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A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
19th Sunday After Pentecost • September 11, 2016
What was the last thing you lost? Losing things is a constant struggle for me. My ability to misplace keys, glasses, wallet, phone is a commonplace in my family. They’re all used to getting ready to go somewhere and then waiting while I say, “I can’t find my…”, then waiting while I frantically look through the various places I put things. I deal with this by putting my stuff in one place near the door. This doesn’t always work; things get moved, things seem to drift on their own. And once they have, they’re lost. Lost isn’t just something that happens to keys, of course; it can happen to persons as well. Some sociologists say almost half the people in this country are one paycheck away from poverty. That means one paycheck from getting lost economically. Whole groups can get lost; we’re seeing this in the Middle East now as thousands of refugees eek out day to day in camps and thousands more try to move to places where they can make new lives. A whole generation of children are being lost to violence there.
Jesus lives with the lost; his society was full of them. Just as I keep things found by putting them in their place, in Jesus’ time, people were sorted based on whether they were lost or found. Perhaps you were a well to do trader who went to worship, gave your offering, paid your vows, said your prayers, made sure the kitchen in your house was kosher, never came into contact with Gentiles or women or others who were lost: good for you, you were found, that is you were pure. Pure is like my keys being on the shelf where they belong: everything just as it should be.
Giving Up on Some
But not everyone was pure, just as the keys don’t always stay on the shelf. All kinds of things could knock you off. Gender, ethnicity, even what you did for a living. If you worked with leather, for example, no amount of prayer or paying vows would make you pure. If you collected tolls for the Judah Turnpike Authority, you were right out of it—that’s the people described as tax collectors. If you ate food that wasn’t kosher—off the list. All these are what are described in the Gospel of Luke as ‘sinners’. We have to keep this in mind because to us sinners sounds like people who do bad things. These are people who have just gotten lost, according to the Pharisees, lost to God, outside God’s care, outside God’s compassion. So it makes sense to just give up on them, just as, according to some of the preachers in Jesus’ time, God has done.
That’s the background to the complaint we read today in Luke. “the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “’This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” Most of the teaching of Jesus, the parts we love to remember like “Love your neighbor as yourself” weren’t new; most were applications of things already in Torah, in God’s Word. One thing was new and different: the people Jesus invited to dinner. One of the ways the Pharisees kept straight who was lost and found was by making sure they only ate with the found. Now Jesus and his disciples are messing up the categories, eating with sinners, eating with the lost. It’s like someone moving your carefully sorted keys.
Parable of the Lost Sheep
Jesus doesn’t answer directly; instead he invites these critics into an experience. “Look, think of a shepherd who counts the flock and discovers one is missing; he leaves it and goes and looks for the lost sheep.” Everyone there knows this is true; shepherds are accountable for the flock. A stray dog or a cat that wanders off may come home. When a sheep gets lost, it just lays down and bleats. So shepherds go out looking, listening, and when the sheep is found, it still won’t do anything so it has to be carried. Maybe some of the people listening started out as shepherds and remember those anxious searches.
But the point Jesus is making isn’t about sheep; it’s something deeper. When Jacquelyn and I were dating, I once took May to a bookstore with me. The books for her were at one end of the store; my magazines were at the other. Now I knew Jacquelyn always kept close to May but I’d been a parent and I thought I knew what worked. I told May she could look around and I’d be over by the magazines. So off I went, looking up every once in a while to make sure she was there. This went fine until a moment when I looked up and couldn’t see her. I moved: still no May. I moved some more: nothing. So I quickly walked over to the young reader books, and that’s when I really started to worry: no May. Up one aisle, down another, more and more frantic. Finally, there she was; May was petite and she’d found a nice nook meant as an under counter storage area. I was overjoyed; I was so happy I remember it to this day.
Have you lost something? Do you remember the joy of finding? This is what Jesus wants his listeners to remember: how much fun it is to find. He wants them to understand this is what God does, this is what makes God smile and laugh. Just like the shepherd finding the sheep, God’s joy leaps at finding the lost. And joy is shared. When the shepherd finds the sheep isn’t just happy himself, he comes home and tells his friends, tells the other shepherds. Can’t you imagine him doing it? I guess it might have been smart to keep the story of losing May quiet but I was so happy about finding her, I couldn’t resist telling her mother. I’m not sure this was a great recommendation for stepfather: that I had lost her daughter. But she couldn’t resist how happy I was about finding her.
Finding the lost isn’t free. Another church I served helped start a program to feed anyone who was hungry on Sundays four times a year. Now every church has one or two big events that have gone on for years and everyone enjoys; ours was a Thanksgiving dinner. We did the usual things church people do, held planning meetings and so on even though everyone always knew who would cook and the menu. The year we started the feeding program as it happened our turn to host the program coincided with our Thanksgiving dinner. This was a church with about the same number of people we have; the feeding program drew over a hundred each time.
No Turkey Dinner!
But our Deacons decided to go ahead and combine them, so we bought extra food and set extra places and when the Sunday of the thanksgiving dinner came, we had a line even before we opened the doors. A group of our long time members carefully found places at one end of the fellowship hall but as it turned out, that end was the last to be called up to be served. They did what people do: they complained to their pastor, me, about the time it was taking and I assured them all would be fine. I was wrong. By the time that group got up to the kitchen, we’d pretty much run out of turkey. There was a lot of criticism of this and along with some other church officers, I apologized endlessly. But then when I was back in the kitchen, one of our newer members came up and said, “Wasn’t that incredible? Wasn’t it amazing? One of those guys told me he’d never had a thanksgiving dinner like this.” Others talked about conversations with people they would never have met otherwise. It changed some hearts. I’m not sure who got found; I do know for certain, there was a lot of joy among some. But it did cost some people their turkey dinner.
Finding the lost, eating with them, is going to cost Jesus his whole life. It might cost yours. Here’s what he says: finding the lost is so wonderful, it’s worth it. Finding the lost is finding joy. Maybe you’ve lost something, like the woman in the other story. Have you ever had your engagement ring go down the drain? Have you ever put your wedding ring in a drawer and forgotten you did it? She’s a poor woman; we know this because she only has ten coins, ten drachmas. Now a Palestinian house is dark, no windows, so of course she needs to light a light. I think though it may also be that she’s doing what Jacquelyn does when she loses something; she cleans. Perhaps the light glints on the coin; perhaps it shows up in the sweeping. Like the shepherd, not only is she overwhelmed by joy, she just can’t help sharing it with others. “When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’”
This is the experience Jesus wants to share: how to find joy, how to be part of a community of joy. Look for the lost, find the lost, embrace the lost. While the Pharisees are judging everyone, Jesus is creating a community of joy, inviting us to join him in finding the lost. We so love to make projects and work at them but look at these stories. The sheep doesn’t come to the shepherd, the shepherd comes to the sheep. The coin doesn’t come to the woman, the woman finds the coin. Finding joy doesn’t come from getting someone to work harder, to come to Jesus, even to come to church. It comes from finding someone, touching them with God’s love, being the means, like Jesus, of assuring them they are not lost to God, no one is lost to God.
A Community of Joy
I’ve been trying for a few weeks to think of a single slogan, a single phrase, that might serve as a theme for us. I realized as I thought about these stories that I was making it too complex. Jesus makes it simple: find joy by finding the lost. That makes God smile; that creates a community of joy. And isn’t that what we are meant to be as a church? It’s the reason we do collect coats, white goods, food, and other things. We are not a store for survival goods; these things are really a way of saying to someone, “You’re not lost: we found you!” And in finding the lost, we find joy. We are meant to be a community of such joy.
There are so many who feel lost. Every single one is cherished by God. What would you do if someone you loved was lost? A child, perhaps or even a pet. Think how people plaster neighborhoods with posters when a cat wanders away. God so loves the lost that God came in the person of Jesus Christ to find the lost. Do you remember being found? Do you remembering that joy, that feeling that finally you were found? Now we are followers of Jesus most when we find the lost, when we open our doors so wide, they can’t be mistaken for something closed, when we make a way so there is no threshold, no barrier to anyone, when we like Jesus, find the lost. As we set out on another year together, let us be clear, let us share this one mission: we are here to find the lost and bring them home to the God who loves us all.