A sermon for Year C, Proper 19, and the fifteenth anniversary of the September 11 terror attacks, from the Church of the Epiphany, Euclid, OH.
It’s easy to wax allegorical about the parable of the one hundredth sheep. I could enjoy the idea that God would leave behind ninety-nine also-ran sheep to come looking only for me. But how often have I been lost, and would I expect God always to pay attention only to me? Of course, in an infinite God there are infinite possibilities, and in ninety-nine out of one hundred of them I am the sheep left behind in the wilderness. And how does that feel?
Then there’s the parable of the lost coin.
It’s clear that the stories go together, but if I am the lost sheep, and God is the shepherd, then I am also the lost coin, and God had so many of us that She lost track. Or was She counting us, and dozing before the fire, so that I slipped between the cushions of the universe without God noticing?
The Psalms tell of One who never slumbers nor sleeps, but the parable tells a different story.
And who are God’s neighbours, God’s peers, invited to party over a spring cleaning session that turns up loose change from under the sofa?
I wonder if we need to take another look at this allegory of a parable.
(I am indebted to Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi (HarperCollins, 2014) for provoking new readings of familiar stories.)
What if I am the woman who has plenty – nine out of ten, which is an A-grade life, after all. What if I have all of that, but I am missing the piece that makes life whole, complete. Worth living. What if I have lost sight of the one piece of treasure that really counts?
“Store up treasure in heaven,” advises Jesus elsewhere. Treasure God. Treasure the one currency that underpins all of the commerce of life, relationship, joy.
If that is what I have lost, then it is worth turning everything upside down, moving every piece of furniture, routine, habit, every strut and structure to find that one piece of currency without which none of the rest works, or counts. And what joy, what cause for celebration, when it is found.
That could make some sense to me.
Oh, but then am I the shepherd of that relationship? Is it my responsibility to tend it, to feed it, to set out to find it when I have lost track of it among the ninety-nine other claims on my time and attention? Couldn’t I just wait for God to come and find me?
The perfect thing about a parable is that it is not a fixed allegory, where this means that. It is not a code to be broken, but an invitation to find ourselves in the lifelong story of God’s relationship with the sheep of His pasture, the people of God’s hand.
So in that spirit, here’s another possibility. What if we think of the shepherd, or the woman, as the church, and we are collectively responsible for the sheep, for the treasure, for the currency of place, time, community, not only dollars and cents but souls placed within our care. And what if we find that we are slipping, losing track of those whom we think and know deep down we love and value, but of whom we have lost sight.
Is it their task to find their way to us? Or ours to pursue them, leaving safe in their pews the ninety-nine, or the forty-nine, or whatever the count may be? Setting out with loving inquiry and concern for the safety and place of the lost one.
Before you get too far along the path of noticing that the shepherd is employed, contracted and commissioned especially to tend to the sheep, notice too that the woman is in an ordinary domestic setting, and it is within her own home and family and circle of friends that she seeks and sweeps and celebrates.
Of course, one thing to remember in this version of the parable is that the repentant sinner in this scene is not the sheep which doesn’t even know that it is lost, but the shepherd who redeems his dereliction of duty by going back for his missing charge. A coin is almost certainly exempt from sin or repentance, but the woman who decides to clean up her act and get her – ahem – items together is the one for whom the angels sing out their joy.
In any case, it is we who are called to repent; to turn and to seek God. God who has never lost sight of us; never stopped loving us.
Fifteen years ago today, some brave people stepped up to seek and serve the lost and the missing. Many laid down their lives out there in the dust and ashes, sweeping for survivors, restoring hope when all seemed lost.
And this is where the parable gets flipped.
Ninety-nine percent of us were at a loss that day, and afraid. Only a few found their feet on solid ground. Like those few in a plane over Pennsylvania, bound for the Pentagon. When all seemed irretrievably lost, they found the way of the cross. They stood as with Jesus before Pilate, saying, “You do not take my life from me, because I give it freely, for the sake of strangers.” Each life offered for the sake of saving ninety-nine more.
There are those for whom the losses of that day will last a lifetime. There are those for whom the losses of everyday life and love are sufficient to give pause, afraid to trust in the security of God’s shepherding skills.
Paul has a word for those lost sheep, assuring them out of his own story of being lost and found that the overwhelming grace of God is sufficient to all of our needs; that the love and faith of Jesus is more than enough to save us from our own lost selves.
However we read the parables, it is, after all, grace that pursues life in the midst of destruction; love in the face of loathing. It is grace that promises that peace will drown out violence. It is only by the grace of God, unearned treasure, that we find the will, the hope to endure, and to keep our hearts fixed on restoration, redemption, reconciliation with one another, and with God.
It is grace that allows us even in solemnity to imagine the angels rejoicing in heaven over every life, every soul that has been found to have been marked with God’s sheep-tag, pressed from God’s mould, counted as precious in God’s sight.
From the first letter of Paul to Timothy:
I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.
From the Gospel according to Luke:
He told them this parable: “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? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, `Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, 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.
“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, `Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”