Together Again

The space between joy and pain, losing and finding is often very thin.

Today I cannot express my profound gladness at seeing you gathered here after such a long time.

Yet I am keenly aware of some beloveds who are missing from pews they graced for many years, but no longer. Their absence is sharp. Our worship today celebrates a great reunion; yet we cannot forget the significance of “9/11” and somber memories of violence and death shattering the calm of that sunny September morning as well as our sense of security as a nation. While it’s true that the hardest days of the pandemic are behind us, we’re not the same as we were before. The losses have been incalculable, and though we’ve recovered to a degree, questions remain about whether or not we’ve found the new normal and a path toward thriving. Fact is, life itself is marked by losing and finding, both sorrow and joy.

Our morning scripture text acknowledges this truth. . .  and something more.

Here Jesus tells two stories that involve finding something valuable that has gone missing, and the effort made to recover the loss. It’s important to understand the context–Jesus told these stories in response to criticism he received from religious leaders for hanging out with the “wrong” people–and not because he was telling them to change their ways, but because he was building friendships and enjoying food and conversation with them. From Jesus’ perspective, it’s not how much you have, it’s what you lose if you settle for anything less than “all.” A reading from Luke, in the fifteenth chapter, verses one through 10. Listen for God’s Word to the church: winners and losers, seekers and finders. . . and maybe just to one person in need of good news today.

[Luke 15:1-10]

Among the many tributes to the late Queen Elizabeth the Second celebrating her extraordinary reign was one that lifted up her heavenly reunion with beloved husband Prince Philip, and it was easy to imagine the joy of the angels of God at the sight. Heaven knows that despite her larger-than-life role, she was human as the rest of us, and well-acquainted with the sorrows, disappointment and grief, struggles and embarrassment of imperfect families. Though the image she reflected seemed stately and un-emotional, people who knew her well commented on her warmth, humor, and empathy for others.

A story I recall reflecting these qualities happened in the aftermath of 9/11. The ceremonial “changing of the guard” at Buckingham Palace includes the playing of God Save the Queen. But on that terrible day, upon direct orders from Her Majesty, the guard played instead our National Anthem. A tiny gesture in the global scheme of things perhaps, but one that moved a step toward restoring our shared humanity and affirmed the essential unity we have beyond nationality, religion or tradition.

Loss is an inevitable part of human life, whether it’s sheep or coins or glasses or keys or memory or beloveds. . . what’s not guaranteed is that they will be found. And that’s why this text is so significant: the emphasis is all about finding. The extravagant effort made by the shepherd and the woman and the joy they experience and share is meant to reflect Divine intent and action. The religious leaders on the other hand, determined who was worthy of attention and compassion–and it wasn’t the people they deemed “lost.” It’s almost as if they had calculated the cost of one lost sheep when they had 99 safely in the fold and decided the expense and inconvenience offset any benefit.

Jesus wasn’t having any of it.

To God every lost person matters immeasurably. Each one is precious, and not a one can be left missing. For the sake of the individual AND for the sake of the whole. In each case, the lost item belongs to a group–a flock, a pile of money.

The quest is about restoring the whole.

There’s an empty space in our community until we’re together again.

Did you notice that the illustrations Jesus used as examples do not assume moral failure as the reason for getting lost? The sheep simply wandered away on a search herself for tasty grass. Who knows how the coin fell from the woman’s cash box and rolled away into a dusty corner out of sight? The religious leaders of Jesus’ day had concluded that “lost souls” had become that way through their own flawed wills and poor choices. They couldn’t imagine any scenario where those people might become found.

But Jesus did. He countered the grumpy do-gooders with stories of heavenly joy. He pointed to God who cares about all the lost things and seeks them through any and every means necessary until they are found. A broom, a shepherd’s crook–heck, even a great reunion with refreshments!

If only the religious leaders hadn’t been so quick to judge, they might have realized that every one of us feels lost at times. Restless, uncertain where to turn and which path to take. . .  we’ve all been there, and get reacquainted with that lonely place often. But get this, friends: there is One who is looking for us. Seeking us out in the places we’ve wandered, by accident or on purpose.  Extending a hand in friendship, not shaking a finger in judgment. These stories Jesus told make me laugh in relief. There’s no scolding, no extracting a promise to shape up.  There’s just finding.  And then there’s lots and lots of rejoicing.

Down the road there will be time for accepting responsibility, engaging in faith formation and clarifying one’s truth and learning to live by it. There may well be need to make amends and reparations. But first, first, there is the heady joy of finding and being found.

When I was a brand-new pastor in rural Iowa (long before the days of GPS) I made many home visits out in the country. I got lost a lot because there were no road signs or mile-markers and directions were given like this: well, take highway 12 two and a half miles east to the old McCurdy farm, and then you’ll head north till you drive by the Linden place–the one with all the machinery in the yard. . .  you see what I mean? Anyway, one day I was pretty far afield and completely lost.  I came upon a tiny, one-pump gas station and pulled in. Awkwardly, I blurted out to the lady behind the counter, I’m lost. I’ll never forget the smile that wreathed her face in response. No you’re not lost. You’re here. . . and you’re with us!

Friends, this is the mission to which the Church is called: to seek out the people who are lost and missing. . .

Missing from beloved community.

Missing the daily human necessities of food and shelter and music and purposeful work.

Missing the knowledge of God’s unconditional and everlasting love for each precious individual.

Missing the presence of a beloved who has died.

People who are missing out on the fullness of life God intends, here and now and forever. That’s the reason we gather. That’s the reason we’ve imagined our building not simply as a beautiful place to worship God, but as a useful instrument for search and rescue.

As headquarters to deploy the 99 to go out in search of the one in need.

As a flashlight illuminating the places darkened by poverty, inequity, trauma, and suffering.

As a sanctuary where we are united and reunited in the deep joy and privilege of greeting one another with this true word:

Welcome home.

Thanks be to our Founder and Finder!