a sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 19C/Lectionary 24C]
“Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.”
Oh, man, if there is another part of the Bible that better fits the Martin household these days I don’t know what it is. With three kids under the age of 13 and with a father who is as scatterbrained as they come, it seems we are always in a state of losing something and finding something. It is never-ending. Coins. Keys. Retainers. Prized Matchbox cars, the new box of cat litter I know I bought and stuck somewhere—we live these parables, day in and day out.
The item we probably spend the most combined time searching for is the lovey that belongs to our middle child. She received it from a church member here when she was just a year or so old, and she has been connected to it ever since. It’s a small, gray, Beanie Baby kitten named Kitty. It’s a cute little thing, but it was practically designed to be lost. It camouflages with every environment, and it’s so floppy it can fit into any crack and crevice. In fact, we found this same Beanie Baby on-line a couple of years ago anticipating the day when the original Kitty would get lost and never return. Backup Kitty #1 and Backup Kitty #2 are waiting in the wings for that moment, which we thought had come just a few weeks ago when our daughters were in North Carolina visiting their grandparents.
Details surrounding the event are a little hazy. All we know from the string of texts that Melinda and I kept getting from my parents is that one morning our daughter claimed Kitty wasn’t there, and although they supposedly turned the place upside down, Kitty was nowhere to be found. “If it’s not in her luggage,” texted my father at one point, exasperated with the search, “Kitty has evaporated.” I kept texting my mother with pointers, as if she hadn’t been to that rodeo before: Did you make her retrace her steps? Did you check under the beds? Shake out the sheets? My mom assured me they’d looked everywhere. but promised they’d go back to their cabin and look again when they had more time. If Kitty were found, she’d have to be mailed. Or overnighted. Our daughter was beside herself when they had to leave North Carolina and come home sans Kitty. Backup Kitty #1 was called up from reserves.
But then one day last week I got another text from my mom: it was just a photo, and it was a photo Kitty, lying in the place where she had finally been found: squished under a chair cushion. A few days later a little box arrived in the mail. Our daughter ripped it open and immediately pressed Kitty to her nose, to her face, squeezed it tight. And then tears. From me. But first from her. We stood there in our kitchen and felt more relief and joy than a little gray beanbag should ever be able to give. And I was thinking, “What is wrong with me? Why am I getting emotional about this?” Because what was lost has been found. Because I’m typically the guy who just says, “Eh. It’ll turn up. Learn to live without it.” I have to admit it’s moving to know there are some folks—like my mother, like my wife, like the woman in Jesus’ parable—who will look and look and look until the thing is found.
That’s the thing that’s going on as Jesus tells these parables. He finds himself these days sitting more and more often with bunches of people who finally feel found. He finds himself surrounded by people who finally feel like someone has looked and looked and sought them out, who hasn’t written them off saying, “Eh, they’ll turn up. Learn to live without ‘em.” Jesus is welcoming and gracious to the sinners and the tax collectors, all those apparently forgettable folks who, for various different reasons, have fallen between the cushions of life and gotten stuck there.
In Jesus’ day they were the people who had fallen afoul of religious sensibilities. Perhaps they had gotten too cozy with the Roman oppressors. Perhaps they worked in professions that religious authorities had deemed unclean. It is really difficult to know all that might be comprised by the term “sinners,” but suffice it to say that they were the people who had been labelled either by a questionable moral decision they had made or, as is more likely, by a circumstance of life they probably had little control over, like a disease of some sort. Maybe they just had found little use for the day to day rules people were supposed to follow to be considered respectable. The point is, Jesus seems to be OK with these people in some way. He’s willing to eat with them and be associated with them, and I imagine if you were someone who had been written off by most of society, that felt pretty good.
The problem is that there were people, like the Pharisees, who did not feel good about this. They grumble and complain that Jesus is allowing God’s kingdom to be infiltrated.
Rather than just arguing with them, Jesus tells three stories to illustrate how he sees this situation. We read the first two this morning; the third is the Parable of the Prodigal Son. In the first two cases, at least, we glimpse a character who is driven to return what is lost. One is a relatively wealthy man for he is a shepherd with what was, back then, a fairly sizeable flock. The other is a relatively poor woman, for ten drachma was not a great deal of money. Both go to extraordinary lengths to find what has been lost. In the case of the shepherd, the situation is probably a bit beyond his control. Sheep tend to wander. But coins do not wander. You can’t blame a coin for being lost, which suggests that sometimes being separated from where you really belong is not totally your fault. Sometimes people get lost from God not because of a decision they’ve made but because life has just taken them there.
The good news is that nowhere does in the parables does the character just say, “Eh, it’ll turn up.” It’s like Jesus finds three different ways to tell the same thing: God doesn’t ever give up looking for what’s his. Sorry, Backup Kitty # 1 and #2. The story is never over until that which is lost has been found. The chance for someone to repent; that is, to have a change in mind about faith, to have one’s perspective about grace and mercy changed, the opportunities to learn “Where God is in all of this thing called life” are ever before us. And they extend to everyone. No one should be judging or worrying about anyone else’s faith journey or the timing or the depth of their turning around to God.
Today we enroll new candidates for confirmation, which is an integral part of our tradition’s faith journey. It’s a two-year commitment of re-learning some of the basics of Lutheran faith in preparation for the day they will stand before the congregation and profess their faith. What they’re going to say on that day, the day of their confirmation, is essentially they trust in a God who fundamentally finds us wherever we are, and that that’s our hope—not how wonderful we are, but how gracious and persistently loving God is.
Several years ago one confirmand decided not to continue his participation in the ministry. He had had one year of classes, decided it wasn’t for him, actually he wasn’t really sure church or God were for him at all, and decided to withdraw. His father emailed me to explain and said they didn’t want to push him. The lay catechist and I were fine with that. We figured it takes some courage to arrive at that decision. A couple of years went by and we never heard from him, other than a conversation I had with him about his Eagle Project idea.
Then one day right at the time he was about to graduate from high school he showed up in worship. And then he was here the next Sunday. And the one after that. He eventually went off to college, but even to this day, whenever he is at home on break, he worships with us. He is such a gracious, warm-hearted, and humble young man. I asked him recently about his journey of faith and he said, “[During confirmation and after I withdrew] I would have considered myself lost and searching at the time.” Now, he feels he has found his faith, or found his way, but even more than that, he feels he has been found. Not everyone knows his story—none of us know everyone’s story, quite frankly—and he’s got so much his left to discover and live, but, boy, does it feel good to see him here each week.
That’s why it’s important to remember that Jesus tells these parables not to the sinners and tax collectors, to the people who are lost, but to the Pharisees and scribes who are grumbling over at their table, to the people who are always in church, to the ones who wear the robes and stand up and preach. Jesus wants them, the ones who may not feel particularly lost at the moment, to remember that this is the nature of God—that God searches out the lost and it doesn’t seem to bother God how far he’ll have to go to return them. That’s the theme and purpose of Jesus’ life, the message of the cross. God goes unbelievably far to return us home. No one, in fact, goes farther. The kingdom isn’t being infiltrated, by the way. It’s being expanded.
What Jesus would like the Pharisees to know and understand, as they sit there with their smug judgmentalism, is that God sees everyone as a sheep who has the capacity for the same kind of wandering. God sees everyone as a coin that needs to be swept out of the corner just as much as one of the nine that stays in the purse. God knows we all are prone to wander, we are all have this habit of getting lost or misplaced. But more than any of that, God is filled with joy when we’re returned.
For that’s the true surprise in these stories. It’s not so much the finding that is amazing, but the joy of the return. They don’t just stand there in the kitchen with Kitty in hand, embarrassed by a few tears in their eyes. They party. The shepherd doesn’t drag the sheep behind him to teach it a lesson. He puts it on his shoulders. The woman calls her friends and neighbors over, people who may not even really know her, to celebrate having all the coins back together again. They’re like, “Why are we going over to that woman’s house this time? Why does she have the fruit and veggie tray out? She found a coin??” The coin is valuable to her, for sure, but even more valuable is her reputation as a finder.
There is a hymn we sing that has a line,“God has made a new beginning from the ashes of our past, in the losing and the winning we hold fast.” We are not singing it today, but Cheryl Hamm did select it to be sung at her husband’s memorial service this past week as we commended him to God. The life of Christian faith, the life that has embraced us in water, wine, and bread, the life that encounters us on the cross of Jesus is this life of losing and winning, of being lost and being found, of withdrawing and returning, of being a Pharisee and tax collector, saint and sinner. This faith is ultimately about rejoicing, for while our lives are clearly valued in God’s eyes, of even greater value is the one who does the seeking, the one who makes the new beginning out of the ashes of our past.
As it was in the beginning, glory now resounds again in a song that has no ending, Amen.
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.