Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

The Rev. Matthew Potts speaks to the congregation from the lectern, Aug. 28, 2022,The Rev. Matthew I. Potts greets the congregation at Sunday services. Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications.



By the Rev. Matthew Ichihashi Potts, Ph.D.
Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church
Plummer Professor of Christian Morals in the Faculty of Divinity

(The following is a transcript of the service audio)

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, oh God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

I've been thinking about grief and about loss this week for public reasons and for more private ones. Of course, as Cheyenne's prayers reminded us, we needed no reminder. Today is the 21st anniversary of the September 11th attacks: a moment of grief, a grief-stricken moment, a moment that strikes us again and again, especially those of us whose pain is so close to those attacks.

There was also the death of Elizabeth, the queen. We saw public acts of grief and public memorials of grief and expressions of grief from those for whom she meant so much, to whom she meant so much. Then, here in our own church, yesterday, we had a Memorial service for Jan Randolph, who was, for many years, a member of this community, a staff member, community member. Grief is all around. Loss is all around, and so grief is all around. I've been thinking about it this week.

To be fair, those of you who have taken classes with me know I think about grief a lot. Just in my scholarship as well, I think about the ethics of grief, about who we grieve and how we grieve: what that says about who we value and what we value. Even the examples, which I just gave, which are clear moments of loss... They become complicated very quickly. When I think about 9/11, of course, I grieve the loss of those lives. I grieve for the families and friends of those who are lost. But something else seems like it was lost that day. I think about the violence that followed in the wake of that senseless violence. I think of war upon war and all the casualties of those wars, and I'm filled with grief.

Even with the queen, very few, I think, who mourned her deeply and authentically knew her personally. She represented something else to them, the loss of something else. When we reflect upon who we grieve and how we grieve, and what we grieve, it can tell us something again about who we value and what we value, and how we value it. Another way to ask this question or to reflect is upon who we aren't grieving.

As some of you know, and as I'll say more about in the coming weeks, here at the church, we're thinking, this year, about Christian and religious responses to climate change. We're thinking about the grief that accompanies climate change. I think it's worth asking, "How much grief do we feel today? Why do we feel it? Do we feel it?"

This summer in Pakistan, 33 million people... That's the population of Texas... have had their homes ruined by flood. Fourteen-hundred people have died. This is all because of glacial melt and unceasing monsoons. The loss is there. The question is, are we grieving it? And if not, why not?

Whether we grieve and who we grieve is a sign of who matters to us. Choosing to grieve means choosing that they matter, that they belong to us. I think belonging and belonging to us is part of what's going on today when Jesus has this encounter/this exchange with some of the religious authorities of His day. If you were here a couple of weeks ago, the first Sunday we returned after summer, you heard me preach about another confrontation Jesus had with maybe the same people. He goes out to dinner with them, and a man with dropsy came and asked to be healed, and Jesus healed him. Then, they sent him off, and Jesus said, "Why didn't you invite him to dinner too? Why doesn't he belong with us?"

We have a different version of the same confrontation this morning. Here the ailment is not physical but moral, at least in the eyes of these religious leaders. They whisper to one another. This one shares a table with sinners and outcasts. They should not eat with him. To be fair, in the ancient world, the line between physical ailment and moral ailment was sometimes blurry. Many people at that time believed that physical ailment might be divine punishment for sin.

Some folks, now, in our traditions speak that way. Because of that, lots of Christians don't like to talk about sin. And I understand why they don't like to talk about sin. It's because the language of sin has been used in our tradition, like a cudgel throughout our history, to keep people out, to do exactly what these religious leaders are doing: to decide who gets to sit at table with us and who ought not to. But it's precisely because of that, I think, that speaking about sin is important because all of us fail, and all of us fall short.

These parables, today's parables, the parable of the lost sheep and a lost coin, do offer us some comfort, but not only comfort, challenge as well. "This one eats with sinners," the religious leaders say. That word, "sinners," comes from a Greek word, “hamartolos,” which means to miss the mark, to miss your target. Even in a deeper etymology, it means to lose your share, to not have a share in it anymore. The concept of sin, as Jesus is using it now, was not necessarily about something like moral transgression or corruption. It's about losing your share. It's about loss. Loss is all around. This is about loss too. It's clear from the parable that precedes these two parables. We got the sheep and the coin. We're at the beginning of chapter 15. Right at the end of chapter 14 is the parable of the prodigal son, the son who takes his inheritance before his dad dies and then runs off and loses his share, and then comes back.

On this weekend, when loss is all around, Jesus is speaking about loss too. But He's speaking about loss in a particularly confounding way, a way that confounds our assumptions about who loses and what it means to be found.

I preached on the prodigal son last spring in March. I'll repeat a little bit of what I said there just to frame this. What's interesting about this man who loses his share, who loses his inheritance, is that he never repents. He never apologizes to his father. While he is still out on the road, his father runs to him and embraces him. Before the prodigal son can even get the apology out, his father is putting rings upon his fingers and throwing robes upon his back. The son lost the inheritance, but the father is the one who was grieving. The father is the one who felt the acute loss and then pursued his son relentlessly, recklessly and brought him back into that embrace.

Think about, then, our parables from today, the parable of the lost sheep and the parable of the lost coin. It's the shepherd who feels lost. It's the shepherd who feels something missing, who feels the loss, and then goes after the sheep. It's the woman who feels lost and goes and searches relentlessly until she finds the coin. The one who is full of grief, the one who is grief-stricken, in these parables, is God. It's God who reaches out relentlessly, recklessly, even impudently.

One of the commentators I read said that the party that this woman throws probably cost more than the coin she found. Who loses? God loses. In grief over that loss, God commits everything to restoration and return. This is comforting news, good news for us who grieve and for us who sin. But there's a challenge here too. To describe that challenge, let me tell you a little bit about my summer vacation, what I did this summer.

I spent a week in Iceland. My wife, Colette, has family in Iceland. We've been there several times, and I love Iceland. And one of the things Iceland's a beautiful place, beautiful landscape, very dramatic. Some of you probably have been to Iceland before. When you're out in the countryside, there are sheep everywhere. The sheep just wander around. There are some fences to keep them somewhat contained, but they make their way through. They just wander around. There are no shepherds in Iceland. The reason there are no shepherds in Iceland is because there are no wolves or predators in Iceland. You can just let sheep wander around. Then, when it's time to shear them, you bring them in and then let them wander around again.

This was not the case in ancient Israel. In ancient Israel, there were wolves in Judea. There were leopards, and there were lions. To be sheep without a shepherd... That was to be at risk. Now, if that is true, if this is the context out of which Jesus is speaking, then where does that leave the religious leaders who are muttering in the corner about who Jesus eats with? To put a finer point on it, if God is with the one, where does that leave the other 99? There are 99 other sheep out there in the wilderness shepherdless with lions and wolves and leopards all around. Then, there's one who's with God. Which sheep are really lost and which are found? Where would you rather be?

Maybe you are feeling lost this morning. If you are, I must tell you: take courage. There is no greater loss, God could suffer than the loss of you. God is looking for you relentlessly, and God won't stop until you are found. But maybe you think you aren't so lost. Maybe like the religious leaders in this parable, or like the 99 sheep, you think you are right where you belong, right at home with all the righteous. If that's the case, you might want to look around. Because if you think you're not lost, and you think you're not lost because you can see the herd all around you, it's quite possible that God has already gone, that God is already out there, already feeling the losses that we ignore, already searching for that one that got away, already rejoicing at a return and a restoration we have not yet known. All this while we graze here complacently in our wilderness with wolves and lions and leopards all around.

If you do find yourself in that herd, though, I have good news for you too. Because even if Christ has left us all alone, He has told us where He's going. He has told us among whom to find Him. It is no accident that Jesus called His disciples with the words "follow me."