I don’t quite know why I was so surprised by this.
As I prepared for my sermon this week, today—the 15th anniversary of the terrible and terrifying day that airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center towers and hit the Pentagon in Washington, DC—it was not far from my consciousness that so many of you, unlike myself, were actually here, in this city, on September 11, 2001. I knew that, most certainly, there are feelings in our Riverside church family, memories about that day that I cannot articulate because I do not share that first-hand perspective. So I decided, after struggling for a few days with the passages for this Sunday, to post a message on my Facebook page asking Riversiders and New York friends to share the memory from that day that is imprinted most strongly on your mind.
They started coming in almost immediately, responses from so many of you…and from people all over the country and the world. Right now, at this very moment, responses to that post are still coming in. I have sat these last few days, staring at my computer screen, reading your memories with tears running down my face. Listen:
I was out of town on business. I would have been in one of the towers that day had I not been traveling.
The sky. The sky. That incredibly blue sky. The clouds were so low. You could almost touch them; it felt like angels were hovering.
Watching from across the river, speechless, as the towers came down. Then feeling the debris settling on my face, carried on the wind.
All circuits are busy.
I was standing on the corner of 51st and Madison probably 2 hours or so after the towers collapsed. I could see the huge cloud of ash and smoke as it blew toward Brooklyn. As I stood there, a gentleman dressed in a suit and holding a briefcase was slowly walking up Madison Avenue in a daze and covered in ash from head to toe.
We searched for my brother for 24 hours and didn’t know if he was dead or alive.
I didn’t know how to get home.
I was writing a story in a house in Maine. I turned on the TV, but then I turned it off again, refusing to believe. [My] boys came home [from school that day]– kindergarten and 2nd grade. Younger one was learning the alphabet. I asked, what makes the “B” sound? My sweet 6-year-old looked at me and said, “Bomb?” And I realized the world would never be the same.
A few days later, hand-inked posters with fuzzy pictures plastering bus shelters and telephone poles and subway entrances and the walls lining sidewalks of the city, people standing in front of the displays reading. And crying. “Have you seen my Daddy?” “Missing from the World Trade Center 104th floor” “We miss you, Mary Lou! World Trade Center, tower 2, 89th floor” “Help us, please!” All the posters, along with candles and flowers and stuffed animals; all little markers to say: he is lost. She is lost. And we will not rest until we find the ones we love.
I’ve long given up the illusion that anything in life is a coincidence. But I am still struck by the fact that today, the fifteenth anniversary of the day that left so many people physically and emotionally lost, our gospel assignment from the Revised Common Lectionary is the first ten verses of the gospel of Luke, chapter 15, commonly known in biblical study circles as “the lost chapter.”
This passage continues the last few weeks’ readings, reports of following Jesus around the countryside listening to him preach and teach in ways that are increasingly annoying, even alarming to the leaders of the temple, the religious and societal powerbrokers of the time. Today we find Jesus in the middle of a sermon, a sermon that had captured the interest of tax-collectors and sinners who were gathering around him to listen intently. (You don’t have to be a professional biblical scholar to know that “tax-collectors and sinners” go together in one category!) And off to the side of the crowd, the Pharisees and Scribes, leaders of the temple, were grumbling among themselves. “Jesus is welcoming those sinners. And eating with them!”
Jesus is no dummy, though; he knows exactly what’s going on in the crowd. So he begins, as is his custom, to address the situation by telling a story. In the case of our assigned passage for today, it’s two stories: the lost sheep and the lost coin. If you were to read further in this chapter, you’d read a third: the story of the prodigal son. The lost son.
These stories were probably familiar to you before the reading of the gospel this morning, but summing them up:
God is like a shepherd who owns 100 sheep. One gets lost, so God leaves the other 99 unattended and goes out and searches and searches and searches until he finds that one lost sheep. And when he does, he organizes a huge party and rejoices because he found that lost sheep.
And, God is like a woman, who has lost one of her 10 coins. So she stays up all night, moving furniture, sweeping and cleaning, until she finally discovers that one missing coin. And when she does, she also throws a huge party and invites all her family and neighbors and friends, and rejoices because she has found her one lost coin.
Hmmmm. You can’t trick us, Jesus. We’ve been listening to you long enough that we know exactly what you’re up to. You’re all about challenging the status quo and turning things on their heads. We know darn well that these stories are meant to indict the self-righteous temple leaders, to call them out on their grumbling, obstructionist behavior, and to declare that God loves sinners! Like the tax collectors and the prostitutes in the crowd! And that God will search for sinners until they repent of their ways and turn back to God! And that God welcomes even distasteful people to the table, so we should, too.
But…here’s the thing about Jesus. Just when you think you’ve got him down; just when you know all the subtext and understand every nuance of his teaching…he twists things around again. Jesus will not allow us to lock him into easy categories, to binary ways of thinking.
Notice: did you hear how completely radical Jesus’ words actually are? God is a shepherd…God is a woman…? Just those introductory phrases alone were enough to throw the crowd into an uproar. God is certainly not a shepherd: a low-class, working man who spends his days herding smelly animals and comes home at night covered with filth and manure. And God is definitely not a woman, who lights lamps and sweeps floors and cleans toilets, supporting the very bottom of the societal structure. And God is absolutely not someone who would waste resources to throw a party and rejoice if some ne’er do well sinner decides to repent.
Turns out Jesus got us again. Jesus is not talking directly to the professional sinners in the crowd, tax collectors and prostitutes, encouraging them to repent. And he’s not talking with pointed rebuke to the self-righteous religious people, telling them to wipe those scowls off their faces, stop gossiping, and welcome God’s redemptive work in the world.
No, Jesus is looking out at the gathered crowd around him, all of them, and saying everyone belongs around this table because you share such a common experience. It doesn’t much matter who you are. You’re all lost. All of you.
And despite what we’ve learned from the American Christianity that’s in the very water of our culture, being lost doesn’t mean you’re bad, and it certainly does not fit the neat categories of professional sinner or a professional righteous person. Being lost means: to look desperately for home; to want so much to belong; to wonder why you’re on this earth, anyway; to search for meaningful work and vocation; to wish for someone to know you, really know you; to want your life to mean something; to long for God.
To be lost means…to be human.
Today at The Riverside Church we begin three Sundays of returning, of gathering in. Summer has ended (although it certainly doesn’t feel that way outside), school has started up again, and folks are coming back to the city, little by little. In two weeks, on September 25, we’ll mark homecoming, a celebration of lay ministries, of fall programming, of all the wonderful expressions of gospel and grace that emerge when we express our faith as a community. It seems to me that we might start this process of gathering today by reminding ourselves that together, One Riverside, we represent a human expression of belonging, of living into the truth that God is always searching for us; that God wants to help us find our way home. This place can be a community in which you can be reminded in real and tangible ways that God is always looking for you, that God will always search for you until you are found.
As Jesus was preaching that day, he was begging the people listening to him to BE that for each other, to welcome one another with the gracious love of God. Because when we humans manage to put aside our judgment and certainty and categorizing and sin, together we become powerful representations of the kingdom of God, that beautiful place of belonging and salvation and wholeness that God dreams for us.
Witness this exact phenomenon through some more reflections you shared with me about what it felt like to live through September 11, 2001 in New York City:
New York was suddenly the smallest town in America.
I remember how people I didn’t know carried me out of a building to safety.
There were police and prisoners praying together in the holding cells.
I remember how the world came together. What happened in NYC happened to the world.
How a stranger said to me, “They’re both gone. The towers fell.” And we hugged each other and we cried together.
How kind people in NYC were to one another in the days that followed. There was a sense that we needed to be gentler with each other.
The church was packed with people who had never set foot in a church before.
I remember the first responders running toward the threat, no concern for their own safety, only the safety of others.
When Bruce Springsteen sang Rise Up at the concert after 9/11, part of me truly believed that if everyone on earth held hands and believed, the force of our energy would make the rubble rise from the ground.
If we really open our ears to Jesus’ message today, we will know that all of us get lost sometimes. That human experience can feel like chaos and destruction. It can appear to us that we are just one in a sea of many, running away from destruction and devastation, our lives inconsequential. It can make us think we can’t possibly join this party of belonging, of being found, because we will not allow ourselves to feel joy.
But hear the message of Jesus for all of us lost souls today, that God is a seeker. That it is the very nature of God to search for us, no matter who we are, over and over again, to draw us back into community and relationship. That God is “so crazy in love with you,” God will do anything to find you, all of you—all of us—saints, sinners, it doesn’t matter.
That you belong, that you are precious, that you are found.