You are all called to do great things in the world. Some are called to be teachers, lawyers, stay at home parents or any number of other arenas where we are called by God to serve. Through our work and in the myriad of roles that we find ourselves we are called to make the presence of God known.
This week, as it is each year, marks the end of summer and vacation and the beginning of a new school year and work cycle. One of the early cultural norms that I learned when we arrived in Canada is that there are several “New Year’s” that people go by. There is the New Year associated with the beginning of a new calendar year and the then, this week, the beginning of a new academic or program year. Not to be outdone by these two but Advent also marks another New Year in the liturgical/Church calendar.
This is a time when many of us are getting back into the familiar routine of work and school. Tension and anxiety runs high as we anticipate and prepare for the weeks and year ahead. It is easy for us to lose sight of the bigger picture of why it is we go to great lengths to prepare. Buy new equipment, new school supplies, update our wardrobe, review and plan ahead for the Fall and Winter. Note, I did not say Christmas, but we know it is coming . . .
This is the day and now is the acceptable time to pause in our business and acknowledge the big picture. Today, because as we know all too well, life is busy and pulls us in so many different directions that we are unable to find the time to pause amidst the chaos. Today we remember that we are called by God into our respective daily lives and routines to make known the Glory of God. Our ministry as people does not end when we leave church at the close of the final hymn. Rather, our ministry, the work we are called to as a Church, is just beginning.
Another priest was greeting people at the main doors of the church at the conclusion of the Sunday service. He noticed a rushed and frazzled family of four come hurriedly over to him from the parking lot. “Oh no!” the Father exclaimed, “We’ve missed it! Church is over!” Without missing a beat the priest replied, “Oh no! You are just in time. Church is just beginning!”
As a symbol of our ministry that extends beyond the church walls and into the corners of the world where we find ourselves we take the time to bless those elements that help us in this work. Yes, on the one hand they are just bags, pens, computers or shoes. But they are more than that. They are symbols of our work and thereby symbols of our ministry and reflect how we are sent into the world to take our faith and God with us. To be the face of Jesus in everyone we meet.
In our Gospel this morning we read about a parable that describes the classic case of who is “in” and who is “out”. The People of God are complaining. Of course they are. Here is Jesus eating and socializing with the worst of society. Who in their right mind would want to eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners? These are very much the people who are “out”. They collect too much money for Rome so that the elite of society can get richer while the rest of us, ‘The Good, honest, hardworking’ people get poorer. Who can blame them? Roman rule was brutal and harsh. No one was over-looked by the Roman might. But here they are, the agents of the emperor coming to hear Jesus. They want to listen to what he has to say. Maybe, just maybe, some of what Jesus has to say is touching their hearts and minds. Maybe, just maybe, they are realizing that they too are victims of a harsh and dominating regime. They came to listen. Could it really be so that people such as these could have a change of heart? Could there really be a miracle here at this time? It is hard to say for sure. The religious elite of the day nearly blow it. They are astounded and complain that Jesus is even giving these people the time of day. It is then that Jesus goes on to talk about shepherds and sheep. Many of the sheep are safe. But there is one that is not. This sheep has been separated from the rest and is left to the elements and predators. This sheep is lost.
This is an image many can relate to. If they were not shepherds themselves they would know that shepherds will stop at nothing to make sure their sheep are safe. Of course it would be natural and proper for the shepherd to go and look for the lost sheep. He would have gone and searched and not stopped until that sheep was found and brought back to the rest, safe.
The same is true for Jesus. Jesus, The Great Shepherd, does not stop looking until everyone is safe. No matter who they are, no matter who you are, Jesus searches until all are safe in his embrace and protection. This is a story about repentance and sin. These are big words loaded with meaning. Essentially repentance is doing and about turn. In our context it could mean to have a change of heart and be open to different perspectives. The tax collectors and sinners could be experiencing this kind of repentance for themselves. When we leave church and go back into the world we meet people who can identify with many parts of this story. Many of them, many of us are like the sheep that are with the majority of the herd. We feel safe and secure with ourselves and our lives. There are others, so often more than just one of us, who find themselves on the outside, separated from the others. Perhaps we are one of them. As we leave church we are sent into the world to share the Good News that no one has to be on the ‘outside’, no one has to be lost. We meet people every day who yearn for repentance, an opportunity to see things differently. Through our work at school, at home or the office we demonstrate through our actions what the love of Jesus in our lives means for us. In this way we invite others to come and see for themselves and find a way forward on their journey where they too can find acceptance, hope, love and belonging. In turn we are challenged and shaped by those we meet in our everyday lives.