A sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 15, 2013. The lectionary readings are Exodus 32:7-14, Psalm 51:1-11, 1 Timothy 1:12-17, and Luke 15:1-10.
Scripture can sometimes sound remote. We are a long way from the people of Israel wandering in Egypt. We don’t seem to have religious leaders like Moses who receive direct communication from the Almighty. And especially as we look at today’s Gospel, at first, it might seem to refer to people of another time and place altogether. Jesus talks about someone who has lost a sheep (and most of us have never had a sheep to get lost, in the first place.) And, as the image on the cover of our worship leaflet suggests, the original language of the Gospel (and many versions still in English) speak of a woman who originally has ten “drachmas,” the Greek coinage of the day, and yet loses one. And yet, today’s Gospel is not so much about lost sheep and lost coins. It’s more about lost people. And that’s something most of us have some experience with.
Especially in our culture, especially in our age, people get lost. Someone leaves their small town, goes to school, and comes to a new city—maybe this city—and quickly falls into a new pattern of work and striving. Sometimes such a person becomes lost in her work. Or, five, ten, or even twenty years later, a furlough hits, or a reorganization. She loses her job, but it’s not the job that becomes lost. The woman who has invested so much of herself in her work and career—she’s the one who feels lost.
Alzheimer’s or dementia can take a person to some far away place. Disease, drugs or addictions can make a person lost from family but also lost to himself. And then there’s the euphemism we so often hear for death—“I’ve lost my grandmother. Or, I’ve lost my spouse.” But so often it’s not the loved one who is lost. That person is very much found in the heart and heaven of God. But it’s US—it’s you and me, the surviving, who feel lost.
However the loss happens, whenever we feel it or know someone who is overtaken by it, the question can arise (in a lot of us, anyway), “Where is God?” Have we lost God, too? Where is God when someone can’t find their way out of addiction? Where is God when someone’s mind no longer allows her to recognize her family? Where is God when people die senseless deaths?
Our scriptures today tell us exactly where God is. God is there. God is here. God is wherever God needs to be, seeking the lost, doing whatever it takes, changing divine plans, changing the course of history if it takes that, just to save and find one lost person.
In the first lesson today, the people of Israel feel lost. They feel afraid and cut off from God. They feel so lost that they begin to substitute other things for God—stuff of silver and gold. They begin to worship pretty things, expensive things. Finally Moses returns and he gradually helps them find their way again. And God actually changes his mind—changes his plans, changes the course of history—just to make a way so that his children can find love again, can find God again.
The second reading has the Apostle Paul explaining to Timothy how he, himself was lost, until Christ came for him. Paul had hunted down Christians, he had persecuted them, and he had done all he could to undermine the way of Jesus and the people who followed him. But in what Paul describes as the “utmost patience” God found Paul, and that helped Paul find himself.
In the Gospel, we see a God who will go to desperate means for us. God will do whatever it takes to find someone, and to bring that person home.
Jesus tells the story about a shepherd who has 99 sheep. One wanders off and can’t be found, so the shepherd leaves the 99 and pursues the one.
There is a lost coin. A coin that has fallen out of reach, or has gotten behind something, or has seemed to disappear altogether. So, the woman stops what she’s doing and basically turns her whole house upside-down to find the lost coin.
The point in all of these stories is that God goes out of his way to find what is lost, to re-claim what is lost, to recover and restore anything and anyone who is lost. God reaches out for us. God looks for us. God does not stop calling our name.
I learned an important lesson about the seemingly when I was first ordained and was leading a simple worship service at a nursing home. At this little service, my rotation was once a month, and it took a lot of energy to try to be present, to be “with,” and to be engaged, when only about five or six people seemed alert, and another twenty or so seemed— well, they seemed sort of “lost.” On one particular day, I had led them in singing a hymn, and the five faithful helped me sing it. Then, I invited them to join me in reading Psalm 23, which was printed in a large printed card for them to use. The five faithful joined along. But so did several others. One woman, in particular, who never spoke and never looked one in the eye, but always seemed far away in another world almost—her lips began to move, as she recalled from some deep, old place, the words of a Good Shepherd who finds us.
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” God leads us into green pastures—not that we’re cows or sheep, but the green pastures become a symbol for whatever is for us a place of rest and refuge, a place of nurture and sustenance. God lead us beside still waters, stilling the rapids of our life, slowing us down, and collecting us in one place. God restores our soul. Even when we walk through the “valley of the shadow of death,” we have nothing to fear, because God is there. Even if we don’t see God, even if we don’t particularly feel God in that moment—God is there. Even when (as we recalled this week on the Anniversary of September 11) there are those who die all too suddenly, those whose lives are taken– God nevertheless calls, God loves, and God welcomes by name.
Psalm 23 reminds us that God leads us into a place where there’s an enormous feast, a feast so big that it includes not only everyone we’ve ever loved, but even our enemies, transformed into friends. There in the full presence of God, in the fullness of love, God anoints us and calls us by name.
No one and nothing stays lost from God. God seeks and searches and calls out by our truest name, and calls us into love, into laughter, and into life everlasting. As the church, it’s our job to help one another hear God’s calling. Whether we are the lost who are found, or whether we are among those who fling open the door and welcome those who return—we are, all of us, called to join in the celebration.
Yesterday some of us stood at a booth at the 17th Street Festival. Folks from All Souls handed out flyers, shopping bags, engaged in conversation, invited people to church, and also, invited people to come back to our booth on 17th Street at 4 p.m. for a simply celebration of Holy Communion. With incense, vestments, proper prayers, wine and bread, we invited people to be found by God in some new way.
We gather in this place at one table, eating from one bread and drinking from one cup. What we do is variously called the Mass, the Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper. But by any name, it is the Eucharist, that Greek word meaning “thanksgiving.” We give thanks because we were lost but are found, perhaps because we were kept out or left out, but now are welcomed. We give thanks because through this meal we are invited to be more forgiving, more merciful and more welcoming. We can give thanks to God for finding each one of us and for bringing us home.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.