by staying behind when others are called away. We’re lost when our comfortable realities turn to wilderness around us.
Being a disciple of Jesus means losing ourselves, that we might find life abundant. Life abundant with God, within and beyond the wilderness.
Even in times of uncertainty and change, God is with us and for us, in spite of all evidence to the contrary.
The Spirit is stirring in the deep water. God is alive in the wild, uncomfortable unknown.
Will we allow ourselves to fully inhabit this fertile void? To acknowledge, accept, even embrace our lostness, knowing that doing so will surely mean that we will never be the same?
Jesus would not have been the same redeeming, reconciling, world-shaking messiah had he not been lost and tempted in the wilderness. Moses, the Israelites, Sarah and Abraham, they were all irreversibly changed by being lost. It’s in our spiritual DNA.
Following the path toward the new reality Christ proclaimed inevitably requires getting lost along the way. How else could we ever be found? How else could we find each other – and our neighbors – than to occasionally lose our comfort, our familiarity, and our control?
Maybe you find lostness forced upon you. Maybe the wilderness feels unwelcome.
Maybe you find yourself answering the invitation of Jesus to leave what you know and head to deep water.
Maybe it’s some mix of all of these.
Regardless, somewhere along the way you face the choice to enter fully into your dislocation, to say “OK God. This is where I am. Whether or not it’s where I’m supposed to be, or where I want to be, or where you want me to be, it’s where I am. Now what?”
It takes both seeing and accepting where you are and asking that all-important question: “Now what?” to move from lost in the wilderness to transformed by the wilderness, from aimless wanderer to disciple.
Lost in our adventuring with Jesus, we look around and recognize we are not alone. God is here, and so too are many other lost adventurers, folks we would never cross paths with if we don’t consent to our lostness.
You, me, we’re all about to find ourselves in a new place, a new wilderness, of leaving and staying behind.
This will no doubt be an opportunity to acknowledge being lost, being disoriented, being dependent upon God and those around us. An opportunity to see anew where we are, who we are, and ask of God “now what?”
If we can see our lostness as part of faithful discipleship, we can begin to see the world, the church, ourselves, and our neighbors differently.
Part of our adventure. Part of our calling. Part of being ever more transformed in the way of Christ.
The very first sermon I preached with this church was almost exactly eight years ago. January 27th, 2008. The scripture text was Matthew’s version of the calling of the first disciples. It was the Sunday we learned that the Shively family would be moving away.
That sermon focused on what it meant to be called by Jesus to be like Zebedee – staying behind in the boat while his sons were called away to new adventures.
Our boat has changed a lot in eight years. We find ourselves in very different waters. The world has changed. We have changed. Who is staying and who is going has changed, but the reality of God’s good news has not.
We are not alone. And however lost we may feel, we can trust that as we pattern our own lives as disciples of Jesus, we draw ever closer to the new world he proclaimed.
Some call it the Kingdom, or the Kin-dom. Some call it God’s dream or God’s reality. A reality of justice, love, and peace for all.
Whether we stay or go, this is the good news we are called to: another way is possible. A way beyond the self-interested striving and accumulation. A way beyond violence and marginalization. The way of Jesus.
Jesus beckons us to lose ourselves in this adventure, following his way, continuing his work, to go out into deep waters, to be transformed by the wilderness, to see that the only possible way through this broken but beautiful, wild but wonderful, lost but found life is to love God by loving our neighbors and our selves.
Our lost neighbors. Our lost selves. Because in the end, we’re all in this together. Whether we stay in the boat or leave our nets behind. We are one – the living body of Christ.
Others before us have found a way in the wilderness. So too shall we.
May we have eyes to see how our lostness is an irreplaceable part of joining the adventure of Jesus. Now and always. Amen.