“St. Anthony, St. Anthony, come around, come around. Tell us who’s lost. Who needs to be found?”
OK, I know that’s not the way the traditional prayer to St. Anthony of Padua goes, but I got your attention, didn’t I? And I think it’s a legitimate question when we consider today’s Gospel. Who is lost, and who needs to be found?
In the chapters before this reading in Luke, Jesus has been hanging out, eating and drinking with the wrong sorts of people. He’s also been stretching the boundaries of proper religious behavior. Remember the shocking Sabbath healing of the bent woman in the synagogue a few weeks ago? Some of the stories he’s been telling as he teaches and heals on his journey to Jerusalem reveal God’s realm as a pretty topsy-turvy world.
In the chapter just before this, Jesus tells of a great banquet where the invited guests make
excuses and don’t show up, so those on the edges of that society–the crippled, the blind and the lame– come to the party instead. And if you were in church last week, you’ll remember Jesus’ last words in that Gospel reading: “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” Ouch. That didn’t sound like good news to me!
So this morning, we hear two of Luke’s “lost and found” parables, one about a straying sheep and another about a coin that’s gone missing. You heard the Gospel a minute ago. Did you notice who Jesus was speaking to? Listen again…
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So Jesus told them [these] parables…Who did Jesus think the “lost” were?
Who is lost and who needs to be found?
These two parables are familiar to many of us—I’ve heard them often, over the years—maybe you have too. For a long time, I thought that the “lost” were “the others”— those who had gone astray—and Jesus was encouraging us, his followers, to go searching for them, and bring them back to church, where there would be much rejoicing.
But I think I was wrong. What if the Pharisees and the scribes were the “lost” ones?
What if we, sitting here in these relatively comfortable pews, what if we are the lost ones?
What if we are the ones who have missed the point?
In Jesus’ time, the Pharisees and scribes, in their quest for holiness and perfection, had gotten lost in in the thicket of all those rules and regulations. The bright coin of their passion for God was dulled by the dust of their piety. And Jesus called them on it.
In our day, I wonder if we might be caught in the briers of our busyness, the thicket of our things, or maybe dulled by the dust of apathy.
The key to these two small, homely, parables is the word “repent.” Here and in other places where it is used in the Christian scriptures, it doesn’t mean just feeling sorry for what we have done. The Greek word “metanoó” – metanoia–translated here as “repent,” means something very different.
It means more than just feeling regret. Metanoia means to change our way of thinking.
It’s about action. It’s about transformation. This is what Jesus wanted for those religious authorities that day in long ago Palestine, and it’s what he wants for us today. Metanoia for us means a radical change in the way we see our faith and how it intersects with the world.
The Christian belief in the incarnation—the concept that God took on our human flesh and lived among us as Jesus—is at the very heart of our faith. It’s the scandal that sets our Christian faith apart from all the others. But the incarnation isn’t just about those 33 years of Jesus’ life, 2000 years ago. Jesus is alive today in each of us. We are Christ’s body in the world. It’s really not enough for us just to come here on Sunday mornings, leaving Jesus behind when we leave-If that’s all our faith means for us, we are cheating ourselves.
In a few minutes, we will commission six parishioners who have chosen to become Stephen Ministers.
In 50 hours of training, they have gone deeper in their faith as they practiced the skills needed for this important ministry of caring. In the weeks and months we’ve been together, we’ve shared our stories, prayed, laughed and cried together. All of us, both trainees and leaders, have gone deeper in our faith. Bobbie and Nancy, Kathy with a K and Cathy with a C, Peggi and Rick have each been transformed by this growth. We Stephen Leaders have seen this happen before our eyes.
These six are now equipped to be Christ’s Body in the world in a new and different way, and I think God must delight in in this as we do.
This morning, 15 years later, I can’t help remembering the events of September 11, 2001.
Just a month before those planes struck the towers, Peter and I had completed our move to York from Greenwich, Connecticut, home to many who make that daily commute into New York City. From a beach in Old Greenwich, we could see that city’s skyline, always dominated by those iconic twin towers.
During our 13 years in Greenwich, we sang in the adult choir of the large Episcopal church in town. There was a woman in that choir I honestly didn’t like—I’ll call her Shirley. Shirley just seemed to rub me the wrong way. She seemed self-absorbed, stubborn, shallow, and she had a mean streak that came into play when she didn’t get her way. I confess–I was happy to leave her behind when we moved here.
But after the terrorist attacks, I heard that she had begun to travel into New York City almost daily.
She had joined the volunteers at St. Paul’s Chapel, right next to the ruined towers, caring for those who were searching for bodies in the rubble—feeding them, listening to them, providing comfort.
In March of 2002, Peter and I returned to Greenwich for a visit. I was curious—I couldn’t envision Shirley in this new light. So I called her, and she invited us to come into the city with her for a day. And what a day it was. Yes, it was hard to fathom the suffering in that place—the smoke was still rising from the ruins of those proud towers.
In front of St. Paul’s, there was a long wall of memorial cards and flowers left for the dead.
And the anguish etched on the faces of the exhausted workers tore at our hearts. But seeing Shirley hard at work in that place brought a song to my heart.
With my own eyes, I saw a transformation in her—the self-absorbed, shallow, mean-spirited Shirley was gone. In those months, she had become Jesus’ hands, feet and heart in that place. She was still stubborn—but for a better cause. Shirley had been forced to go deeper in her faith, and it showed—her heart was on fire with both passion and compassion.
Isn’t this how we each want our hearts to burn? With compassion and love for our brothers and sisters, both near and far?
Yes, there are risks with the kind of transformation that Jesus offers us—when we reach out to that shepherding God from our various thickets, we can’t know just where the journey will take us. But our new Stephen Ministers will find strength they didn’t know they had as they companion others who are struggling. And my friend Shirley found real health and true healing for herself, even in that place of deep suffering and sorrow.
Jesus invites each one of us to become part of the topsy-turvy world he calls the “kingdom of God.” He is always searching for those who might be stuck in a thicket or lost in a dusty corner. The choice is ours—do we stay stuck in old ways of thinking, or do we reach out and risk the transformative change that only God can give? Will we open our hearts to the persevering and transforming love of God?
Let us pray–
Lord Jesus, find us. Find us in the thickets and dusty corners of our lives. Take our hands and work with them; take our lips and speak through them; take our minds and think with them; take our hearts and set them on fire with love for you, and all your people. Amen.