Sermon written for the Nineteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time, which coincided with the fifteenth anniversary of the September 11th attacks.
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
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.
“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? 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.’
Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
To the best of my memory, I do not have any good childhood stories about getting lost. My brother does, and that illustrates much of the difference between us, even as children–he was an explorer, curious, doing his own thing, while I was much more cautious, sticking with the group, doing as I was told. I was all about the buddy system. Stay with the pack. Follow the leader. Safety in numbers.
But even though I don’t have a story about wandering lost in the mall, or at the theme park, or the zoo, I do have a story, as I imagine most of you do, about a day when I was completely lost.
Fifteen years ago, I was sitting in my second-period science class when my teacher turned on the television to pop in a Bill Nye video. It was early; I was sleepy; and when I saw two tall columns with smoke coming out, I thought they were test tubes in an experiment. I’d never even heard of the Twin Towers till that day, but some of my classmates had. About thirty seconds later, the announcement went out to shut off all televisions. My first lost was the confused kind of lost–I knew something bad had happened, but I didn’t know what.
The teachers weren’t allowed to talk, but rumors flew. By the time I got off the bus, I’d heard every disaster tale imaginable. Mom and dad were sitting on the front stoop to meet the bus; that’s when I knew that that “something bad” was something truly horrific. My second kind of lost that day was fear–I couldn’t fully understand what had happened, and at ten my parents were careful about details–but I could sense that the safe world I had woken up to in the morning wasn’t there anymore. Safety in numbers had been a lie.
With thousands of others across America, my family sought refuge in our house of faith that evening. Everybody who came sat in the first few pews and that was strange enough. We read Psalm 146 and lit candles and it was only then, when I had been reminded that God is our refuge and our safety, that I let my fear go enough to grieve, and that was my third kind of lost that day.
I was not the only one lost in confusion, fear, and grief that day. For that day, and for many days ahead, the whole country was lost, and at a loss, crying out in pain and fear and confusion and sorrow. Some folks lost their faith. Some lost their certainty. Some lost their sense of what kind of person they were. Some lost their sense of trust. Some lost their loved ones. And some lost their lives.
This is a day when we remember great loss. We say prayers and hold silence and light candles again. But more and more as the years pass I find that the human spirit wants something to celebrate–wants to remember a triumph on September 11, and not just a tragedy. And so we turn to our First Responders. If there is anything to celebrate from that day, it is the men and women who rushed to help, to heal, to save, or, where that was not possible–and often it was not–to bring a human touch to an inhuman scene, to provide as much closure and dignity as possible. Today we celebrate their courage and dedication, to finding what could be found when all seemed lost.
It is not often that the scripture reading seems less serious than the illustration. It is strange to go from national tragedy to wandering sheep and lost change. And yet this story too is about First Responders: a shepherd who plunges into the wilderness to rescue his sheep, a woman who searches everywhere until she finds her lost coin.
These parables look simple on the surface: God seeks us, the lost, and rejoices. God is the shepherd, we are sheep; God is the woman, we are the coin. How beautiful to be found, to be sought and wanted! Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me! If you have ever been lost, you know the joy of being found: of being a child in the wrong aisle of the grocery store and seeing mom coming around the corner; of driving down a dark road at night and seeing a sign pointing you home; of not knowing what to do next, and then having the right choice dropped in your lap as if by divine intention.
It would be easy to make this a cozy parable; God will always find you, so no worries. Just go on your merry way. The shepherd is coming with his crook, the woman with her broom. You’ll be found eventually.
But there’s a twist in this parable, something that makes it less cozy and more challenging. Jesus didn’t say to the Pharisees: imagine yourself as a sheep. Imagine yourself as a coin. Instead he said, which of you, being a shepherd? which of you, being a woman? Jesus invited the Pharisees to imagine themselves as the searching ones, not the lost ones. And that joy–that joy in heaven that Jesus talks about–it’s not the joy of being found. Perhaps the sheep is happier with its flock than on its own, but the coin certainly doesn’t care. This is not a parable about the joy of being found; this is a parable about the joy of finding. It’s not even a parable about the joy of finding something valuable; really, by the world’s economy, it’s not worth throwing a party over finding one coin. The woman probably came out in the red on the venture. It is the sheer joy of finding that is celebrated.
Here is Jesus’ invitation: if you want to join in the joy, you have to share in the searching.
It is important to remember who Jesus told this parable to: the Pharisees. The Pharisees get a bad rap but, by the laws and customs of their day, they were good people. Solid people. Righteous people. And they figured the best thing they could do for sinners was set a good example by not budging. Let the sinners come to them. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of joy in this model, from what we hear in the gospels. It sounds more exhausting than anything.
Jesus invites them to a different way of being righteous: what if, instead of crossing your arms and planting your feet and refusing to move, you went out and searched? What if, instead of following the rules and staying in line and being all cautious you just went out there, into the wilderness, into the wind, joining God’s search party?
Because, after all, God is already searching, and if you want to be with God, then you better keep up.
This is a more vulnerable kind of righteousness than what the Pharisees were looking for. After all, if you go searching for the lost, there’s always a chance that you might get lost yourself.
Unless. Unless you use the buddy system. And you make sure that buddy is Christ.
God does not send us out to search alone. God sends us out with Christ, with each other, to those who feel alone, unloved, unclaimed. God does not call the church to sit with its arms crossed and its feet planted, hoping the lost will show up at its door. God calls the church to go out, one giant search and rescue crew, trusting that God the shepherd and God the cleaning woman will go with us all the way.
My language professor in seminary was a man named Carson Brisson, and you might as well remember that because he’s probably going to show up in a lot of my sermons. Carson is a brilliant, kind, thoughtful, humble, faithful man, with wisdom that pours out of him. When I think of how a person of faith goes searching for the lost, I think of Carson: somehow he knew instinctively who was homesick, who was burnt out, who was doubting themselves, who had reached their limit. He shared his wisdom and compassion with us all, but I think he reserved his deepest love for those who were beginning to wander off, and they always came back. And Carson rejoiced in each one of them, you could tell.
At the end of each class, Carson left us with a blessing, punctuated with words in Greek or Hebrew. The framework was always the same, but each day he would add or change pieces of it. Towards the end of the blessing Carson would ask Christ’s light to guide us home, and one day he added this:
I don’t know for sure, he said. I don’t know, but I think–I think those who are most home are most out searching for those who are not. Those who are most home are most out searching for those who are not.
Fifteen years ago I learned the world wasn’t safe. Fifteen years ago I learned that staying in line at the zoo and sticking near mom at the mall didn’t mean I couldn’t get lost.
But over the last fifteen years I have learned that while safe isn’t an option, joy is. And so I choose to go along with God’s search and rescue crew, to join God’s First Responders team, to go searching for those who are lost, trusting that if something happens and I’m the one to wander off, then that same team will come looking for me.
Rejoice! God is out there in the world, seeking, searching, and we are invited to come along for the ride.
And even better, we are invited to the afterparty.
Because when all are found, and know that they belong to a God who loves them more than words can say, then heaven will rejoice.