The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 15, 2019
Tucked along the Charles River in Boston, next to Harvard University, is a little monastery. It’s the oldest, and probably the most famous of the monasteries in the Episcopal Church, called “The Society of Saint John the Evangelist.” The monks there live a life of prayer and worship. Part of what they do is to welcome priests like me who are on sabbatical to stay in their guesthouse. So I went there early this summer to spend a week of prayer, worship, and study. But what I didn’t know, was that I supposed to be there on silent retreat.
So it was nine in the morning, we had already been to church twice because monks go to church a lot. And, like any good parish priest, the first thing I did was to find the coffee pot. I posted up right there. Breaking every rule in the monastery etiquette handbook, I talked to all the other people on retreat, silent retreat, when they walked by. “Hey, what’s your name? Where you from? Whatcha doing here?” I was awfully talkative for being on a silent retreat. Until, that is, I was shushed and told, oh so gently, to keep my trap shut.
In that moment, I had two realizations about myself. First, I should probably watch my caffeine intake. Second, I was far, far from home. But God made something else apparent to me in that moment – it was yet another moment of revelation, that God has indeed called me, and is always calling me to this ministry. To be a parish priest, with one foot in the world and one foot in the church and always, always, a hot cup of coffee not far away.
Three months away from you all was disorienting. Three months away from the church that I know, the church I helped design. Three months of sitting in strange pews. Three months away from preaching, from celebrating, three months away from what I realized again with a burning passion was why God had searched me out and had found me in the first place.
Searching and finding. Jesus shares with us two stories, two parables about searching and finding. A sheep goes wandering off and the shepherd goes searching for it. A woman loses one of her ten coins, turns on the lights, sweeps the house, puts her hands down into all those gross crumbs between the sofa cushions, searching for that one measly coin.
This morning we discover again a God who is on the move, moving in our world and in our hearts, never content with the way things are but always searching, looking, seeking for a better way. God is on the move. Think back to the whole of the Gospel of Luke from which we read this morning. Jesus spends half of the gospel, half the gospel, wandering from town to town. Preaching, teaching, healing, praying, loving, moving, searching, finding. This is a relentless God, who will move heaven and earth searching.
In these two parables we meet a God who is willing to put everything aside to search for us. To drop everything, to survey the hills and the caves looking for us. A God who will lift up the rug, dig into the trash can, check all the closets for me. For you. Here is the Lord God, Creator and Maker of All That Is, and somehow, some way, we are all that God can think about it. We are all that occupies God’s minds. God’s field of vision focuses in on you and you alone, and with divine tenacity seeks you out.
Don’t get a big head about this, because this single mindedness is what God is for all people, all creatures, all that is seen and unseen. This is beautiful and terrifying at once – God holds the entire cosmos in God’s mind all at once. God knows each of us better than we know ourselves. Somehow, some way, we are all that God can think about. Because of that God will do anything to find us, to bring us home. In this we discover again the foolishness of God – that Lord God who created all that is seen and unseen would spend time and energy looking for you.
If we had it our way, we would probably tell God that we weren’t worth the trouble. “C’mon God, you are the Creator and Maker of All That Is, surely you’ve got something better to do with your time.” And that’s when hit upon the true grace, the real good news of this God. You and I lose our keys, our glasses, our phone, and we start grumbling to ourselves that we lost them in the first place. And when you do find the keys, the glasses, the phone, you just dash out of the house because you’re running late for church. Am I right?
But here we do not see a God who grumbles, who complains about having lost us in the first place. We don’t hear about a God who is put out because he must stop to searching and find. No, rather, it is God’s joy to go out, to seek, to find, to bring us home again. God invites the neighbors, throws a party because what was lost has been found, what was wandering has come near, strangers have become friends. Finding you is God’s delight. Whether you have been away from three months, for three years, or for your whole life. What has wandered away will always be brought home again.
Over the summer, I thought a lot about this. And right now I think that if you could boil down the gospel, the work of Jesus Christ into one thought, it would be this: God promises that you will never be alone. God promises that you will never be alone. God will search you out, as God searched me out and called me to this place. God will look near and far, because you are on God’s mind. Because you are worth it to God. The lost sheep is reconciled. The lost coin is returned. Jesus is willing to stretch out his arms on a cross so that even in death, we will never be alone. God will never toss up his hands and quit searching. In the ups and downs of this world, I know that sometimes we feel like that one sock in the dryer that goes missing. We feel alone, isolated, left in the dark. Friends die. Jobs are lost. Hopes are dashed. Bodies fail. The feeling comes crushing upon us, that we are that one sock that God has given up on. But this is what I know – God will not forget you. God is always searching. Always looking. And when God finds you, it’s party time.
Party time. Dear friends, it is so good to be back with you. To worship with you. Yes, we ought to celebrate for a time. And to laugh as hard as I laughed when I found a Flat Me on my desk Monday morning. Party time.
But dear friends, party time cannot last forever. God is on the move. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – the greatest threat to the church nowadays is not atheism, or secular society, or any of the hot button issues of the day. No, the greatest threat to the church nowadays is sentimentality. The greatest threat to our life with Jesus would be to find that lost sheep, stick him in the pen, and never let him out again. We would be doing ourselves and the world around us a disservice if we found that lost coin, put it back into its piggy bank, and locked it in a drawer. Dear friends, we must never look back and try to recreate “the good old days” because those days are never coming back and they probably were never that good anyway. It is time to get moving.
So what does that mean for the next chapter of life at Holy Comforter? I sense that now, our parish family is ready to be on the move again, too. Yes, our life together is good, together God has accomplished extraordinary work among us. But I sense that the life of this parish is only beginning again. I sense that the Spirit of God is calling this parish to stretch, to grasp new horizons, to behold a new vision of what is possible for the sake of the kingdom. It is high time to put away sentimentality and face the future. It is time to be on the move with God. It is time to trust that God will never let us wander too far off, because God will always come searching after us.
And where others only see problems, where others are crippled by their sentimentality, this parish must see gospel opportunities. Some may see changing demographics and pine for a monochromatic past, but this parish must see opportunities for cross-shaped reconciliation. Some may see all this growth and construction around as a traffic problem; but this parish must see all these new people moving into our neighborhood as lost sheep that God is calling home. Some may see the hot button issues of our day as dealbreakers, as barriers to community; but this parish must see them as opportunities given by the Holy Spirit to have hard, hard conversations with those whom we disagree.
Dear friends, the work of this parish, the life of this parish, is beginning again. God is on the move. And as we begin again we will take our cues from the Lord God – we will search for the lost and lonely, we will find ways to live together, and best of all, we will celebrate.