St. Augustine of Canterbury Episcopal Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for the 3rd Sunday after Trinity, June 28, 2020
“Likewise, I say unto you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth.”
IT’S a drawer in the principal’s office, a shelf in the custodian’s closet, a locker beneath the front counter. It’s marked: Lost & Found. In every school or theatre, where people go and might leave something of value, the management keeps a place for those things to be reclaimed when the person realizes their loss. Like a pawnshop, the Lost & Found contains things people have owned, used and worn, but got careless about and mislaid. Go back to reclaim it, or someday it’ll be too late. The Lost & Found gets emptied; the pawnbroker sells all unclaimed goods.
Ever go inside a pawnshop, or look in its window? Did you ever pawn something valuable because you needed money more than the necklace or old guitar? Things in a pawnshop all have value, else the broker would never give money for them. After a prearranged time, he’ll put that item out for sale, asking considerably more than he gave you. Most times he expects you’ll never return for your silver tea set, to redeem your mother’s legacy, because you can’t afford the redemption price. He waits for that day to mark it up and display it in his window.
How much did it take for the pawnbroker to lock your heart in his lost & found? What was offered at your hour of need, your hoping you’d return and buy it back? Is your heart still in that pawnshop?
Slavery was like that once. A person fell on hard times and needed funds. He sold himself to a wealthy person for a period of six years, becoming that one’s slave through debt. In scripture, after six years a master had to free his indentured slaves. Some slaves chose to remain with kindly masters, who made their lives work, and signified the relationship by piercing their ear and wearing an earring. But it was first a relationship of helplessness and desperation in the face of debt.
We are all in debt. The richest among us has unpaid bills. We can clear that pile of paper off our desk weekly, keep our charge cards zeroed out, or even pay cash for everything, and we still have a great debt to pay, a debt for which we have no currency. The debt is a painful memory, a person we wish would soften his accusations, forgive us and give up the grudge. Our debt was breaking someone’s heart. It’s a baby born from the wrong relationship, or one never born. It’s a secret so vile it would kill you to have it spoken out loud. It’s the knowledge of a path you should have taken, like Jonah not going to Nineveh. We broke an oath, a law, a heart, and there’s no getting it back. There is nothing we can do. The debt stays.
The greatest debt, of course, was breaking God’s heart. Before we ever understood it, we sold ourselves willingly at the pawnshop and came away with candy, stolen money, mean tricks, ugly jokes, tests cheated on, careless words that hurt, selfish games and insincere romances, back stabs, greedy fingers and lazy attitudes. All those things were in the bag the man gave us in exchange when we sold him our souls. Someday we’d want our souls back, but for the meantime, we we’re having fun. It seems just recklessness in youth, but mean-spirited and devastating when we fall like that as adults, with larger damage and to more people. What’s lost isn’t just a jacket or a lunch pail. It’s ourselves. How did we get that way? And how can we get our souls back again?
Lost & Found: it would be nice to just walk up and ask for our soul back, and just have it in our hand like some umbrella. But the pawnbroker, we find out, is the ruler of this world. He’s had it in for us ever since our first parents bought his lies. He exacts a high price for souls who can never pay.
In order to make us feel better and pretend we can actually do this ourselves; religions are invented to address this inner turmoil. Figure out what God must like and do that again and again. The Law of Moses, the sacrifices, temple taxes, and distrust of foreigners became the Jewish answer to their indiscretions. Purity of thought and deed is the Eastern way, removing the self from one’s life, with many, many lives to help pay the debts of all the previous ones. Devil dances and human sacrifices mean just giving up and worshiping the pawnbroker. Today, scientology, science of mind and pharmaceuticals have assuaged human grief and guilt enough to charge fortunes in the exchange to dull the pain and redefine the struggle. In the end, we’re even more lost.
The only answer has been the One True Savior who pays our debt. Our salvation through His death and resurrection was and still is the most amazing news for our fallen race. St. Paul writes: “As we received mercy, we do not lose heart, but we have renounced the things hidden because of shame, not walking in craftiness or altering the word of God, but by the light of truth commending ourselves to every man’s conscience...” 2 Cor 4:1-6
The problem of sin is inborn. It became part of our spiritual DNA long ago, and we’re born self-willed, no matter how cute we are. I’ve long had a notion that, though we don’t exist before conception, yet we’re born with an inherent sense of God. Newborns are not atheists. They believe, perhaps already know, God. The world is like acid rain to such a native understanding. Attachment to our parents is needful, and ideally helps shape our belief in God. But fallen people make bad gods and our parents, even doing their best, warp and distract us and we begin to lose our clear sense of God, goodness, truth, and real joy. One young toddler looks into his newborn sister’s crib and says, “Tell me about God. I’m starting to forget.”
The good news is that God loves us, He is willing to give His Son’s life for us, that by faith in Him we may return. That story resonates in us. It has a native home in our hearts. It’s the happy ending of a tale of horror and accidental loss and regrettable deeds never atoned for. We just knew there had to be an answer. This pawn ticket for reclaiming my life is still in my pocket, I hadn’t lost it after all. I kept it for just such a day I might walk up to that counter and say, “I want to redeem this.”
But it isn’t like that. You give Jesus your pawn ticket. You tell Him the truth. ‘I lied. I slept around. I did drugs. I cheated. I hurt people. I didn’t believe in God. I was proud of myself for all that. Now I’m ashamed. There’s nothing I can do to change all that. I can ask forgiveness of some people. I don’t know if they’ll forgive me. I need forgiveness of a better sort, and I need my soul back.’ Then set your ticket in His nail-scarred, upturned palm. A little of His blood soaks into the crumpled paper ticket and He says, “Wait here.”
Jesus pays the whole amount. It costs Him His life. When it’s over, He comes to you, filled with joy and a serious purpose. “Take your soul again. Your spirit is born anew. Now live for me.” People have called themselves willing slaves of Jesus after that day, St. Paul notably. He’d have pierced his ear to prove it, but instead had his ears boxed until he was hard of hearing, his head smacked so hard he couldn’t see right, and he didn’t care. Peter went to Rome and was hanged upside down on a Roman cross, a willing martyr. These people—men, women, children—sang as they were marched into the coliseum, facing lions and gladiators, praying for a holy death as they confidently sought a better country.
The redeemed of this world were a joyful lot when it really meant something. Today I’m not sure we understand what we’ve been given, or even if we’ll hold on to it. The pawnbroker has invented many new toys to get us lost in, and keep us lost. How do we fight him? St. Peter enjoined us to “Clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, for God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time, casting all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you. Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. But resist him, firm in your faith.” 1 Peter 5:5-10 Don’t go out to fight the devil. Be humble in your heart and mind, face the living God who has redeemed you, and be thankful.
We’re just sheep, God knows. He calls Himself the Good Shepherd. He tells us when we’re lost, He’ll look for us, seek us out and bring us back. Jesus cited a paradox that “Joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance.” Find me 99 people in all of Butte County that need no repentance and I’ll buy you a lamb to take home with you. Not in all of California. If we are just, it’s because He’s made us so. All 100 sheep come to salvation the same way. Each one was lost, and every one of them was found.
St. John’s Revelation showed him a city of earth named Babylon, symbolic of what people use instead of God for wealth. As it falls under God’s judgment on that great Day, the merchants mourn its marketplace where the stalls sold “gold, silver, precious stones, fine linen, vessels of ivory, and cinnamon, and perfumes, and frankincense, and wine, and oil, and wheat, and beasts, and sheep, and horses, and chariots, and slaves, and souls of men.” Rev 18:11-13 Souls of men are for sale. From time to time, someone even tries to sell their soul on eBay. Because you can’t prove shipping and receipt of a soul, eBay doesn’t allow the sale of souls. And besides that, does a person own his or her soul?
God breathed into a clay figure and it became a living soul. Our soul is who we are, our life, our existence. It’s more than our body, more permanent, more ourselves than the flesh and bones. And we need its ownership to be secure and in good hands. We aren’t to be trusted to keep it ourselves – that was always a trap. Whose breath was that? To Whom does it belong, and to Whose eternal home is our soul to fly? Keep it for yourself and you give the pawnbroker your soul. There is one way it keep it. You must give it to its Maker. We know that now. And there’s nothing to say we have to keep it a secret.