Last week, a man walked into a bank in Kansas City, Kansas, and handed the teller a note reading, “I have a gun, give me your cash.” Once he was given the cash, he did something unexpected: he sat down in the lobby and started chatting with the security guard. After being taken into custody, he explained that, earlier that day, he had had a big fight with his wife. He decided he’d rather be in jail than deal with the conflict at home. (Reported in the Boston Globe on 9/9/16).
I laughed when I read this story. But then I thought more about it. I thought about times when I’ve gone to great lengths to avoid addressing conflict. It strikes me that most of us go to great lengths to avoid dealing with broken relationships, people we don’t like, situations that will take work.
Sometimes we do this out of exhaustion, sometimes fear or guilt, sometimes shame. Sometimes we’re just not paying enough attention, and a relationship withers.
Today’s gospel is more relevant to this part of our experience than it might appear.
Our gospel today is made up of two stories, generally called “the parable of the lost sheep” and “the parable of the lost coin.” The traditional interpretation it that these are stories about sinners who strayed from God’s ways. God seeks them out, restores them to the community and rejoices.
But here’s the thing: when you really look at the stories, that interpretation is a real stretch. Sheep don’t lose themselves. Sheep don’t sin. They don’t try to make the shepherd mad. They don’t study the laws of the pasture and then take a moral position on them. Similarly, coins don’t lose themselves. They just are. The person in whose possession they are can keep track of them or not, but coins don’t walk off. They don’t sin.
Scripture scholar Amy-Jill Levine suggests that rather than calling today’s gospel the parable of the lost sheep we might call it “The story of the oblivious owner.” And rather than “the parable of the lost coin” we might refer to “the woman who lost a coin.” The shepherd and the woman have lost track of something that they value. We don’t know how or why. But like us, they are out of relationship with something that matters.
What will they do?
In the case of the shepherd, Jesus asks us “what shepherd, knowing he had lost a sheep, would not leave the ninety-nine behind and go search for the one?” What’s the answer to that question? Hardly any.
Most of the time, we give up on the one. It’s risky to change our schedules, our habits, our priorities in order to go find the one. It’s often hard to admit we’ve lost the relationship. We might have to ask for forgiveness. We might have to listen. We might have to share our fears and go into dark corners of the field.
In today’s gospel, the shepherd never admits any fault for the sheep going missing, although he does rejoice mightily when it is found. The woman with the coin, however, does take responsibility for her part: she Says, “rejoice with me, for I have found the coin, the one I lost.” That’s important.
All of our lives include some lost relationships. It is easy to let people go, easy to convince ourselves we have no agency, no responsibility. Or, if we are painfully aware of our role, to stuff our regrets and sense of failure inside of us and pretend all is well. But we follow a God who seeks us out, again and again. The Biblical record is largely the story of a search directed towards us by a God who cannot rest until all are restored, all are home. And in those instances where God wavers in that commitment, God generally is reminded and convinced not to give up.
I love the 1st reading today because it shows Moses reminding God to be more like the woman seeking the coin. Remember, Moses says, how you sought us out as a people? Remember how you turned everything upside down to bring us back into right relationship with you? Remember how you had this great plan bring us into a good land and to throw a party for us? Don’t give up on us now!
And God doesn’t. And God won’t. And when we do the hard work of acknowledging how and why we’ve lost friendships or let resentments or fears overshadow possibilities for working together or not invested the time and attention in our families that keep everyone thriving — when we repent – turn and face – our call to that work — God’s Spirit will strengthen us.
I was powerfully convicted by an experience I had in the wake of my mother’s recent death. In the days following her passing, I received dozens of beautiful cards of condolences. Some came from people in this parish, some from high school friends, some from colleagues. But some came from people I would have never expected to hear from. Some came from people who I had not contacted in more than twenty years. Some were from people whom I assumed had given up on a relationship with me.
So many cards, with beautiful notes hand-written inside. I’ve strung them up in our kitchen as a reminder of the web of relationships that travel with me, bidden or unbidden, through my life. And importantly, no two cards are alike, just as no to relationships are alike.
Fall is a time for ordering our loves. Here at CGS we are trying to support the mending of relationships and communities so that all can seek after the lost coins in their lives. We are not a perfect community and I am not a perfect pastor. Come seek me out if there is something that needs mending between us, and I will do the same with you. That’s what a real community does, hard as it is.
I hope you’ll be a part of this work of finding coins and sheep in Christ’s name this year. It should be easier than robbing a bank!