Sermon, Proper 19C Jeffrey B. MacKnight
11 September 2016
Homecoming Sunday St. Dunstan’s, Bethesda
Practicing love, by Seeking the Lost
A priest, a minister, and a rabbi were very competitive. Lost in the woods, they decide that each will find a bear, and attempt to convert it. Later they get together to compare the results. The priest begins, "When I found the bear, I read to him from the Catechism and sprinkled him with holy water. Next week is his First Communion." "I found a bear by the stream," says the minister, "and preached God's holy word. The bear was so mesmerized that he let me baptize him." They both look down at the rabbi, who is lying on a gurney in a body cast. "Looking back," he says, "Maybe I shouldn't have started with the circumcision."
As we start a new church year, I’ll try not to start with circumcision! I’d rather go with preaching God’s holy word. The Gospel of Jesus is the strongest medicine we’ve got for this old world, so we’ll start with that. So welcome back, on this Homecoming Sunday. Welcome home.
Now please think back to a time you were lost….
Perhaps as a child, in a huge store, or in the woods – you may remember feelings of fear, anxiety, even terror or panic.
Another kind of lost – as a teenager who doesn’t fit in, as a young adult who hasn’t found her niche - her path in life, as an older person who has lost a significant other through death or separation and feels bereft - lost without the anchor of another human being. Feelings of sadness, even despair can well up in us at these times. Last week, the New York Times ran a big article on how feeling lost and lonely can actually damage our physical health.
Think of the lostness of the survivors of 9/11 deaths…one 9/11 widow we know bought Leslie’s parents’ big old family home in Summit, NJ… maybe to try to recover some sense of love and connectedness in a place that had teemed with children and life and love. Our nation still aches from that horrible act of wickedness 15 years ago.
In today’s Jesus story, tax collectors and sinners gather to listen to Jesus. Why? Jesus didn’t condone their bad behavior, but he made them feel included, welcome, despite their past lives. Less lonely, perhaps. Less lost.
The self-righteous Pharisees appear, and grumble as usual, about Jesus befriending sinners. They seem to resent the fact that Jesus welcomes them. But the Pharisees still come and listen to Jesus. I always wonder why they come….
Jesus responds with a parable: a shepherd and his flock of sheep – 100 sheep, a nice round number. One of them gets lost in the wilderness. What does the shepherd do? Does he give up on the lost one, and protect the ninety-nine? No. He leaves the many, and seeks out the one who is lost. He brings her home, and gathers friends to celebrate. This is a recurring theme in scripture.
Jesus talks a lot about the lost – parables of the lost sheep, the lost coins, and most of all, the lost son…the parable we know as “The Prodigal Son.” That son, a rash young man, chooses to leave home and family, ask for his inheritance, and go live a wild life. What did he hope to find? We don’t know, but we do know that he was soon a very lost young man….
The choices that father made have always fascinated me. In this case, his son was an adult. The father granted him the freedom to travel, and even gave him his legacy in advance. The father did not chase him down. But the father did lament his son’s absence, and watched every day for his boy to return. How long, we don’t know. But eventually, he came home: weary, destitute, and regretful. His father was overjoyed! He gathered his friends to celebrate, just as the shepherd did for his lost sheep. “I once was lost, but now am found; was blind but now I see.”
Our cat Chandler was feral when Maggie rescued him in a snowstorm. Once he got out the door and ran for it. We looked everywhere.
I gave up on finding him, but Leslie put food out every night.
She sat on the stoop some nights, waiting with treats…. After 30 days, hesitantly, fearfully, Chandler came home. He was caked in dirt, thin as a rail: a sad bedraggled kitty. But he was home. And we celebrated!
So how do we get found?
The solution to the lostness and loneliness we all feel at times is community, and ministry – actual service to another. I learned long ago that for me the best antidote to a general sense of ennui, listlessness, or discontent is to get up and go do something for somebody – make a visit, make a phone call, feed somebody, write a note (remember when we did that?), volunteer for a good cause, shovel the neighbor’s sidewalk, you name it. Guaranteed, I’ll feel better.
If one lonely person reaches out to another, the result is two people who are now connected, less lonely than before. When we visit someone who is sick or lonely, we don’t just benefit him or her, we find community, and purpose, and love ourselves. The world becomes a little warmer, a more loving place. Everybody wins!
For us, people of faith, the deepest way to be “found” is to be found by God – to realize that God has loved us since our birth, rejoiced with us in good times, and suffered with us in bad times. Even when we wander far away from God, like the prodigal’s father God is waiting, watching for us to come back. It’s hokey, (and this certainly dates me!), but I think of Glenn Campbell’s old song: “It’s knowing that your door is always open and your path is free to walk…that keeps you ever gentle on my mind.” God’s door is always open; God’s path is free to walk. That’s great news.
Our door at St. Dunstan’s is open, in the name of the God of Love, to all who come. And we need to go out into the “highways and byways” to invite people in. In the modern world, that’s our neighborhoods, our schools, our workplaces, the gym, the club – everywhere we meet people. Many of those people are lonely, feeling lost. We have a lot to offer to them. Of course we are Episcopalians; we are allergic to being pushy! We don’t start with circumcision! We start with invitation, with listening, with sharing ourselves, and welcoming the lost sheep home. That’s what “Homecoming” is all about. Let’s renew our commitment to practice love in this world. AMEN.