I have reflected on the words of Luke in chapter 15 countless times. To be sure, here are links here to two other times I have offered thoughts on these very familiar words.
This time through, I am taking a little different tack though.
Starting next week I will be offering a class on Amy Jill-Levine’s work, Short Stories by Jesus. The first chapter of the book takes on these parables in Luke 15. If you know her work at all, you know that she hears these words with different ears than most of us who have been “trained” to hear them in a particular way our whole lives long. I will try to distill her perspective into a few short sentences here.
Dr. Levine makes an excellent point when she says that neither a sheep nor a coin can repent. And that while a sheep can certainly get ‘lost’ all on its own, a coin cannot. Indeed, she reminds us that the shepherd was responsible for keeping the sheep safe and the woman had only herself to blame if the coin was misplaced. For all of Luke’s tying these parables (and, of course the one that follows) to teaching about repentance, Dr. Levine proposes that really it is not about the sheep, the coin, or the son who leaves home. Instead, she offers that it is about the shepherd, the woman, and the father. And she wonders about who (or what)we have lost and what it is we are called to do to find them again. Indeed, maybe the repentance is on us who have somehow lost one another along the way.
This turns our familiar understanding on its head, of course, and I am still trying to live into it. And yet, it is true, we don’t have to imagine very far to recognize that we are all too often ‘lost’ to one another — in our families, in our congregations, in our communities, in this nation, in the world. And maybe you and I are the ones who have done the losing.
This is not the best example, perhaps, but it at least begins to live into this way of thinking about Jesus’ words.
I have long thought that the congregation I serve has not been deeply enough connected in the neighborhood where we are located. Like so many others like us, at one time congregants could walk or ride a horse to church, but now we drive in — some from quite a distance. I do so, too. And I know this: when I drive to church I miss a lot. Most of all I miss the opportunity for face to face encounters with our neighbors.
Apparently, I have been talking about this for years. A staff member pointed this out, encouraging me to quit talking about it and actually do something. So last week we began ‘prayer walking’ in our immediate neighborhood. I did so wondering and hoping it might just be a way to recover what has been ‘lost’ to us in so many ways.
This practice is new to me — at least in an intentional way. You can certainly search for how this works on line, but this is what we did. Five of us gathered and we prayed that God would open our eyes, our ears, our hearts, our imaginations to what and who may be ours to encounter. We headed out in pairs. Or at least the other four did. I wound up walking alone. After about an hour, we gathered back at church to share what we had seen, heard, experienced. And we prayed again. We will do this twice a week for much of September, probably with different configurations of people each time. As for, I have no particular hoped for end in sight other than for us to see and experience what we have not yet. I only hope that God reveals it to us, whatever it may be.
For me, at least, it was a good walk.
- I walked by a local laundromat and read the hand printed sign on the window saying it was closed because the water was off.
- I listened to fiesta music through an open door where workers were clearly rehabbing an old house.
- I saw chalk drawings on sidewalks, and remembered that children lived nearby.
- A young man on a bicycle whizzed by me with his dreadlocks in the wind.
It was as I turned back towards the church that a large pit bull made his presence known. He was tied up, thankfully, but even so, I stepped further out on the grass towards the street, not wanting to give him access to me at all. As I did so, his owner came running down the stairs shouting at me that he was harmless. His name is Sam. He is her ‘care animal.’ We stood and visited a few minutes. She apologized that she was still in her nightgown at this late afternoon hour. She shared that had been in bed all day, grieving her mother whose birthday would have been that day. In the course of our conversation, I learned a whole lot more about her struggles. Finally, since this was, after all, a ‘prayer walk’ I did offer to pray with her. She was so grateful. And yes, pretty soon Sam was sitting on my feet. He was harmless after all. She asked if I would stop back with information about the church.
I walked away wondering if she would ever show up for worship. And yes, I wondered this. Would she ‘fit in’ with those who call First Lutheran home? Would this woman with all of her pain, and yes, all of her tattoos, find a comfortable place there? Or would she be another whom we are found ‘together’ with for a time and then somehow lose all over again.
And yes, I am thinking about all the ways we ‘lose one another’ all the time as we seek to live together in community.
I am considering how we are, in some ways, responsible to and for each other and how we do forget to tend to one another or grow weary of it after a time.
What if, as Dr. Levine asserts, the call of this parable is to remind us that we are the ones who have lost and it is ours to find again all those precious ones who were once a part of us, or with whom we were once connected, but are no longer? What if?
My solo walk through the neighborhood reminded me that sometimes the start of this is to just put ourselves within reach of those from whom we are lost or who are lost from us. Something changed within me as I did so. In fact, part of me started to wonder if perhaps I was the one who was ‘lost’ all along. At least lost from that which matters most of all.
Whatever else is true, thinking of them in this way, these parable have more ‘bite’ for me and those who will likely gather with me next Sunday. And if that is at least part of the intent of such teaching, then Amy Jill-Levine’s take on it has merit. Although I have to say I am still puzzling out how this might preach in a place where those who will listen have always heard it another way. Indeed, I am wondering now what to do with Luke’s words about repentance. Unless it is, finally the shepherd who lost his sheep and the woman who lost her coin who lived out their repentance in their diligent searches for that which had been lost by them? And oh, wouldn’t that be an entirely new way of hearing Jesus’ story now?
- I find Amy Jill-Levine’s teaching on these familiar parables both challenging and enlightening. What do you make of the conclusion that the shepherd and the woman in these parables are the ones in need of repentance?
- I am starting to consider who it is we have ‘lost’ from our communities of faith. Who comes to your mind when you think about this?
- What would it mean in your setting to at least ‘put yourself within reach’ of those we have lost? What would it mean to go in search of them?