"When she has found it"-Sermon for Proper 19, Luke15:1-10
I will begin with a quick side note, which is that the sermon that follows, was inspired by the Pulitzer Prize winning novel “The Overstory” by Richard Powers, which Ashley and I listened to together while on vacation this past summer. It is a novel about trees, and I highly recommend it. But it is not just about trees…it is about the interconnectedness of all living things in God’s creation…the beautiful biologically diverse earth…in which trees and creatures and humans are forever rooted together, through the power of love, into a great community of all living things.
So…if measured by mass the largest living organisms in the world are aspen trees, whose colonies of clones can grow up to five miles long. The largest of which, named Pando, which is Latin for “I spread out”, is located here in the United states in Fishlake National Park in Utah. Groves of aspen trees may look like a collection of individual trees, but in fact they are one massive organism that share genes and a ginormous root system out of which sprout above ground stems, which are what we perceive as individual aspen trees. Though it, indeed, began as a small seed that we could hold between two fingers, Pando is thought today to weigh a collective 6 million kilograms, covering 106 acres, and is an estimated 80,000 years old, making it one of the oldest living organisms on earth. Though, I will say, its age is up for debate in the scientific community, with some believing it is as much as one million years old.
And I begin this morning by lifting up aspen tree colonies like Pando to simply say that one of the fundamental building blocks of all living things in God’s creation, which allow life to thrive, grow and be healthy, is in a word: community. With the aspen tree colonies, when one particular stem…or what we, again, perceive as an individual tree…is diseased or badly damaged and dying, the root system below ground can take all of the nutrients and water that are left in the dying stem and redistribute all that life-giving goodness to help nurture new saplings or bolster other areas of the colony that are suffering because of drought or climate change or grazing. Thus, giant groves of trees are created and thrive through the millennia, capture carbon and release oxygen into the air that we humans breath, provide homes and food for almost countless numbers of living creatures, from mammals to birds to insects…all of this life is made possible and, I will add, God’s creative genius is made known, through a great web of interconnectedness…a great collective colony of trees…connected below ground…sharing a common life…literally rooted together into a life-giving community…and all of it…every single stalk, branch, and leaf contribute to the well-being and survival of the whole…nothing is wasted and all of it matters…and not for itself alone…but the whole ecosystem and all the creatures that call Pando…the one who stretches out…home.
And though the word community is not found in our gospel reading today…I believe community is at the heart of the matter. Community is what Jesus…the one who stretched out his arms of love on a tree so that the whole world would be drawn together into God’s divine and eternal community or, more intimately, God’s love rooted family…it is, in my mind, community that Jesus is ultimately and finally addressing in the parable he sets before us this morning. Now a word that does show up in our gospel lesson in several places is sin and sinners. And we can think of sin in several different, helpful and appropriate, ways. Sin is what flows from self-centeredness or unhealthy self-involvement…that leads to actions or decisions that harm or manipulate others for our own advantage or comfort or pleasure. And there is what we might call Original Sin, which is tied to both our mortality and moral fragility…that is the physical or spiritual decay that is written in our bones that leads to the sorts of actions or decisions that we might describe as sin. And both, again, are helpful and appropriate ways to think about sin, for to not name and consider sin in these ways, surely makes us more susceptible to its real power in our lives. But another way that scholars and theologians talk about sin is as separation. Being separated or cut off from God, the great lover of our souls, and being separated or cut off from the communities in which God’s love is present…those families of faith that bind us together, grow us more into the people God has created us to be, and support us in the life-long work of combating the power of sin…our ancient foe.
Therefore, Jesus’ parable is, of course, not really about losing or being separated from a sheep or a coin. Instead, it is about people who have become separated from the whole…from their community. And I note that Jesus does not spend really any time considering what led to the separation in the first place. It is not that it does not matter…it is just not the primary purpose of this parable. For we know that people become separated from God, from loved ones, and from loving and life-giving communities of faith for all sorts of reasons…maybe too many to count. People are separated from God and the various communities that make up God’s living and incarnate body on earth by choice…by their own hurtful actions and poor decision making. People are separated by the, even understandable, disillusionment and darkness that follows a tragedy or significant loss. And, people are separated from faithful communities because the communities themselves have driven them away. All communities, even those who attempt to keep God and God’s love at the center of their common life, are made up of humans…humans that are, again, susceptible to sin and brokenness. Thus, too often, communities, not that different than ours, unjustly alienate their own family members and participants…because of disagreements of all sorts…like the interpretation of scripture or disapproval of a particular life-style…who they love…how they vote…how they see, understand, and move in the world. Separation seems so sadly to be almost a matter of fact in human life, which almost always leads to decay and loss and even, at times, a sort of death…for all involved. Sadly, this is true even for living things as massive and old as Pando, which is actually now dying, as it has been separated from habitat and life-giving and much needed resources by climate change and human development.
So, as I read Jesus’ parable, it seems his primary focus is to remind us of the utter importance of reconnection…when for whatever reason the sin known as separation has occurred…for the blame game is really almost never worth playing. And, further Jesus calls us to this work of reconnection or reconciliation even when it requires real risk taking and diligent effort. For I believe the shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep to find the one…is to clearly name for us that if even one person is lost from the community or our lives…even just one is separated from the whole…she or he is worth taking a risk to reclaim…like the shepherd was taking a real risk when he left the 99 behind. And I believe the story of the women using valuable resources like a candle at night, which was a very valuable resource in the first century, and her work of scouring her home is to clearly name for us that if just one person is lost from the community or our lives…even just one person is separated…we should leave not a single stone unturned in the work of finding the who is no longer with us. Like Pando, we must stretch ourselves out to bridge the gap…whatever the distance may be and whatever obstacles stand in the way…between us and the one from whom we a separated…like our very lives depend on it…for in small and sometimes huge ways…they do. And Jesus suggests as much for he concludes his parable by saying when our communion is renewed…when our bonds of affection are reclaimed, when the community is made whole and relationships are finally restored…that we should rejoice…even throw a party…for there is joy in the presence of the angels of God.
Which leads me to a final, simple and maybe obvious question…from whom are we separated…and if we can honestly face and begin to let go of the hurt that so often surrounds ruptured relationships…which is indeed required for authentic reconciliation…what might the first baby steps look like to once again grow together. I ask this question of us personally…thinking about our own families and network of friends…and I ask this question of us collectively…as St. Julian’s. And, of course, both will look different…for us individually specific faces and names may come to mind…people we know very well, even intimately. And, for us collectively…it might look more like people groups…those whose culture, ethnicity, life-style and beliefs might feel somehow incompatible or disagrees with our own. So, again, who do we need to name and set before our hearts and minds today, and what internal, spiritual work do we need to begin in ourselves to be able to spread ourselves out over the distance that has grown up between up us and those who, for whatever reason, we are now separated and disconnected…even if in the beginning we are just planting small seeds that might lead to a new life together. Remembering that even something as massively intricate and profoundly connected as the ecosystem that is Pando began as something we could hold between two fingers. Amen.