Saturday, 11 September 2010

Lost Sheep and Lost Coin

These stories of the lost sheep and the lost coin show me that I have a long way to go in terms of my understanding of God. Let me try to explain:

Jesus is trying to give an idea about what God is like. If you or I were trying to do this, what would we say? Perhaps we would identify a strong and wise father, who loves his children, who has time for them and nurtures them? Perhaps we would associate God with a teacher, strict but fair, endlessly encouraging us to do better. Perhaps God is distant and a bit cool, holy and awesome and judgemental. What is God like? All-powerful? All-knowing? Purposeful? Unchanging? Perhaps God is kind, forgiving, tender. Does God prefer upright people, or people with loose morals? What does Jesus say God is like?

First he chooses a shepherd. Now shepherds were the lowest of the low in society, they had a rubbish job, out on the hillsides, wandering looking for pasture for the sheep that normally belonged to someone else. The shepherds had to lie in the gateway of sheep folds at night to protect the flock from wolves, people didn’t queue up to take these jobs. Furthermore, shepherds were reputed to be light fingered, perhaps no surprise as they were so poor. I imagine shepherds as young boys, their first job being looking after sheep. Is all this a natural image for God? Furthermore, the shepherd boy that Jesus chooses isn’t the sharpest tool in the box. No one would leave ninety-nine sheep unattended to look for one; goodness knows how many more he will lose. Jesus listeners would feel incredulous at this point in the parable. How is God like a stupid shepherd boy?

To make matters worse, Jesus then suggests God is like a woman. The ten coins would probably be her dowry, and so she would be merely a young teenage girl, poor too, so if she lost her dowry she would not be able to marry and have no security. We can see she is poor because she has to light a lamp, peasant houses normally didn’t have any windows, Desperately, she sweeps, cursing herself for losing something so vital.
I wonder whether we would see God in a dim shepherd boy, or in a careless young girl. These two events could have been the most stupid things they ever did. If we were their mum or dad, I doubt we would be too impressed. But Jesus sees things differently; he has compassion on them and in their actions sees the purity of their desire to find the thing that is missing and their vulnerability in having lost something.

I don’t know whether you can bring to mind a time when you have been stupid lately? Something where the memory of it makes your toes curl, and if you recounted the story you would be very embarrassed. I am afraid I have so many to choose from. Take a moment to remember the event and how you felt. If you really can’t then perhaps it is easier to remember something that your children have done that is unwise, or perhaps something you did as a child that was mistaken. There is the sting of embarrassment of having made a mistake, especially if it is exposed. But is that how God sees us? Is it possible that God sees our good intentions, our hopes and desires, however misguided? Is it possible that God has masses more patience and kindness than us and even in our lowest moments can be used as a metaphor for an aspect of God? The passage speaks to me about how in my anxiety to be better and my hopes for my kids to make good choices, I fail to see aspects of God in myself or in them.

Talking about children and their mistakes, I was sent something this week that made me laugh:
After creating heaven and earth, God created Adam and Eve.
And the first thing he said was 'DON'T!'
'Don't what? 'Adam replied.
'Don't eat the forbidden fruit.' God said.
'Forbidden fruit? We have forbidden fruit?
Hey Eve.. we have forbidden fruit ! '
'No Way! '
'Yes way! '
'Do NOT eat the fruit!' said God.
'Why? '
'Because I am your Father and I said so!'God replied, wondering why He hadn't stopped creation after making the elephants
A few minutes later, God saw His children having an apple break and He was ticked!
‘Didn't I tell you not to eat the fruit?' God asked.
'Uh huh,' Adam replied.
'Then why did you?  said the Father.
'I don't know,' said Eve.
'She started it!' Adam said.
'Did not! '
'Did too! '
Having had it with the two of them, God's punishment was that Adam and Eve should have children of their own. Thus the pattern was set and it has never changed.

So, going back to the parable.. Do you ever feel lost? I relate quite well to feeling lost. I wonder whether we all do. My earliest memory is in fact about being lost in a supermarket in Helsinki. I was three, and spoke no Finnish, and I was surrounded by people jabbering at me. Eventually, they started to take me out of the store. I was terrified. I didn’t realise that it was a real memory until years later when my mum told me the story, for me it had been a recurring nightmare. I think being lost is one of the most horrible feelings. It is interesting that Freud talks about humans suffer from the ‘trauma of self-consciousness’. We are different to the animal kingdom, because we are aware that we will suffer and die, that earthquakes and floods can overwhelm us, that disease may suddenly strike us, that we don’t know what to do for the best. In a sense we are all lost. Freud says that we have invented religion to cope with this lost-ness. Perhaps in some senses we have, we obey superstitions or read horoscopes to deny our powerlessness and try to regain control.

However, I believe that whilst we sometimes do religion out of fear, at other times we accept our lost-ness and our trauma and start to sense that we genuinely are not alone, but within the arms of a loving God.

Have you heard the story of the man who was walking in the mountains just enjoying the scenery when he stepped too close to the edge of the mountain and started to fall? In desperation he reached out and grabbed a limb of a gnarly old tree hanging onto the side of the cliff. Full of fear he assessed his situation. He was about 100 feet down a sheer cliff and about 900 feet from the floor of the canyon below. If he should slip again he'd plummet to his death. Full of fear, he cried out, "Help me!" But there was no answer. Again and again he cried out but to no avail.
Finally he yelled, "Is anybody up there?"
A deep voice replied, "Yes, I'm up here."
"Who is it?"
"It's the Lord"
"Can you help me?"
"Yes, I can help."
"Help me!"
"Let go."
Looking around the man became full of panic. "What?!?!"
"Let go. I will catch you."
After thinking for a moment, the man called out:
"Is anybody else up there?"

I think that whilst we all do feel lost on occasion, the parable encourages us to believe that God searches for us, that God wishes to find us, and sometimes we have to let go, accept our lost-ness and our fears, and it is only then that we sense God’s love.

It is interesting that Jesus uses a metaphor for God that is male and then one that is female. If you are lost, do you want to be found by the shepherd boy, strong and capable to put you across his shoulders, or do you want to be held tenderly by the young girl? Possibly both? In the 23rd Psalm we also see both male and female aspects of God. In that culture the shepherds would be male, but if you look carefully, you find that God, in the psalm, also lays the table, a job that would be done by a woman. God exhibits the roles and characteristics that we attribute to both men and women. I fear that we miss the feminine ones that are often unseen, like happening upon a table that has been laid with nutritious food, or opening a drawer and finding clothes neatly washed and ironed. (I think I am talking to my sons at this point!) I also fear that in failing to see feminine aspects in God, we downplay the worth of those who do these things in our society.

Of course, the real purpose of these parables is to have a go at the Pharisees, and tell them that God cares about the lost as well as the found, cares about those outside, those who are sinners, those who are despised. It challenges us to serve a God who is compassionate about weakness, a God who relates to us when we make mistakes, a God who doesn't play it safe, he goes out to seek the lost, and she desires deeply to find us because we are precious to her. Who is the God we serve, and what impact does that have on us?

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