by Ellen Sims
text: Luke 15:1-32
Bible stories have given us Bible words that try to name and explain the human condition: the human problem that God “solves” . . . the universal condition that religion hopes to address . . . the fundamental dilemma with which poets, philosophers, lawmakers, psychologists, artists, and preachers contend. And you engage in this analysis, too. Recalling a day fifteen years ago when planes were used as weapons against unsuspecting civilians, what is your explanation for that tragedy and all the other tragedies at human hands?
Within the pages of our holy book, we read, for instance, that human beings perceive a yawning void in their lives—so the problem we all face is emptiness. Yet we also read stories of exile—and recognize an ache to return “home.” Stories of bondage in the Bible suggest that what we need fundamentally is liberation, so maybe that’s what religion is for. Or is it supposed to address our disconnection, since we live with such loneliness? Maybe a spiritual sickness harms us. Or a vague existential yearning for meaning and purpose. Evil (in the world and in our hearts) is something perhaps we are here to combat by being on the side of the Good. Then there’s the word sin that requires us to repent and receive forgiveness. Unless darkness and blindness are the biblical metaphors that better describe the human state. And then there’s death: the ultimate human limitation we face and yet refuse to face—so we seek assurance of eternity.
Todays’ three Jesus parables choose the word lost to describe our mutual plight. I understand lostness. Because I’ve always been directionally challenged. As some of you know, I have no internal compass. Yes, I know my right hand from my left. Yes, I can follow step by step directions if they are detailed and clear. And I can read a map. But I can’t hold a map or directions in my head. So I thank God for GPS and Google Maps and Siri that help me cheat my disability. Unfortunately, modern navigational tools are not Ellenproof. I need directions both to and from a new place because I can’t retrace my steps. I have to drive to a new destination many times before I can remember even an easy route without my notes or a map or GPS. It takes every brain cell I have to navigate, so if I’m driving a friend somewhere—even a route I know well—I often miss a turn because a simple conversation can interrupt the intense focus I need to navigate.
I don’t enjoy getting lost. It still can upset me. But being lost is a fairly constant state for me, so I’m used it. And I’ve started to wonder if we all are always a little lost. Not in the evangelical meaning of lost—a.k.a. going to hell. I just don’t think we’re ever fully and finally found. Not on this side of the grave. And as someone who regularly takes unplanned adventures into new territory, I can say that home is all the sweeter once I get back—and there are things to learn along a meandering path. What is critical is to recognize when we’re lost—as individuals and as a society. The sooner you admit you’re lost, the better.
Rev. Dr. Serene Jones, president of Union Seminary in NYC, expressed in an article this week that Americans need to admit our “deeply distorted view of ourselves.” She claims that we tell ourselves “a relentlessly positive story” about who we are and where we are. That’s a spiritual problem because it disguises where we’ve gotten lost and we’ve “not incorporated a serious account of our wrongs. . . . The clearest example of this is our failure to sufficiently deal with our two most obviously horrific wrongs—the carefully orchestrated genocide of Native Americans and the 300-year-long story of the most brutal social system ever created, chattel slavery.” She adds that all religions must offer “a serious account of both the good and bad that people can do. . . . This doesn’t mean we don’t have a good side. But . . . if we do not existentially reckon with the ugly side of our beliefs and actions, we will not have healthy communities” and we’ll be repeating “a spiritual lie.” However, if we recognize where we’ve gone astray, we can make course corrections. And with this honesty “comes insight and fresh possibility.”
Rather than repeating slogans about making America great again and retelling phony stories about where we’ve been and where we are now—stories that demonize the “other” political party or candidate or race or group of persons and gloss over our side’s limitations and romanticize our shared history—we can move forward together with a truer sense of where we’ve been. We won’t wallow in self-abasement. But we do need to chart a new course together.
As two of today’s three powerful parables suggest, our lostness is sometimes not entirely our own doing. Besides, the chief emotion in all three parables is joy. But to own our lostness is a way to find our true place in the world—as individuals, as a nation.
In the first parable of the one lost sheep, notice the favoritism of the shepherd for the one lost lamb. Notice also the onus is on the shepherd to find the sheep and bring it back. There’s no punishment for the sheep. No blame. The emphasis is on finding the one in harm’s way and rejoicing when it has been returned safely.
In the second parable of the lost coin, the agency of the woman (the God figure here), is even clearer. The coin did nothing to become lost. In these instances, God is depicted as the rescuing shepherd and the diligent housekeeper who are unwavering in the care and overjoyed in finding what was lost. According to these two parables, God finds us. The Christian concept of grace says it is the very nature of the Divine to seek and to save. These parables reveal that in times of our lostness, God is seeking. In times of foundness, God is celebrating.
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/reunion 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 jealousy 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 find God’s love all around us, within us, before us, behind us—and we have been found.
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 willfully decided to leave home. He acted disrespectfully, hurtfully, and he later engaged in foolish behavior. It’s up to the “lost” son to return of his own volition.
If today’s first two parables challenge activists like us to accept that we are not in charge of the universe, we as progressive Christians are also challenged by this third parable to face a universe that is not morally neutral. Many of us say there are many paths to God. I do. But let’s also admit that not every path leads Godward. There are some dangerous roads that can lead folks into dark and terrible deeds. Excessive moral relativism will not lead us home. Jesus followers find our way home through him, as today’s opening song expressed.
There are times to wait for God to act; there are other times when we need to take the first step: to ask forgiveness, to make amends, to set aside bitterness, to give up crippling habits, to speak truth to others and ourselves, maybe even to participate with an open heart and mind in a challenging class on White Privilege we’ll start on Oct. 16.
We have wandered into places where should not have gone. We are still beloved. But we may need to alter our course. We have steps to take toward the God and Goal of Love.
But if there is one unmistakable theme in all three parables, it is this: God doesn’t shame us. God celebrates us.
When we make a mess of things, we may rightly feel grief and regret. We need to make amends—as individuals and as a nation. But Luke’s parables stress that God (appearing sort of like a rescuing shepherd, scrupulous housewife, loving father) 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 resents the prodigal. Jesus was responding to the Pharisees’ complaints that he’d been partying with known sinners. So he placed them and us in the role of the disapproving “good son” who doesn’t want to celebrate at the party thrown for his dissolute brother. Grace seems unfair to those who are not at that moment in need of it. Maybe those who are really lost are the ones who think they aren’t. Like the Pharisees still loyally but joylessly trapped inside their religious rules, the elder son’s unwillingness to extend grace to the lost one means he loses out on the celebration. What he is lost from is joy. We, too, risk cutting ourselves out of the celebration God is always throwing when we start parsing out who deserves what.
We don’t know, as the story ends, if the elder son will eventually join the party. But there’s always hope that the “good son” will find his way into a place of grace. And what can happen next is a mystical kind of lostness—a self-forgetting that takes you outside yourself and yet deeper into your self. This lostness in God is the experience of being, in the words of another old hymn, “lost in wonder, love, and praise.”
I once was lost, but now—at least for now—I’m found. Saving God, when we are lost and need to be found, help us stay put long enough for you to find us. When we are lost and need to return home, give us humility and courage to take the first steps on that journey home to you. Amen.