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Lost and Found

Rev. Daniel A. Smith
Sun, Sep 11

Texts: Psalm 139: 1-12 and Luke 15: 1-10

Good morning, everyone. A very warm (warm!) welcome and welcome back. I’m not sure where the tradition of homecoming dances and parties began but I’ve been thinking about them in this week of regathering and reunion, and also about their related pressures.

Comedian, director and contributor to This American Life, Mike Birbiglia once said that, “Directing movies is a little bit like being back in student government and putting on the homecoming dance. You're like, 'You put up the streamers, and you hire the DJ, and you get the punch bowl.' Some people are just like, 'This dance sucks.' And you're like, 'No no, this dance is awesome!' You have to be really positive.”

True confession: I sometimes feel this way as I work on Regathering Sunday each year. It’s kind of like our annual homecoming here at First Church. We know it's a time of reunion and indeed of re-gathering after many scatter for the summer season. We know there are new folks who’ve been coming over the summer, and others who’ve enjoyed the quieter pace in the warmer months. The fact is, a whole lot of people work hard behind the scenes to try make this dance as “awesome” as possible. It’s not out of some home team pride. It’s for two reasons, I think. First, it’s because we know that many have been to churches before, maybe even this one, where you have been disappointed, sometimes gravely, where you’ve felt less than welcome or where something just doesn’t click. We don’t want to repeat those experiences! More deeply, we know this work of welcoming and welcoming back is not our job alone. It’s God’s work in which we have a share. As our scripture today reminds us, it is God who does the inviting and who takes great joy in a well-hosted feast of reunion. No pressure, right?

Let’s turn to the text. Two parables, almost identical in their construction, that lead into a very well known story, the parable of the Prodigal Son, which is the very next passage. We can pick up a theme here. Lost sheep! Lost coin! Lost son! Let me say straight away that while it’s natural to have our focus fall on all those “losts,” and especially on the language about “the sinner who repents,” a word of caution is advised. This passage was written in the context of a sibling rivalry between Jewish sects around 70 CE. We see the tension in the opening lines – ‘the Pharisees are grumbling.’ Unfortunately, the part about finding joy in the sinners’ repentance are the gospel writer’s way of interpreting Jesus’ parable a bit. It becomes something of a rebuke to the Pharisees who had just called Jesus out for eating with tax collectors and sinners. Scholars have shown that if we can listen to the parable itself, with the ears of Jews who would have been hearing their Rabbi Jesus, the take away would have had very little if anything to do with sin and repentance. I know I’m moving through this quickly but trust me on this – the meaning of the parable has far more to do with the effort and action of the shepherd and woman and the father who search out what is lost. They are about the unfailing and searching grace of the shepherd, the unwavering devotion of that peasant woman, and the unconditional and lavish love of the prodigal father! It’s all about God’s searching ways and the party of joy and feasting that God throws every time She finds us! Yes, She, which may be the greatest thing about this parable!

God is clearly depicted here as a woman, one who searches high and low to find the one of great value. This is only place in the gospels wherein a feminine image for God is used! If the shepherd is understood to be God which is true throughout the scripture – the Lord is my shepherd, right – then so is the woman in our story! What's more, something lost in our modern translation is that her neighbors and friends are also feminine nouns in the original Aramaic. Cool, right?

The divine punch line of both parables are found in verse 7 and 9 which thanks to that parallel construction, we can read in tandem, as if they are superimposed on top of one another:

And when he comes home/and when she has found it,

he/she calls together his/her friends and neighbors and says to them,

“Rejoice with me, for I have found the sheep/coin that was lost!

I have found the sheep/coin/beloved child of God that was lost. And now it’s time to throw a huge party to celebrate! Somebody call the DJ! Somebody bust out that fatted calf! God’s joy in searching for and finding that which has been lost -- God’s joy in restoring wholeness to the flock -- is the point! And there is no way that party is going to suck!

And now we need to shift gears. I have to say, I was relieved when I saw that this text from Luke was our appointed scripture for this Regathering Sunday. Given today’s somber anniversary, I think we can find an odd invitation in this text, not to a party per se, but to an understanding of our human nature and our need for God and community in moments when we are lost.

15 years ago today, at about this time of day, many of us were first bearing witness to those surreal images of smoke clouds billowing and rising over lower Manhattan. We all remember exactly where we were when we first heard the news. We remember and grieve lives lost. We acknowledge that our social and political worlds were profoundly ruptured, that our psyches were and forever are marred and marked and changed that day. We remember the breathtaking strength and resilience of civilians and first responders and construction crews who worked tirelessly through their own shock and grief, sacrificed their own well-beings to bring their presence and healing and restoration to a traumatized nation.

I came across an amazing statistic recently. Did you know that in the six months following 9/11 suicide rates decreased by 20 percent and homicide rates decreased by 40 percent in New York City? There were similar drops in the rates of new prescriptions for anti-depressants. And there was a 20 percent increase in participation in religious community.

I’ve shared with some of you already that I learned this from a summer read of a book called Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging. Its author, Sebastian Junger, documents the extraordinary resilience of people who will naturally and instinctually come together and find communal bonds and common purpose, across all dimensions of class and race and creed, following unspeakable trauma and tragedy. He traces these seemingly primordial communal instincts in Native American tribal practices, in war time rituals, in stories of communities facing catastrophic natural disaster, in the aftermath of a coal mine collapse. He also lifts up military platoons and military sacrifice as a prime example, even as he calls out the enormous psychological and social shifts our soldiers are asked to make when coming home to so our called civilian, yet highly individualized, isolating, consumer driven modern society and culture.

The timing of this book, given the anniversary of 9/11, and the seeming increase in the numbers of national and international tragedies and traumas, seems fitting. Just before some left for summer vacation, and soon after Orlando, USA Today reported that, “With his tenure in office marked by terror attacks and mass shootings, President Obama has reached a sad but remarkable milestone in his presidency: He has ordered the lowering of the nation's flags to half-staff more often than any president in history.” Add three more since June, for Baton Rouge, for Nice and for Dallas and he thus far has issued 69 proclamations to fly the flag at half-staff. George W. Bush declared 58. Bill Clinton, 50.

Still, one of Junger’s chapters is ironically titled “In Bitter Safety I Awake,” a line he takes from a 1918 poem called Sick Leave written by a soldier from the World War I, Siegfried Sassoon:

In bitter safety I awake, unfriended;
And while the dawn begins with slashing rain
I think of the Battalion in the mud.
‘When are you going out to them again?
Are they not still your brothers through our blood?’

In bitter safety I awake, unfriended! This a profound statement not only about the aftermath of war and post-traumatic stress. It’s also a cautionary lamentation for our contemporary context.

In bitter safety, I awake! Consider that most of us gathered here today, despite the increase in terror attacks and gun violence and climate disasters, most of us still live in relatively safe neighborhoods, in a relatively secure country, with access to some of the world’s best healthcare. How many of us, as compared to our ancestors and human beings throughout the centuries and millennia, live in great, great comfort? And meanwhile, especially during this election cycle, our awareness of how fractured we are along lines of race and class is increasing. As a culture so entrenched in values of freedom and individualism, to say nothing of those sometimes connecting but often isolating technological bubbles we live in, many lack and are longing for the intimate connections that foster a sense of collective wholeness and belonging. What’s more, we lack spaces of shared purpose across the vast gulfs of our differences. We are so relatively safe and comfortable that outside of a military context the idea of making great sacrifices for our tribe, beyond our family, has become distant and removed from our lived experience. As Junger says, “the earliest and most basic definition of community – of tribe – would be the group of people that you would both help feed and [protect.] A society that doesn’t offer its members a chance to act selflessly in these ways isn’t a society in any tribal sense of the word; its just a political entity that, lacking enemies, will probably fall apart on it’s own.”

How about that for a way to underscore our need for a deeper communal ethic! To be sure there are important and meaningful trends of bonding outside of spaces like this. They are popping up in yoga studios and gym boot camps and in the new ways of our sharing economy. More power to those of us who are connecting in these ways! After 9/11 though, what turned the tide of mental health decline wasn’t merely being together but being together with a shared purpose, and with a shared fight against the ways of hatred, cowardice and fear. We can see some of this communal ethic emerging in a new movement for racial justice in our country and in reaction to a certain Presidential candidate, yet many are not connected to that battalion of freedom fighters, or not yet at least.

In bitter safety we awake, unfriended;
Like sheep separated from a flock, right?

This longing for reunion, for belonging, for harmony and wholeness of our human community, for a shared purpose, is strong. It’s inside of us. It’s in our evolutionary DNA! Yet for many of us there are days and even years that go by, when we too awake in that bitter safety of our comfort and privilege (white or otherwise) but feeling unfriended, alone, unsure, unhinged. Maybe we’re connected online. Maybe we can have 800 friends online, but we can still be disconnected in the flesh, lost in some smaller sea of immediate demands. Perhaps many of us come here with an intuition that there is something deeper, something still more meaningful, still more courageous, still more sacrificial that we are called to do, not alone, but rejoined with a people and reminded of our shared purpose of feeding the hungry and protecting the vulnerable and restoring the lost, including that which is lost within us.

This is the kind of community that Jesus sought! This is why our text for today cautions against a fractured community and celebrates a collective wholeness! This is why God celebrates and why She throws a grand party for Her friends and neighbors!

No matter how separated, disconnected, alone and lost we may at times feel, and we all do, this is the amazing message woven throughout the gospel –

that you are not alone,
that you are wanted,
that God has been searching high and low for you,
that you are needed to make God’s tribe whole,
and that there will be nothing but joy that you are found!

So many of us who come here are indeed seeking and searching! We try to find God in this warmly lit sanctuary, or in that beautiful place of nature, on that distant beach, as we sing that blessed song! But notice how our parables flip the script, as parables so often do. Jesus tells us it's also the other way around. The shepherd, if we let him, comes to us, finds us and draws us in. The woman comes searching for us, sweeping her divine household until we are found. What’s more, she wants to spend us! She wants to use our worth to further her purpose! How awesome is that!!! I love that image of our mother God turning the house upside down looking for you, needing you to make her joy complete. And what a joy to be found like that! Can we even imagine being searched, being known in the fibers of our being, and being loved and welcomed and…. found?! Doesn’t it deep down just ring true that this is how our God works and this is how our churches should work!?

So friends, as we come together on this September 11, 2016, can we ask ourselves and each other -- how do we grow to be a community that supports and comforts and heals one another, ever striving for that collective wholeness that leaves no one feeling lost and lonely? This is not a promise of safety, mind you! Trauma and tragedies, unwelcome changes and grave disappointments will continue to befall us and they will leave us ever more reliant on God and our gospel message! We have work to do here to challenge our privilege and comfort and self-reliance. But, by God’s Grace, I know us to be a community that can embrace and embody this message of God’s searching love for us. Only together can we respond to those deeply human needs for an ever-evolving though ever-present place of connection, a place to call home, a place to come home. Lost sheep, lost coins, lost siblings in the spirit, unite! Regather! Take your rightful place in this tribe, this flock, this household of God that we may together embody the gift of our shared wholeness, and make God’s joy and ours complete!

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