The God Who Finds

a sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 19C/Lectionary 24]

Luke 15:1-10

I spent most of my summers during college working on staff at a Lutheran camp in the mountains of North Carolina called Lutheridge. One of those years on staff I ended up staying extra week after the last campers had gone home. I discovered that one of the end-of-summer tasks that had to be undertaken before camp was closed up involved going through the giant pile of lost and found items that had accumulated over the course of the summer. You would probably guess that a camp which hosts well over a thousand children, youth, and adults over the course of eight crazy, chaotic and fun weeks amasses a lot of lost items, and you would be right.

The real pile was much larger than this.

We marveled at this pile as we sorted through it that week. There were dozens of towels—damp, musty towels that had been left at the pool or at the lake. There were items of unclaimed clothing, most of which were dirty, single socks. And Bibles! You would be surprised at how many people end up leaving their Bible at church camp and then not realize it was missing. Since we rarely had any idea whom the items actually belonged to, we would often argue over which things we wanted. One of my co-workers found a sweatshirt she liked. She put it on. It looked…familiar. I went back and checked my own suitcase and noticed one of my sweatshirts was missing and actually had been for a while. I was too embarrassed to ask for it back, so I let her have it.

I don’t know whatever happened to everything in that that pile of lost and found, but it ended up being someone’s responsibility to get rid of it, and I guess the socks were thrown away and the towels cut up and re-purposed as rags. Every once in a while the camp would figure out the proper owner of an item and do their best to return it.

Well, about a week ago a package arrived on our front porch. The return address label said it was from Lutheridge. We opened it to find not one but two water bottles that my daughters had lost at camp not last summer, but two summers ago! Someone up there had taken the time to research our address based on the name label on the bottom. They had taken the time to find a box and get it to the post office. And the really funny thing about all of this is that the water bottles aren’t even ours! They actually belong to Hanne, our Office Administrator, who had let our daughters borrow them that summer because they forgot to pack their own.

Jesus wants us to know that God goes through great lengths to find and return what belongs to him. That is you and me. There are many ways that people perceive God and images that come to mind when they think what God might be like. For Jesus the images are this: God is like a shepherd who risks life and limb, climbing over rocks and down cliffs, if he has too, wrestling the thorny branches of thickets and fighting off wolves in order to retrieve just one of his missing sheep.

And here’s another image: for Jesus, God is like a woman who turns her house upside down in order to find one coin that has gotten kicked or dropped somewhere. She moves furniture out of the way, she gets down on her hands and knees, she gets out the broom, then the metal detector, and turns on every light in the house to help her track it down. And when she finally gets it, she is so overjoyed that she calls together the other women in the neighborhood, some of whom she doesn’t even know very well. But that’s OK. This is a great day! She invites them into her house, which is now clean, if not a little disheveled, and makes some mimosas and lays out a charcuterie board, since that’s trendy these days, and says, “Alexa, play some party music.”

And her friends, curiously holding their glasses of bubbly, are like, “What is going on? Do you have news of another grandchild? Did you get a job promotion? No? Then what’s all this about?”

And she’s like, “I found this twenty dollar bill that I had lost!”

And so Jesus might say this morning God is like the worn-out summer camp office worker who loathes going through dirty stinky socks and moldy towels and who still knows water bottles are a dime a dozen—water bottles that no one has even reported missing, by the way—but who still finds a thrill in tracking down the address in the database from two summers ago, and then finding a box in which they will fit perfectly, and taking them to the post office in the off-chance that two girls living a state away might want to see them again.

God is like that, Jesus says, and God’s kingdom is about lost and found—not being lost forever or cutting your losses or writing things off because they don’t matter. Everyone matters. Every single sheep, every single coin, every single sinner, no matter how insignificant we try to make them feel. These are the images of God Jesus leaves with his audience.

And it’s especially important because the audience is the scribes and the Pharisees, the super-religious people, because they seem to operate with a very different image of God. We never hear them share their image of God, to be sure. We might be surprised Pharisees and scribes would even work with images or their imagination at all because they are a very by-the-book, letter-of-the-law type of religious people. I can’t base this on anything, but they don’t seem to use images and stories to talk about God. They use rules.

They are upset, for example, that Jesus is playing with the rules by eating with people who are clearly lost, people who don’t, in the Pharisees’ eyes, matter. Sharing a table with someone was one of the most intimate things you could do. It was a way of embracing them, of making them a part of your life, and Jesus is embracing and making dirty and forgotten people like rule-breakers a part of his life.

One commentator I read says that these two particular images in these parables this morning would have been especially irritating for Pharisees because they considered shepherds low-class, irreligious folk and women were viewed as second-class. But these are the stories Jesus mines for impact. He has to drive the point home somehow. God is a finder. God is a seeker-outer. God wants to have everyone in his embrace and God is willing to go to great lengths and even make a fool of himself about it if God has to.

And God is not just willing to go to the great lengths to bring people back. God finds joy in it. Drinks on the house! God feels like partying, like clinking the wineglasses together whenever just one person is turned again with his mercy and brought back to his kingdom of love.

For years and years Epiphany and many other Lutheran congregations have used a book in Holy Communion class with the fourth graders called A Place For You, by the Lutheran pastor Daniel Erlander. He used images, too—simple, black and white drawings—and his books come across as babyish at first because they have far more pictures than they do words. But once you look at his books, you realize they are brilliant drawings that speak to both kids and adults. We used them at seminary as textbooks, in fact.

In A Place For You, the scribes and the Pharisees are depicted as “crabby people” and you can find the crabby people on just about every page. They are crabby because they are not happy with how Jesus welcomes people. One of my favorite pages in A Place for You depicts Jesus feeding the 5000. He is seated on a blanket in the middle, with bread and fish lying there in front of him. The multitudes are seated all around them, the ones in the distance drawn as just little faceless shapes. One person in the way back says, “Next time let’s get here on time.” (Can relate). And there are the crabby people, for sure, amidst the crowd of hungry people and they are saying, “I’m upset. Some of these people don’t deserve free food. Disgusting.”

But on every page, Jesus keeps at it, almost ignoring the crabby people, but never shunning or shaming them. He just pulls them in, like Daniel Erlander, trying to redraw their understanding of God with new images and new situations. This is especially poignant today because Pastor Daniel Erlander died just two Sundays ago at the age of 83. The church and especially the crabby people like me give thanks for the ways he redrew understandings of theology and Bible stories by giving us images instead of rules.

How do you imagine God? Do you understand him as a seeker, as a shepherd, as a woman who pops the bubbly when find a coin? Do you hear that God values you—that as lost as you may be you will never be so lost that Jesus can’t reach you? Do you see on the cross how God redraws where God will go and how he reaches out? In his death and suffering, can you see that Jesus draws a circle of love and forgiveness so big that no one is forgotten, no one is left out? And that all the while he is excited to have you back?

Today our congregation comes together to celebrate how God helped us redraw some of the lines in our own church building with the hopes people would feel more included, that someone lost might come here at feel found. We literally redrew the lines of the parking lot, adding more official handicap parking spaces that are closer to the building. We redrew office spaces so that some church staff were no longer left working in offices and closets in a distant part of the building but grouped together in one common area. We redrew classroom spaces so that we could add more Sunday School classes. Perhaps most notably, we redrew the entrance and gathering spaces so that should people wander in here, especially for the first time, they may sense welcome and “being found”—that there is a place for them.

The Building Team did not sit down and read Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin but that was their goal—to move the congregation towards growth in openness, to let this congregation’s space be an image of God’s embrace. Now as we give thanks that those blueprint lines have been redrawn we continue to let Jesus, with his amazing grace, redraw those images of our hearts and minds. Over and over again.

In the past two or so years, as we’ve endured the COVID pandemic, some people may have felt distanced or lost from Christ’s church. Some have wondered when the right time to return is. Some may have fallen out of the habit and wonder if they will be questioned or stared at if they come back. Now more than ever we remember and proclaim to everyone that, in the words of Daniel Erlander, there is a place for you.

And we also remember that the new lines Jesus draws are so big, that the reality of God’s love is so all-encompassing, his mercy so far-reaching, that even the crabby people end up inside at the end. That may be the best part of Erlander’s book—there, on the last page, as on the last day, whenever it should come, situated right in with all the millions as they “join the theme,” sit the over-religious crabby people.

And…look! They’re no longer crabby!

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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