Sermon for Sunday, September 15, 2013 || Proper 19C || Luke 15:1-10 )
Have you ever been found before? I know this is an unusual question. A more normal one might be: “Have you ever been lost before?” but I’m pretty sure I know the answer to that one. I want to know if you’ve ever been found. I have. Let me share with you a quick story from the “Stupid Things Adam Did as a Child” file.
Moundville, Alabama is so named for the Native American burial mounds that dot the landscape. The mounds are both eerie and fascinating, which makes Moundville a great place for Boy Scouts to go camping. Well, the camping trip ended, and I was waiting for my father to pick me up. I was twelve or thirteen at the time. We had agreed he would meet me at the parking lot closest to our campsite, so that’s where I waited. And then I waited some more. He was running late, so I decided we could save a few minutes if I met him at the entrance to the park instead. (This was in the days before cell phones by the way. Ancient history, I know.)
I walked for a few minutes to the front of the park and perched myself on a stone sign with a good view of the road so I could flag down my dad’s car. But unbeknownst to me, he had already entered the park from a different direction. An hour later, I still had my eyes on the road when my father’s car came screeching to a halt behind me. He jumped from the car and ran to me, yelling my name all the while. Suffice it to say, he was not happy.
Where were you…Didn’t we agree to meet…You scared me half to…I’ve been looking everywhere…
All of this spilled from him as he approached me. His eyes blazed with anger – I don’t think I’ve ever seen him so upset, before or since. But then his hand touched my arm, and everything changed.
Now, parents out there, you might be able to identify with what happened next. When he touched me, it was as if he confirmed that I was really, truly there, that I wasn’t merely a figment he had been chasing through the mounds for the last heart-pounding hour. All the scenarios of kidnapping or being mauled by a wild animal or getting lost in the forest – all these scenarios that had been shuddering though his mind vanished when he touched me. And with the touch came relief. And with relief came joy. And with joy came an embrace brimming with all the spoken and unspoken love of father for son.
I was still in trouble. I was chastened for my foolhardiness. But above and beyond that, I was found. Have you ever been found before?
In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus responds to his opponents’ critique of his unsavory dinner companions. “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.’ ”
Now, for Jesus’ opponents it was quite easy to separate the sinner from the righteous. The system of sacrifice and purification allowed people to proclaim themselves blameless before God – indeed, even Paul does this in his letter to the Philippians. This system created an in-group and everyone else. But by eating with “tax collectors and sinners,” Jesus proclaims that God doesn’t just move in the lives of the so-called “in-group.” In fact, God is present in the lives of all people. God seeks out and finds all people. Let me assure you, this was a radical claim in Jesus’ day.
And I think it remains a radical claim. How many of us have heard one religious group or another claim that God is on their side and no other? How many of us have been jealous of other people, who we assume God has favored because, darn it, everything seems to go their way? In our fallen state, we have a kneejerk reaction to exclude, to isolate, to create cliques and in-groups just to make ourselves feel better. But when Jesus sits down with all the wrong people, he punctures the false assumptions that God belongs to any one group and that God seeks to find only one type of person, the kind with white teeth and perfect cheekbones.
In truth, each and every person on this earth is the sheep who has gone astray. We have all wandered off alone and gotten lost. The path is there – perhaps a bit overgrown, but there. And yet, something shiny catches our eye and we strike out for it. But it’s just a trick of the light, and now it’s growing dark and the path is away to the left somewhere but good luck finding it. We stagger around in the gathering gloom, hoping against hope we are going in the right direction.
Into this gathering gloom, the light of Christ shines. Into the underbrush, Jesus tramps. Onto his shoulders, he lifts us up and carries us back to the path. And guess what? Tomorrow he’ll do the same thing again. Last week, Margot invited us each to go deeper in our commitment to God’s work in our lives. This week, Jesus invites us to celebrate God’s commitment to do whatever it takes to remain in relationship with us, no matter how often God has to find us and return our meandering feet to the path.
This commitment is no idle tale. God’s presence in the lives of all of us lost sheep gives us the hope that we are being found each day. And in being found, being nourished. And in being nourished, being molded into the people God calls us to be.
Now being found takes on all shapes and sizes, so I invite you to be aware of the unique ways God is actively finding you. Perhaps you are sitting in your pew and the choir’s anthem pierces your heart with the truth of God’s majesty. And God finds you in a moment of pure delight.
Perhaps you are holding your mother’s hand as she lies dying. She holds your hand back…until she doesn’t. You don’t think you have any more tears, but you are wrong. Your deep grief reveals not how deeply you loved her, but how deeply you love her, and you realize your love will never become a past tense thing. And God finds you in the continued connection between the living and the dead.
Perhaps you are waiting for your father to pick you up and you wander off and when he finally reaches you, you feel his desperation and anger melt into relief and joy. And God finds you in the fervent embrace of father and son.
God finds us every single day of our lives, no matter how far we have strayed from the path. We participate in this reality when we notice God finding us, when we realize just how God is weaving the strands of our lives together, and when we act as the vehicles of God’s finding in the lives of others.
After the service, I invite you to go to the Bartow Room and look at Ann Musto’s beautiful painting hanging over the fireplace. In the foreground, sheep gambol on a sun-drenched field bisected by a dusty path. In the background, there is a small, red figure walking up the path, walking towards the viewer. He’s small enough to miss unless you’re really looking at the painting, unless you’re paying attention, unless you really take the time to notice. Jesus is walking towards us from the back of the painting. He’s walking toward us, his lost sheep. He will seek until he finds us. He will find us wherever we are. And wherever we are, he is there already, inviting us to open our eyes and find him, even as we are being found.