Sermon, September 11, 2016

Rejoice with Me, For I Have Found What Was Lost
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder
The Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ,
Bradford, Vermont
September 11, 2016 Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
Psalm 51:1-17; I Timothy 1:12-16b; Luke 15:1-10

Today’s gospel passage begins with an extremely important detail. It says, “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.” Tax collectors and sinners were social outcasts, they were lost, and yet here they were, seeking to be found.

The 4th Century theologian Augustine wrote, “You have made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.” Modern theologians like Paul Tillich have defined sin as a condition of separation, separation from God, from our neighbor and from our true self. We all belong in God’s realm. The tax collectors and sinners had restless hearts that were drawn to a message of God’s unconditional love, forgiveness and welcome. They must have been deeply moved by the good news Christ preached that the shepherd was out looking for the one lost sheep and rejoicing to bring it back home to the flock.

The power of the early church was not that it was full of virtuous and respectable people. The power in it came from how restless, how even desperate its members were to follow Christ’s way and enter God’s realm of mercy, justice and peace. They needed the loving, beloved community of the church that welcomed them just as they were and helped them become better people. This is the same power we see today in 12 Step groups where every member knows how much they need the salvation and personal transformation the group offers. This is the same power that we as a congregation experience at our best.

We love one another here not because the people around us are perfect or pious or just like us, we love and welcome one another because we all have our struggles, we all experience heartache, we all get angry or anxious or depressed, we all make mistakes, we all have our addictions, little or large, we all stray from Christ’s way and get lost sometimes. We love one another as we are, we listen, we have compassion, we walk together, and those of us with experience passing through the valley of the shadow of death back into the light offer comfort and encouragement to those who are wandering in the darkness.

One of the most powerful moments in this congregation’s history happened fifteen years ago when the town of Bradford gathered here after the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001. We all were lost in those terrible days. We needed one another, and we knew it. People found comfort and courage and a vision of God’s realm in this sanctuary. They found the light that shines in the darkness that the darkness cannot overcome.

Jesus repeats in today’s passage, “Rejoice with me, for I have found what was lost,” first about the one sheep and then about the one coin, and he ends, “Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” Sinner means anyone who has been separated from God or neighbor or self, and the word repentance is metanoia in the Greek, meaning a change of heart, mind and soul as a person turns to God after having been turned away.

We can look back on that gathering in this sanctuary shortly after 9/11 with rejoicing at the solidarity we found here even as we remember the shock, fear and grief, the feeling of being lost, that brought us together.

The Book of I Timothy begins with the Apostle Paul saying, “I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence…. 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. 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.” Paul was terrorizing and murdering followers of Christ before his metanoia on the road to Damascas. Paul praises the God who saves and welcomes into his realm people as lost as he was.

This is the same rejoicing we hear in the hymn Amazing Grace. John Newton was a slave ship captain. He transported the Africans, who had been kidnapped, including kings and queens, doctors and priests and common people who loved their homes and families. Worse than just transporting, he was essentially the commandant of a death camp. The Africans were stripped, chained and crammed for two months in a dark hold where they were physically abused in ways that make today’s terrorists seem civilized. John Newton was speaking from a broken, healed and changed heart when he wrote, “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see.”

The truly amazing thing about the realm of God is that it is not only open to everyone, it seeks out especially those who seem hopelessly lost—sinners, outcasts, traitors, oppressors and even terrorists. Our work will not be done and the realm of God will not be established on earth until all are in its beloved community.

The kind of joy that Paul and John Newton felt at the grace that saved and welcomed them was only the first half of all that Christ has in store for us.

Thomas Merton was a 20th Century Trappist monk. He wrote today’s prayer of confession about feeling lost in his own life. He also wrote an essay about the earliest Christian monks who felt lost in the violence and decadence of the Roman Empire. Merton wrote, “Society…was regarded by them as a shipwreck from which every single individual…had to swim for his life.” Those monks gathered in desert monasteries and rejoiced in their experience of God’s grace and beloved community just as we did in our sanctuaries after 9/11 in the midst of a world of troubles.

Merton goes on to say that they “did not merely intend to save themselves. They knew that they were helpless to do any good for others as long as they floundered about in the wreckage. But once they got a foothold on solid ground…they had not only the power but even the obligation to pull the whole world to safety after them.”

This is the second half of our rejoicing when we who were lost are found. King David stole Bathsheba from her husband, Uriah, and then David had Uriah killed. David is believed to have written the 51st Psalm after turning in remorse from his terrible wrongs. He writes about both kinds of joy saying, “Restore to me the joy of your salvation… Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.” The first joy is to receive welcome in God’s realm, the second is to turn around and welcome others who are as lost as we were.

Paul not only had the joy of being saved, he had the greater joy of founding churches that welcomed thousands of other lost souls. John Newton found not only the grace that saved him, but also the joy of helping thousands of others join the beloved community of Christians working to abolish the slave trade. The 12 Steps begin with metanoia, when lost souls turn to God and the group, and they end in the 12th Step saying, “having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message” to others who suffer from addiction.

If you have ever been lost in any way and felt the church welcome you and rejoice in your presence here, if you have ever been sick or suffered a loss, if you have ever been anxious or depressed, if you have ever felt despair at the condition of the world or over a conflict in a relationship, if you have ever come here with a heart aching for the suffering of someone you love, you know the power that this church has to comfort us and help us find a way through our hardest times.

Christ is telling us in today’s passage that once we get a foothold on this solid ground we have “not only the power but even the obligation to pull the whole world to safety.” There are restless hearts around us that we can help find rest. There are people as distressed over troubles in the world today as they were fifteen years ago, and we can offer them this small outpost of God’s peace and unconditional, all-forgiving love.

As the Statement we read today says, we aspire to be “a church family where everyone feels welcome and at home, appreciated and supported, where we take the love we find here out into the world, and where people want to participate because the church makes a positive difference in their lives throughout the week.”

Being this beloved community is one of the best things we could possibly do to help a lost world or a lost soul. We have so much to rejoice over, and so much joy to share. Let us pray in silence, lifting the wordless fullness of our grateful hearts to God, knowing that God is rejoicing over us right now…