Getting Found Isn't All That Easy


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church, Middletown, NJ

September 22, 2019


Texts: Genesis 32:22-32, Luke 15:1-10

      Most people know the old story about Moses: Why did he wander in the wilderness for forty years? Because he never stopped to ask for directions. Me? I hate, I mean I hate being lost. Mapquest was designed for me. The first thing I did after being called to Old First was to buy a Hagstrom street map of Monmouth County. I’ve used the map that contains central Middletown Village and Port Monmouth so much that it literally came out of the book. 

        I joke about driving in New Jersey always being an adventure but I can only laugh about it once I’ve found my way. The first time I had to take a detour in Middletown I almost had apoplexy. And the cops here aren’t very helpful; they just want to keep traffic moving, not cater to the insecurities of some lady who’s neurotic about not knowing where she is. 

       Losing our spiritual direction is just as, if not more disconcerting. Now, there’s a difference between struggling or wrestling with God and wandering in a wilderness and searching for God. The parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin are usually discussed in terms of repentance but in the stories themselves all the sheep and the coin do is get lost. It is Jesus who states how we are to look at the parable. 

        I’ve always wondered about the parable of the lost sheep. Why would a shepherd leave a whole flock to look for one missing sheep? The ninety-nine sheep that are left without the shepherd could be easily attacked by wild beasts that live in the desert while the shepherd is looking for the lost sheep. Suppose something happens to the shepherd himself? Where would those remaining sheep be? Presumably the righteous sheep just stay together and don’t wander about.

        One of the questions this parable raises for me is whether it is possible to wrestle with God without getting lost. For that is what faith is: wrestling with God. No matter how much we believe or how deeply we experience God, we always wrestle with God as we attempt to live faithful lives. We may be wrestling with the direction in which we feel God is leading us as did Jacob; we may be wrestling with the demands that we feel God has placed on our lives as did Martin Luther King; we may be struggling with the dark night of the soul as did Mother Teresa. These are all facets of faithfulness.

         I love the story of Jacob wrestling with the man in the middle of the night. The traditional paintings usually depict Jacob wrestling with an angel but there is nothing in the text that calls the man an angel. In fact the man says to Jacob, “You have striven with God and with humans . . . .” implying that it is God with whom Jacob has wrestled. That small story is about the dark night of the soul, for wrestling with God, demanding of God that we find some blessing in the struggle is part of that dark night. 

        In his poem entitled The Dark Night of the Soul, the sixteenth-century mystic and poet St. John of the Cross describes how the soul is drawn out of itself into a night of stars about it and looks for one path of illumination but is unable to find it. We first try to find God, to experience God through our ordinary senses, just as we would experience things, such as food or the cool air of the morning. But to truly experience God, St. John says we need to put away our usual ways of experience and empty ourselves. How do we empty ourselves into God? For centuries saints and other people of faith have attempted to empty themselves into God. It’s not so easy.

        There’s a Zen Buddhist koan or dialogue story about the old Buddhist master and the young student who comes to visit him. The young student is full of questions for the old master about attaining states of perfection, of being able to experience the reality of the universe. The young student is full of himself. As the old master welcomes him, he offers him some tea. 

        The student notices that the master continues pouring tea into the cup even after it is full and finally asks the old master why he continues to fill the cup, spilling the tea. The old master puts down the pot and says to the young student: You are the cup. You cannot be filled with spirit until you are truly empty. That is what the poetry of St. John of the Cross says to us.

         We can’t “find” ourselves until we realize how lost we really are. It goes back to the story about Moses in the wilderness never stopping to ask for direction. We have many aids to help us in our many journeys: the experience of worship, fellowship in community with others, contemp-lative prayer, the study of Scripture, our experiences in the world. There are many paths to finding our way home. Fortunately, our journeys of faith are not like traveling in some third-world countries where there is only one road from point A to point B. There are many roads we can take.

         I’d like to argue that finding ourselves is the most important find and that we all need to develop maps of the mind in doing that. We all search for meaning in our lives; in fact, the search for meaning, real meaning is the most important search of all. It consumes us although in different ways. Some accept the stories and their meanings that have been handed down and that gives meaning to many people. Others struggle to find the maps that will help traverse the uncertainties we often experience in our lives. 

         There’s no glib answer, of course, although some wish that there were. For some of us, the journey, the struggle to find the meaning has a meaning in and of itself. For others, there’s a hoped for goal, some answer beyond the journey. It’s sort of like driving from one place to another. Unlike the mountainous villages of a third-world country, we have more than one way to get somewhere. I am really grateful that on a late summer Sunday afternoon, I can take Route 35 back rather than getting stuck on the Parkway, which can become a giant parking lot. 

         But other than those main routes, there are a myriad of other ways to return; so it is with religious reflection, which is, in the end, theological thinking although we may not categorize it that way. There are an infinite number of ways to get to where we need to go for ourselves, for the satisfaction that our souls so desperately need. 

          The early church community developed the concept of orthodoxy largely in response to the threats it felt from the outside. Some of those threats were clearly political, as in persecutions by various Roman Emperors. Others threat-ened to break apart the existing social order, such as the role of women. Still others threatened the increasing stand-ing of the church; after all, if there were so many disagree-ments, how could one respect the organization? As a result, certain theological understandings were suppressed, some-times brutally. In a sense, there was no need for a map because there was only one road. However, mapmakers have always tried to find alternate routes to get anywhere and here we are in the modern world, with lots of maps, lots of roads, but sometimes we have no clear picture of where we need to go.

        Deciding our destination is, of course, critical to deciding which maps to use. And the destination is not the same for each of us because we are all different, have different life experiences, have been raised in different frames of reference that affect our thinking about the destination we should seek. Engaging in dialog that respects our differences is critical to helping each of us determine that destination. 

          We should not be afraid of any question because questioning is what makes us fundamentally human. The short second parable that Jesus tells his listeners is about the woman and the lost coin. Boy, is this something I can relate to. I figure this poor woman must have been as organized as I am and always puts something in a “safe place” only to forget where that safe place is. And that’s what we do so often with our lives. We take something valuable and tuck it away deep inside and then wonder why we can’t retrieve it. We’ve buried that treasure so deeply inside ourselves that we have to tear out our insides to find it again. And we can’t reconcile ourselves until we have found that coin and looked at it, explored it in a way that helps us through our dark nights, our nights of crisis and doubt, whether it is about where we are going or where we have been. 

         Getting found isn’t that easy. Sometimes Mapquest is wrong; the Hagstrom maps have to be updated as new streets are built. The struggle of searching has rewards in that we not only hopefully find ourselves in God at the end but that we grow in faith during the process of the struggle. What Jesus is telling us is to never stop struggling in the process of growing in faith and in God. 

        I have a cartoon on the wall in my study that exemplifies this struggle. A heron has caught a frog and the head is already in the heron’s mouth, but the frog has put his hands around the heron’s neck squeezing it so it can’t gobble the frog down. Never, never, never give up. In the end, we will find ourselves blessed as was Jacob, even if we have to wrestle with God. 

         Let us come to God in prayer:  Be with us, O God, as we strive to find you in our lives as did the one you sent to show us the way, even Christ Jesus our Lord, Amen.