Lost Coins, Lost Sheep, Lost Days
Luke 15:1-10 Have you ever noticed the play of light and shadows off of a statue? A lot of it depends on the position and angle of the sun. At different parts of the day, different details get clearer; others are obscured in darkness. To really get its full impact, we need to see it at many different angles with light coming from many different sides; one view gives us one perspective, without giving us the full picture.
This could be a metaphor for our shared faith. It is multi-dimensional, needing light cast on it from a variety of perspectives so that a fuller picture of Truth (with a capital “T”) might begin to emerge. Our Sunday morning context here at Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church is a case in point. We continue our Education series, discussing the topic of Sabbath this morning. We read the difficult text from the prophet Jeremiah, which lets us know that God is displeased with God’s people for the way that, despite God’s goodness, they behave. And we re-engage this familiar lesson from the gospel of Luke, of lost coins and sheep, a story of celebration at the moment of discovery.
Do they have anything to do with each other? Perhaps not, except that they are bound together by virtue of being different aspects of that one shared, multi-dimensional faith. Perhaps it’s that we’re looking at that statue from three different angles, with three different flashlights pointed at it in order to get at that fuller, three-dimensional look.
The two parables from Luke are part of a unit; and they lead into the parable that follows it, as Jesus tells of a man who had two sons. And if we drive our metaphor into the ground, these three stories work together to give a fuller picture of the kingdom of God; God’s reign; what it is that God desires for creation; and what is at the heart of God’s character.
God is the woman. God is the shepherd. A coin is lost. A sheep is lost. The remaining nine coins and ninety-nine sheep are left aside as every effort is undergone to find what is lost. The coin is found. The sheep is found. The woman rejoices. The shepherd rejoices. A celebration is in order. Thus, the message seems to be, God cares for those who are lost, expends every effort to recover them, and the result is exuberance, joy, delight.
The closer we look, though, there seems to be a bit more going on. The lesson from Jeremiah seems to indicate that those who are lost are, in a sense, responsible for they own loss. They have wandered. And God isn’t happy with them for doing so. We might not like it, and it might distress our view of God, but it does seem that the logical, and perhaps even just, conclusion of deliberate desertion should be some form of punishment.
Then there’s that rejoicing at the end. Not only does it seem to butt heads with what Jeremiah says. It also seems way out of proportion with the loss itself. Each one of us would be happy to find what it is that we had lost. But one sheep out of one hundred? One coin out of ten? The woman and the shepherd have other resources; the one coin and the one sheep aren’t the end all and be all of their means. Is finding them really a good enough reason for a party?
And then there’s the economy of the whole thing. Perhaps I’m too influenced by our wider culture, but part of me wants to say, “Cut your losses and move on! Ninety-nine out of one hundred is a remarkable success record. Take those sheep to greener pastures. Take them back to your cave to protect them instead of leaving them vulnerable to suffer the same fate. Stop sweeping, turning over tables, shining lamps. You wasted a whole day on this thing when you could have been out re-earning that coin through some decent hard work. Let it go. It’s not that big a deal.”
But maybe it’s that all of that says something very peculiar about God. Perhaps that’s the point, that as Jesus begins the parables with “which one of you would” do these things, the unrecorded response from the crowd is something along the lines of, “None of us!” And maybe that’s what this whole thing is trying to say.
God has every reason to be angry at those who have wandered, turning their backs on this one who has extended promise and sustenance and blessing. But God’s emotions don’t operate the way that ours do. God’s anger and God’s mercy don’t necessarily work in an either/or kind of relationship. The kingdom of God is marked by this divine character of one who searches and extends a hand of grace.
And the level of celebration; again, it doesn’t look much like the kinds of things for which we might celebrate. But maybe that’s just it: in God’s reign, there is tremendous joy for those moments of recovery. God’s very nature has this overflowing character of delight.
And the financial side of things, the temptation to say, “What is left is good enough”? God’s economy simply works from a different set of rules. God spends with incredible waste; God expends an absurd amount of time, energy, and resources for that hopeful moment of completion. God is, simply put, extravagant in excess.
That all being said, there is one aspect of the two parables which seems most curious; and that is the celebration. The woman and the shepherd run to fetch the neighbors so that they can share in this outrageous joy at the return of the coin and the sheep. In both cases, given the invitation, and given the cultural context, it seems that a party is in order, which raises a question: where does the woman get the money for the party? Where does the shepherd get the food for his guests? Maybe there is this underlying, unstated divine character of sacrifice at work in the parables. Is that too much of a stretch? Are we taking liberties with the parable that were not initially intended? Perhaps…but then again, the parable that follows is the one of the Prodigal Son. And as he returns to his home, having spent the family fortune and coming with an empty stomach, his father greets him with a celebration akin to a wedding feast, where money is spent and the calf is slaughtered. And we are speaking of stories that are set pieces in a worldview where the cross takes center stage. There is, in the one who tells these stories, this implicit willingness for self-sacrificial giving.
So let’s go back to that statue, with the light bouncing off. Does the concept of Sabbath fit into our story at all? Perhaps not. But maybe so.
For many of us here, Sunday is no Sabbath. There is music to prepare, worship to lead, coffee to brew, tables to decorate, light bulbs to change, meetings to hold, children to care for. Finding that time for Sabbath, for reflection and worship and celebration of God, seems impossible. It’s the one commandment that is probably the easiest to break on a regular basis. There are family obligations and work demands, hobbies and self-care and household chores that consume our time voraciously. To set aside time for Sabbath is profoundly countercultural in a world where time is money; where cutting our losses is acceptable; where lost sheep and lost coins and even lost children are simply “par for the course.”
But what would it mean to find those lost days, that lost time, that Sabbath time? What would it mean to waste our time and energy, to leave the other six days behind, to turn over tables and sweep floors and light lamps, looking for it? And what would we do once we found it? Would we hoard it for ourselves? Would we keep it a secret? Or would we invite others over to celebrate with us? Would we be pleased to spend it sacrificially? Having worked so hard to get it into our hands, would we let go of it willingly and return it for the sake of God’s desires?
Maybe now is the time to return to our statue and to see how these lights shining on its features are faring. And as we do, it is probably the moment when we realize that we started out with the wrong metaphor altogether. Our faith is not a museum piece, a still, dead artifact there for us to examine. Ours is a living faith, one that is centered on a living, resurrected Lord. And that faith calls us into a way of being. It invites us into these practices of faith, like Sabbath. It welcomes us into community that seeks to reflect back some of that light of God’s character.
Friends, this is the invitation to us, to be a people of mercy, of celebration, of extravagance, of willing sacrifice.
May it be so. Amen.