Seek. Find. Joy. Repeat. [OR What’s Up in the Lost and Found?] Luke 15:1-10 and 1 Timothy 1:12-17

**sermon art:  “Lost Sheep – Lost Coin” by Kazakhstan Artist Nelly Bube.

 

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on September 15, 2019

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Luke 15:1-10  Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3 So he told them this parable: 4 “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? 5 When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 7 Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. 8 “Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? 9 When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ 10 Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

1 Timothy 1:12-17 I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, 13 even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, 14 and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 15 The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost. 16 But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life. 17 To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.

[sermon begins]

My son made me a bracelet.  The class assignment had to be an original design and solder two kinds of metal together.  He chose copper and silver, balanced symmetry and asymmetry in the design, soldered and sanded the metals, and presented me with the finished product.  The bracelet had a toggle clasp to hold it on my wrist.  A toggle clasp is cool looking, but it can slip loose if you jostle it just so.  On my way home from Costco one day, hands in that 9-and-3 on the steering wheel, I realized it was no longer on my wrist.  Almost home, I ran my groceries inside and headed back to Costco where I retraced my path.  Didn’t find it.  Went to customer service and, lo and behold, someone had found it and turned it in.  I could NOT believe it!  Happy-happy-joy-joy!  A small thing but a whole lotta love embedded in it. Search. Found. Joy.  (And, yes, toggle clasp out, new clasp in.)

Joy is one of the highlights in the gospel reading today.  The shepherd rejoices over the lost sheep (v6).  The woman who finds her lost coin, a day’s wage gone missing, rejoices with her friends (v9).  And we haven’t even gotten to the story of the Prodigal Son that comes in the next verses and completes the trifecta of lost and found things in the next few verses.[1]  Take a peek at Luke 15 in the pew Bible in front of you.  Note how chapter 15 ramps up the lost stories each time.  There is so much joy that it can’t help but be shared. The shepherd who finds his sheep “calls together his friends and neighbors” inviting them to rejoice with him.  The woman who finds her coin “calls together her friends and neighbors” inviting them to rejoice with her.  The father runs wildly to his returning son, kisses him, kills the fatted calf, and celebrates with a dance party.

Friends, neighbors, and households are not the only ones partying in these parables.  Jesus adds that there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.  We heard a bit about the joy of the angels in our Confession and Forgiveness at the beginning of worship today.  We heard that “For the sake of Jesus Christ ☩ your sins are forgiven” and then were invited to “rejoice with the angels at this good news.” Now THAT is a cool image – angels celebrating on our behalf. It’s counter-cultural to jump into anything with a confession of wrongdoing on our lips.  So much so that some people ask why we have a part of our worship that makes us sound so bad.  I argue that we start with the truth and the truth is that we can be as dumb as that sheep, as slippery as that coin, and as disobedient as that son. We’re sinners and we know it.  Sin is deeper than the hurtful things we do to others and ourselves. Sin is the breach, the distance, that is between us and God. Sin has us thinking we can save ourselves by finding ourselves.

Along the line of finding ourselves, a tourist group in Iceland lost track of a fellow traveler at a volcanic landmark.  A search was organized once the woman was verified missing.  50 members of the tour group joined the search while the Icelandic coast guard scrambled a helicopter.  They searched well into the night until one woman in the search and rescue group realized that everyone was searching for her and told the local police who called off the search.  It was about 3 o’clock in the morning.  The problem occurred when she had broken off from the group earlier in the day to change her clothes.  Her description was generic enough that she didn’t recognize herself in it.  The news headline was spot on:  “Missing Woman ‘Finds Herself’ After an Intense Search.” [2]  It’s a perfect headline for our topic at hand, really.

The language of “finding ourselves” is an old one.  We thrive on thinking things through to the essence of self.  Tony Hoagland’s poem, “Among the Intellectuals,” gets at this tendency to think things down to the last thought.  He describes being “thought-provoking, as if thought were an animal” to be poked with a stick.  After illustrating his own experience of intellectual posturing, he writes:

Inevitably, you find out you are lost, really lost;
blind, really blind;
stupid, really stupid;
dry, really dry;
hungry, really hungry;
and you go on from there.[3]

The poet’s words strike a chord in the current culture of snark posing as savvy and irony masquerading as intelligence.  The dizzying intellectual acrobatics leave in their wake a longing for earnest joy and hoping for a moment of the absurd and even ridiculous.  Sublime is good but sometimes silly is what’s needed.  And that’s what we get in Jesus’ parables.  Jesus asks, “Which of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?”  You know what the answer is to that ridiculous question?  No shepherd would do that.  It’s absurd to even consider leaving your livelihood of 99 sheep in the wilderness to hunt down a single lost sheep.  Then Jesus asks, “…what woman having ten sliver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it?”  The answer?  No woman would spend more money on lamp oil worth more than the coin she is looking for.  It’s ridiculous even to consider being that wasteful.

Jesus’ parables don’t leave the lost to find themselves.  Lost things simply don’t have that kind of capacity.  The seeking begins with God – from the cosmic to the particular in the person of Jesus; from Creator to creation to creature; from God to us.  God is not irresistible.  Many of us wander off, slip away, or run from God.  Our self-centeredness knows no bounds.  But God relentlessly pursues us through Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection.  And God’s joy is exuberant when reconciliation happens between us and God.  Joy is part of God’s character and the angels rejoice in kind.

Finding the lost, no matter the cost, makes the angels jump for joy with the one who searches and finds.  One wonders if the search and the celebration cost more than the lost objects were worth.[4]  In that regard, the opening line of the gospel reading is even more compelling.  “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to [Jesus].”  Not just some. All. Not only the tax collectors. Also, the sinners. It’s an absurd excess of people.  I’m sure the grumbling religious elite WERE perturbed by the party crashers. But imagine what the sinners and tax collectors felt by being included around Jesus’ table. Just for a moment, imagine their joy. If imagining the joy of the sinners a stretch, take a look at Paul writing to Timothy in our second reading today.  Here he confesses to perpetrating violence. Elsewhere, we are told he was killing Jesus followers.  Then he had a come to Jesus moment.[5]  He had his own story of being lost and found, his own story of joy.  I’ve heard some of your stories including your joy.  There’s nothing like those moments of being found.

Rarely is being found a once and done experience.  Oh sure, our baptisms happen once.  But the experience of being in a push me/pull you with God happens over a lifetime. Often the stories defy being put into words that make sense to other people although I’d argue we should keep trying to find those words.  Often our own stories parallel elements of Jesus’ parables either by being dumb as a sheep, slippery as a coin, or disobedient as a son. Sometimes, our stories include all three.  Our joy at being found is a drop in the bucket of the joy of God who searches for us, risking God’s whole self in the search.  We are never beyond God’s relentless grace.

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[1] Luke 15:11-32

[2] Casey Glynn. “Missing Woman ‘Finds Herself’ After Intense Search.” CBS News. August 30, 2012. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/missing-woman-finds-herself-after-intense-search/

[3] (Many thanks to John Pederson for posting this gem.)  Tony Hoagland (1953-2018). “Among the Intellectuals.” The New Yorker: September 2, 2019. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/09/02/among-the-intellectuals

[4] Amanda Brobst-Renaud, Assistant Professor of Theology, Valparaiso University. Commentary on Luke 15:1-10 for September 15, 2019. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4165

[5] Acts 9:1-19

What’s Your Longing of Faith?  [OR Making It Through the Day] Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16 and a teaser from Luke 14:1, 7-14

**sermon art: A Cubist Prayer by Anthony Falbo

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on September 1, 2019

[sermon begins after the Bible reading; see Luke reading at end of sermon]

Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16   Let mutual love continue. 2 Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. 3 Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. 4 Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers. 5 Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” 6 So we can say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?” 7 Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. 8 Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.
15 Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name. 16 Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.

[sermon begins]

What do you need to hear today?  Deep down. What’s the longing of faith that’s hard to name?  I was recently talking to some people underneath a clear starry night in the mountains – when the moon is brand new and the stars pile up on each other in the darkness.  The Milky Way is so vivid that it seems like you could reach out and touch it.  Looking up at all those stars, you realize that some of them no longer exist as we see their light reaching us. It can feel like good perspective to look up and take in the magnitude of the universe.  Perhaps our problems or experiences are right sized in the context of the millennia that fill the sky.  Or, as it was pointed out to me in the ponderings of the group, perhaps an alternate experience is wondering if anything matters when confronted with the magnitude of time, stars, and night sky.  These are the big questions that run deeply for many of us when we get a chance to pause in the face of something so much bigger than ourselves.  These are the kinds of questions that send people into mind-bending philosophy degrees.  I love that stuff and can get lost in it for hours.  But what’s become more urgent in the last several years is what people need to make it through their day or maybe their week.  That’s my longing of faith. The preacher in the book of Hebrews seems similarly concerned.

This is our last week of Hebrews readings in the latest run and the verses are the next to the last verses in Hebrews.  I went back and re-read this short book to listen to the arc of the sermon.  It’s intense!  That preacher is lit up!  There’s ongoing concern about perfection – better translated as completion.[1]  What makes the Hebrew church complete?  Okay, yes, Jesus, who in the book of Hebrews is our sympathetic high priest who knows what it means to struggle being human so he also understands our struggles.[2]  More specifically though, the church is made complete by each other – people given to each other, for each other and the world, by Jesus our high priest.  You see, hope by way of faith is a major longing in Hebrews too.  The preacher asks, how do we hang onto faith and live a life of hope?  By hanging onto community.  A better way to say it may be hanging in community.  Faith is difficult to do as a solo effort.  Heck, life is difficult to do as a solo effort.  I can’t count the number of times that I’ve heard somebody say, “I don’t know how people make it without a church.”  From the outside, that statement can be confusing.  People regularly make it through all kinds of things without church.  The essence of the statement is heartfelt, though. To say it personally, I don’t know how I would make it without church.  The preacher in Hebrews doesn’t know either.

There was a lot coming down for the listeners of Hebrews.  Violence directed at them in particular, and violence in the world in general made life incredibly difficult and made faith hard to hold onto in the meantime.  Here we share similarities at least in the violence in the world.  Watching the gun industry placed ahead of human life is repeatedly tragic.  Watching immigration policy dehumanize our most vulnerable neighbors is disturbing.  Watching healthcare costs work against wellness for patients and families is impoverishing.  You get the picture.  For some of us, this means getting into the fray of advocacy and working with policymakers and voters to change how we treat each other through laws and practices.  For others of us, this means tending the sick, working on marriages, and visiting the prisoners.  Not so very different, really, from our first century Jesus followers in the book of Hebrews.

Amid everything going on for the listeners of Hebrews, there was a preacher who was trying to focus the community on the main things.  The main things in Christ.  The main things in each other.  And the main things around them.  Shanna VanderWel, our Minister of Youth and Family, says it this way in the latest video that launched on Friday.  Shanna hopes Augustana’s children and youth have a place to be their authentic selves, become friends, serve others, and have Jesus as their center – breaking down barriers caused by stressors that they might have in life.  She’s keeping the main thing lifted up for those kids and families as they live their lives of faith in the church today.[3]  It’s important to remember that many of the significant preachers in our lives aren’t necessarily the ones in Sunday’s pulpit.  Shanna’s hope for the kids sounds a bit like the Hebrews preacher.  Summarizing the Hebrews preacher sounds like this: continue mutual love, show hospitality to strangers, live free from the love of money, do good, share, confess faith, and praise God.  These words are the final appeal about growing in faith amid difficult times when it might be easier to fade into isolation outside of community.

As Lutheran Christians, we depend on the promise that Jesus shows up in the waters of baptism and in the bread and wine of communion.  That’s the baseline promise of our sacramental theology.  It’s a bigger leap for some of us to say that Jesus shows up in the people of the church, the body of Christ.  The Hebrews preacher urges showing up for each other in mutual love because Jesus is in the people around you.  Not as perfection but in real, human frailty and in real, human hope – in the body of Christ.  It’s an even bigger leap to start talking about angels.  There it is in Hebrews.  Show hospitality to strangers because you could be entertaining angels unawares.  More than a cool notion, this call to hospitality suggests the possibility of the divine in our most human interactions.

The new Evangelism committee is forming.  We’ll be focusing on two things.  The first is reaching out and inviting.  The second is welcoming and including.  Connecting into community can feel tricky to newcomers who made a visit or two to Augustana online and liked what they saw there.  More difficult is figuring out how to meet people and to have conversation beyond greeting each other in worship.  Next week, between worship services, we’ll be repackaging beans and rice for Metro Caring.  The week after that we’ll be started Faith Formation for all ages – from our littlest littles to our eldest elders.  You’re invited into those community experiences as we grow in faith and go serve in the world.  The connections we build with each other help us make it through this life and sustain our hope.

Ultimately, though, our hope as we long for completion is the reliability of Jesus Christ.  Jesus, in the gospel of Luke, calls out the ladder climbing shenanigans of our wider world and calls us into community with each other. Jesus is the one who challenges our use of each other as social capital and connects us to each other in the living body of Christ that we call the church. He knows we need each other to make it through our days and weeks.  The preacher in Hebrews echoes that call into community around Jesus Christ who “is the same yesterday and today and forever.”[4]  Thanks be to God! And amen.

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[1] Matthew L. Skinner, Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN.  Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 1, 2019.  Sermon Brainwave Podcast on https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1171

[2] Hebrews 4:14-16

[3] “Growing in Faith: Augustana’s Youth and Family Ministry.”  Video launched on August 30, 2019.  Produced by Ken Rinehart Media.   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_OVD_lhRbtw

[4] Hebrews 13:8

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Luke 14:1, 7-14  On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.

7 When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. 8 “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 9 and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, “Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. 10 But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, “Friend, move up higher'; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. 11 For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” 12 He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14 And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”