The 24th Sunday after Pentecost, Year C
O God, because without you we are not able to please you, mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Raise your hand if you have any collections at home—baseball cards, Magic cards, coins, stamps, dolls, novels by certain authors, CD’s, cars, Pokemon ….? Anything that I haven’t named? It feels pretty good when you get a complete set of whatever you are collecting, doesn’t it? There’s a glorious satisfaction in admiring the completeness of the set, the beauty of the whole. And when you lose one of your collectibles, it’s very frustrating, isn’t it? And the smaller the collection, the worse the loss, too. Losing one out of one hundred items is one thing, but one out of just ten—ouch! Have you ever torn through the whole house looking for the piece that you lost? Have you ever spent whole days and months consumed with trying to find the one piece that’s missing? [Children, I challenge you today to draw or list your favorite collection if it were completely whole, without any of the pieces missing. I’ll tell you what to do with it at the end of the sermon.]
Of course, the biggest loss for us all is that of our loved ones: the panic of a parent losing a child in a crowded mall … the pain of losing a spouse to death or divorce… the hurt of losing a friend who has moved away… the unending grief of that empty chair at the supper table … the gnawing heartache of waiting to hear from a loved one who might have been in the rubble of the Twin Towers. We long for the wholeness, the completeness, of our love. As the mother of three adults now living far away, my heart still does a dance of joy on the rare occasions when all of my beloved children are sleeping under my roof. When they are all home at once, the family is complete; I know that they are safe; the house is whole like it used to be. I look at those shoes all over the floor and those laptops plugged into all the outlets, and those glasses piled up in the sink, and I breathe a sigh of pure contentment.
Before we identify too completely with the losing and finding in today’s Gospel, though, let me point out that these parables are full of exaggeration. Did you notice it? None of us is really going to go off and leave 99 defenseless sheep alone in the desert while he hunts for just one who wandered off, right? That would be irresponsible—something like me leaving the nursery children alone in the chapel with the candles lit while I hunt for something in my office. And none of us is really going to throw a party for the whole neighborhood in celebration over finding a lost coin! People would think that we had lost our minds!
Jesus exaggerates in his parables, because he wants to shake up the way we think. Jesus isn’t addressing the lost or the grieving in today’s Gospel. He’s talking to the people who are complaining about the company that he keeps. He’s talking to good people like you and me: people who follow the rules; people who go to church and tithe and sit on committees and teach Sunday school. Jesus is talking to children who listen to the teacher at school and turn in their homework on time. Jesus is talking to good people who don’t hang out with the wrong crowd. He’s talking to all of us God-fearing people who know the difference between right and wrong.
Jesus is telling us good church-going Episcopalians that God is not bound by the measures that rule our lives. It might be crazy for us to leave 99 sheep to look for one, but that’s what God does. We might not fully imitate the diligence or the extravagance of the woman with her coins, but God sure does. Jesus is showing us that God's abundant love is beyond our understanding. Yes, God loves us, but God also loves the people who scare us, the people who disgust us, the people who don’t live by our rules. And most of all, God rejoices with all creation when the lost and the found are reunited at the same table—when the circle of love is complete.
A few years ago, in another parish, I had money stolen out of my purse in my office at church. “Who would do such a thing?” I fumed. “What kind of terrible person would abuse my trust and dishonor the church in that way?” A few days later, a stranger showed up at our small Saturday night Eucharist with a sad-faced little boy in tow. She accosted me at the Peace, desperate for money. I told her that I couldn’t help her until after the service. In the middle of the Eucharistic prayer, she slipped out of the room. As I prayed to God over the bread and wine, the holiest time of the Eucharist, my Pharisee-mind was running rampant, thinking, “Oh man, I hope that I remembered to lock my office. Did I lock it? What was I doing before the service? That's it--I’m going to be robbed again. Did I lock the church office, too?” Fret, fret … This is my Body, given for you… fret, fret… this is my blood, poured out for the forgiveness of sins ... worry, worry ...
After the prayer, I noticed that the woman and her little boy had returned, hanging back behind the pews. Guilt-ridden for my thoughts, yet absolutely certain that someone like her would not join us, I feebly called out to her, out of duty, you see: “You are welcome to join us at the altar for Communion.” Well, you know what? She came. She joined our circle of pious Episcopalians. We all held hands during the Lords’ Prayer, and I fed her the body and blood of Christ.
I later found out that this woman was indeed wanted by the police for robbing churches in order to pay for her heroin habit. The next time that she came back, desperate for cash, looking very much like the kind of people that Jesus ate with, I was still afraid. I offered her help that she didn’t want. I locked doors and called the police and thought all of my judging thoughts. In our day to day world of addiction and fear, she was still lost, and I was still a judging, fearful goody-two-shoes, and God still had her hands full reaching out to us both.
But here’s the amazing thing: for one moment at that Saturday night Eucharist, when she and her son stood in our circle, holding out their hands for Jesus, we all became the Body of Christ, and I know that God rejoiced. In that moment, we were whole in God’s eyes. No one was missing, left out, shoved aside, or lost to the complete circle of love that God desires for each one of God’s children. God's persistent love is like the story that I read recently of a Japanese woman whose daughter was lost in the terrible tsunami a few years ago. Her body had been swept out to sea and had not been found. So for years, this woman would get up at 5 a.m. every single day before work and lovingly cook one of her daughter’s favorite meals. She would carefully wrap it in a biodegradable container and make the long bus trip to the beach in order to place it on the waves that had swallowed her daughter. Every day, for years, she was reaching out to her beloved child in the only way that she knew how, carefully feeding her baby who had been lost. Such is the devotion of the God who wants so desperately to be in relationship with us that he sent his only Son to be our food and drink in this complex maze of a world in which we wander.
The Good News for us in Jesus’ parable is this: like the shepherd, like the woman with the coins, like the mother in Japan, God will not rest until we, the beloved lost and the beloved self-righteous, are in every moment joined together in Christ, in the beauty of wholeness.
[So children, after church, I challenge you to find someone that you don’t know very well out in the narthex and share your collection with him or her. Tell that person about it, and enjoy it together. God will rejoice with you.]And we adults, how can we reach out beyond our comfort zones this week, placing a gift into the sea of need that laps at our feet, drawing near to someone whom we have been judging? When we do, we will hear God and all the angels of heaven rejoice.
 http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/07/magazine/the-lost-ones.html?_r=1, cited by Jill Duffield in the Presbyterian Outlook, “Looking Into the Lectionary, September 11, 2016,” https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/#inbox/156fb86a9a1da524