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    Jan 20, 2019

    Of Losing and Finding – Part 1

    Of Losing and Finding – Part 1

    Passage: Luke 15:4-10

    Speaker: Vivian McCarthy

    What makes parables mysterious, or difficult, is that they challenge us to look into the hidden aspects of our own values, our own lives. ~ Amy-Jill Levine Short Stories by Jesus, page 3

    Can we talk about scripture for a moment?  The Bible is our most important way of connecting with God and learning what Jesus taught.  The thing is, scripture has been interpreted and re-interpreted for over 2,000 years, including as it was being written down, so anyone who is a disciple of Jesus who truly wants to know what Jesus said and why he said it, has to look beyond the surface.  That, my friends, is a daunting task.  Let me share an experience that I hope will set the stage for this discussion. 

    The very first class I took in seminary was a theology class.  I was very excited.  When I started on the required reading, I was at first eager – kind of like (rub hands together) – and then completely mystified and frustrated for awhile.  This stuff was H-A-R-D difficult!  We were reading one particular German theologian – thankfully, in English – who had this way of writing.  His language was convoluted in only the way German can be convoluted in how it strings words together, and each of his sentences was about 3 paragraphs long, when compared to an English or American style of writing.  I thought I was doomed.  How on earth does a kid from Brooklyn understand this stuff, even a kid who did really well in school!?!

    But then something magical happened – or, maybe a more pastoral way to say that is something HOLY spiritual happened.  I began to be drawn in and drawn deeper into the mysteries of God.

    The theologian was writing about the being of God, and he tended to talk about the otherness and holiness and unknowableness of God – with words that were not in my vocabulary, words I still don’t use and maybe still don’t fully understand. 

    My most recent experience at the time was in my own church which had a whole different vocabulary.  We talked about how close and familiar God is – about our individual relationship with God.

    What I realized is that my conception of God was good, maybe even excellent – but it was incomplete or thin.  It was missing the mystery of God – the mystery that is often the source of awe and wonder – the mystery that is not always knowable in concrete terms.  I realized that I needed – maybe even desperately needed – to recover a sense of the holiness and immensity, the vastness of God.  It was a revelation. 

    It also taught me that my familiar environment shaped a lot of how I thought and approached things and it wasn’t always adequate for a world that is not always familiar.

    That same thing was true in studying scripture at that level.  My biblical knowledge and understanding was just as incomplete and thin.  I found that it is important to ask a lot of questions and to seek more than a surface understanding of the holy texts to ask WHY a LOT and why does that even matter?  I guarantee you that it would have been a lot easier to leave my understandings right where they were or to just accept the limited perspectives that I had been taught.  But my life and my walk with God would have remained – well, thin.  Remembering that countless others have already shaped or interpreted the message of Jesus for their particular purposes can be really important to our analysis of what is going on in the world from a biblical and theological point of view and is also a corrective to allowing ourselves to simply read scripture to find approval for our own opinions.

    So, I’d like to share with you some insights I am learning from a Jewish woman who teaches New Testament and Jewish Studies at one of our seminaries.  Her name is Amy-Jill – or AJ – Levine, and her book isn’t easy to read. 

    What do you think of .. when someone brings up the parables of Jesus?  Are these some of the scriptures that are most familiar to you – the easiest to understand, perhaps? 

    Jesus spoke to the people in parables, stories with recognizable, down-to-earth elements that his audience would immediately find familiar because the stories could speak to pretty much anyone.  Many people could identify with the stories – stories that were always open to interpretation – presumably intentionally.  Parables are nimble, saying different things to different people, often depending on what is going on in the life of the individual, finding that the meaning often changes with the individual’s changing circumstances.  Dr. Levine says that parables “are an art form – they are metaphors, and any time we have an art form, we need to have an active interpretation.” (Levine session one video)

    Familiar, yes, but if we assume that in their simplicity parables are just nice stories, we miss the point entirely. 

    So, can you set aside for just a little while what you have always thought these parables mean and take a look at them with a new lens?  While parables seem simple, they are intended to “challenge us to look into the hidden aspects of our own values, our own lives.  They bring to the surface unasked questions, and they reveal the answers we have always known, but refuse to acknowledge.  Our reaction to them should be one of resistance rather than acceptance.”  (Levine p. 3)

    I know what some of you must be thinking.  Can’t we just read what it says?  Yep.  But without  background and context, we can be in very shallow waters and neglect the very edges our soul need to explore.

    Dr. Levine raises a question that I had honestly not ever thought about but makes a lot of sense.  What if these parables were already interpreted even when St. Luke put them on paper?  If the parables’ imagery is meant to be simple, who listening to Jesus would have made the leap to a coin or a sheep being a sinner in need of repenting?  Could that be a sentence that St. Luke actually added to Jesus’ parable?  Could St. Luke have made the coin and the sheep into sinners in order to make a point?  Could he have moved the stories away from being about a sheep owner finding his sheep and a woman finding her valuable coin to being about sin?  That one sentence makes the parable more complex – more difficult – more coded.  Hmmmmm.

    So a question arises:  Would Jesus complicate his story like this?  Would he add a complication to a story meant to speak in familiar terms to a very unsophisticated crowd.  People of Jesus’ day would have been scratching their heads – a coin sinned?  What!?! 

    Context and reliable definitions were important then and remain so today – if you want to know what Jesus actually said.

    Who among you, having a hundred sheep and losing one out of them, will not leave behind the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the lost until he finds it?

    Or, what woman, having ten drachmas, if she would lose one drachma, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek resolutely until she finds?

    Not too long ago I asked a few folks, What have you lost?  One had lost his wedding ring – twice!  Someone else talked about realizing that she had lost a lot of time.  Another told of an experience just after the “new” automatic doors were installed in the Carrolltowne Mall.  She had her 3 young children with her, and two went one way while the 3rd went another where he found freedom by going through the automatic doors.  Can’t you just see that mom standing in the middle of the mall wondering which way should I go first?  She was so rattled that she couldn’t even begin to remember what the child was wearing! 

    We can all identify with losing something of value.  I imagine that you each have something in mind right this minute.

    How did you feel?  What did you do?

    What if these 2 parables are not about sinners but about losing something?  And before you go too far in your reflecting on personal experiences and anecdotes, can you dig deep today and consider what you may have lost of inestimable value?  A relationship with someone you once loved.  A life goal that you know is important to you but slips away because there are things that seem more important at the time?  A friend or Christian brother or sister with whom you have not spoken for a long time because of a disagreement?  Time that is gobbled up in frivolous activity or even spent in feeding an addiction of some kind?  An opportunity?  The gift of insight that may come from people that we ignore because they are different?

    Perhaps the only key is that the coin and the sheep were valuable and someone lost them.

    You know, just paying attention to the wording of a story or a parable often reveals something important.  Are these stories about a sheep and a coin, or are they about a sheep owner who lost a sheep and a woman who lost a coin?

    Once they realized what they had lost, what did the sheep owner and the woman do?  They went after them until they found them.  And when they found them, they celebrated!  Rejoice with me!  Share my joy. 

    Remember that thing you lost?  What kind of joy would fill your heart and soul if you found it?  Purpose.  Reconnection.  Fulfilling work.  A chance at a brighter future.  Love.  How would your life change?  And how would you celebrate?  Would you call your best friend?  Hug your spouse a little tighter?  Do a happy dance?  Go to lunch?