9/11/16: What's Been Lost, Luke 15:1-10
What’s Been Lost
First Lesson: 1 Timothy 1:12-17
Second Lesson: Luke 15:1-10
As Luke tells it, Jesus is teaching out in public and among the crowd gathering around him are tax collectors and sinners—all those who for various reasons are on the outside looking in, which of course causes those on the inside who fail to look out start to grumble to themselves.
Jesus hears their pious grumbling and tells them all—both groups—these stories about lost things being found, and the celebration that happens because of it; short little allegories about repentance. God is the shepherd in dogged pursuit of lost sheep, or God is a woman turning over couches in search of her precious lost coin—in both cases celebrating in an almost comical way when these lost things are found. At the same time reassuring the tax collectors and sinners, saying God is searching for you and will celebrate when you are found, and asking those good religious folks grumbling to themselves: Would you come to this party? Could you celebrate with God in welcoming them into the fold? When it’s directed at you, grace and mercy are the sweetest things in the world, but when their given to someone else they can be bitter pills indeed.
This seems to be Luke’s angle: the beauty and frustration of repentance. Beauty when it’s you, and frustration when it’s another. And this a good lesson, and a powerful lesson. It’s just that it doesn’t really square up with the parables themselves.
Amy-Jill Levine, whom I’ve quoted many times before, points this out in her brilliant commentary on these two parables.(1) It would be fine to see these as parables about repentance, but the trouble is, there’s no repentance in the parables themselves. There’s no repentance because there’s no sin! Without getting to far into a theology of salvation for our brothers and sisters in the animal kingdom, I think it’s safe to say that sheep do not sin and thus cannot be expected to repent. We can’t blame a sheep for wandering away—it’s a sheep! And then there’s the coin—would we blame a coin for getting itself lost? Of course not—this is absurd.
Repentance is a powerful thing—maybe the most powerful thing there is—and we need to hear about it as often as we can. But let’s lay Luke’s commentary on these parables aside for a moment and consider that these parables aren’t, after all, about repentance. Let’s consider that they’re not meant to be allegories where God is the shepherd or the woman who are desperately searching for their precious lost sheep or coins.
Let’s consider for a moment that we’re invited to see ourselves not as the objects who are lost, but the people who lose them.The sheep or the coin are passive objects in these stories. They aren't at fault for being lost. What if the focus of parable is really on the shepherd who for whatever reason lets a sheep slip away from under his care? Maybe he was distracted from something his wife said to him as he left the house that morning, or tired from working two jobs. Or maybe he was just to busy looking down at his phone to see one of the sheep slip away. Or what about a woman who in her hurry, her forgetfulness, why can't she just get it together, she always does this—at least this is voice inside her head—misplaces a silver coin, what would have been a day’s wages—no small amount? What if we’re instead invited to find ourselves in their shoes? My guess is that we’ve been in their shoes many times before.
What if this parable isn’t about repentance, but instead is about noticing those things of value, those people of value, who you, who we, may have let slip away. And when you do notice, doing everything in your power to find it or them, to bring them back in, and celebrate with all your heart when you? What if these parables aren’t about what God will do to find us, but about what God hopes we will do to find ourselves and to find each other—which is everything we can do—and how we will celebrate when everyone is back home—which is with all our hearts.
Which raises the question: What have you lost? What have you lost—maybe a part of yourself—that you would like to find again and celebrate when you do?
Is it your sense of wonder or imagination?
Is it your life’s dream? A sense of purpose or conviction?
Is it hope?
Have you lost your faith?
What would it take to find these things again, and how would you celebrate when you do?
Whom have you lost? Whom have you let slip away through the years? An old friend, a mentor? A child? A parent? A sibling? And this isn’t about wallowing in blame—it’s about noticing who’s gone, accepting what responsibility there is to accept, and most importantly, doing what we can to make it right, to go and search for them. This isn’t about rubbing your nose in it, it’s about noticing, accepting, and then doing everything you can to make it right. Whom have you lost? Who’s not here?
Or to take it a step further, what or whom have we lost as a nation? I’ve been thinking about this over these last few days in reflecting on the anniversary of 9/11. I wonder what we’ve lost as a people, as a nation? There are so many things and people who’ve lost that we won’t get back. So many sacrificed. But I also wonder if there are other things. Maybe a sense of security? Have we lost our sense of morality clarity about who we are as Americans and who we’re to be in the world? Have we lost consensus on what it means to be an American? Maybe we’re learning that we never really had this. Either way: what would it take to find these things?
It’s become painfully clear that there are a lot of folks in our country today who feel as if they’ve been lost—perhaps not that they’ve wandered away, but that the country has wandered away from them. This has been laid bare over the course of this election season, but these divisions have been brewing for years—decades, even. I came across a fascinating op-ed in the New York Times this week written by Glenn Beck—the news commentator and writer, calling for empathy as a nation. He said that we’ve gotten to the point where to seek to understand our opponents is perceived as weakness or disloyalty, noting that he’s seen this first hand in the backlash to his own efforts to reach across the aisle, specifically in trying to understand the Black Lives Matter movement.
I believe the greatness of our country lies in our founders’ creation of a system that allows and encourages all voices to be heard. The only way for our society to work is for each of us to respect the views of others, and even try to understand and empathize with one another. I have always tried to work toward this goal, even though I have often been guilty of conflating the individual with the whole. My point about empathy is especially pressing today, since these movements and others — the Tea Party, the Bernie Sanders campaign, Occupy Wall Street — share similar grievances: In their own ways, they say: “I am not being heard,” “I don’t feel like I belong anymore,” “I have no control over my future.” (2)
I think he’s right. Despite how you feel about them or might evaluate their concerns, so many of the “movements” of these last several years have been rooted in a sense of not being heard, or of society, culture, politics, economics leaving them behind—forgetting or not valuing them. What would it look like for us as a nation to notice the people who we’ve “let them slip through the cracks,” or maybe even more, the folks we’ve forgotten or ignored? What would it look like for us as a people to take responsibility for that? And then to go and look for them? What would have to change? What would it cost?
But I also wonder about what or who we’ve lost as a church. Who are those people we’ve let wander away, or have inadvertently let fall out of our view?
One group of people I hear talked about in our church and in many churches who we’ve noticed may not be here is young adults—which is a slippery term, I know. But I’m talking about people in their 20s and early 30s. Maybe single, maybe married but without children. I’ve had this conversation in different groups and committees recently. And I think there are a lot of reasons, most of which come down to the fact that what we do here as a church and when we do it isn’t done with this group in mind. Not their wants or needs or schedules. Now, which happened first, young folks slipping away or the church rhythms being set? Who knows? Remember, this isn’t about pointing fingers, it’s about noticing who’s not here and going out and looking for them.
I came across another article this past week you ay have seen from the Washington Post written by the authors of a new book on what young people value when it comes to church, and their findings may be surpassing for some. They showed it wasn’t flashy worship services, or churches who poured a ton of money into programming or what have you. They write, It turns our cool isn’t what young people want. Forget the rock-band vibe and the flashing lights: warm is the new cool.
When we analyzed the terms that young adults used to describe the churches or parishes that they chose, we noticed repeated words: welcoming, accepting, belonging, authentic, hospitable and caring. We began to call this the “warmth cluster.”
Across the board in statistical analyses, this warmth cluster emerged as a stronger variable than any ministry program. Ironically, it’s possible that your church might be working against warmth by offering myriad programs. Busyness doesn’t equal warmth. By suggesting that churches need to grow warmer, we don’t mean adults should be nice to young people. Nice doesn’t cut it. And warmth is more than superficial community. It’s “like family” — as young people told us again and again during our interviews and field visits. (3)
Now, I was a little disheartened when I read this, because I’ve always thought of us as the cool church.
But I think they’re onto something. And I was actually encouraged because so many of the terms in this “warmth cluster” were the same core values we pinpointed in our visioning process this past year and included in our vision statement as a church: At the First Baptist Church of Christ nurture authentic faith an belonging, love and serve courageously, and affirm the image of God in al people.
And of course, these values aren’t anything new, but in fact are very old. They're what Jesus spent his whole ministry doing: welcoming folks to the table. Reaching out. Letting them know that a place has been prepared for them—that they’re welcome. That they’re seen, they’re heard, that they’re lives and the way they live it matter. Letting them know they’re loved, and that we’re listening. Isn't that the good news?
The first step in these parables may actually be the most important step, but it’s the one that so rarely happens and we so easily rush past when it does: noticing who’s not here. Noticing what’s gone missing; noticing what we’ve lost within ourselves, our families, our nation, our church, or whom we’ve let fall away.
What’s gone missing in your life? Or who? What would it mean to look for them? How would you know when you found it? And how would you celebrate when you do?
We worship a God who notices, a God who looks—a God who seeks out, a God who finds and a God who celebrates. And we’re most the people of God when we do the same. Amen.
(1) Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories By Jesus, 27-41