Seeking What Is Lost

Jeremiah4:11-12, 22-28 Luke 15:1-10

September 12, 2010

This morning's scriptures may seem like an odd combination, one talks about the havoc people have wreaked on the earth and how God will judge them harshly. The other is an account of Jesus telling stories of God's desire to find every lost child and bring them home. At first they seem to be speaking about two very different “Gods” if you will, but on closer look we see that maybe there is something deeper happening here. What we are seeing in these two readings are the two sides of a very deep and complex relationship between God and God's people. On the one hand, God will go to incredible extremes to seek us out, to pick us up when we fall, and bring us back home to comfort, safety and security. On the other hand, we need to carry our part of the burden. We need to act in ways that befit children of God in relationship with God, with one another and with the earth.

Yesterday was the anniversary of a date that has become linked with tragedy and with strained relationships between Muslims and Christians. The September 11th tragedies that took so many lives also broke trust between people of different faiths, primarily making Muslims the target of quite a bit of hatred, profiling and misunderstanding. Although moderate leaders of Islam have attempted to explain to the world that the actions of September 11th were those of extremists, of fundamentalists who have interpreted the Quran and the teachings of Mohammad in ways that most Muslims totally disagree with, Muslims and Arabs in our communities and throughout the world have continued to be looked at with less respect at the least, with hostility at the worst. The case of the Florida pastor who intended to burn the Quran on Saturday is an extreme one, of course, but it also points to the reality that we live in a world where people do not trust one another even yet, do not understand one another, and many people are not even willing to try.

The reading from Jeremiah this morning brings us face to face with God's judgment. The people in that time had turned their backs on God and on being in good relationship with one another and with the earth on which they lived. The picture Jeremiah paints is of a world that is falling apart in every way imaginable. The people have left God's guidance, they have done evil things, the land is so much a wasteland that the birds have flown away. It is a pretty awful picture, and somehow the involvement of the natural world makes it even more horrifying. The hills are swaying, no longer stable. Fruitful land has become a desert. Is this God's judgment or are these events the result of human action? We usually interpret them to be the judgments God will bring upon people who have turned toward evil and away from the good, but it is not totally clear. It is quite possible that the people of Jeremiah's time were doing things that wreaked havoc on the environment, as we are doing right now. It is not a comforting thought.

When you look around the earth, at the status of the natural world in our care, you see some horrendous things. The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is the most obvious, the one that presses on our minds as we contemplate how long the effects of the spill will continue to touch the lives of the people who live there. How long will the wildlife of that area be affected? How long will the dark sludge sit on the bottom of the waters and how far will the oil penetrate into the fragile marshes? The answers to these questions are unknown, but we do know it will be a very, very long time. Similar oil spills in Alaska and elsewhere are still affecting the areas where they happened 20 and more years later.

Mountaintop removal and strip mining are other ways we humans have abused the earth. When a mountain top is removed, the earth that is displaced is pushed into a nearby valley, thus leveling the whole area and changing the shape of the area forever; but what is worse is the fact that the earth is so compacted after the operation is over, that nothing can grow there and so the whole level area becomes a wasteland with no plant or animal life to speak of. In Wales, our friend Grahame took us to the village of Aberfan which was altered forever by the mining that took place on a mountain above it. In 1966, after 50 years of mining, the debris pile from the mines gave way after heavy rains, and slid down the mountainside, slamming into houses and an elementary school, killing 144 people, including 116 children who had just left assembly where they had sung “All Things Bright and Beautiful.” That village still has a pall that hangs over it after all these years, as you might expect. Many people there are affected by the mining disaster in very real and tangible ways to this day.

What we do to one another and to the earth does affect us, and powerfully. Some of the affects are subtle and we may not even notice them working on us, but some affects are enormous and impact our lives in ways that are hard to ignore. Of course, we can be a people of denial if we are not careful. We can get lulled into just focusing on our own small existences without thinking about what else or who else is out there in the world beyond our vision. It may seem of little consequence to see all Muslims as being connected in some way to the acts of terror of 9/11 and later, but to our Muslim neighbors, to the person who looks Arab, walking down the streets of Rutland, Burlington or Albany, it is of great consequence. As people of God, whether Christian or Muslim or any other faith, we are called to a higher standard for the way we live our lives. We are called to be like the shepherd who seeks out the lost sheep or the woman who searches high and low for the coin that was lost. We need to notice who has been excluded and create ways of bringing them in – into our vision for starters, and into our communities as active participants who have a say in how things are done. If we are all God's children, and I think we are, then we need to figure out how to live with one another in ways that are respectful of our differences, giving each of us room to express ourselves and our faith.

We also need to be aware of what we are doing when we dismiss a natural resource, seeing it as being in the world just for human consumption and having no intrinsic value of its own. When we do this we stand to lose quite a bit. We lose something special in terms of our relationship with not only the earth, but with the Holy as well, with God. This whole world is God's creation, and all of the inhabitants are God's children – people yes, but animal and plant life as well. We all have our source in the holy. Well, if it is true that we all have our source in the holy, in God, then shouldn't that make us see everyone else in a special way? Shouldn't we look at the rest of the world as a work of art, and notice the colors and patterns and how they fit together so amazingly? And if we notice these things, then will we be less likely to do something to destroy the balance and beauty? One would hope that this would be the case. There is so much to be seen and appreciated in this world both in terms of cultures and people and in terms of the natural world and the interplay of various creatures and living things. As children of God and as Christians, we have an important place in the mix. But we have to recognize and respect the fact that others do as well. If we can take steps toward tolerance of those who are different from ourselves, then perhaps understanding is just around the corner. I believe we are taking steps toward being a part of the “beloved community” envisioned by Martin Luther King, Jr and others who made their life work the pursuit of justice and peace for all.

Trustees of the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions call upon people of faith, spirit and goodwill from all traditions to use the solemn occasion of this 9/11 anniversary to reaffirm our commitment to building a better world for our children and grandchildren, and to affirm our solidarity with the Muslim community in this country and around the world. In this spirit, we offer this Call for Solidarity: On this 9/11 weekend, we invite all persons and communities of faith, spirit and goodwill everywhere to lift up their prayers, voices and thoughts to spark a new attitude and sense of urgency, and to enkindle a different flame:

In whatever ways that are in keeping with our individual and unique sacred traditions, we issue a call to stand together this weekend of September 10 – 12 in order to quench the fires of hatred and violence in our nation and our world, and to become aflame for the cause of a truly “beloved community.”