I grew up on a sidewalked street in a little neighborhood on the outskirts of New Haven. Summer was our best season. There were kids everywhere and games going all day until we’d be called in for dinner. We’d play wiffle ball and 500 in the street, capture the flag across neighbors’ lawns and flashlight tag when it got dark. Best of all, we could hear when the Good Humor truck would take the turn off of Haverford Street onto Landsdown. It meant he’d be on Swarthmore, our street, in minutes.
We’d race inside, check the milk money jar, and depleting that, hit the couches. The cushions came off and our little hands felt down into the cracks and crevices. They were magic those couches and the toasted almonds and rocket pops bought with coins found in the seams were the best ever.
I understand how the woman in our gospel feels – because we too rejoiced over our nickel and dime. A surprise find. There’s nothing like it.
This morning you might be surprised to find us using three scripture readings. I hope that’s a happy find, too. The Revised Common Lectionary, the source for our Sunday lections and for those of all Episcopal churches and many other Protestant denominations includes three readings for each Sunday, typically an Old Testament reading, a portion of one of the epistles or letters, most written by St. Paul, and a Gospel reading.
As a scripture junkie, I like the addition, more Bible the better, but as a preacher, I find it difficult because you have an awful lot going on, and finding a common thread is kind of like digging through those old couch cushions! Where is that lost coin??
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In spending this week with the three passages you heard read this morning, I find myself holding two ideas in tension. The first is Newton’s first law of motion, sometimes called the law of inertia. That law states that an object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in that motion unless acted upon by an external force. I’ve got that idea in one hand. In the other, I have the truism that we all live with, articulated as early as 500 BCE by the Greek Heraclitus, that only constant in life is change.
Have I lost you yet?? I’ve got change, and the forces of change.
Take our story from Exodus, that famous story of the golden calf. Moses has been too long up the mountain and the Israelites are getting nervous. Aaron, get some gold? Light a fire, cast an idol. We need another god.
The external force acting upon the Israelites, moving them off their position of faith is fear; where did their God go, the God, mind you, who just brought them across a dry sea bed?! Fear is a powerful force.
In this story even God is not immune to Newton’s law. Appropriately aggrieved by his feckless followers, God’s wrath risks pushing God Himself off his position of chesed, or steadfast faithfulness. Wrath is the external force.
Moses mediates; he helps God recognize this force and by recognizing it, God can choose against it. God changes his mind.
We can change our minds too.
Our second reading describes one of the most dramatic character changes in all the Bible. That of Saul, the persecutor of the Christians who becomes Paul, the champion of Christianity. In the epistle to Timothy, we learn that the force that allows Paul to change from a blasphemer, a persecutor and a man of violence is God’s mercy and grace. Mercy & grace, external forces for positive change.
And lastly, let’s go to the two lost and found stories from Luke. The story of the shepherd and the lost sheep and that of the woman and the lost coin. These two stories are really part of a threesome, the third being the story of the lost or prodigal son.
Luke sets the scene for us. One group, tax collectors and sinners, have been coming near to listen to Jesus. Another group, the Pharisees and the scribes, take objection to this. It’s like a ven diagram of two non-intersecting sets. Jesus, we’ll learn from these stories, is where they collide.
Jesus is the external force of change. He changes how we see people, he broadens our understanding, opens our hearts, challenges us to move, to move towards love.
“Which one of you,” Jesus asks with a question construction that brooks no argument, “which one of you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them does not leave the 99 and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?” The force of his question makes the search the only choice. God does that for us, so we must do it for others. We must search out the lost.
The coin in the woman’s house, wherever it was (maybe in the couch cushions), that coin wasn’t going to find itself. It is a prime example of an object at rest that was going to stay at rest. Except for the woman. She lit a lamp, swept the house and searched carefully. She was the force that changed the coin’s state. Her desire, her desperation maybe, her persistence certainly. Forces for change.
Are there things in our lives that are like that coin? Just sitting there in their status quo, waiting for us to be the change agent? I can think of any number in my life. A lot of them are inanimate, like an attic filled with 30 years of old stuff, or piles on my desk. But some are animate, like the shepherd’s sheep: people or relationships that are lost, wandering in the wilderness, waiting on a phone call, a word, piggy back home.
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There was an obituary in the Times this week of a woman named Diet Eman (deet EE-mahn), a Dutch woman who, as part of the Resistance in World War II, risked her life to rescue Dutch Jews.
According to the obituary, Eman was living with her parents when the Germans, hours after Hitler had vowed to respect Dutch neutrality, invaded the Netherlands. Her sister’s finance was killed on the first of five days of fighting. (A brother died later in a Japanese prison camp.)
Some of [Eman’s] neighbors argued that for whatever reason, God in his wisdom must have willed the German invasion. But Eman, a deeply religious woman could find no justification for such evil.
Diet Eman did not have to take part in the Resistance, she didn’t have to look for that coin, go after that sheep, interfere with the world’s motion; she chose to take part. Chose to be an external force, applying love against a time of hate.
By some miracle, a letter Eman’s boyfriend had written her on a single sheet of toilet paper and tossed from a train as he was being transported to his death at Dachau made its way to her.
‘Darling, don’t count on seeing each other again soon,’ he wrote… ‘Even if we won’t see each other on earth again, we will never be sorry for what we did, and that we took this stand.’
He signed off with the Latin phrase that was engraved on the gold engagement ring that he had given her: ‘Omnia vincit amor.’ Love conquers all.”
Or, as Saint Paul would say, hope, faith and love abide these three, and the greatest of these is love. There is no external force greater than love.
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September each year brought change to Swarthmore Street: new classes, friends, schools, challenges. And so we find ourselves here today, a new season at Saint Luke’s. I pray you’ll find here a place to seek and to find. A place to rejoice. A place to love. Welcome back!