Storytellers over the ages have understood that stories told in threes can have great power. This morning’s scripture lesson gave us two-thirds of a group of three parables about being lost and being found. Jesus tells of a shepherd who leaves a flock of 99 to find one missing sheep, and of a woman who notices that a coin is missing – one coin out of ten that separate her from poverty, or from shame, or from both – and sweeps and searches until it is found. The third story, which is not told today because it is double the length of the other two put together, is the parable of the Prodigal son, the story of a young man who leaves his family and wastes his inheritance, becoming very “lost” while doing so, and in the process of returning home and being joyously welcomed, is “found” again.
Losing things and finding things is about as human an experience as we can imagine, and Jesus loved to use common, everyday examples in his stories. Anyone living amidst the rocky hillsides of Judea could picture sheep and their shepherd, everyone could imagine a woman’s anguish and feverish search at losing one of her precious coins, and far too many could relate directly to a story of family brokenness.
One of the Ignatian Spiritual practices within Catholicism, following on similar Jewish storytelling traditions, is to take a story in the Bible and imagine oneself as a character in the story. In this triad of Bible stories, it might be hard to imagine oneself as an inanimate object – the lost coin – but the rest of the viewpoints are easy enough to imagine: the younger son, older son, and Father in the story of the Prodigal Son; the woman picking through the thatched flooring to find the lost coin; the one sheep that is happily munching grass off on its own, the shepherd, frantically seeking one sheep that has wandered off, and the ninety-nine other sheep left to their own devices. Chances are pretty good that in any given story, there will be one character that you really identify with, either in a positive way or in a negative way, and you can learn a lot by attempting to see it from the viewpoint of a character you’re not really drawn to. It’s a great way to go deep into a Bible story through the holy gift of imagination, and will often uncover new ideas as well as thoughts and feelings deeply imbedded within you, as you connect with the emotional landscape of these ancient words.
Wise friends have mentioned one significant caution when using this method, however: “be careful if you are imagining yourself as God or Jesus in a story” with the addendum, “especially if you frequently find yourself drawn to that angle of approach.” I’m going to put that warning up here on an imaginary shelf, and not let it constrain our examination of these parables for the moment, but we will return to the warning in a few minutes.
Focusing on two brief parables we heard this morning, we see fairly simple stories of “lostness” and “foundness”. The coin, through no malicious intent of its own, ends up separated from the others, and its value to the woman is clear. Commentators over the ages have pointed to the ten silver coins in her possession as referring an adorned headband typically worn by brides, perhaps the cornerstone of her dowry. In addition to its emotional connection, these are not small-value coins; each one represents a typical day’s wages. Losing it would be devastating, finding it is essential, and she does succeed.
Just as the coin didn’t intend to get lost, we can assume that there was no ill will involved in one sheep getting separated from the herd, though it must have been pretty intently engaged with its grazing to go outside of its herding instinct… and it’s not hard to imagine the panic of the shepherd. In the eyes of some sheep-owners, the life of one sheep may well have been seen as more valuable than the life of the hired-hand shepherd whose only job was to keep them fed and safe, so it was crucial to get this one safely restored to the flock before it could be taken by wolves. Again, the one searching has success and rather miraculously, the entire flock of 100 seems to be intact at the end of the story.
There are times in life when we may well feel “lost.” People who have suffered a recent loss – the death of a spouse or parent or sibling or child or best friend – sometimes describe that as a time of lostness. People who have lost a career, through illness or misdeed or circumstance or even retirement, may describe themselves as “feeling lost.” For some of us, being apart from one another, even from close family members for two years of pandemic was a time of “lostness”, especially for the extraverts, and even now things are a bit hazy as we re-learn social skills, and confront blips of anxiety at situations where human beings are tightly packed together. If “lostness” is something you can identify in your life these days, well, you’ve got my phone and email on the back of the bulletin, let’s talk.
As challenging as it is to feel lost, it is such a relief, perhaps even exhilarating, to feel found again. Feeling found might be sudden or it may unfold gradually, and can come from just about anywhere: the presence of a friend or family member, whose refusal to let you wander aimlessly made all the difference; something you read or realized, perhaps a situation that startled you back into safety; it could have been a specific medication or treatment, along with the guidance of a skilled therapist; or you may have felt the very hands of God caressing you or guiding you, reminding you of your in-born connection to holiness. The sacrament of baptism expresses the reality of holy belovedness, and that belovedness reasserts itself when despair is released, and hope reclaimed. Please know, that this love is real, that God yearns for you with the desperate love of the shepherd who realizes that one of the sheep is missing, and the woman seeking that one lost coin. Our basic relationship with God is one of being loved, but it’s not just a casual, “state of being” kind of love – it’s an active/activated love that seeks the highest good in each of our lives, all the time.
There is something profound and beautiful (and perhaps fearsome) when we go through that hard cycle of feeling lost, alone, disoriented by worry or anguish, then being found, made safe again, restored to loving community. In these parables it is not hard to imagine the one doing the searching as God: the God who notices and cares when we’ve gone AWOL, the God who sees us as precious, the God who will stay engaged in the search until we are found again.
But then, there is also that warning from earlier in the sermon, if we hear stories like these and repeatedly see ourselves as the God/Jesus figure in them. It’s one thing to accept that as those baptized into the body of Christ, we are to be attentive to the needs of others and diligent in responding to need; it is quite another thing, for us as Church to see ourselves as “found” or even “Godlike” and people unlike us, as “lost.”
For centuries, the Church assumed that its global task was to go into lands whose inhabitants didn’t follow the patterns of European Christianity, to regard the inhabitants as less than human, and to attempt to Christianize them whilst their homeland claimed the land for their own. When you encounter news stories calling on leaders of Church and State to denounce the “doctrine of discovery” and “Terra Nullis”, this is what they’re referring to – the notion that unless Christians lived there, the land was “uninhabited” and subject to seizure. The Church, to borrow the language of today’s scripture reading, treated Indigenous people in this land and in virtually every land they went to as “lost” and the Church as those with the knowledge and the proper culture and religion that could save them. And in Canada, the Indian Residential School system was a key tool in that disrespectful system of seeking and saving.
In 1986, The Very Reverend Bob Smith, Moderator of the United Church of Canada, delivered the first apology from our denomination to Canada’s Indigenous peoples. This first apology included these words: “Long before my people journeyed to this land your people were here, and you received from your Elders an understanding of creation and of the Mystery that surrounds us all that was deep, and rich, and to be treasured. We did not hear you when you shared your vision… We confused Western ways with…the gospel of Christ. We imposed our civilization as a condition of accepting the gospel. We tried to make you be like us and in so doing we helped to destroy the vision that made you what you were.” Or to put it another way, us Europeans completely missed the fact that your ancestors were not lost, and our ancestors were in no position to find you or rescue you. A dozen years later a second, more specific apology was spoken to former students of the United Church Indian Residential Schools, and their families and communities, words delivered by the Very Reverend Bill Phipps. This second apology named the physical, sexual and mental abuse for what it was, apologizing directly for these actions and clearly stating “You did nothing wrong. You were and are the victims of evil acts that cannot under any circumstances be justified or excused.” Those two apologies do not end our responsibility as a Church, but they do name the shamefully wrong assumptions of previous generations: assuming that white Europeans are wise, even God-like, and the original inhabitants of a land are lesser or lost.
This is a Sunday when we look at the words of the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation, Orange Shirt Day, with its key phrase “Every Child Matters”, and embrace those words as true. We are honoured to have Trudy Wesley and her mom, Elder Glenda Crawler with us today, to help us gain insights into the harm that was done by the Residential Schools, and to experience the grace and resilience and commitment to the actual Good News of Jesus Christ that lives in them. We set aside the old notions of lost and found, acknowledging that even today there are thousands of children whose needs fall through the cracks of government safety nets, children for whom poverty and hunger are daily realities, and they need dignity, respect, safety and love. We acknowledge that every child we encounter, through baptism or in whatever way we meet them, is beloved, we offer our loving support to the two children baptized today and their families, and we also acknowledge how challenging it is for all families to make ends meet in our mountain towns. We believe that every child does matter, every child’s life is a sacred gift from God, even as we lament the brokenness that is so evident in the lives of so many children, some of which comes from earlier misdeeds of the Church.
The chant we sung earlier in the service [MV 149,’’Peace for the Children”] just before the scripture, imagined a world of peace – for the planet, for families, for children – and called us to open ourselves to the relentless source of love whom we know as God, who is determined to find us in whatever ways we are “lost”, so that we may truly be found by love, and transformed by grace, and kept safe in the path of wholeness. In the promises made at baptism by everyone involved, including us as a congregation, may the children in our circles of care know they are loved, and learn how to share lovingkindness, and may God in Christ keep bringing us back to love as THE thing that matters, even if all other things were to fade away. Thanks be to God, who has not just abandoned the Church in our times of lostness, but keeps on calling us to be faithful communities of love, grace and peace. Thanks be to God, Amen.
Hampton Wright, Vinita. https://www.ignatianspirituality.com/knowing-jesus-of-nazareth/
Schoenian, Susan. http://www.sheep101.info/flocking.html
The United Church of Canada: the apologies. https://united-church.ca/sites/default/files/apologies-response-crest.pdf
© 2022 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church.