September 15, 2019

The Joy of Being Found

Passage: Psalm 51: 6-10; Luke 15: 1-10

Synopsis:  Playing with children in games like hide-and-seek reveals the joy of seeking and being found. Jesus’ stories of the lost sheep and the lost coin, likewise, demonstrate the joy of being found as our true selves by our gracious God. Furthermore, Psalm 51 looks beyond our preoccupation with failure and guilt to lay hold of the marvelous possibilities of God’s grace. This is true even in the depths of human sin such as the rumblings of nationalism in our day. We can be liberated and live by love.


Consider the joy of playing peak-a-boo with a baby beginning to recognize loving faces and voices. Where is Reuben? Where is Reuben? Ah, there he is. Babies absolutely love it! They break out with smiles and giggles. Of course, we adults also get into it big time. It’s about being recognized and embraced in love. This is what it means to be a person in the company of those who love and care for us.


Consider also the children’s game of hide-and-seek. I had so much fun playing hide-and-seek with our children when they were young. Our two oldest found more and more clever places to hide. Our youngest, however, could never get into the spirit of hiding. For her the most fun part was being found. Sometimes, even before we had found her, she would run from her hiding place hollering, “Here I am!” Today, as I think back on those times, I resonate with the spirit of our youngest one. The most joyous part is being found. Hiding only sets up the thrill of finding and being found.


Jesus told the stories of the lost sheep and the lost coin in response to the accusation that he’s hanging out with the wrong kind of people. That might be acceptable if he was attempting to convert them into being practicing Jews who followed the law as other religious leaders understood it. That wasn’t happening! Besides, Jesus and those he was partying with were having way too much fun.


We don’t want to trivialize this by inferring that Jesus wasn’t about transforming lives. The difference was that, for him, it involved a transformation of our hearts rather than conforming to some external religious standard. It’s the joy of being found as our true selves and being liberated from all the stuff that makes us a shell of our human potential. All the stuff that harms us and destroys our relationships with others.


It’s the shepherd trekking into the wilderness to find that one lost sheep even when the remaining ninety nine are accounted for. It’s the woman diligently sweeping the floor to find one lost coin when the other nine are secure in her purse. It’s that one missing piece in our lives. Most of all, it’s the celebration when the lost has been found. All the angels in heaven rejoice with us.


We will want to take some time to consider where we’re sitting as we listen to these stories. Do we place ourselves beside Jesus as we join him in confronting the Pharisees who are criticizing him? Bad Pharisees! Or are we the Pharisees whipping out our religious yardstick to determine how well people measure up to our religious and moral standards.


Jesus’ story of the two men who went up to the temple to pray conveys this truth so well. The Pharisee stood there and prayed, Oh God, I thank you that I’m not like other people—robbers, crooks, adulterers, or, heaven forbid, like this tax collector. Meanwhile, the tax collector, slumped in the shadows, with his face in his hands and not even daring to look up, prayed, “God, give mercy. Forgive me, a sinner” (Luke 18: 9-14). It was the tax collector who went home made right with God.


The most fitting place for us, therefore, is not with Jesus or with the Pharisees but among the tax collectors and sinners, where we find ourselves welcomed and forgiven in God’s presence.  Psalm 51 begins with the prayer, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your faithful love!” Biblical scholar James May comments:

[This prayer of confession] is not merely an expression of human remorse or preoccupation with failure and guilt; it looks beyond self to God and lays hold of the marvelous possibilities of God’s grace. Confession of sin is already on the way to justification because it’s first of all a response to grace. It’s the act in which we humans acknowledge what we are before God and what God is for us. We are sinners; God is gracious.[1]


Most of our prayers are for personal or social concerns. We pray for healing for a loved one. We pray for people affected by a human or a natural disaster such as gun violence or a hurricane. We pray for peace with justice in our world. We pray that people might come to know Jesus. We pray for forgiveness for a harm we have committed.


The prayer in Psalm 51 is different. It’s a prayer of repentance concerning “what I am, not just something I have done that’s an expression of what I am.” It goes beyond myself as an individual and identifies with the condition of my congregation, my community, my country, and all humanity. “The sins of all concern me because they’re the expression of the sinfulness that conditions me.”[2] We’re all connected. Your humanity is part of my humanity and none of us can be completely healed until each one of us is healed.


With the psalmist we pray, “Create a clean heart for me God: put a new, faithful spirit deep inside me!” Even in my sinfulness, God’s presence through God’s spirit remains in me and is already at work creating the clean heart that I’m praying for. In the same way, God’s Spirit is at work redeeming and transforming my congregation, my community, my country, and all humanity. This is why, although we abhor the cruel and inhumane actions of others, we never completely set ourselves over again other people or groups of people. We share a common humanity and, as Christians, we believe that everyone is created in the image of God, no matter how broken that image may be.


I just finished reading a book by Maggie Paxson, an anthropologist who studies violence and the dynamics that create peaceful communities. Her book The Plateau is about the community of Le Chambon in France that protected Jewish refugees, especially children, in the Nazi occupation during WWII. Her main question was what had enabled them to resist the Nazis at great personal risk when most others had not. Several were arrested for harboring refugees and one brave young man was shipped to Poland where he died in a Nazi concentration camp.


She noted the long history of resistance in the community related to being a Protestant religious minority. She also noted the active leadership of the local pastor Andre Trocme who was committed to following the nonviolent way of Jesus. Beyond these things was their refusal to make distinctions between groups of people—we’re all part of one humanity. They consistently told investigating authorities that there were no Jews in their community even though they were hiding them. In such a situation, nobody’s a Jew or, perhaps, we’re all Jews.


As Maggie Paxson spent time in Le Chambon to research this story from WWII, she discovered that the community continues to take in refugees today from places like Chechnya, Syria, and the Congo. She heard their horrific stories of fleeing their homelands to find refuge. Her book therefore juxtaposes what happened during the Nazi occupation of France with what’s happening today. She writes:

All over Europe and the United States, you can feel the rumblings of nationalism and populism in perilous cocktail forms. So many places where peoples go from being friends to antagonists to shape-shifting enemies, as regions snap into semi-states subsisting on semi-economies, and warrior bands turn into warrior states, and on and on it goes. . . As the earth tilts and we move again, from places of peace to places of war, a man, a woman, a family, a village, a people—whole rough bands of thousands upon thousands of souls—are now finding their way into flight. Again.[3]


She concludes:

Every religion tells you that you must love your neighbor. That you must love strangers. That you must love one another. Jesus asks, “Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?” Who really lives by love? “Ye shall know them by their fruits.” Not by their family, or their country, or their religion, or their philosophy, or their race, or their vocation. Not by their color, or their caste, or their intelligence, or their bloodline, or even by their glowing self-assurance that they are right. But by their fruits.[4]


Like Maggie Paxson, I’m troubled by the rumblings of nationalism and populism around the world and the accompanying growing stream of desperate refugees. With the psalmist, I pray, “Create a clean heart for me God: put a new, faithful spirit deep inside me!” I pray this prayer for myself, for our congregation, for our community, for our country, and for all humanity.


I ask myself if (in the event that things really got bad here in my community) I would be able to resist like the brave people of Le Chambon did. Most likely not if I’m not already resisting nationalism and populism and doing my part to help refugees. This is something I want to become more involved in after I retire. And I remind myself that there’s so much joy in making human connections and being found. I think of our youngest running from her hiding place, “Here I am!” I think of joy of the shepherd who found his lost sheep and the woman who found her lost coin. “I tell you, there’s joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”


[1] James May, Psalm: Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1994), 199.

[2] Ibid., 202.

[3] Margaret Paxson, The Plateau (New York: Riverhead Books, 2019), 340.

[4] Ibid., 345.

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