I Am Loved
A sermon preached by the Reverend Jered Weber-Johnson
Saint John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
Saint Paul, MN
September 11, 2016
In my house or around the church it is not an uncommon to see me worriedly striding from room to room looking anxiously for the thing I had just had in my hand. Whether it is a piece of paper of my cell phone, my keys or my coffee cup, I am always losing something. If one were to tally up the most commonly used phrase in my communication with my wife, my hope would be that “I love you” would be at the top of the list. But, right behind it would be “Erin, have you seen my _____????!!!???”
I know there are now locator chips you can use to find your phone and even your keys or the remote, but my problem is that there isn’t enough money in the world to buy all the locator chips to keep track of the things I am continuously losing. If I was a Catholic, you might find me praying more regularly to Anthony, patron saint of lost objects!
And, when I do find my coffee, or my phone or my wallet, which 99% of the time I do, I am usually relieved and happy. And in my happiness, I am inclined and often do invite our neighbors over for a sumptuous 5 course meal replete with fine wines and expensive steaks…Right? That’s what we do when we find things that have been lost?
That’s what Jesus seems to imply that this is normal. “Which one of you” he asks, which one of you having lost a coin of the 10 you had, upon finding it does not invite over friends and neighbors for a celebration? He asks it as though the logical answer is, yes, all of us. Who among you having lost a valuable sheep leaves the 99 unprotected and alone to wander and goes in search of the 1? The true answer is none of us! When I find my keys I don’t then, in my joy and gratitude, loan the car out to the neighborhood! That is the thing, none of us hearing this parable can relate to it. These two parables are not consistent with the logic of the universe and human behavior. When we find a coin we place it in safe keeping where it won’t be lost again. We are pragmatic. We run the numbers. We count our losses and keep going.
Of course, Jesus isn’t just talking about coins and sheep. He has been accused of welcoming lowlifes and ne’er-do-wells, tax collectors and notorious sinners, those whose wrongs and mistakes were as easy to see as the torn clothes on their backs. And, upon hearing the accusations of the righteous, Jesus tells these parables. They are a preamble of sorts to the parable of the Prodigal son. You see, Jesus isn’t talking about lost objects and the joy one might feel in recovering them. Jesus is talking about lost people and the joy we would rightly feel in reconnecting with them. And, what’s more, Jesus is less concerned here with describing the logic of the world, how you or I might behave when something or someone is lost. Jesus is describing the logic of God whose love for us knows no bounds.
I hadn’t been long at a previous church when one of the longtime members pulled me aside to give me what he believed was an important history lesson about the parish. Once upon a time, he said, there had been quite a crowd of erudite and important members of that church. The membership, he told me, had changed over the years, but there had been a time when the pews were stocked with wealthy business men, politicians and community leaders, those who were not just connected to the halls of power in this world, but those who actually occupied those halls themselves. I was a new priest, and I chose to keep my counsel then and not respond, but I wish I had. There was no ill intent in that observation, but it reflected a wrongheaded and theologically suspect view about a bygone era when we were important and powerful and significant. I’ve not been a priest all that long, but this notion of our lost significance has emerged again and again throughout my ministry – the hearkening back to when we had cache and clout and relevance – when donors gave as much or more to the church than they did to private foundations and political campaigns. But, those days are gone. Whatever power the church had is lost to the past. But, that nostalgia for what was lost is still with us. And, its not a mystery as to why that is. Most of us, if we are honest with ourselves want to seem like we have our stuff together, we want to appear to be happy and well-adjusted and successful. And, most of us would like to associate and be associated with others who are happy and well-adjusted and successful. We have a hard time revealing that which is lost and broken and hurting inside, often just below the surface. Sometimes, too, we don’t even see that we are lost, that our struggle to appear perfect and righteous is in fact part of how we are losing our truest most lovable selves.
It is a sad fact that the church is sometimes the place where people are least able to see just how in need of salvation they truly are, just how much each of us is in need of healing and welcome and love. In part, that is why this year we are inviting the whole parish to remember again that Great Commandment – Love God. Love Neighbor. But, as with most of life, it isn’t really that simple. If we are going to Love God, the clearest way we can do that is by loving our neighbor. But, if we exist in segregated communities, where our neighbors are really just those who look and act and think like we do, then we won’t really truly be able to live out the ethic of neighbor love. In order to love God and our neighbor, we must know God and know our neighbor. We will need to reach deep into our experience and into the stories of scripture to see that the definition of neighbor extends to those who, like today’s gospel lesson implies, are the lost, the broken, those whose mistakes are easy to see, those who are different from us. And then in order to truly love these, we will need to know what love really means. We will need to remember when we were lost and then found. We will need to connect with those times when in spite of our brokenness and mistakes, when grace was extended to us. We will need to spend time dwelling in the memory of how we were floundering or at our wits end, and someone threw us a lifeline. When were you loved?
One of my favorite internet memes shows the rear end of a sheep clearly stuck headfirst in a deep hole and a man is tugging on the legs of the sheep until it pops free – and it says in big block letters “Some days, Jesus has to shepherd me like this!”
When were you lost and found? When did the shepherd have to leave the 99 and come find you? When did you know you were loved?
I want you to take a moment and call to mind that moment or person or place or thing that really reminds you that you are loved and lovable.
Our belief is that when we do tap into that memory that understanding of how we are loved and worthy of love, that such a knowledge holds great power to transform us and the world around us.
Some of you may remember a story aired on NBC a couple of years ago when a reporter decided to turn a social experiment into an investigative piece. They decided to give $100 to a homeless man, a panhandler on the street, and see what he would do. They followed him for a few blocks, and when he entered a liquor store and emerged a few minutes later carrying a brown paper bag, the reporter admits he felt confirmed in his assumptions that the money would only go to waste. The camera continued to follow the homeless man, and what he did next shocked the reporter and viewers alike. Entering a park the man reached into his paper bag and began distributing from it small bits of food for the homeless men and women gathered there.
Presented with a windfall, this man proceeded to share out of his abundance.
The story captures some of the logic of the parables in today’s gospel what it means to be lost and found. What it means to be grounded in a deep understanding of love and being loved. What the generosity and unfailing grace of God looks like.
We do not eat and drink with the lost until we come to see that we too are lost. We cannot welcome the broken until we come to know that which is broken in us. We cannot share love until we know what it truly means to be loved.
You are loved.