September 15, 2019
14th Sunday after Pentecost, Pastor Bradley E. Schmeling
When I worked in the chapel office at Emory University, I was asked to lead a trip of students to Northern Ireland for what they called, “Journeys of Reconciliation.” I had never led a group of students overseas before. “It’s easy,” the Dean of the Chapel said, “Just don’t’ lose anyone.”
On our very first day, we had an appointment with a minister of Parliament in Belfast. All I had to do was get the group into five cabs and head to the Capitol. I counted the sheep. We were all on the curb waiting. When we arrived, we got out and stood on another curb. I counted the sheep again, and then a second time. One missing. This was in the days before cell phones and easy internet connection. What was I going to do? Do I go back to find him? What about the group that’s here. They don’t know what to do.
As I considered, another cub pulled up, and the rather sheepish student got out. He simply walked up to the corner and hailed another cab. Later, we had a little conversation about staying with the group when we needed to leave. But, at that moment, I just laughed, relieved that this lost one had been found.
Jesus’ own mission was to gather together the lost, to reconcile all of human life, particularly the ones who don’t obediently wait on the curb or with the rest of the sheep but wander into new and dangerous territory; the ones who, like a lost coin, drop out of site and disappear. Jesus drops everything and comes looking for us. I may be a heretic here, but I’m going to say it: In the end, all are gathered in. All sins are forgiven, whether you’ve asked for it or not. The very nature of God is to throw a party, particularly for those who have wandered away. God doesn’t rest until all are gathered in.
One my favorite Eucharistic Prayers, the beautiful and sometimes long prayer we say at the table, says, “He opened wide his arms on the cross, with a love stronger than death; he redeemed the whole human race.”
I have a friend who was described one time by those who knew him as a “lost soul.” There are a lot of us who understand being lost. We know what it’s like being on the outside. We know what it feels like to sit in a room full of people, who seem so happy while we seem so sad. We know being laughed at, ridiculed for moving or thinking differently. We know what it’s like to be in a classroom when everyone seems to understand but me. Some in our community know what it’s like to lose a child to gunfire, or to prison, or to ICE. Or to lose our beloved, or our physical agency, or our mental clarity.
Today’s gospel is for the lost souls: God notices that you’ve been lost; that you’ve disappeared. This is what we want to say each Sunday as we gather as a community at the table: You’re not lost. You’ve been found. You’re home. You’re loved. You’re worth being searched out by the shepherd. These parables are so clear: In the church, everybody counts.
Most of the world would say, “You know, ninety percent is a pretty good ratio.” It’s an A in most grading systems. That one sheep should have stayed behind the fence. If you’re the lost coin and have been gone so long, you’re probably not really needed, anyway. Some matter more than others. Some deserve to be safely in the fold; others don’t. Truth be told, it’s foolish to leave the 99 and look for the one.
My friend Susan’s sheepdog went crazy at parties. As people wandered from room to room, she barked and ran around, working so hard. When we finally all sat down at the table, she laid in the doorway, no doubt thinking in her dog way, “My work is done here.”
Makes me think that the church, the people of God, are this community of sheep dogs, or cleaning ladies: searching, sweeping, at work until all are gathered in. I think the world needs a few people with shepherd crooks and the brooms right now.
This is a glimpse into how the reign of God is organized. All the energy, the resources, the work directed toward the least, the one lost, the ten percent who are wandering or who have dropped out of sight. The world is organized for the sake of the 99, or today we might say, “for the wrong ten percent,” the ten percent at the top. Luke, once again turns everything upside down through these parables.
Cases are being argued in courts about why protections, long codified into law, should no longer be applied. Environmental protections that allowed the bald eagle to flourish are being rescinded. People are disappearing into the shadows through opioid addiction, sponsored by what is called “typical pharmaceutical marketing.” In school, we hear the bully belittle the weaker, the more sensitive or differently-created. I’m still stunned that a top member of the government would publicly say that the iconic Statue of Liberty is not a symbol for all people, only white Europeans. Forget the huddled masses, yearning to breathe free. They are not worth being sought out, or even rescued or provided safety.
Jesus risks his whole life for the creation to be saved. He invests all his energy into gathering every lost coin into grandma’s change purse. The things that Jesus says on the cross. To the thief: Today you will be with me in paradise. To the ones mocking him: forgive them for they don’t know what they’re doing. He sees that goodness is stronger than any of our evil, love is stronger than hate. He sees that the lost, the found, the purse and the pen, death and life, even the search itself, as already within the wide embrace of God.
In God’s view, there is only one standard: one-hundred percent. A perfect score. The divine work not finished until all things have been restored. There will always be forgiveness; always rejoicing at the one makes her way back, and grace and understanding for the one who never does. In the shepherd’s world, there is only the party. For you. This bread, this wine, for you.
This is a sentence compiled from a variety of Eucharistic prayers, including Eucharistic Prayer V in “Evangelical Lutheran Worship.”