Joy-filled Persistence

Luke 15:1-10

1 Timothy 1:12-17

Last week, we talked about being “all in” as followers of Christ and how we apply it in our lives.  This week we begin a series designed to help us grow as disciples and spiritual leaders, to strengthen our resources to move toward perfection in God’s grace through Jesus Christ, to increasingly be “all in.”

In case you are thinking, I don’t hold a leadership role so I can sleep or doodle through this series, know that all disciples are spiritual leaders, whether you have a title or don’t.  As followers of Jesus we should have a passion to share our experiences of a grace-filled, loving God through every action and inter-action we make.

As we heard in the passage from 1 Timothy, “But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life.”  Receiving God’s mercy isn’t an end in and of itself, it is part of a continuous outpouring of God’s love that fills each of us and should overflow to others, cascading as an infinite fountain of living water.

The degree to which we overflow to others is directly related to our connection to God through study, prayer, worship, and service.

“Lost” is a significant image in the Luke and 1 Timothy passages this morning.  We have a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost religious leader.  All three are unaware of their state of being lost.

At some point, the sheep may have noticed others weren’t around, but with ample grass upon which to graze and no threat to personal safety, actively moving on instinct to find the rest of the flock is unlikely.

An inanimate object, the coin has no concept of its value or its location, and no ability to recognize it is lost or to take any action which would change that situation.

The author of 1 Timothy, lifts the story of Paul, a credentialed religious leader with years of study and experience with religious law.  To the Jewish community, of which he is part, this leader is respected and given significant authority to enforce religious law.  However, before his encounter with Christ Jesus, he has no idea he is lost, that he needs a change in direction, a transformation.

Maybe the first step to being disciples and spiritual leaders is to recognize we all are lost without the work of God in our lives.  Even the most devote, well educated, steeped in the scriptures daily, praying without ceasing, followers of Christ, need the work of the Holy Spirit within them to keep moving toward becoming like-minded with Christ.

None of us get lost in exactly the same way.  There are always a variety of things pulling us toward other priorities, prompting us to judgments on the values and actions of others, pushing us to say and do things that aren’t Christ-like at all, circumstances in which we nibble the lush grass unaware of where it is taking us, all the while not realizing that in so doing we are lost.

In reflecting on the unawareness of those “lost” in the parables and in the lost-and-found story of 1 Timothy, we are reminded that it is through God’s grace we can recognize our “lostness,” as well as recognize the One who came to save us.  Seeing that we too must come to the place we can say, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the foremost,” and live out our faith in humility because of an understanding we have no basis upon which to determine the value of others, other than as God values them – worth saving.

Another significant image in these verses is that of God relentlessly seeking out the “lost.”

In the parable of the lost sheep, it is the shepherd, not the sheep who actively seeks to change the situation.  The shepherd:  leaves,  goes after,  finds,  lays it on his shoulders, rejoices, comes home, and calls together his friends.  In the parable of the lost coin, it is the woman who: lights the lamp, sweeps the house, searched carefully, finds, and calls together her friends.[1]

In 1 Timothy, it is Jesus himself who seeks out Paul, transforming him in the encounter and preparing him to share God’s grace with others.

God continuously calls us back to God’s perspective through the work of the Holy Spirit within us and within those around us.  God never gives up on us.  God loves us first, accepts and forgives us so we may repent, not after we repent.

Knowing that without God’s persistent efforts to reach out to us and through us we would stay lost, we are freed from putting up conditions which limit our outpouring of grace and love to others.

The Pharisees, to whom Jesus shares these parables, made religious laws and rules the main thing.  Paul made religious laws and rules the main thing as Saul.  In these passages God’s persistent presence seeking us out wherever we are in our faith journey, is the main thing.  As Disciples, as spiritual leaders whose lives should help others see Jesus, we need to know and claim that God doesn’t give up on us even when we give up on ourselves or think too highly of ourselves.  God doesn’t give up on anyone.

Paul reminds us in 1 Timothy 2: 4-6 that God our Savior, wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. 5For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, 6who gave himself as a ransom for all people.

Called to follow Christ’s example we are called to be persistent in showing love, not giving up on others.

There are times however, that as human beings, we need to step out of situations and away from people who are dangerous to us mentally and/or physically.  God is with us in those stepping away circumstances, allowing us to heal and move in healthy directions.  God remains persistent with all those involved, providing the Spirit of forgiveness and concern which leads us to pray for those who do us harm and allows us to tell our stories to help others faced with those circumstances.  God puts others into the life of the person or persons from whom we need to step away.  We aren’t responsible to find all the “lost,” sometimes it is someone else’s role in that particular person’s life.

If you remember, Jesus advised the disciples going out by twos to shake the dust off their feet from any community that didn’t welcome them.  Sometimes we need to leave the persistence to God and know when to walk away.

 

Joy is a critical part of these scriptures.  The shepherd rejoices over the lost sheep, calling friends and neighbors to join in the celebration.  The woman calls together her friends and neighbors, encouraging them to celebrate with her that the coin is found.

Sharing the enthusiastic partying going on at the successful conclusion of these searches for the “lost,” Jesus tells his audience, “Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

We can only image the level of joy described in this passage, but those of you who have become separated from a child in a busy department store or amusement park have an idea.

One summer when our children were in elementary school we were at Darien Lake with our extended family.  We had agreed to meet at one of the amusements at a particular time with cousins and siblings mixing up to walk across the park to get there.  When we arrived at the allotted time, our youngest daughter wasn’t among the family members gathered.  No one knew definitely who she was walking with or where they last saw her.  Some stayed in place in case she showed up at the appointed place, others of us fanned out.  This was before cell phones and the ability to let each other know if we had located her.  Nearly an hour went by and gathering again, no one had located her.  I am sure Ken was calm, but I know I was panicking.  Just then a security guard and our daughter came to our meeting place.  She had gotten separated, couldn’t find her way to the location, and finally asked for help.  We had notified security so they had been looking for her as well.  There was great joy that she was safe and had figured out how to get back to us.  She never really understood why I was so scared until one of her daughters did a similar thing.  I received a phone call shortly after that incident in which she expressed a new sense of what I had experienced.  The need to find her and the joy in doing so.

As we acknowledge that we don’t always get it right, that God isn’t done with us yet, that we need guidance from the Holy Spirit on a continuous basis, that we are lost in the amusement park, we turn to God for direction and there is joy in heaven because of our awareness of who we are and whose we are.

That joy in heaven is reflected in our lives when we extend that same grace and love to one another.  If God is joyful anytime anyone is drawn back into relationship with God, or chooses life, or lives into his or her potential, or helps out another, and in all these ways is found, we should be joyful and our churches should be places filled with joy.

So, when we realize that in at least in some areas of our relationship with God and others we are lost, claim that God doesn’t give up on us or anyone for that matter, celebrate that all of heaven rejoices when we become aware of where we need to reconnect – what does it mean in our everyday, get up and handle the “to do” list of the day, lives?

I read one story from September 11, 2001 that I think gives us a glimpse of that answer.  Welles Crowther went to work like every other day to his job as an equities trader in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.

After the second tower was hit, the one he was in, Welles led everyone he could find down the steps to safety, and then he went back for more.  And after leading more people to safety, he went back again, and again, and again, until the tower collapsed.

On that day, this talented, athletic, good natured, but in so many ways ordinary person did an extraordinary thing, giving his life to make sure others could live.  On that day, God used Welles Crowther to find people who were lost.[2

Some among the Abundant Harvest congregation were called to the scene in New York City to help find people who were lost, not too long after that second tower collapsed.  They continued the work Crowther and so many first responders and others started on that September morning.  Volunteers from many other communities also responded when called to help.  What they saw and experienced was life changing.

Our collective prayer is that the circumstances requiring this kind of response to look for the lost, cease to exist.  Our reality is those situations fill the news reports we receive on a daily basis, and God will call some us to seek the lost in this way.

For others, our call will be to find the lost at work, at home, at school, in our congregation, in the places we volunteer, in our everyday encounters in the grocery store, walking down the sidewalk, or in the local coffee shop.

A kind word, a joy-filled smile, an act of kindness, putting down our electronic device to take the time to truly listen to what someone else needs to share in that moment, are all ways God uses us to find others.  God often works through ordinary people to do the extraordinary work of helping to find someone and when we do, there is joy in heaven.

As we respond to God’s persistent grace, filling all of our encounters within and without our church buildings with the joy God pours into us, even more joy will be created here and in heaven.

While sometimes it is our training, our special abilities, or our location God uses to connect us with those needed to be found today, it is just as often that it is our realization that God is beside us to help no matter how many times we get lost.  This realization allows us to persistently offer joy producing grace to those around us, a significant part of what we are called to do as Disciples of the living Christ.

[1] David Schnasa Jacobsen, Commentary on Luke 15:1-10, http://www.workingpreacher.org

[2] Pentecost 17 C: Joy! In the Meantime http://www.davidlose.net

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