Joy in Heaven

Sermon for September 11, 2022                      Pastor Teddie McConnell
1 Timothy 1:12-17 and Luke 15:1-10
As someone who loves to be creative, I have collections of things that I use in art and crafts. I have thread, fabric, patterns, beads, lace, ribbon, yarn, buttons, paints, pastels, pencils, paper, canvases, markers. And of course, books about how to make jewelry, clothing, quilts, watercolors and so on. I store them together by type, the books on separate shelves, the smaller things in bags inside larger boxes, sorted by size and color. I keep the boxes clearly labeled. It’s okay if you think I’m a little nuts.
It keeps me busy when I’m not working. And my husband, David, thinks I’m cute.
My button collection, for example, was gleaned from large sacks of random buttons bought online or at thrift stores and sorted in my spare time. They are so much cheaper that way, and I enjoy putting them into sets in little plastic bags.
As I was getting ready to write my sermon this week, I noticed that I couldn’t find my button collection. It’s only a two-bed room apartment. There are only so many places they could be hiding. They’re not terribly valuable. But it’s getting to me. I liked those buttons. I only kept my favorites, the ones I thought I might use some day. I’m determined to figure out where they are. Stay tuned.
In today’s Gospel passage, Jesus is at another meal where there are scribes and Pharisees, those “holier than thou” men who run the synagogue and think they have no need for a physician, no reason to change. They’re grumbling that Jesus eats with sinners – tax collectors who were probably Gentiles, and others of low regard in the community. They’re people who are on the road to repentance, something the Pharisees refuse to see or even believe is possible. To them, the presence of sinners makes the meal unclean. Pharisees hate having their rules broken, not to mention eating with people who aren’t part of the in crowd. They’re so sure they know God’s ways that they can’t imagine God wanting THOSE people around.
Jesus tells them two parables, one about a rich man – he has a large flock of 100 sheep, so he must be well off – and one about a poor woman – she only has ten silver coins, which were worth a total of about a week and a half’s wages. He uses these two examples to show that God loves and values all people, rich and poor, male and female, Jew and Gentile equally. The man and the woman represent God, the searcher for what is precious and lost, and the lost sheep and the coin represent people who are out of touch with their Creator.
We’ve talked about sheep before, how they’re stupid and unpredictable and hard to keep going in the right direction. Once one is lost, it’s helpless. It’s not going to find its own way back to the fold. It’s going to hunker down in fear and wait to be found, either by the shepherd or by a predator. The owner is so upset about losing his furry buddy that he leaves the rest of the flock behind and looks everywhere, assuming the 99 will stick together and be safe while he’s gone. He risks the vast majority of his fortune in order to get one sheep back.
And certainly a coin that’s fallen on the floor and rolled away isn’t capable of letting you know where it is so you can find it, no twinkling glimmer, no tiny voice calling your name. Teddie, I’m here under the dresser.
And yes, I did find my box of buttons a couple of hours later, in the good, safe place where I left it, in David’s closet behind his clothes.
The two people in the parables are in for a much longer search. But they have the determination, dedication, patience and love to seek until they find what they lost. Then they’re so happy, they ask their friends to share their joy.
This is how God is with us, accepting responsibility for everyone who needs help. Out of great love, God searches without counting the cost – the time, the effort, the lamp oil. God is determined, relentless, patient, ready to look everywhere until the lost are ready to be rescued and brought home, ready to repent and lean on God in the middle of a bad situation, to be counted among the saved. Not only will God search for them, he’ll also send helpers, other people to look. First his only Son, then his disciples.
The apostle Paul looked back at his own life and saw a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence, so sure he was right to persecute Christians that Jesus knocked him off his horse to get his attention. Despite his terrible behavior, Paul said that God treated him with exceptional patience so that those who think they aren’t worth saving learn from his example that God sees them as precious children and is patient enough to help them grow into maturity, too. God can use anyone, filling them with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness and self-control through the Holy Spirit. God wants us to be patient in turn with those who are still struggling, who seem like a lost cause.
God was incredibly patient with John Newton, the author of Amazing Grace. He was forced to join the British Royal navy at a young age, then worked on slave ships for several years and became a captain on a number of them. Although he accepted Christ at the age of 23, he stayed in the slave trade for almost five more years, observing the horrors of it without really seeing it as wrong. It was considered normal and a source of income at the time. Eventually, God showed him the immorality of the industry, and he became an abolitionist and a cleric in the Church of England.
What forms of prejudice or human abuse are we still tolerating because we don’t “see” it, see the inhumanity of it? People of color, LGBTQ people, victims of the sex trade, drug addicts? If there’s money to be made from someone else’s misery, if there is anyone who treats others badly to make themselves feel superior, it’s a problem God wants us to help solve.
When Jesus told these parables, he was there in the flesh, the savior of humanity, the seeker of the lost. After he rose from the dead, his sent his disciples to save the lost, to preach his gospel to every creature. We are the latest in that long line of helpers.
Sometimes, though, we can feel lost ourselves. Life can be complex and hard, with no easy answers. We can lose our way back to God because we’re afraid and dealing with human limitations, hunkered down like a lost sheep. On the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, we remember where we were when we heard the news. We remember the people who were killed, wounded, or stricken with PTSD that day or in the years of war in the Middle East that followed it. 9/11 can remind us of other losses that still need to be healed It’s okay to feel sad, lost, to feel the normal human emotions we all have. It’s okay to take the time to just sit still and wait, listening for the footsteps of the approaching shepherd, Jesus walking through our difficulties like the determined friend God is. Let God find you. Let your friends know when you need help. We need each other to stay strong, to keep inspired, and to keep our focus on Christ. We’re never out of reach of the Good Shepherd.
God works through us to search and rescue, not just the lost, but also each other. That’s because we all need someone with skin on, someone we can see and talk with who knows Jesus. Sometimes, we’re the only Bible another person has ever read, the only caring Christian who proves to them that Jesus is real and cares about them right where they are, no matter what they’ve done or how beyond forgiveness they think they are. We need to pray for them, listening for the guidance the Holy Spirit brings. But prayer by itself isn’t enough. We need to act, to show them the caring nature of God. That’s why mission activities are so important.
And when someone who was lost finally realizes the true nature of grace, the unconditional, cleansing love of God through Christ, there is a huge party in heaven. The angels dance, the Christians who went before us sing and grin and hug and rejoice, and Jesus prepares one more treasure chest to be filled with blessings by the person who is starting fresh. And all God’s people said, Amen.

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