Luke 15:1-10 Lost and Found Susan J. Barnes
September 11, 2016 St. John’s, Minneapolis
Fifteen years ago today, Americans awakened to the horrible news that we now simply call “9/11”. Four commercial flights had been hijacked by members of Al Qaeda, who planned to crash each of them into a different iconic building–symbols of the economic, military and governmental power of this country. Three planes hit their targets: the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The fourth, diverted by heroic passengers, crashed in Pennsylvania. All tolled, 2996 people died and 6,000 were injured in the events that day.
9/11 was a watershed in American history. It was a loss of innocence. No longer could we believe that we were different from citizens of every other land–that we in the US were invulnerable: “safe at home.” Nor could we pretend that the rest of the world appreciated our use of power and shared our values. Clearly some hated us enough to die.
September 12 brought news that was heartening–and humbling. Compassion flowed toward us in our woundedness: from every part of the world, from leaders, from friends, from strangers, from some surprising places. Take Le Monde, e.g. the French newspaper better known for critique than support of the US. The front page banner headline was in type so large it nearly filled the space above the fold. “Nous sommes tous Americains” it read: “We are all Americans”.
Our leaders took tragically ill-considered actions after the attacks. In the invasion of Iraq, in the torture of prisoners at Guantanamo and elsewhere, we betrayed our values, our traditions, our treaty commitments. Our nation lost its way. The peoples of the world–particularly in the Middle East–are still living with the consequences.
If 9/11 brought out some of the worst in us, it also inspired some of the best. Valiant, patriotic young people joined the armed forces; retired military signed up again in numbers. (Several of them are members here.) Other people became medics, fire fighters, police officers to serve at home. And innumerable ordinary people reached out to one another in consideration and kindness.
St. Paul’s Episcopal Chapel on Broadway in lower Manhattan became a locus of compassion and mercy. Now 250 years old, St. Paul’s was where George Washington worshipped right after his inauguration. It sits across the street from 9/11 ground zero. Just as it survived New York’s fire of 1776, St. Paul’s stood, unscathed while the Trade Center Buildings beside it collapsed; not a single hand-blown pane of glass was broken.
Volunteers first set up cold drink stations on the church sidewalk for the responders. Then they moved inside, to make and serve hot meals. As work at ground zero changed from the hope of rescue to the heartbreak of recovery, workers came to rest, to sleep, in St. Paul’s storied pews. Volunteer chefs soon were joined by nurses, doctors, massage therapists, podiatrists, psychologists and folks like me who came for a while to serve, to clean up, to listen. The corps of volunteers transformed the church into a full-time, full-service respite center for the men and women who returned sacrificially, day after day, to their grim travail in “The Pit”. St. Paul’s Chapel became a pilgrimage site, too. Those who could not serve inside left flowers, love notes, prayers all around the building. Banners of support made by children were brought in; they festooned the spare beauty of colonial chapel.
The Rev. Lyndon Harris, a young curate at Trinity Church oversaw the extraordinary, organic development of the ministry from beginning to the end of its 260 days. He reflected on that time a year later for National Geographic
[It] was…a season of remembrance as we mourned the loss of loved ones…. a season of improvisation as we tried, often at our wit’s end, to respond to the needs….It was a season of renewal as we sought…. a day when our commonalities will overcome our divisions, when compassion will overcome violence, and kindness will swallow up hatred. Ultimately, what began in hatred evolved into…a “season of love.” ….in which people of … goodwill, compassion and generosity, sought to practice the art of radical hospitality.
Radical hospitality flows from a sense of radical identification with other people. Radical identification simply means that we know that we ALL are equal–no one is any better or any worse, any more or any less a child of God than anybody else. It means being able to say, as the Dalai Lama does: “I’m just one of 7 billion people on the planet.”.
The volunteers at ground zero did not give a fig about the age, ethnicity, politics, faith or anything that might separate them from the people whom they served. Nor did those who helped victims of hurricanes like Katrina and Sandy, nor those who have scrapped their vacation plans to help in Baton Rouge and in Italy. Their actions flow from their compassion—their fellow feeling, their radical identitication with other human beings. Those who serve, those being served create a new community for a season. They get a glimpse of the Kingdom of Heaven. And so do we.
In times of such crisis, people do what Jesus wants all of us to do all of the time–not merely in a crisis, not merely for a season.
God calls us to radically-inclusive community, where everyone belongs. That’s what Jesus was living out when he kept company with “tax collectors and sinners”. Jesus’ parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin make the point: no one is dispensable. God won’t write anyone off: not one coin in ten, not one sheep in a hundred, not one soul in a million– nor in seven billion. Good news, indeed, to the crowds flocking to hear him: tax collectors and “sinners”! And good news to us. God will seek us out and find us, bring us back to join a community that will welcome us joyfully.
Have you ever been “lost”? Isn’t that the soul-piercing power of the hymn, Amazing Grace? “I once was lost, but now I’m found. Was blind, but now I see.”
I was “lost” to God for a long time–blinded by my own ego and will. It started in an ordinary way. Like many young people when they go to college, I placed myself outside of Christian community that had nurtured me right through high school. But, then, I didn’t know how to come back. I admired people of faith and even wished I could have what they did. But somehow I felt I couldn’t. I didn’t know how to open the door. And if a friend hadn’t taken me to church, I shudder to think where my life would have gone. Honestly. When Debra Skriba drove me to St. Michael’s and All Angels in Dallas, she was an instrument of God’s grace.
If you have been “lost” to God, you know what it means to come home; to find and be found by God, to be embraced in a healthy community that accepts you as you are. If you still are seeking that, I’m glad that you are here. Let me know how we, how I, can support you in the quest.
St. John’s is a healthy community; that’s God’s grace. And we are welcoming. Hospitality is a special gift of this congregation. It is something to celebrate. It is also something to develop, to deepen, to share in a world full of disconnected people. Our mission statement says we “welcome all, without distinction, to share in the joy and pain of life’s passages…” That’s what radical hospitality means: welcoming all, without distinction.
Welcoming means being sure to greet friends and strangers warmly here. And more. Welcoming means reaching out to help people open our famous red doors and come inside to find the treasure here.
As we begin a new, exciting season in our common life, as we celebrate 100 years of worship in this sanctuary, I urge you–I implore you–to be an instrument of God’s grace. Look around in your neighborhood, in your workplace, where you volunteer, for people who need a loving community for themselves and their children. Take it upon yourself. Take a risk! Tell them about your faith, your doubts, your question. Ask them about theirs. If they are open, don’t just invite them to St. John’s: bring them, introduce them, help us welcome them to this fellowship, this family, this enduring community of faith.