“God is seeking you!”
Sermon on Sunday, September 15, 2019
Based on Luke 15: 1-10
It’s tempting to read the gospel for this Sunday as a social commentary. From a pastor it’s expected to emphasize that God seeks those on the margins of society, the modern version of “sinners and tax collectors”, - “people with issues” as some might put it, - and as a church, we are to follow God’s rescue operation and do the same. Truth be told, that’s always been my first instinct when I read these parables in Luke… taking another look at the world and wonder who else is lost out there and what we can do about it. In fact, I was reminded yet again of the importance of paying attention to our brothers and sisters on the margins of society when I prepared the eulogy for Pastor Fred Geehr this week. As always, when you sit down with family you learn so much more about a person’s life. In this case, I came to appreciate how much my brother Fred did for people on the margins of society, something I didn’t necessarily expect because he never came across as a social activist. In his retirement years, when I met him, he was more like a wise elder.
His children brought to my attention that he was always attuned to the needs of people in the communities he served. In the course of his long ministry career, Pastor Geehr established a home for at-risk young adults in the old parsonage of Zion Flourtown - against the expressed wishes of some church council members (“He’s inviting trouble!”); he introduced a program for Children with Down Syndrome that served as a model in Montgomery County; in the 1970’s he championed a refugee program for people from Vietnam and Southeast Asia. He certainly understood the essence of the gospel: God seeks to find what is lost and heal what is broken.
Many Bible commentaries stress the same point. Someone called Luke “the Gospel of the Outcast.” And within Luke, chapter 15 with the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son, has been coined “the heart of the third gospel.” If you want to know how Luke saw Jesus, read chapter 15 and you’ll know. So, I don’t want to dismiss any of those interpretations of Luke 15. God seeks to find what is lost and heal what is broken.
For this Sunday though I am pulled in a slightly different direction. Instead of looking to the outside and imagining a God who serves people who are “worse off than I,” let us for a moment imagine that you are the lost person that needs to be found; you are the broken soul that needs healing; you are the sheep that the shepherd is so desperately trying to save. Most of us don’t picture ourselves that way. We like to think that we don’t need “special attention.” We are not perfect, but reasonably well, we say. We have room for improvement, but we are also not desperate or “lost” we claim. Some of us are downright uncomfortable accepting help, ever. “Others need it more!” is the standard response. “I can take care of myself.”
“Others need it more!” And then I read this sad story last week, a true story, a tragedy. A suicide prevention counselor from the University of Pennsylvania, the Director of the entire Program who was brought in just a year ago to make needed changes, a career counselor with many decades of experience under his belt, jumps to his death. It must have been an incredibly sad time at the University, especially for those who knew him. But it also serves as a reminder that everyone needs help sometimes, we all have the capacity to get lost, we all have the capacity to lose our ways; nobody is immune against the shadow sides of life.
What did Jesus say at the end of the gospel passage? “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” - Let me change the language of this sentence a tiny bit and you will see how that tiny change invites you into this parable. What if he said, “There will be more joy in heaven over one imperfect person who accepts help than over ninety-nine perfect people who don’t need help.”? Are we honest enough with ourselves to admit “lost-ness”? Earlier this year I was very proud of a parishioner who came to me and opened up about something that was difficult to talk about, that I wouldn’t have guessed either. Admitting lost-ness is hard. But it is the only path to being found and I pray that this person continues to be on the path of being fully found.
As we ponder this gospel passage, let us think more deeply about the metaphor of the lost sheep. Let us not automatically equate it with an unknown person on the street who needs to be found and led home, although that person is very much on Christ’s mind. Let us not automatically think of someone visibly disadvantaged, although that someone is very much on Christ’s mind! For this morning, just dare for a moment to equate that lost sheep with yourself. And then imagine that Christ has been running around all week long to find you, and let’s face it, you are sometimes hard to find! Christ has been on your heels this week to get a minute of your time and to help you being drawn into the presence of God. Yes, God issued a rescue operation for your soul this week. Could that be possible?
I believe that only those who have the courage to admit their state of lost-ness will be effective in shepherding others to safety. There is some degree of lostness in me and in you right now as we sit together in church or else it would make no sense for us to confess our sins; there have been times of greater lostness in our lives, and you and I remember those times. Whether it manifested in a family crisis, a harrowing loss, a huge mistake, a criminal offense, a deeply embarrassing moment, it doesn’t matter. Any of those experiences, bad and painful as they were, can help us to be trusted by those who need help today. Because only those who have the courage to be honest and vulnerable will be able to fully feel for and care about the plight of others. It’s called empathy. That’s why we don’t patronize people who have made mistakes, who are in need, as if we were above all that. That’s why self-help groups are often so effective because everybody “has stuff” and everybody knows it too. That’s why Jesus had so much love and empathy for folks with suspect reputations. In fact, he said in so many words that your “lost-ness” is a requirement for being found. And only with the humility of people who are aware of our own flaws and sins and yes, “lost-ness” can we all say the familiar words with a straight face, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” Those words are true. The Lord is our shepherd and before we talk about engaging in big rescue operation for others, that shepherd is here to find and feed you. This morning. This hour. This minute. Amen.