A note from Jamie Howison: Everything I know about the Parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin I learned from Robert Farrar Capon, whose words appear toward the end of this sermon. If you are interested in reading more of Capon’s readings of these parables, there is a brilliantly over-the-top online meditation and interview available here.
ver these early autumn weeks, we are going to be hearing large chunks from the prophet Jeremiah read aloud. We’ll be listening as he goes on pretty powerful and uncompromising rants; a style of speech which have given us the English word “jeremiad,” defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “a prolonged lamentation or complaint; also a cautionary or angry harangue.”
Well, he is certainly on a harangue here, as he addresses an Israel that has begun to collapse in on itself.This is your doom; how bitter it is! It has reached your very heart
The force of this prophetic poem is actually that of presenting the undoing of the creation narrative as it is presented in Genesis:I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light.
In the Lord’s “fierce anger,” Jeremiah says, the fruitful land will be a desert and the cities will be left in ruins. This is all because the people have been unfaithful to the covenant, choosing instead to follow their own path. There is a brief window of hope (though even this has been interpreted in various and less than hopeful ways over the centuries…), in which Jeremiah pronounces “For thus says the Lord: The whole land shall be a desolation; yet I will not make a full end,” but in this early part of the prophet’s book it doesn’t sound like he’s much convinced of anything that sounds like hope.
As his life and experiences unfold, Jeremiah will find that he has become oddly and stubbornly hopeful. He will manage to proclaim that “the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; God’s mercies never come to an end; great is God’s faithfulness,” though he’ll only do that once he’s seen Jerusalem brought down to complete ruin. (Lamentations 3:22-23). When all seems lost, Jeremiah will again turn his eyes to the heavens.
But even then, he can hardly anticipate what Jesus has to say about the nature of God and grace. Jesus is, of course, speaking of the same God as was Jeremiah. It is setting up a false dichotomy to even begin to think in terms of the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New, as if we are being met by different gods.
What Jesus offers in his healings and his teachings and strange stories—and in the whole fabric of his life—is a revelation of the character of God that would have shocked dear old Jeremiah even on his sunniest and most hopeful days.
It is not as if Jesus is a sort of ancient world version of Mr. Rogers—“it’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood… won’t you be my neighbour?”—because he also has some pretty dire things to say about the shape and future of Jerusalem. He does see a crisis on the horizon, and he is insistent that people need to wake up and be ready. Jesus is not afraid to push people and challenge people and press them to confront their own lies and illusions.
But in giving us parables like the ones we read tonight he is saying something truly shocking about how God desires to meet us.
Take the parable of the Lost Sheep. The shepherd loses a sheep, so he leaves the other ninety-nine in the wilderness in order to seek that one stray. Finding it, he places it across his shoulders, heads back home and throws a party to celebrate his success.
Along with acknowledging that it is hard imagining any farmer or herder getting that excited about finding one lost animal, we need to recognize that this is not—not—particularly savvy advice for the average shepherd. If one sheep gets lost and a shepherd leaves the other ninety-nine in the wilderness while he goes to find that lost one, what do you suppose the shepherd ends up with? A found sheep, and ninety-nine lost ones. As any shepherd would tell you, there is an absurdity built into the logic of this parable.
Precisely. The next parable has a bit more internal logic, as the woman sweeps out her house in search of the coin she’s lost, but Jesus is still pointing to the same thing. The one thing that the coin and the sheep have in common is that they are lost.
Which might make Jesus’ words about sinners repenting seem a bit incongruous. I suppose a sheep may feel a bit, well… sheepish, when it becomes aware that the flock is nowhere in sight, but a coin?
Lostness seems the one prerequisite for being found in these parables—and in a not dissimilar way in the parable of the lost or prodigal son that follows close on the heels of these two stories—and it is the one thing that the scribes and Pharisees to whom Jesus directs these stories can’t quite fathom. “We’re not lost… we know where we are, who we are, and what we need to do as faithful people of God.”
But in Jesus’ eyes, apparently they don’t; apparently they are lost. And the repentance that he calls his audience to is based in one thing: a confession that we are lost. “… it is an admission that we are dead in our sins,” writes Robert Capon.
(T)hat we have no power of ourselves either to save ourselves or to convince anyone else that we are worth saving. It is the recognition that our whole life is finally and forever out of our hands and that if we ever live again, our life will be entirely the gift of some gracious other. (Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of Grace)
It is something that the prophet Jeremiah will have to confront and, in his own stubborn way, embrace. And it lies at the heart of everything we are and can hope for.
(God) does not so much deal with our derelictions as he does drop them down the black hole of Jesus’ death. He forgets our sins in the darkness of the tomb. He remembers our iniquities no more in the oblivion of Jesus’ expiration. He finds us, in short, in the desert of death, not in the garden of improvement; and in the power of Jesus’ resurrection, he puts us on his shoulders rejoicing and brings us home. (Capon, The Parables of Grace)
No more wondrous words could be spoken here tonight.