Rev. Matthias Peterson-Brandt
Sunday, Sept. 15, 2019
Can you remember the last time you lost something in your home? Maybe keys or a phone, or some item that you set down and forgot. If not you yourself then perhaps your spouse or kids or family. Whereas the Shepherd metaphor is more culturally removed from us, the idea of a woman with a broom scouring the house for her lost coin, we can relate to that. The search, the frustration, the going over our same steps, the stubborn refusal to give up looking because “it has to be here somewhere!”
In my family of origin, we one time misplaced two small tackle boxes. We had put together the perfect combination of lures and jigs and spinners for a multi-day boundary waters trip. We didn’t want to be carrying to much, so these were the slimmed down essentials. Each item hand selected. After our 2012 trip (on which we caught a ton of fish) these boxes vanished. We all sorted through all our gear. Nothing. Our next canoe trip came and went, still no boxes. Finally, looking in a tub labelled “dad’s old stuff” on one visit home, there they were. I hollered up the basement steps to my dad who came down and we stood there laughing with delight. Then we called each of my brothers in turn to tell them that the lost tackle boxes had been found. It was news too good not to share. We can also relate to the rejoicing that happens when we find something long lost.
There is a lot of richness to recommend these two parables Jesus tells. There is the fact that Jesus is telling these parables to tax collectors and sinners about their welcome in the kin-dom of God, much to the chagrin of the grumbling Pharisees. There is the fact that God is described in images so relatable to the audience, including an image of God as a woman, the persistence of the search that embodies such tenderness, concern, and a love that is unrelenting and never gives up.
Yet there are some thorny theological questions if we probe further into these parables of Jesus. In a straightforward unpacking of these parables, we assume that God/Jesus are the shepherd and the woman with the broom. Though, unsurprisingly, in the history of interpretation of these parables God is easily associated with the shepherd and the father in the “prodigal son” story, but much less often is the woman with the broom identified as a stand-in for God. If then, we are to read ourselves as the lost sheep or the lost coin, does this mean that God can lose us? That is not a depiction that sits well. Is God then careless with us, if we can get lost?
Meanwhile, there is a discrepancy in the parables themselves with the meaning that Jesus’ ascribes to them. In the parables, God seeks us out from where we are lost. God has agency, takes action. A coin cannot unlose itself; maybe a sheep has a better chance at it, but still, the parable doesn’t describe a sheep trying to find its way. In fact, we sometimes use “sheep” to describe the opposite: someone who just follows the lead and doesn’t seek their own path at all. So God acts to find the lost.
In summary, however, Jesus states that a sinner who repents brings as much joy as these lost items do when found. Here, it is the sinner doing the repenting, the turning back towards God, not God’s seeking action towards us.
Parables often bring up more questions than they answer, which is part of their beauty. I do not have answers for all the questions that these parables raise for us.
I do wonder what happens if we shift our assumptions about who is represented by who or what in these parables. I admit that there is something immensely comforting about a depiction of God who searches us out when we feel completely lost. And that too—the feeling of being lost, alone, apart from where we belong—that too is strongly descriptive of a feeling we all experience at times in life.
What if, instead of reading God as the shepherd and the woman, we cast ourselves in that role? What does that do to how we read these stories?
All of a sudden, we are the ones looking over the community and asking: “what is missing?” or “WHO is missing?” We become the ones in the position of seeking out and searching for those who have been left outside of the embrace of community, those who have been told they do not belong. We become the ones who are tasked with noticing who is here and who is not. Whom have we forgotten to count?
Of late, I have tried to pare back on my use of the word “include” or “inclusion.” It has connotations of us being the inside group and “we shall deign to include you; look at how magnanimous we are to invite you into our special club.” So too, even as we envision ourselves as the shepherd and woman with the broom, the picture is not that others are lost and we have the answer. Instead, it is about belonging. We can belong to one another. We belong to God and to the earth. Belonging—unlike inclusion—has that element of mutuality.
Each person who comes in belongs, and in fact, is indispensable to the wholeness of the community. As the Biblical scholar Amy-Jill Levine notes: it is likely that this is closer to how Jesus’ audience would have heard these parables because they affirmed that God could never lose us. Just look at the Psalms: “Where can I go from your presence? If I ascend to the heavens you are there, if I descend to the earth you are there.” And they would have found the idea of repenting sheep or repenting coins rightfully ridiculous.
This parable then invites us to look around and ask: “whom have we overlooked?” “Who is missing?” “Whom have we taken for granted or forgotten to count?”
Amy-Jill Levine and her co-authors on the book Who Counts? come back in each of these parables to the refrain: “Without you, something is missing.”
Without you, something is missing. The ten coins are not whole with only nine. The 100 sheep are not complete with just ninety-nine. We can even extrapolate upwards—what if we added another coin? Now all of a sudden, the wholeness expands to eleven, to twelve, to more. There is always room for more belonging.
That is a joyful message indeed. That each of our presence and voice makes for wholeness that would otherwise not come together. There is joy in knowing that there is no end to belonging to and with God, to and with community. And when things that feel lost are found, there is joy in that too: renewed sense of hope; faith found; wonder rediscovered; community brought home to itself.
I want to ask you to turn to your neighbor and tell them: “without you, something is missing.” We all need that reminder from time to time, AND we are all called to be bearers of that reminder to others: “you belong,” “you matter.” Whether we are in this space or not, we carry that truth and are called to spread it. Without you, something is missing. Amen.