Note: I preached a version of this sermon on Saturday and Sunday, September 14-15, 2019 at Messiah Lutheran Church in Wauconda, Illinois. It was my last Sunday at Messiah.
Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
I found some lost sheep this week as I cleaned out my office. Lots of them, actually, lost and hiding in plain sight. Books I meant to read but never did. Books I never did mean to read but kept anyway. Scraps of paper with incomprehensible messages. Projects that got started but not finished. Information that got piled up but not filed away.
I found a German family Bible given to me in haste by a member of the church who was disappearing into dementia and who, I found out, died last year. I contacted her daughter to ask if she wanted it. Little gifts given to me by church members returning from travels. Cards to celebrate Elijah’s birth. A letter from someone in prison. A letter about someone else in prison. I found the first gold sheets of families who are now on staff or church council, along with lots of gold sheets from people who never came back or drifted away.
The truth of the matter is that we are always leaving in the middle of something—in the middle of many things—and we are always leaving things lost, unfinished, orphaned. I did my best to track down and kill all the wasps that were streaming into my hallway and office, among other places. I climbed onto roofs, looked behind siding, and emptied can after can of wasp spray. I even brought the boys along to help. And each wasp that crept into my hallway or buzzed around on the preschool playground, each one that got away was a rebuke to me. I hadn’t found it. Hadn’t caught it. Let it get away.
Today in the Gospel, Jesus tells his audience a famous double parable. Some of his critics are unhappy that he associates with ritually unclean and morally dubious people. They are properly concerned with the preservation of the covenant God made with them. They are properly worried that the covenant would be damaged by breaking down the necessary moral barriers around it. And to answer these critics, Jesus tells a story:
“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous who need no repentance.”
So it is with a woman who loses one of ten coins: she does everything to find it, and rejoices when she does.
Now something it may help you to know about pastors is that many of us are steeped in the mathematics of this passage. It is easy for us to neglect the ninety-nine who are present so that we can search for the one missing. We can dwell on the absent faces, the names that fade off the list of visitors, the opportunities we had and didn’t seize. Could we have tried harder? Could we have done something better, smarter, faster? Could we have made the Gospel more plausible or the church more inviting for that one we lost?
Beyond that, some of us can be a tad obsessive about completing something just for the sake of completing it. This is why I can leave big projects unfinished, why I can leave baptism certificates unsigned in my office for years while I track down every last wasp’s nest on the grounds.
This is excessive and unhealthy but it is, in a way, part of the faith we profess. Christians are always being called by God to attend to the pieces of life that may otherwise be lost or ignored or forgotten. It is our unhappy job as preachers of the Gospel to remind ourselves and you of those things we might be happier to overlook—the lapses of conscience that can turn into habit; the careless words that can turn into true hostility; the failings of empathy that can confirm us in self-centered behavior. And it is also our job, happy or not, to lift up those blessings we may be trained not to see, or taught to take too lightly—starting with the Word itself and the infinite grace of the humble Sacrament, but spreading out to every gift God gives in the face of our neighbor or the minute beauty of creation. Do not dismiss the seed of faith in your life. Do not lose it, because what you lose you may not be willing to go find; do not forget it, because what you forget you may train yourself never to remember. There are, as the story of Moses in today’s lesson reminds us, always other gods to chase and other powers in the world who want to have us for their own.
And it is our job, sorrowful and happy, to remind ourselves and you that we have all stood in need of one who would go and find us. I was in college, a good student with a good family and all my daily needs met, and yet I was a lost coin on the sidewalk, a lost sheep in the wilderness. I did not know God or what was good or what my life was for. And Jesus picked me up, through the preaching and the liturgy chanted by Pastor John Gorder and Pastor Nancy Goede and the Scriptures and the Body and Blood of Jesus. I can’t remember any of their sermons, but I remember what they and the worship of the church were always saying: “You, Ben Dueholm, lost coin that you are, have come home, with whatever wounds and failings you carry. It is hard here at home. The words offer struggle as well as peace; the people offer conflict as well as fellowship. But it is and always will be home. And the eternal host of angels, and the growing army of saints, rejoice that you are here.”
That is what I have hoped to impress upon you over these years of being together face to face around the words of our faith: Your very presence here is a victory. It infuriates the demons and thrills the saints and angels. Your very presence here puts you in the path of grace that you cannot earn and yet that claims all of your life. Your very presence here brings you to the throne of God, whether the sermon is memorable for two seconds after it ends or the hymns take off or you’re sad or angry or just not feeling it today. Christ has brought you home through danger and temptation and opened your voice to praise. That in itself is a victory. That is the resurrection from the dead.
And so, as I gathered the lost sheep of my office, I found one in particular that challenged me. It was a stack of sealed envelopes that I had made as an element of a sermon back in, I think, 2014. The Gospel passage that week was the wedding guests who refuse their invitations, and the king who has to go out into the streets to find new guests. So I wrote up a bunch of “invitations” to the Kingdom of God, each an action that you were invited to do over the coming week. Pray Psalm 8 each day. Pray four times for someone you really dislike. And so on. I asked that people “RSVP” by emailing to me about the experience. I can still remember some of the responses. Someone told me about praying for rude drivers. Someone made contact with a long-lost friend and got reacquainted, learning that their lives had run in parallel over many years..
I thought it was a pretty clever idea. But I got too clever by asking for volunteers before saying what people were volunteering for. And only the fifteen or so people who volunteered got the invitations. So I had a ton of invitations left. They were a lot of trouble to print and I just couldn’t make myself throw them away. So they sat on my desk for a few years, and then in a cabinet and I forgot about them until I came across them this week.
In the interest of each lost sheep and lost coin finding its home, I’ve brought those remainders here today. Pick one up, open it, and see what it does to you. Probably not much, but probably something that would not have happened to you otherwise.
In doing this, you will help me finish cleaning my office. That is a work of mercy. But more importantly, you will help illustrate an important truth: the sermon doesn’t end with the Amen. The preaching of the Gospel is completed in our lives. St. John Chrysostom, the greatest preacher of the ancient church, used to tell his hearers that they were the fulfillment of his preaching. So who am I to believe that I can wrap things up with my own cleverness. Of course I can’t. No one can.
We come to preach the faith of the apostles and to help you guard it until the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. We put our best into that, and we worry and fret that it isn’t enough. But no ending is in our hands. All we do is play a part, toward a whole whose immense drama and beauty we can only glimpse in these images of shepherds and women and communities and angels rejoicing together over the one that has come safely home.
So, sisters and brothers, keep showing up. Keep winning that weekly victory over the demons. Keep putting yourself in the path of grace, from heaven to earth through the words of faith and the sacrament of eternal life. Tend your faith. Guard it jealously. It is the smallest thing, but it’s the world’s greatest treasure. And I have had many conversations with people who know firsthand: Nothing in heaven and earth can compensate for its loss.
And please remember to pray every day. I didn’t really start doing that until after I came here, and it did change my faith. Of all the kind words said to me here, more than I ever deserved, the ones that meant the most were: “I pray for you.” I think about the faces I no longer see—Clyde Lundsten, Bob Cloud, Ricks Brewer, Joan Hill, Fred Morrison, John Adams, Sue Kasula, Mary Lasell, so many more—and I remember that they have never stopped praying for me and for you. We do this together, all the way from baptism to resurrection. Your prayers will continue to find me, and mine will continue to find you.
Finally, please remember that when you are here—however lost you may feel, however distant God may seem to you—when you are here, you have already been found. And the sound of praise we make, at its very best or very worst, is only and always the faint and distant echo of the heavenly rejoicing that has already begun. Amen.