Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | September 16, 2007

2007.09.16 “Who’s Missing?”

Central United Methodist Church

“Who’s Missing?”

September 16th, 2007

Luke 15: 1 – 10

Pastor David L. Haley

          “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. 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.” – Luke 15: 4 – 10, The Message

     An important question for us to ask each week as we come to worship is:  “Who’s missing?”

      That might seem like an obtuse question to ask, given that, whoever’s missing, we are here.  Surely we are not going to wait for those laggards who never darken the door of the church?  Surely we are not going to delay the show for the no-shows?

      But truth be told, on any given Sunday in any given church there are a lot of people missing.  

      In many churches, standard sets of those who are missing. The young, children, youth, young adults. Men? In many churches, people of color?  Those with handicapping conditions? Those the church has alienated: Gay/lesbians.  Blue shirt/no shirt?  The “hard livers,” as Tex Sample calls them.

      Also, there are those alienated in the “short term.”  With a change of pastors, might be the time to invite some people back.  When I asked someone in my former church if they were worried about people who might leave when I do, one person said, “No, because we figure we’ll get back some of those who left while you were here.”  One of my friends, said going back to his original religion. “Catholicism?,” I said. “No,” he said, “Golf.”

      For those of us who follow Jesus, “Who’s missing?” is a question we can’t not ask.  Because it’s a question Jesus often asked, as he does imaginatively in today’s Gospel, when he tells three stories about “who’s missing”: one about a lost sheep, one about a lost coin, and perhaps the most famous, one about a lost son.

      What these stories reveal is that God has a divine discontent.  For while God is not uninterested in those already in the fold, God especially has a heart for the strays, for those alienated and excluded, for those lost and missing.  So much so that God even throws a party when they come home.

      And by the way, let me say, when I say “lost” or “strayed”, I don’t mean it in the old fundamentalist sense many of us grew up with, as in lost and on their way to hell.  We all know people who are lost, people who are living lives that are spiritually, relationally, and maybe even physically destructive. We also know people who are lost who have plenty of money and dress in expensive suits.  Those really “lost” in this story were, after all, not the “sinners” Jesus was hanging out with, but the religious leaders so sure that they themselves were saved. There are many ways to get lost in this life, and some of the most deadly ways are some of most religiously and socially acceptable. After all, if one sheep is with the shepherd and ninety-nine aren’t, who’s really the stray?

      The context of this story is exactly that. Jesus has been dining with the religious people, the Pharisees.  But when they saw the kind of people he was hanging out with, they criticized him. 

      Preacher Barbara Brown Taylor points out that there is a Middle Eastern proverb that Jesus probably knew:  “I saw them eating and I knew who they were.”

This was especially true among the Jews, for whom eating together was — literally — a religious experience. To eat together was to celebrate their faith, which included very specific rules about what happened around the table. Cleanliness was paramount: clean food, clean dishes, clean hands, clean hearts.

Jesus offended a lot of people with his table manners. He ignored the finger bowl by his plate. He ate whatever was put in front of him. He thought nothing of sitting down to eat with filthy people whose lives declared their contempt for religion. People saw him eating and they knew who he was: someone who had lost all sense of what was right, who condoned sin by eating with sinners and who might as well have spit in the faces of the good people who raised him.

So, as Barbara Brown Taylor says [slightly adapted],

“If I were putting together a sinners table at IHOP, it might include an abortion doctor, a child molester, an arms dealer, a garbage collector, a young man with AIDS, an illegal Hispanic meat packer, a teenage crack addict, and an unmarried woman on welfare with five children by three different fathers.  Did I miss anyone? Don’t forget to put Jesus at the head of the table, asking the young man to hand him a roll, please, and offering the doctor a second cup of coffee before she goes back to work.

If that offends you even a little, then you are almost ready for what happens next. Because what happens next is that the local clergy association comes into the restaurant and sits down at a large table across from the sinners. They all have good teeth and there is no dirt under their fingernails.  When their food comes, they hold hands to pray. They are all nice people, but they can hardly eat their pancakes for staring at the strange crowd in the far booth.

The meat packer is still wearing his white hair net, and the garbage collector smells like spoiled meat. The addict cannot seem to find his mouth with his spoon. But none of those is the heartbreaker. The heartbreaker is Jesus, sitting there as if everything were just fine.  Doesn’t he know what kind of message he is sending? Who is going to believe he speaks for God if he does not keep better company than that? I saw them eating and I knew who they were.  [Barbara Brown Taylor, Table Manners, the Christian Century, March 11, 1998, page 257]

Yes, this is alarming, as were Jesus’ parables. It is about hanging out with the wrong people. It is about throwing parties for losers and asking winners to foot the bill.  It is about making friendships with the unwashed and the unclean and the unruly and the unholy, as people God cares about.  It is about asking, when we gather to worship, “Who’s missing?” 

      In the days after Sept. 11th, 2001, many stories of heroism were told, one of them was made into a movie. Oliver Stone’s film World Trade Center told the story of the rescue of two of the last survivors extracted from Ground Zero, Port Authority Police Officers John McLoughlin and William J. Jimeno.  The movie also told the story of their rescuers.  But not the whole story.

      Alive, but seriously injured and pinned in the mountain of rubble of the collapsed World Trade Center, Officers McLoughlin and Will Jimeno struggled to stay alive, to keep hope that somebody would come looking for them. 

      Their families, like many families waiting at home that day, knew they were missing, but refused to give up hope.


      Enter former USMC Marine, Staff Sgt. Dave Karnes, who let his job as an accountant, went to church and prayed, then went to Ground Zero to search for survivors.  His story is told in Oliver Stone’s movie. 

      But the story not told in World Trade Center was of the other Marine Karnes met and worked with there, because his story was not known until after the movie was finished. 

The other Marine was Jason Thomas, not white as in the movie, but African American. Thomas, who now lives in Columbus, Ohio, was dropping his daughter off at his mother’s Long Island home when she told him planes had struck the towers.  Having left active duty a year earlier, he put on his Marine uniform, sped to Manhattan and had just parked his car when one of the towers collapsed.  He ran — not away — but toward the center of the ash cloud.

Thomas told the Associated Press: “Someone needed help. It didn’t matter who,” he said. “I didn’t even have a plan. But I have all this training as a Marine, and all I could think was, ‘My city is in need.'”

After hours of firefighting, assisting survivors and in some cases, praying over the dead, Thomas ran into Staff Sgt. Karnes. They presented a plan for a search and rescue mission of the area and tried to enlist other soldiers on site to help. When they were told the mission was too dangerous, they decided to go by themselves.

“I found a couple guys, but it wasn’t enough, to them, to start a search and rescue,” he said. “I remember myself and Karnes saying, ‘We’re going to start the search and rescue with or without you, because someone needs us.’”

Carrying little more than flashlights and an infantryman’s shovel, they climbed the mountain of debris, skirting dangerous crevasses and shards of red-hot metal, calling out “Is anyone down there?  United States Marines!” 

It was dark before they heard a response.  The two crawled into a deep pit to find McLoughlin and Jimeno, injured but alive. 

Who are alive today because when they were missing, somebody refused to give up.  Can we in the church, the followers of the compassionate and courageous Christ, do any less? 

Because who knows, someday it might just happen that “who’s missing” might be us.    Who’s missing?


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