Exodus 32:7-14; Psalm 51:1-11; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10
September 11, 2001 at 8:46 am, American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into floors 93-99 of the North Tower of the World Trade Center. We try to bury the memories and emotions of that tragic day, only to have them resurface. It all SEEMS like a dream and a distant memory, but under the charade of our busy lives a wound remains, and a call to respond waits to be answered.
Those events shook us to the very core of who we are as a people, and changed us in ways we do not yet understand. We seem so disoriented as a people, like little lost sheep. For instance, racism is on the rise in our nation, old world power struggles are re-emerging, poverty and the disparity of income is growing and thus, we are divided now more than ever. We live in fear, panic, and terror and we avoid vulnerability, because we have been attacked. That wound has squelched our creativity, our openness to diversity and change, and we are truly lost, but even in our disorientation there is great hope.
Jesus Searches for Us
In Luke’s gospel reading, the writer tells us that Jesus was eating with sinners and tax collectors. Luke tells us that, “the Pharisees and scribes, (the religious insiders) were grumbling about Jesus’ dinner guests saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” The so called “good folk” were appalled that Jesus would reach out to those on the margins versus coming to the aid of the cream of the crop. Jesus had compassion even for the insiders and told them a parable about lost sheep and lost coins, both things of immense value. The hearers of the parable heard from Jesus that “God always seeks us out and reaches out in love for those of us who are marginalized, those who are suffering, those who are lost, and those who need a rescue of the heart and soul.”
A shepherd left the flock and went after one solitary sheep in order to bring her back, then celebrated when she was found. A woman had nine other coins, but she searched the whole house until she found it, and then threw a big party to celebrate. These sound like quaint little stories, but they tell us that in God’s eyes those who have strayed away, those who have lost their way, those who are marginalized, those who are wrestling in tragedy are of immense value to God.
God wants us in right relationship with God and each other and so, when we stray from grace, God does not seek to punish us, but like the woman and shepherd, he frantically goes out searching for us. God does not merely seek out the good and faithful churchgoers either. Remember, Jesus ate a meal with the outcasts (tax collectors and sinners), and shared grace and mercy and compassion through his presence, even when the “insiders” turned their back on them. However, listen closely to the story, because Jesus was trying to liberate the lost outcasts, but he was also trying to liberate the “insiders” as well; the Pharisees and scribes.
The religious ones complained, but Jesus wanted to liberate them from their bigotry and divisiveness toward the least, lost, and lonely by teaching them how to love and live using coins and sheep as the example. Here is my point, whether you are an insider or outsider, Jesus is the ultimate seeker of the lost, the boundary-crossing rescuer of the soul, and the “no one is left out.” Jesus is the ultimate first responder of heart and soul. We saw glimpses of that kind of love in the rescue work of those brave women and men, firefighters, first responders, and police officers, who nearly 19 years ago faced death to save others.
Tragedy then and now
Maybe some of you were there in the heat of the city that day and witnessed first-hand the bravery and courage of those who served. Compassion and mercy and love compelled folks to face death in order to rescue the injured and the lost, all powered by the grace that comes only from God. We live in gratitude that we survived that tragic day, but we must never forget, never forget, that there are equally devastating attacks being heaped on people’s dignity nearly 20 years later in our nation, in our local communities, and in our families today.
Read the headlines and watch the news, or better yet, look around you. There are so many people whose lives exist in the crumbling walls, fiery heat, and unimaginable devastation of bigotry and racism. Equally, every day people are suffering from the unfair loss of a job, the death of a loved one, a terrible illness, the brokenness of a relationship, clinical depression, or the drudgery of unfulfilling work. All of these are real tragedies and the pain and anguish can often be as bad as the destruction we saw on September 11, 2001.
For some of us, we may either deny this reality, and reject that we have a part in turning things around, or we may just be afraid to take action. I thank God there are folks who strap on their mercy backpacks and go out seeking the brokenhearted. I thank God there are folks who enter into the dark places of life and take with them basic provisions of the heart, blankets of restoration and reconciliation, dry clothes of compassion, and the refreshing waters of healing and solace. I thank God there are folks who take off into the burning buildings of pain to seek out those who have found themselves in the midst of loss.
I thank God there are rescuers, but the truth of the matter is this, the first responder ranks of the heart and soul are few, and many of the first responders themselves are in need of rescue. However, there is great hope and so, let me explain. I read an article that stated that St. Paul’s Episcopal Church New York became the focal point of a remarkable effort to support the workers at nearby Ground Zero after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Hundreds of volunteers ministered to firefighters, construction workers and others working in what they called “the pit.” Think about it, even the rescuers needed saving that day. Even those who brave the fire and destruction at times lost coins and lost sheep, and the prophet Isaiah reminds, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way.”
Lost Sheep become Rescuers
When I think of lost sheep, I imagine cute little lost lambs that seem so unaware of the dangers that await them. I was a like that at one time, a lamb who left the safety of a faith community thinking I could do it all on my own without the church, or so I thought. I left the flock choosing to manage faith all on my own. However, I learned that beyond the bounds of Christian community awaits the potential for confusion at best, and self-destruction at worst. I bet all of us have at some point have become disoriented, disillusioned, and disappointed with church and felt like we were covered in the heap and ashes of life. Then, at other times in our lives, the Spirit called us to step up and serve as brave, courageous, and compassionate ones who serve to rescue the lost, just like Jesus does. Like our Great Shepherd, we are invited to strap on a backpack filled with compassion, trudge through the dark places of life, and relentlessly seek those who are outside the community.
On September 11, 2001, first responders left the safety of St. Paul’s, and went back into burning buildings over and over again to rescue those who could not find their way. They never gave up. I find it ironic that sometimes the church, the recipients of grace who have been found and returned are satisfied with the solace and rest of community, satisfied with our good fortune, and yet there are others out there who need rescue as well. We need to again strap on our rescue equipment filled with the provisions of compassion, love, restoration, and kindness, and go out into the darkness of the world, to seek out the lost. We come here each week to fill our backpacks with the basic provisions of the heart: the blankets of restoration and reconciliation, dry clothes of compassion, flashlights of healing and solace. So filled to the brim with grace, we must head back into the dark places of broken relationships, loneliness, fear, doubt, and tragedy and join the mission.
Sitting here today, you may be a lost sheep or lost coin, and you may in silence sit under ash and dust covered in some unimaginable hurt, alienation, or you may be facing self-destruction. Sitting here today, you likewise may be a first responder of the heart and soul, and yet you need healing as well.
In late 2001, after the tragedy of 9/11 struck, Terri and I finally decided to return to church after we had taken a long hiatus from Sunday morning ritual. By chance, when we arrived at a quirky parish, a Christian first responder showed up at the Welcome Desk and simply introduced himself. He then pulled from his grace-filled backpack an invitation for us sit with he and his wife that day. Through his small gesture of kindness, one person’s simple act of love, we were forever liberated from the destruction that this little lost sheep could have surely encountered. Sometimes being a first responder of the soul is much easier than you think.
Whether you are rescuer or rescued, God tirelessly serves to bring us back to the safety and security of his presence, but we have to take our part in the liberation we seek. I encourage all of us (including me) to take time this week to remember 9/11 and how those events deeply wounded us as a nation. This week, spend some time in prayer my sisters and brothers and as you remember the first responders back then, ask for God’s guidance about your call to ministry in this place and beyond.
Ask God to guide you and direct you about becoming a first responder of the heart and soul. I promise you I will pray with you, and I offer you this prayer, “Dear Lord, when someone needs to see your abundant grace enacted in my life, please give me the courage to report for duty and to show up. Lord, teach me how to draw from your abundant provisions of grace through which, you lovingly rescued me. Lord, please help me to go back into the dark and dusty tragedies of others’ lives so through me, you might rescue your little lost lambs and lost coins that are of great value, and of which, I am one. Amen.”