Sermon for Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, Sunday, September 11 2016, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Jer 4:11-12,22-28; Ps 14; 1 Tim 1:12-17; Lk 15:1-10
The short parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin are fairly well-known—although not as much so as the longer parable of the prodigal son, which follows immediately afterwards in Luke, although our lectionary leaves it out for now and saves it up for Lent—and the basic message seems reasonably clear. But parables, stories, are inherently unstable, and meaning always shifts and changes, different details or aspects coming into focus with different contexts. And there are a couple of things in these stories that struck me particularly on this reading, which I’d like to explore a bit further.
Mostly, I want to look at where the emphasis in these stories fall; first of all, what it means that these are stories, not about being lost, but about seeking. If we read them—as we generally do, and not incorrectly—as being about God’s search for all of us, lost and confused as we are, then we actually play a neglible part in the narrative. The lost sheep and the lost coin are not what you could call fully developed characters. A coin, as far as we know, has no subjectivity or experience whatsoever; and such subjectivity as a sheep might have is drastically limited. We can’t be sure that the lost sheep even know that it was lost, though it might have had a vague sense that there were not as many other sheep around as usual.
The action is all on the part of the seeker; the coin and the sheep really contribute nothing. And the experience we explore is that of the one searching and finding, the point of view with which we empathize is that of someone who has lost something valuable and is overjoyed to recover it. So this is theologically a bit curious. Yes, it is, from a certain perspective, true that we do not save ourselves, we do not perform our own recovery and rescue; we are claimed and brought home, not because of our own goodness or strength or intelligence, but because God loves us and desires our rescue, our homecoming, desires to bring us into a community of love. But we, we are not coins or sheep, we are these intensely self-aware, complicated, seeking and desiring creatures ourselves, and neither our lostness nor our finding is really so passive.
The coin doesn’t experience being lost, and the sheep probably not very much—but we do. We know what it is to be lost, isolated, confused, lonely, afraid. Sometimes it seems like life is mostly made up of that. Today’s reading from Jeremiah brings us this lostness in a fierce and vivid form, a vision of ultimate loss and destruction. Humanity seems vanished, the great city fallen, creation returned to the chaotic void. Jeremiah’s vision is a public vision, a political one in the broad sense, and we have seen it fulfilled too many times in the public world—fifteen years ago today in New York, the great city filled with smoke and wreckage; forty-three years ago today in Chile, thousands of people rounded up and murdered in a stadium, helicopter gunships strafing the capital. Today in Aleppo. Today in the grinding poverty and hopelessness of many Indigenous communities in this country.
But we know that landscape, too, within ourselves, the scorched earth of grief, depression, apparent futility, helpless fear, those times when we are as lost as a fallen city, alone no matter who is around us, at the edge of a cliff in the darkness. And they are not separable; finally, the forces which drive the devastation in the world come out of that fear and loneliness, all our violent, grasping, misguided attempts to fill the chaotic void with something, anything, money or power or revenge or simply distraction.
And it may be that, from some perspective, we can do nothing to save ourselves; perhaps so many of our impulses are so broken that every attempt takes us further into chaos, that we can only hope for a sudden unbidden love to hold us and change us. Perhaps. But the sheep and the coin do, at least, allow themselves to be found; and though they, an inanimate object and a fairly stupid animal, didn’t have much agency in this, we do, and we must. Even to make ourselves available to love is work, even to wait is active and conscious. We make ourselves findable—we create the openness, the space for love and meaning to enter. And there are so many ways we may do this, but perhaps the first and most important is to do that thing which comes so hard to human beings, and to sit still. To hold back from the immediate reptile brain response, from the ingrained habit, from the emotional surge. To wait, to breathe, to think, to pray; to stay within the chaos, not trying to force it towards our preferences.
I do not mean we should never act—as I said last week, we are always the rescuers in the burning house, the ones who must risk everything for the sake of others; and though we may read the seekers in these stories as God, they are not only God, they are us as well when we act as the agents of God’s love. That is part of the reason we are invited to see the stories from the perspective of the seeker, for we must be the seeker as well. We are both the lost coin and the woman who searches, we too are out there as night falls looking for the feckless sheep. What we strive towards, in our small and failing ways, is perhaps somehow to be both, to be the action which comes out of stillness, to be the response which arises not as a desperate attempt to fill our inner void but from the greater desire of creation, the meaning we cannot make on our own.
And this takes me to the second interesting thing about these little parables—that the final emphasis in both is neither on the losing nor on the finding, but on celebration in community. The stories arise because Jesus is challenged about eating and drinking with sinners, and both of them culminate in the central character calling a community together to celebrate, as does the story of the prodigal son which follows. The party at the end is the meaning of the story; the gathering of the community is the culmination of the seeking and finding. You’ll sometimes see commentators making fun of the woman who found the coin, snidely suggesting that she must have spent more money on the celebration than the value of the coin that was lost. I doubt that this was what Jesus meant; he lived among the poor, he knew what it meant to be down to a handful of coins and lose one of those, and he knew that a celebration doesn’t have to be about extravagant expense. She simply wants to be with her friends, to share her relief, that the coin has been rescued, that she has been rescued, that things are, at least for now, at least right here, okay.
For despite all the loss and pain and grief in the world, despite all the destruction, there are these moments of rescue. A life taken back from death. Hope arising from the ashes, a new possibility where there had seemed to be nothing. Love restored where it had seemed gone. A moment of homecoming, a moment of safety, of beauty, of grace. The strength to stand up and keep searching, a spring in the desert of the heart. The hand which reaches towards us again and again, and lifts us up.
And they must be recognized, these moments of rescue, they are to be celebrated, to be shared. Perhaps not always in a party for the neighbourhood, though that is one way, and neighbourhoods do need parties. Perhaps in cooking a meal for a crowd, or for a very few others. Perhaps in creating art, in music; perhaps in a simple fleeting exchange of glances. We come together, as we are, and as we can. That is in part what our liturgy is meant to be, the eternal celebration in community of our endless fragmentary rescue. It means thanksgiving, the word eucharist; it means to say thank you. Thank you that we are found by God and each other; thank you that we too can search and find. Thank you.