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St Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church, Albuquerque Rev. Kristin Schultz
25th Sunday after Pentecost November 10, 2013
When I got to church Monday morning, Kathryn – our parish administrator – was working on the bulletins.
“I can’t stand the text for this week,” she said to me. “It’s that crazy story about the woman who is married to seven brothers, one after the other.” We agreed that if there is any justice in heaven, they will all being washing her feet and serving her for all eternity.
This gospel story is one of those challenging texts that remind us that the Bible was written in a very different context than our own.
The story refers to Levirite marriage, a practice in which a woman who was widowed before she had children was married to the brother of her husband, so she could conceive a child for the family. It was based on the idea that continuing a family line was the primary goal in marriage. It also provided protection for a widow in a society in which a childless widow had no role or means of support.
The whole question makes no sense to us, with our contemporary understanding of marriage as companionship based on love and equality.
It’s easy this week to miss the forest for the trees – This woman is widowed six times and married off to seven brothers in turn, and the religious guys are worried about who she will be married to in heaven? Really? That’s ridiculous. It is ridiculous – and that is exactly the point.
This is one of those stories in which the religious officials are trying to trap Jesus. The Sadducees are a minority religious sect who do not believe in the resurrection. They are trying to pose the most ridiculous question about resurrection that they can think of, to trap Jesus into making a mistake.
You’ve probably had this sort of conversation. Someone asks you, “Do you believe the Bible is true?” And you know they don’t want to have a discussion or hear what you have to say.
They are already convinced – either that every word of it is literally true, or that the whole thing is bunk. So you have to decide if you will try to engage in a real discussion – or if you just want to smile and say, “Nice weather we’re having, isn’t it?” because some conversations are just too much work. Jesus dives right in, to take advantage of a teachable moment.
He makes it clear that the Sadducees are starting with a false understanding of resurrection. Their question doesn’t make sense, because life with God in the resurrection will not be like this life. Jesus tells them, and all his listeners – Life in the resurrection will be something new. There will not be marriage as we know it now. Resurrection is not a continuation of this life, with it’s social constructs and inequalities and imperfect solutions.
Life in God, in the resurrection, will be something completely new and unimagined. This past week I attended a conference on the topic of aging and loss. As clergy of the DRG, we faced head on the reality that life is full of loss, change and grief. That is not something I need to tell you. I know some of the grief and loss that many of you are facing. Others are facing struggles this community knows nothing about. Loss and grief are no strangers to any of us in this room, and the changes that come with aging eventually challenge us all.
We have all been in this place in our lives, probably more than once – when what we have known is no longer possible, and we face an unknown future. We have lost something precious. Or, life has changed within and around us until we don’t know just where we are or where to go.
The conference speaker – Harold Ivan Smith - reminded us that those who come through such transitions well are the ones who look forward to what is next.
Our ability to look ahead to an unknown future, to imagine something not yet experienced, is one of the gifts of our humanity.
It is important for us to find a sense of meaning or purpose in our lives – to look for new possibilities when we find ourselves in new places.
He offered questions to explore when we find ourselves in uncharted territory:
What am I now free to be?
What am I now free to do?
What have I always wanted to do?
What is my unique contribution to the world?
And my favorite – do I believe that my life comes to me as a gift and that there is in me a terrific thing? It may sound simple, but it is never easy – and the more profound the loss or change, the more difficult it may be to see a new future.
But as Christians, we carry two things into our uncharted lands. The first is the knowledge that we are not alone. We face our loss with Jesus at our side, walking with us through all of our dark valleys. And we have a community of faith, a community to walk with us, pray for us, even believe for us on the days we can no longer believe.
Our culture tells us to be strong – to pull ourselves up by our boot straps and get on with it.
Our faith reminds us that none of us is alone, that we are all loved and held by a God who never leaves us and a community that, however imperfectly, mirrors that love to us.
The second thing we know is that we follow a God of resurrection – of hope – of new life after death.
Do we believe that our lives – and our life together – are a gift from God? Our God is the one who is able to accomplish within us and through us far more than we can ask or imagine.
Do we believe that our lives have meaning and purpose? Our God is the one who came to earth to show us the way to live life with abundance by loving and serving one another.
Do we believe that God is ready to do a new thing, with us and in us, even when we can’t yet see what that thing will be? Our God is the Holy One who says, “See, I am making all things new.”
We're sorry, the full text for this sermon is unavailable. Please enjoy listening to the audio version!
We're sorry, the full text for this sermon is not available. Please enjoy listening to the audio!
St. Michael and All Angels
Twenty Second Sunday after Pentecost – October 20, 2013
What do you know about your name? Some of our names have stories or come from ancestors. Some of us love our names. Some, not so much. Some of us choose names for ourselves that fit us better. Some become known by a beloved nickname. Our names are important. They are rarely random. We know what it feels like when someone who loves us calls us by name. We also know the feeling of being called by our full name usually meaning we are in trouble.
My father adored his mother. She died while he was in college and he never talked about her very much. My grandfather remarried a woman before I was born. I loved her deeply so I didn’t think much about my birth grandmother. I remember stopping in my tracks in the Chapel at Emory University on All Saints day while I was in seminary and realizing that the grandmother I did not know was also Sue Joiner. I had never really thought much about my name. My given name is Sue, just Sue. My grandmother was named Effie Sutah but everyone called her Sue. I found a deep connection to this woman I knew very little about when I realized we shared the same name. I felt that there was power in my name because I shared it with a beloved ancestor.
There is power and hospitality in knowing someone else’s name. Some of you may remember the old tv show Cheers whose theme song said:
“Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name, and they're always glad you came.
You wanna be where you can see, our troubles are all the same
You wanna be where everybody knows your name.”
It’s funny that this song is about a bar in Boston. I’d say it could well describe a church. A church is a place to be welcomed as you are. A church is a place where each person makes a difference. At church we discover that we are all carrying burdens. A church is a place to care for one another and share the journey. We heard that St. Michael’s is that kind of church through the stories David Hardy, Marty Jacobson, and Jason Davis. A church is a place to learn one another’s unique names, but also a place to remember our shared name – God’s beloved child. A church is a place to remember who we are and to whom we belong.
The book of Genesis reads like a soap opera. There are deceptions and twists and turns. A name in Genesis revealed one’s essential character and sometimes one’s destiny. Knowing someone’s name meant knowing something of that person. The name Jacob meant to follow. Jacob and his brother Esau were twins who were fighting while they were still in the womb. Esau was born first and Jacob came out holding Esau’s heel. He trades Esau his birthright for a bowl of soup. Jacob deceives his father Isaac into blessing him by wearing a goatskin and pretending to be the first-born son. Esau finally reaches his limit and threatens to kill Jacob. In the story today, Jacob is running for his life. He leaves his family and possessions on one side of the stream, and then crosses over to spend the night alone. He is incredibly vulnerable.
Things get really interesting when a man comes in the night and wrestles with Jacob until daybreak. It is clear that it is not a one sided wrestling match. Jacob’s opponent strikes his hip and leaves him with a limp. The match reaches an impasse as day approaches and Jacob will not loosen his grip. Jacob is wrestling with God. In this moment in the story, they desperately need each other. God needs Jacob to let go before daylight. Jacob needs to be blessed. The blessing he got from his father was stolen. He needs God to bless him and validate him. Yes, even this guy who would steal from his father and brother needs a blessing.
Before blessing Jacob, God gives him a new name… Israel. Israel means God strives. This new name was a form of blessing for the one who valiantly wrestled with God. The story goes on to say that God blessed Jacob.
We all need to be blessed. I’m guessing most of you have never covered yourself in goatskin to steal your brother’s blessing. But I’m also guessing that you have done something you are ashamed of and wish you could have erased. It is here that we recognize our shared vulnerability. It is here that we acknowledge that this is what it looks like to be human. Our shared humanity is less in our strength and more in our vulnerability.
It is more than a little strange to think of an all night wrestling match with God in the physical sense. But late night spiritual wrestling with God is something many of us have experienced. We may feel a little put off by the idea that God wrestles with us. When I think of common images of God, the wrestler never makes the top ten. Yet there is something to it. God hangs in there with us when we struggle. God keeps vigil with us through the darkness of night whether it is eight hours, eight months or eight years. God stays with us through it all. God blesses us even when we have made bad choices. God is persistent in relationships and NEVER walks away. When I let that sink in, it takes my breath away. There are some wonderful humans who walk with us in our darkest nights and who don’t abandon us when we are lost or afraid. These folks embody a God who will stay with us no matter what we have done, no matter who we have hurt, and no matter how selfish we have been. In Jacob’s story we see a God who will not with hold a blessing from anyone.
This blessing from God is transformative. The next scene in the story is the meeting of Esau and Jacob. They are reconciled and Jacob is forgiven. Jacob no longer runs from his brother as a scoundrel, but walks beside him. Jacob sees the face of God in Esau who graciously receives him. This story could have ended badly. Instead, Jacob is given a new start with God’s blessing. Jacob no longer runs in fear, but meets his brother and is profoundly transformed by grace.
What about you? Do you know this story as your own? I am deeply humbled by this story of blessing and transformation. I reflect on the times in my life when I have felt vulnerable and exposed. In the dark, it is even more lonely and scary. Somehow in those places of utter despair, God comes to us and stays with us. I suppose it looks like a wrestling match at times.
The church is in the blessing business. It is what we do in ways that are public and ways that are almost invisible. Last summer, Judith spent a week with Philip Newell and she came back quoting him, “We should be blessing each other all the time.”
I think of the many people who have blessed me on this journey. Two people who have walked with me through those dark nights and accompanied me in the most difficult places of my life have birthdays this weekend. I have offered these two saints my brokenness and they have blessed me and sent me back out stronger and more whole.
I keep thinking of you and the ways you bless each other each day. I think of Nancy Core who blessed so many kids… especially the ones others had given up on. The Core family told me about a kid who was really tough. He was a drug dealer and most everyone was afraid of him. Nancy cared about him and he knew it. Andy said that when they showed up at the prom, this tough kid and his gang walked into the prom first to create a wide berth for Nancy as if to say, “Don’t mess with her. She’s a good one. If you mess with her, you mess with me.” You can be sure no one wanted to mess with him. I don’t know what happened to that kid, but wherever he is now, he knows that this woman loved him. It changed him.
It changes us to be loved; to be blessed. Jesus blessed those who were closest to him. He blessed those who were on the fringes and rejected by society. Jesus understood the power of blessing to transform. In blessing, we are conformed to the image of God. In blessing we are strengthened for the journey ahead. Jacob’s story isn’t ancient history. It is true for us in our darkest nights. God meets us in our vulnerability and keeps vigil with us. God calls us by name, blesses us, and prepares us for the path that lies before us. In blessing we are liberated to bless others. Blessing means an infusion of holiness. It is something that cannot be contained. It flows through us and out to all that we meet. We are indeed blessed. May we open our hearts and pour out blessing to the world.
We're sorry, the full text for this sermon is not available. Please enjoy listening to the audio version!
We're sorry, the full text for this sermon is not available at this time. We hope you will enjoy listening to the audio version!
29 IX 2013 Michaelmas
St. Michael and All Angels
The Rev. Canon Daniel G. P. Gutierrez
Let us bow our heads, close our eyes and open our hearts to the one who is greater than we. Lord I humbly pray that some word that is heard, be thine.
Worry. I do not like to worry. I find it draining, I am anxious, uncertain, I try to go at it alone and usually mess things up. I like security. It is comforting and liberating - it provides a sense of ease. I use the word “security” expansively be it financial, personal, safety, relational. I have found that when I feel secure it is usually because, I trust in something. When you stumble someone or something will steady you.
When you blindly grasp in the darkness there is a knowing that a hand will be there to meet yours. I was blessed to witness what I call a “blessed assurance” reflected in the marriage and last years of Arnold and Bernice Fletcher. They married young during World War II, and raised three beautiful daughters. They did not change the world with brilliant acts, yet their faith and lives were examples to many.
There were no poems written about their devotion, yet many could have been written.
Whatever difficulty that entered their lives, including the tragic death of a daughter, they faced it, trusting. They know that they were spoken for - by one another. After 50 years of marriage, a cruel thief began to steal Bernice from Arnold. Because of the disease, they moved from their beautiful home to small assisted living apartment.
Yet, they were together. From assisted living apartment to one small room in a nursing home, and they were still side by side. Bernice’s world consisted of constant care, a distant stare and arms moving rhythmically. Arnold patiently sitting nearby. Listening for her breathing, watching if she rustled, From early morning through late at night, he watched over his beloved Bernice.
One time when their only grandson came to visit, Arnold gently reached through the rails to hold her hand and spoke to her softly. Bernice, someone is here to see you. When she heard Arnold’s voice, her arms stopped moving. Her clutched fingers grasped his hand and for a few moments, she was calm.
From the recesses of her soul, a place without speech, where there was no clarity, Arnold’s voice lovingly slipped through the distance. In that instant, it was as if she understood that her love, her life, was near. Although her memory was taken, she did not need memory, like a favorite song, she knew his voice by heart.
In remembering that moment and in today’s Gospel, I thought of how Jesus is always nearby - if we realize it. The first disciples follow Jesus. When invited by Phillip, Nathaniel seems doubt that this man called Jesus is real or that he is something something special. In fact in the preceding verse - he is downright sarcastic.
When Jesus calls out to him and describes his character, Nathaniel is stunned. He asks in a demanding tone “‘Where did you come to know me?” Not “where did you see me?” or “who told you/” In an instant, he realizes that God has always been in his life, close by, watching, tending, hoping. That Jesus was in his life, long before he met Jesus. When Nathaniel comes to the realization - he is changed.
How different things must have been 2000 years ago. To question the presence in our lives and then have Jesus walk into our lives. Then suddenly, be changed. To feel trust, to be liberated, not to worry, to have a new life and new world. Imagine. But nothing has changed, it seems we have. Maybe our openness to Christ has closed over time. And I am sure we can justify the reasons.
Maybe we have a difficult time accepting that we can be loved or that God is truly capable of love. How can God love my enemy, even worse - how can God love me. It is easier and less binding to believe that God spends all eternity judging and rejecting us. Yet throughout the Bible, the Eucharist, the cross and resurrection, the message is the same. I know you, you are mine. We are spoken for by the mouth of Christ.
Or maybe we can rationalize intellectually. How can Jesus know me? Yes, these are great stories about some guy who lived over 2000 years ago, he has outstanding messages that I want to live by, great moral stories, appears in stained glass windows. Yet you want me to accept that his presence is always near? Prove it. We want answers instead of questions, understanding instead of desire, clarity instead of mystery. Yet, how do you explain the unexplainable. How do you define mystery.
I could not explain that millisecond when my breath was stuck in my chest when I understood that Bernice was grasping for Arnold’s hand and struggling to listen to his voice. I cannot explain the wonder I feel in a sunset, the feeling of holding my son in my arms, the pain felt at the death of someone we love. How do you explain love?
Maybe we do not recognize the possibility of these moments have their origins in God.
Or maybe the reason is that we are at a point in life where we just do not feel that Jesus is close or really care. The pain of illness or the cloud of depression leaves us no room to seek or feel. The world, the pressures, the divorce, the problems with the kids, the bills, they all seem to set me apart from Christ. Yet somehow, there is a calm in the storm, a sense of relief, a voice that seems to speak.
A small light that shines in our darkest night. And we cannot explain nor understand it. A favorite author wrote - Consider how the sun continually lights our daily world yet we cannot see light except in what it touches. Though the sun burns constantly and holds everything living within its pull, though it sends its power across millions of miles. It is unseen for all that way, until it hits a simple blade of grass or makes the web of a spider a golden patch of lace.
In the same way, the presence of God powerfully moves between us unseen, only visible in the brief moments we are lighted, in those moments we know as love. For just as we can look at that spider web and never see its beauty until it reveals itself in sudden light, we can look upon the nearest face, again and again, never seeing the beauty in each other, until one or both of us is suddenly revealed. It is there until we finally realize it, God is always close.
Maybe this week, let’s open ourselves to the possibility. In our private moments, walking up to communion, sitting at work or in the darkness of your night, ask God, “how do you know me?’ Sit back and listen for that silent voice, reach out your hand and grasp whatever is placed in yours. Notice the light that has traveled billions of miles to reflect on your life. God speaks to us through the heart, not only through the mind.
Somehow I have to believe that in much the same way, Bernice knew by heart Arnold’s voice, our own heart senses that God is near. That realization was ingrained inside Nathaniel when Jesus called him so that he was forever transformed. It will change each one of us in much the same way.
To patiently await morning when we only feel the darkness. Purely Love when hate is all we feel. Struggle upright when broken. Breathe when suffocated. Or to bravely step forward in hope with Fr. Clark knowing that Jesus is near, walking this parish journey with you. This assurance provides the type of security that money, a locked door, or a closed heart will never protect.
After Bernice left his world. I sat with Arnold and we would talk about catching red fish in the Gulf, his daughters, granddaughters and the life that he and Bernice created together. When talking about his Bernice, he would get a faraway look in his eyes. “She was the prettiest girl I had ever seen.” he said. ‘She gave me 61 years of her. God was good to me, giving me Bernice. He loved me and I loved her.”
The two are buried next to each other in a small cemetery in Texas, Arnold knew that in the end he would see the two people who were always with him Bernice and God. But more importantly,, he understood that the love of Bernice and the love of Christ, although he could not see them, were still with him
So this week be silly, irrational and take one minute out of your day. Ask Jesus, “how do you know me” You may find a surprising response and as a result find within yourself something stronger, braver, trusting, kinder, and holier that anything we could have every imagined. Hold your hand out, lean against him, he knows you because he is always there. Your may never see God in the same way ever again.
 Mark Nepo in The Book of Awakening
St. Michael and All Angels Church, Albuquerque
The Rev. Carolyn W. Metzler+
Amos 8:4-7; Luke 16:1-13
You have heard the Gospel appointed for today, and now you know why all the clergy except Judith chose this Sunday to leave town! This is a story which has flummoxed readers and preachers for centuries. It flies in the face of everything we hear Jesus saying about how to be a Christian. Or—does it?
It helps to remember what a parable is. It is a piece of mischievous story-telling. It's like a zen koan. It takes what we think we know and turns it upside down. It confuses us before it enlightens us. Here Jesus is messing with our heads again. Remember also that parables as told by Jesus are always about the Kingdom of God. This is not a story about how not to do business, not about morality. It's about what the community of God looks like. Also, parables are stories where we can usually recognize ourselves, usually in every character at different times. The parables in Luke's gospel present multi-dimensional, complex people. We are them. They are us.
So—having been discovered in his shady business practices, this manager, or steward, is about to be sacked. A steward is someone who is employed to look after another's property, or assets. This man had not done well by his employer and he gets the dreaded pink slip. His security and livelihood is about to vanish. Notice what he does not do. He does not defend himself, argue that the rich man was being unfair, beg for another chance. He accepts the new economic reality and pulls an idea rabbit out of his hat.
Calling in his master's debtors, he takes the original debt—I looked it up and did the math—580 gallons of oil and 1400 bushels of wheat—and reduces them by 50% and 20%. The size of the debts is a clue to me that Jesus is telling this story with a twinkle in his eye. Really? 580 gallons of oil? How on earth did anybody get to owe that much? Jesus—if you haven't noticed—is a very funny guy. I can see the disciples rolling their eyes at each other as they realize the outrageousness of the story.
What happens as a result? The debtors are grateful to the master for his generosity, and certainly turn themselves inside out to be nice to him in the future. And, as a vehicle of the master's generosity, they are also grateful to the shrewd manager, and will—as he anticipates—do what they can to stay on his good side. Everybody's happy! The Master bellows with laughter when he realizes what this slick manager has done, and slaps him on the back. Like most parables, we don't know how this one ends either. Is he rehired? We are the ones left scratching our heads, wondering what just happened.
So let's scratch a little more deeply. If this parable is actually about the Kingdom, what is Jesus saying through it?
First, let's remember that there is dishonesty and maybe more than some shady things going on in the acquisition of this wealth. Isn't there always? Is there any money out there not tainted? In George Bernard Shaw's play “Major Barbara,” Major Barbara Undershaft becomes angry and disillusioned when her beloved church, The Salvation Army, accepts money that comes from armaments and whiskey dealing. She rages that the receiving of such dirty money is utter hypocrisy. How could they even consider doing so? By the end of the play she accepts that more to the point is what happens with the money from here on, not where it came from. Shaw places these words in the mouth of an officer: “They would take money from the devil himself and be only too glad to get it out of his hands and into God's." Our world has become so globally interconnected, that there is no such thing as untainted money anymore. Maybe there never was.
Whatever we purchase is somehow tied up with things which as Christians we abhor: slave labor, human trafficking, prostitution, big business, products and practices which are raping our planet. All wealth is ill-gotten at some level, even that which is earned by hard, honest work. There is no escaping it, and it's so hard to know the real picture which is surely bigger than we have any idea. When I make my confession I always include what I call those “sins of default:” participation in those global enterprises which “corrupt and destroy the creatures of God” (from our baptismal vows). I can do little about it, but I do believe it has to be named before the Throne of Mercy. The prophet Amos rips into these injustices with outraged eloquence: “Hear this you who trample on the needy and bring to ruin the poor of the land...buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat [how's that for describing third world labor practices?] Surely I will not forget any of their deeds!” Let Wal*Mart beware.
The Gospel is very clear about the real problem with money. It divides people into creditors and debtors, haves and have-nots, owners and owned. Success is measured by how much of it you have. So the story begins with people in these polarized places: the rich man, the steward who manages the rich man's assets, the debtors who owe the shirts off their backs.
But look what happens when the shrewd manager starts playing with the figures: first, he ceases to be the debt-collector with the power of the thumb-screws. He realizes he might need the hospitality or those same debtors one day, and soon! So he comes down from his lofty position and meets them halfway. And they, who aren't in such back hock anymore, are raised up. Sound familiar? “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent empty away.” The shrewd manager is humbled. We might even call this story “The Taming of the Shrewd.” (Not an original joke! I found it at desparatepreacher.com) There is always a switch in status whenever God shows up! To be part of the Kingdom agenda requires real change, a letting go of personal power, a humbling, a meeting of hearts as equals before the Holy One.
What a remarkable paradigm for leadership! We in the church still don't get it. When we seek ordained leaders we generally ask about their gifts and want stories of their successes. Why don't we ask about how God has used them in failure, a character flaw? Why don't we ask about how their weakness has been transformative in ministry? How they have been emptied of egotism so they could be filled with mercy and love? Why don't we ask about the things we say we most value?
Maybe this parable is really about forgiveness and how it builds community. Jesus told this parable not to hoards of people on a mountainside, but to his clueless little band of disciples.
“Pay attention!” he says. “This is how we walk together even when we screw up. We forgive. We use our resources carefully, not for exploitation but for the common good. You are not a franchise! You are a body. You are not a business! You are a family. You won't ever get it all right. But it's OK. Forgive each other. In doing so, you build relationships which will carry the Kingdom forward into a broken and hurting world.”
This is one in a series of stories Jesus tells to show us how to use wealth and resources. Jesus talks a lot about money, and hardly at all about sex. The church talks ad infinitum about sex and very little about money. We are to be stewards of money, and also of our lives. We are accountable for how we use what has been given to us to better the community of the world. I read last night that Congress has just cut $4B in food stamps to the neediest among us. What do you think Amos would say about that? What will you say about that to your congressperson? How does decision that affect the community of the world?
I would end with the Collect for today. This prayer was composed during one of the Barbarian invasions of Europe, when the whole world seemed to be going to hell in a handbasket. It is an invitation to a kind of grounded peace in the midst of all the upheavals of our world. It is not passivistic. It does not tell us not to do anything. It reminds us not to be anxious, to discern what is true and lasting.
Please read it with me. “Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”
I am indebted to the following authors:
The Rev. G. David Deppen, “Accounting for Life”
The Rev. Tom Brackett, “Jesus the Rogue Rabbi”
Greg Carey, “Commentary on Luke 16:1-13”
Lois Malcolm, “Commentary on Luke 16:1-13”
I am directionally challenged on a good day. I am easily turned around and struggle to find my bearings. I love to hike but I often discover that the trail isn’t as clear as I expect and I stand there trying to figure out which direction to go. Luckily, my dog has a great sense of direction and she runs ahead rather than waiting on me to direct her. Last year, I did a vision fast during a yearlong intensive Soulcraft program. For four days, I went without food and three of those I camped alone. I was with a group and we created a system for safety. We each had a buddy and we were to check in each day with a signal to let the other know we were ok. My buddy and I had a meeting point halfway between our solo campsites. In the morning, she would go to the cairn we built and remove a rock. In the afternoon, I would go and put the rock back so she would find it the next morning. On the last day, I went to the cairn and headed right back to camp, or so I thought. At some point, I realized I was in an area that was unlike anything I had seen during my stay on the mountain. I knew I was a little off the path, but I assumed if I kept walking, I would soon see my beloved campsite. The more I walked, the more lost I became. I didn’t want to panic. Certainly my group would come to my rescue if I blew my whistle, but they were having their own solo experiences and I didn’t want to disturb them because I couldn’t find my campsite. I walked and watched the light change overhead. I found the skull and bones of an animal long gone. While I was lost, I was sure that I was not alone. I was also aware of how many others had traveled here. My ten-minute trip to the Cairn turned into several hours and finally; I came over a ridge and saw my campsite below.
I was so relieved and grateful to be found. Later that evening, I heard the powerful sound of drumbeat elsewhere on that mountain. Somehow that drum sounded the beautiful heartbeat of a God who had walked with me. I am blown away by this God who has lovingly sustained me throughout the journey I call my life.
I spent a day with Nadia Bolz-Weber last month. Nadia is not a typical Lutheran pastor. Her path to ministry was far from conventional. She has one of the most powerful theologies of incarnation that I have ever experienced. Nadia is so clear about her own humanness. She does not flee or deny it. She owns it and everything she is grows out of it. She knows what it is to be lost and I’m guessing if asked, she would respond that there is no shame in being lost. I hear these stories from Luke and I wonder how many of us would ever think to identify with a coin or a sheep. Wouldn’t we like to be the shepherd who bravely saves the sheep or the woman who diligently searches for the coin? Don’t we want to be the hero?
Jesus turns things upside for us over and over again. He experienced the fullness of humanity and understood how messy it can be. He wasn’t afraid of humanity, but he didn’t allow those around him to hide behind the illusion of being more than they were. While we prefer to be heroes rather than those who need to be saved, Jesus meets us in our weakness then shows us a God who waits to gather us up and welcome us home. *Nadia Bolz-Weber says that we often talk about the strength and might of God. But she wonders about a vulnerable God who creates us and then gives us freedom. This God risked everything for us by allowing us to be fully human and is left wide-open waiting for a potential broken heart. We are not puppets. We have this amazing opportunity to live as compassionate people who are generous and loving. We also have the opportunity to be selfish and uncaring. More realistically, we are a combination of both. Every morning, we wake to navigate through another day. In any given moment, we may find ourselves lost.
This happens to us as individuals when we lose our way. There may be times when we lose our faith. We will lose those that we love. At some point, we may lose our trust in others or in institutions. We will likely lose our dignity. When we have lost our way, we may find ourselves lying awake at night wondering if there is any way home again.
Lost congregations take many forms: they may feel disoriented when the next step is unclear and they must wait for God to show the way. Congregations are lost when they treat people badly and call it Christian. They are lost when they ignore those who are suffering because they are too busy.
It isn’t just individuals and congregations that become lost. It happens in our culture when we choose to express ourselves with violence. Today is the 50th anniversary of the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. This African-American church was at the center of the local civil rights movement, hosting meetings and marches. At 10:22 am on Sunday, September 15, 1963 a bomb planted by white supremacists of the Ku Klux Klan ripped through the side of the church. Many people were hurt. Four young girls were killed: Addie Mae Collins (14 years old), Cynthia Wesley (14), Carole Robertson (14), and Denise McNair (11). It was Youth Sunday and they were preparing to join their friends and lead the service. The church lesson that day was “The Love that Forgives.”
This week alone, we are surrounded by memories and stories of lives lost. We remember the lives lost on September 11, 2001. The horror and devastation of that day lives on twelve years later. The lives lost in Syria are with us every day. We add lives lost in the flooding this week and many more missing.
Into all of this, all of this death and destruction, I wonder about our vulnerable God whose heart breaks when we kill one another. I wonder about a God who loves us and waits for us to figure out that we really are loved. Period. This God walks with us when we are lost. This God never gives up on us. This God not only looks for us when we think we are hopelessly lost. This God throws an over the top party to celebrate when we return. It’s rather embarrassing when you think about it. One little coin and the woman/God is throwing a party that probably cost more than the lost coin. One sheep is found and the shepherd doesn’t go back to life as usual, but invites everyone to join the celebration.
Do you remember how the story began? The Pharisees are grousing because Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with them. Clearly they are not worth his, or their, time. And then Jesus tells these stories about a lost sheep and a lost coin being worth the party of the century to God. Really? The God we hear about wants to throw a party for us? Not just the collective, beautiful us, but the individual who wanders off completely ignoring everyone else. God throws a party for the judgmental, crabby, uncaring us. It is never about who deserves a party and who doesn’t. There is simply a celebration – no questions asked.
One of our favorite family songs is You Cannot Lose My Love by Sara Groves. It is written for her children and the lyrics are:
You will lose your baby teeth.
At times, you'll lose your faith in me.
You will lose a lot of things,
But you cannot lose my love.
You will lose your confidence.
In times of trial, your common sense.
You may lose your innocence,
But you cannot lose my love.
- Sara Groves – You Cannot Lose My Love
Can you hear God saying, “I know you will wander off. You will lose your way. You will act like you don’t care. You will do many stupid things. You will disappoint those around you. But you cannot lose my love. I will come looking for you. I will not stop until I find you. When I find you, I will celebrate and invite the whole world to join with me.”
That is the God we worship. It is astonishing to realize that God will travel to the end of the earth to find us and bring us home. We are never so lost that this relentless God cannot find us. This extravagant God throws the party of the century when we are found. How do we respond to a love that big?
*God’s vulnerability taken from Nadia Bolz-Weber’s sermon: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/nadiabolzweber/2013/03/sermon-the-parable-of-the-prodigal-father/