A sermon by Michael Vollbrecht for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost (9/15/19)
It’s not very strong anymore, but if you listen really closely, I have a bit of a Minnesota accent. Sometimes my A’s and my O’s are a little bit long, and I sound a bit like I belong in the movie Fargo, don’t cha know? There are times when I visit my family, and after dinner I’ll lean back and put my folded hands on my stomach, just like my Dad does, like my Grandfather used to do. I think about those times when people said, “you’re just like your Mom and Dad,” or, “you’ve got that Vollbrecht look about you.” I’m hoping that was a compliment but now I’m not so sure. I take pleasure in knowing that I’m a little bit like the rest of my family, that there’s something about me that is special and unique. Of course, plenty of people have the Minnesota accent and, now that I’ve traveled and lived in different places across the country, it’s not the thing that defines me the most about being from the Northern Midwest. But there’s a way of being, a way of acting, that is familial, that is shared with others. It’s something I’ve gotten from them. And I like that.
Think about the ways in which you, too, are like the people that came before you. What habits, what mannerisms, what goofy things do you share with them? Perhaps, those of you who are parents with children, you see the ways in which your children mirror and mimic your own personalities. You hear in their voices a bit of your own voice. Our children are, after all, important to us. We share our thoughts with them, share memories of our past and our hope for the future. We instill in them virtues like kindness, generosity, and respect, and we hope that when they are finally out on their own, just like we are now, they’ll remember some of what we taught them. They may even take with them the sound of our own voices. We are connected, after all. Interconnected, part of a great web of community that draws us together and moves us forward. Life is beautiful like that, I think.
A few weeks ago, I told some of our after-school kids about the Ten Commandments and I asked them if they had grandparents. Did their grandparents have grandparents, I asked? Did THEIR grandparents have grandparents? Yes, of course. I reminded them that for generations people have been sharing that story of the Ten Commandments, over and over again, and so now it’s a part of them, as well, just like it was a part of a great-great-great grandparent when they were at children’s hour. It’s the same with us, inside. Sure, some things we might not want to share with others, some habits, but the real meat of it all: who we are deep inside… we share that with those we love, and it leaves a mark. It matters. We are interconnected. A part of something bigger than ourselves, and the more time we spend with something or someone we love, the more it begins to take on the shape of us. Well, that’s a little scary, right? But also amazing. And full of possibility.
Valparaiso University Professor of Theology Amanda Brobst-Renaud writes that in the ancient world, just like today, people were curious that the amount of time one spends with another will naturally have an effect on that person. So, choose your friends wisely. She writes that in one ancient document called “Character,” Theophrastus, a Greek philosopher and successor to Aristotle, tells us that studying and associating with good characters produces others who embody goodness, too. Other philosophers suggest that we can become almost like mirrors for others, reflecting back to them characteristics that show them how to live simply by showing them how we’ve lived, too. That’s parenting, in a nutshell, and it has a place in the spiritual life, don’t you think? Much like the imprint of a coin, what we learn from others, especially from parents, teachers, coaches, maybe even ministers… is imprinted on our minds, our hearts, and our souls. We do not exist in isolation: we are a part of every lesson that has come before us.
In our gospel reading today in Luke, Jesus tells the parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin. Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one, he says, wouldn’t you leave the 99 in search of the lost sheep until it is found? Or suppose a woman with ten silver coins loses one, doesn’t she sweep her house and search carefully until it is found? Think about this for a moment. In the ancient world to have so many sheep and so many coins was a sign of extravagant wealth. For a person of so much wealth to lose one item and then drop everything to retrieve it says something about who is doing the looking. It’s pretty clear to me that both the shepherd and the woman with the coins are images for God. God is concerned with finding even one who has been lost from God’s creation, but why? I mean, we are but one of billions of others. What possible use could God have with just one of us?
Just as we have imprinted our energy, ideas, and Minnesota accents on others, God imprints God’s self on us. God has taken the time to put a part of God’s own self within us, to share a part of God’s own self with every last one of us, and God will not rest easy when any one of us is lost. Of course, this begs the question, why would God let any sheep, or coin, or you or me, out of God’s grasp anyway? Wouldn’t it be easier to force us to stay within the fold, to stay like a silver coin in a leather bag, or keep us bound together by rules in churches? Why, instead, would God let us go, make us free to become lost, run the risk of us forgetting God completely? Precisely because freedom is a part of what makes us human. We are not meant to be subjugated or forced, marginalized or controlled… we get a choice. We get to decide how we will live our lives. It’s up to us.
But God searches for us because, I believe, God is incomplete without us. Yes, we have the freedom to go away, but we are, after all, made in the image of God, bearing the imprint of God, and when even one of us is gone, God feels it. But God is not in the business of making demands, no matter what some might think. God searches for us because even when God is incomplete without us, God knows that we are incomplete without God, too. See, God wants a relationship with you and me. Not a rulebook. There’s not force involved here. God seeks a relationship that says: I’m with you. Yes, you were were lost, but now you’re found. You’re not blind anymore – look at me. Here I am… in love with you. Do you love me, too?
Have you felt lost these days? Have you felt incomplete? Remember that God is searching for you, seeking you, reminding you that you bear the imprint of God’s own self. But it’s a two-way street, right? You must turn to see God running toward you. You must take a step forward yourself.
What does it look like to come home to God? I remember, when I was a little boy, maybe 8 or 9, I decided to run away from home. I was angry at my parents because of something, probably having to empty the dishwasher or clean my room. Well, I had had enough! I packed my bag, my toothbrush, my pajamas (actually, first I had to ask my Mom where my pajamas were, get them, and then pack them.) I came banging down the stairs and announced to my parents, “I’m running away!” Their response? “That’s nice, dear.” Not the response I was looking for. Still, I turned around, flew out the front door, and was on the move. I got about halfway up the block before I decided to wait it out. I knew they’d be on my tail, begging me to come back home. Any minute now. I’d give it ten minutes, I decided. I played with some rocks. Twenty minutes.
Well, this is ridiculous, I thought! They didn’t really care for me after all, and I was going to turn back for home and let them know just how I felt. As I got home I noticed my Dad was sitting on the porch, waiting. Waiting for me, apparently. “Come home?” he asked. “Why didn’t you come after me?!” “Come inside,” he said. That twenty minutes of freedom really worked up an appetite so I decided to step inside, hoping for a snack. Mom was preparing dinner, and a place setting was already there for me. They hadn’t run after me but they had left the door open and they were waiting for me to come home, to welcome me home. I suppose it’s no coincidence in Luke that the next story to be told is that of the Prodigal Son. There was love there, in that moment. Coming home to God is like coming home to a place where the table is always set for you.
Have you felt lost these days? Have you felt incomplete? Perhaps you feel like running away from it all. Perhaps you feel like nobody cares, that you wouldn’t be missed. But God never stops seeking after you and God never stops preparing for that moment when you’ll come home. When you’ll see that you’ve been imprinted with God’s own spirit, and you’ll want to start showing that with the world. And there’s very little you need to do to start showing it, you know? Once you find yourself, once you find God, You can see God’s work all around you. It’s easy. It doesn’t take much, after all, to show kindness to a stranger. It doesn’t take much to invite someone to dinner. It doesn’t take much, although these days you might think so, just to let someone who is different than you live their life in peace. It doesn’t take much to say to someone, “I see you. I hear you. I’m with you.” It doesn’t take much, but it means so, so much, and it’s what God would do. And why do you do it? Because you’re imprinted with a bit of God-stuff in you. You’re marked by God every day, no matter what you’ve done in the past or what you think keeps you from God’s love. Doing good, even a little bit, proves at least to me that you are a child of God, and a bit of God is always and ever present inside your heart, your mind, and your soul. What a gift you are. What a gift you have to give to this world.
This is the way, after all, God shows you how to lead a grace-filled life. A life that is imprinted with the spark of God. When you live a life like this, when you live in grace and gratitude for all you’ve been given, no matter how small, then even the angels rejoice, the gospel tells us. And you can’t help but want to share that with others? It’s a start, isn’t it? And a start is all God asks of us. And a start is what it needed these days, more than ever. We have struggled these days to share peace with one another, to share our joy, to share love, to share a little peace and understanding. But now it the day to start doing that, don’t you think?
No matter how lost you have felt, no matter how incomplete, know that you have a spark of God within you, a piece of divinity in your heart, and nothing can ever take that away from you. You’re free. You’re home. It’s time to share that with the world. Remember, as you leave here today: God, like a shepherd, like a woman seeking after her lost coin, won’t let you go. You are sought after. You are loved. And God will never let you go. May you share that with the world this day, and every day. Amen.