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September 11, 2022
I’m going to ask you to do something strange this morning. I want you to imagine your own funeral. At the end of a Lutheran funeral, we offer words of commendation. It’s our way of saying that we trust God to receive our loved one into eternal life. We name the person, so as I read the prayer, I’ll use my name, but try to think about this prayer with your name in it.
Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant Christa. Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming. Receive her into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light. Amen.
It’s a beautiful prayer, one of my favorites. But I often wonder what people who are unaccustomed to Lutheran funerals think about the fact that we stand up in the middle of church and call the deceased a sinner. There’s a social convention of not speaking ill of the dead, and to some it seems (at best) indelicate and (at worst) horrifying to call somebody a sinner at their own funeral.
It’s one of the things I love about our theology. The truth-telling. How we say out loud that we need God’s forgiveness. And we say out loud that God’s arms are always open to us.
How was it to imagine yourself as the one being called a sheep, a lamb, a sinner? How was it to say those words from Psalm 51 earlier: “Wash me through and through from my wickedness…Against you – against you, God – I have sinned and done what is evil in your sight.” Ouch.
Or when we start the service with confession, do you squirm during that time of silent reflection? Are you glad when it’s over, or do you think, “I definitely need more time.”
This sermon is not about shaming us. If anything, it’s about breaking through our shame. We are human. And part of the human condition is that we do things that hurt ourselves and others. We also fail to take steps that could help. We’re also capable of so much good – and we do those good things too.
I don’t want anyone standing up at my funeral and pretending I was perfect. Say instead that I was loved. That I tried my best to love others. And that I was certainly a sinner of God’s own redeeming – a sheep who kept getting lost again and again.
We sometimes act as if being lost is a one-time occurrence. In a few minutes we’ll sing that wonderful hymn “Amazing Grace.” We’ll sing, “I once was lost, but now am found.” As if that’s it: I was lost that one time. God found me. End of story.
But in reality, we keep getting ourselves lost again and again. We are caught in the grips of addictions and grudges that we can’t seem to shake. We know that there are relationships we need to work on, but we keep turning away from that work because we know it will be hard. We can be careless with other people’s lives and with their feelings. We all have our own ways of getting lost.
We’ve heard these biblical stories about a lost sheep and a lost coin so many times that it’s easy to forget why Jesus tells them in the first place. Jesus shares these stories because the religious leaders are grumbling. They don’t like how often Jesus is spending time with sinners. He’s [gasp] eating with those sinners!
What’s interesting to me about that complaint is that the religious leaders don’t seem to consider themselves sinners at all. Sinners are those “other people.” Not us. Them.
So Jesus tells them two stories. One is about a shepherd who leaves 99 sheep in the wilderness to go find the one that’s wandered off. And the other is about a woman who turns her house upside down to find a silver coin that’s gone missing.
Notice that both stories describe the delight in finding what has been lost. Listen to all the joy. The shepherd rejoices when he is able to put that lost sheep on his shoulders. And he doesn’t rejoice alone. He invites his friends and neighbors to rejoice with him. It’s a block party! The same with the woman. She summons her friends and neighbors too, inviting them to share her joy at finding the coin.
Jesus reminds those religious leaders that God rejoices when the lost are found…when sinners repent…when people find the courage to turn in a new direction or have the difficult conversation or begin the work of healing or make amends to those they have hurt.
I love what we heard in 1 Timothy: The speaker says that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – “of whom I am the foremost.” And there is gratitude for that salvation: “I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord…the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.”
That grace overflows for each of us, even when we feel undeserving. That’s the very definition of grace: it’s not about deserving. It’s about being found, again and again.
Somewhere in this building is a set of keys that I lost before the pandemic. I know I used the keys to get into the building. I could not find them when it was time to go home. I looked everywhere I could think to look, and then I looked some more. I thought, “They’ll turn up.” But they didn’t. That’s the fear of getting lost – that we’ll never get found. For my birthday this year my sister Claire gave me one of those Airtags with a keychain. I’ve got that tag synched with my phone so that when I lose my keys – which will inevitably happen – I just open the app that tells me where they are.
That’s not a bad contemporary image for baptism. When we’re baptized, we’re marked with the cross of Christ forever. It’s like God’s version of an Airtag, promising us that there’s nowhere we can wander that God can’t find us. Getting lost will never be a permanent condition. We will be found, again and again, and each time we are, God rejoices.
So let’s do another version of that prayer of commendation. Let us pray:
Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend all these your servants, who are still very much alive and will inevitably wander away from your flock at some point this week. Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, these sheep of your own fold, these lambs of your own flock, these sinners of your own redeeming. Come and find us when we wander, pick us up, and bring us back home so that we might find comfort and joy with the rest of the flock. And so that we can welcome others home when they have wandered too. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
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Rafters will explore how to serve God and God’s mission for their lives. Rolling River Rampage VBS is for children who will be 4 years old by October 1, 2018 with the oldest completing Grade 5 in June.
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