A sermon for Proper 19: Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28, Psalm 14, 1 Timothy 1:12-17, Luke 15:1-10
Jesus’ parables of the one sheep and a coin are parables of lost and found. Years ago, before seminary was an idea, I got a phone call from Angie. The daycare had called, and our oldest daughter was not a school. They were checking because we had not called to say she was home that day. She wasn’t home. She should have been at school. They sent a driver back to her school. Angie called me; since I had a car phone, I left a client’s office, my briefcase on his desk, and headed to the school. Angie stayed put to coordinate. It turns out a substitute teacher had put G in the wrong place, and the van driver could not see her. Before I got to the school, the Day Care driver had returned to the school, found Ginny, and she was already playing with friends. She was found, and there was joy to go around. Not every story, of missing loved ones, ends like this.
Today is the 15th anniversary of 9-11. Do you remember where you were when you heard the story? I do. It started at home listening to the news as I dressed for work. I kept listening as I tried to work. After a while, I could not stand to be alone, so I went to the Sr. Warden’s office. Together we watched the South Tower collapse, and later we watched the North Tower collapse. Three thousand people died that day. Eleven hundred bodies have never been recovered (Hoezee, Luke). All week I have been wondering what we as individuals and as a nation lost that day, and in the immediate days and months that followed. With that has happened between now and then, I wonder what we have lost in the many, many years since. At times it has the feel of Jeremiah’s prophecy, which is a real bummer (Jacobson, Lewis and Skinner).
Each verse from Jeremiah strips away an aspect of creation (Ellingsen). First water, then the wind, or spirit, the breath of God, followed by the light, and the land, and the people, and the birds, and fruit of the earth, one by one everything is laid waste (Portier-Young). Likewise, every event of that fateful morning: flight 11 crashing into the North Tower at 8:46, flight 175 crashing into the South Tower at 9:03, flight 77 crashing into the Pentagon at 9:37, the South Tower collapsing at 9:59, flight 93 crashing in a field in the Pennsylvania countryside at 10:07, and the North Tower collapsing, at 10:28; each event stripped away some aspect of our common identity (The History Channel).
This event, and those like it, compel us, almost force us to see the evil, we don’t want to see. And when we cannot, we are coerced to look again, this time, more closely, more critically, so that we will see the complexity of justice and discover “that evil is greater the sum of its parts” (Bratt) (Jacobson, Lewis and Skinner). There were some who pondered if such events are a sign of our not knowing, our abandoning God, as ancient Israel had (Jeremiah 14). Some pronounce that we are the fools who no longer believe in God, or at least that there are no consequences for ignoring God (Psalm 14), (Ellingsen). But, even as there may a truth in such doom, neither Psalm 14 nor Jeremiah’s prophecy leaves us in despair.
The Psalmist notes that the Lord promises to restore the fortunes of his people, and Jeremiah reveals God’s word “yet I will not make a full end” (Jeremiah 14:27). These words are reminders that as lost as we may get, we, and all of creation, are precious to God who will not allow us to completely destroy ourselves, each other or creation (Bratt). God, who promises this is not the fate, the destiny of human experience, continues doing what God does, even when it doesn’t look like it (Jacobson, Lewis and Skinner). And so we come to Luke’s recounting Jesus’ parables of the lost and found.
The story begins with Jesus is talking to sinners and tax collectors. The nearby Pharisees and scribes object. Sinners we understand, all of us can relate to sin. Tax collectors are more difficult; I like our tax collector. In 1st century Palestine, they are enemy collaborators, working for the occupying Roman Empire. They are also frauds, frequently collecting more than prescribed by the Empire (Ellingsen). Hence the objections to Jesus welcoming them.
There are some subtleties in Luke’s story. The emphasis of the parables is finding. It cannot be repentance because sheep and coins can’t repent (Hoezee, Luke) (Jacobsen). The action verbs reveal God’s agency; the sheep and coin don’t act, God acts (Jacobson, Lewis and Skinner). They story of the lost coin reveals that God is a relentless seeker. There is the story of Allan. Allan has been wandering from doorstep to shelter, to hostel and no one knows for how long. One night he stumbles into a Salvation Army Shelter. Someone comes through calling out for Allan Roberts. He looks up “I am, or I used to be.” “Your mother is on the phone.” “How, she doesn’t know where I am? “I don’t know, but if you are Allan Roberts your mother is on the phone.” She has made arrangements for him to fly home. “She hadn’t known where he was, she just called every shelter and hostel for months until she found him” (Hoezee, Luke). Allan’s mother is persistent; God is relentless. But why is God so relentless? One coin, one sheep, one person cannot be that a big deal? Or can it?
Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, teaches that neither the flock nor the sheep can be whole when separated. When we are separated from God, we are not our whole self (Epperly) (Benoit). The woman looks for the coin because all ten matter to her. Likewise, everyone, everything matters to God (Epperly). God is the champion of the lost (Hoezee, Luke). God is a seeker, everyone counts, you count. God wants to find you; God misses you when you are missing (Jacobson, Lewis and Skinner). But unlike you and I, who have limited resources, tire out, get distracted, or lose hope, God is limitless; the divine can seek all the lost at the same time, without distraction, and with eternal hope.
So, to those eleven-hundred families, to any family, whose loved one’s remains have never been found, to those who are lost, you are not alone; God seeks your beloved, God seeks you. And yes, events like 9/11, and other tragedies, do reveal the existence of evil. They do expose the complexities of justice. And yes, the causes that are part of such catastrophes are interweaving. They reveal something of our and the other’s relationships with God and each other. But such darkness is not the end of the story, God seeks, you, God seeks all of us in the knowledge that everyone, everything will be found, and creation will be complete, will be whole once again.
There is a calling in all this. my colleague, Steve Pankey points out that when Jesus ‘welcomes’ sinners and tax collectors, the deeper meaning of the word is ‘receives,’ a far for intimate word. Jesus puts his purity, which today we would understand as reputation and or social respect at risk. Steve ponders if we should go beyond being a welcoming church and be a receiving church. He ponders if we are willing to follow Jesus and risk our reputations, are we willing to risk being changed by those who just might be lost (Pankey). I ponder if such a risk creates moments for all of us to find God in the other, only to discover, that through the eye of the other, God is in ourselves, and thereby recognize that together we are known to God, that we have been found and that there will be, there already is, great celebration here and in heaven.
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