One of the images that burns in my mind when I think about September 11th, 2001 are the walls covered in posters of people who were missing. So many people died at once, and the crime scenes were so chaotic, that it was sometimes weeks before people confirmed whether their loved ones were dead or alive. Walls in New York were covered in handmade posters with the faces of people who were lost. Their families did everything they could to find the people they loved so much. Some were successful right away—finding their loved ones in a hospital, and some kept on looking, but never stopped until they knew for sure what had happened.
That image has stayed with me this week, because our Gospel text is full of images of people looking, searching, for something precious. Jesus is surrounded by tax collectors and “sinners” who have heard about him and are fascinating by the things Jesus is saying about God. The Pharisees are horrified that someone who claims to be delivering messages from God is surrounding himself with tax collectors, who take advantage of the people of God on behalf of the Roman Empire and by sinners, who you know, do sinful stuff.
Jesus responds by telling the story of the shepherd, who has lost one sheep, leaves the other 99 sheep and searches until he can bring the lost sheep back to safety. He goes on to tell a story about a woman who loses a coin and turns her whole house upside down to find it. He then tells the story of the prodigal son, which the lectionary saves for another day.
There is no one so lost that they are outside the bounds of God’s grace. A couple of weeks ago, when we did the backpack blessing, I told the children that with God, they get infinite do-overs. A couple parents laughed/shot me dirty looks, because this is not particularly helpful ammunition to give a grumpy seven year old. I want to be clear that it is God who gives the do-overs, not people. No human being is willing to give us infinite do-overs. Our teachers won’t give us infinite do-overs, our siblings won’t give us infinite do-overs, even the most loving parent eventually has to draw a line. It’s not good for human beings to give us infinite do-overs. Sometimes people drawing the line on our destructive behavior is what finally gets us to make better choices.
But even if we have alienated every human being in our life, even if our parents have cut us off, God is still patiently waiting for us and as soon as we want to, will help us start a new life in God. In fact, if we are to believe Jesus’ parables, God isn’t just patiently waiting, God is turning over couch cushions looking for us. God is looking behind every hedge and under every rock. God isn’t sitting around waiting for us to get all our answers straight. God isn’t waiting for us to pull ourselves together. God is looking for us right now. Exactly the way we are. He longs for us.
There is a story out of Denmark, reported by Hanna Rosin of the NPR Podcast Invisiblia, that made me think of these parables. This is the story of those who were lost, and how a community found them again.
One day, in the Danish town of Aarhus, police got a frantic call from parents whose teenage son had gone missing. While they started to look into the case, they got another call. And then another. In all, it turned out dozens of teenagers and young adults had disappeared. The police investigated and found that these young people had been lured by ISIS to Syria, along with thousands of other European young adults. Rather than recruit directly through mosques, ISIS recruited through social media and peer to peer recruiting. Some parents had no idea their children were being radicalized until the day their children disappeared.
Now, in the rest of Europe, police reaction to this recruiting was to get even tougher on terrorism. Countries forbid travel to Syria, threatened to take away passports, declared those who had left enemies of the state. None of this seemed to work. Young Muslim people felt so alienated that the call to travel to Syria and help build an Islamic State seemed attractive to them. They wanted to belong.
Belonging. Belonging is what the Aarhus policemen decided to use as a tactic to solve this problem. Instead of warning young people that they would get in trouble if they went to Syria, Hanna Rosin reports that:
They made it clear to citizens of Denmark who had traveled to Syria that they were welcome to come home, and that when they did, they would receive help with going back to school, finding an apartment, meeting with a psychiatrist or a mentor, or whatever they needed to fully integrate back into society.
Instead of punishing radicalization, the police officers tried to fight the roots of radicalization. They apologized to young people that had been arrested on bogus charges. They followed up with these young people and found them mentors, jobs, health care. Instead of treating them as lost causes, they treated them as people who wanted to be found.
Since 2012, 34 young people have left Aarhus for Syria. Six were killed and ten are still there. 18 have come home and met with these police officers, as have more than 300 other radicalized youth from Aarhus. Since the program started very few young people have left Aarhus. Last year, it was only one person. The engagement is working. One young man said that while he always felt like an outsider in Denmark, now he feels Danish.
In the years since 9/11 our country has gotten more and more polarized. Public discourse has almost entirely broken down. But these images of God searching out the lost give us hope. If God can look for us no matter how broken we are, if we can fully feel the joy of that kind of love and forgiveness, perhaps we can reach out to those around us in love. Rather than judging those different from us, perhaps we can seek them out, too, remind ourselves that their difference does not mean they are cut off from God’s love that flows through us.
The God we worship is a God who seeks the lost and then gathers them into community. As members of Christ’s body, we are invited into this gathering, both as the invited and the inviters. The police in Aarhus give us a great example of how that might look. Instead of cutting off troubled young people, they invited them back into their communities and made sure they had deep connections. I guarantee you, their experience was not easy. But it was important to preserving their community, and so they did it.
Today we begin/began Christian Formation, and I can’t stress how important this is for you and for your families. Christian Formation is not just about educating ourselves and our children about God. Christian Formation is an opportunity for us to connect to one another and to God. It is a change to be brought into community, and to give yourself the bonds of connection that will see you through hard times. One of our college students told his parent that he’s not sure what he believes about God, but he knows that the people of St. Paul’s love him. He knows that because he was an active participant in our life together. He knows that because he showed up and was willing to be gathered in. We hope that sense of church as a place of love will continue with him his whole life and ultimately draw him to God. We hope that every child who grows up in St. Paul’s has that same sense. We hope each adult who enters our doors feels that love.
But your clergy and staff cannot do it alone. We need you. We need your presence. We need your leadership. We are so grateful every time someone volunteers to chaperone or teach or plan a reception because each of those encounters creates another bond, another chance for people to feel connected.
If you are new to St. Paul’s, we invite you to join us in the courtyard this afternoon at 4:00. We want to form those bonds with you, too. And September 25th and October 23rd, Eric will be leading a Welcome Class including a tour of the church at the 9:30 hour. It can be hard to enter a new church. People are often embarrassed to reach out to a new person in case that person is not new! But we are committed to helping you find ways to connect, both to people and to God.
God wants every single one of us as part of his community. He wants us to be gathered in, together. He wants each of us to know him deeply. And he will keep looking for us until we do.
Thanks be to God.