September 11, 2022 Hamilton Coe Throckmorton
Luke 15:1-10 The Federated Church, UCC
Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor. She’s been the queen of the United Kingdom for longer than I’ve been alive. Her death this week deprived the world of a remarkable person. It’s odd—she wasn’t my queen, after all. She was, though, a commanding and compelling leader. She may, in fact, have been the most recognizable face in the world. Her leadership certainly wasn’t everybody’s cup of tea, nor is the monarchy, but the unwavering constancy of her presence, her grit, her resolve in the face of challenge, her unflappable demeanor, her dignity, her intelligence, her elegance all left an indelible impression. Along with the pope and the Dalai Lama, she had a presence that transcended her immediate context. And with her death, there’s a kind of collective grief that shrouds the day. And that grief reminds us acutely of the innumerable losses that dot our lives.
All of us here have lost people we’ve loved. Or we will lose them. Or we ourselves will sooner or later take our leave from the lives we treasure. Or, in another vein, we are always losing bits of life that we value—a home that we’ve treasured, a position that has given us meaning, a child or parent who turns away from us. Losses are ever-present. So when the queen dies, it evokes those losses and it takes something from all of us.
In the midst of this ever-present loss and death, Jesus tells a story. When the queen dies, or the marriage shatters, or the biopsy comes back positive, we hear a tale about losing and finding, about brokenness and healing, about separation and restoration. The story is actually two parables, and they’re almost identical. A shepherd loses one of his hundred sheep, leaves the other ninety-nine, and seeks out the one who’s been lost. And a woman loses a coin and turns her house upside down to find it.
And I imagine that most of us, when we hear this story, think we already know what it means. We assume it’s telling us that it’s our job to be that shepherd and that woman. If somebody is grieving or lonely or discouraged or despised or impoverished, we’re supposed to go find the ones who are lost and bring them back into the fold. That, we likely think, is what the church is all about: we’re to find and restore those who are lost.
And that’s certainly a lovely and valuable way to be. Let’s go out and find the ones who need us. Let’s be that shepherd, that woman. That’s not, though, what the parables say. The parables aren’t really urging us to repent or to redouble our efforts to include everybody. They’re not telling us what we’re supposed to do at all. They’re telling us instead who God is, what God is about, what the Holy One is intent upon.
Now that’s not to say that what God is about is different from what we’re to be about. Obviously what God values is what we’re to value, as well. It’s only to say that one of the mistakes we make over and over again is to think that the Bible is primarily a moral document. We think the Bible was developed to tell us what to do. Be kind. Be nice. Don’t hurt people. Follow the rules and you’ll be OK with God. The Bible, we so often think, is God’s instruction manual to us: this is how you’re supposed to behave.
And there’s certainly an element of instruction in the Bible. The Ten Commandments, after all, is one of its most well-known features. Those commandments, though, remember, don’t begin with rules. They begin by telling us who God is, and how crucial it is for us to put God first—not because we have to or else, but because that’s what gives life its most rewarding center and its deepest peace.
The mistake we make over and over again is to get it backwards, to think that God is available to us only to the extent that we obey the rules, that we honor the divine dictates. If we’re good—so goes this all-too-common way of thinking—then we will earn God’s favor and God will be good to us in return. That’s the way life works, right? If we’re good students, we’ll get As and earn the teacher’s favor. If we’re obedient employees, we’ll be rewarded with raises and promotions. If we’re good dogs, we’ll get the treats. So it must be that way with God, as well: do what you’re supposed to do, and you’ll pass the divine test.
Jesus’ stories, though, so often tell us that’s not at all the way it is. These two parables, along with the story of the prodigal son that immediately follows them, have been called the very “heart” of Luke’s gospel. And the reason they’re the heart of the gospel is because they put the mercy of God at the center of everything. Before we do anything, before we earn any favor, before we have a chance to be worthy of anything, God is chasing after us, God is looking for us. Not to evaluate us or warn us or punish us, but simply to find us and carry us and hold us. God is a shepherd who will not rest until we are all back in his fold. God is a woman who will not rest until every one of her coins—you and I—is accounted for and back in its place.
The truth of the matter, I suspect, is that we are all, at one level or another, lost. Maybe we’re drifting through life without any sense of direction or purpose. Maybe we’ve been abandoned by someone we’ve loved, or consigned to tasks at work that simply drain us and leave us empty. Maybe alcohol or opioids or anorexia continues to have its way with us. Maybe worry and anxiety and depression just overwhelm us. Maybe what was once a good job or marriage or hobby no longer gives us any real joy. Maybe we’re discouraged by the proliferation of guns or the persistence of discrimination against Black people or the speed and tenacity of climate change. Like the queen dying, in whatever direction we look, life can lose its luster. We’re all, at least occasionally, lost.
So Jesus tells these two stories as if to say: I don’t care how lost you may feel, God has not abandoned you. Far from it. God’s deepest desire is to find you. No, we’re going to rephrase that. It’s not that God wants to find you. It’s really that God has already found you. The whole identity of God is a constant embrace, an adoration of us that is simply always present.
Picture a time in your life when someone has looked at you with the deepest fondness. Maybe it’s a parent, or a lover, or a spouse, or a child. Maybe it’s your dearest friend. Take in what it feels like to be gazed at that way, the feeling of warmth and acceptance. I’ve said it before, but it bears regular repeating: at every moment of each of our lives, God is gazing at us in that very way, and more. That’s the sacred gaze of God’s boundless affection for you, for me, for all of us. At the start of a new program year here at Federated, there is nothing more important to hear than that: you and I are loved with a wild and reckless abandon.
At the heart of that sort of gaze is not only love, of course, but also an exuberant joy. When someone gazes at you with adoration, there’s a deep and gleeful exultation in that gaze. It’s like a parent’s gaze at their newborn, or a grandparent’s gaze at their grandchild, or a pet owner’s gaze at their furry companion. I’m looking at Betsy and the way I know she gazes at her new golden doodle Harper! God takes the same sort of joy, and more, in gazing at you and me and every other person and the earth itself.
In both of the parables we hear this morning, the climactic verse tells us that, when the shepherd finds the lost sheep and the woman finds the lost coin, they call together friends and neighbors and have a gigantic party. From one angle, it’s kind of nutty. Who in their right mind, if they lost a pet or a farm animal, would throw a huge party when they found it? Who of us, if we found the lost quarter, or even the hundred-dollar bill, would invite all the neighbors for what may have been a huge feast? The party itself would likely cost more than the lost animal or coin. It doesn’t make any sense.
But God’s love for her creation is just like the excitement of the woman who finds her coin. It’s just like the delight of the shepherd who finds his sheep. As we mark Rally Day today, this is perhaps a needed reminder for us in our faith. At the heart of it all is joy. It’s celebration.
Most of us have grown up with the notion that faith is defined by what we believe. We think we’re supposed to assent to doctrines or affirm dogma. Here’s the truth, though: what we believe about Jesus or Mary or forgiveness or reconciliation or God or the Holy Spirit or life after death is completely secondary. I love exploring all those subjects, and maybe you do, too. But our beliefs are nowhere near as important as this one simple task: do we trust, are we willing to absorb, the love of God that holds us close now and always. And, as a kind of corollary, do we rejoice in that love in humble gratitude. That is all that matters. It’s the heart of faith. Do we take in the love God is showering upon us? And are we willing to join the celebration of the angels, the joy that is boundless and totally renewing and utterly transforming?
We are called today, on this Rally Day, to dance with joy at the love of God for each of us, and for all of us. As we do that, we’re empowered to remind everybody we meet that they, too, are adored in just that way, and we, as a faith community, are going to be part of the God-force that is holding them close.
Back to Queen Elizabeth. Despite that apparently austere demeanor, the queen had a minxish quality. I still remember how startled I was at the start of the London Olympic Games in 2012. Early in the opening ceremonies, a video is shown to the crowd and to the world watching at home. In it, Daniel Craig, who played James Bond in a number of movies, walks briskly and authoritatively into Buckingham Palace, past Welsh corgis and visiting school children and various officials, and is escorted into the queen’s chambers. There, the queen—the real queen, not some stand-in—sits writing at her desk. As she finishes, she gets up and walks with Bond to a waiting helicopter, where she is whisked away to the stadium. High above the crowd, and through the magic of video editing, she leaps from the helicopter in her elegant rose-colored dress and parachutes down into the stadium to preside over those opening ceremonies. It was a brilliant beginning to the Olympics. And so much fun. Delight and joy in abundance. This is what we’re invited to.
One final story. A friend of mine was formerly in the development office at Harvard University. One day, their department traveled to England and held a major fundraising event in London. A colleague of my friend was mingling in this extremely high-society crowd when suddenly he turned and found himself face-to-face with an elderly woman he didn’t know. Not knowing what to say to her, he blurted out, “So what do you do?” And she replied drily, with a gleam in her eye, “I am the queen.” And she was. And that man will never live down his faux pas. And the angels danced with joy! As God dances with joy at you and me. As we go out now, let’s party together both today and in the year to come. And as we live out this church year, let’s invite to the party everyone who’s lost. It’s what God most wants. And it’s what will make of our world a place of the deepest delight and the richest joy. Time to celebrate!