This week, as I spent time with these two parables of Jesus, the familiar stories of the lost sheep and the lost coin, I found that there were two different sermons tugging at me. So I decided to preach them both.
In the first sermon, these parables are about you. About us. About our lostness, and God’s determined love. We all have moments when we are the sheep, lost and tangled in the brambles, somewhere in the wilderness; when we are the coin, under the bed, between the floorboards, menaced by dust-bunnies. When we feel alone, and afraid, and useless, and forgotten, and… lost.
Scholar David Lose, writing about this passage, gestures to some of the many ways we might feel lost, even while seeming fine on the outside: “Might the career-minded person who has made moving up the professional ladder their only priority, be lost? Might the folks who work jobs they hate just to give their family things they never had, be lost? Might the senior who has a great pension plan but little sense of meaning since retirement, be lost? Might the teen who works so hard to be perfect and who is willing to do anything to fit in, be lost? We have lots of people in our congregations who seem to have it all together and yet, deep down, are just plain lost.”
These parables of Jesus speak comfort for those situations, those people. They offer an image of God as a patient and determined seeker, who loves each and every one of us enough to strike out into the wilderness, light the lamp and grab the broom, and seek until we are found. These parables tell us that in God’s love, we are never truly alone, never useless, never forgotten. It’s a message that is consistent with other parts of the Gospel – Jesus meets all kinds of people, in all walks of life, and sees their inward hurts and needs. And Jesus wants wholeness and joy and purpose for each and all.
But while we might be like the coin and the sheep in our lostness, we are different from them in an important way: we have the capacity to turn back towards God. After each of these short parables, Jesus says, Just so, I tell you, there is joy in heaven over one sinner who repents. The sheep and the coin don’t, can’t repent – they get found solely through the seeker’s efforts. But we humans, given intelligence, spirit, and free will, we can turn back towards God. The word “repent” here is the Greek word “metanoia,” a wonderful word for which I wish we had a better translation… As I understand it, it means something less like being sorry for one’s sins and something more like coming to a new understanding, changing one’s direction or path, turning, turning till you come round right.
These parables, the coin and the sheep, lead into the Prodigal Son parable – it’s not in the lectionary this season, but you can glance at it in the Luke booklets if you want – and that parable does have a metanoia moment: when the lost son, at his lowest point, degraded, alone, starving to death, “comes to himself” and thinks, I could go home. Repentance really isn’t a good word for what happens there. He remembers who he is, and whose he is, and that he is loved, in spite of everything, and he walks away from the mess he has made for himself, and back towards the Father who longs for him. Just so, I tell you, there is joy in heaven….!
I want to preach this sermon because some of you are in seasons of lostness. Some of you feel alone, and far from God. I want you to hear this message of God’s stubborn love, God’s ceaseless seeking for each and every lost sheep. I hope you’ll find here the comfort and courage to turn towards that loving Presence and take the first halting steps towards a sense of purpose, worthiness, and hope.
And then there’s the second sermon. In this sermon, these parables are NOT about us. This sermon begins with the context for these parables: Jesus’ pious frenemies the scribes and Pharisees are complaining that he hangs around with sinners. Now, they don’t mean casual sinners, who gossip or speak sharply to their children or don’t give away as much money as they could. They mean the obvious, bigtime sinners, the ones you can pick out in a crowd. “Tax collectors and sinners” – that phrase points to a wonderful mix of both high-ranking and low-ranking undesirables. Corrupt or scandal-ridden government officials, wealthy folks who made their millions by fraud and coercion, shoulder to shoulder with prostitutes, drug dealers, and thieves.
Jesus offers these parables in response to criticism that he is hanging out with the wrong element. The unclean, immoral and undesirable. The worst and the lowest. And friends, whatever inner hurts or struggles we bear, that just isn’t us. We’re all well-off and well and healthy enough to make it to church on Sunday. We are the 99 sheep left in the wilderness, the nine coins safely tucked away in a pocket. We’re the ones who are more or less OK.
In these two simple parables the 99 and the 9 don’t have a voice, but in the Prodigal Son parable, we hear the brother’s voice – the brother who stayed home being a good son, and is angry that his father makes such a fuss over the return of his irresponsible, reckless sibling. And what the brother says is what the 99 sheep and the 9 coins might well say: “What about ME? I didn’t get lost. I haven’t made a mess of my life. Where’s MY party?”
Over the years I’ve found that a lot of Episcopalians tend to identify with the stay-at-home brother, and thus by extension with the 99 and the 9, sheep and coins. And we tend to struggle with these parables. Just as in our civic life, we sometimes feel resentful that so many resources and so much attention go to the poorest kids in our schools, or to the neediest neighborhoods in our cities, or to the demographic groups with the lowest rates of health, opportunity, and wellbeing. It can feel unfair and disproportionate to us. Why should the lowest and the worst get so much attention, care and concern? What about us more-or-less OK folks? Where’s our party?
I get it. I was raised to believe in the middle-class white American values of fairness and rationality. But God isn’t fair or rational. It isn’t fair or rational to leave 99 sheep alone in the wilderness while you go looking for one. It isn’t fair or rational to search for a lost quarter by burning a dollar’s worth of oil in your lamp.
But if we seek to have the heart of God, if we want to be disciples of Jesus, we have to understand that a reckless love for the truly lost is fundamental to God’s character. God is disproportionately – unfairly! – concerned with the last, least, lowest and lost. And God asks us to share that concern. We learn this from the Gospels and indeed, from the witness of the Scriptures as whole. One of the Bible’s clearest themes is God’s care for those on the edges and on the very, very bottom of the economic and social structure.
In the Book of Jeremiah, our current Old Testament text, a couple of chapters on from today’s reading, Jeremiah says, “If you truly amend your ways and your doings,… if you do not oppress the immigrant, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods…, then I will dwell with you in this place.” (7:5-7) That’s just one of many, many places in the Bible in which a society’s treatment of its neediest and most vulnerable members serves as a barometer of collective righteousness. How those folks are doing tells God everything God needs to know about whether the people as a whole are living as God has called them to live.
In the parable of the sheep and the goats, in Matthew’s Gospel, the one yardstick used to measure people’s lives is, Did you care for the lost? Did you feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, visit the sick and the prisoner? Did you join in God’s disproportionate and unfair concern for those in greatest need, the lowest and the worst? It’s a question of urgency for both the world, and for our souls.
I want to preach this second sermon because this is a really important place where the rubber of our lives meets the road of discipleship. Where the orientation of heart and mind that Jesus asks of us is in tension with the way our hearts and minds have been formed by our culture and experiences. Jesus says: There is more joy in heaven over one sinner who turns back towards God, than over ninety-nine righteous people who never turned away to begin with. That is unfair. It probably really rubs some of us the wrong way. And it is a glimpse into the heart of God. God asks the 99 and the 9 to be OK with being taken for granted. And to join in the rejoicing when one of the lost is found.
Okay. Two sermons. And they’re in tension with each other. Either it’s all about us, or it really isn’t. If we focus on the hurt and lost places in our own souls and lives, we may be blind to – or even resentful of – the struggles of others. If we focus on the urgent needs of the profoundly lost, we may neglect our own legitimate needs, and spend ourselves until we are empty.
Instead of choosing whose needs matter most, might we find a way to live in the tension between the two readings of these parables? To say to ourselves, There are some ways in which I’m hurt, broken, or lost; and I can also have compassion for people in the world who are much more hurt, broken, and lost than I am?
At my seminary, the Episcopal Divinity School, we began our learning by reflecting together on how our backgrounds and biases shape how we see God and understand faith. And one of the tools we used was the concept of target and non-target identities. Bear with me; this is a new language for most of you but it’s not hard to understand. Non-target identities are what our society identifies as normal and good. It’s easy to inhabit these identities because our world is built for you, to a large extent. Some examples: White. Male. Able-bodied. Slender. Young. Straight. Cisgender. Middle-class.
Target identities are what our society identifies as other, or second-best, or even flat-out weird or bad. This is “target” in the sense of something that gets rocks thrown at it, not something that’s a goal people are aiming for! When you walk around these identities – or when you find yourself in a situation in which your target identity is in play – you may face biases and barriers. Some examples: African-American, Latino, Asian. Female. Disabled. Elderly. Fat. Gay or bi. Transgender. Working class or poor. Mentally ill. Obviously most people have a mix of target and non-target identities that intersect to make us who we are.
Here’s what my seminary does with that. The point is emphatically not to award a gold star to the most non-target member of the class, or to the person who can check the most “target” boxes and is thus gets the crown for Most Oppressed. The point is to use this simple approach as a tool for reflection and for empathy. To notice the moments when we inhabit those target identities, think about what that feels like, and use that as a window into what it might be like for those who are target in more ways, and in more profound ways.
While I was in seminary, I was also parenting a toddler. Phil was telecommuting, working full-time to help pay the bills, so I couldn’t just leave our son with him. I wanted to attend chapel worship every morning, to be part of the ongoing liturgical life of my seminary community. But it was hard with an 18-month-old, a 2-year-old. Hard to get out of the house, hard to have him with me in worship in a way that wasn’t a total distraction to myself and others. Our seminary chapel opened onto a lovely little green space, and in the spring when the weather turned nice, people liked to worship with the chapel doors wide open, breezes blowing in and trees and grass just outside.
Now, imagine trying to contain a bored two-year-old in a room with two wide open doors onto grass and trees and freedom. After trying it a couple of times, it got so that if I approached the chapel and the doors were propped open, we just wouldn’t go. There was nothing that felt like worship to me in spending forty minutes trying to keep my toddler from escaping.
Now, that was an experience of being target, as a parent encumbered by a young child. I was one of only a couple of people meeting that description, at my seminary at that time. The people planning chapel worship were unencumbered, and my and my son’s needs just didn’t cross their minds.
I am not for a moment claiming that this was a serious problem, or was hurtful in a lasting way. I do have some sense of proportion. But it did make me think about what it’s like for other parents. For single parents, or parents whose partners aren’t available or willing to share childcare, especially those who don’t have the resources to put their kids somewhere safe while they work or study. Having to drag your kid with you is inconvenient at best, and can really close doors and get you in trouble, at worst.
More broadly, those chapel experiences were a window into a common experience of folks who wear those target identities: being in a social and physical space that just wasn’t designed for you. That just doesn’t fit. My options were: complain, and be the person who complained, and made them stop doing something that everyone else enjoyed. Or – I could stop coming. Remove myself from the space, even though I wanted to be there. That was the choice I made. And it’s the kind of choice people face all the time, target folks living in a world designed for the non-target default.
As trivial as this experience was for me – so I couldn’t go to chapel all the time; so what? – as trivial as it was, it did hurt; and that hurt became for me a window into other lives, a bridge of empathy to the experiences of those who are excluded much more routinely, and with greater consequences.
I’m not recommending that, for example, you approach someone at a funeral and say, “I know what it’s like to lose your spouse, because my gerbil died once.” But, in a sheltered and lucky life, the experience of loss and sadness at a gerbil’s death might truly be a useful tool for trying to understand somebody else’s greater grief.
Earlier I said, Either it’s all about us, or it really isn’t. But maybe – it could start with us, and move towards the other. Maybe the ways in which I feel hurt, broken, or lost, instead of making me resentful of others’ needs, could help me care. We could focus on our own lostness, the moments and places in which we are in need of being found and tended and restored by God’s healing love. We could focus on the lostness of others, those who struggle daily at the margins of our status quo. Or: we could give real, prayerful, serious attention to our own moments of feeling alone, afraid, useless, forgotten – lost – and use those moments to deepen our understanding of those who bear greater burdens, our concern for their wellbeing, and our rejoicing when the lost become found.
The David Lose post referenced above is here: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2737