A Reflection for Proper 19, Year C
Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’
So he told them this parable: ‘Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbours, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.
‘Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbours, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.” Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’
When I was working as a grief counselor, I had a poem hanging on my wall that was written by a grieving parent whose child had died. It was a beautiful poem in many ways, but the reason why I liked it so much was because of the last line: “Life can be the same after a trinket is lost, but never the same after the loss of a treasure.” I shared those words with the grieving people who would sit with me, pouring out their hearts and stories. Well meaning people would tell them to “move on” or worse, to “get over it.” They knew this was impossible, but they didn’t want to remain stuck in the overwhelming pain of their grief, either. Often they would share so much depth of love and detail with me that I could imagine their beloved right there in our midst. It was clear to me how the lives of my clients had been changed forever by the relationship that they shared. It was also apparent to me that the magnitude of their loss in those moments of intense grieving had to do with the immense amount of love that they shared. Over time, our counseling sessions would shift from the intensity of loss itself, to the realization that love continued on even in the midst of loss. After several years of offering support to the grieving, I began realizing deep in my own soul that the real work of grief is to re-discover the love that is still there, a hidden treasure in the midst of the pain. I began to reclaim the hidden lessons of love that stemmed from my own losses, too. Most importantly, I began to understand the source of that deep, abiding love as God.
Love is too precious to be lost, even in death.
In our Gospel lesson this week, Jesus takes up this same role of counselor with those he is teaching. The people who have drawn near to him, we are told, were those that society really didn’t want much to do with: sinners, outcasts, tax-collectors. The church leaders of the time…those with more power and authority…are also there in his midst, grumbling and complaining. They are skeptical of the company that Jesus is keeping, making assumptions about the value and worth of those human beings and what that means for Jesus’ own merit. But, to all of these people who are gathered around him: the sinners, the outcasts, and even the self-righteous complainers….Jesus offers up these two parables. These two stories are gifts that help us see more clearly and know more fully about the vastness of God’s love for God’s people.
In the first parable, Jesus uses a metaphor of sheep to show us how God shepherds us, finds us, and carries us even when have wondered off. Now, it helps here if we know a little something about sheep. Sheep are gregarious, social animals that are hard-wired to follow the leader and stick together. Every one of their instincts tells them to follow the herd and keep their safety in numbers. A lost sheep cannot cry out for help and they are not accustomed to feeling alone or vulnerable. In fact, a sheep that is separated from its flock often becomes so fearful and anxious and out-of-sorts that it will lie down paralyzed with fear, making itself even more vulnerable to prey. The sheep has no natural ability to save itself. So, here we have a shepherd with a flock of 100 who notices that one sheep is missing. The shepherd knows that sheep can do nothing to save itself. But, the shepherd also knows that the 99 remaining sheep are a protective community for each other. The piece in this parable that we sometimes miss is that the Good Shepherd is not abandoning the 99 to retrieve one. The shepherd is entrusting the flock to protect each other while the one missing sheep is sought out and returned. Once returned, the community is at its fullness again.
What does that say to us about how Jesus, our Good Shepherd, bestows love on us as individuals, and as beloved community? I’ll let you think on that for a moment.
In the next parable, we have a woman looking for a lost coin. We don’t know much about this woman, but we do know that a tenth of all the money she had has gone missing. That lack of money that we were depending on is a feeling most of us can relate to. And so, she searches…she lights up the dark corners; she sweeps out the cobwebs that get in the way of seeing her treasure. She puts all her energy into finding that last coin. I love what happens next, though. When she finds the coin, she doesn’t horde it away so that she will never lose it again. She calls her friends and neighbors and invites them to celebrate with her. Because of that outward expression of her inward joy, she extends joy to the whole community.
In both of these parables, joy is found when full community is restored. In both of these parables, it is God who searches, who finds, who loves, who restores. We celebrate the love that remains, the precious treasure of divine love and grace that makes us, as the whole of God’s church, so much greater than any of us are alone.
God sees the precious treasure in each one of you, and God rejoices in the precious treasure that is ALL OF US…the Church, the people of God. There is no corner too dark that God’s light cannot enlighten us. There are no cobwebs so thick that they cannot be brushed away to reveal the treasure God sees in us. Even death cannot separate us from the transforming love of God. Today, we are reminded that there is no fear or loneliness that can stand in the way of God’s profound desire to carry us back into community. And this community…God’s beloved community…rejoices whenever you are here.
Take a few moments today to let that love sink in, exactly where you are. God will find you there.
[Homily prepared for Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, Friday September 9 2016 (Red Door Service)]