Monday, March 11, 2013
Luke 15: 1-32
I love restoring antiques. I don’t mean antique items. Antique words. Theological words. I love pulling out a well-worn word from my evangelical past, dusting it off, and holding it up to the Light. Usually something beautiful glints at just the right angle. Even items previously used badly can be salvaged for good. Like those folks who re-purpose a rusty old something into a handy something else, I almost always find these words a useful and fitting place in my rearranged theological home. We have previously refurbished several of these old words at Open Table, words like “salvation” and “sin.” Today’s antique word is . . . “lost.”
If you and I pull out that word from the churches of our past, we might see it colored with intimations of our unworthiness. “Lost” sounded like a word dark with God’s disapproval. “You are lost,” someone once told you, or implied, in sermon or song. Or you were told that our beautiful world is lost. Or your much loved friends outside the church were lost. Meaning they were going to hell because they didn’t believe the exact same things your church taught or they were not baptized into the one true Church and adhering to its teachings. Meaning they needed to assent to these same beliefs in order to get found, to get saved from that state of being lost.
Many of us are no longer convinced that God “finds us” by convincing us to believe certain, often improbable, things. Many of us no longer believe in a literal hell that God prepared for those who never get back on track by believing those certain things.
Can this “lost” metaphor hold meaning for us today?
The television series named “Lost,” wildly popular from 2004-2010, may attest to the continuing relevance of this metaphor in our day. And our own hearts teach us that feeling “lost” is part of the human experience. You don’t have to be as prone to literal lostness as am I—so dependent on my GPS that I can’t go around the block without it—to long for a stronger sense direction and destination in life, a deeper feeling of being at home with others on this planet, a keener awareness of the love that lures us on. At various times we all feel lost: uneasy with all life’s changes, unmoored from a dependable worldview, distanced from others, unwelcomed, or simply perplexed. Lost. I think that word still describes a spiritual state that many of us recognize.
One way postmoderns might wrest this resonant metaphor from our past is to consider that lostness is not—at least not according to these parables—our original state—as in “original sin.” Nor is it necessarily our perpetual state. We may wander back and forth between the poles of Lost and Found. Most importantly, the lost are not condemned. Not according to these parables. The Good Shepherd, the Good Housekeeper, and the Good Father do not blame the lost sheep or coin or son. Instead, they celebrate when they are found. No blame. No punishment.
So how do we become found? What is the spiritual practice or process whereby we find God or God finds us?
According to the first two parables, God has to find us. We apparently can do nothing. The coin and sheep need to be found not because they are doing harm but because they are dear to the woman, to the shepherd. They are valued. They are loved. They need to be returned to their rightful place of safety. But there is nothing the coin or sheep really can do to be found and returned home. The Christian concept of grace says that God seeks us. It is the very nature of the Divine to seek and to save. The first two parables are completely unconcerned with how the sheep or coin became lost. These parables are simply not interested in the lostness but rather in the foundness of the spiritual journey. These parables say in times of our lostness, God is always seeking us out. In times of foundness, God is celebrating our reconnection.
Then where is instruction for those of us who are, in the words of an old hymn, “prone to wander?” The answer runs counter to our Western penchant for action and self-reliance. When our spirits feel disconnected from the Spirit of God, we wait to be found. We wait. We cannot work our way into achieving a state of spiritual union with God any more than a coin can, through its own exertion, reunite with the woman who’d been holding it in safekeeping. We cannot work our way out of grief or disappointment or anger or loneliness. As we wait, we simply rest in the knowledge that we are beloved at some fundamental level. Spiritual maturity is not something we earn like a merit badge. In fact, it’s the opposite. It’s letting go of all other measures of worth and all methods of striving. It’s about resting solely in the awareness of God’s love for us and for all. When we give up trust in the externals and rest on love alone, we realize God’s love all around us, within us, before us, beneath us—and we have been found.
A couple of weeks ago I played a small role in helping reunite a lost sheep with its owner. That sheep was actually a large yellow Labrador retriever. I was at the salon where I get my hair cut when a woman brought a yellow lab to the front door. She explained she’d seen this dog wandering along Old Shell Road in front of the salon and feared he would be hit by a car. She wondered if anyone in the salon recognized the dog, who wasn’t wearing a collar but seemed clean and healthy, as if he’d just slipped his leash. No one in the salon knew him. But the salon owner offered to keep the dog inside for a little while as we considered how to help this lost lamb. She knew one of her clients had a male yellow lab, so she called that client and left a message about the one we’d found.
Soon an entire battalion of smocked and wet-headed women went into action. Several called husbands to see if their household might accommodate a new dog. There were no takers. Someone brought a bowl of water to the dog, and he lapped it politely. I took a picture of him with my iPad camera and posted his picture on Facebook with a plea for help to find his owner. Meanwhile, the sweet ol’ fellow quietly curled up at my feet as if waiting for his turn to be clipped and coiffed.
I had seen right away the deep soul he had and how easily he felt at peace in the world. So I was prepared—maybe even eager—to bring him home with me if necessary. But you could tell he was someone’s beloved pet and I especially hated to imagine a child separated from him. When our first level of efforts to find his owner didn’t pan out, I agreed to take the dog to my vet to see if he had a microchip ID—and if not, I was deputized take him home and keep looking for the ol’ boy’s home. Happily jumping into my car, the lab stretched out on the back seat, not very interested in where he was going, which was straight to my vet. There a microchip was found and scanned and Jack—that turned out to be his name—was soon reunited with the grateful mother of two children, who sent me a gorgeous orchid plant the next day.
The point of this story is that a concerted effort reunited Jack and the family who loved him. But Jack helped not a whit. That lost lamb depended on a swirl of loving energy to get him home. He simply remained still and quiet, trusting that all would be made right in his world. Sometimes our own state of lostness requires just that kind of trust that love is all around, and grace will lead us home.
In contrast, the longest and most complex parable of lostness gives agency to the lost one. The lost son–unlike the lost coin and lost sheep—has to take responsibility for finding his way home again. The prodigal son very intentionally, willfully decided to leave home. He did so in a way that was overreaching and disrespectful, and he later engaged in foolish behavior. It’s up to the “lost” son to return of his own volition.
If the first two parables challenge activists like us to accept that we are not in charge of the universe, progressive Christians are also challenged by this third parable of lostness to face a universe that is not morally neutral. We are quick to profess that there are many paths to God. But let’s also admit that not every path leads to God. There are some dangerous roads that can lead folks into dark and terrible deeds. Excessive moral relativism will not lead us home.
There are times to wait for God to act; there are other times when we know it’s up to us to take the first step: to ask forgiveness, to reconnect with a loved one, to make amends, to set aside bitterness, to give up crippling habits, to speak truth to others and to ourselves. As the Apostle Paul said, we have been given “this ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:18), so we are charged with reconnecting, reuniting. And after all, sometimes we’re the ones who’ve gotten ourselves lost. We have wandered into places where we shouldn’t have gone. We’re not the innocent lost coin. We’re the prodigal son who has crashed and burned. We’re still beloved. But we’re not exactly innocent. So we have steps to take to try make things right. We have steps we need to take toward the God and Goal of Love.
But if there is a strong and unmistakable theme running through all three parables, it is this:
God doesn’t shame. God celebrates.
When we make a mess of things, we may rightly feel grief and regret. We need to make amends. But Luke’s parables stress God (in the form of a shepherd, a woman, a father) only rejoices at our return. And God commands us to likewise rejoice. These stories ring with joy—not a single note of recrimination.
Well, except from the elder brother, who does blame the prodigal. Jesus has been responding to the Pharisees’ complaints that he’s been partying with known sinners. So he places them—and us, too—in the role of the disapproving “good son.” Grace seems unfair to those who are not at that moment in need of it. Like the Pharisees still loyally but joylessly inside their religious rules, the elder son’s unwillingness to extend grace to the lost one prevents him from being caught up in the celebration. Like the Pharisees and elder sons, when we start parsing up who deserves what, we can cut ourselves out of the celebration that God is always throwing. We don’t know, as the story ends, if the elder son will join the party. Yet another open-ended parable helps us keep chewing on its possible meanings for us.
I suspect the word “lost” is not as simple as its one syllable suggests. When I was a child, I thought I was over being “lost” after I made what was called a “profession of faith.” But maybe you and I travel between Lost and Found on a regular basis. Through spiritual discernment, we determine if the time is right to wait to be found or to engage in the hard work of reconciliation. The good news is that the Spirit of Joy is always ready to greet us: lost, found, and in between.
PRAYER: Giver of Amazing Grace, Make us patient in waiting for you to find us; make us eager to work for reconciliation; make us joyful with all who celebrate being home again. AMEN