Fifteen years ago tomorrow, on September 12th I sat down with my clergy colleagues, as we did every Wednesday morning, to pray together, to read over the lessons for the coming Sunday, to share insights about the Scriptures, and ideas about preaching. But of course, this Wednesday was different: we were all still in shock over the attacks the day before; we all had friends, neighbors, parishioners who had not returned home and whose death was presumed. Because we were in Bergen county we were able to hear the fighter planes that patrolled the airspace over the George Washington Bridge – so eerie in the otherwise empty skies.
We wondered how in God’s Name – literally – could we get up on Sunday and preach. What in the world would we say? And then we looked at the lessons, the very same ones in front of us this morning, and I was stunned by the passage from Jeremiah. It seemed as though the prophet was describing the scene in lower Manhattan: “I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light. I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking, and all the hills moved to and fro. I looked, and lo, there was no one at all, and all the birds of the air had fled. I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert, and all its cities were laid in ruins.” It was as though God was speaking to us directly about what had happened, about the destruction, about that suspension of reality that we were living through and continued to live through in the days and weeks following.
In those weeks so many searched and hoped for news of friends and loved ones. In those weeks we wondered when and if New York would be able to pick up the pieces. In those weeks, we took stock of ourselves and our society and wondered what had been lost, and we struggled valiantly not to be overcome by fear, by hatred, by an aversion to the stranger and the other – because that would mean the terrorists had won, and evil had triumphed. Do not be overcome by evil, St. Paul writes, but overcome evil with good (Romans 12:25).
So here we are, fifteen years later, with those same passages from Jeremiah and from Luke: the Parable of the Lost Sheep, and the Parable of the Lost Coin. Whether we are remembering what happened on 9/11, or thinking about some other anguish elsewhere in the world – Syria being the most prominent recent example – or we have in mind some personal situation that threatens to undo us – Jeremiah captures the sense of destruction and desolation, the loss of hope and purpose and reason.
And then we put the Gospel reading alongside Jeremiah. The two parables are word paintings, pictures, stories Jesus tells about what God is like. God is like a shepherd who goes searching for that one sheep who has wandered away and become lost, gotten into trouble, hanging by a thread. He risks leaving all the rest of the sheep to go after this one – not because it is special, or more beloved, but just because that is the way God is. God is the Shepherd who searches for the lost, who knows the flock – the People of God, the Beloved Community – will not be whole without all the sheep.
God is also like a woman, Jesus says, who has ten coins; maybe they are her life savings, her nest egg, her dowry. One goes missing. She searches relentlessly – spending precious resources to light an oil lamp in the daytime, sweeping every nook and cranny – until she finds the lost coin. And then she calls her neighbors together for a party, to celebrate with her, so that they could share in her joy and relief. That which was lost has been found.
That is what God is like: searching relentlessly, unstintingly, pursuing us, seeking us when we are lost and out of touch, and cut off from love and wisdom and goodness. And God rejoices and throws a party; all the saints and angels in heaven are invited – God doesn’t want to have this party alone! What had been lost has now been found, and is safe in God’s keeping.
You might think that if we have been lost spiritually, morally, in terms of human decency and relationships, that when we are found by God, when we come to our senses and turn around (the real meaning of repentence) that we’d just try to slink back home, tail between our legs, hoping that God and everyone else wouldn’t notice too much, or at least not say anything. The very next section in Luke chapter 15 is the Parable of the Prodigal Son – and that’s exactly what he tries to do – but God (the father in that parable) will have none of it. There is a party, a celebration.
The people in Twelve Step groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous know something about being lost…and being found. And they know how to celebrate! The anniversary of a person’s sobriety is celebrated by the group at thirty days, at ninety days, at six months, at nine months, at a year, at eighteen months, and every year after that, because they know the difference between being lost and being found - all the difference in the world.
We all have ways that we get lost – in greed, in willful ignorance, in fear, in rigidity, in manipulating others, in dishonesties large or small, in shutting down our feelings, in viewing life through a lens of criticism and judgementalism, in loneliness or pain or grief. And in our lostness, God does come and search for us – tirelessly, relentlessly, sometimes camping out on our door step just waiting for us to open the door a crack, and let the light of his love seep in.
On this fifteenth anniversary of September 11, there are still many scars; there are wounds that may never fully heal; there are new tragedies and terrors that continue to take place in our personal lives and throughout the world; there is always the temptation to give into hatred, fear, and revenge. But there is also this: God loves us like that shepherd searching for the lost sheep. God loves us like that woman who searched for her lost coin. And we are here – able to find and be found by God – today, and every day, and for all eternity. That is worth celebrating, indeed.
God is good/All the time; all the time/God is good.
God is good/All the time; all the time/God is good.
God is good/All the time; all the time/God is good. Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Episcopal Church
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 11, 2016
*Photo from National Geographic