by Lea F. Schweitz
Associate Professor of Systematic Theology/Religion and Science, Director of the Zygon Center for Religion and Science
Grace and peace to you, dear brothers and sisters in Christ. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be pleasing to you, O God, our Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, our Source, Wellspring, and Living Water. Amen.
At the beginning of this third week of the semester, in this long season after Pentecost, I wonder… where are you in these parables? With whom do you identify? The wandering sheep? The flock? The shepherd? The woman? The coin?
I’m borrowing this question from the "Godly Play" approach to Christian education for children. Godly Play, in a nutshell, explores Bible stories and parables through storytelling and wondering questions. Children experience the story with objects and artefacts and are asked to wonder about it through questions like: “I wonder, what do you like best about this story?; I wonder, which part is the most important part of the story; I wonder, where are you are in this story?; and I wonder, is there any part we could leave out, and still have all the story we need?”
Proponents of Godly Play claim that it differs from other approaches to religious education because in most religious education, children are told who God is, but in Godly Play children discover who God is. They connect their experience and the story to learn something deep about who God is.
I begin with these questions and this approach to our text because it’s a healthier, more grace-filled beginning than my initial response to this week’s texts. Truth be told, when I got my preaching assignment for the semester and saw the lectionary texts for the week, I invoked my Luther College education with a decisive: Uff da. This is my confession: I don't like these “lost” parables. I love parables, but, admittedly, these two bug me. In Luke 13 and 14, we get these great parables of the barren fig tree, the mustard seed, and the banquet – stories that portray the great reversals of the world as it is and the Kingdom of God. And then, there’s these two “lost” parables.
When I hear these texts, I usually identify with the coin or the sheep. Where am I in these parables? I am the lost coin, the lost sheep, or the “left-behind” (and ironically, righteous) sheep. Regardless whether it’s the lost sheep or the left-behind ones, if you identify with them, these parables leave you accused and waiting – waiting on God as the shepherd or God as the women; or perhaps, Jesus as the shepherd or woman, seeking out the lost. I recognize that in the not so distant past, this would have been scandalous. Shepherding was not a glamorous, romanticized position with which to identify the divine. And, of course, for some, unfortunately, hearing God or Jesus identified with the searching woman might be equally scandalous. Be that as it may, when I hear these parables today implicitly I hold a playbill announces that God will be played by the shepherd or the woman.
In what I’m about to say, I do not mean to discount, the real grace that abides in this reading. When I am lost, there is good news in the parable that portrays Jesus as the shepherd who will not rest until the lost is found. There is reason to trust in the promise that God seeks – and finds – the lost, and amazing grace abides when what was once lost is found. Surely, Jesus is the shepherd or the women. Jesus is the one who goes searching for the lost and will not rest until the lost is found. Surely, we are the lost. Or, at least, we can be pretty certain that at some point we will be. The good news is that God finds us.
It's not that the dialectic of being lost and found isn't somehow relevant. The texts of the lectionary insure that we connect the dialectic of being lost and found with an anthropology of being saint and sinner. The Psalm reminds us of the omnipresence of sin (I was surely sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me), and it is coupled with the cry to be washed clean, to be justified, and to be created anew.
Lutheran theology is replete with these motifs; lost/found, sinner/saint – these dialectic metaphors of the faithful life are not lost on me. There is still good news to proclaim in this reading, but if we ask the Godly Play questions, what else do we discover about who this God is?
If we stop here with just the losing and the finding, if we focus on God the shepherd and I the sheep, do we still have all the story we need? Haven’t we lost something?
What about the sense of being lost that isn’t just about being a sinner? Being lost is being forgotten. Being lost is being in that place of uncertainty about where you are. Being lost is being in that time of doubt when you don’t know where you are going. We can be lost geographically. We can be lost vocationally.
And, individual and communal experiences can be lost to our lives together. Think of what we often dare not speak in public, let alone in our religious communities: HIV/AIDS, miscarriage, mental illness, learning disabilities, the many privileges that come with being white or heterosexual or educated or not hungry or free from the daily threat of violence. I’m reading James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree, and the unspoken, willfully forgotten, history of lynching teeters on the edge of being lost. The list of what is lost individually and communally is long – and it can be hard to see a place for all these losses in today’s parables if the message is just about me and God.
Furthermore, is the point of these parables really just about being found? It wasn't until preparing this message that I noticed that these parables do not end with being found. Listen again: "Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn't he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, 'Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.'" The same with the woman. When she finds the coins, "she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, 'Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.'"
These parables end with call to a community to gather together and rejoice. The chorus of these parables is not “I am found;” the chorus of these parables is “Rejoice with me; I have found what was lost.” When we sing this new song, I wonder, “where are you in the parable?” I hear an invitation to be the shepherd or the woman, to be the one to seek out the lost, to trust that our searching will not be in vain, and when we find what is lost, the story has just begun.
Where is God in that? The good news is that God is with us in the finding and the seeking. God is with us when we are lost. God is tending the flock while the shepherd goes searching for the one who has wandered off. God will be there in the rejoicing when we call together a community of friends and neighbors to rejoice in the fullness of our common life together.
Imagine the world that comes to be in this rejoicing. Losses are spoken – and receive a hearing. Deep parts of ourselves, our families, our communities, and our histories – parts that have been lost because they cannot be spoken because they don’t have a place in our lives together – these are found. They are named and lifted up. And, together we rejoice. Imagine being surrounded by a community that rejoices in the you who was lost and is now found - the new you that includes rather than forgets or ignores or hides the loss. In this, the kingdom of God is found. By reimagining the cast of characters in these stories, the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin forcefully become part of the reversals we read in the parables of Luke 13 and Luke 14.
There is reason to trust that Jesus will always come seek you out if you are lost. In addition, these parables provide an alternate vision to how the world is. We get a glimpse of how the world should be: God abiding with the seeker and the sinner. God abiding with the sheep who are necessarily left in the open country while the one is found. All the while, we are answering God’s invitation to share in the work of seeking out the lost. And when the lost are found, and we are answering the call to gather and rejoice together – and, God is surely there in the dancing and singing and feasting.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Psalm 51, Luke 15:1-10