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Lost and Found

Rev. Dr. Karin Case
Sun, Mar 17

Text: Luke 15:3-10

A few years ago, Kevin and I went on a self-guided walking tour of the Dingle Peninsula in the west of Ireland. We walked all day, every day for a week, with breathtaking views of the Ring of Kerry to the south, the Skellig Islands in the far distance. We walked along hedgerows and open strands of beach, through “tidy towns” with window boxes and local pubs and live music at night. We came across castle ruins and Norman towers and beehive huts—the distinctive stone dwellings of Celtic monks from a millennium ago. We walked along pilgrimage routes and sheep paths, and cobbled streets.

On our final day of walking, we went through a series of small sheep pastures, bordered by stone walls. For those not familiar with this kind of farming, each pasture is accessible by a stile—a small ladder or series of stairs, which are easy for two-legged humans to negotiate, but serve as a major deterrent to four-legged creatures like sheep. There, in the middle of one of those pastures—about four fields in—was a lost sheep. It was completely and utterly alone. And it had clearly been there for a very long time, its wooly coat becoming long and heavy and tangled with bits of twig. This was a sheep in dire need of a shepherd. And there was precious little we could do to help.

There—in that Irish pasture—Jesus’ parable came alive for me. It became viscerally clear just how totally screwed a lost sheep would be: how vulnerable and in need of care. Sheep need their flock and they need their shepherd! (I did perform a heroic sheep rescue on another occasion. But that’s a story for another day!)

We are focusing on parables at our 10 o’clock adult study hour (before worship each week) and preaching on the parables each Sunday in Lent. Parables are an ancient Jewish story-form that was used in worship and teaching, but also in the home. Parables are the most common form of teaching that Jesus uses. He inherited this rich, story-based tradition, and made exceptional use of it. Like all of Jesus’ stories, parables are full of images of first century rural life—fishing, farming, animal husbandry. So, if fishing nets aren’t familiar to us, or sowing, reaping, and threshing, or viticulture (“I am the vine; you are the branches”); if shepherding is not familiar to us, we may need do some initial imagining to get inside the worldview of Jesus’ listeners. That is why I told the story of the lost Irish sheep. That encounter made the parable real for me—a twenty-first century resident of Somerville.

If you find yourself puzzling about the meaning of a parable, you are in good company! In fact, that means the parable is working exactly as it should. C.H. Dodd offers this helpful definition.

At its simplest, the parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness and strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it to active thought. (1)

Parables are intended to puzzle, provoke and make us think. And the two parables we read this morning certainly do! A lost sheep, a lost coin. These stories seem simple on the face of it. Yet they provoke all sorts of questions.

Was the shepherd not paying attention? Why did he or she not notice the sheep wandering off? Whose fault is it that the sheep got lost in the first place? Would a shepherd actually leave ninety-nine sheep with no one to watch after them, just to go searching for a single sheep? For real? Who would do that? In her book about the parables, Amy-Jill Levine quips that a shepherd who leaves ninety-nine sheep to go looking for a single sheep, is a shepherd who ends up with one sheep.

I wonder. Was the woman with the coins careless? How did she lose the coin? Who would actually call her friends over to celebrate such a small thing as the finding of a lost coin—even a coin of considerable value? These stories have surprising twists and turns and startling endings.

It’s easy to imagine ourselves in the stories, and we are meant to ask, “What would I do?” Where would I place myself in this story? With what or whom do I identify? Am I the lost sheep (or coin)—the thing of great value that has been lost? Do I see myself as the shepherd who goes out searching diligently, or as the woman who sweeps out the dark corners of her house looking for her coin?

If we are able to situate ourselves in a parable, we open additional layers of wondering. The stories evoke strong emotion. What does it feel like to be utterly lost, to feel oneself abandoned and alone and then—perhaps—to be found? What does it feel like to be held dear and to be sought out? Can you recall a time in your life when you felt disoriented, confused, or disregarded, when something broke through and you were “found?”

Is there anything of great value that you have lost? Something (or someone) dear to you that you might be able to recover, if you search diligently, or shine a light into the dark corners? Are you willing to admit when your own limitations or carelessness are to blame, and try to make things right?

Oof! We’ve strayed a long way from sheep and coins. But this is precisely the complex emotional and spiritual terrain the parables are intended to crack open. Parables are super-dense, spirit-packed little bundles of enigma.

Here’s a final puzzle. Why do we call these the parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin? Shouldn’t we refer to them as the parables of the found sheep and the found coin? After all, finding is the punchline in both stories. It’s commonplace for sheep to go astray and it’s easy to lose a tiny object like a coin. What’s remarkable is not losing but finding them once they’ve gone missing.

And if we’re completely honest (oh, let’s do be completely honest!) the coin doesn’t care about anything; it has no concern for being found. And the sheep does nothing but wander off. But the woman seeks and the shepherd searches. And in seeking, finding, and recovering what is lost, they discover great joy. Then, let us call these parables of joy!

I suspect this is precisely what Luke wants to convey: that we are precious in God’s eyes; God seeks us diligently and experiences joy in finding and claiming us.

In this season of Lent, our theme is listening for God—an aural metaphor. We listen with our ears. But we can just as well use a visual metaphor—looking for God. We look with our eyes. But we also listen and look with our hearts, our intuition, our intellect. We may see, hear and find God almost anywhere. Between lines of text, in meeting the eyes of a stranger, even in our own deep yearning for meaning and connection. Carl Jung made famous the words of Erasmus, who wrote: “bidden or unbidden, God is present.” (2) A similar sentiment is articulated by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who wrote, “Nothing here below is profane for those who know how to see.”

Do we know how to see? What if everything that arises is an invitation for us see what is sacred right before our eyes?

Composer David Tolk writes of an evening on Cape Cod when the sunset was so stunning, that everyone on the crowded beach stopped to watch. In my Lenten study group last week, we read Marcus Borg’s personal account of a mystical experience—a fleeting moment of sheer wonder, when the whole world seemed luminous and golden. Maybe you’ve had an experience like that. Maybe even often.

A member of the group asked a great question: What is the purpose of a mystical experience? Perhaps it is this: to make evident the whole sacred world. Perhaps god is whispering to us, “Look! Listen. See and hear. You are my beloved and in you I delight. I will seek until I find you.

1) Fred B. Craddock, Luke, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), p. 108. Quoting C.H. Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom.

2) Desideriat Erasmus, Vocatus atque non vocatus Deus aderit

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