September 11: Finding Joy

September 12, 2016

Year C, Pentecost 17                                                 
Luke 15:1-10 & Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28                         

            Most of us here probably remember where we were when the planes hit the towers on September 11th, 2001.  It was before smart phones and massive use of social media, but the news spread quickly. I was packing to go to seminary and my brother called us and told us to turn on the news.  It was the most surreal thing I have ever seen.  It seemed like we were watching a movie.  When the 2nd plane hit, it felt apocalyptic.   There was a sense of losing control, like you could not possibly imagine what could come next. I thought of those moments when I read Jeremiah.  “I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light…I looked and all the cities were laid in ruins.” Jeremiah is known as the weeping prophet because he tends to be a little depressing…a lot depressing.  One commentary described this text as total despair.  Obviously this text was not chosen because this Sunday fell on the 15th anniversary of September 11th, but it seemed appropriate to have a text about total despair on this day.

            Within hours of the destruction of the towers, the news started covering stories of heroes, people who risked their lives to save others.  Between the destruction of the towers and the attack on the pentagon, there were countless stories of heroism.  Often it was the first responders, the firefighters, police officers and the military, but sometimes it was just ordinary people. The news could have just reported the people who had died, the suspects who had committed this heinous crime or the bombs that were being dropped in retaliation. They did report that, but they also reported stories of courage and sacrifice—which gave us a little hope for humanity, hope for a God who had not abandoned us.  

It seems as though each year after 9-11, we hear new stories of heroism. I read several over the last few days.  The ones that were the most compelling to me were the people who kept going back into the towers to look for more people who needed saving.  There was one story about a chef who worked on the 96th floor of the South Tower.  He was credited with saving hundreds of lives by bringing people to safety. He too would have made it to out but he stopped to help someone in a wheelchair.  They never found his body.  He left five children.  While I was deeply moved by his bravery and selflessness, I could not help but think about those five children.  If only he had not stopped to help that one person.  He still would have saved hundreds.  He would have still been a hero.  His mother said that he had been a Marine and Marines are taught never to leave anyone behind.[1]

            Our Gospel story is much more uplifting than Jeremiah.  It is more suitable for Kick off Sunday and dixie land music.  We hear about the Scribes and Pharisees who were mad because Jesus was eating with sinners and tax collectors.  These people weren’t sinners in the way that we are all sinners.  They were sinners who were known by the whole community as sinners.  We might call them notorious sinners.  What upset the Pharisees was not that Jesus was merely talking to these sinners, but that he was sharing a meal with them.  According to Jewish law, observant Jews were not supposed to eat with notorious sinners.  Jesus was not just an observant Jew, he was recognized as a leader in the Jewish community.  This act was scandalous. 

            In response to the grumbling of the Pharisees, Jesus told three parables.  We heard the first two a couple of minutes ago. The first was about a shepherd who left 99 sheep to find the one who got away. The second was about a woman who lost one coin and while she still had 9, she looked fervently for this one lost coin until she found it. When both the shepherd and the woman found the sheep and the coin, they called all their friends and had a party. They were so happy they had found the one thing that they had lost. 

Being pragmatic, I always wonder about the shepherd who left 99 sheep to find the one who went missing.  Sheep are not bright animals.  My concern is that by the time he got back with that one little sheep, a bunch more would be missing….and that is assuming that he even found that one missing sheep.  Yet these stories are not about pragmatic people. They are about people who care deeply about the one thing that is lost.  Jesus wanted everyone to understand that this was exactly the way God was…the way he was.  He cared so much about every person, every child of God–that he would risk everything to find that one lost sheep—that one lost person. These stories are not about the one missing sheep or the one missing coin.  These stories are about a God who would was reckless in his pursuit of his lost children.  Sometimes (often) the people who were most lost, most in need of finding, were the very sinners he was eating with.

            Days and weeks after the towers fell, rescue crews were still going through the rubble.  It was a horrible task because almost everything and everyone they found was destroyed.  Anyone could have gone to Ground Zero and used Jeremiah’s words, “I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light…”  But these people who were still looking days after the attack maintained slivers of hope, even if it was finding a dead body that would provide closure for a loved one. On September 13th, a weary excavator found something that gave him a shard of hope.  He called for a priest who was on site working with the first responders and blessing the remains of those who had died. He said to the priest, “Father, you want to see God’s House? Look over there.” A reporter described the scene this way, “Against seemingly insurmountable odds, a 17-foot-long crossbeam, weighing at least two tons, was thrust at a vertical angle in the hellish wasteland. Like a cross.[2]  
            In the end of our very depressing reading from Jeremiah, God says, “The whole land shall be a desolation; yet I will not make a full end.”  A lot of people have debated what that line means.  I think it means that in a hellish wasteland like Ground Zero someone can find a cross and describe it as God’s house.  It is God saying, I am not giving up on you and you cannot give up on me. For a year that priest held a service at that cross every Sunday, where sometimes hundreds would gather at God’s house. 
            Sometimes, the things and the people who are hardest to find, become the most precious to us.  God is that chef who kept going back into a collapsing building and died trying to save one more life.  God is the shepherd who recklessly searched for one lost sheep because he knew that sheep needed to be found.  God is the excavator who found a crossbeam in the midst of death and chaos and declared it to be God’s house.  God never gives up on any one of us even after we have given up on him.  Not only that, but God rejoices when just one of us finally hears his call and comes out of our hiding place.
            It is the 15thanniversary of the worst terrorist attack in the history of our nation. It is not something to rejoice.  But we rejoice in the people who sacrificed their time, their health and sometimes their lives to help others, to provide hope in a place that appeared to be a wasteland.  We rejoice in the people who were found. Today is our kick off Sunday.  We are kicking off our Christian Formation. It is a day when our children, youth and adults come back together to learn about Jesus on Sunday mornings.  We welcome people back who have been a way for a week, a month, a year, maybe longer.  We welcome people who we have never seen.  We rejoice in each one of you because whether you know it or not, you are here for a reason. God has found you and no matter how far you wander, God will never stop looking.