Pentecost 17 Traditional Sermon
Do you know a lost cause? By that, I don’t mean remembering a team like the 1962 New York Mets, who lost 3 out of every 4 baseball games they played that season. I’m not talking about a consideration of General George Armstrong Custer’s chances of winning the Battle of Little Bighorn. Nor am I thinking of the chances that we will elect a president this fall in whom even a third of our country will have confidence.
I’m thinking about people this morning … I’m thinking about a person … the kind of individual that you might encounter and consider a “lost cause.” You know the kind of person I am referring to. That person you may see in the midst of a crowd, who seems to be disconnected from everyone, out of place, and ill equipped to deal with the realities she faces. Or that young adult who has floated from one addiction to another, despite the love and intervention of friends and family and professional counselors. Or that widower, whose loss of a long-time spouse, sends him into despair of such magnitude, as to separate him from everything that he once loved in life. Or that person who appears to be buried with such despair and frustration over the problems of the world, that you wonder how they get up out of bed in the morning. Each of us at one time or another has met someone who is a “lost cause.” You might not call them that in your mind. You might say instead, “Oh, look at that poor soul.” …. or “Oh, don’t you just pity that guy?” … or “Well I’m glad I’m not walking in her shoes.” But the judgment is the same … we sometimes think of these people as lost causes … doomed to the malaise in which they are mired … stuck in the quicksand of their problems. You see them when you walk around a city, small or large … you see them in our schools … you see them in church … sometimes you see them in the mirror when you wash your face. Yes, sometimes the lost cause that we mourn, is our own.
Jesus tells us a couple of stories in today’s Gospel about things that are lost … a sheep and a coin. As we listen to these stories, we know they are not stories about animals and money, however. Because our Gospel writer, St. Luke, has cued us into the real issue at hand, with his introduction to the stories.
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
Yup, you heard it right … the issue isn’t sheep and coins … it is about tax collectors and sinners. The “lost causes” of Jesus’ world. But wait! Before we leave these familiar images (and safe images, I might add) of the coin and the sheep … make note of this one key reality of our story. Jesus identifies the sheep and the coin as being found … Jesus then speaks about God’s joy over sinners who repent … and as you and I know, sheep and coins do not repent. So yes, repentance is always part of our ongoing relationship with God … we are always being called back by God into the proper relationship between Creator and creature.
But repentance may not be the primary message of this passage. Joy may be what Jesus is truly lifting up for us here. Joy over the reunion of a parent and a child … joy over a relationship restored … the joy that surrounds the realization that someone you thought might never be a part of your life ever again, is now connected to you in a new way. That crazy punch-drunk joy which is improbable, impossible, and unbelievable … and yet which defies the odds and becomes a reality. Joy that is fully and completely God’s joy which grows out of the deep love God has for you and me … AND … that poor soul lost in a crowd of people … AND that addict who cannot seem to stay clean … AND that widower and that person in despair that we pity. Some of you here may have experienced the overwhelming joy of a person restored to your life – a person crippled by cancer, who was healed … a person lost in the wilderness of alcohol who became sober … a child estranged who then returns to you … a person seemingly irrevocably lost to you because of a broken covenant or bond, who finds a heart of repentance and returns with renewed and more powerful promises of love. It is a joy unlike any other joy in life. It is the joy of restoration … is the joy of resurrection on this side of the Kingdom of God.
That is the joy God brings into each of your lives every moment of every day. It is the joy of a parent, who never wants to be separated from a son or daughter. It is a joy that may not always be logical, but which is always heart-felt. It is a joy that in an extravagant and prodigal way, screams to you to come home and join in the festivities of life. The kind of joy we would hear about if we read a little further into this 15th chapter of Luke, where we would experience again the story of the Prodigal Son … which is really a story that is about a prodigal father who never gives up on the hope that his son will come home to him. That is the kind of joy God experiences when you are swept out from under the bed of despair and grief and found anew … or you are carried upon the shoulders of the Good Shepherd, back to the flock of your family, or your church, or your deepest and closest relationship. It is the joy we hardly dare dream of, but yearn for in spite of ourselves. A joy that shatters despair, and which reminds us that nothing in this world has the power to corrupt our final encounter with this joy in the Kingdom of God. It is also a joy, that reaches back to us occasionally from that final Kingdom, to transform our despair and our malaise along with our sense of being lost in THIS kingdom in which we live now.
As we think about the struggles which we sometimes face in as citizens of this earthly kingdom, I suspect many have found their minds returning to the fact that today is the 15th anniversary of an event that was so traumatic for our country, that we refer to it now almost unilaterally as simply “9/11.” Yes, it has been 15 years since the terrorist attacks on the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. A whole generation of younger teens have grown up who cannot tell you “where they were when the news became public,” just as surely as everyone else here that is 20 years or older assuredly can. And a slightly older generation of children, can tell you exactly where they were, because while they were babies, one or both of their parents were killed in the World Trade Center attack, and their remaining family members have made sure these babies grew up to be children and youth who would know the significance of their parents’ lives. This event has led to countless memorials and tributes … none more dramatic and moving than the current National September 11 Memorial & Museum, built on the footprint of the original twin towers. As a people, we grieve … and we remember in many ways … most effectively by celebrating and honoring the lives of those we have lost. So at this time of the year, as you would expect, we hear a lot of these stories of remembrance. “The man in the red bandana”, Welles Crowther, has been a popular story this year, and was featured on the TODAY show on Friday morning … I just read a story about the Marines Jason Thomas & David Karnes who rushed to the scene from their places of employment in Long Island and Connecticut that fateful week … and Todd Beamer and the passengers on Flight 93 have been memorialized much of this weekend through the airing of the made for TV movie, Flight 93 on A&E. hat made each of these modern day heroes unique, was their ability to find a spirit of joy and peace in the risks they took on September 11, 2001 or in the days following the attacks. One such man, whose story I just read for the first time, was Rick Rescorla, a former employee of Morgan Stanley/Dean Witter. These are the words of K.S. Anthony of A Plus Media Production in New York. The story is a year old, but it was new to me when I read it last week.
62-year-old Rick Rescorla was a veteran of both the British and American army, working in corporate security for Morgan Stanley/Dean Witter on the 44th floor of the south tower. When the tower was struck, Witter ignored intercom instructions for workers to remain at their desks and immediately began assisting people in leaving the building. As he directed people out, he boosted spirits by singing songs of his native Cornwall, England. He called his wife, Susan, who had been watching the attacks on TV. The New Yorker recounts some of his last words to her: “Stop crying,” he said. “I have to get these people out safely. If something should happen to me, I want you to know I’ve never been happier. You made my life.” Rescorla then contacted a friend, Dan Hill, and asked him to call his wife to calm her down. He is credited with saving most of the lives of Morgan Stanley’s workers that day. His remains were never found.
Rescorla, seemed to have understood that day, that many lives might be lost, and so he decided to try to help them find safety and security. Hopefully, that heroic effort, also brought a different kind stability and peace to his wife and family and friends, although it most likely took far longer for those who loved him to see that peace, and understand that deep commitment he had to helping some lost causes around him, to be found.
As human beings, we honor today the lives of those who died and those who became heroes on that fateful day 15 years ago, and the thousands of families whose lives were touched by the actions of many who served and intervened in the hope of saving lives or in the desire to honor the dead. As Christians, we also recognize that this spirit of sacrifice and service is just one characteristic of the God who has made us, and that the joy we experience when we are blessed by others … OR the joy which rises up within us when we ourselves enact that blessing to others … is in fact the Spirit of God alive in this world offering life and community to those who find themselves lost. God does not promise us perfect lives, because sin and disobedience will always be present among us, so long as this imperfect world remains. But God does allow us to see … and experience … and yes, at times embody in our lives, the joy which characterizes the Kingdom of God which is perfect and just. God searches for us, when we cannot find that joy within us, and gathers us into God’s own presence, and into the presence of God’s children … a place where joy is always present. And God allows us to be vessels of the Holy Spirit, as we reach out to and invite back into community those who feel like lost causes. Yes, it can be dirty work to crawl under the bed and search. And yes, the stench of the sheep manure is not much better when you carry that beast on your shoulders … but with God carrying us from the land of lost into the land of those who have been found, we can certainly strive to pass along that same blessing. Amen.