Loss’ Gain

May 15th, 2011 by Guest

Rev. Marcus R. Ingram
A Sermon for May 15, 2011
Scripture: Luke 15: 1‐10 (The Message)
The Story of the Lost Sheep
1‐3By this time a lot of men and women of doubtful reputation were hanging around Jesus, listening intently. The Pharisees and religion scholars were not pleased, not at all pleased. They growled, “He takes in sinners and eats meals with them, treating them like old friends.” Their grumbling triggered this story.
4‐7″Suppose one of you had a hundred sheep and lost one. Wouldn’t you leave the ninety‐nine in the wilderness and go after the lost one until you found it? When found, you can be sure you would put it across your shoulders, rejoicing, and when you got home call in your friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Celebrate with me! I’ve found my lost sheep!’ Count on it—there’s more joy in heaven over one sinner’s rescued life than over ninety‐nine good people in no need of rescue.
The Story of the Lost Coin
8‐10″Or imagine a woman who has ten coins and loses one. Won’t she light a lamp and scour the house, looking in every nook and cranny until she finds it? And when she finds it you can be sure she’ll call her friends and neighbors: ‘Celebrate with me! I found my lost coin!’ Count on it—that’s the kind of party God’s angels throw every time one lost soul turns to God.”

President John F. Kennedy.
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Princess Diana.
Michael Jackson.
And now, Osama bin Laden.
The death of these echoes through the halls of history. Details of their life infiltrate our contemporary memory. And, if we were of age at the time of their earthly departure, we likely
remember where we were when we heard the announcement. Without much work, we can return to those moments, running the fingers of our mind across the tapestry of emotions that characterized these losses.
And, interestingly enough, jubilation has been seen in recent weeks.
Today, I don’t intend to critically engage what a particular reaction to death signals about an individual or society. Rather, I am intrigued by the loss process that clearly inspires a range of emotions. And, if there are lessons, how might I (perhaps we) be open to these teachable moments?
Our text from Luke’s Gospel shares a couple of stories about sources of loss, en route to the fairly well known narrative of the prodigal. First, readers are invited to consider a shepherd’s career. One day, one member of the flock goes missing, and a question emerges: does it make sense to leave the group to search for the lone wanderer? Scripture insists that, of course, the good shepherd would go.
In a different scenario, the writer of Luke’s gospel asks us to think like someone who has done the good work of saving money. The traditional avenues of banking haven’t been used to secure the funds, and some of the money is lost. Again, scripture holds that the committed person will not be settled with loss, so the saver seeks after the absent currency.
Both of these stories seem to be prologue for the dramatic human story of two children with different degrees of maturity, and how a loving parent cares for them both. In many
congregations where I have heard Luke 15 used as the sermonic text, each of these stories is used as a way to illustrate how God loves even the most questionable of characters. Certainly, the group gathered around Jesus described in verse one seems to raise the eyebrows and blood pressure of the religious leaders in his day; their presence, however, also increases the hope of those who believe that this text is about the redemptive love of a savior who cares just as much about our heart as our behavior.
The usual handling of this text suggests that these parables teach the religious leaders that it’s okay for Jesus to hang out with sinners. In fact, it’s where his best work is done because he came to reach even the worst of us. If I were interested in entertaining that tradition of thought today, I would encourage us to contemplate a broader focus for Jesus’ message. Perhaps those who needed his scandalous love the most were not just the self‐aware, publicly known sinners who gathered in verse one. Maybe it especially included those who didn’t seem to know they were akin to sin, like the religious leaders, for example.
That, however, is not my assignment today. Rather, I would like to explore with you some parameters of loss from the text that fascinate me. Let’s go. In each of the aforementioned situations, two things are consistent: (1) the individual who experiences the loss is confident enough to acknowledge it; and (2) that which is lost is deemed valuable enough to warrant finding it again. As I bear in mind that this may be the last time I stand before this congregation and preach, these notions of loss haunt and compel me. I am over the moon about my transition to South Africa in a couple of months, but I am acutely aware of other, less welcome implications of this journey to be with my partner. To aid my loss process, I decided that today should be a tribute to you and my favorite things about worship at Sojourners, which to me, point toward additional distinctives about the congregation.
When I moved to Charlottesville in the summer of 2007 from North Carolina, I believe I knew less than five people who lived here. Having lived in Winston‐Salem for twelve years at that point, I had established a significant community that in many regards, functioned as family.
My vibrant academic and professional life at Wake Forest University was well complemented by my relationship with Greater Cleveland Avenue Christian Church. This charismatic congregation of nearly three thousand was a space of spiritual nurture and served as the site of my ministerial ordination in the Christian Church/Disciples of Christ denomination. While I had no deep interest in finding a replica of my then “home” congregation, I knew that I needed to find a meaningful worship community.
During my first few months in Charlottesville, I would sometimes attend as many as three worship services on a given Sunday. If I mapped it correctly and the traffic light gods favored me, I could be on time for an eight o’clock, nine thirty, and an eleven o’clock service. As I began to tire in the marathon that became my Sundays, I found myself intrigued by a peculiar gathering that met in the middle of the morning and encouraged beverages and snacks in the sanctuary. I don’t know whether to credit my height or my sports coat, but on my first visit, I was warmly greeted as a visitor by staples to the congregation, including Becky and Bob Garrity whom I had met hiking. Interestingly enough, it couldn’t have been more than maybe visit two when Enid Krieger and Marie Coles Baker shared with me in their uniquely confident manner that my church searching would eventually yield me settling down at Sojourners. In retrospect when I note the differences in size, theology, and worship style from my Winston‐Salem church, I might be moved to say, who knew that I would end up here. I guess Enid and Marie did.
Over the past few years, I have come to learn how unique and empowering Sojourners is in the way it inspires community. I couldn’t quite understand it when I first arrived, but I knew there was something attractive about the way I was embraced by the congregation. It was one of the few places I had visited in my relatively short life where I was not on the hook for introducing myself. Rather, then strangers made their way toward me for the purpose of sharing themselves. Now that I am more known, this give and take happens even with the children. A few weeks back on Palm Sunday, I arrived at church during the time devoted to children. The adult congregants were receiving palm branches, and I ended up with two
because Silas saw me come in, realized he was out of palms, ran to the supply at the altar area, and made sure I was included.
That palm branch‐turned‐cross now travels with me in my car wherever I go, and I plan on it accompanying me across the Atlantic. Silas’ sweet gesture will remind me of the good conversations he and I have shared and the general goodwill I have experienced in this congregation. An additional example is the way new members are received. When I had been around long enough to see people officially join the church, I was impressed by each new member’s introduction by a current member of their choosing. And, let’s not forget the tying of a chosen piece of colorful fabric into the collection of other swatches that, I believe, represent the eclectic collection of Sojourners. What a warm message of welcome and inclusion!
But I shouldn’t have been surprised at the approach. Other experiences with the congregation in hindsight made this ritual of connecting to the congregation logical. I will not soon forget my surprise when the congregational prayer following the sermon wasn’t rendered in only the voice of the pastor. The invitation to openly share prayers, joys, and concerns was unexpected to my private Self. I must admit, though, a deep appreciation for the courage and commitment it takes to offer such safe space to a gathered community. You won’t often hear my voice during this portion of worship, but I wish you could witness what’s going on in my soul. In my best attempt at explanation, I believe I am strangely being made simultaneously more human and eternal. Listening to the challenges of others reminds me of the frailty inherent in our common humanity. Relishing the joy of challenges overcome or the experience of good fortune seem to point toward what the promise of heaven may mean.
These community notions of mine find further resonance in our ritual of communion and the ever spirited closing circle. As we are invited to table or to join hands around the room, I sometimes feel this organic Presence that signals a beauty best found in simplicity. A meal of
bread and beverage. A blessing confirmed by linked limbs. Individual and collective. Words spoken and sung. All of us from each of us. Plain. And oh so profound.
I believe that I will carry these memories with me to South Africa, complemented by one more thing. Without doubt, my theological horizon has been extended as a result of my connection to Sojourners…but not just through the expected source of exposure to responsible, reflective preaching and service. I believe that I have learned how to more rightly speak of God because of the intentional inclusion of silence in our worship. In a world that readily borders on overstimulation, finding and cultivating places of quiet is countercultural. It is in these spaces that I believe I have learned to hear God more clearly. Initial discomfort eventually gives way to a different way of being in the world.
My theological sojourner Howard Thurman says this: “…can you find a way to hear the sound of the genuine in yourself? There are so many noises going on inside of you, so many echoes of all sorts, so many internalizing the rumble and the traffic, the confusions, the disorders by which your environment is peopled that I wonder if you can get still enough – not quiet enough – still enough to hear rumbling up from your unique and essential idiom the sound of the genuine in you. I don’t know if you can. But this is your assignment.”
And it is this assignment that has encouraged me to consider the concept of loss during this last sermon of sorts. To be sure, I have spent much of my time today reflecting on the many things I have gained from my experience at Sojourners United Church of Christ, but in a couple months, I will be transitioning away. Like the figures in our scriptural text, something I have come to cherish will soon show its absence. While I believe that my loss will be a custom, irreplaceable one, I know that I will seek to find essential elements of the community that has helped sustain me while here in Charlottesville.
Interestingly enough, I, too, find this message to be salient for this congregation during this time of leadership transition. There are lots of noises and echoes and sounds, poised to
distract from the noble priority of choosing a new pastor. To be sure, the task is largely not about the candidates, but this congregation. Can the search committee and subsequently the members of Sojourners get quiet enough, still enough to hear the sound of the genuine in this place? “I don’t know if you can, but this is your assignment.”

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