So for this Sunday, I had a dilemma. I felt like I had to make a choice between preaching and practicing what I preach, because I would not be able to do both! Let me explain.
Early this week, I had a phone call from a young man whose GM just passed away and his family was looking for somebody to help them with the funeral. They reached out to me because the lady was French American, and from what I gathered, her only connection to the church was that when she was a child she attended the French Episcopal Church in NY – where her parents had immigrated from France. The young man told me that it would be very meaningful for his family to have a French priest and also someone to be with them – it looked like they weren’t very religious and, at any rate, had no other connection to a priest who could help them put a service together at the funeral home. The service was set on Friday this week, in Virginia Beach.
And I thought to myself: Well, if I want everything to be ready, coordinate with the funeral home, put a bilingual service together, work with Betty on the bulletin, write my homily, drive down to Virginia Beach on Thursday, do the funeral, come back late at home and Friday…and still be able to help with spaghetti dinner on Saturday as I said I would, well, when would I have the time to do the research to prepare my sermon for Sunday? And so I wondered if it was a fair use of my time, for myself, but mostly for you, that I would help out a family I didn’t know and probably won’t see again when I have already my own congregation to take care of?
Well, the good news is that sometimes the Gospel is so clear and unambiguous that it’s almost like it hits you in the face, right? As I sat to look ahead at the Scriptures and I read how Jesus told the religious leaders of his time (and not only the religious leaders, but I think every single person who wanted to follow him) to be ready to leave the 99 to go look for the 1, I knew what I had to do – even if it wasn’t the most comfortable decision. I had the choice between spending time thinking about this Gospel and hopefully coming up with something meaningful to say about it, or I could just do it, do what it talks about. So I did it. And the good news is that I come back to share with you a few thoughts about this experience.
– First thing is that – and I preached about that on Pentecost day, but we need to be reminded from time to time – the church is not made just for us, our Christian family. The church has been founded for people who are outside the church, to be a connection, a bridge, between God and people. When the Apostles received the Holy Spirit, they weren’t brought together to build a Temple, they were scattered and sent out to the world. They were sent out to seek those who were looking for God and bring them the good news. We have been trusted with God’s treasure, the word, the sacraments, and – mostly – we have received hope with Christ’s resurrection, something very important at the time of death, a kind of hope the world cannot give us. But the belief in resurrection is not only a comfort at the time of death, it sheds light on everything we do, it gives meaning to our lives. Our world – I was about to say is “desperate for hope”…The world longs for hope. Well, as disciples of Christ this is what we have to offer, to bring to the world: The hope Christ has given us.
On Tuesday, I was attending a meeting with Bishop Mariann (busy week!) and she said she was feeling sad so many people were able to tell her everything about the history of the churches in Maryland, but so little about what’s going on in their own neighborhoods…We need to be reminded all the time that Jesus sends us out to seek people!
– 2nd thing I think is important is the way we understand “sinners” in the Gospel we’ve just heard. We often make the assumption that we are the ones who have the truth and who act righteously (at least, it was certainly the assumption of many religious people at Jesus’s time) but I don’t think this was the way Jesus saw those whom they called “sinners”. The parables of the lost / found I think mean exactly what they mean. When you are lost, it does not means first thing that you have done something terrible, it means mainly that you are disconnected, that you are not with the rest of the group, of the flock, of the family. When you are lost, it means that you are on your own – sometimes it means you have been rejected.
And so as Christians, if we are sent out to bring the hope of the Resurrection, I think more simply, we are also sent to bring love to those who are unloved / isolated. The fact that Jesus says that everyone is to God like the lost sheep or the lost coin means first thing that we are precious to God, important and that literally the party is not the same without each one of us. You know, when I lose something, I search for it 5 minutes and then I am frustrated and I just tell myself it’ll turn up eventually or I go buy another one. I do that unless it’s really precious to me. The persistence of the search in those two parables make me think that Jesus wants everyone to feel valuated, desired, needed.
People are isolated in the world we live in. Old people, sick people, but young people too. Rich people. People who seem happy on the outside because they have everything they could want. But they lack this deep connection with others. Sept 10th was the world suicide prevention day. In our world, someone commits suicide every 40 seconds. Sometimes, suicide is the outcome of deep depression, but it is often also a sign of deep loneliness. It’s a sad reality that some people die because nobody come to look for them. One of the best advice I have ever heard was this: Always assume that people are lonely. Always assume they have nobody to talk to except you. Always offer your friendship. It does not mean they will take it or that they indeed need you! But you need to try because you may be the only one to do so.
Seeking those who are lost, it does not necessarily mean to go get people to convert them and turn them into Christians. It is first to make them feel valuated, to make them feel like their presence and their lives matter and that the party isn’t the same without them. We need to make everyone feel like they matter to us, but also, and more important, make them feel like they matter to God. What basically the Pharisees were saying about the tax collectors and others was: “We don’t need those people” but Jesus told them another story…
Maybe not only the Pharisees needed to be there for those people who were rejected, but more deeply, maybe the Pharisees needed to reach out to them to open their own hearts / become loving. They had to look on the outside to learn about God. Maybe that was the outsiders who were going to bring them closer to God, to teach them something about God.
– 3rd thought that occurred to me about this Gospel is that not only we see how God can use us to reach out to other people but we can also see how God is the one doing the seeking to bring us back closer to God. I think this is really something unique we have to share as Christians.
A lot of people today are looking to live more spiritual lives and it’s a good thing. We live in a world that seems very indifferent on the outside, but there is always this longing for hope and love in people’s hearts. And even a longing for the divine. The thing is that people often think / and even as Christians we often think / that it is their / our own doing. That we are the ones looking for God, that we are the ones who need to find God / to be good enough or smart enough or holy enough to come closer to God. We often hear that, don’t we?: “I am a seeker”. But Jesus says it’s the other way around! God is the seeker, God is looking for us. God is trying to find us. Our faith is not our own doing.
Maybe it happened to you already. You felt so lost, so hurt that you thought your faith wouldn’t survive, and yet it did – otherwise you wouldn’t be here today. We don’t have to force ourselves / convince ourselves about God. We just have to let God live inside of us, hold us. To trust God. I think this Gospel is about trust. To really believe that God can find us wherever we are and keep us / bring us back close to his heart: through loneliness, depression, dementia, sin, death…Actually, maybe we have to be lost / to feel lost at some point to be really able to find God, because truly finding God (not just having ideas or feelings about God) is not our own doing, finding God is to make the experience of being found by God.
As I was preparing for the funeral this week, I do what I generally do: when I ask the family to pick the readings I ask them why they picked those readings – and the young man told me he chose readings about trust, because his GM was a “trusting person” and I thought it was so refreshing because generally when someone dies, what I hear is that they were “good” persons, but not “trusting”!
But it makes all the difference: being trusting is to believe in goodness, instead of focusing on our own goodness (what the Pharisees and the scribes did). Instead of trying so hard to be good, working on the ability to see goodness around us. Trusting people, but also trusting life, trusting God. This is God’s most precious gift: Giving us the ability to trust in goodness, in spite of the suffering and evil we know. We can trust that God won’t let go of us, we can trust God to find us. Amen.