Sunday, September 11, 2016

"Finding the Lost Among Us" - Sermon, September 11, 2016

Community UMC, Quincy
“Finding the Lost Among Us”
September 11, 2011
Pastor Andrew Davis
Luke 15: 1-10

        There is no doubt that many of us still remember where we were and what we were doing fifteen years ago this morning when we first heard the news of the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, followed by the crash of United Flight 93 in rural Pennsylvania.  It was a surreal morning; one of those mornings that felt like a bad dream, but no, this was really happening.  When my TV came on at 6:30am as it was timed to do, I was still semi-asleep, but knew something was not right from the urgent and serious tone that the anchor team on Good Day Sacramento was using instead of their typical morning zoo antics.  However, I was fully awake when I watched in horror and helplessness as the twin towers fell to the ground.
 Today is a day where the raw emotions still come to the surface as we remember the tragedy that happened fifteen years ago this morning in a coordinated attack by Al Queda, a network composed of those who were filled with pure evil in the name of religion.  In the days to follow, many of us asked why?  Why did this happen?  We tried to make sense of it, but could not right away.  In the end, we saw a massive loss of lives, but the beginning of a new culture of fear and mistrust that is still prevalent today. 
        Today is one of those difficult days to preach.  Even though it has been fifteen years since the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, it still feels like it happened yesterday.  On the other hand, one of my former teachers from high school who I stay in touch pointed out that for many of this year’s high school freshman, the attacks are now an historical event that happened before many of them were born.  I definitely think about that as one of my cousins is a month into his freshman year of high school and wasn’t born yet when the attacks happened.  Yet amidst that fact, there are still strong emotions of grief for those who were lost, admiration for the first responders who didn't stay away, but went right for the towers. And, there are still also feelings of anger, and the fear that it could happen again.  Yet as I have been reflecting these last few weeks leading up to today, I think of those who were lost, and even those who are still lost because they have not been accounted for and their loved ones still here on earth.  A recent report from NBC News mentions how there are still many families whose loved ones were lost in the attacks, yet never had their bodies recovered, which has not given their surviving families the sense of closure, as they still try and struggle to move on from fifteen years ago today and find hope.[i]  It is a deep sense of loss, but also speaks to how it is still possible to have the feeling of being lost fifteen years later.
In the days, weeks, and even years following these attacks, many of us also felt a spiritual sense of loss.  I admit that I felt like I lost faith in God and humanity that day and in my jaded view of God’s will at the time, became very angry with God for allowing a tragedy on this scale to even happen, which took time to reconcile and realize that it was not part of God’s will.  God was still present in the ones who came to bring aid and in the first responders, and God was never lost, even though it was very difficult to see in the moment. 
Nobody was unaffected by this tragedy.  It was and still is a time of wrestling and asking questions, even as we remember and continue moving forward in hope, love, and justice.  But, in the midst of remembering such tragedy and other tragedies that have happened in the last fifteen years, what are we as people of faith to do in such instances when tragedy strikes?  How do we respond?  Is it our call to try to point blame on others, or even try and to find answers to people’s questions of why?  Or, is it possible to reach out across the divides, not pretending to have the answers, but simply reach out and be a presence, especially for the lost among us?  Do we stay away, or engage? Our Gospel lesson this morning may hold a key on how we can respond, but also in how we can find the lost among us.  Let us hear these words from Luke 15: 1-10.
This morning's lesson is quite fitting given the context of this morning in some ways.  And quite honestly, our Gospel lesson can open up a can of worms too because of what the Pharisees are saying right off the bat about Jesus: “this man receives sinners and eats with them” (Lk. 15: 2, NKJV).  Now, sin is corrupt and evil in the Pharisees’ eyes and the people who Jesus is hanging out with defy the ritual and purity codes of that time (see Leviticus and Deuteronomy for an idea of what those codes entail).[ii]  However, Jesus didn’t stay away from those who the Pharisees avoided, but instead engaged with everyone who was in his midst, even when it raised controversy.  As we may find ourselves grappling with who to stay away from and who to engage with as 21st century disciples in this culture of fear that we have lived in these last fifteen years, it feels like we are being told a message to stay away from the other, particularly through some of the ‘talking heads’ that we see host various news shows, which comes from both sides of the political spectrum too.  We hear the message to stay away from those who we don’t agree with or aren’t like-minded with us.  Stay away from those who aren’t patriotic.  Stay away from those who aren't Christian.  Just stay away if people are not just like us.  It feels like we hear those voices constantly in our heads and they are certainly loud and clear. 
This past week in a conversation on Facebook with one of my younger friends who I’ve known since he was only a few years old, my friend pointed out that it is almost impossible today to have a conversation in this country without getting angry with each other.  And there’s definitely some truth to that, as there is certainly a lot of anger out there.  My response was that it is because we have been conditioned to stay away from those who think differently from us and only to hang out with like-minded people, much like what the Pharisees did in that timeHowever, in our Gospel lesson, Jesus does not stay away or react in anger towards the Pharisees and instead, shows us a whole different way of doing things, and that is to find and engage with the lost who are among us, or with people the rest of society would typically avoid.  Just from a show of hands, how many of you have intentionally stayed away because you saw something in people that you didn’t quite like, agree with, or because you didn’t know how to respond?  It’s happened to all of us. 
Instead of responding to the Pharisees by shouting them down and telling them that they’re wrong, which seems to happen more and more these days when we encounter differing viewpoints, Jesus does what he does best and goes into his parables with the same message in both short parables: GO, find the lost among you, with one parable being a shepherd leaving his flock of 99 other sheep vulnerable in order to find that one, lost sheep out of 100 and a parable of the woman who thoroughly sweeps around her house just so she could find that one, lost coin, which was one part of ten-days worth of wages.[iii]  The end result is that both the shepherd and poor woman are excited to find their lost sheep and lost coin and celebrate with their friends and neighbors.  It seems small, but is still quite significant to them. 
On the other hand, Jesus is telling us that when we too are lost at different times in our lives, God is willing to go find us like the shepherd does for the lost sheep and the poor woman and her lost  coinIt's much like how our first responders will seek the lost whenever I think of this passage. Jesus is talking about people here instead of sheep or coins, though. We can walk away from God if we choose to, but God is willing to go out and find us when we become lost.  However, like finding the lost sheep and the lost coin, the result of finding the lost among us is the same result: “there will be more joy in heaven over one who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Lk. 15: 7). 
        Kind of an OUCH when it speaks to those who feel righteous, but that’s why the Pharisees were grumbling and also why Jesus did not stay away from sinners and tax collectors, but engaged and ate with them instead.  He was seeking out the lost among him and as a result, it was seen as a scandal because “the God who showed mercy [to the Israelites who wandered away from God] in the wilderness rejoices over the salvation of every lost person like a shepherd who rejoices over the recovery of a lost sheep or a woman who rejoices over the recovery of a lost coin.”[iv]
Just as our world has become more polarized and we have seen more people become lost for one reason or another, it feels like instead of going out to seek the lost, we are more inclined to hang around those who are just like us because it’s safer to do so.  It feels like it’s safer to just to stay back than to find the lost.  In his book, Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear, Scott Bader-Saye mentions how
Spencer Burke, a pastor who speaks and blogs about church and culture explains: “Believing that the world is an evil place to raise our children, we take a variety of steps to insulate ourselves from that reality.  We watch Christian videos, read Christian books, and listen to Christian music.  Why?  Because we deem these items to be ‘safe.’” Some Christians would rather retreat to the safety of a Christ-saturated subculture than live in a complex, gray-shaded world.”[v]

        In Burke’s observation between mainstream culture and Christian culture, there is definitely a strong inclination to stay away from those except our own kind instead of going out out to find the lost among us.  But, is that what Jesus wants from us today?  Does Jesus want us to ‘circle the wagons’ and ignore and stay away from those who are not like us by hiding within the safety of Christian subculture?  I don’t think so.  Outside the doors of our sanctuary, there are people out there who are lost, and might be lost for many different reasons, some within their control and some not within their control.  Some are lost because of addictions.  Some may be lost because their marriages or their very lives have fallen apart.  Some may be lost because of their grief.  Some may be feeling lost because of events that still happen in our world today that shake us to the core. 
However, as followers of Christ and people of faith, if we are to be the hands and feet of Christ in our world today, we need to roll up our sleeves and get out there to engage, not stay away because people are not like us or think like us.  Something I need to work towards as well, as we in this together.  Besides, if we were all exactly alike, the world would be a boring, boring place.  Jesus’s actions were scandalous to the religious authorities at the time, but sometimes we need to stick our necks out some and take part in that great scandal by loving and finding the lost among us, which does present its own set of challengesAnd you know, if we hold an attitude of righteousness, “‘Righteousness’ [does not] make God rejoice” at finding the lost among us, but instead Jesus shows  us that “the celebration of the coming of the kingdom was taking place in [his] table fellowship with the outcasts, but because [the Pharisees’] righteousness had become a barrier separating them from the outcasts, they were missing it.[vi] So what are some barriers that might prevent you from finding the lost among us? 
Amidst the events fifteen years ago and those who were lost both physically and spiritually, we do have a lot to be hopeful about when we can reach out and find the lost among us.  Despite the pain, grief, suffering, loss of life, injury, and emotional trauma the Al Queda terrorist attacks caused, we did see a lot of good in the helpers and first responders and even amidst the fear that is still prevalent at times, we as followers of Christ can be that light and that hope when we work as peacemakers when we actively seek out the lost among us, regardless of why they may be lost.  After all, “those who find God’s mercy offensive cannot celebrate with the angels when a sinner repents [and] thus exclude themselves from God’s grace,” so it is up to us to continue seeking the lost among us, lifting them up, and inviting them into an active relationship with God through Jesus Christ.[vii] But it’s also up to us to show our willingness to be in relationship with everyone around us, regardless of situations in life, which goes for me as well.  Let’s go out and be like the shepherd willing to find the lost sheep or the poor woman who cleans her house inside and out just to find that lost coin (and have a clean house too).  So even though the events of September 11, 2001 are long past and while we still grieve when we remember those who died, we still have our job cut out for us as followers of Christ to continue spreading hope, finding the lost, even if the world around us is like being sheep among the wolves in a world of fear.  Because “there will be much celebration in heaven” and “joy in the presence of the angels over one sinner who repents” when we as Christ's followers engage with those who may be feeling lost around us. 

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen. 

[i] Schuppe, Jon. Unidentified 9/11 Remains Complicate Families’ Grief. (NBC News), September 5, 2016.
[ii] The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Vol. IX (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 295. 
[iii] Ibid.
[iv] Ibid.
[v] Scott Bader-Saye, Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear (Grand Rapids, Brazos Press: 2007), 20. 
[vi] The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Vol. IX, 296.
[vii] Ibid.

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