Text of the sermon preached on Proper 19C (September 11, 2016) by the Rev. Katie Hargis at St. Cornelius’ Episcopal Church in Dodge City, KS.
1 Timothy 1:12-17
Have you ever been found before? I know this is an unusual question. A more normal one might be: “Have you ever been lost before?” but I’m pretty sure I know the answer to that one. I want to know if you’ve ever been found. I have. Let me share with you a quick story from the “Stupid Things Katie Did at Camp as a Counselor” file.
St. Crispin’s is the Episcopal Summer Camp in the Diocese of Oklahoma. It sits a little over an hour East of Oklahoma City, just outside of the small town of Seminole. The camp sits on 2 lakes and around 400 acres of wooded, hilly land. About once a week during most camp sessions, we offer a double activity period hike around both of the camp’s lakes, which took a little over 2 hours to hike. The trail wasn’t very well marked, so occasionally we would take a different path that led through thorn bushes or on to the adjacent property. Tim was usually my partner in crime in leading these hikes. One afternoon we managed to get really off track, drank our entire supply of water on that sweltering day, and lost track of time. About an hour after we were supposed to be back, we finally had made our way to the highway that ran past the camp and were picked up by a farmer who was able to take our group back to camp. As we pulled into the drive in front of the dining hall, Ms. Georgia the camp director came running out yelling our names. Suffice it to say, she was not happy.
“Where were you….you were supposed to have the group back more than an hour ago…You’ve scared me half to…We were ready to send out a search party!”
All of this spilled from her as she approached us. Her eyes blazed with anger — I don’t think I had ever seen her so upset. But then her hand touched my arm, and everything changed.
Now, parents out there, you might be able to identify with what happened next. When she touched me, it was as if she confirmed that we were really, truly there, that we weren’t just merely a figment she had been worrying about for the last heart-pounding hour. All the scenarios of kidnapping or being mauled by a wild animal or someone being horribly injured somewhere deep in the forrest — all of these scenarios that had been shuddering through her mind vanished when she touched me. And with the touch came relief. And with relief came joy. And with joy came an embrace brimming with all of the spoken and unspoken love that Ms. Georgia had for all of her campers.
Tim and I were still in trouble. We were chastened for our foolhardiness. But above and beyond that, we were found. Have you ever been found before?
In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus responds to his opponents’ critique of his unsavory dinner companions. “He told them this parable: ‘Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”
Now, for Jesus’ opponents it was quite easy to separate the sinner from the righteous. The system of sacrifice and purification allowed people to proclaim themselves blameless before God — indeed, even Paul does this in his letter to the Philippians. This system created an in-group and everyone else. But by eating with “tax collectors and sinners,” Jesus proclaims that God doesn’t just move in the lives of the so-called “in-group.” In fact, God is present in the lives of all people. God seeks out and finds all people. Let me assure you, this was a radical claim in Jesus’ day.
And I think it remains a radical claim. How many of us have heard one religious group or another claim that God is on their side and no other? How many of us have been jealous of other people, who we assume God has favored because, darn it, everything seems to go their way? In our fallen state, we have a knee-jerk reaction to exclude, to isolate, to create cliques and in-groups just to make ourselves feel better. But when Jesus sits down with all of the wrong people, he punctures the false assumptions that God belongs to any one group and that God seeks to find only one type of person, the kind with white teeth and perfect cheekbones.
In truth, each and every person on this earth is the sheep who has gone astray. We have all wandered off alone and gotten lost. The path is there — perhaps a bit overgrown, but there. And yet, something shiny catches our eye and we strike out for it. But it’s just a trick of the light, and now it’s growing dark and the path is away to the left somewhere but good luck finding it. We stagger around in the gathering gloom, hoping against hope that we are going in the right direction.
Into this gathering gloom, the light of Christ shines. Into the underbrush, Jesus tramps. Onto his shoulders, he lifts us up and carries us back to the path. And guess what? Tomorrow he’ll do the same thing again. Last week John asked us if it was worth the effort to be a disciple of Christ. Inviting us to go deeper in our commitment to God’s work in our lives. This week, Jesus invites us to celebrate God’s commitment to do whatever it takes to remain in relationship with us, no matter how often God has to find us and return our meandering feet to the path.
This commitment is no idle tale. God’s presence in the lives of all of us lost sheep gives us the hope that we are being found each day. And in being found, being nourished. And in being nourished, being molded into the people God calls us to be.
Now, being found takes on all shapes and sizes, so I invite you to be aware of the unique ways God is actively finding you. Perhaps you are sitting in your pew one Sunday and the choir’s anthem pierces your heart with the truth of God’s majesty. And God finds you in a moment of pure delight.
Perhaps you are holding your loved one’s hand as they lie dying. They hold your hand back…until they don’t. You don’t think you have any more tears, but you are wrong. Your deep grief reveals not how deeply you loved them, but how deeply you love them, and you realize your love will never become a past tense thing. And God finds you in the continued connection between the living and the dead.
Perhaps you are taking a group for a hike and wander off trail showing up at your destination late. And when you finally reach there, you feel the desperation and anger melt into relief and joy. And God finds you in the servant embrace of two people.
God finds us every single day of our lives, no matter how far we have strayed from the path. We participate in this reality when we notice God finding us, when we realize just how God is weaving the strands of our lives together, and when we act as the vehicles of God’s finding in the lives of others.