Sermon based on Luke 15:1-10:
Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.
In many 12-step groups, there are a couple times in a meeting when a group gets a little rowdy. But they are moments of absolute incredible joy.
It depends on the meeting, sometimes it’s towards the beginning or sometimes it’s at the very end, but it’s the moment when we acknowledge people’s anniversary dates of when they stopped drinking and when they began their journey of sobriety.
It’s amazing to hear the stories of those in long term recovery. Those with 25, 26, 27 years, continuing to attend meetings and help the young whippersnappers like me keep perspective…to keep hope when times get challenging or to keep us in check when we get a little high on ourselves.
There is applause for them and smiles on everyone’s face because they are an elder, usually having played a part in the recovery of most people in the room. There is tremendous joy in their celebration. These are usually specially planned and there might be a cake and a card that everyone in the room signs. It is quite joyous.
Then there are other anniversaries that are called out at almost every meeting as a way to invite anyone who may be celebrating these anniversaries to raise their hand so that they can be acknowledged and receive their coin.
2 years, 1 year, 9 months, 6 months, 3 months, 2 months, 30 days, and 24 hours.
Now, it’s hard to say who gets the louder almost thunderous applause, 30 day or 24 hours. But if you ask almost anyone in the room, that is the moment we live for. To see someone, raise their hand when 30-day anniversaries are called. To cheer for them, to shout “keep coming back,” to give them a handshake after the meeting and tell them congratulations. Because we all know how hard it is to get through those 30 days.
And then it is even more raucous for someone celebrating 24 hours. Their first chip. The day they have chosen to begin their recovery journey. There is thunderous applause. Immediately, the wiser members will start passing around a sheet of paper. The chairperson of the meeting will get the coin, give them a hug. We all shout, keep coming back. And before the person can sit back down, there’s a list of 10 names and phone numbers for them to call if at any moment, they feel like they are going to drink or they need someone to talk to, hang out with, grab a coffee with, or ultimately find someone who will be their sponsor to help get them to 30 days and then 2 months and then 3…
I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
I don’t think there is anyone in AA that would tell you that the others in the room need no repentance… It’s kind of our thing to repent and make amends. But it is most certainly true that our joy is most exuberant for those just starting their journeys because we were all there before.
We’ve all been the lost sheep, the lost coin. Separated from the 99 and maybe not even knowing it, until one day we are surrounded by them, in a room full of chairs and coffee and someone saying welcome to this meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous. Lost and then found.
Similarly, each of us, in this faith journey, may have experienced or could still be experiencing being the lost sheep. A period of separation from family, friends, or loved ones. A period of rebelliousness. A time of disillusionment. A time of feeling lost.
Like a sheep or a coin, we might not even know that we are lost. Or like the prodigal son, which is the parable that comes right after this one in the Gospel of Luke, we may deeply know that we are lost but are confused as to how to be found.
But there is such joy when we are found. It can happen in so many ways. Through support groups. Through friends and family. Through doctors, nurses, therapists. Through prayer.
There is such joy when the shepherd ushers us back to where we belong. There is joy in returning to a group or finding one for the first time, along to be with the 99.
In 12-step groups, once you have been there for some time, it can be easy to start feeling like the 99. After having been found ourselves, it is easy to sit back and just wait for others to enter into the fold. We clap, we shake hands, and then we continue on grazing. Content with where we are.
So, too it can be said of the church. We have come to this place. We have been found by Christ. We have seen the Amazing Grace of God. We have been lost and now we are found. The 99 waiting for the 1. Luckily it is the shepherd who finds the sheep, it is the woman who finds the coin… and it does not rest on the shoulders of the 99 to find the lost.
I think it is most certainly true that we can and should identify as the lost sheep and the coin in these parables. After all, as Lutherans we have most certainly come to understand that we are simultaneously saints and sinners, needing to be found, lost to the sin and brokenness of this world and thus in need of the amazing grace of God.
But as Jesus begins this parable, he does not address us to think of ourselves as the sheep and coin. Nor are we the 99 sheep or the 9 other coins.
Jesus says, “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?”
Which one of you…?
The question is directing us, not to see ourselves without agency, but the exact opposite. We are the shepherds, called to search, to help, and to find.
And that is why, the wise elders of 12-step groups are so important to our meetings. As the 99 begin sitting back in our chairs, getting comfortable with our place in the fold, a reminder calls out from the 12-steps.
I remember a mentor of mine came up to me on one of my anniversary dates, as I began to be comfortable with my place in the group. I was holding my 2-year coin. Proud of my accomplishment. Honored to have made it so far. But ultimately still thinking about my own sobriety as the epitome of my success.
She looked at me and said: “Congratulations! 2 years is fantastic! You’ve grown so much, and it is great to have you here.”
Of course, I was glowing at the compliment.
Then she continued, “But you know the work continues now.”
I started to explain that I knew sobriety was fragile and that I would continue to come to meetings and I would continue to maintain my sobriety. She just smiled at me until I finally came to a stop.
“Remember the 12th step: Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.”
We carry this message. We don’t sit back and hold onto it. We carry this message to other alcoholics. We help them. We guide them. We teach and bring awareness to others. We now have a responsibility to be the presence that others were for us in our journey.
From being Lost to Finding others.
This is why I preach on my recovery. It’s why I write and blog about it. It’s why I publicly talk about it. It’s why I write letters to those I know are in rehabilitation treatment centers.
Because I know what it’s like to be lost in alcoholism. I know what it’s like to be lost in the early stages of recovery. And I know what it’s like to work at recovery every day. And I have a responsibility to find the “one’s” who are lost and searching.
And that is true for all of us. Each of us have experiences that we can carry and share with others, so others need not feel so lost. Messages of hope to those who may be wandering, searching, or lost. To those facing addiction. Those facing unemployment. Those in transition. Those discerning next stages of life. Those facing medical results or decisions.
If we’ve been through them before we can be a guiding presence, a listening ear, a shoulder to lean on for those in the midst of being lost.
From being lost to finding others.
This is why we talk about grace so much. It’s why our hymns and songs constantly express it in different ways. Its why sermons refer to it so often. Its why we talk about God’s love being so extravagant. Its why we talk about this table being completely open and not barring anyone from it. It’s why we help out in other ministries in our community willingly and not out of obligation.
Because, as humans we know what it’s like to be lost. Unsure of the love of God. Unsure if we are welcome. Unsure if we are saved by that grace.
But as Christians, knowing that feeling and knowing what it’s like to be found, knowing where others may be in their journey, one’s who are lost and searching, we have a responsibility to carry this message of grace and love to anyone who may feel otherwise, accompanying them on the journey of being found.
I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God, the greatest joy to welcome someone who was lost and who has now been found.