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Sunday, September 11, 2016 | 4:00 p.m.
Being Lost Together
Minister for Congregational Life
On today, so many things come together. It is September 11, 2016—fifteen years after two planes crashed into the twin towers causing them to fall and a third plane crashed into the Pentagon and a fourth crashed in a field in Pennsylvania, prevented from finding its target but nevertheless killing all the people on board. 9/11: the date is infamous, and we will remember it for a long time.
Also this weekend, yesterday, we filled Buchanan Chapel with several hundred people who came to hear an important conversation about race and racism and the role of the church in relation to racial justice in our society.
Our keynote speaker was a professor from Princeton University, Dr. Yolanda Pierce, and we had speakers from Harvard University and the University of Chicago, speakers from our own local McCormick Theological Seminary, and pastors from local South Side churches.
After the keynote address and panel discussion in the morning, the speakers gathered for a meeting after lunch to talk with each other about how our communities and our churches can work together or support each other’s work as we try to build a world filled with justice and wholeness.
Today we also wait with bated breath, praying that a Syrian ceasefire scheduled to begin tomorrow will hold, that peace will begin to grow in Syria and healing will begin to occur after all the terrible suffering and the refugee crisis that we’ve been witnessing.
As a society we are still struggling to learn how to live together in peace and unity in a diverse world. Whether we are divided by race or religion or country of origin, we have a long history of division and violence.
Our struggle did not begin on 9/11/2001. It began a long, long time before that. Maybe it began with Cain and Abel in the field, when one brother killed another brother and tried to hide that from God.
How do we let ourselves get divided from our fellow human beings like this? And how do we continue to have enough hope to keep working for peace and justice and reconciliation? Does our faith give us tools to sustain and encourage us in our work of loving better?
Our scripture says, “All the tax collectors and sinners were gathering around Jesus to listen to him. The Pharisees and legal experts were grumbling, saying, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’”
There is this controversy, see, about how to respond to Jesus and what he is teaching. Shall we gather around and listen to him like the sinners and tax collectors do, or shall we grumble because he welcomes the unwelcome and works against social practices that separate people?
Jesus’s stories teach about separation and coming together. Today’s stories appear in the Bible immediately before the story of the Prodigal Son—the one who takes his inheritance, squanders it, breaks his relationship with his father and his brother, and then gets redeemed, brought back into the family with joyful celebration.
This cycle of stories are all about getting lost and getting found and how greatly God celebrates the finding, the reunification, the reconciliation, the wholeness that comes after a period of brokenness.
God finds the lost and heals the broken. God is like a shepherd, Jesus says, who won’t let one single sheep be lost. God is like a woman, Jesus teaches, who won’t give up looking for one lost coin.
This is very good news for the lost sheep, but I have to confess that when I hear the story about the sheep, I don’t immediately think about that one lost sheep. I think first about all the ninety-nine sheep. I think about God walking away from them, as though God didn’t value them. Why would God choose one over ninety-nine others? Wouldn’t it be more fruitful, more productive, to protect the sheep that are already staying together?
When we imagine ourselves in the middle of the flock, and all around us are the other ninety-eight sheep who are not lost, we might wonder, what’s the big deal about that one? I’m just fine here in the middle of this flock. We’re warm from all our brothers and sisters gathered close in the pasture. We have water and food in this pasture.
But we might think, Hey, what if wolves come while the shepherd is away? How will we be protected? We might want to yell, Hey, come back here, shepherd! We may think that we’re safe in the crowd so let’s just carry on as usual and not worry about who’s lost. Let’s keep the shepherd for ourselves.
So that’s one reaction to the story—that’s a little bit of my first reaction to the story: Why abandon the ninety-nine? That doesn’t seem good either. How could God walk away from them? Doesn’t God care about them too?
But God does not see it that way. For God it’s not an either-or situation. God has a different vision of safety and salvation. God’s vision is about wholeness. God’s vision is about seeing people who are interrelated, interconnected. It’s a vision of safety that includes everyone. Everyone.
So after my initial reaction, I think, I need to change my perspective. What if I was the one who was lost? I’ve certainly felt lost in my life. It’s a common human experience.
Sometimes we feel lost when we don’t know what to do.
Sometimes we feel lost when we try to do something right but instead we do something wrong, when we hurt someone and we don’t even know how we did it.
Sometimes we feel lost when we see powers and principalities, systems of social organization that are big and old and seem immovable—like the mass incarceration system that we have been learning about here at Fourth Church. We see injustice deeply embedded in our society. And facing it, we can feel lost and overwhelmed.
Sometimes we feel lost when we look at someone and they look right through us, or they only look at the front of our face and don’t really see into our hearts.
We can feel lost in so many ways.
How does God respond to that? How does the shepherd respond to that? When I think about it that way, this whole parable Jesus tells changes for me.
It’s not that God doesn’t love the ninety-nine. It’s that God loves even the one who gets separated from all the rest. What God doesn’t love is our separation from one another.
God works relentlessly to bring us back together into community, into wholeness, so that we can all be safe, so we can all be supported, so we can all be embraced.
This is a challenge to our way of thinking. In God’s view, there is not a single person, not a single sheep, not a single coin, not a single prodigal son or daughter who is expendable, who doesn’t matter.
Could that be true? Could it be true for each of us? Could it be true for you?
Could it be true that even when I mess up, even when you lose your way, even when I feel lost and overwhelmed, even when you try to do something right but instead you do something wrong, could it be that God loves us all, even then?
That’s what Jesus teaches to the sinners and tax collectors who gather around him to listen, and it’s what he teaches the scribes and the Pharisees who grumble even while he’s teaching it to them.
So with the sinners and tax collectors, gather around and listen to this.
If you think of yourself as the one lost sheep, out in the night someplace, alone, cold, hungry, be encouraged to think about a God who will not let you go. This is a God who sees as much value in you as all the value in the ninety-nine. God is coming after you. God is looking for you. You can hide behind a tree because you are afraid or you can trip on the rocky ground and fall under a bush with a broken leg or you can you can be overwhelmed and disoriented and go in circles trying to find your way again and not succeeding—but no matter what you do and no matter where you are, God is looking for you and God will not give up until God can pick you up and place you on his shoulders to bring you home to the whole flock.
This is what God is about: bringing wholeness to our flock, to our community, indeed to the whole human family, the whole world.
Through Christ, it says in the book of Colossians, through Christ God was reconciling to himself the whole world. The whole world. Even you. And even me.
But sometimes we don’t just feel lost; we feel rejected. We feel disrespected. Sometimes we haven’t just stumbled our way out of the flock, but we feel pushed out—lost because we have been excluded.
I felt that way about church for a long period in my life. In the small church that I went to as a child, I did not experience God’s love and God’s grace. When I was a child I was afraid of God. I thought God was wrathful and angry at me and that I was not good enough to be loved by God.
That’s what the church taught me as a kid, and because of that I decided that I was not a Christian. I didn’t want to be that kind of Christian or follow a God like that.
Things changed for me when a friend invited me to a small evening Communion service at his little church in South Boston. I was in graduate school at the time, and I had never had Communion in my life—again, because I didn’t think that I was good enough.
And I didn’t think the church wanted me to receive Communion. I didn’t think of myself as a lost sheep, but I was definitely outside the pasture gate. So when my friend invited me to his church, he essentially opened the gate and said, Hey, come in.
When I went to the church, the people welcomed me and they didn’t ask me what I believed; they didn’t check to see if I was the right kind of person to be at their church; they didn’t ask if I believed the right things in the right way. They just welcomed me.
And when Communion was served and the bread and cup were brought around for each person to take the bread and dip it in the cup and eat, it was offered to me.
The person serving stood in front of me with an open, friendly look, offering me bread and juice, waiting for me to receive their offer. No one had ever done that to me before.
While I looked at the bread and cup I thought about God. I thought, Can God be offering this to me? Is it OK for me to take this bread? Am I really welcomed by these people standing around me?
I decided to take a risk. I decided to receive what was offered. I decided that the relaxed, friendly faces were really reflecting a love and a welcome that they felt inside themselves.
I ate the bread. And it was like dominoes tipping over inside me as I knew, kind of all at once—it wasn’t a string of thoughts like this, I just felt it all at once—that if God really offered me this bread and cup, and if God really welcomed me and if Jesus, the host of the table, really wanted to nourish me and these people were loving and they were Christians—then so much of what I had believed about Christians and about God and even about myself began tipping over like a row of dominos, one tipping over the next, domino after domino after domino.
If I was a lost sheep, that was the moment that Jesus picked me up gently and put me on his shoulders and brought me into a pasture with a new family, my sheep siblings. I was changed. Not for the last time; I was not changed for the last time. I was just changed for the next step.
I began to think that I might be loved, not for anything I said or did but just because I exist. That’s what happened to that sheep, too, that was lost outside the flock.
It couldn’t find itself. The lost coin couldn’t find itself. But they were found by a persistent God who worked through a shepherd and who worked through a woman cleaning a house.
God does the work of finding us and loving us, but so often that work is done through each other. We’ve got a shepherd, yes. But one thing about a shepherd is that he or she doesn’t do all the work of the flock.
The shepherd may guide us to food, but we’ve got to eat. We’ve got to be the flock and let the shepherd do what the shepherd does. We’ve got to gather around and listen to what the teacher is teaching, not grumble because Jesus changes things.
In the parable Jesus asks, Wouldn’t a shepherd who lost one sheep leave ninety-nine and search for the lost one until he finds it? Wouldn’t a shepherd do that? I don’t know if your average shepherd would, but I know that God would.
That shepherd who is God is not giving up until wholeness and community are restored. That’s God caring about all one hundred sheep in the flock.
Sometimes it feels like we are not one flock with one lost sheep but that we are a scattered human flock, with so many of us feeling lost in one way or another way.
But God keeps pulling us back together. God keeps scooping us up and carrying us on the shepherd’s shoulders, bringing us back to each other.
Sometimes God asks us to be the shepherd for each other. Asks us to be the woman who turns on all the lights and sweeps out all the corners looking for what’s been lost. And then that God celebrates when we are found, when we find each other, when we are healed, when we participate in the healing of each other.
We can’t do it alone; we can’t do it for ourselves, but we can do it for each other, with God’s help. May God help us and bless us in the process. Amen.