September 16, 2007 XVI Pentecost (RCL Proper 19C)
Jeremiah 4: 11-12, 22-28; Luke 15: 1-10
These contrasting images, so very powerful. In Jeremiah the desolated land stripped bare of every gentle shade tree and every pool of water, cities in ruins, even the mountains and hills shaken loose of their moorings. The dark sky with no promise of morning, as if the earth had given up on itself. The dark night of the soul, separation, brokenness, lovelessness, projected out, embodied in a universal and cosmic grief.
I guess we’ve all been there, or at least we’ve been close. Like T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland: the external devastation becomes a metaphor for our inner emptiness.
But then to contrast: there are these wonderful vignettes in the Luke reading—Jesus in his quick response to the dour, humorless Pharisees. The shepherd who goes off into the night to find the one lost sheep, the woman who turns her house upside-down to find that one coin she had lost. Here the morning sun comes up like gangbusters, trumpets blasting and choirs singing, the universe restored in joy and fulfillment.
So, sin and death, restoration and renewal. Death and resurrection. Jesus mentions “repentance” several times in the Luke passage, but actually that poor lost sheep and certainly the lost coin seem pretty much passive players in the stories. The Good Shepherd doesn’t say, “I’ll go out and find the lost sheep, but only after she says she’s sorry for wandering away.” And it doesn’t make any sense at all for the woman to say something like that about the coin. “I hope you’ve learned your lesson, Mr. Coin. You won’t be doing that again!” And in fact we hear nothing from either the lost sheep or the coin.
Instead this is all about the one who goes looking, the one who rushes into the darkness of night without a prudent thought in the world for his own safety. We even wonder about good judgment. I mean, imagine you are this shepherd’s insurance agent. “So, let me get this straight: you left 99 sheep to fend for themselves out in the wilderness, with wolves and snakes and dark cliffs all around, and you left them there for hours, on their own, while you went out looking for just the ONE that had gone missing? I mean, I think we’re going to have to readjust the quarterly premium!"
But we’re not really supposed to think that far down into the story. This isn’t about the lost, but about the one who is the finder of the lost. Who can’t think, can’t sleep until things are put right, until what was broken has been repaired, the wounded healed.
Maybe we would think of that wonderful image in another of Jesus’ stories, when the wastrel son is returning, his inheritance squandered, accountable now for the hard and uncharitable words that had marked his departure, and then what a vision of the father, sitting by the side of the road, eyes fixed on the horizon, who at the first hint of the son’s presence in the far distance leaps from his seat and rushes in a whirl of laughter and song and sweeps the son up into his arms with joy beyond any measure. Not even a chance here for the son to voice the apology he’s been practicing along the way. Just all joy and love and connection. Have you felt that way, maybe about a child, a friend, a spouse, at some moment in the complexities of our lives? You go out to find them. To bring them home.
And the point is, he’s coming for us. Which we seem so often to forget, filled with fear, or in a panic rushing around as though we could find our way out by ourselves. And which is why we care about these odd little stories that Jesus tells. The Pharisees at the beginning had missed the forest for the trees. Whether we’re like that lone sheep quivering in the cold and lost in the darkness and full of remorse, profoundly aware that we are separated, that we are lost, listening for the footsteps of the one who will come to save us, even though we know that the odds are long that anybody will come. Or whether we like the coin, senseless of the situation. “All that time, I didn’t even know I was lost.” Well, what’s a coin going to say, anyway? But is this good news? He’s looking for us, and on his way. With joy, with love. Even though we got our own selves into this mess, and even though any objective view would suggest we probably don’t deserve to be rescued. He doesn’t even stop to think about it.
Just thinking this week what it would be like if church was like that. Where grace and mercy and forgiveness didn’t get measured out in teaspoons to the deserving, but where it all flowed out and overflowed with an embarrassing abundance. Where for at least a few moments, in this small corner of the world, all that harsh and cheerless judgmentalism gave way to an embrace of kindness and affection, where we could laugh together the way the woman must of laughed when after hours of sweeping and searching on her knees sometimes under every stick of furniture and behind every curtain and through every closet she found her silver coin on the bedside table. “O my goodness, if it had been a snake it would have bit me!” Learning to laugh at ourselves, since we’re all broken and lost and cold and in the dark more often than we would care to admit, learning to laugh with others, with a certain gentleness. Where we would open our eyes and really see, really see, what a blessing to each other we are, we can be.
All the while he is searching us out, embracing us before we even know how close of a call it was we just had, so that we would be able to be that for each other. Finding that place where what Jesus is working in my life can meet what Jesus is working in your life. Not finished work, any of us, but rough drafts: on the way, but certainly not there yet by a long shot.
The death and resurrection of Jesus isn’t just something that happened once a long time ago and far away, and something for historians and archaeologists and scholars and critics to puzzle over in the libraries of the ivory tower, but instead we are pointed to what was a reality and is a reality, a glimpse at the template of creation, the equation at the source, the unified field theory. If we listen even on this Sunday morning in Highland Park, we can hear the angels singing, the heavenly orchestra tuning their instruments, again all rejoicing. The festive celebration at the place where the circle of the universe has its beginning and end. Because what was broken has been healed. What was separated has been forgiven. What was lost has been found. And even now he is bringing us home.
Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.