Sermon: Seek and Celebrate

16 September 2007

The Rev. Jennifer Whipple
Congregational Church of Brookfield (UCC)
September 16, 2007

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Seek & Celebrate

Luke 15:1-10

Prayer:   “May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts and minds here together be acceptable to you, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.”

        A few weeks ago my husband Ryan was here painting one of the church school rooms next to the Fellowship Hall Kitchen.  He walked into the kitchen and saw a set of keys on the windowsill.  “Did you know there is a set of keys out here?” he asked.  “Yes, they have been there for months now,” I replied.  “Well, why doesn’t someone put them in the lost and found?”   Then the other night we emptied out a container that I had brought home from here.  And he asked me if it was ours.  I told him that it wasn’t, that I had borrowed it and needed to return it to the church…that it was an unclaimed container from down in Fellowship Hall that had been there for months sitting with the other unclaimed containers.  He turned to me and said, “Wow!  The church is just one big lost and found!”

             I thought about that for a second, and I saw it in a bit of a different light.  You see, we put things in the lost and found all the time, and some of them are claimed while others remain there to this day.  But perhaps we can say that the idea of the lost and found can pertain to the people God gathers together in church communities as well.  I believe that there are points in all of our lives when we are seeking…when it feels like we are lost—even sometimes despite the fact that on the outside we look like we are well held together.  Many folks who attend church services, whether it is something they have done for their whole lives or just for the first time today, say that they are seeking something.  They are seeking the answer to a burning question. They are seeking God and what God wants for their lives.  They are seeking the opportunity to search with others, instead of on their own.  And there are also points in time when we are celebrating.  God has sought us out, brought us to the right place, and we are able to share our joy with the others around us.

             Have you ever lost something?  If you are like me, then the answer is “yes.”  How much energy did you expend to try to find it?  I lost $40 when I was about nine-years-old, which then was a fortune to me.  I had hidden it in order that my brother, who is four years older than me, would not find it.  Well, I apparently hid it very well, because some day my parents might find it – and I am sure they will be happy!  Now I spent some serious time looking for that money, and as far as I know it still lives in my parents’ house even though I don’t.  And as time went on, I decided that something else was more important, and I gave up the search.  $40 is something that you can give up searching for, but our scripture for today reassures us that people are not.

             That is what I love so much about the reading from Luke.  On the surface, of course, it seems that the stories Jesus shares are about a shepherd and his sheep, a woman and her coin.  People who don’t care how long it takes them to search, how much energy they have to expend, or how crazy they might seem to everyone else.  They never give up searching for the things that are valuable to them.  The shepherd leaves the other 99 sheep in the wilderness to find the one that is lost, and the woman completely tears apart her house – searching every corner until she finds that one coin.  Not only do they not cease searching, they actually invite people to come celebrate with them once they have found what was lost – the woman more than likely spending more than the lost coin was worth itself on a celebration for her neighbors and friends.

             But below the surface these stories speak to us about our relationship with God – about God’s concern for those of us who are lost, about our own helplessness at times, and about God’s desire to bring all of us into the fold.

             These parables are a response to folks who were pointing the finger at Jesus.  The Pharisees and other religious leaders were criticizing Jesus as they watched him gather with the tax collectors and sinners – men and women of “doubtful reputation” as one translation of the Bible puts it.  “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them,” the Pharisees accused.  They were basically saying that there are some people—those who are too far lost-- who are outside the limits of God’s mercy – God’s loving-kindness, God’s care, God’s grace.  And yet the parables speak to the idea that, even though some people may see it as foolish on God’s part, God invites all people into the realm and flock.  God’s mercy breaks through all of our human ideas about who is deserving or not, and builds communities of service, growth, and care as a result. 

              One commentator wrote that Jesus’ contemporaries were staggered by His preparedness to share His table with sinners.  [That] His practice was not invented by the early church.  My response to this statement is that Jesus’ practice invented the early church!  Jesus’ mission was not just for perfectly devout folks, but it was and continues to be for all people – no matter what gender, lifestyle, race, age***.  We are reminded of the story about the adulteress woman who was brought to Jesus for punishment by the religious leaders in her town. Jesus’ response to them, and to us, was and continues to be, “You who are without sin cast the first stone.”  After all, if Jesus was not willing to eat with sinners then he wouldn’t have been able to eat with his own disciples – who themselves were tax collectors and the imperfect.  Who would he have to share dinner with…who would any of us have to share a meal with? 

              Jesus’ Parables were connected to the concept and reality of the Kingdom of God – its gracious advent, its disturbing presence, and its challenging implications.  These lessons called people to interpretation, to study of the world and situations around them, to a new way of thinking, living, and caring for others.  These parables called people to faith, to trust and hope in God, to find what it was that was perhaps missing in their lives and to change their sinful ways as well – to resist the evil in the world and to make choices for love and justice.  Through the relationship that was built in learning from Jesus, the parables called people to repentance.  They do the same for us today.  

             I received a comic via e-mail the other day from one of the folks here at church.  It was a picture of a woman in a fur coat with a fancy purse in hand sitting across from her pastor.  Underneath the picture it says the following, “I’ve never been good at repentance, Pastor.  I’ll just let you use my condo during August, and God can call it even.”  Ahh…there’s that word…repentance.  That tends to be a word that we hear a lot about during the season of Lent perhaps -- a word covering many biblical ideas that range from regret to changing your mind or behavior to become a more ethical or moral person.  The Hebrew word for repentance, “teshuba,” expresses the idea of turning back, retracing one’s steps in order to return to the right way.  While the Greek word, “metanoia,” expresses the idea of turning back but also of changing one’s mind and coming to a new way of thinking – to realize what it is that we each do wrong – the things that are hurtful to ourselves, others, and God, and to change our way of thinking and acting.  And Jesus’ parables promise God’s forgiveness to those who recognize their sinful ways.

 Hand in hand, we hope, with repentance is forgiveness.  How good a feeling is it when you are forgiven for something you have done that has harmed someone?  Or when you are able to forgive others?  Michelle Bruzesse, a regular contributor to “Sojourners” magazine, writes the following about forgiveness.  “Forgiveness is a powerful and necessary source of renewal, and through it we are called, again and again, to new life.  Through it, we are also given the means to be sources of new life to others.  The one who has been forgiven also forgives much.  Our church, as a Church of the Imperfect, must model God’s mercy and love to the world.  We who have been mercifully treated have no reason to remain in exile, and every reason to forgive others as we have been forgiven.”  We have no reason to remain in exile.  Even if we feel like we are lost or undeserving – like the shepherd searching for his sheep or the woman tearing through her house looking for a coin – God seeks us out, and God celebrates with us when we turn around and when we come home.

 In Max Lucado’s reflection entitled “Behind the Shower Curtain” he writes the following.  “Story after story.  Prayer after prayer.  Surprise after surprise.  Seems that God is looking more for ways to get us home than for ways to keep us out.  I challenge you to find one soul who came to God seeking grace and did not find it.  Search the pages.  Read the stories.  Envision the encounters.  Find one person who came seeking a second chance and left with a stern lecture.  I dare you.  Search.  You won’t find it.  You will find a strayed sheep on the other side of the creek.  He’s lost.  He knows it.  He’s stuck and embarrassed.  What will the other sheep say?  What will the shepherd say?  You will find a shepherd who finds him.  Oh boy.  Duck down.  Put hooves over the eyes.  The belt is about to fly.  But the belt is never felt.  Just hands.  Large, open hands reaching under his body and lifting the sheep up, up, up until he’s placed upon the shepherd’s shoulders.  He’s carried back to the flock and given a party!  ‘Cut the grass and comb the wool,’ he announces, ‘We are going to have a celebration!’  The other sheep shake their heads in disbelief.  Just like we will.  At our party.  When we get home.  When we watch the Shepherd shoulder into our midst one unlikely soul after another.”

 You see, God searches for us, calling our names and asking us to come back – trying to center us on what is most important, guiding us along the way…Last week Bryn preached about God as the potter who creates us, who searches for us when God feels that we are lost, and who places demands on our behavior when we return.  Our lives are the handiwork of God, and God does not want to see that handiwork broken or see it go to waste.  God asks us to search for that better way of living – to search for what gives us hope or keeps us going. God calls us to celebrate when we find what it is that we feel has been lost – when we are able to turn ourselves back to that which is right and good.  God helps put us back together in community when we feel like we have strayed or been broken.

             The parables from this morning’s scripture are about losing something precious and taking space and time to regain it.  They are about straying from the safety and guidance of God and living a godly life and then turning back at the sound of God’s voice calling out to us in our own wilderness.  So this is the good news for us this day, for we who are lost and found – who are seeking and celebrating…It is an amazing gift to us that we have a Creator who walks with us, searches for us when we have fallen off the path, gives us second and third and tenth chances,  and celebrates with us when we return!  Through God’s grace we are able to see the error of our ways and to repent…and we are forgiven.  Let us not take that amazing grace for granted.  Amen.


 “God wants to find us as much, if not more, than we want to find God…guidelines of the spiritual life – pray always, work for others, read the scriptures – and to avoid the temptations to dissipate myself…The question is not ‘How am I to find God?’ but ‘How am I to let myself be found by God?’  The question is not ‘How am I to know God?’ but ‘How am I to let myself be known by God?’  The question is not ‘How am I to love God?’ but ‘How am I to let myself be loved by God?’  And finally, the question is not ‘Who is God for me?’ but ‘Who am I to God?’”  From Henri Nouwen’s Spiritual Direction





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