St. Paul’s Congregational Church, September 15, 2019
Luke 15: 1 – 10; Proper 19-C
All is not lost!
Rev. Cynthia F. Reynolds
Let us pray: may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
It’s good to be back today – our Sunday School classes have started, the choir is in the loft, families are back from summer vacation and getting back into the routine of the schoolyear – our family has been reunited and it feels good. And, yes, we celebrate that! Celebration Sunday, though, is meant to happen every week, isn’t it. So, today, we added the dimension of Re-Covenanting Sunday – it is fitting that at the beginning of our program year we remember again the fact that we are all in covenant – one with another but also, and most importantly, with God. So, no matter what joys, frustrations, worries, angers, fears we have with us today, we have the opportunity here to give them over to God, to ask for guidance, and go forth, sure of God’s presence with us always.
Our Sunday School theme for the first unit is “Real World, Real Faith” – during the next several weeks our children will be hearing the same scripture lessons, the same stories we’ll hear during worship. They’ll hear the question, “What does it mean to be faithful in this situation” and through art, music, and talk explore that very theme. That’s a good theme for us too – what does real faith look like in our real world? We each bring our own experiences to our conversations, it’s a rich blend of viewpoints when we gather to learn and encourage one another in the “real world” as we strive toward “real faith.”
So today, all of us join in reading these two familiar parables – the lost sheep and the lost coin. Two illustrations of the persistence, the relentless nature of God who wants each and every one of us in relationship, who will constantly seek us out, who always, always, cares for us.
There’s a rhythm to these stories – a movement from tragedy to grief to joy; from seeking to finding to rejoicing. We’ll all enter into these stories in our own way – we all know the feeling of being lost, hopefully also of being found, we’re all familiar with the rhythm, the movement of life, and I think we recognize in our minds the image of God the shepherd, God the persistent one who looks for the lost coin. But you know, I think it’s when events of the “real world” crash into the faith in our heads, - it’s then that the faith of our hearts is nurtured, is reborn, is made stronger. It’s when we allow ourselves to be found, when we’re able to surrender ourselves to God’s relentless, everlasting love and care, when we can let go: it’s then that we can move from tragedy to grief to joy, from seeking to finding to rejoicing.
Sometimes “stuff” just piles up, doesn’t it. It can wear you down….and I’m no different from anyone else. these past few weeks have been times of great sadness for many people – friends and family have suffered loss, major life changes, too many medical tests and not enough answers - it’s been a hard time.
I’ve been thinking of 8 year old Xavier Ross so often – thank you for praying for him for so long – my first reaction when I learned he died that Sunday afternoon was relief – relief that he was out of pain, glad that his struggle was over as he rested in the arms of Jesus, but of course, concern and love for his parents, his little sister, for his family. My head hurt – a lot. Through all that, though, a friend sent me a picture of that beautiful August day when I had the honor of baptizing him at our outdoor worship at Glen Ridge – the memories flooded in and through the hurt in my head, my heart smiled and I am so grateful for the opportunity to have had him in my life, even for so brief a time. God doesn’t quit – and isn’t that a good thing.
Then last week we were faced with yet another large bill to pay in our asbestos abatement/furnace replacement project – our total now is nearly $93,000! Our financial reserves have been reduced to less than $50,000 – and the banker in me is worried, how will we survive – if there’s another emergency, what does that mean for the future of this church. Even without an emergency expenditure – like roof repair or something major like that, how do we maintain, never mind grow, our ministry when we’ve been dealing with deficit budgets for such a long time and drawing down on our reserves.
But as my head worried about this situation and as I constantly asked God what to do but only heard silence for a little while, I remembered that great round table conversation we had after worship in August and what you all said about this church and what it meant to you. And the ideas you offered for working through this financial crisis – my heart spoke to me again – God is still speaking – are you listening? Are we listening? God doesn’t quit.
This is a familiar message to Christians, isn’t it – we know that this is what Jesus keeps telling us but when we get too overly concerned with our institutional success – counting the sheep – we lose sight of the heart of the matter: feeding the sheep and that’s discipleship. We are in covenant with God and each other – how are we doing living that out?
We’re all on the same journey, aren’t we. We’re all seeking something, we’re all feeling lost somehow, at some time. Both as individuals and as a congregation – we all feel separated from God’s care, from God’s guidance, from God’s grace. But here’s the great mystery: God cares for us in our lostness; that as we are lost God seeks us out. Each of us. Each of us. We’re not just one of a crowd of 100 sheep. We’re not just one of 10 coins that all look alike. God sees each one of us in our own condition. God sees each gathered congregation in our own condition. That’s what these stories tell us. Each of us is precious in the sight of God.
And please hear the urgency in these stories: the shepherd looks for the lost sheep until he finds it. The woman keeps sweeping until she finds the coin. Not if. Not only till dark. But persistently, carefully, relentlessly. And so it is with God. And so it is for us. God doesn’t ever give up on us. Never. And isn’t that good news for those who mourn, for those who are ill, for those who are sleepless with worry about their children, for those who feel so terribly alone, for churches who face declining reserves, old and needy buildings, fewer people in the pews. If we can let our faith move to a faith of the heart, what comfort that can be for us.
Our head tells us the shepherd’s a little crazy for leaving 99 sheep in the wilderness to go and search for one. Is one that important to risk the other 99? And one coin – is it worth all that work? The woman has 9 more. But that’s not the point, is it. We can say in our heads that it doesn’t make sense. But on whose terms? For the God who has counted even the hairs on our heads, all this makes perfect sense. Friends, let us let go of the faith of our heads, and enrich it, enlarge it, with the faith of our hearts. Let “Flat Jesus” walk with you every hour of the day, every place you live out your life.
Radical thought, isn’t it. Well, this whole Christian faith is radical business. It was in its infancy in Jesus’ time and it sure is today. Imagine, Jesus sat at table with tax collectors and sinners while the Pharisees and scribes grumble. Jesus teaches us about a God who is radical – so radical that men and women, young and old, rich and poor, tax collector and scribe are all loved – all sought after – all important in God’s eyes. And all are forgiven of sin – we don’t like to talk much about sin, do we. Well, if sin is life out of touch with and contrary to God’s will, we are all sinners, aren’t we. We are all lost to God as we turn away from God’s purposes and pursue our own agendas and goals not set or established in relation to God.
Our own agendas – maybe that’s part of our journey from tragedy to grief to joy – from seeking to finding to rejoicing. This radical religion is NEVER an individual religion. By definition it can’t be – if we are created for relationship with God and with each other. That’s why we read our covenant this morning – we are bound together in covenant with God and each other – by our choice – we are in relationship with God and each other. And without relationship I believe we cannot enter into the joy, the rejoicing part of our journey.
Our two parables make that clear: in both situations, both the shepherd and the woman find what’s lost and call together friends and families with the invitation – rejoice with me. And the lesson is this: god’s purpose of love must be fulfilled. God’s last word is not sin or loss, but joy. Not the pain, the tragedy of the cross, but the joy of the empty tomb. Our grief has turned to joy.
Another thing about the parables: neither the sheep nor the coin did anything, did they. God’s gift of acceptance and love is a gift: our God is not a God who withdraws when we do wrong, but one who actively seeks us. God does for us what we can’t do for ourselves.
And once God finds us, once we’re no longer lost, the joy of being loved and accepted pulls us out of ourselves. We’re called to love and accept others. We seek others because God seeks us. That’s our gift to God – a response to God’s gift to us. And here’s where we find the implication for our life together, here in this congregation.
We’ve had a year of celebration, a year of recognition of our gathering as a church 125 years ago. It was a great time of looking back – but now, we’re starting our 127th year of ministry! What’s next? Clearly, financial security is important. BUT maybe that’s an outgrowth of our discernment of what’s next – it can’t be the only goal! Because if it is, we’ll fail!
What if we look at it like this: a time of challenge, of growth, of growing closer together in God’s love, of experiencing a real joy that follows, a time of seeking and finding. What if we celebrate our history, our gathering, by responding to God’s gift to us through our seeking the lost, making sure our church is a place of welcome, of hospitality to all. Making sure that we keep Jesus at the center of our lives – carry that Flat Jesus with you!
And we don’t have to look far to do that – there are people here right now I’d guess who are feeling lost and alone – for any number of reasons. And those reasons don’t matter. But a “how are you”, a greeting, a seeking out would make all the difference in the world. A helping hand on the journey – sounds almost too simple, doesn’t it.
I’ll take the risk here and use the “e” word – true evangelism is seeking the lost. Isn’t that what we’re called to in response to God’s seeking of us?
Here we are, in the real world, all of searching for a real faith. We’re all in a rhythm of life, seeking, finding, rejoicing. And it’s a fluid rhythm, isn’t it. We move back and forth, there’s no straight line to our journey. But there is a constant. Something to hold onto. God continues to seek us out.
Frederick Buechner writes in his book, Telling Secrets,
“We believe in God – such as it is, we have faith – because certain things happened to us once and go on happening. We work and goof off, we love and dream, we have wonderful times and awful times, are hurt cruelly and hurt others cruelly, get mad and bored and scared stiff and ache with desire, do all such human things as these. And if our faith is not mainly just window dressing or a rabbit’s foot or fire insurance, it is because it grows out of precisely this kind of rich human compost. The God of biblical faith is the God who meets us at those moments in which for better or worse we are being most human, most ourselves. And if we lose touch with those moments, if we don’t stop from time to time to notice what is happening to us and around us and inside us, we run the tragic risk of losing touch with God too.”
Let’s not lose touch with our God.
My own journey this week stopped at the place of grief, of seeking. And what I found was God reaching out to me through other people and when I finally learned to accept that gift, I saw a glimpse of the joy, of being in relationship, of being restored to relationship.
When I moved from a faith in my head to a faith in my heart, I knew in a different way what these parables are trying to teach us. I better understood that call to seek the lost, to reach out. It was a tough week at times – but as Buechner says, faith grows out of this rich compost of human experience – and that experience includes phone calls, a simple question, how are you doing? and even nachos. Friends, it’s not that hard.
All is not lost. God searches and continues to search for us. And we’re called to do the same. When do we move out of ourselves? When do we stop what we’re doing to seek what is lost? As long as any person is lost from or in the community, our congregation is diminished. God never gives us. How can we strive for anything less? Amen.