First Congregational Church
September 11, 2022
14th Sunday after Pentecost
“Identity as Joyful Parts of the Whole”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
I just read that Albert Einstein was a real person. All this time I thought he was a theoretical physicist. I also read about a store that only sells bagels and donuts. It’s called ‘Hole Foods.’ Then I read that a sheep was seen driving a car in a swimsuit. It was a lamb bikini. And then I ran across the term domestic housewife, which, you know, implies that there are feral housewives, so if I’d have known that was an option…. The out-take from all that reading is to not believe everything you read.
ID. We get asked for it for good reasons and not-so-good reasons. Some people put more importance on their identity than others, but we all deal with our identities all the time.
Years ago I had an appointment with my eye doctor, just down the road, Kevin Nelson. Somehow the conversation came to him saying, “You know, I’d really love for people to know me as a genius.” Of course, as with many a conversation with Dr. Nelson, we laughed and laughed, and the conversation went on from there. But the thought stuck in my mind.
So I had a couple of hundred business cards made up for him. I think it was a rich green with a white business font in which the first line was Kevin Nelson and the second line was “Genius.” He has referenced those cards every so often over the years, especially when he golfs with someone he doesn’t know and he gets to hand them his card. Kevin Nelson, Genius. The out-take from that story is, what would your ideal business card read - first thing that comes to mind? I think I’d like mine to read comedian, but I’m not really all that funny, so there’s that.
This morning’s scripture passage picks up where last week’s left off: crowds gathering as Jesus traveled around the countryside, teaching and healing. Like a good teacher, Jesus varied his approaches to get his points across, using hyperbole, humor and relatable stories. This morning’s passage shines the light on the tax collectors and “sinners” that were joining those crowds.
It’s an interesting designation because I wonder if the tax collectors and sinners were one group or two. We know that the designation of tax collectors fell to those Jewish individuals who collaborated with the Roman government, not always in ways that reflected well on their Jewish heritage.
If tax collectors and sinners were one group, then the sinners might well have been Pharisees, Sadducees, or other religious leaders that didn’t quite live up to their status. If the sinners were a separate group, they may well have been “those who are unable to follow the exacting standards of Torah.” Either way, there were a lot of people around, including officials.
Now the tax collectors and "sinners" were all gathering around to hear him. 2 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, "This man welcomes sinners and eats with them."
3 Then Jesus told them this parable: 4 "Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? 5 And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders 6 and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, 'Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.' 7 I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.
8 "Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Does she not light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? 9 And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, 'Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.' 10 In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents."
Thank you, Judy. An interesting side note of identities is when they have more shocking elements attached to them. Those who have had the opportunity, know that the Cherry Hut in Beulah is as much a phenomenon as quintessential Michigan. But did you know that last summer, which was still in the throws of Covid, they went through 650 turkeys? As for their little red moniker, they sell between 20,000 - 25,000 cherry pies a season.
Another shocker bit of information, among teenagers who sought information about mental health, 95% said that they trusted their parents, 80% said they trusted their teachers and other adults at school and 78% trusted their friends. Those are really hopeful numbers.
As followers of Christ, part of our identity is in boosting knowledge about mental health - for all ages, to help decrease the stigma associated with those who struggle with it, and to help build support. It’s critical to notice people, to have even short conversations with them, especially with kids - whether they are legally yours or not - in this Suicide Prevention Month.
These are interesting parables because neither the sheep nor the coin made a decision to become lost, it just happened, nor did they ask to be found. The parables don’t stop with simple lostness, but there is an effort to go out of the way to find and restore them. Add to all that, and there is rejoicing - in heaven and in the presence of angels.
A few years ago, I had my DNA tested, just because I was curious. For 55 years or so, I thought I was three-quarters Swedish, a quarter German, and a hairline of French. Well! I was nearly indignant to discover that I was just a third Swedish! At the same time, I was astonished to learn that there were Eastern European aspects to my Heritage and even British elements.
Since that initial reveal, fine-tuning has been achieved, and the latest report is that I’m 60% Swedish and Danish, still more Eastern Europe and Russian DNA than Germanic European, with a cherry topping of 2% Sardinia and 2% Northern Italy. Within a particular area in Central Sweden encompassing a square of 200 miles, all the members of those communities and I, are linked through shared ancestors. I probably have family who lived in this area for years—and maybe still do. Ooo!
It’s really mind-boggling - belonging to a group of people that I haven’t yet “found” and who haven’t found me. The answer to those wondering if siblings have the same DNA composite, the answer is a near firm, “no.” I can explain more of that on a one-to-one conversation if you’d like.
The point of all that is not about me, but about how we think of ourselves. Some folks really don’t care a fig about their ancestry, while others have sisters who have bins and binders with not one or two but upwards of eight branches of the family tree. Those who might not care about DNA might really care about the NRA card in their wallet, or the student id, military id, security clearances, and the list goes on. We all have things that define us, some that have high financial value and others that come at a great emotional cost.
While almost all our identities are different, we share some: as people of faith, followers of Christ, and beloved of God. We belong to the One who is 1) a seeker who 2) is not fatigued and 3) experiences joy and fosters celebration when the lost is found. Jesus’ call to the tax collectors and sinners is our call, all these centuries later: to treasure the lost, and be concerned about those who lose their way.
Neither the coin nor the sheep have to repent of becoming lost, not only because that is an unrealistic idea, but it also doesn’t make any difference. They were lost. They were found. There was rejoicing.
I would venture to guess that a lot of us know the song “Edelweiss,” made famous by the movie version of The Sound of Music. It’s so accessible in its simplicity and hopefulness, yet most of us don’t realize that while it sounds like an old song, it’s rather recent. It’s even more precious when we shine a light on its inclusion in the famous show.
The producers of the out-of-town shows determined that the musical needed another song in the second act, so they went to Oscar Hammerstein, who happened to be in the hospital, dying of stomach cancer. Dying, in pain, only 65 years old, rather than giving in to cynicism or writing a gritty song, Oscar wrote about beauty, eternal renewal, rebirth, and hope. He wrote a song that shows us that goodness lasts much longer than hate and that pure, beautiful symbols grow out of the snow that seeks to bury us.
Knowing his time was up, Oscar decided to leave the world a final gift - after giving so many - that would be a reminder that life goes on, and it is beautiful. It’s the sort of gift that followers of Christ and beloved of God may well find leaking out the corners of their eyes - some out of gratitude, some out of sorrow for those who are still waiting to be found.
We can, in our humanness, get a little zealous in our perceived need to put people in pigeonholes. Jesus never seemed all that concerned about whether a person or persons belonging to the “in” crowd or not, unless they caused harm to individuals. For Jesus, people were/are parts of the family of God; the single reason for joyful celebration.
There are few folks who would argue that this has been a tough summer, a tough season, and a tough couple of years. A lot of people have put their shoulders to the yoke and leaned in, helping others, going the extra mile, keeping the tissue companies afloat, and more than a few have come to feel as if they are lost. You are not lost. God knows exactly where you are, and nothing will change God’s desire for that knowledge.
For those who want to verify, there is a website: www.lostandfound.com. Yep, you can post anything lost, report anything found, and there are even lost and found software programs for restaurants, hotels, train stations, schools, and airports - like hello!? - ballparks, amusement parks, bus systems, movie theaters, you name it, there is software for it.
While it’s a good example of how technology can help people connect in a useful way, it’s a good thing we don’t need apps or software, or other retail venues to know that God will never give up on us. And not only will God never give up on us, but God’s delight is also simply us - who we are - who you are - valued and precious - members of God’s whole creation. And so we pray.
God of all your people and all our ways, thank you for never even considering that we have more or less value, that we are all invaluable to you. Thank you for the delight you have in us - all of us - that is so much greater than we even realize. Remind us and embolden us to the extra effort to seek lost sheep and coins and hearts and minds, because our mission in those realms never, ever ends, regardless of age or ability. Help us to lift up those who have fallen into cracks and crevices - regardless of how they get to those places, that we might all realize our “Identity as Joyful Parts of the Whole,” as all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.