Sermon: “Good News for Those Lost in the Cosmos” (October 30, 2016)

Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Good News for Those Lost in the Cosmos” (Luke 19:1-10)
October 30, 2016
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

In the summer of 1976, when I was seven years old, my family rode in a beige 1974 Chevy Malibu from Springfield, Virginia to Denver, Colorado to visit our extended family.  My two sisters and I shared the back seat and exchanged delightful dialogue along the lines of “He’s in my space again!” or “She won’t stop staring at me!” or asked our parents equally delightful questions like “Are we there yet?” or “When are we eating?” or “Can we stop at a bathroom?”

The radio played hit songs that summer from the Eagles, Elton John, and of course, KC and the Sunshine Band—changing stations as the static dictated.  I remember how excited I got as we crossed state after state—Maryland, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas—and finally seeing the Rocky Mountains emerge out of the Colorado horizon.  I loved watching the terrain change and my dad pointing out to me our location on the maps posted at the rest stops.  Dinners at McDonald’s, nights at Howard Johnson’s—life was good.

One afternoon during our visit in Denver I got on my skateboard and headed off from my grandparents’ home to visit my great-grandmother who lived down the street.  I thought I had remembered where her house was, but I missed it and ended up wandering around downtown Denver.  At first it was exciting, but the excitement was soon replaced with fear.  I tried to retrace my path but still had no idea where I was.  As my fear began to change into panic, I saw something that immediately brought relief—our 1974 Chevy Malibu with my dad at the wheel.  He had driven around, and had not stopped driving around, until he had found me.  I can still remember the overwhelming relief of seeing his smiling face.

In today’s gospel lesson Jesus proclaims why he left heaven to come to earth, why he left his throne at the right hand of his Heavenly Father to be born in a barn, why, as scripture puts it, Jesus “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness” (Philippians 2:7).  “The Son of Man,” Jesus proclaimed, “came to seek out and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10).

“The Son of Man came to see out and to save the lost.”  There are a lot of lost people out there—and there may be some lost people in here today.

In his 1983 book Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book, the late Walker Percy describes how in spite of all the effort expended to help people understand themselves and get to where they think they need to be, many people are still just as confused and lost as ever.  Percy actually offers a variety of alternative titles for this book, including “How you can survive in the Cosmos about which you know more and more while knowing less and less about yourself, this despite 10,000 self-help books, 100,000 psychotherapists, and 100 million fundamentalist Christians” or “Why it is that of all the billions and billions of strange objects in the Cosmos—novas, quasars, pulsars, black holes—you are the strangest” or, one more, “Why it is possible to learn more in ten minutes about the Crab Nebula in Taurus, which is six thousand light years away, then you presently know about yourself, although you’ve been stuck with yourself all your life.”

When I lived in Charlottesville I became good friends with the members of a brilliant Americana band called Sons of Bill.  On their 2014 album Love and Logic they tip their hat to Walker Percy in a song also called “Lost in the Cosmos” which describes this:

Dangerous and desperate and young
Fixing your eyes on the distant horizon
And waiting for dawn
For the sun to shine on

Something so pure and so bright
You caught it in glimpses but never could catch it
The harder you try
It’s still passing you by

But the farther and farther you crawl
Bringing it home don’t make no sense at all
And you’re seeking your way
From the lines lying under the snowfall

You’re weary but carrying on
Don’t you march to the beat of a heart
That’s been beating too hard for too long?
Too hard for too long…

And I’m lost in the cosmos again
Deeper and deeper in what could have been
As the fits and the starts
They go spinning around in your brain
Oh you just should have listened to me
All that there is now is all there can be
And just lighting your way and fighting away the pain
Still lighting away and fighting away the pain

In today’s gospel lesson Jesus is on a road trip that took him through Jericho, the home of a diminutive tax collector named Zacchaeus, who was despised by the Romans because he was a Jew, despised by the Jews because he was a tax collector, and ridiculed by both because, as Luke notes, “he was short in stature.”  Zacchaeus was so excited that Jesus was passing through he scurried up a sycamore tree to get a glimpse.  Apparently he had previously had an encounter with Jesus, because when Jesus saw him, he called him by name, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down for I must stay at your house today.”

Luke then notes that Zacchaeus “hurried down and was happy to welcome him.”  The Greek word for “happy” here is chairo, which also means “glad, delighted, or joyful.”  This word also has the same root as the verb for “rejoice,” which Luke uses in Jesus’ parable about the shepherd who leaves his ninety-nine safe sheep to find the one lost sheep—and as Jesus emphasizes, “When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices” (Luke 15:5).  Similarly, in his parable of the prodigal son Jesus says that the father told his older son, who resented the party being thrown for his returned lost slacker younger brother, “We had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found” (Luke 15:32).

In other words, Zacchaeus was happy to welcome Jesus because when he had been lost in the cosmos, Jesus had sought him out until he found him because “the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”  Moreover, Zacchaeus was happy because he was forgiven, as we read in the psalm today, “Happy are they whose transgression are forgiven, and whose sin is put away!  Happy are they to whom the Lord imputes no guilt” (Psalm 32:1-2a, The Book of Common Prayer 624-625).

When I was in my mid-twenties I served as a youth minister at an Episcopal church in Fairfax, Virginia, and volunteered occasionally at the jail.  One Sunday afternoon I went there to lead a chapel service.  With an ironed shirt, striped tie, sweaty palms clutching my Bible I was admitted into the meeting room.  A few moments later about thirty inmates entered the room and joined me in the circle of folding metal chairs, each of which had a delapidated Methodist hymnal.

Without my saying a word, they began singing hymns acapella, taking turns shouting out hymn numbers.  Only a few glanced at the hymnals, most of them knew the words by heart.  When they were done, one of them said to me, “Okay, you’re up!”  I stumbled through my teaching and when I was done there was an awkward silence, and then one of them asked, “Um, can we sing some more?”  And we did, and the singing was beautiful, and the joy was palpable.

As they filed out at the end of the service, laughing and cutting up, one of them shook my hand and looked into my eyes, “You know why we’re so happy don’t you?” he said, “We’re happy because we’re forgiven.”  As I drove home his words echoed in my mind, “We’re happy because we’re forgiven.”

Zacchaeus was happy because he was forgiven, and therefore happy to welcome Jesus into his home for a dinner party with other forgiven sinners.  As people respond to the forgiveness of God by forgiving others, the happiness spreads.

When I was a kid I remember hearing about Corrie Ten Boom, who had been sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp for hiding Jews in her home during World War II, the basis of her classic book The Hiding Place.  In her 1974 book Tramp for the Lord she recounts the following story:

It was 1947 and I had come from Holland to defeated Germany with the message that God forgives…And that’s when I saw him working his way forward against the others….a guard—one of the most cruel guards.  Now he was in front of me, hand thrust out: “A fine message, fräulein!  How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea!”

And I, who had spoken so glibly of forgiveness, fumbled in my pocketbook rather than take that hand.  He would not remember me, of course—how could he remember one prisoner among those thousands of women?  But I remembered him and the leather crop swinging from his belt.  It was the first time since my release that I had been face to face with one of my captors and my blood seemed to freeze.

“You mentioned Ravensbrück in your talk,” he was saying. “I was a guard in there…but since that time,” he went on, “I have become a Christian.  I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well.  Fräulein, will you forgive me?”

And I stood there—I whose sins had every day to be forgiven—and could not forgive…I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart…“Jesus, help me!”…And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me.  And as I did, an incredible thing took place.  The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands.  And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.  “I forgive you, brother!” I cried, “With all my heart!”  For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner.  I had never known God’s love so intensely as I did then (From Brian Zahnd’s 2013 book Radical Forgiveness 31-33).

The gospel is good news for those feeling “lost in the cosmos again,” “fighting away the pain,” and “waiting for dawn,” because the Lord of the Cosmos, Jesus Christ, came to seek out and to save the lost, including Zacchaeus, including you.  Jesus did not stop driving until he found you, and on a different tree Jesus died so that you could be forgiven, so your sins could be cast to the bottom of the sea.

Jesus invites you to climb down from the tree, and welcome him into your house again—to join the party of sinners who are happy because they have been found, happy because they have forgiven—the party of sinners who have experienced the overwhelming relief of seeing Jesus’ smiling face.

Amen.