Sunday, September 15, 2019
Lectionary 24, Year C
Prayer of the Day
O God, overflowing with mercy and compassion, you lead back to yourself all those who go astray. Preserve your people in your loving care, that we may reject whatever is contrary to you and may follow all things that sustain our life in your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
Readings and Psalm
Exodus 32:7-14 Moses begs the Lord to turn from anger against the Hebrews
1 Timothy 1:12-17 Christ Jesus came for sinners
Luke 15:1-10 Looking for the lost sheep, silver coin: Jesus eating with sinners
Title: The Cross that Finds
Upon my arrival in Los Angeles, I discovered that my backpack did not arrive. The really aggravating this about this specific episode in the long, long history of luggage not arriving with its owner – Axel just had his own experience with not all his luggage arriving with him on Monday. And our crew that went to Wittenberg in 2017 also had some bad luggage luck on our return. Yes, there are plenty of lost luggage stories, but what made this Lost in Los Angeles story so aggravating was that I wasn’t going to check my luggage. I had a small backpack. I was just there for a weekend to see a production that some friends were in. But when I got to the airport, I realized that I had forgotten to take my Swiss Army knife out of my backpack and leave it at home. Post 9/11 or not, I couldn’t have it in my carry-on luggage. And I certainly didn’t want to just throw it away. I had no choice but to check the bag. This is back in the good old days of free bag check.
So, the bag that should never have been checked was now the bag that never arrived. I went over to what they called the Lost Luggage Office to report my missing bag. I was informed that when it turned up, when it was found, they would be in touch with me. I asked if they would be doing anything to try to find that which is lost. To which they said, NO, they only can deal with luggage that is found. So, of course I suggested that they might want to change their department name to Found Luggage, since they didn’t deal with Lost Luggage. I guessing they did not take my suggestion seriously since to my observation, there have been no sign changes at any airports. Footnote: I never did get my backpack back. It remains in the mysterious realm of lost luggage to this day.
While our churches tend to be more like the airlines, able to deal well with that which gets classified as found; thanks be to God, that God’s grace acts in a way that I wanted, I needed, I hoped for the airline to act. God’s interest, God’s focus, God’s attention is on the lost. And today, as part of our gospel reading that shines light on the good news that our God is a God of the lost, we have two of Jesus’ three lost parables, (the third being the lost son). (These are classics really, from his top ten list of greatest parable hits.)
But this is not a new idea. This is not a new identity for the God who searches and saves. In the first reading, we are reminded of that great story of God finding God’s chosen people, grown from the family of Abraham and Sarah. Now, a nation enslaved by a superpower of a nation. They are feeling lost, forgotten, hopeless. But God, through Moses, assures them that they are none of those things. They are found, they are delivered and now they are on their way to being a new nation in a promised land.
Yet, being found does not mean that all cares are quieted, all struggles are stilled, all trials are tempered. From their first steps into their new-found lives, the delivered people were ready to go back into being lost. Because lost is what they knew. It was living into their foundness that was now their struggle. Growing into a relationship with the God who had found and delivered them was their new challenge. But they wandered off into the lostness of false gods. And God had to find them again. Find them in spite of God’s own frustration. Find them with mercy in spite of the anger that those false gods would have levied on their devotees. Find them with grace in spite of the retribution that God was ready to dole out. In the end, God goes where God must go to find those lost ones, even though it means going outside of God’s-self. (There’s one for the philosophers among us. Is it possible or God to go outside of God’s self? At our annual Proclaim gathering back at the beginning of August, some of by learned colleagues talked of one of the ways to translate the very ambiguous name God uses in Exodus – Yahweh – as the Becoming One. Perhaps this story of God finding new levels of mercy in God’s self is good support for such an name.)
And what of the sheep and the coin? Certainly, the sheep was active in getting lost. Wandered off from the flock. Chose the wrong path. Caught up in distractions. Didn’t mind the shepherd’s voice. Silly sheep.
But that coin. Coins don’t make decisions that result in getting lost. They don’t take actions that they will later regret, that will get them lost. They become lost out of negligence or mishandling by their owner.
The important thing in these stories is not how they became lost. Rather just facing up to the reality that they are lost. And are in need of being found. Jesus invites us to pay more attention to the characters that are standing in for God – the shepherd and the woman. The shepherd proves to be quite foolish for the sake of that lost sheep. He’s got 99. Surely one is not worth putting the others at risk. For they are not in the pen. They are not safely back at the farm, in the barn, or in any other protected situation. Jesus tells it that those 99 are in the wilderness. But the shepherd who is acting like God, leaves them for the sake of the one who is lost.
And that woman. She is only down by ten percent of her assets. Is it really worth all that time of tearing the house apart and looking for that one lost coin? Time is money, right? There is that economic principle of Dimensioning Returns. (I think it is the only thing I remember from that Econ 101 course I took in college.) There comes a point where it is foolish to invest any more assets. Its just not going to pay off in the long run.
God the foolish shepherd. God the foolish housekeeper. (While these may be some of the most beloved parables, next week we will be confronted with what could be called Jesus’ most confusing parable, where we see God the foolish accounts manager.) But today God’s relentless searching is foolishness in the eyes of the world’s wisdom. But amazing grace to those of us who are lost. Because we are all lost. Even if we found our way here this morning, we are lost. Another way to put it is that we are dead. Our sinfulness has separated us from God. Cut us off from the life that God created for us.
Hearing these parables in the wake of Holy Cross Day (Marked yesterday by the church) is a wonderful reminder of to what lengths our searching God will go to find us. The cross reminds us that God searches us out and, not only finds us, but joins us wherever it takes God. Be it suffering, injustice, abandonment, betrayal, shame, hopelessness, and, yes, even death, the end of this life that we know.
And, just like in the parables, we are not only found, we are celebrated. There is a party. A party that started at the empty tomb and has reverberated throughout the ages. It is a party that is fills the heavenly realm with joy beyond anything we could imagine. It is a party of which we receive a foretaste each time we gather in Jesus name and share his presence in the bread and the wine, each time the Spirit move us nourished our faith in the hearing of the word and joining in fellowship.
Rejoice in God’s foolishness, proclaimed in the cross. And stay near that cross. Constantly being reminded that our God who is love has found us, Jesus has searched us out and will never stop searching us out, and the Spirit continues to invite us to rejoice in the grace-filled party that knows no end.
The Rev. Mark Erson