Will you seek God today? Proper 19(C)

[RCL] Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28; Psalm 14; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10

Will you seek God today?

The quote “What you seek is seeking you,” made popular by a 13th-century Sufi mystic and theologian, holds true in our relationship with our Creator God. There is something in all of us that innately seeks out our Creator, just as the Creator seeks us.  Since the beginning of time God has revealed God-self as One who is seeking communion with God’s children.

In the creation story in the garden of Eden we read about God walking beneath the trees seeking out Adam. ‘They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day… Then the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, ‘Where are you?’ (Gen 3:8-9). It’s hard to believe that an all-knowing God did not know where Adam was to be found. But in God’s searching and seeking, in asking “where are you?” it had nothing to do with the physical location, but perhaps more of Adam’s spiritual location.

In this creation story and all throughout scripture we find God seeking man. Luke 15:1-10 teaches us about the joy God gets, when what God seeks is found.

In the parable of the lost sheep the tendencies of sheep to wander off to “greener grass” leads to its separation from the flock and its shepherd.  As it is with humans we stray and wander away from our Creator’s guidance and direction thinking we can do it on our own or that it’s by our own strength and wisdom we are able to navigate this journey.

The story is told about sheep in the Highlands of Scotland and how they often wander off into the rocks and get into places that they cannot get out of, just to get to sweeter grass. But in jumping down ten or twelve feet for sweet grass they were unable to jump back up. After a couple days and eating all the grass, the shepherd would hear them bleating in distress and in those moments of distressed bleating the sheep is seeking the shepherd. The shepherd knowing it’s sheep the best, will wait until each animal was faint before pulling them out.

The story continues, proving that the shepherd is being strategic in the saving the sheep because if the sheep aren’t faint the likelihood of them jolting over the precipice when the attempt to save them is made, causing them to jumping to their death is extremely high.

Perhaps some believe God deals with them in a similar fashion, waiting until we are faint, down, and out before intervening. Like the good shepherd however, God is always strategic in God’s seeking of us and God is always working in our best interest.

The shepherd knows that if the sheep are separated from the flock and the shepherd both parties aren’t whole and can’t operate as they are meant too.

As it is when we are separated from right relationship with God, we aren’t operating in our true, full purpose. That is why God seeks us to be in right relationship and delights in restoration. This seeking is not just for the lost, but for every child of God wherever we find ourselves.

All over scripture we read of God seeking God’s children. In John 4:23, God is seeking “true worshipers that will worship God in spirit and truth.” In Psalm 14:2, the psalmist pens that “The Lord looks down from heaven on humankind to see if there are any who are wise, who seek after God.” And 2 Chr 16:9 says likewise “For the eyes of the Lord range throughout the entire earth, to strengthen those whose heart is true to him.” And in the gospel from Luke 15 we find God giving us a clear view into God’s heart and God’s intentions by comparing God-self with a shepherd who leaves 99 sheep to seek the one lost (Luke 15:4-7), and with a woman combing through her entire house on the search for a lost coin (Luke 15:8-10).

Throughout Scripture we encounter a God who is on a mission, a seeking God, seeking God’s children. A God who is all powerful, omnipresent, and self-reliant. A God who knows all and sees all. A God who parts water and who’s voice the wind obeys, that same God seeks us all, and rejoices when we are found in God. Because we are precious and prized and the One who created us, sees us as rare and our value countless.

And the seeking goes both ways. “What you seek, seeks you.” Just as the sheep seeks the shepherd for help, and the coin reflects the light waiting to be found, something innately in us wants to be found by our Creator God to the point where we cry out like David to “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. (Ps 51:11). A right spirit to be in right relationship with God.

In Psalm 51 David is honest and upfront about his wrong doings. He realizes that they separate him for God, and accepts full responsibility “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.” David sets a great example for us to mirror. An example that shows us that repentance is the first step to restoring and renewing our relationship with God “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.” David is appealing to the essence of God’s character. He’s appealing to God’s steadfast love and abundant mercy, rather than what he thinks he deserves or earned.

In Psalm 51 David models how we too can pray when we are seeking God’s cleansing and forgiveness from our transgressions, iniquities, and sins. Our sins separate us from God, but when we confess them, God is gracious and forgives us.

So no matter how far we wander away from God. No matter how far we fall. God still loves us, pursues us and seeks us. Hebrews 13 reminds us that God has promised to never leave us, nor forsake us.

God has made this evident is sacrificing Jesus Christ on the cross for our sins and sending us the Comforter – the Holy Spirit.

God never gives up on us. God never lets go of us. God is seeking us daily.

Will you seek God today?

Amen

Written by The Rev. Arlette Benoit. Benoit is a graduate of General Theological Seminary in New York City where she earned her Masters in Divinity with a Certificate in Spiritual Direction. Benoit was ordained to the priesthood in June 2013 in the Diocese of Atlanta. While at seminary Benoit interned with The Episcopal Church’s Office of Black Ministries. She continues to be involved with the Office of Black Ministries, and assist and provides consultation for the planning of the S.O.U.L (Spiritual Opportunity to Unity and Learn) Conferences for youth and young adults, in addition to working with a team of clergy and lay leaders to develop The Rising Stars (RISE) Experience — a new initiative aimed at countering the “School-to-Prison Pipeline,” where children are pushed out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Benoit was also recently appointed to serve as a Youth Ministry Liaison for the Office of Youth Ministries representing Province Four of The Episcopal Church. She has also served as seminarian at Trinity Wall Street and St. Ann’s Church for the Deaf during her time in New York City. Benoit now serves at St. Paul’s Episcopal Atlanta GA, as Associate to the Rector.

Download the sermon for Proper 19(C).

Repeatedly lost, repeatedly found, 17 Pentecost, Proper 19 (C) – 2013

 September 15, 2013

Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28 and Psalm 14 (Track 2: Exodus 32:7-14 and Psalm 51:1-11); 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10

Jesus puts before his audience two stories of lost and found.

In each case, the one who loses goes to extraordinary efforts to find what is lost.

Having recovered it, the finder calls upon the surrounding community to join in rejoicing that the lost has been found.

Jesus applies both stories to what happens when even one sinner repents: There is abundant joy in heaven.

All well and good, we may say. There is reason to rejoice in such circumstances.

A shepherd leaves his big flock – in somebody else’s care, we hope – to search out a single sheep that is missing.

A woman turns the house upside down, sweeping in every dark corner to find a valuable coin that is part of her dowry.

There is abundant rejoicing when the lost sheep, the lost coin is found.

We want to believe in a God who searches for the lost and celebrates when the lost are found.

We want to believe that God feels it more deeply when people stray away than we feel it when our cell phone or car keys are nowhere to be found.

But there is another side to our reception of these stories: What happens next?

What happens once the sheep’s back with the flock, the silver coin is back with the others, when we have in hand once again our cell phone or our car keys? What happens after the sinner repents and does a 180-degree turn? Is there more to the story?

Jesus speaks of one sheep that strays and the 99 who do not. He also distinguishes between one person who repents and the “Ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.”

Maybe Jesus delivers that line with a slight smile on his lips. He may mean that those 99 simply believe they need no repentance, when, in fact, they need it as much as the one identified “sinner.” Their belief that they are righteous is mistaken.

If so, then the distinction is not between one sinner who repents and 99 other people who do not need to do so. The distinction is between those aware of their need for repentance and those unaware that they have this need.

Keeping all this in mind, therefore, we may reach the conclusion that the only options for any of us are two: We can be a single lost sheep; or we can belong to the flock who mistakenly account themselves righteous.

To say this only a little differently, we can be a single lost coin or we can be a coin that, along with others, rests self-satisfied in some secure place.

Indeed, these two options appear in the framework that surrounds the stories under consideration. The recognized sinners draw close to Jesus; these are people on the margins of society, condemned by the power structure, and condemned even by themselves. The Pharisees and scribes, on the other hand, keep their distance from Jesus and murmur against him. They enjoy positions of respect and, in general, hold themselves in high esteem.

Is there perhaps another alternative? What about those of us who are not blind to our failings, but whose sinfulness does not cause us to be exiled?

An alternative exists that is found close to the heart of the gospel. To recognize it, we must turn away from two misleading notions: The first is that repentance, conversion – call it what you will – is, at most, a once-in-a-lifetime event; the second is that a conventional lifestyle can replace radical obedience to God’s will.

This alternative to these two notions is that on a regular basis each of us turns out to be a lost sheep. Each of us is often enough the precious coin that disappears, the cell phone or the car keys that annoyingly cannot be found.

Yet God, like a shepherd with no common sense, leaves the rest of the flock and searches the immediate world in order to find us.

God, like a housewife gone crazy, tears the place apart, searches every dark corner in order to find us.

That happens in our respectable lives. Again. And again. And again. Grace is always fresh, new enough to startle us.

We can’t eliminate our need for this uproar to happen. All we can do is make repentance a regular practice.

We cannot cause the sun of God’s love to shine on us. All we can do is turn to the sunlight and be grateful.

Practicing repentance may sound burdensome. It may seem a practice oriented to the past, preoccupied with regret. Actually, we come to see repentance as the exact opposite of a preoccupation with regret. Metanoia, the New Testament term for repentance, means, literally, a change of mind, a shift out of the past that prepares us for a better future.

Our metanoia can be, needs to be, a matter of habit. We have practices to help us with this.

One of them is the regular recitation of the Lord’s Prayer with its request: Forgive us our sins, forgive us our trespasses. That’s metanoia, our request that we not be stuck in our sins, not be stuck in our mistaken sense of righteousness.

Another helpful practice is an expansion of this one, namely the Confession of Sin, which appears so often in liturgies of the Episcopal Church. We engage time and again in this communal exercise where we see ourselves and one another not as the 99 who supposedly need no repentance, but in every case as the one sheep that has strayed and needs to be brought back. This holds true of both the worst reprobate and the most splendid saint. We all need to repent. This prayer helps us to do so.

Furthermore, some find it helpful to confess their particular sins to God in the presence of a priest, whether at a time of crisis or as a regular practice. The Book of Common Prayer makes provision for this form of reconciliation, even as it also recognizes that “the care each Christian has for others” is a way we are restored to peace with our neighbor and with God.

Christianity is loaded with paradoxes. Here’s another one: Each of us is a sheep lost and found. A valuable coin lost and found. Car keys lost and found. A cell phone lost and found.

Later in this service, as we pray together the Confession of Sin, recall that what you are doing then as one person causes abundant joy in heaven.

Through continuing openness to the grace of God, our hearts are kept from being swamped by sin or hardened by self-righteousness.

Through continuing openness to grace, we declare allegiance to the One who never stops looking for us.

Time and again we decide not to trust in our own devices, but in the future God intends for us.

 

— The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and writer. He is the author of ”A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals” (Cowley Publications, 2003).

God’s covenant, Pentecost 16, Proper 19 (C) – 2010

[RCL] Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28 and Psalm 14 (Track 2: Exodus 32:7-14 and Psalm 51:1-11); 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10

[NOTE: Suggested hymn, “Amazing grace”]

Throughout Pentecost we have been hearing readings that tell us about the nature of God. Today’s readings follow that theme with an in-depth look at God’s merciful nature. A closer reading reveals to us how God works in a covenant relationship with His people.

In the Exodus passage we find God’s initial anger with the people whom he has led to deliverance from slavery in Egypt. They have become bored and disillusioned and have returned to the worship of other gods and have built a golden calf as an image. Like anyone who has done something good only to be rebuffed, God is angered by this repudiation and threatens violent wrath until Moses intervenes.

A teenage boy recently was caught joy riding, having stolen a car from family friends. His father confronted him and told him how ashamed he was, how their friends had done so much for them, “And this is how you repay them?” But later the friends sat down with the enraged father and reminded him how they had all once been young and done foolish things. They then told him they were not going to press charges.

God is persuaded by Moses in the Exodus story to remember, to remember the covenant and promise to Abraham, and how that promise needs to be fulfilled. The family friends reminded the wrathful father that all of us do stupid things, and that while there are consequences, there is also mercy and forgiveness. It is in God’s nature to be merciful. We worship a merciful God.

Paul, writing to Timothy underscores the mercy of God as he recounts his own conversion from being a persecutor of the gospel to its promoter. He knows from experience that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”  Paul makes this powerful witness out of experience as well as a faithful conviction that God is merciful and prefers that all be drawn to the message of salvation and eternal life.

The most powerful witnesses of God’s mercy and renewal come from people who are recovering addicts. They can tell with absolute conviction of their redemption through God’s mercy. They know their depravity and the depths of despair, and as they begin to move to a life of sobriety, they witness to how much God has done for them. Their stories continue to move others and save many who are lost and who only imagine God is punishing them or determined to destroy them. For many it has been a long road, but they have learned to find God mighty to save.

The gospel lesson summarizes the basic teaching of Jesus about the nature of God. We are not dealing with a God of whimsy or one subject to influence by expensive gifts or sacrifices. Rather, we are in relationship with God who is most concerned about each of us, wanting to find us when we are lost, and yearning to bring us home.

An older couple despaired for their son who was an alcoholic. They had tried tough love, and they prayed for his deliverance. The addiction had been a problem since high school, when he wasn’t able to receive his diploma because he was in jail for underage drinking. Now in his thirties he was in the hospital; this time the doctor told them he wasn’t sure he could save their son.

Now, a year later he is at work, attending daily AA meetings, and dating a woman who is also a recovering person. He has a job and is becoming very involved in his church. God sought him, when he was most lost, and found him through friends and AA, who led him back to sobriety. And God does this over and over, sending people to us when we need them, putting us in the places where we can get help even when we would rather reject it.

The Good News is not that God is going to make us successful or rich. The Good News is that God is loving, merciful, slow to anger and of great kindness. If you ask anyone who has been through the pain of addiction or felt lost and alone and then been found, they will tell you without any doubt there is a God who is mighty to save, and that God is found at work in the world today.

 Download large-print version for MS Word

Written by the Rev. Ben E. Helmer
The Rev. Ben Helmer is vicar of St. James’ Episcopal Church in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. He lives with his wife in nearby Holiday Island.

God is deeply in love with each of us, Pentecost 16, Proper 19 (C) – 2007

[RCL] Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28 or Exodus 32:7-14; Psalm 14 or 51:1-10; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10

God is deeply in love with each of us. Not just humanity in general, but each and every person. To make this truth about God plain, Jesus tells two parables, about a lost sheep and a lost coin, and about how their owners searched and searched until they found even just one that was missing.

A true story: A little girl was looking at the things in her mother’s jewelry box. One item particularly fascinated her – an opal that had once been set in a ring, but had come loose from its finding. The little girl liked the opal a lot. She liked how it sparkled, how its iridescence gave it different colors depending on how she held it and in what kind of light. She liked looking at this opal so much that she took it out of the box and carried it around, until she became more interested in something else and she lost the small stone.

When she told her mother, her mother began the most thorough search of their house the girl had ever seen. Her mother looked under rugs and between the sofa cushions. She swept. She looked everywhere. She was so energetic in her search that the little girl knew that what was lost must truly be precious. The little girl had no idea her mother owned such a treasure. Did her mother own precious gems? Was she really the daughter of royalty?

She asked her mother, “Is this the most precious jewel?”

Her mother said, “No, there are jewels worth far more, that cost more. But this one was given to me by my great aunt, and since she gave it to me, it’s precious to me and I want to find it.”

Jesus says God is like a woman who, when she loses one of her ten silver coins, does not say, “Well, I still have nine others, that will just have to do.” No, the woman turns her house upside down until she finds the one lost coin.

A certain parish has an endowment for outreach that was started from found coins. Two parishioners started it and others joined in. When they find change on the ground, it goes into the endowment for outreach. They collect their found coins during the year in a jar, and then put them in the Easter offering so this found money can be used to serve people who need it. People who participate get really excited about finding money. Sometimes the money is easily accessible: you see a penny and pick it up. Sometimes one has to be a bit more adventurous. One parishioner reported riding a bicycle down a busy street and seeing a bright shiny quarter. A whole quarter for the jar! Should she stop in the middle of the road? In traffic? What risks should she take?

Thankfully, God has no such limitations. God is like a woman who will turn her house upside down to find even one coin. God is like a shepherd who will search high and low for even one sheep. There are no bramble bushes, no deep ravines, no alley ways, or hidden corners, or closets into which God will not go to find those who are lost. Even just one.

In the parable, the woman is so excited at finding her one lost coin that she calls all her friends. “We have to celebrate! I found my coin that was lost!”

And just like that, says Jesus, the angels of God rejoice when even one person who is lost is found, when even one person repents, comes home, allows God to embrace them and say, “You are mine. I love you. I would search and search the whole world if I had to.” Even for just one.

Jesus told these parables because at the time, a group of people were grumbling about what kind of people Jesus was busy finding, what kind of people Jesus was inviting to the table and eating with. These grumbling people were religious people, sure that they themselves were safely in God’s fold, safely deposited into God’s change purse.

Maybe they didn’t realize that they too were lost ones that God was trying hard to gather up. Did they know that God was turning the world upside down to find tax collectors and sinners as well as good religious people, to claim us all as God’s own sheep, God’s own precious coins?

That’s what God did. From the beginning, God’s Spirit has been sweeping through the world seeking people to rejoice in belonging to God, whether they deserved it or not. And in Jesus, God really did do something to turn the whole world upside down. The God of the universe came among us as a human baby named Jesus, who lived and died as one of us, stretched his arms out to us from the cross to welcome the lost, the least, the losers. Even just one.

God still yearns to gather us all up, so that not even one more person ever feels lost, as if they have to do it on their own, as if they’re not worth a cent, because even just one is precious to God.

Maybe it’s significant that when the woman finds the coin that had been lost, she throws a party for all her friends. Hear the irony: the woman may be thorough, but she’s not miserly. She may be meticulous, but she is not a wizard of home economics. She found one coin, and then spent who knows how many to throw a party! Is it irony – or is it grace?

If we are the coins in the story, so precious to God that even just one is worth everything, and the occasion of finding just one is cause for great celebration, then we are God’s coins, and our lives are to be spent in the cause of seeking and finding and celebrating. God doesn’t just tuck us away in some safe-deposit box, a heavenly coin collection waiting for our value to increase. God says, “Let’s have a party now.”

Even just one means everything to God. Even just one is cause for great celebration. Even just one who offers himself of herself to be spent for God’s purposes is a great blessing for the whole neighborhood.

In our worship this morning we practice God’s economics. We gather, acknowledging that all we are and all we have comes from God, belongs to God, is loved by God, can be given and offered and spent for God. We offer our time, our talents, our money, and the produce of our hands and our minds in God’s service here in this place, out in the neighborhood, and in the world. Our ministries are varied, but each one is valuable, each one is important to God, because even just one enables us to continue God’s work of seeking and finding and celebrating.

Even just one. Even just you. Even just me. Precious to God. And precious here, in God’s house, in God’s family.

Amen.

Written by the Rev. Amy Richter
The Rev. Amy E. Richter is rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Milwaukee, WI, and is also a Ph.D. candidate in New Testament at Marquette University in Milwaukee. Email: amy.richter@sbcglobal.net