Welcome Sunday, September 15, 2019
The First Congregational Church of Cheshire
© the Rev. Dr. James Campbell
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable: “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? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 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.’ 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. “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? 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.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
Back in 2014, when I was in the midst of my doctoral studies, I had scheduled some one-on-one phone time with my academic advisor to discuss the direction of my thesis. She was a very busy woman and not wanting to waste her time, I had made some careful notes to guide the conversation. But just a few hours before that conversation was to begin, I realized that I had no idea where I had put those notes. I began my search rather calmly, sifting through the papers on my desk at home and looking through my notebooks. But each search proved fruitless. And so my searching became more frantic. And the self-talk began: “I must have put them some place safe – so safe that I now cannot quite remember where.” But that self-talk quickly turned to this self-talk: “You always do this. You’re always putting things some place so safe that you can’t ever find them.” And finally, it turned to this: “You’re such an idiot.”
In a last ditch effort; I emptied out all of the contents of my bag, in the vain hope that those notes were stuck to something else. But they weren’t. Once that bag was empty, however, I noticed all the schmutz in the bottom of it. Where does all that stuff come from: lint and tiny pieces of paper and bits of prehistoric breath mints? And so I opened the guest room window of our fourth floor New York apartment and held the bag upside down, giving it a vigorous shake. And that was the precise moment when I remembered where my notes were: they were on the flash drive that I had forgotten to take out of my bag before shaking it; the flash drive that was now plummeting to earth, landing on the roof of the commercial space that fronted our building.
It was early morning and I was not yet showered or dressed: bed head, bad breath – the whole nine yards. But in that moment, I could have cared less. I needed that flash drive. And so I ran down the stairs and to the security guard station and told them what had happened. “Speak to the construction workers,” the security guard said. I did, but a construction worker told me that the supervisor would not be there until 8 am. “Oh please,” I begged him, “Let me go on the roof. That flash drive has my whole life on it.” He only hesitated a second before he said: “Come with me.” The next thing I knew, I was inside a construction zone, climbing a ladder in my flip flops and running across the roof of a Citibank. And there it was – glistening in the sun like a treasure. “Thank you very much,” I said to the rather bemused man. “I really appreciate this.”
How sad that I could not extend that same kindness to myself in that moment. I could not relish having found what was lost because I was too busy reproaching myself for having lost it. “Oh, that was really stupid,” I muttered all the way back home.
Why was I so upset? Because I had been so very human. And it is human nature to lose things. Our lives are so busy and complicated and full of possessions that how can we not lose things? But take heart, fellow losers, because even God loses things sometimes.
One day, the religious folks were complaining that Jesus was hanging out with all the wrong people. “What kind of prophet is he,” they whispered, “eating and drinking with sinners and tax collectors?” And in response, Jesus did his Jesus thing and told some memorable stories: “Which one of you,” Jesus asked, “having a hundred sheep and losing one would not leave all the others and search for the one until he finds it? And when he finds it, he nuzzles it and puts it on his shoulders and carries it home. And then he calls all his friends together to help him celebrate. In the same way,” Jesus said, “there is more joy in heaven over one who repents than the ninety-nine who don’t need repentance.”
And then Jesus pushed the envelope even more by referring to God in the feminine: “What woman,” Jesus continued, “having ten silver coins and losing one of them, does not light a lamp and sweep every corner of the house until she finds it? And when she does she calls all her friends together for a big party saying “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.” “Just so,” Jesus concludes, “there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
Traditionally, these stories have been interpreted primarily as stories about repentance. But while repentance is certainly a theme of these stories, I don’t think it’s the main point and here’s why. The lost things in these tales are not capable of repentance. A sheep can’t understand that it was wrong to wander off after tastier grass. And a coin is an inanimate object that just happened to roll under the sofa through no fault of its own. And since repentance in the Christian tradition is about a change of heart and a purposeful decision to turn and walk in a new direction, how can the main point of these stories be repentance?
Some scholars suggest that these are really not stories about us at all, but instead are stories about God – and more specifically, about how God responds whenever lost ones, like us, are found.
God’s reaction to finding lost things is very different from mine. I can’t really enjoy the discovery because I’m too lost in self-recrimination. But God’s reaction to finding the lost? God throws a party. God rejoices. God sings. God dances. God laughs. Notice that Jesus said that when sinners repent, there is joy in the presenceof the angels. So it’s not the angels who are rejoicing; it’s God. Biblical scholar Frederick Buechner goes so far as to say that these parables ought to be read as jokes – jokes about the outlandishness of our God who will do anything to find us, and does so laughing all the way. A laughing, party-throwing God: is that how you imagine God responding to your lostness? Or the world’s lostness?
Today we begin another year of our work together – a work that is almost 300 years old. And ours is a rather serious work, given the state of the world. And when your business is so often so serious, it’s easy to forget the joy. It can seem disrespectful to laugh and celebrate in the midst of a world of pain. But God does God’s holy work of saving the world, and us laughing all the way. And that makes me wonder, sometimes, about the kind of God people experience when they visit us. Is it an angry God? A dour God? An outraged God? Or perhaps, worst of all - a boring God?
Sometimes I fear that our worship is a little boring and we’ve just learned how to live with it. Sometimes I worry that some of us so concerned with not becoming a happy/clappy church that we forget to be happy at all; to laugh at ourselves and to delight in the God who laughs with us, even as that God is finding us.
There used to be a banner on the website of the Old South Church in Boston, that read: “Old South Church – a place where life is too short for long-faced religion.” Maybe that was their way of saying to Boston what Jesus said to Palestine 2000 years ago, and what I hope we’re saying to Cheshire in 2019 and far beyond: that our God is a laughing God, who delights in us and our potential to shine in this world like a precious, found coin.
Thanks be to God. Amen.