I have several idiosyncratic habits, all of them I hope pretty benign. As a former English teacher, I read almost nothing but fiction and poetry. And when it comes to reading fiction, I always have at least one nineteenth-century English novel going all the time.
Although it’s not my subject area, I have come to love nineteenth-century English fiction. It’s literary comfort food, like a big plate of mashed potatoes. In my younger years it was all Jane Austen all the time. These days I rotate among Dickens, Trollope, and George Eliot. Right now I’m reading George Eliot’s early novel, Adam Bede. My current reading comes to mind because in today’s Gospel—the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin—Jesus talks to us about loss, and loss is never far from the minds of nineteenth-century writers. Prior to the twentieth-century, death was a more personal and familiar experience than it is for us today. Diseases such as tuberculosis, scarlet fever, and peritonitis often took people in the prime of life. And in those days the dead were not immediately whisked away to the crematorium but lovingly viewed and attended at home until burial in the local churchyard.
I’m not giving away any plot secrets when I say that a character dies early on in Adam Bede, and this death has ramifications for the novel’s major characters. As I thought about today’s parables, this paragraph from George Eliot’s novel caught my attention:
Our dead are never dead to us until we have forgotten them: they can be injured by us, they can be wounded; they know all our penitence, all our aching sense that their place is empty, all the kisses we bestow on the smallest relic of their presence. —George Eliot, Adam Bede, Chapter 10
One of the things that George Eliot “gets” there is the precise way people we love and lose are precious to us. When someone close to us dies, we share an “aching sense that their place is empty,” and we revere even “the smallest relic of their presence.”
In hearing two stories from Jesus today about the loss of something precious—a sheep and a coin—we have first to perform an act of imagination. None of us are shepherds, and few of us remember the days when coins had real value. In these stories, though, people at the margins of society lose something that makes up a significant portion of their worldly goods. Shepherds were low on the social scale, and whether they owned the sheep or merely managed them, losing one would be an economic catastrophe. Similarly, a woman with only 10 silver coins had a total wealth equivalent to 10 days’ living expenses. The loss of one day’s wage would be a disaster.
The protagonists of Jesus’ stories are people who have lost something precious, and they move heaven and earth to find it. But we should remember that Jesus tells parables not just to while away the time but to say something revelatory about the nature of God. He tells these particular stories because he is criticized for welcoming sinners and eating with them. And he concludes by saying, pretty explicitly, that the stories show how God feels about us. “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15).
In one way, this entire passage is a story about sinners and saints. Jesus directs his attention to the lost rather than the saved. We who are regular habitués of religious institutions can tend to think of ourselves as somehow more favored of God than those who spend Friday night or Sunday morning at the mall or with the newspaper. Jesus clearly makes the case here for the depth of concern God has for all God’s creatures, arguing that special attention needs to be given especially to those who are not in the fold. Indeed, the Gospel of Thomas makes the point even more strongly, when Jesus has the shepherd say to the lost sheep who is found, “I care for you more than the other 99” (Thomas 107).
Remember: these are not stories about anxious shepherds and poor women. They are stories about God. The God whom Jesus calls his Father is not an abstract philosophical idea. The God Jesus knows is one who feels with and for humanity. Just as sheep and coins are precious to human beings, so sinners and saints, but—if we are to believe Jesus—especially sinners are precious to the God who feels the pain of losing us just as the shepherd and the woman feel the pain of losing a sheep and a coin.
As you try to make these stories real to your own experience, instead of picturing a sheep or a coin, think about someone you have lost and what they mean to you: a parent, a spouse, a friend, maybe even a child. Think about the aching sense you have that their place is empty. Remember how you come to treasure the smallest relic of their presence. We all know or will come to know grief, and when you know grief you know how devastating and disorienting it can be. Not only that: when you come to know grief, you come to know something about God.
Here is what I hear Jesus saying to you and me this morning: the best analogy for the depth of pain and longing God feels for you and me when we are lost—and by “lost” I mean the whole range of things from cruel and self-destructive behavior to loneliness, alienation, and sorrow—the best analogy for how God feels about us is the pain and longing we feel when we lose someone we desperately and deeply love. Just as sheep and coins are valuable to their owners, just as the dead are precious to the bereaved, so you and I are worth something to God beyond what we can measure. That is true whether you are an upstanding citizen or the town drunk. All of us are precious in ways we have not even yet begun to understand. And true human wisdom comes when we begin to treat each other—and ourselves—in the light of our true and abiding value.
One of the great ironies of Jesus’ life and ministry is the way in which we have used his vision of the divine in the service of a theology that portrays Jesus and God as an all-powerful cosmic king and prince. If you don’t believe me, look at the figure of Christ the King above the Cathedral’s high altar behind me. To Jesus, the one he called his Father was not to be compared to Caesar. That one is both passionate and compassionate, deeply invested in and caring about the joys and sorrows, victories and struggles, of what it means to be a regular human being. Fairly early on in the Christian journey we turned Jesus and his Father into religious versions of Caesar, resulting in a perceived distance between God and us. But nothing could be less faithful to Jesus and farther from the truth.
The stories Jesus tells in today’s Gospel subvert Christianity’s institutional ambitions. Try as we might to think of God as a powerful, divine monarch, Jesus continues to represent God as grief-stricken shepherd and poor woman in search of what they have lost. The point here is pretty obvious, but needs nevertheless constantly to be re-stated. God is not a king and you are not a subject. God is instead poor woman or an anxious shepherd. What God cares about is not running the universe. What God cares about is you. You are precious to God. More than that: you are worth everything to God. Live your life in the light of that truth. Because just as you and I are precious, so is every human being and creature in God’s world.
In last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine the novelist Alice McDermott wrote an end-piece about returning to the town on Long Island where she and her family spent their vacations in childhood. She ended her piece (Alice McDermott, “The Old Haunts,” New York Times Magazine 9/8/13) with a poem written by a character in story by Vladimir Nabokov (“Forgotten Poet”).
If metal is immortal, then somewhere
there lies the burnished button I lost
upon my seventh birthday in a garden.
Find me that button and my soul will know
that every soul is saved and stored and treasured.
We love and grieve what we lose, and so does God. The difference between us is this: unlike us, God will not rest until that which is precious will be restored, until what is lost will be found. That is the Christian promise. And for it we proceed to give thanks. Amen.