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Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 11, 2022

1 Timothy 1:12-17, Luke 15:1-10

Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.

In our reading from 1st Timothy today, St. Paul writes: “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”

Like the better-known words of John 3:16, this is a simple, straightforward summary of the entire gospel. It tells us clearly why Jesus came into the world: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”

In our gospel reading for today we hear Jesus himself tell us the same thing, that he came into the world to seek and save the lost. In response to some Pharisees who were grumbling about Jesus welcoming sinners and eating with them, Jesus told a little story about a shepherd pursuing one lost sheep and celebrating when it was found. He then told another little story about a woman searching for a lost coin and celebrating when it was found. Through these stories Jesus is explaining to the Pharisees why he has come. He has come to seek out and save the lost. Paul is right: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners!

On this anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, I’d like to share with you the story of Mychal Judge, whose story has some pertinent connections to our scripture readings for today.

Mychal Judge knew at a young age that he had been found by Christ Jesus. Even as a boy he felt a strong call to serve Jesus as a priest. He began the formation process to become a Franciscan friar when he was only 15 years old.

But years later Father Mychal lost his way. Even in the midst of his ministry as a priest he wandered away from Jesus and began to abuse alcohol. His abuse turned into full blown alcoholism, which he struggled with for several years.

But Christ didn’t abandon him to his brokenness. His didn’t let Father Mychal stay lost. Christ pursued him, and Christ found him once again. Father Mychal experienced the forgiveness and new life Christ brings to the lost as he got sober. Father Mychal would surely agree: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Father Mychal knew firsthand that Christ had come to seek and save the lost, and celebrated when they were found.

Father Mychal, in turn, served Christ by participating in his work of seeking out the least and the lost. He became well known on the streets of New York City for his acts of mercy. He worked with others who were in the grip of alcoholism, drawing on his own experience to help others get and stay sober. He was once walking down the streets of New York in the middle of winter, and as the wind howled through that concrete jungle he took off his winter coat and gave it to a homeless woman. He once prayed over a man who was dying of AIDS. This man looked up at Father Mychal and asked him, “Does God hate me?” Father Mychal responded by picking this frail man up, kissing him, and gently rocking him in his arms.

Father Mychal knew that Christ came into the world to save sinners. He knew that Christ had come to search for the least and the lost, and that he celebrated when they were found. He knew that Christ had found him when he was lost, and so he dedicated his life to participating in Christ’s work in the world.

In 1992 Father Mychal was appointed to serve as a chaplain to the New York City Fire Department. Before long he was well known by the firefighters and their families, and well-loved for the prayers, support, and encouragement he offered them.

On a bright fall morning exactly 21 years ago, Father Mychal heard the news that the World Trade Center had been hit by an airliner. Knowing that his firefighters would be the ones responding, he went searching for them. While others were fleeing those burning buildings, Father Mychal rushed towards them, searching for his beloved people who were now lost in a cloud of smoke and panic. Just as Jesus sought him out when his life was in shambles, now Father Mychal sought out his firefighters to bring them a word of hope on their darkest day.

The same Jesus who sought out and saved Father Mychal – especially when he was most lost – continues to seek and save the lost. What St. Paul said some two thousand years ago is still true today: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” Through the Holy Spirit, Jesus continues to seek out that one lost sheep. He continues to search for every last lost coin.

We all have a tendency to get lost. As the prophet Isaiah wrote, “All we, like sheep, have gone astray.” We are the lost coins who periodically fall into the nooks and crannies of disobedience and self-centeredness and destructive behaviors. We are the sinners who are lost in our brokenness, lost in our anxieties, lost in clouds of smoke and panic, lost in the challenges and the struggles and the tragedies and the disasters of our lives. Our sinful nature causes us to wander away again and again. The brokenness of our world often makes us feel lost and alone and afraid.

But as Christ’s word is proclaimed, he finds us once again. As he comes to us in bread and wine, he throws us a lifeline by which we are found. As our hearts are turned again towards God through the forgiveness and new life Jesus brings, we are found and there is joy in heaven.

And like Father Mychal, in response to being found, we join Christ in seeking and saving the lost. We participate in Christ’s rescue mission as we bring a word of truth, a word of hope, a word of peace, a word of grace, to the people around us. This happens as parents and Sunday school teachers share Christ’s love with students who feel a little lost at the beginning of a new school year. This happens as recovering addicts gather under this very roof in one of the several support groups we host here, where they are supported and welcomed and loved. This happens as our Stephen Ministers come alongside people in their seasons of brokenness to provide a ministry of presence to those who are hurting. This happens as our blanket workshop team gathers to make quilts for people around the world who are going through disasters of every kind. I could go on and on about the ways this takes shape in the life of this congregation.

The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Our Lord Jesus finds us lost sheep, he finds us lost coins, and he celebrates with all of heaven when we are found. This is what happens every Sunday here at Oak Harbor Lutheran Church. We are not a club for the righteous, but a fellowship of the found. And we respond to the gift of being found by supporting and participating in Christ’s ongoing work of seeking and saving the lost.

Father Mychal died on this day, 21 years ago, in the North Tower lobby of the World Trade Center. He died as he went looking for his beloved people who were lost in the smoke of the floors above. His body was later carried out of the rubble by firefighters, a moment which was captured in a powerful photograph which has been described as “An American Pieta,” referring to the great Michelangelo sculpture of Mary holding the body of Jesus.

It is an apt description, for Father Mychal’s death is a reflection of what Jesus has done for each of us. It is a reflection of the passion with which our Lord Jesus searches for his beloved people who are lost. It is a reflection of the sacrifice Jesus was willing to make so that all of us might be found. Jesus died in pursuit of us, and his death tells us that no matter how lost we might be, there is nowhere Jesus isn’t willing to go in order to find us. He was even willing to bear the cross in order to rescue us, in order to save us.

But don’t forget that Jesus’ stories of finding that which was lost always ends with a celebration. Jesus’ death on the cross wasn’t the last word. God raised him from the dead, and in his resurrection there is cause for rejoicing in heaven and on earth.

Jesus’ resurrection is Good News for Father Mychal and all who loved him. Jesus’ resurrection is Good News as his name, along with 2,605 other names, are read at the World Trade Center this morning. Jesus’ resurrection is Good News for all who mourn, for all who feel lost, for all who are fumbling through any kind of disaster or challenge or hardship, no matter the scale.

Jesus’ resurrection is Good News for you and for me. It means that even death cannot separate us from him. It means that we who were once lost have been found forever. It means that his work of saving sinners continues today as the Holy Spirit continues this ministry both to us and through us.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church