Sept 16, 2001
A Sermon for Seekers Church
by Marjory Zoet Bankson
Seeing Things Whole
Luke 15: 1-10
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were going near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable:
“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she find it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents."’
Last Tuesday, the world saw and heard the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. Diane Wilkins told me on Saturday that she had heard from clients and friends in 37 different countries. Kathy Tobias forwarded an inquiry from our MUKA friends in South Africa. With our worldwide connections, I suspect we have all had calls from near and far that began “Are you ok?” I found myself stumbling over my response, bewildered by the enormity of what had happened. Never has a national disaster brought such an international response — because now we know we are all connected. Moreover, what we do matters to the rest of the world.
The attacks cracked open our snug shell of self-sufficiency and exposed the raw vulnerability of human life. For many, illusions of our geographical security crumbled with the buildings, leaving us with new choices and new eyes to see what we must do.
I have decided to use the lectionary text for today because I believe Jesus lived much of his life on the raw edge of experience — without illusions of perfection, control or invulnerability. He lived in a world full of random violence, where the rule of law was reserved for Roman citizens. He can show us how to live fully with uncertainty and compassion.
The Gospel lesson for today begins with a confrontation between two different worldviews: the stratified “business as usual” scribes and Pharisees — and Jesus’ radical love for those at the edge of society. These well-meaning officials criticize Jesus for welcoming sinners and eating with them. They were more comfortable with the synthetic rules that kept classes and groups separated. They are angry because he challenges their security, their power and their justification for what they do.
In response, Jesus appeals to something deeper in them. “Which one of you,” he says, “would not leave your flock and go in search of one who was lost?” It is possible that Jesus was being ironic, but I choose to see his question as an invitation to discover something more in themselves… like those who have been helping others this week. David Lloyd, along with many other brave DoD people, has been at the Pentagon this week, helping with the rescue operations, learning what has been lost. I thought of the scenes we have been witnessing on TV — of heroic workers, battling danger and fatigue, in the hopes of finding one or two people alive under tons of debris. They are working night and day to save people of another class — people who would not ordinarily have shared a meal together. Many of them have left the safety of their own homes and families to search for strangers simply because the need is there.
Jesus tried to put the Pharisees in touch with their own compassion when he began, “Which one of you would not leave his flock….” He calls our attention to the “seeds of God” already planted in us when he asks that question. He knows we have the potential for finding a deeper source of love even as we go about these numb and disbelieving days.
As we consider these words of Jesus, let me ask, what did you do on Wednesday, when the reality began to sink in? When you could hear the silence of the cool morning air without airplanes overhead? When you noticed the eerie emptiness of the streets? When you made plans with your kids because there was no school that day? Peter and I lit a candle at the breakfast table and read the words of Psalm 46, which Tiffany sent out “to all Seekers”, from the service at the Presbyterian Church where she works:
God is our refuge and strength.
A very present help in trouble,
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
And though the mountains slip into the heart of the sea…
We tried to plant our feet in the reality of God’s presence and not sit, mesmerized with horror, at the images being repeated on television.
In the conversations that I had on Wednesday, I heard lots of free-flying anger, which I took to be unnamed and ungrounded fear. A planned attack gives our feelings of helplessness a direction and a target even though the perpetrators died along with their victims. We want to strike out at someone! It is a natural human response.
We began to hear of attacks against Arab Americans — some right here in Alexandria. That puts a different list on Jesus’ question: “Which of you would not leave your flock,” he asked, “and go out to defend those who are cornered or shunned?” Could we say “Yes” to that? Could we speak out against violence to our neighbors? I hope so. The time is now!
Talk of a punishing war began to heat up and I began to fear the impulse for revenge. My body again felt the terror of being in the Alaskan earthquake and I remembered the clutch of fear from the Cuban missile crisis, when Peter and his infantry company were issued live ammunition and kept “on alert” in the barracks. We stood on the brink of war then, but the Soviet government pulled their missiles back. This time there is no “red phone” to use, no clear leader to contact. We will have to find another way. I am grateful the entertainment industry has granted us space and time to think and pray and to contact deeper roots of compassion in ourselves.
By Thursday, we began to hear of billions to beef up a military response and tighten airport security. While I believe the perpetrators must be punished, over-reaction could do much more damage. There was talk about “radical changes in our way of life” and something in me flared with hope even though I knew that government officials were not talking about that.
I wondered if we would have the courage to look at the symbolism in this attack and ask ourselves how America could change the way we use our financial and military power in the world. What would happen if we flew food instead of bombs to Afghanistan? Can we find the largeness of spirit to practice justice and mercy in this situation?
I also remembered the night we bombed Iraq in retaliation for their invasion of Kuwait. I was leading a retreat in Michigan and word came in about 5pm, just before dinner. Women spoke of leaving. By the end of dinner, I had talked with the leaders of two other retreats in that center and we decided to have a prayer service in the chapel. Instead of sitting far apart in the pews, we gathered on the rug in front of the altar with those who had direct connections with anyone on either side of the conflict in the middle. It was not unlike a flock of sheep, sheltering the most frightened. We prayed together for the victims on both sides, asked for guidance and courage about the steps we could take toward peace. An Episcopal priest with one of the other groups offered Eucharist, and by 8:30, we were back in our room.
By then I knew the next step. I asked if there were others who had direct experience with war and who might be willing to speak of it; I then suggested we change into our bathrobes and return so we could be together. Everyone stayed. That night, we heard from ordinary women who found a way to draw from a deeper source of love that sustained them in what they had to do. We heard stories of loss, of courage and fear, of isolation and community — of life and death and faith in practice. They spoke of caring especially for children, tending the flame of trust and hope that is so essential for a free society.
I believe that is exactly what Jesus meant by his second parable, the story of a woman who lost a silver coin — so she lights a lamp and sweeps her house until she finds the coin again. The inward journey to recover something that once belonged to her without thinking, now requires intention and care to restore what has been lost. Like that woman, it’s time for us to get together, as Seekers and as Americans, to light the lamp of faith, get down on our knees and start looking for a part of our spiritual treasure that’s gotten lost.
Friday was set aside as a day of remembrance, to honor the dead and stand silent before the hugeness of our loss. Many of us lit candles and joined others in prayer services around the city.
I hope we also spent some time thinking about the world we are creating for our children’s children — and for other children in the world.
This tragedy can also be a time for us to look at why they hate us so much — and what we can do to dry up the pools of poverty, persecution and exploitation that spawn terrorism. This tragedy calls us to open our eyes and ears and our hearts to the ways that the world is so intricately woven together now — to welcome other sinners at the table where we have sometimes been the only guest.
When Jesus told his stories of the lost sheep and the lost coin, he ended each with a celebration — of rejoicing when the lost is found and wholeness restored. While it may be too early for some of you to think beyond your weariness and grief, the hope in God’s promise of Shalom is where our security ultimately rests.
We must discover the spiritual resources to protect the diversity and dignity of ALL Americans and to take a good hard look at the way we treat others in the world. Everyone wants respect. Everyone wants a way for his or her children to grow up whole. Jesus can teach us to love life and yet live with uncertainty and shared power. To paraphrase Reinhold Niebuhr in this season of recommitment:
God grant us the courage to change the things we can change,
the grace to accept what we cannot change,
and the wisdom to know the difference. Amen.