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Sept. 12, 2010 Homily

St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Slaterville Springs, New York
This Homily was presented by parish member Linda Gaither on September. 12, 2010. 
Luke 15: 1 - 10

A lost sheep. A lost coin. I've never lost a sheep. But, through the years and lives of many beloved pets, I have lost both cats and dogs. The experience is sheer trauma: a horrible knot in my stomach, walking the neighborhood or the woods, calling, searching, waiting, glancing out the window every five minutes, hoping .. I go about my business, things I have to do, but there's really only one thing on my mind and heart..come back, dear one! And sometimes they do, to my relief and joy. The family circle is complete again.

As for lost coins . how often do these frantic, ritualistic searches consume us! It happened to me again just a few weeks ago. Returning from a camping trip, my toilet kit just wasn't there, anywhere. I knew I'd packed it . it couldn't be sitting out in the woods. Do you do this: I searched every possible and impossible place . and then I searched the same places all over again! Do we expect our lost coin to magically appear if we just put enough effort and hope into the search? There was a happy ending to this particular trauma. Like the woman in our Gospel reading, the lost object turned up in a ridiculous spot and I rejoiced as the tension faded. I hadn't left a little piece of myself in the campground after all. The circle was complete again. Plus, I'd proved I wasn't crazy . I KNEW I'd packed the kit!

The point is, looking for a lost sheep or a lost coin quickly becomes all-consuming. Jesus knew he could hook his audience and draw them in with his portrait of the frantic search. We've all been there and done that. Once his listeners were hooked, then came the unexpected twist that makes a parable work: God is just like that shepherd and that housewife, searching, searching, for the lost sheep and the lost coin, not giving up until the lost is found and the family circle is complete again. Then joy breaks out, the angels dance and the party begins.

A surprise indeed! Luke tells us Jesus' audience that day included tax collectors and sinners (who think they're lost) and scribes and Pharisees, (who think the sinners are indeed lost but can't see that they themselves might be.) Probably some in the crowd just think Jesus is lost!

Jesus astounds all of them with the twist in his parable. The Scribes and Pharisees can't believe he has the audacity to compare Holy God with an unclean shepherd and a low-status woman, neither of whom can be counted among the righteous. The tax collectors and sinners are shocked for the same reason, only it is a shock of joy. Is Holy God indeed searching, searching for us, the lost, right here, now, in the person of this man Jesus?

Luke's Gospel is crafted by a gifted wordsmith. Every word counts. Notice that the religious leaders, who confront Jesus about the worthless riffraff in the crowd that day, are portrayed as murmuring against him: v.2 "And the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying, "This man receives sinners and eats with them." Jesus picks that up and turns the tables in his parable: the shepherd leaves the 99 sheep in the wilderness while he searches for the one lost sheep. Murmuring in the Wilderness. Anyone steeped in the Hebrew scriptures will think immediately of the Israelites murmuring against Moses in the Wilderness at Mt. Sinai.ending in the disastrous episode of the Golden Calf, which we heard in our Old Testament lesson today. The Israelites turned against Moses and the God who worked through him to lead the people into a new land and new covenant life. The shadow of the Cross falls across v.2 with its image of murmuring in the wilderness.like Moses, Jesus followers will abandon him, at the very end. By the grace of God, the story will not end there, however.

In the architecture of his Gospel, Luke builds complex images, often around a single theme. Our two little parables of the lost sheep and coin take their place in a theme of seeking, finding, rejoicing. Last week in the lectionary we heard about the householder who plans a banquet but loses his guests to the busy schedules of their successful lives. So the search is on for new guests, the maimed, the blind, the hungry are brought in. After all, the party must go on, the preparations are complete. This week the shepherd and the housewife seek and find and celebrate with the angels. The climax will come next Sunday in the story of the Prodigal Son, who makes his way home, to the chagrin of the older brother, to encounter the embrace of the father and a grand feast of fatted calf.

In every case, the search, the finding and the rejoicing is unstoppable. Neither the guests, whether grateful or ungrateful, nor the sheep and coins, whether lost or not, nor the brothers, whether prodigal or stay-at-home, can stop the celebration when the lost are found and the family circle is made complete again. It's a matter of common-sense: a good householder, shepherd, housewife or father will tell you so. If this is true for sinful humans, how much more for Holy God, creator of this beloved world. God is involved in an all- consuming search for us, to restore the one human family. Jesus bet his life on it. The Holy Spirit is God's gift to empower us to bet our life on it, too.

What is our context, today, as we hear these glad tidings of great joy? It is the ninth anniversary of 9/11, marked by political feuds over a proposed Moslem Community Center several blocks from ground zero and incendiary threats to burn a Holy Koran in Florida. It is a moment to rejoice at the conclusion of hostilities in Iraq (there were no reported combat deaths in Iraq this week), while deadly conflict continues in Afghanistan (14 U.S. soldiers were killed along with an unknown number of Afghani soldiers and citizens). In a few moments we will join in a Litany for the fragile peace talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders. We pray and yearn for the end of all wars and the wisdom to create enduring peace in the one human family. What is our hope? How do get involved and bet out lives on God's peace in fellowship with Jesus?

I found one inspiring answer to that question in an article by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times this week. Here's what he said:

"This weekend, a Jewish woman who lost her husband in the 9/11 attacks is planning to speak at a mosque in Boston. She will be trying to recruit members of the mosque to join her battle against poverty and illiteracy in Afghanistan. The woman, Susan Retik, has pursued perhaps the most unexpected and inspiring American response to the 9/11 attacks..

In the shattering aftermath of Sept. 11, Ms. Retik bonded with another woman, Patti Quigley, whose husband had also died in the attack. They lived near each other, and both were pregnant with babies who would never see their fathers.  Devastated themselves, they realized that there were more than half a million widows in Afghanistan - and then, with war, there would be even more. Ms. Retik and Ms. Quigley also saw that Afghan widows could be a stabilizing force in that country.

So at a time when the American government reacted to the horror of 9/11 mostly with missiles and bombs, detentions and waterboardings, Ms. Retik and Ms. Quigley turned to education and poverty-alleviation projects - in the very country that had incubated a plot that had pulverized their lives. The organization they started, Beyond the 11th, has now assisted more than 1,000 Afghan widows in starting tiny businesses. It's an effort both to help some of the world's neediest people and to fight back at the distrust, hatred and unemployment that sustain the Taliban.

Ms. Retik has said of the project: "More jobs mean less violence. It would be naïve to think that we can change the country, but change has to start somewhere. If we can provide a skill for a woman so that she can provide for her family going forward, then that's one person or five people who will have a roof over their head, food in their bellies and a chance for education."

Kristof ends his story this way: "In times of fear and darkness, we tend to suppress the better angels of our nature. Instead, these women unleashed theirs."

I believe the angels that Susan Retik and Patti Quigley unleashed in their all-consuming search for healing and meaning in their tragic loss are the same ones that dance in heaven over the finding of a lost sheep or coin. God grant that our own search for what has been lost in our lives and in our communities may find fulfillment in the dance of the angels.