It’s not considered good shepherding, what Jesus describes. If you have 100 sheep and one is lost, especially in hilly terrain like Israel, you just accept that you now have 99 sheep. Because if you leave the rest to go find the one that wandered off, you expose the flock to danger. Wolves and thieves and what have you. In the meantime, the one that wandered off could very well already be dead. You’re just opening yourself up to more loss. Best to keep a close eye on the 99 sheep you have left.
The woman who has 10 coins and loses one isn’t being as irrational as the shepherd; she’s lost 10% of her money, after all. But the lamp oil she burns looking for it isn’t free, and the energy and time she puts into the search could be spent elsewhere. It’s almost as though, in this parable, the value of the coin, like that of the sheep, is more than what it will get you at the market. It’s almost as though the celebration over a sheep, or coin, a celebration which may cost more than a sheep or a coin, expresses something deeper.
Jesus is comparing economies. He is comparing our economy of scarcity, where sheep and coins have certain values that make them worth a certain amount of trouble, to the economy of God, where the sheer abundance and excess scrambles the logic of scarcity and points to a different value system altogether.
In particular, God’s attention is not scarce. If you or I were watching a flock of sheep and one wandered away, we would have to choose whether to pay attention to the search for the lost sheep or to the sheep that remained. In essence, the shepherd’s choice is whether to forsake the one lost sheep or the 99 remaining sheep. God’s attention is qualitatively different than ours, and so God does not have to forsake the one for the 99 or the 99 for the one. God’s attention allows God to attend to the whole flock, even if it is scattered.
And God’s abundance means that burning a lot of lamp oil in search of a coin does not diminish the amount of oil that is left. The logic of abundance is almost unrecognizable to us, for we are finite creatures, with a certain amount of time, and money, and resources. And we seek safety first and foremost. Which means that we are very sensitive to feeling like we don’t belong, or like we have become separate from the flock. Isolation can feel like exposure to danger. It can actually be exposure to danger. Woe unto the cave man or woman who wandered from the group or couldn’t keep up. There were lions out there. Woe unto the person who can’t make rent.
I have depression. I’ve had it since high school. A lot of what I’ve learned about myself and about life has come from from learning to live with depression. I also have an anxiety disorder, another incredibly unwelcome companion in my inner life. Maybe you can relate. Surely you know someone who can. Maybe you’re coming around to naming these things in your own life, or someone you love is struggling. I have lost days and weeks to the darkness that sneaks up on me.
And in those days and weeks when I can’t see the light and nobody can really make me see it, either, I feel isolated. You can be in a crowd of people and feel absolutely alone. You can see people reaching out to you and you can be thankful but also know that it won’t work. It’s bleak in the darkness. The darkness wants you to hate yourself and it wants you to stop fighting. That is its pathology.
So there’s a conventional reading of this Gospel. We see how Jesus welcomes sinners and tax collectors, and we hear about the lost sheep, and we feel called to extend our compassion and sympathy to those we might otherwise exclude. That’s a very good reading. It’s the Good News and I endorse it. I could have preached a pretty good sermon about it, and you might have liked that one better than this one.
But if I’m being honest, when I read this Gospel, I don’t see myself as Jesus, or as the shepherd, or as the woman who lost a coin. I see myself as the lost sheep. As the lost coin. As the one who who got caught up in one of life’s rip tides and can’t swim back in to shore, whose sense of what is possible has narrowed so much that I can only see my worst perception of myself. The one who is sometimes lost in the darkness and who needs the impossible to break through and find me.
It’s true that every stretch of darkness in my life has eventually ended. But it’s also true that during those dark times, it felt like they would never end. I’ve learned, over the years, to trust that there is a way out, though. I can’t see it, but experience tells me that things eventually get better. It’s not a very detailed creed, but it’s the faith I lean on the hardest. An unforeseeable goodness will find me.
And so this parable of the lost sheep and lost coin hits a note that resonates deep inside me. It tells of this fundamental truth about God that can get lost in the stories people tell about judgment and morality. It’s why I get frustrated that churches spill so much ink debating who to include, a search for qualifiers to God’s love that seems to fall away in the face of the reality that God does not give up on people.
The sheep that is lost in the dark mountains is not actually lost. The coin that slipped between the floorboards actually never was out of sight, for God does not forsake what is God’s.
That means a lot of things to me. It means, as John’s gospel tells us, that a light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it. It also means that if we are going to emulate Jesus, if we are going to pattern ourselves after God, we are going to be agents of a love that is patient and persistent, that reaches out to people who are lost in the darkness, and that is not deterred if our intervention doesn’t save them. Because to search for the lost sheep is not necessarily to find it, and people lost in the darkness have a really hard time seeing any light at all. We reach out again. And again. And again. Because love is not scarce. We will not run out. And every single person is worth searching for. We are, after all, only following God’s model in searching them out and proclaiming a value in them that our economy of scarcity can’t be bothered to see. This parable means that love, the kind of love that helps people climb out of the darkness, is not subject to the laws of supply and demand.
And it means that I’m going to stand here sometimes and talk about my depression and my anxiety, because these things are not punishments from God. They are not demons, or evil spirits, or any of those other supernatural and fearful understandings of mental illness. They are sure as hell not God forsaking a lost sheep. They are things I experience, things some of you might experience, and they can never, ever put us beyond God’s attention or love.
So let this be a place where we talk about God and we talk about the things that make us feel lost, because nothing can separate us from the love of God. That’s not some new, progressive theology, though I don’t have an issue with those. I feel like I’ve done my homework on this one. It’s the Gospel.