Revised Common Lectionary Reflection, Proper 19, Year C
September 11, 2022*
I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents. Luke 15:10
New Orleans–July, 2010. It was the final night of the ELCA National Youth Gathering, and we were headed into the Superdome for what promised to be another exceptional time of worship, inspiration, and celebration with 30,000 of our peers. Our group was composed of 20 youth from four rural North Dakota congregations and three adult chaperones. So far we’d managed to stay together and avoid disaster. Tonight would be different.
Somehow the youngest member of our group, a 13-year-old I’ll call Brad, went missing. The high school seniors had asked if they could go off on their own to get as close to the floor as possible, while the adults and the younger youth were content to sit on an upper level. So the seniors went down towards the floor and the rest of us squeezed through the crowds to take the escalator to the upper levels. But when we got there, Brad was nowhere to be seen. We tried calling his cell phone, but it was turned off, and because of the noise and bad cell phone service we couldn’t get anyone else to answer either.
After several panicked minutes, we found a Youth Gathering volunteer and put security to the test. We knew Brad had entered the doors with us, but no one could remember seeing him on the escalator. Surely he wouldn’t have gone back out into the street! The Gathering staff did their best to calm our fears and told us that as long as he was in the Dome he was safe, and if we did not find him before the end of the night they would lock it down until he was located (The staff was amazing, by the way.).
Meanwhile, we gave his description to staff and other leaders, continued to call and text the older youth in our group, and began a row-by-row search. Still, finding one teenager in a crowd of more than 30,000 was like finding a needle in a haystack — but much, much scarier. Finally, after halfway into the program, we found the seniors, and sure enough there was Brad–having the time of his life, and completely unaware that he was even lost in the first place.
I can relate to the stories Jesus tells in this week’s gospel. Indeed, we could have shouted from the top of the Superdome “Rejoice with us, for we have found the teenager that we had lost!” How precious was the sight of that child! Anyone who has ever worked with and traveled with youth knows the level of responsibility such work entails. You are entrusted with dearly beloved, precious children of God; the weighty calling requires a delicate balance of ministry, cat-herding, awareness, authenticity and transparency, and earned trust and authority.
Knowing how I felt about losing Brad in New Orleans, I can only imagine how Jesus feels about each and every one of us. No matter who or what we are. No matter what our perceived worth or standing in the community, our economic status, or our “righteousness,” the Creator of the universe values us and seeks us out. We are loved without merit, saved by grace, and redeemed to be part of the beloved family of God.
Even if, like young Brad, we don’t realize how lost we are, our Lord still looks for us and works with us to bring us to awareness and to a place at the table where there are no insiders or outsiders, only sinners redeemed by love and grace. What was lost is found, and we–all of us–are precious in God’s sight. May we always strive to see one another as God sees us–in the light of grace and with joy in our mutual “finding”! Blessings on your preaching and teaching
Most people have experienced a “Brad” moment of some sort–the kind of panic one feels when losing track of a child, a parent, a precious possession like a wedding ring or photo, or perhaps even a wallet. Invite those gathered to think of such an experience. Perhaps, like Brad, they were the one lost without even knowing it. If they are willing, give them time to talk about it in pairs or small groups. Reinforce that without Jesus we are all lost–sinners in need of redemption. We are in process, or as Martin Luther said, we are “Simul Justus et Peccator,” both saint and sinner.
The notion of “mercy” is woven throughout this week’s lectionary readings. Look at the dictionary definition of “mercy” with your youth. Have them find the references to “mercy” in the lessons. Invite them to look both for obvious references and for more nuanced ones. What does it mean to extend mercy? How did Jesus show mercy? Why was it so difficult for the religious leaders to show mercy to others? How can we be merciful to others today? If possible, share communion together.
Consider sharing the song “Mercy” by Casting Crowns. You can find several YouTube versions, including this one.
Psalm 51: The “Divine” Wash Cycle
Bring in a small laundry basket filled with all the stain removers, pre-washes, and detergents you can lay hands on. Also bring a clear glass bowl or vase, a pitcher of water, some food coloring, a long handled spoon, and a small medicine bottle (with a dropper) filled with bleach. Label the dropper bottle with a cross.
Ask the children if they ever get their clothes really dirty. Have them tell you what sorts of stains they get on their clothes–grass, mud, ink, spaghetti sauce, etc. What does their parent do to get them clean? (You may get some strange answers here.) Show them some of the items in the laundry basket and ask them if these things might help to remove stains from dirty clothes.
Read at least verses 7 and 10 of Psalm 51. Ask the children what we can do to get the stain of sin out of our lives. Will Tide work? How about Oxy Clean? Clorox? Pour water in the clear bowl or vase. Invite the older children to think of something that’s wrong–a sin. For each sin, add a drop of food coloring. It won’t take long to have pretty yucky colored water. (Note: Be careful to avoid spilling any water and perhaps use a tray of plastic sheet to protect carpeting.)
Tell the children that only God is capable of removing the stain of sin. That’s why Jesus came to help us understand this and to save us. Drop three or so drops of bleach from the dropper bottle into the dirty water, stir it up and watch the water clear. This is what happens to our life when we turn to Jesus and ask for forgiveness. We are washed clean in the divine wash cycle–better than any detergent money can buy!
*This reflection was first published in 2013.