When Jesus told the parables about the lost sheep and the missing coin, he was trying to get his listeners to understand the magnitude of God’s love. No matter how many sheep are in the flock, the lost one is worth looking for. No matter how many precious coins in hand, the missing one is worth searching for. God does not give up on God’s people no matter what we do. If we go astray, God will search us out. This was good news to the original audience and it is good news for today’s audience. In the midst of National Suicide Prevention Week, these parables take on an even greater significance.
The core meaning of these parables does not change. However, they also contain a mandate that the church has generally overlooked. We like to think of ourselves as part of the 99 who remain, secure in our righteousness. While we remain safe within our rules about membership and what a “true” Christian believes, we assume that God will save the lost ones of today. We don’t want to take responsibility for what we have broken. We can be secure in our paddocks constructed by our “thoughts and prayers” while God searches out those who are lost. This way, we can keep our hands clean and pass judgement on those who struggle from the high vantage point of (self)righteousness.
That first audience might not have understood what Jesus was talking about. He was saying new things and talking about being the people of God in radical ways. However, Christians today have had generations of practice and we still aren’t living the way Jesus taught. We are to be the Body of Christ alive in the world today. This means we are to be living out the ways of love that Jesus taught. We are to be seeking the lost with more than just our prayers. People live on the margins and edges of society because we who live in the center have essentially let them go, if not actively pushed them out. We seldom recognize the value of what we have lost.
Life expectancy in the U.S. is declining for the first time since World War I. Climbing suicide rates and opioid-related deaths contribute to this decline in significant ways. I would venture to guess that the rising suicide rates and opioid deaths correlate to the decline in faith community membership. (Remember: Correlation does not imply causation.) The decline in membership suggests that organized religion does not meet the needs of people the way it once did, and religious institutions have not done a great job changing in order to meet those needs. The problem is that the spiritual needs for community, purpose, and identity are not being adequately addressed in the absence of church (or other faith community) membership and participation.
We, as human beings, need to be in community where we are known, valued, and have a sense of purpose. Without these spiritual needs being met, we tend to drift toward complacency, ambivalence, apathy, or, more often than not, a sense of hopelessness. This pervasive sense of hopelessness is at the core of declining life expectancy. In a world filled with violence and destruction, where do we find hope and strength outside of faith? In a country where it is no longer possible for each generation to be more “successful” than the previous one, where do we find purpose and value outside of faith?
Our faith communities are declining because we have failed to learn the lessons Jesus’ taught. We have failed to recognize the innate value, the Christ, in every person. The parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin tell us of God’s active and abiding love for us, a love that will seek us out no matter how lost we are. In our desire to be “perfect” disciples, we have become too attached to our rules and traditions. We have failed to see those we have excluded as worthy of seeking after, other than to, perhaps, save their souls. I think Jesus had something else in mind.
God doesn’t need our help saving souls; God needs our help saving lives. People are literally living on the edge of life, falling over into death every day. Church can no longer afford to remain silent about mental illness, addiction, or suicidality. None of these things are a punishment for sin, lack of willpower, or signs of God’s disapproval; they are all as biological as diabetes or cardiac issues. People with mental health challenges, addictions, or suicidality often remain silent in church, if they attend at all. People with these struggles are lost to us because our theology is out of date. Jesus embodied a Love that had no limits. When will we?
As church it is our job to seek after the lost because we are not whole without those who are not present. Our wholeness as the Body of Christ depends on us including everyone in the love of God. People are dying because they have no hope, because they do not know their value, because they do not know they are beloved. If church does not share God’s unconditional, actively searching love with the most vulnerable among us, then we are not church; we are not the Body of Christ.
Embedded in these ancient parables is a call to love, a call to action. As the Body of Christ we have the power to save lives. Let’s commit ourselves to sharing a message of unconditional love, radical welcome, and steadfast hope. Isn’t it time we do something to prevent further decline in life expectancy and share a God’s vision of a future filled with hope and good things?
RCL – Year C – Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 8, 2019
Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28 with Psalm 14 or
Exodus 32:7-14 with Psalm 51:1-10 and
1 Timothy 1:12-17 and