This is a sermon manuscript from my message on Sunday, September 15th 2019, at St. James Episcopal Church, Potomac MD. As a sermon manuscript it breaks my usual goal of staying at 500 words in a blog post, lol, clocking just over 1,700. The day’s Gospel passage was Luke 15:1-10.
Who has ever lost something and found it?
Our gospel passage today is in part about losing and searching and finding, and the joy that comes with being found. Jesus tells two stories about things being lost, first one of a hundred sheep, and then one of ten coins. When was the last time you lost something, and found it? Or maybe you’re like me, you like to think that you never lose anything important and love to be a little judgey when other people do? I’ll admit it, I’ve been that “How could you?” guy too many times… that is I was until I lost my wallet… on a cross country drive… in East Africa.
I don’t have my wallet at the hotel!
It’s the year 2000, and I’m driving across Tanzania with a friend, bringing home a new truck which we had just imported and outfitted for work in the rural areas where we were planting churches. After a long day of driving toward home from an area near Mount Kilimanjaro we were pulling into a beautiful safari hotel in the heart of the Serengeti game reserve for a well-earned night’s rest. But when I went to check in, I didn’t have my wallet and I couldn’t find it anywhere in my new truck. The folks at the hotel were understandably like, “Sorry, no money, no room.” That wallet had my money, US ID, Tanzanian drivers license, checkbook, everything… oh man.
Jesus is speaking to religious snobbery.
So we find Jesus was doing his normal thing one day, teaching the crowds around him… you might remember some of the recent gospel passages have been a little on the hard-to-hear tough side, yeah? He’s been talking about the cost of discipleship, or how seriously they should think of a decision to follow him. It’s a deep thing, choosing to follow Jesus, and it should be treated seriously and with dedication. And who should gather around and be listening to Jesus, but sinners. And worst kind of sinners, tax collectors, those who colluded with Rome and stole the wealth of the people. The good religious folks watching are like, “Man, Jesus hangs out with the worst people: Sinners!” Sound a bit snobby? Sound a bit judgmental? Yeah, it does.
A Clue! I find a map on the grill of my truck!
Back in Tanzania I’m standing at my new truck with my friend and we’re talking about this missing wallet thing while my stomach twists and sinks lower and lower. I last had the wallet at the gate into the park where we stopped to pay the game park entry fees… I know I had it at the gate! I start looking around some more and as I inspect the truck inside and out, I find a game park map stuck to my front grill. Putting things together I begin to imagine what I had done… leaving the office at the park gate after paying my entry fees, I must have set my wallet and the map I had grabbed on the hood of my truck. I must have forgotten and left them there. And as my luck would have it, my wallet didn’t get stuck anywhere in place like the map.
What does sinner mean? What will make the angels party?
Something else we know about Jesus from the recent gospel readings is that when invited he would totally go to the house of a Pharisee or religious leader for a meal. It’s not even like he exclusively eats or only hangs out with those sinners, but he is available to everyone. They’re a bit jealous maybe? We also know from many Gospel stories that Jesus doesn’t tolerate religious snobbery. To answer their anxiety at his choice of company he tells a couple of parables, short stories, actually two of three we find in Luke 15, to very pointedly reorient them back from their judgmental stance. He tells stories that will help them understand that sinner doesn’t really mean what they think. Lost doesn’t really mean what they think. For Jesus, sinner apparently means beloved. Lost means desirable. In the first story a man finds one of a hundred sheep has gone missing. Instead of simply being glad of the 99 and writing off his loss, he leaves them to find the one. And when that one is found the party gets started. There is rejoicing! I wish rejoice wasn’t such a church word these days… if we’re going to honest, the man and the angels partied when the lost one was found. In the second story we meet a woman who has lost one of ten coins, and she is relentless in finding that coin! She doesn’t give up but turns her world upside down to find what was lost. And when the lost coin is found? You guessed it, she and the angels start partying.
We just have to drive back, hoping and praying for the best.
Having figured out that I had left my wallet on the hood of my truck we were faced with a couple of problems. We had driven two hours since coming in that park gate, and it was getting dark. We’re not supposed to drive in the park after dark, it’s too dangerous with animals and possibly even poachers roaming around. I mean, could we even hope that it wasn’t already seen and grabbed up? Or maybe it was run over and scattered? It was also beginning to rain. We talked it over for a few minutes and eventually decided to drive back toward the gate and hope, and pray, for the best. You know that sick feeling when you can’t even talk? Everything inside is so tied up and you’re feeling so stupid and worthless that you just can’t even. I drove on, even out pacing the rain after some time, eyes glued to the road, and my friend sat there with a hand on my shoulder praying grace for me, for courage for me and for a wallet for our hotel stay.
Jesus is consistent that this kind of snobbery is not acceptable.
Maybe you’ve heard the kind of whispers and judgements that the people with Jesus heard from the religious leaders that day. Maybe you have felt unworthy in life, in church, in work, in play, in anything and everything. Maybe you’ve had the label sinner applied to you. Maybe you’ve had the label lost applied to you. Like many of the religious folks that day, we at church mostly find ourselves among the 99, the found. We find ourselves among the nine, tucked safely away in God’s purse. When you’re the 99 or the 9, terms like sinner or lost start sounding kinda bad. But in the stories told by Jesus, lost seems to mean desired, sinner seems to mean beloved. What the 99 and the 9 have to remember is that they aren’t giving up any of God’s love for it to be shared with the outsider, the other, the one whom God is pursuing instead of just always hanging with the insiders. So here’s a thought… we recently read Jesus telling a dinner host not to invite just friends and family to the table, but those who needed a meal, those without food, those without a table. Does that start to make more sense now? Do we have an extra layer now of understanding of the kind of love God has for all people so that we get a better idea of why spreading a table for the ones least likely to be invited, most likely to be overlooked, is so important?
What about my wallet?
We had out paced the rain and were driving in the dark for about an hour heading back toward the gate. We’d seen nothing in the dusty dirt road and now strained to peer through the high beams of my truck as we moved as fast as we dared. No, this wasn’t a paved highway, this wasn’t I-95 South toward Richmond. This was dirt, soon to be mud when the rain caught up to us again. Can you imagine what my heart did when at the edge of the high beam’s light, a small brown shape off the side of the road came into view? Can you imagine my lack of strength to even get out of my truck and go pick it up, when it was so obviously my wallet with the colored rubber-bands still holding all the contents safely in place? Can you imagine the relief, the joy? Can you imagine the party on our drive back to the hotel? I kid you not… we had found the wallet and started back for no more than ten or fifteen minutes when the rain storm caught up to us and poured down, obscuring a lot of our visibility for the drive back to the hotel. I don’t know if we could’ve found that wallet in the rain. Oh man, we partied like the angels in heaven! God is good.
Let’s make more solidarity, less fear more love!
What I believe Jesus is so often pushing the people around him to do, is to fear others less and feel a deeper sense of solidarity with them, a longing for them, a love that shatters complacency. He would seek and spend time with the lost and the sinner, because those are just synonyms for the beloved ones, the desired and desirable ones, the ones worthy of a great search, worthy of turning the world upside to get close to. Behind all that we do, all that we say, all that we would accomplish, let there be a deep sense of our being found, our being loved of God, and our being made worthy. From that understanding, let us also hold tight to the love of God that also embraces those outside of our community, making them worthy, worthy to be missed, worthy to be sought, worthy of our love and respect. Amen.
With Unite the Right protestors gathering in DC and many more planning to counter protest their messaging, all of us locally are bracing for the insanity, the hate and the possible violence. I’m working today, so I can’t be there to stand against the hate. But in these last few days running up to another rearing of white supremacy’s ugly head I did rework one of my images about our beautiful diversity. ->
The gravitational pull to meet hate with hate and ignorance with ridicule and disgust is strong and difficult to ignore. I appreciated so much this week when our Bishop in DC called us to love, to respond with what is best in humanity and not with violence or more hatred. I have made time this week to listen to the voices that matter, voices which lead me to love, to peace, to something positive.
I can’t be there at Lafayette Square to be seen today, but I still have a responsibility to be heard. We all must be heard. White supremacy is wrong, sinful, ignorant and destructive. Racism is a killing white sin in our society which must be confronted and defeated. These militant white supremacist clowns dressed up with their Confederate patches, racist flags and guns, and their narrative of hate and division, must be rejected with courage, dignity and love at every opportunity. (By the way, DC has said “no guns” to the white supremacists at this protest. Wouldn’t it be nice if what works to keep the President’s house safe would be applied to keep us all safe? hmmmm) We must always fight for liberty, equality and justice… but let us not have fighting in the streets. We need to make sure we elect the women and men who will help us bring the needed change. #midterms We need to have the courage to speak up against division and hate. We have to be heard.
Let’s change the narrative every time someone says we’re losing American culture or white culture or some other racist code phrase. America has never been a culture, but a joining of cultures. America has never been perfect, but a tension filled meeting of diverse people who can very often make beautiful things from our sharing. We have never been red white and blue, but every wonderful shade of human.
We had such a beautiful Sunday, yesterday. Teresa and I fasted for social justice and mercy during the day with our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry and many others from the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. We also heard from a special guest in Sunday School, Imam Tarif Shraim of the Islamic Community Center of Potomac (the ICCP). He attended with another teacher from the ICCP and several of their youth.
I met Imam Shraim at his mosque on my birthday, March 31 of this year, when I attended Friday prayers with other guests invited from our parish of St. John’s Episcopal Church Norwood. By the way, both Imam Shraim and Reverend Sari Ateek, our pastor, are Palestinians. When they are together you can feel the contagious energy of two humans thrilled to be present with each other.
Imam Shraim was gracious and wise as he shared with our combined Sunday School of 8th to 12th graders some of what it is like to be a Muslim in America. He shared his own story of facing racial and religious hatred here in America (a high speed pursuit and attempt to run his family off the road) because they have brown skin and his wife chooses to wear a head scarf. He expressed sincere gratitude for his welcome at St. John’s, and he invited us all to visit the ICCP any time we can make it. I plan to visit again as soon as my work schedule allows, hopefully during the coming celebration of Ramadan, beginning the evening of May 27 until June 25.
It warmed my heart to spend our class time helping our students grow in their understanding of our shared humanity with our Muslim neighbors, and our shared religious heritage and aspirations. I loved that our epistle reading in worship that morning was of the Apostle Paul in Athens, Acts 17:22-31. I’ve always believed that this should be a foundational text for our interaction with other faiths and adherents of other faiths. Paul shows respect for them and appreciation for what they share in common, and he even quotes their own poets. There is a humility and graciousness in this text that we have lost in so many of our own interactions with other faiths. Paul has a message to share and his own faith convictions, of course, but he doesn’t belittle, hate, fear or condemn the aspirations of the Athenians.
I pray that this is a week marked by more love, more learning and more service. May we find ourselves drawn to a shared grace and mercy for all people, and may we speak loudly and consistently against the hatred, fear and violence that threaten so many of our neighbors. And to support our prayer, may we do more loving, do more learning, and may we do more service. This is our calling as followers of Christ, to be known by our love: love for neighbors, love for friends and family, love for enemies, love for all. “Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” Colossians 3:14
Whether you are Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Atheist, Hindu, Buddhist or you identify with any other religion on this shared globe, you can love these two, hurt for them and hope for them. Whether you are Syrian, American, French, Korean, Kenyan, or any other nationality on this immense earth, you can can recognize their humanity, their need and their beauty.
I don’t care what they are wearing, either religiously or culturally… I feel like I’m watching a video of my own grandparents. I see my wife, and I see me. I see love and pain. I see two human beings.
Their marriage sounds so different than our marriage, but then again our marriage (at the ages of 19 and 21) seems more than a little crazy to some of our friends who are just now getting married in their late 30’s and 40’s. I hope that my wife and I can make such joy of our love at such an age. I hope we can one day make a whimsical video about our 65 year love affair.
I also hope we don’t reach that milestone just to be bombed from our home and driven into a refugee camp. I pray that we always know where our children are and that we can see them and speak with them and know they are safe.
Syria is not so far away after all. I haven’t done enough.
Got a long post for you… I’m preaching today at the the 8am, 11:15am and 5pm services, and this is my transcript. Be blest, you beloved of God!
I stand before you now in the name of the One who called to Lazarus, “Come out,” who wept with hurting friends, and who risked it all to be with those whom he loved. May we cherish one another as deeply and be as present with each other, in joys and in the darkest of days. Amen.
Has anyone started doodling on their bulletin, yet? I know ours can’t be the only bulletin doodling family at St. John’s. Not only do I invite you to doodle away, keep your hands as busy as you need to, but I invite you to think with me for a moment, and maybe doodle or jot down a few things that come to mind with this question… “What labels do you wear?”
As examples: First in this life I was son and brother, and later I became husband and father. I am Christian, and I have been “Pastor.” I have labels applied to me according to my work and employment, my sexuality and gender, and I have labels that try to define and capture my political thoughts and opinions. Some of those labels, I kinda like… but sometimes labels can be hurtful, or limiting and completely unnecessary. Labels are a daily tool and reality of life. We can say we don’t like labels, but we’re kinda stuck with them. So, I think we need to be careful with them.
Someone in our Gospel story we just read was labeled a long time ago, and that stigma still sticks to him, today. Even someone who may not be a student of the Bible has probably heard and used the phrase “Doubting Thomas” to name the Apostle Thomas or chastise a doubting friend. But is that fair? Is a Doubter all that Thomas was? Or, is a doubter even an important part of who or what Thomas was in his life?
One of the many reasons I love our Gospel passage from John 11 is that we learn something about this man named Thomas. If we only knew Thomas from the later chapter when he doubts the word of the other apostles, then maybe I would be more open to the Doubter label, but here he is in chapter 11, the lone apostle of the group we hear daring to go with Jesus into hostile territory. In fact, Thomas is willing to go die with Jesus should that be their fate for venturing to Bethany. He’s willing to go die with Jesus.
This guy Thomas is bought in, folks. He belongs to Christ and is willing to follow him anywhere, into anything and through the worst. Maybe we can understand his moment of doubt in a better light when we understand the depth of his love and devotion to Jesus. Later when he watches his Lord die, he must have been crushed. The idea of his resurrection must also have been a desirable idea, but… trusting the words of his friends?
He’s already lost so much, felt the hurt so deeply, he’s not ready to trust their words and dare to again hope. From the man we know in our passage in chapter 11 this Doubting Thomas could as much or more easily have been labeled Daring Thomas, Devoted Thomas or DareDevil Thomas, willing to give his all to Jesus. And by the way, so ya know, Jesus didn’t label him Doubter, and neither did anyone in our scriptural witness. We did this to him. We, his legacy of faith through the generations, labeled him I suppose for his worst day, his doubting day.
We saddled him with Doubting instead of Daring or Devoted. In a similar vein we’ve done worse to Mary Magdalene through the years. All we know from scripture for sure is that Jesus cast demons from Mary and then she was his devoted, faithful disciple. The Apostle John even names her as the first to witness the empty tomb of Jesus. But we through the centuries have most often rewarded her faith by associating her with a nameless prostitute in another Gospel story. We have often needlessly associated her with sexual sin. By our scriptural witness, she has no specific sin at all, neither a failure of moral or doctrinal nature, attributed to her… but we needed to do that for some reason. We needed to label her Sinner and Adulteress.
What drives us to do this to one another? Why do we need to see one another in the worst light? Jesus didn’t do this… he sets no example of relating to people in their worst moment or identifying them by their failure. He sees people in their best light, sees into their best nature and loves them deeply. That love led him into hostile territory in our Gospel story… Bethany wasn’t safe, but he was determined to be with his hurting friends. And when he arrived, and Lazarus had died, Jesus weeps with his friends.
Maybe standing next to Jesus as he wept Thomas put his hand on his Lord’s shoulder to comfort him? Maybe Thomas held Mary or Martha, Lazarus’ sisters, in their moment of grief and weeping? Thomas was there in the middle of it, because he followed Jesus anywhere and everywhere, and Jesus was in the middle of it. Daring. Devoted.
Think back on some of those labels you carry with you. Specifically, now… think about the negative labels you’ve been given, or maybe have even chosen for yourself… in your mind, name them… do any of us carry something similar to dumb, undeserving, stupid, inadequate, loser, cheater, liar, thief, unworthy, fake? These labels, when given to us or even chosen by us, are not our true selves. Those labels, even when they have been earned, are not who we are.
Martha and Mary both say to Jesus, “…if you’d have only been here…” But Jesus is not late. He reminds the sisters that he has a few labels of his own: I am Resurrection and Life. Martha adds a couple more in a beautiful statement of faith: Messiah, Son of God. And Jesus is going to take that label of “dead” that clings to Lazarus, and tear it away. “Lazarus, come out!” Because if Jesus is Life and Resurrection, then so also is Lazarus, and so are we.
If Jesus is Resurrection and Life we are also Resurrection and Life! Jesus will tear away the worst of the labels we own and replace them them new labels of Goodness and Hope. He does it so many times in Gospel stories: the Unclean and Untouchable become Clean, sometimes they even become Dinner Guests and Hosts. Paul echoed this to the church in Ephesus when he wrote: “You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient… But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus…”
Recently in a Gospel reading (in John 4) we saw Jesus chatting with a Samaritan woman at a well! This woman who seemed in several ways to be labeled Unfit or Undeserving of that conversation with Jesus suddenly finds herself labeled Fit and Welcome by the Messiah. She would even become Prophetess and Missionary, bringing her whole village out to the meet and believe in Jesus.
A few chapters later in John chapter 8 Jesus will famously draw in the sand as some accusers drag a woman caught in adultery to him for judgment. She is labeled Sinner and Guilty, and seems to have earned those labels, being caught in the act. Jesus labels her Un-condemned, Loved and Capable. He sends her back to life with renewed energy and purpose.
Can you imagine how it must have felt to be either of those women, relabeled by love in the presence of Jesus. Can you imagine how it felt to be Lazarus, when the label of Death is remade into Life? Now maybe you want to say to me, “Todd, dead is not a label for Lazarus, he’s dead, as in dead.” And you’re right, he’s physiologically dead, not just labeled so out of spite, but sometimes aren’t we? Maybe we aren’t physically expired, but our souls feel dead, our spirits crushed, our emotions flatlined and others may view us as unworthy of more life, of better life, or full life. We acutely feel the label of unworthy, dead.
Jesus preached a familiar and oft quoted line in his Great Sermon as recorded by Matthew: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the Law and the prophets.” What would life be like for us, for those around us, if we applied that sentiment to the labels we use? Jesus sets an example for us of applying labels that give life. He looks into the lives of the people around him and loves them, and he labels them by that love. He sees them as the best of who and what they are, and he names them as such. And he treats them as such.
Oh, to have someone ignore my worst day, when I fail so miserably, and remember me and call me by my best day. Perhaps I haven’t even had that best day yet, but I think Jesus would still see me for it, name me for it, label me by it. Because the same power that called Lazarus from the grave can awaken my soul, revive my spirit, and re-energize my life, as he calls me Beloved, Redeemed, Sought After, Worthy and Alive.
And this can be scary! Jesus said to roll back the stone and the people protested, “Jesus, it’s gross in there. It stinks.” I can feel the same way sometimes, “Jesus, don’t come to close, I’m just not always what I seem.” But he is not deterred. He says, “Come out to life! Be who you were made to be!”
God has labeled us with love before we earn it, deserve it or even seek it. God has chosen us for love. You are called Alive, Wanted, Worthy. You are Beloved and Welcome. When we are called into his kingdom and mission, this is a gift we receive and then give to those around us who are mired in the death-dealing labels which steal their joy and true identity.
I will remember Thomas for his Daring Faith, not his Doubting Faith. And as God sees me, the best of me, and calls me Beloved, so will I strive to see you and all humanity, in your best. And I with God will call you such: Beloved. Worthy. Amazing. Beautiful. Needed. Valuable.
I have a short favorite poem/prayer I’d like to share with you in closing, written by a Jesuit Father, Michael Moynahan called “Broken Record”. I often turn to it when labels offered to me by this life or by my own failures begin to cloud my memory of how God has labeled me, how God has called me. It’s a prayer of remembrance. It’s a prayer of our truest self and our truest label. It begins briefly as spoken to God, but then shifts to be God speaking to us. Since you can’t see that shift indicated in the text I’ll signify it by raising my hands as God begins to speak in the poem…
You see our sin / as symptomatic stutter,
self-effacing struggle / to ignore
the confounding reality / of Your willful vulnerability:
“I love you
because I can’t do anything else.
I made you,
every last part of you:
all that’s hidden
and all that’s revealed,
all that’s muddled
and even all that’s clear.
at the risk
of repeating Myself,
dear to Me.
You are precious
in My eyes
you are Mine.
That’s enough for Me.
And it will have to do / for you.
Wrestle with it / until you get tired
and then relax / and give in.
Take a deep breath / and enjoy.”