Dear beloved children of God, grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior Jesus who is the Christ. Amen.
The first funeral I did was… unusual. It was for a woman who had died a few years before I was born. Like I said, it was unusual. Needless to say, I’ve never done another one like it. I’m quite certain I never will.
At the same time it was one of the most beautiful expressions of what the good news of Jesus is all about. Here’s the story.
I first learned about the circumstances surrounding this funeral while I was sitting in my office here at Bethlehem. At the time I was a seminary intern, I was a practice pastor. In those days my office was two doors down from Pastor Chris Nelson’s. In the office suite, most people keep their doors open so there’s a lot of ambient noise. For the most part you get pretty good at tuning it out, but occasionally someone says something that catches your ear.
That day I heard Pastor Chris take a phone call and I heard, “Huh, well, we have a seminary intern here at the moment and this sounds like a perfect opportunity for him. I’ll have him give you a call.”
30 seconds later Pastor Chris walked into my office and handed me a phone number. I have a funeral for you he said. The woman died 40 years ago and they’d like you to perform a graveside funeral service at Lakewood Cemetery next week. Give the daughter a call. He smiled at me and walked out.
Today we have in front of us two of the three parables that Luke’s gospel tells about lost things. Chapter 15 culminates in the parable of the lost son, or the prodigal son that we will hear next week. This week however, we have the lost sheep and the lost coin. These are powerful little parables. Jesus jams a lot into these few verses. But before we dive into them, notice the context. Why does Jesus tell these stories?
Because the religious leaders are salty. They’re mad. They’re grumbling to one another about the company that Jesus keeps. They have thoughts about who a person like Jesus should be spending his time with, and these tax collectors and sinners aren’t the right kinds of people.
So Jesus tells two stories of unwavering dedication and reckless love. Both the shepherd and the woman embody this almost manic pursuit of the one thing that is missing. Everything else is put on hold, everything else fades into the background as these two individuals pursue what is lost to them.
Then when the the sheep and the coin are found, there is this unbridled joy. Jesus says they both throw a party to celebrate what has been found. It’s not enough that the shepherd and sheep and the woman and coin are reunited but the rest of the community is drawn into the joy of these two individuals. It’s not a private affair. Jesus says that there’s an extravagant celebration. It’s fair to assume that the party cost more than either the sheep or the coin were worth. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is that they’re home, they’re reunited, they’re together.
In case the metaphor is still a little fuzzy, you’re the coin, you’re the sheep and in Jesus, God has come to find you. You are the one for whom God is searching. You are the object of Jesus’ singular focus. You are the one for whom God moves heaven and earth, you are the one for whom Jesus becomes flesh. You are the one God is looking for. You are the one Jesus has found.
It can be hard at times to believe that you are the recipient of a love that fierce, a love that tenacious, a love that doesn’t forget, that doesn’t move on.
After Chris left my office, I summoned some courage and called the daughter. She told me that her mom had died in the late 1960s. She told me that she was 17 when her mom died and that her mom was her bestfriend. The daughter told me that through a series of unfortunate events the cemetery has disinterred her mother’s body and subsequently misplaced her mother’s remains. The daughter was understandably devastated.
Over the course of the next 40 years she would visit the cemetery, and after she moved across the country she would call and write letters. Every year she would contact the officials and plead her case, trying to see if anyone could locate her mother’s remains.
Finally in 2008 someone came across an unmarked casket, and the engagement ring that her mother had been buried with was sent to the daughter to confirm that her mother had indeed been found.
That summer four of us gathered around a graveside at Lakewood Cemetary and recommitted this woman’s body to the earth. She was laid to rest next to her parents, thanks to the relentless love of her daughter.
Under a beautiful blue sky, I read today’s story from Luke’s gospel. In that moment, the four of us who gathered were reminded that though her body had been lost for 40 years, this woman was never lost to God. We heard the words of promise that we all need to hear when the days, and the weeks and the years drag on it and it feels as though we are alone. This daughter was reminded that her relentless pursuit of her mother was a godly act and a holy act and that now we can rejoice and celebrate because her mom was home in the embrace of the God who had chased after her for her whole life.
This is the story that’s been entrusted to us. This is why we’re here. Each one of you is loved by a God who has torn apart the house, swept in from top to bottom, pursued you from one hillside to the next. Each one of you is loved by a God who will look for you for decades. Each one of you is loved by a God who became one of us and died with us on the cross so that we can be forever found in Jesus’ life.
This is what God has given us. This is what people long to hear. This is what the world needs to hear and know and experience. This is why we are church.
Early this week Mary and I are going to be sending out an email to the congregation in anticipation of the annual meeting which is coming up two weeks from yesterday. We’re sending the email because in the past few weeks both the finance committee and the congregational council have recommended a budget for the congregations approval that projects a giving shortfall of just over $100,000.
It’s a big number. The staff and the leadership of the congregation have worked hard to put together a budget that is both fiscally conservative but also allows room for imaginative ministry to continue to be done by this congregation. So there aren’t easy ways to fix this on the expense side of the budget.
Now there are lots of reasons why the giving projection is down. And Mary and I spend some time reflecting on those things in this letter, so I encourage you to read the whole thing when it comes to you. Please know that we’re working hard to change this. But this is also our work together. God has done and continues to do incredible things in and through Bethlehem Lutheran Church. We trust that each of you will prayerfully consider how God is calling you to participate and contribute in this new season of our life together as the church.
I’m sure for many of you this is surprising and maybe even difficult news, but we’re both incredibly hopeful. We know this to be a generous community of people. This is a resilient and innovative congregation.
We continue to see new people, young people visiting and returning and engaging in the work of this congregation. This congregation is vibrant and it is doing important and holy work in the world. We have this amazing story to tell, to share, to live. And above all we have a gracious and loving God who is working to renew the church around the world.
One of my favorite professors while in seminary was writing on today’s parables and said, “When God finds us when we are lost, our usual ways of perceiving and responding to life are transformed.”
Beloved friends in Christ, we have been found. We are members of Christ’s body. Together we get to see this world differently, we get to see this world not as one divided by hate and jealousy and fear, but as one held together, bound together with life giving love of Christ. We have been given more than enough. We have been entrusted with a powerful story. Let’s be bold in our telling of this story, let’s be bold in our living of this story, so that all people come to know and experience the truth that they are found and made whole in Jesus who is our life today and always. Amen.