What Foolish People and Stories (Luke 15:1-10)


He seems foolish, doesn’t he; this man who is at ease with sinners and tells stories where their characters do not seem all that wise.  Who does such things?  Given our lack of time and money and the needs of the many, who has time to risk so much for “one” sheep, a single coin, or even a person?  Isn’t it wasteful?  Yes.  Some argue that it is even immoral to risk so much for so little benefit.  To the detached observer, flipping channels and skimming the surface; “some” sound right.

But then again, it only sounds right if you subscribe to a basic definition of “lost”.  Lost means many things.  You don’t know you’re lost when you’re lost; just ask an addict who’s yet to hit rock bottom.  If you think your GPS is working and yet you’re in the wrong place, you’re still lost.  Being lost is relative; to location, time, distance, history, and ultimately perspective.

You may have become lost on purpose and not wish to be found.  We may know exactly where we are and yet the world believes us to be lost.  Lost-ness also presumes a degree of inquisition, does it not?  If you’re lost, shouldn’t something or someone be inquiring as to your location?  Perhaps.  Either we try to look for a way out or someone tries to find a way for us.  Lost is as multi-layered as a cake at a covered dish lunch.  Yes, you can look at being lost from any  number of angles.  All of them, whether by accident or design involve one common factor:  a connection is broken.  When we are lost, we are disconnected from something vital; usually the ideas, places, and people which help us to understand the world.  If we know anything, whether from science, technology, or theology it is this:  lost isn’t how we’re designed to operate.  We were built to be connected.

Jesus is asking, through the age old tradition of rabbinic storytelling one question; how far should we go to stay connected to each other and God?  Is anything (or anyone) ever worth writing off and loosing?  Step aside from the fractions, analogies, time, and images Jesus uses.  Both of these stories come down to this single question.  Is loss ever acceptable?

It’s a hard question to answer.  Why?   It’s simple.  We don’t picture ourselves as the one (or thing) who is lost.  We’re safely tucked away in the group of sheep who never have the good sense to run away and get lost.  We’re the well-earned money which stays unspent in the old woman’s wallet.  Jesus says think again.  It’s who we would like to be.  Our aspirations are higher than our reality.  We’re lost more often than we want to admit.

This is why Jesus uses such dramatic analogies.  He wants to grab our attention.  A story about 100 valuable sheep and an expensive coin puts the loss, risk, and gain into perspective.  Their initial reaction on hearing Jesus was probably, “what?”  It’s like asking Jordan a question.  Perhaps they did not hear him or maybe they weren’t paying attention?  They heard him.  We’ve listened to this story so many times that they incredulity and utter foolishness of the shepherd’s actions have been lost to our modern Christian ears.

Jesus describes something so foolish and imprudent.  Would go to such lengths for a single sheep?  No shepherd in the right mind would risk their entire herd for one sheep.  This is why there first response is one of disbelief.  What?  Did he say what I think he said?  Maybe this guy isn’t as smart as my cousin in Capernaum made him out to be.  When we listen to Jesus, this should be our first response.  His stories run counter to everything we’ve been taught.  He defies the conventional wisdom of the world and has so for two millennia.   If Jesus isn’t stopping us, slowing us down, and at least creating a “what?” speed bump in our brains, something is wrong.  This is how it is supposed to work.   Jesus wants to slow our thought processes and our lives down, just long enough, so we think, “Maybe there is another way to see the world.”

Jesus’ parables are memorable because their images are more powerful than words.  Parables are word pictures.  Jesus is telling us a story.  Jesus’ stories are not only something we view, as if we’re watching a movie on television.  When he tells a parable we become participants and characters in the action.  We’ve been there.  We know that man or woman because we are that person.  Jesus’ stories are our stories.

I’ve never been a shepherd.  When we lived in Ireland, where raising in sheep is a major source of agriculture income, I got to know shepherds.  I came to truly appreciate dumb sheep are.  I learned what a messy, time consuming business raising sheep has always been.  My love for this parable and the 23rd Psalm grew immensely.  However, I didn’t need that experience to get this story.  It’s not about the sheep.  It’s about the search for something lost.  The sheep, valuable and dumb as they may be, are only a means of getting to the larger point.

How do you look for something you’ve lost?  If you’ve misplaced a truly valuable item or an everyday object you need to find, what do you do?  What’s your method of looking?  Do you sit down in the last place you remember having the thing and start from there?  Are you logical, calm, and orderly in your search; like the Coast Guard searching for a boat missing at sea?

Or are you like me when I can’t find the remote control?  If I can’t find the remote, I’m frantic.  I start pulling apart couch cushions, looking under furniture, and yelling about the house, “Has anyone seen the remote?”  I will not rest until the remote has been found.  Everything, the cooking of dinner, the doing of homework has to stop so I can know the latest developments on the campaign trail.  The remote must be found.  I search frantically, enlist help, and leave no pillow unturned.

This, I believe, is the picture Jesus is painting.  While the shepherd searches and as the woman seeks, they are frenetic.  You are not laid back about trying to find something of value, something you love, or a piece of you that shouldn’t be missing.  I don’t think God is either.  This is how God searches for us; with such reckless abandon, nothing will prevent the connection from being restored.  God will rip apart hell, if that what it takes, to find what’s lost.  God goes after us; not out of vengeance or sin but because that’s what God does.  God finds the lost.

Luke says that God (and the angels) thrives on joy.   God seeks joy.  Jesus tells us that God does not seek suffering, pain, misery, wrath, or sorrow.  There’s something about joy which cannot be restrained to life as we know it.  Joy and happiness are not limited to the eight or nine decades we spend on this planet. Joy is eternal.  You know what it feels like to find that thing or to restore a relationship that was lost.  In that moment, that is a reflection of God’s own joyful presence.  We see and experience the reality of God in those moments.

Jesus tells us that joy is in the finding and being found.   The bad news is this:  we are still lost.  The good news:  we are always being found.



What Am I Supposed to Remember?


What are we remembering?  I think it’s a fair question.  Are we recalling the events of September 11th in isolation?  By this I mean the hijacking, the planes flying into the buildings, and the way Americans responded in the immediate aftermath.  Is this anniversary only about the events of the day itself?  Or are we to call forth each successive event which has defined American life because of those actions? By this, do we remember the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Anthrax scares, terrorism at home and abroad, and this god awful campaign we are forced to witness?  If I’m reading the conventional wisdom properly, and I think I am, we’re being told to remember everything.  If you don’t remember it all, someone get’s slighted and we’re minimizing the death of someone somewhere.  At least that’s what I see.

While I understand both perspectives, I need to admit:  I’m tired of remembering.  I’m ready to forget a few things.  If I never see another body washed up on the shore of Greece, rubble in Syria, or attend another funeral I’d be fine.  It’s been a bloody 15 years and too many people have died.  I’m sick of being in the business of perpetual mourning and memory.  It would be nice to take a year off and remember some other time.  No can do.  It would be easier to cancel Christmas.

The ability to forget the past would be both a gift and burden.  We need the past to have a future.  How we remember is the key, isn’t it?  Memory is nothing if it’s not a fragile artifact handed from generation to generation.  As this holiday (I wince at calling September 11th a national holiday-holidays imply celebration; in remembering our resilience are we celebrating the death of innocents?) approaches, how are we handling the memories we’ve received?  Do we toss them around as manipulative tools to win elections?  Yes, without doubt.  Do we turn the pages of the past so quickly; we assign the wrong meaning to events?  The meaning we tender is crucial.  Do we understand the sacrifices of the past 15 in terms of a cosmic struggle between Abrahamic faiths?  Are we here today because the Islamic world “hates” our western freedoms?  Perhaps it’s simply one form of theodicy; we are suffering because we’ve screwed up and God believes it’s time to pay the piper.  Or is today an opportunity to love each other in the face of barbarism?

Love is a hard word to say on September 11th.  We loved those who we lost.  Yes, that’s true.  We can talk about love lost, torn, destroyed, and blow into rubble all day long.  Will we talk about who we can love today?  Like so many who lived through that day, I know where I was when I heard the news and watched the events unfold.  I know where I was.  We know what we did, who we helped and the contributions we made.  We’re great at the past tense.  Memory, or in its mass produced version called “nostalgia”,  blinds us to the future because we are bound to the past.  In telling the world where I was and what I felt, I’m limiting my ability to tell anyone about what I’m doing today or where I’ll be tomorrow.  The first disciples, the men and women who constituted the early church didn’t keep returning to Jesus’ empty tomb.  Jesus wasn’t there.  Hope doesn’t live among stones.  It’s gone to seek the hopeless.  Each year, about this time, America returns to the empty tombs of lower Manhattan, Shanksville, and the Pentagon.  And we wonder why the pain still seems fresh.  Why worship death in the face of resurrection? Isn’t that what you do?

Our central act of memory, the Eucharistic prayer called the “Great Thanksgiving”, recalls Jesus life, death, and resurrection.  It is a bold statement of the past, present, and future.   Within the words where Jesus asks us to remember, we are pulled from the past and death.  Our circumstances are changed. We are called to be two things:  holy and living.

Does the way we remember make us holy?  Have our means of recalling the tragedies of the past 15 years emphasized life or given power to death?  It seems, too often, we’re in the death retelling business and that’s good for ratings, wars, and campaigns.  I don’t want death to win. Can you remember the last time you felt holy and alive after September 11th?

Psalm 14 takes a pretty dim view of humanity.  The Lord, perched high in heaven, looks down on humanity and sees that no one wise or seeks God.  We’ve all turned bad.  To quote verses 3 and 4, “No one does good; not even one person!  Are they dumb, these evildoers?” Not even one person, says the Psalmist.  That includes you, me, the Pope, and the Council of Bishops.  We’re all indicted for our lack of goodness, wisdom, and abundant dumbness.  God has set the bar fairly low for us as we approach this September 11th.  Like an old drachma or a stupid sheep, we’re unaware of how lost and unwise we’ve become.  We’ll not be found by relying on our own faulty memories.  Life does not hide in the rubble, ruins, shopping malls, or tombs.  Life has gone fishing, somewhere in Galilee.

I really don’t know what to remember this September 11th.  But I do know this:  Jesus is not where you think he is.  And if we’re looking for salvation solely in our memories, we’re looking in the wrong place.

I Need To Be Found (Luke 15:1-10)


Gracious God,
We do not know we are lost.
Nor are we aware of a need to be found.
Our existence,
Defined by our soul’s incapacity to see,
Being marked only by our presence.
This cannot last.
I cannot remain unfound as
One wandering among nothing.
Yet, I am,
Lost and do not know.
A self-misplaced,
Joy ripped from Grace,
Waiting to be found,
Reunited with the forgotten,
By someone who cares enough,
To look.

–Richard Bryant