A Homily for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, the Good Shepherd who seeks us out and calls us all by name. Amen.
It’s Christmas during one scene in the infinitely-quotable Tom Hanks classic Forrest Gump, and physically and emotionally wounded Vietnam vet Lieutenant Dan angrily asks his former subordinate:
“Have you found Jesus yet, Gump?”
The kind but simple-minded Forrest responds, with unwitting humor and accidental theological insight:
“I didn’t know I was supposed to be looking for him, sir.”
Lieutenant Dan’s question is a common one among some of our more evangelistic kin, as they ask strangers and families alike if they have “found” or “accepted” Jesus. It’s quite beside the point that rarely, if ever, has anyone ever been able to convince a street preacher that their faith is adequate. With all due charitable love to our over-eager sisters and brothers taking their aggressive form of the Gospel to the street corners, I think they might need to spend some more time re-reading today’s text from Saint Luke.
There is an all-too-human tendency to reduce Christian faith to our own action, as though if we dedicate enough time to prayer or study or in loving service to our neighbors, we might somehow find God. “If only,” we think, “I could read all of Scripture or spend a few extra minutes in prayer, maybe then I will find what I am looking for.” But tell me, if you can, what did the lost coin or the wandering sheep do to be found? What did Saul do to earn such overflowing grace from our Lord? What can any of us do to find Christ for ourselves?
To be certain, we are searching. As Saint Augustine once wrote, “Our hearts are restless until they find rest in [God.]” We do seek meaning wherever it may be found, and all too often find a sort of restless emptiness rather than true fulfillment. As we seek out the Lord’s will for our world, the study of Scripture, prayer and worship, and loving service are all ways to draw close to God. But they are the fruits of salvation, not its source; if we rely on our own ability rather than on God’s grace, we will still find that we are lost and restless. Today’s Gospel lection isn’t about what we find; it’s about being found.
We are found because our Lord is searching for us – not in a half-hearted way one pokes around the fridge for a piece of cake that may or may not still be there, but the way a poor widow turns over everything in her house to search for that oh-so-valuable coin or how a humble shepherd scrambles over boulders and through briars searching for that wandering sheep. God’s grace is radical and reckless, taking massive risks just to find us. What rational shepherd would set aside the ninety-nine for one dumb sheep? Who among us, after searching for a coin worth a day’s wages would spend much of that money burning precious lamp oil and then feeding guests?
This is precisely the foolish extravagance of God’s grace: that Jesus the Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, the very Word, being equal in glory and majesty with the Father, regarded this equality with God not as something to be exploited but rather emptied himself, became incarnate in this violent, sinful world, entering our midst not as a king or a priest in Jerusalem but into the impoverished and oppressed region of Nazareth under Roman rule. He dined with the Pharisees, yes, but he also associated with the outcast, the sinner, and the poor, promising them blessing and salvation. He tasted abuse and death itself to pursue us and followed us even to hell in order that all of heaven may rejoice in our repentance and salvation.
And so, street preachers, no, I have not found Christ. I, for my part, restlessly wandered away as I am oh-so-prone to do, and I will likely wander away again from time to time, stray sheep that I am. But when I was stranded and alone, caught in the brambles while the wolves closed in, the Good Shepherd found me, carried me back to the flock, anointed my head with oil, and rejoiced that this one dumb beast had been found.
Dear ones, you are so incredibly loved. The Almighty Triune God, Creator of the Universe, is seeking you out: every time you wander away, every time you stumble, every time you get turned around. The Lord of All Things knows you, has searched you out, has called you by name. And yes, God seeks for and calls all of us together, calling us into community, but you – yes, even you, individually – are just as loved as the entire flock.
Behold our Lord coming to you: leading you, here, beside still waters. Come, you who have not yet been baptized, and be brought into the fold, that we may all celebrate with you.
Behold our Lord coming to you: here, the Lord has made a banquet for us in the presence of our enemies. Here is the celebration for the lost sheep, mislaid coins, and prodigal children who have been found. Here is our Lord coming to us, seeking us out, promising in his presence in our midst to forgive us our sin.
Behold our Lord coming to you: here, in these pews, with all who have been brought into the flock, rejoicing together with all the saints and the whole heavenly host as our family grows.
Behold, dear ones, you are now part of the Body of Christ. You have been sought out and called by name. And when, in the wilderness of this world, you look around to realize that you are in danger, that the sun is fading and the predators are setting in, that you are caught in a thicket or the water is too swift, remember that the Good Shepherd is running towards you, desperately searching for you, making haste to save you, and that the Shepherd will even lay down his life to save yours.