Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Richard Toll


Exodus 32:7-14
Psalm 51:1-11
1 Timothy 1:12-17
Luke 15:1-10


Part of being a human being is to be lost.  It is part of our DNA.  It is part of our experience in life.  It is a part of us that we do not even know we are lost.

I am not talking about being lost in the woods, or getting lost with your GPS.  That certainly is another part of being lost.

I am talking about being lost as to losing one’s way on the pathway of life.  And, we may not even be aware of it.  Our experiences, our decisions, our loss of focus, our lack of meaning, all may suddenly be defined in a moment of clarity.  We suddenly wake up and realize we have lost our way.  Relationships shattered, jobs in shambles, people hurt, we have lost our way.

I can remember one of the important moments of my teenage years as a moment of being lost and found. 

I was a part of a Boy Scout group that traveled four times to the Big Bend National Park in Texas for a week of camping.  The Big Bend National Park has a wild beauty to it that is overwhelming as one experiences nature in all of its rawness.

One night while 12 of us were camping out our horses broke loose from their tethers, scattered and ran away.  Our wrangler was able to catch them and return them to our camp.  The next morning we learned that a mountain lion had come close to our camp and our horses heard them, smelled them and panicked. 

I can remember it happening as if it was yesterday.  Why?  Because as a teenager I was growing up.  I was  confused with life.  I did not know what I wanted to do with my life.  I did not know I was lost but I know now that I was.  I was shaken by the horses panicking and stampeding.  I walked out into the desert to be by myself under a full moon.  I looked up at the full moon lighting the desert mountains.  I experienced what can only be defined as a spiritual bath.  For a moment in time, I was connected to the Creator, Universe, myself, my presence on earth, and I remember putting a foot print in the sand wondering how my life would eventually reflect into the larger world.  What imprint would I make in life?  At that moment I knew I had a purpose in life.  I just did not know what it was but I was on a path to discover it.  My encounter with the God of Creation under a full moon in the desert of West Texas has given me a knowledge of being found.  Whatever was happening to me in those teenage years of growing up I can barely remember.  What happened on the desert was a sense of adventure of what life means and opening up of the future.

I was growing up.  I was beginning to face life.  I was looking forward.  I was grounded in time and space with a footprint firmly implanted in the desert.

My life at that point had little to do with the Church or the Bible but I do remember starting to read the New Testament and attempting to read about Jesus.  He spoke to me out of the scriptures.  Passages like today’s Gospel were important. 

From the Gospel of Luke:  So he told them this parable:  “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?  When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices.  And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ’Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’  Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”

A simple but profound story about the human condition.

A simple but profound story about a God who is always welcoming us especially when we are lost. 

Fast forward to September 11, 2001.  I was the Rector at St. John the Evangelist in Milwaukie, OR.  I finished my 7:00 a.m. communion service and went to breakfast at Libby’s restaurant around the corner from the church in downtown Milwaukie.  The television was on and the news was saying something about a plane crashing into the Twin Towers and the waitress and I talked about the terrible accident.  Then we watched as a second plane hit the tower and you know the rest of the story.

Ed Browning, our Presiding Bishop from 1986 to 1998 for the Episcopal Church in the United States had retired to Hood River, Oregon in 1998.  I had known him and his wife, Patti, and had been with them in Jerusalem in 1998 in his visit to the region prior to his retirement.  In July 2001, he had invited me to his home in Hood River.  He was the founding President of Friends of Sabeel in North American in 1996.  Sabeel is an ecumenical libration theology center in Jerusalem and works with the indigenous Palestine Christians in the Holy Land.   In July, 2001, Ed Browning asked me to take on the voluntary role of Director of Friends of Sabeel in North America.   Six weeks after Ed Browning appointed me as Director of Friends of Sabeel North American, September 11, 2001, I was sitting watching the television of what was happening in New York.  I had an 8:30 appointment with Ed Browning.  I drove my car and picked him in the parking lot here at Grace Memorial.  He and Patti have a condominium a few blocks from here.  We left at 8:30 to go to Seattle, WA.  Why?  To meet for a noon luncheon with Priscilla Collins, the owner and president of KING TV in Seattle at the time who was very instrumental in my own learning about the concerns of Palestine.  She had spent a lot of time with me prior to my first visit to Jerusalem in 1983.  We were scheduled to meet at her apartment for lunch at noon to ask for a major gift to continue the work of Sabeel in the United States.

All the way from Portland to Seattle we listened to the horrible news of the attacks on the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and the plane crash in Pennsylvania.  Ed Browning had lived in New York in 1986 to 1998 as Presiding Bishop and periodically we would shut off the radio so he could voice his concerns regarding people who worked at the church center or Trinity Parish or friends in New York.

We met with Priscilla Collins at her apartment and had a very meaningful meal all the time listening on and off to the horrific news from New York.

At 3:00 p.m. on September 11, 2001, Ed Browning and I returned to my car and drove back to Portland having received a generous gift to continue our work for Sabeel.  We continued to be heartbroken as we listened to the radio.

Ed Browning died this past July and his service at Trinity Cathedral in Portland two months ago was a glorious celebration including his family and Church leadership.

My memory of 9/11 will always include the full day with one of the most influential Christian leaders of our century.  And for these past years since then I have worked with him as my mentor and friend.

I almost did not make it to be with you today.  And I will tell you why.  Two weeks ago while driving to our cabin on the Long Beach Peninsula in WA with my wife, Elaine, and two of our grandchildren from Seattle we almost had a very serious wreck. 

I was driving towards Astoria on a beautiful day and suddenly realized the car in front of me had stopped.  It is your worst nightmare.  I slammed on the breaks and smoke came from my tires.  In a split second, I saw the pickup behind me put on his breaks and begin to slide sideways.  I could tell I was going to crash into the back of the car stopped ahead of me and fearful the car behind would crash into me.  I made a quick decision within a split second to pass the car ahead of me.  I prayed there was no car or truck coming toward me and quickly passed the stopped car ahead of me.  As I passed the stopped car, I saw a dead deer in the road, the reason for the road crisis.  A crash did not occur and I continued on.  As I pulled around the stopped car, I experienced that moment of realizing how my life might have ended or changed dramatically if a crash had occurred.

I was in shock and also thankful that nothing had happened.

We were not lost in the conventional sense, but we were very much involved in a world that life comes and goes and for a brief moment life and death were being defined for my loved ones and me.

I thought back to my desert experience in the Big Bend as I pulled ahead of the dead deer.  Somehow in the scheme of Gods presence I still have something to offer in a continuing way.  The future is still there to claim.  Life is still to be defined.  The parable in Luke was being acted out.  I was on the shoulders of the one who remains a mystery.  Doors are open into a future that is there for us to look forward to.

Somehow in the mystery of creation we are all lost and being found at all times and in all places.

To acknowledge this is to sing along with the words from Amazing Grace.  “I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see”.


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