Exodus 32:7–14, 1 Timothy 1:12–17, Luke 15:1–10
Last Sunday we had a wonderful outdoor worship at the park followed by a potluck picnic, marking the end of our summer season. Many contributed to the music of that service, including our brass group. As we were setting up for the service, Dan, who plays the trombone, said he felt fortunate to have gotten there on time. He was sure he would be late. As he was leaving, he went to his dresser top where he keeps his wallet, and it was not there. He frantically searched (as one always does with misplaced wallets) and finally decided to check his pant pockets from earlier in the weekend. Sure enough, he had forgotten to remove his wallet. The lost was found, and Dan was still feeling that sense of relief when he started to warm up for worship with his trombone.
We are always loosing things: wallets, keys, important papers, books, kitchen utensils, cell phones, and tools. Some of us lose more things than others. Some of us are famous for losing things. But all of us have misplaced our share of items, most of which we find, and some of which are lost forever. There is real anxiety in the moment as we lose things, and then a great sense of relief and joy when the lost is found. This anxiety in the lost and the joy of recovery is the theme of the parables of Jesus this morning, the parable of the lost sheep and coin.
In some ways, perhaps these stories describe our life and times. Our lives may be marked by the search for that which has been lost: not only wallets and keys, but other, deeper things.
Some of those things we have lost are personal and involve health, or relationships, or the quality of life, or income. As we grow older, we grow wiser. But we also lose more and more along the way. Some of those losses create anxiety, fear, grief, sorrow, or anger. We may have wondered about the anger of God in the book of Exodus this morning, but the reading does show God’s intense anxiety, grief, frustration, sorrow, and anger as people are lost along life’s way. God, like all of us, is angry at the loss of loved ones and the good things in life. Our loved ones can cause us grief and in anger we do or say crazy things. As in Exodus, usually if we can talk with a friend, someone like Moses, we settle down.
But what make our time a time of loss are those losses we feel in our society: in our economy, our politics, and our faith. Many have experienced the loss of economic hope. So much in the current economy has been lost, especially for those on the edges and even in the middle. Although there has been economic recovery, those good paying jobs that had been the backbone of American confidence are not returning. In many different ways we are underemployed these days. A recent survey indicated that many young people have given up on the possibility of vocational success as a goal. Nearly one in four people young adults now define the American dream as simply being debt-free. Just keeping their head above water is more important to many young people than the dream of owning a home or being successful. Things like retirement, economic stability, and a life as good as their grandparents all seem beyond reach of many who are young, in an economy marked by long stretches of unemployment, student debt, and marginal jobs that pay too little to make ends meet.
Not only have the young lost the coin of economic hope. Long term unemployment has taken a toll on the confidence of older Americans as well. Before the Great Recession, people out of work for more than six months accounted for less than 1% of the labor force. If you lost a job, you soon found one. The recession has changed this picture. By 2010, the long-term unemployed had quadrupled, accounting for 4.2 percent of the work force. That figure would be 50 percent higher if we added the people who gave up looking for work.
Long-term unemployment is experienced disproportionately by the young, the old, the less educated, and African-American and Latino workers. While older workers are less likely to be laid off than younger workers, they are about half as likely to be rehired. Older workers have seen the largest proportionate increase in unemployment in this downturn. In our current economic situation, the number of unemployed people between ages 50 and 65 has more than doubled.
Millions of workers, young, old, of all ethnic and educational backgrounds have been disconnected from the work force, and possibly even from society. If they are not reconnected, the costs to them and to all of us will be grim. (NY Times, May 12, 2012.) We are searching for that economic coin we lost six or seven years ago.
We may also be searching for the lost coin of our democratic way of life. A political gridlock formed by a host of forces, a government controlled by special interests, and a disconnect between power and our sense of right, have given us a democracy that no longer seems to work or able to solve problems. According to Gallup, in the last decade, confidence that the government can find and do the right thing has fallen from 60% to 19%. Pew research indicates that trust in government is at its lowest point in fifty years. The United States Congress currently has a 10% positive approval rating. Approval ratings are essentially the same across all political parties. These amazingly low polling ratings are tied for the record low in all of the 38 years that Gallup has been doing public-approval polling. One of the lost coins for which this generation may be searching is the coin of functional and credible democracy.
We may also be searching for the lost coin of our faith tradition, our church. 90 of the 140 congregations in our synod are in numerical decline. St. John’s is in the stable category, and our own affiliation numbers have remained in the 800s over the last decade. However, only a dozen of the 140 congregations in the synod are growing. Siebert Foundation has now developed an every two year conference for Lutheran congregations in Wisconsin entitled “Change or Die.”
This is part of a national trend for religion in America. All denominations regardless of their political leanings or theology are experiencing decline. And the number of people classified as non-affiliated is the fastest growing group in America. The numbers vary, but at this point perhaps half of America is unaffiliated with any organized religion. In the young adult category, the number of non affiliated Americans is greatest. It may be the case that only one out of three or four young adults are affiliating with a religious organization. Today we start Sunday Learning Place. Ten years ago there were one million children in Sunday School in the ELCA. Now there are 400,000.
These anxieties of lose and the hope of recovery are the themes of the parables of Jesus this morning, the parable of the lost sheep and coin. These stories describe personal experience as well as our times, as we individually and collectively search for our lost wallets and lives.
Will we find our lost coins? Our lost jobs, our lost commonweal, our lost faith? It is hard to say. Part of the anxiety of the story is that the outcome is not certain. We do not know whether we will find the wallets, keys, important papers, books, kitchen utensils, cell phones, tools, economy, church, or government that have somehow disappeared. But I like to think that sometimes loss is actually the first step in finding something new. The anxieties are the first step to a newly discovered joy. The ELCA and all churches will need to go through a period of decline in order to become something new for another generation with a fresh commitment not to preservation but to mission. Our government may need to grind to a halt before we decide to reshape democracy. Our sense of labor may need to be transformed as we grasp new financial realities, new partnerships between labor and business, and new limitations on greed. Loss can be the first step of substantial and significant change. And I am upbeat about all of these things.
But a few things might be helpful from these ancient readings as we approach this time of searching when our anxiety grows, as we seem to lose more and more. First, the anger of the God of Israel in the book of Exodus this morning does show how intense anxiety, grief, and anger can be as people are lost along life’s way. God, like all of us, is angry in loss. In frustration we do crazy things. As in Exodus, usually if we can talk with a friend, we settle down. We need to talk with one another as we go through anxious times. The simple act of sharing anxiety reduces it. In that conversation, disasters can be avoided, and sometimes the best new idea emerges.
Second, notice that in the reading from Luke there are two parables placed side by side. They seem to us to be the same. And their point is. But they come from two different cultures and economies. Jesus lived in a pastoral, agricultural economy. The parable of the sheep comes out of that culture. It is an ancient rural Palestine culture in which coins and money would not have been used that much. Lost sheep make sense in Palestine.
But by the time Luke is written, Christianity has become an urban faith in larger Roman cities. In larger Roman cities no one really knows what a shepherd is. People in cities use money. Coins matter. The two parables together reflect two different world views that share the same anxieties and joys. To find our lost things again, to redeem ourselves and our world, to really renew ourselves, we will need to work with people who come at things differently from us but still feel the same fears and joys that we do. We need to recover our common identity as seekers of the lost as the first step in our common search for a new commonweal. Some people are sheep people. Some people are coin people. But all people are lost and then found, know anxiety and joy in these stories.
Also in these stories of coins and sheep, remember that this anxiety and then relief shapes a process by which we uncover what is important and what matters. Our darker fears and feelings are windows into what is important. Our joys are thresholds into what matters most. The next time you are anxious or joyful, ask yourself what that is telling you about what matters.
Also, it may be helpful to remember that sometimes we can get stuck in the negative, in the anxious, in the fearful. Notice how the stories are known as the stories of the lost sheep and the lost coin. But in both cases, the stories could be known as the parables of the found sheep and the found coin. We sometimes naturally focus on the negative. That’s good for awhile. But we need to get on with the process, complete the parable.
And finally, the stories remind us that our own sense of loss and our own sense of joy are in the hands of God. The parables illustrate not our own hopes and fears, but God’s. God is anxious for us. God wants to be part of our sacred journey. God calls us to work on our lives and also to move beyond ourselves into a new confidence generated by a new reality that can no longer be defined by this world. With that confidence, that perspective, that sacred vision of the meaning of life, we are able to envision the change around us in different ways. And as we frantically search for those things we have lost, we may meet a God reminding us that love is on the way.
May this God who seeks us until we are found, who worries about us constantly, who wants us to find our way, be with us whenever we lose things, including our very selves.