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Lost and Found
A sermon preached by the Rev. Kit Lonergan on September 15, 2013

KGL+
Sermon
Christ Church Andover
Year C, Proper 19
September 15, 2013

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts together be acceptable in your sight, O God, our strength and redeemer. AMEN.

In eighth grade, I had a spate of friends who were being confirmed in the Catholic Church. They went to CCD, or their Catechesis class every week, and during study hall, they would regularly regale us with stories from the past class. One week, they even broke out a small cassette tape player (1992 was a good year for those), and played a song for us that they had listened to in class—Billy Joel’s ‘Only the Good Die Young’. To this day I am unclear why this song was chosen for a Catholic Confirmation class, as it was pretty controversial when it came out in the late 70s, but I can tell you this, the lyrics stuck in all of our heads for weeks and months following. You could find 8th grade girls of all religions walking the halls of our school humming the song and singing the lyrics, ‘I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints/ the sinners are much more fun/ darling only the good die young.’ Whether or not this was the intended effect of the Confirmation Class teachers, I’ll never know. But the line still comes up now and again when I see or hear a dichotomy in scripture about the righteous and the sinners.

The Pharisees are annoyed again with Jesus. It will happen a lot as we progress through the Gospel of Luke this season. Luke writes more about Jesus’ interactions with people on the margins than any of the other gospel writers— sick people, lepers, women, children, outcasts, sinners, tax collectors, ne’er-do-wells, pot stirrers, criminals, widows, poor people, lame people, if you can think of an outcast, Luke has probably included them in his gospel. All these folks on the margins, who had been afflicted or disempowered in one way or another were considered sinners, and Jesus just kept on including them in his plans. And the Pharisees were getting annoyed at this constant intrusion of these people in their well-ordered lives. They were sinners. They did bad things.  

And this is where the righteous people vs. sinners challenge comes to a head for me, and I start humming in my head, “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints, the sinners are much more fun…”. We read in scripture over and over again that the Pharisees were ‘righteous’, and upset that Jesus would cavorting (my word, not scripture’s) with sinners. However, we tend to imagine the righteousness of the Pharisees as a Billy Joel would— as saints crying in pious perfection. In reality, the Pharisees were probably more like us than anyone else—they were progressive Jews who spent time interpreting the scriptures rather than taking it all literally; they were open (as we have heard in the past few gospel lessons) to eating with Jesus and getting to know more about is ministry. They even warn Jesus when some of the authorities are out to get him. They are not the angry righteous, that we would prefer to imagine them as—they are more like, well, us in this room together. They try hard to be faithful, they have traditions which they are not easily parted with, they know their scripture, and are trying to reconcile and understand how those words relate to their lives then and what they mean when lived out. The reality of who the righteous are and who the sinful are is far more complex than just the good and the bad. Not many of us would deem ourselves outright sinners, but righteous sounds a bit too—well, too perfect for who we are as well.

What if, instead of sinful and righteous, we take the tack that Jesus takes, which is to imagine us lost and found? Sin-filled and righteous are almost too black and white to take seriously. My guess is that most of the people in this sanctuary are not outright, unforgivable, terrible, harmful people. But I’ve only been here two years, and have time to be surprised. As Christians in a confusing world, we act much as the Pharisees do, trying to make the best of our lives, aspiring to a standard which we may not always reach, but know it’s there anyways. We do good, most of the time, and try to stay away from harm, most of the time. When confronted with the Pharisees accusation of being associated with the sinful at a mealtime, Jesus didn’t go on about sin or righteousness—instead, Jesus spoke about being lost and being found. The sheep who wanders off—the coin that gets lost—the things which are precious to their owners or stewards sometimes go awry. They don’t go off on their own maliciously. The sheep and the coin don’t connive to bring grief or worry to their owners by their wandering. These first two parables, which are followed in the gospel by the parable of the Prodigal Son, don’t actually directly answer the Pharisees concerns about the sinfulness of Jesus’ dining companions. Instead, Jesus speaks to them about a different kind of separation—one that might not be intentional and willful, but separation that happens because sometimes it just does. One rarely decides to go get lost. It usually happens unintentionally.

What does it mean to be lost, when compared with our traditional notion of sinful? By being lost, we lose connection. We are without direction. Nothing looks safe or familiar. We might feel ‘at sea’ or ‘at loose ends’. The ground sometimes falls away from our feet, and our orientation to life as we have known it, to God as we have known God, to others as we have experienced them, changes because of it. This isn’t necessarily sinful; perhaps being lost is even scarier (I don’t know many people who laugh when they are lost). The preacher David Lose gives examples on his blog about how people can be lost these days:

·         Might the parents who want their children to succeed so much that they wrap their whole lives around hockey games and dance recitals be lost?

·         Might the career minded man or woman who has made moving up the ladder their one and only priority be lost?

·         Might the folks who work jobs they hate just to give their family things they never had be lost?

·         Might the senior who has a great pension plan but little sense of meaning since retirement be lost?

·         Might the teen who works so hard to be perfect and who is willing to do just about anything to fit in be lost?

And so on and so on. The terms sin and righteousness point to the things we do, and have done. We mention that in our confession every week. But they don’t point to our state of being, to our orientation beyond the doing, to the very different understanding of who we are as ‘beings’. Sin and righteousness give us a comfortable black and white dichotomy, because they are categories which we can basically safely say that most of us are in the ‘righteous’ camp if we haven’t behaved in a completely depraved manner recently. But perhaps it isn’t as easy to declare that we are not lost.

Being ‘lost’ and being ‘found’ has nearly nothing to do with what we have done, but who we consider ourselves to be in relationship to God. Jesus don’t directly contradict the Pharisees, but he reminds them in the two parables that there is more to faithfulness than keeping a scorecard of doing the right things at the right times. While God is generally concerned about what we do, God is far more interested in our understanding that we are God’s own, and beloved beyond all measure. Jesus’ parables are about ridiculously oversized celebrations when things which have gotten lost are sought after to an insane degree, and when found, are celebrated over with joy and magnanimity—to put it in another perspective, very rarely do I invite friends over to celebrate with me when I have finally found my car keys after a long search!

My guess is that it is easier to just imagine, like the Pharisees, that being righteous is enough. We are good people, doing good things for much of the time. Far more difficult to admit is that even though we do the right things, we may not always be grounded in why we do those good things, why we are Christians, and certain, as Jesus showed us in his constant love of even the worst of the sinners, that we are beloved, and sought after to the nth degree by God. Every one of us in this sanctuary is or has been lost in some way. All of us are here in some way because we are broken or without map or wondering where the ground has gone under our feet. It’s not because we are crying with the saints or repenting of laughing with the sinners—that’s too easy, too facile to be a real answer. This church, THE Church, God’s gathering of all God’s beloved, is about getting found together, and progressively coming to believe that we are so beloved by our God that we can accept that God throws a massive party whenever one of us is ‘found’ and welcomed back and that we are worthy of the massive search and the lengths to which God will find each one of us and bring us back.

You can laugh with the sinners or cry with the saints. I’ve heard that the sinners are much more fun. They usually are. But God is more interested in you knowing you are found, however—no matter how lost you might think you are, how broken inside you think you are, no matter how many times you wander off as that mischievous sheep. The shepherd will patiently search for you. He will call you by name. He will wait as long as it takes for you to hear his voice, trust him, and find your bearings once more.

AMEN. 

Last Published: September 18, 2013 9:24 AM