"In the presence of the Angels of God"-A Sermon for Proper 19, Luke 15:1-10
So welcome to a new program year at St. Julian’s. Today we begin our most regular Spiritual Formation Programs, which happen weekly on Sunday mornings between worship services…for all ages. Beginning at three years of age specifically, we strive to provide substantive and relationship centered opportunities to learn and grow together…to become…as I so often say…more and more...for the Christian life truly is a journey and not a destination…so become more and more the people and community that God is calling us to be…that is a people and a place that reflect something, not perfectly of course, but reflect something of the character and nature of God revealed to us most profoundly in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus…that is to reflect something of God’s breathtaking beauty, something of God’s hope-filled wonder for our world, perhaps most simply said something that looks a lot like love…like people providing care and healing for one another when inevitably in crisis or transition, people learning about and practicing actually living the way of Jesus, people building spiritual friendships of substance that deal with disagreement in healthy ways, people who seek to “love all well”…including those who live beyond our own family of faith who are in need or who look, live, and believe differently than we do.
And here’s the thing, becoming the people I describe, both individually and as a community, happens through a process of being shaped over time and with intention into the Christ-like love spreaders…who we both are even now…but even much more so…who we are becoming…again think of the Christian life as a journey more than a destination. And this work of being intentionally shaped into something that reflects the character and nature of God who is love…is the primary purpose, the ultimate reason that we as St. Julian’s exist. We are not here to only create an institution bigger than ourselves that might out live us. We are not here simply to build beautiful buildings and sacred spaces. We are not here to provide a living for our clergy and staff, though I am very grateful for the life this church indeed provides me and my family. We are not here to give folk something to do on Sunday mornings that feels useful. We are not here to mitigate our guilt for wrong doings or simply push back against the fears that rightfully emerge from an uncertain future. We are not even here primarily to do good deeds which bless ourselves and others...especially those in need…like a really great not for profit…only with pretty vestments and inspiring music. Now the truth is we do all of those things…and they usually are all to the good…Godly even…but only to the end that they support the main thing…our ultimate purpose…the reason we really exist. Which is of course, to be and become…to be and become. To be and become…people and a place…shaped with intentionality into the Beloved Community…God’s own…Christ-like love spreaders. God’s Church is us…it is people…human beings…who indeed meet in particular places and do particular things…but it is always us…people…people being and becoming…more and more like Jesus…in our work places, classrooms, homes, shopping malls, grocery stores, volunteer centers, and of course our church…everywhere we are. One of my favorite quotes that I often share comes from the early Church Father and Bishop, Irenaeus, who famously wrote, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” And for me this sums up so well…our purpose, the main thing, the reason for the things we do in this place…to become fully alive…like the One who even death could not keep from being fully alive…Jesus…the one we seek to know and be so very alike…through all we do in this place.
Now this is my opinion of course…but being fully alive, that is being and becoming the Christ-like love spreaders that God is shaping us into, is worth seeking after…it is worth prioritizing…it is worth even sacrificing for. As St. Paul so eloquently says, “What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him…I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.” I don’t think I, Miles, could more eloquently express this desire in me…to strive toward being and becoming the person God is calling me to be and become…the fully alive Miles…who knows Jesus so intimately that to be like Jesus in my willingness to love all well comes without thought or even work…but just who I am…not that I have arrived by any means…but indeed I make this my goal and press on toward it.
Which takes me to our Gospel lesson, to Jesus, the one I want to indeed know and be more and more like. He shares with us two short parables about sheep and coins. And these two parables have appropriately been interpreted, perhaps most often, as stories exemplifying God’s extraordinary love and grace extended to each one of us and every person God has made. In the first parable, a sheep becomes lost, separated from the herd, and the Good Shepherd will go to whatever lengths required, whatever sacrifices required, to find the lost sheep. The Shepherd will not give up, never give up, until the sheep is found and returned to the safety and care of the herd and the sheep fold…always under the watchful eye of the Good Shepherd…who notices when a sheep indeed becomes lost. And in the second parable a woman has lost a valuable coin and despite the fact that she has nine others lights a lamp, oil being both expensive and precious in those days, a proceeds to turn the house upside down to find it. The woman will not give up, never give up, until the coin is found and put back in its rightful place for safekeeping…so that it can be used…not lost…but used for its intended purpose…providing safety and sustenance for the family. And I love how in both parables once what was lost is found, at the point of reconnection, of regathering, the restoration of what is intended for both sheep and coin…there is rejoicing and celebration…a party ensues. For what was lost is found…and indeed this is worth celebrating. And again, perhaps an often considered interpretation of these parables is that God seeks after each of us in same way. God, like the shepherd or woman, when we are lost, separated from the herd, the family of faith, if you will…when we are separated from a life-giving relationship with God ourselves…when we feel alone, cut off, isolated, use-less, wrapped in darkness and fear…God through his own alive and active Spirit or even through his hearts and hands that we call the Church, that’s us, will diligently, intentionally, sacrificially seek after the one that is lost not giving up, never giving up until the one that is lost is found…returned home…returned to safety…reconnected with those who love them and to whom they belong…their meaningfulness and usefulness is reestablished…they become fully alive again…and indeed rejoicing and celebrating rightfully follows…on earth as it is in heaven. This seems a good and fair way to interpret this parable…you might even agree…and it fills my with heart with joy and gratitude. God will never leave us, never forget about us, and always seeks after us.
But…and here’s that great theological word again…but today I want to flip the story on its head. I want to think of us as the shepherd or the woman…who have a lot of great things in our lives. We have probably lost a few things along the way…a sheep or a coin…or whatever you like…but we still have lots to be grateful for…we could probably even be content with the other 99 sheep the other 9 silver coins. Not all of us…but most of us…have a roof over our heads, a school or job to head to each day, friends, families, hobbies…a lot that might suggest a search for what is lost…for what is missing…and the challenge, time, and sacrifice that might be required with mounting such a search and rescue mission, might not be worth the hassle, worth what might or might not be found…carpe diem…let’s live for this day…be content with where we are, with what we have…and more to the point with who we are…who we are right now…not focus on what could be or what might be missing…instead settling for what is. But Jesus’ parable says to us no…that is not enough…you have not arrived…you are incomplete…something is missing…the journey is not finished…I am not done with you yet…there is still some being and becoming for you to accomplish…so start seeking…begin or continue your journey of discovery. Moreover, that which is lost, that which we are called to diligently, intentionally, sacrificially seek after is God himself. We may still have a lot of other things, maybe even a lot of other good people in our lives…and please note…they all still remain after what is lost is found…they are a part of the party…but God and the surpassing glory and joy that is knowing him, being with him is what makes everything else in our life altogether wonderful and fully alive…a life worth living. Thus seeking after and indeed finding a life-giving relationship God…which always requires diligence, intentionality, and sacrifice…and honestly happens over a lifetime…is the main thing, our purpose, the reason we exist…it always leads to rejoicing and celebrating and a life lived fully alive. And the good news is that we are more of a search party, than on a solitary quest…we do this seeking work together…so not just for us individually but for the whole church this seeking and discovering which shapes us into God’s Beloved is again the main thing, our purpose, the reason we exist.
Which takes me back to the place I began reflecting on…a new program year. Today, to me, seems a pretty good time to commit to this seeking journey together. For all we do here, at St. Julian’s together, all that our building and ministries and money collectively support, is worship and spiritual formation and friendship building and learning and prayer and service to others…which are the time tested and God given means, the tools, the gifts given to us to seek after the living God…and in the seeking and in the finding…we are indeed shaped more and more...we become more and more…the Christ-like love spreaders God is calling us to be. It requires diligence, intention, and sacrifice…the journey requires you to make it a priority in order for it to be rewarding…finding first requires seeking…and this looks like prioritizing weekly worship, like participating in Christian Education on Sunday mornings, saying your prayers each day, reading the bible, attending spiritual formation workshops and retreats, getting to know the people you worship with, breaking bread together, caring for each other, and participating in our ministries that work to make life better for those in need…we call it outreach…and it also looks like inviting people to church…inviting other people to join us on our own journey of discovery…for in my mind we need others to fully live into our main thing.
And what I feel confident in proclaiming today is that this seeking journey is awesome…totally worth it…though it indeed requires diligence, intentionality and even some sacrifice…perhaps some reprioritizing of time and resources…it leads to discovery, for Jesus promises that if we seek we will find, it leads to living a life that is fully alive…that is shaped over time into something that looks like Jesus…that matters and makes a difference…and that there is much rejoicing and celebrating…lots of parties, and some tears, ahead of us…here on earth…at St. Julian’s…just as it is in heaven. Perhaps today is the perfect day, whether for the first time or the hundredth, for each of us to commit to this journey that shapes us, the journey being and becoming…like Jesus…together. Amen.