I remember that day like it was months ago, not years ago. I was driving into work, and caught the story right as I was about to exit the car. A plane had crashed into one of the twin towers. I rushed inside to find a radio, and my boss and I spent the day listening to the story unfold. That night, I got the first glimpse of the destruction on television, and the visual was worse than listening to radio updates. When the first tower fell, and then the second, the wind rushed out of me as I watched the wind rush out of those buildings. Life lost inside, life being forced away from the wreckage, chaos and rubble left in the wake. An eerie silence fell upon us as we watched in horror.
In Genesis 1, the narrator tells us that God forms the earth out of the formless void – tohu wa-vohu, in the Hebrew. Out of nothingness and chaos, God forms order – separating the watery chaos from the earth, dividing the day from the night, bringing vegetation, beasts, and humans to life. God takes chaos and creates order. But on that day fifteen years ago, many of us felt like the opposite happened. All of our order, routine, and compartmentalizing exploded into havoc. Two-hundred and twenty stories of order were thrown into disorder – which does not even take into account the madness of destroyed winding hallways in the Pentagon and the decision of victims to crash into their own deaths rather than allow terrorists to use their plane for more destruction. That day, we felt thrown back into a formless void, unsure of what end was up, and what had happened to our world.
I would like to say all is back to normal now – that after fifteen years, we or God managed to bring order back to the earth. But all one has to do is look at the news and the state of our planet and governments around the world and feel like we are still in the formless void of post-9-11. That is what makes the reading from Jeremiah so unsettling today. As a foil to Genesis 1, Jeremiah 4 describes the earth as waste and void – the same word tohu wa-vohu found in Genesis.[i] Jeremiah says that a hot, destructive wind[ii] blows and the earth becomes a mess – there is no light, the mountains quake, the people and birds of the air are gone, the fruitful land becomes a desert, and cities’ lay in ruin. Jeremiah goes on to say something even more jarring – that the people are foolish and stupid.
Now, I imagine you may be sitting here today thinking, “This is supposed to be a celebratory day, and I managed to invite a friend to church. Can you find us some joy, preacher?!?” Don’t worry – we will get there. I am happy to name where hope is today, but before we get to hope we have to go with Jeremiah into that desolate place. You see, for those of us who know hope and joy, we know we do not arrive there on a straight path. With the exception perhaps of children who have not begun to sense the depth of our depravity, most of us have been through the barren land Jeremiah sees coming. Perhaps we only saw that formless void in the midst of a national tragedy, but perhaps we found that nothingness in the face of death, divorce, or debt. Perhaps the destructive wind blew through our lives when violence, illness, or loneliness overwhelmed us. We do not need to live in this world too long before we know exactly what that barren land looks and feels like. There is probably even a scar left behind, or a metaphorical box we keep so that the watery chaos does not drown us.
But here is the weird part. Only when we claim those times in our lives of tohu wa-vohu, those moments when the world is a formless void, can we experience the fullest heights of hope and joy. Jeremiah calls the people nasty names today not because they are bad people or because they are not smart. He calls them those nasty names because they have failed to remember gratefully and loyally who created them. They have begun to live as if there is no hope, no grace.[iii] And that is why we come to church. To not let the formless voids of life overcome us, but to surround ourselves with a group of people who will remind us that there is still reason and room for hope. We eagerly gather in church because we want to be reminded that our God graciously, lovingly, and mercifully blows a creative air into our nothingness and creates again and again.
That is why we celebrate on this day that could otherwise be a day of overwhelming sadness. We celebrate today because Jesus tells us two parables that remind us why we are a people of hope. These parables of being lost are why we gather with laughter and smiles today. These parables are why we host a party later this afternoon – because we want to mirror the joy that God has over lost coins and sheep.
So how do we turn ourselves from the depths of sadness to the rejoicing of a heavenly party? We need to do some work first. Because the parable of the Prodigal Son follows these two short parables in Luke, we sometimes jump ahead and want to conclude, “All we need to do is repent, and the Lord will be happy.”[iv] But today we only get these two short parables, and for that we are quite lucky. Here’s the thing: sheep and coins cannot repent. They do not have the capacity to understand their own sinfulness. They do not even have the capacity to act. The funny thing about sheep who are lost is that they do not go around bleating for help. They know that such noise might attract a predator. Instead, they crouch behind a bush or other cover, and try to become invisible – paralyzed by the fear of being consumed in addition to being lost.[v] Likewise, coins have no agency. They cannot shout from under the couch cushion, “Over here by the crumbs!!” Those being found cannot cause God to find them. Nothing we do can earn us being found by God. Being found, as always, is a gift from our loving God – who is the kind of God who will always seek us, ever search for us, even when searching for us may seem like a lost cause. And on top of that, when those who are lost are found, the party that ensues is lavish, extravagant, and a taste of the heavenly banquet, as the heavens rejoice with God.
When I was growing up, money was often tight. Though my parents rarely talked about our finances, I could tell the financial strain made them anxious. As an adult, my father finally explained how they got by in scarce times. A box of produce would show up on our doorstep on a day my dad was wondering what we eat that night. A large bill would be sitting on the table and in our mailbox he would fine an envelope of cash – sometimes with a note that said, “thinking of you,” but sometimes without even a name. Now, I am not saying that our family’s experience was the best financial planning model, but what our experience taught us is that sometimes you have no control over the good that happens in your life. Sometimes you do not even have a person to thank. Regardless, whatever blessing, whatever good comes our way, what Jesus invites us to do today is to be people who celebrate the God who, sometimes completely illogically, searches us out and finds us – and then throws a party when we are found.
When I realized we would be kicking off our program year on the same day as the fifteenth anniversary of September 11th, I was overcome with dread, wondering if maybe I could just ignore the anniversary and turn our hearts toward celebration. But our scripture today made me realize that celebration – true, deep, heart-rending celebration – can only happen when we understand the depths of our indebtedness toward our gracious God. Once we understand that debt, then we can celebrate with grateful hearts. I am thrilled to be embarking on a new program year with Hickory Neck and look forward to all that this year brings. But that sense of excitement is especially deep because I know the depths of the formless void – the chaos from which we were created and back into which we sometimes slide. Having seen the barren land that we sometimes create, I can only be even more filled with gratitude that our God is a God who scours every corner to find the coin She has lost. Today is a day for sobriety – but that sobriety also leads us to a celebration of the heart: a lavish party with the heavenly host. I am grateful to be a part of a faith community that invites me to be a person of abiding hope. Amen.
[i] Anathea Portier-Young, “Commentary on Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28,” September 11, 2016, as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2973 on September 7, 2016.
[ii] George W. Ramsey, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 51.
[iii] Dwight M. Lundgren, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 53.
[v] Helen Montgomery DeBevoise, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 70.