Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Welcome home! Welcome home from cabins up North, from vacation around the country, and your children’s weekend sports tournaments. Welcome home from a global pandemic and all the trials that have kept you away. Welcome! It’s Rally Sunday.
Covid has been hard on churches – especially on regular congregational life. You could see it first on the marquees outside churches. In March 2020, a congregation in one community posted the following, “WWJD? What would Jesus do? He’d love his neighbors and wash his hands.” A neighboring church used its three lines to say, “Standing together, in solidarity, six feet apart.” Eventually marquees took on a less serious tone. A favorite sign read, “Give us clean hands and Purell hearts.” There was one that sounded like a high school cheer, “Wash your hands and say your prayers, cause Jesus and germs are everywhere.”
True, the signs and protocols of the past two years have almost all disappeared, but we will probably never be completely rid of Covid. I know. I just had another booster shot yesterday. So now need to find a way to move forward to worship together again in person and to enjoy the strength of community. My friends, this Rally Sunday comes as both an invitation to explore these possibilities and the challenges.
Truly, what story could be more welcoming for Rally Sunday than Jesus’s two parables of the lost sheep and lost coin. St. Luke’s gospel begins with a colorful and provocative scene. The tax collectors and sinners have come to Jesus listening to what he had to say. In the ancient world, the tax collectors were the public servants, but who were not well respected. They were often viewed as collaborators with the Roman authorities. As for the sinners? They were the same then as they are today. They were the freeloaders. The late-night bar crowd who couldn’t be trusted to show up to work the following morning. Surprisingly, Jesus spent a lot of his time welcoming these people and talking and eating with them. Needless to say, the cautious and respected Pharisees and scribes were a bit confused about Jesus’ intentions. They grumbled and complained, and they said, “This man welcomes sinners, and he eats with them.”
To his critics, Jesus offered two parables reflecting the nature of God. “Which one of you, having one hundred sheep and losing one of them would not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the lost one until he finds it? Yes, imagine that you have one hundred vulnerable sheep prone to flightiness and attacks and that you lose one of them. Now, wouldn’t you go out after the lost one until you find it?” Well, the real answer to that question is “No, of course not.” Nobody in his or her right mind who’s in the sheep business who has one hundred sheep, and loses one, would leave the ninety-nine to the wolves and the coyotes, and goes chasing off after the lost one. You cut your losses. You forget about the lost sheep, and you go on with the ninety-nine. And, yet Jesus turned the story on edge and suggested, “And when you find that one, what would you do?” No doubt, you would put that lost sheep on your shoulder, just as if you were carrying a newly found child, and when you see your friends, wouldn’t you cry out, ‘Come, rejoice, celebrate with me! I have found my lost sheep! That’s what God is like,” Jesus said. God celebrates that you are found and that you have returned. And there isn’t a Covid sign to be seen anywhere that says, “Shout hallelujah, but step back six feet first.”
Jesus, followed this parable with another, “And what woman among you who had ten coins and had lost one would not search for it?” If the shepherd was sort of crazy to go chase after one sheep and leave ninety-nine to the wolves in the wilderness, this woman is even more eccentric. Yes, the woman had ten Susan B. Anthony dollars in a nice wooden case with red velvet lining and little recessed partitions for each of the ten Susan B. Anthony dollars. And every morning as she got up, she looked in there and patted them and polished them and put them back down again. One morning, however, she got up and discovered that one of her precious Susan B. Anthony dollars was missing. So what did this woman do? She stopped everything. She stopped whatever housework she was going to do, and she lit a light, and went deep into all the dark corners. She swept and swept, and when she still hadn’t found it, she moved all the heavy furniture and the appliances out onto the lawn. And when at last, she found it, what did she do? She got on the phone to her friends and her neighbors and said, “Come on over, I’m going to have a party. I just put on the coffee. And I have some fresh rolls. I have found my lost coin.”
I’m sure that these friends and neighbors would have answered, “Gertrude, you found your coin, right? And we’re supposed to come?” And she said joyfully, “Yes! The coffee’s brewing right now. It’s Folgers’s. This richest kind. And you’re going to come over, and we’re going to celebrate my lost coin.” Certainly they’d answer, “Yes, Gertrude, we’ll be there.”
Those neighbors are actually bit like the Pharisees and scribes in their response. And that was Jesus’ real point with these parables. God searches until all the lost have been found, and then he celebrates. You see, God is far less concerned about how men and women became lost than he is about finding them and rejoicing when they are found. And that includes you and me. Then Jesus wants us to join him at his table to hear that our sins are forgiven, to be nurtured and strengthened. But Jesus also invites us to come to his table, simply to enjoy his company and his presence as well as the company of fellow believers.
That, of course, has been the challenge in this pandemic, post-pandemic world. It’s not that we feel that should rejoice when the lost are found. The past two years have made us question whether it is necessary for us to celebrate the joy of the lost being found with them. But that is the key to our life together as the church. Frankly, it is why I believe the in-person worship, Bible studies and gatherings are so important. Trust me, I will never question the importance and validity of on-line worship and the value of technology. Our virtual presence as a congregation is amazing. We are better connected now with our snow birds and cabin folks than we have ever been. Curious strangers visit our website to get a second opinion on a sermon, while other enjoy the unique musical offerings we present. These are all good and wonderful things, and it is how many newcomer first visit the church.
The problem, however, is that this one way, on-line option alone is too safe and comfortable. After all, one of the main criticisms of society over the past two years has been how sharp our political differences have become. It has happened in churches as well. Quarantines, self-isolation and social distancing have all made us insular in our thinking and perceptions. It has made us less cordial and kind and open to sharing our joys and sorrow with those who differ from us. That is why it so important to find a way back to church for in-person gatherings and worship.
30 years ago as a missionary family serving in Eastern Europe, we didn’t often begin the new school year with a rousing, full sanctuary. These were churches that were so small that when your spouse was ill, attendance dropped by 20 percent. During those years, my favorite Bible verse was simply, “Where two or three are gathered together.” Yes, we were proud when church attendance matched the temperature outdoors… in January. But there was always an excitement in gathering in person with others. Worshipers travelled by train and bus, some for hours to go to church. You see, in spite of our meager numbers, we believed in the potential that God had entrusted to our tiny band. And we needed each other.
Gathered together Sunday after Sunday, we were reminded of what was ultimately important in life and that we had each been blessed by love, faith, grace, and forgiveness. It wasn’t my role as the pastor alone to share this good news. It was the work of the whole community in telling their own stories. These personal reflections and anecdotes brought them together in an appreciation of God’s presence in their lives. There is no better way to enjoy and experience the loving nature of God than in speaking and listening to your neighbor. All other things will fade away, but to experience this is to celebrate what is ultimately important and Godlike.
My friends, that is what Rally Sunday truly is all about. It’s not about working up the crowd and leading them in a pandemic cheer, “Wash your hands and say your prayers, cause Jesus and germs are everywhere.” No, today is a reminder that God wants us to gather together as a church to celebrate the story of his love in Jesus, to enjoy his company, his forgiveness and his love, and to rejoice when the lost are found. And we need each other to do that well. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.