God rejoices when he finds what he has lost. That’s what the parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin teach us. These parables clearly teach us about God.
God can and does suffer loss.
God seeks what he has lost until he finds it.
God rejoices in what he has recovered.
As clear as this message may seem, it’s not the message that many of us come away with. On the contrary, many readers will make these parables about us. They will fasten on the word “repent” and assume that these parables are really about our tendency to stray and the need for repentance.
|Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “Found”|
Now it is certainly true that we all break some moral eggs in life. The Gospel does teach us the importance of a contrite heart, a sincere apology, and a steadfast commitment to improved behavior.
And while these parables by no means contradict these staples of the Christian life, they do not teach them directly. Instead, they tell us why we would live such a life in the first place. They tell us about the God who loves us by exploring the contours of the kind of love he gives.
Once we understand that God loves us because of who God is, then we can see that our repentance–in fact our whole life–is a response to God’s extravagant love. Too many of us labor under the misconception that we must repent and improve to win God’s affections. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Let’s dig into the parables, get to know God a bit better, and then turn to how what we’ve learned applies to our daily lives.
The God Who Suffers Loss
There is a scandal right at the heart of these two parables. And that scandal probably accounts for why so many of us end up assuming that the parables are about how we humans should act.
Here’s the scandal:
A shepherd loses a sheep. A woman loses a coin.
The sheep does not go astray. It is lost. No thief steals the woman’s coin. She loses it.
And there’s the rub. The shepherd and the woman clearly symbolize God. God suffers loss. Some readers are quick to talk about human sin and the need to return to God precisely because they find it unthinkable that God could lose anything.
But that is exactly what these parables say, and if we’re going to get a glimpse into God’s radical, self-giving love, we will have to take that very seriously. God suffers loss.
Now this is not the same thing as saying that God absent-mindedly loses track of his children like some distracted parent in Walmart. On the contrary, God invests deeply and constantly in the life of his entire creation.
|Martin Johnson Heade’s “Orchid with Two Hummingbirds”|
God knows the number of hairs on your head, the temperature of each star in the universe, and the heart rate of each hummingbird. And all of these things actually matter. God does not merely accumulate data about things. He enters into deep, caring, nurturing relationship.
In other words, God is infinitely vulnerable to the changes and the chances of every nook and cranny of the creation. While we’re at it, consider for just a minute what it means to call God the creator.
Strictly speaking, God doesn’t need anything. He is what philosophers and theologians call self-sufficient. God is perfect, lacking nothing. He is the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. Any good, true, or beautiful thing we encounter on this planet derives its fleeting goodness, truth, and beauty from God.
God did not create the universe because he needed anything. Instead, it is in God’s very nature to impart the joy of goodness, truth, and beauty to another. To imbue an Other with value and significance.
That is the very essence of love.
God’s love is not a reaction to the qualities we have. God’s love initiates, it imparts value and significance. Out of nothing God loves us into something marvelous and breathtaking. When for any reason the goodness and beauty that God imparts ebbs and fades, God grieves.
God suffers loss at any departure from the good and the beautiful that he envisions for us.
When we participate in addictive and self-destructive behaviors, God suffers loss.
When we oppress the poor, marginalize those who are different, and visit violence on one another, God suffers loss.
God is vulnerable to the agony of hunger, poverty, homelessness, and war. When the sick suffer needlessly because they have no access to medical care, God suffers.
Now we might at this point slide back into thinking that these parables aim at telling us what to do. And I will come to the application of this lesson about God in just a moment. But stay with the parables themselves. They still have something to tell us about God and about what his suffering love does for us.
The Suffering Love of the Cross
Let’s turn from God as our creator to the cross of Jesus Christ. After all, the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin tell us that God seeks us out and finds us. And it is in the cross that we see this most clearly.
God does not sit at a comfortable heavenly distance and assess our handiwork. That’s just what we’ll think if we assume that these parables are about what we have to do to please God.
But you see, these parables are not about what we can do, but what God has done and is doing in Jesus Christ. God seeks us and finds us precisely in order to restore us.
The cross shows us that God’s suffering is not passive. In Jesus, God makes himself vulnerable to us, to all the worst we have to give. God’s love is not a display of masochism. It is the triumph of love over violence, depravity, selfishness, suffering, and death.
In the very flesh of his son Jesus, God becomes the recipient of all that debases and defiles the goodness and beauty that God originally imparted to us.
And God does what he always does.
He imparts new life. New value. New significance. In the resurrection, God more than restores his creation, his children. God makes a New Heaven and a New Earth, and he makes each of us a New Creation.
Responding to Love with Love
Let’s face it. The New Heaven and the New Earth are clearly a work in progress.
People still suffer and die from treatable illnesses because the medical care they need is inaccessible. Governments like Syria gas their citizens. The history of racism in our country is still a living legacy, not just a wretched memory.
And as New Creations go, there’s apparently a fair amount of assembly required. Our impulse to serve can still be at odds with our impulse for self-promotion. Self-preservation and self-giving still strive to have the loudest voice among our passions.
The point is not to change the world or change ourselves. Instead, the point is to live our lives as if we really believe that God is changing the world and changing us. Know that God is actively loving you, and make that knowledge real by loving your neighbor.
Here are some specific ways that the Gospel teaches us to do that:
Be a Jesus-following community that welcomes the stranger. And remember, the stranger is just the one that seems like a square peg to the round hole you keep trying to offer him or her. At Holy Cross, that may be a gun-toting Republican, just as it could be a homeless alcoholic, a black Democrat, or a transgendered teenager in some other congregation.
Learn to admit that your money and your possessions are not really yours. God gave you all of this to give away for the sake of the Kingdom.
Get yourselves out of the building and onto the streets. As I will say until I’m blue in the face and folks are sick of hearing it: Stop trying to get people into the church and start taking the church to the people. Use your hands to take blood pressures, feed the hungry, and offer communion to the homeless on the sidewalk.
None of this will make God love you any better. The scandal is that God already loves us, and makes himself vulnerable to us every day. He has us as his own when we love one another.
This sermon was preached at Holy Cross, Shreveport.