Summit Presbyterian Church
Earth Day Sunday - May 1, 2011
Luke 15: 1-10; Acts 2: 43-47
Every One Precious
We just heard two of the most familiar parables of Jesus. Jesus often spoke in parables: stories or sayings that compare one thing to another. The Greek word "parabole" means, literally, to cast alongside; a parable casts one thing alongside another. In our scripture today Jesus compares the rejoicing in heaven over a sinner who repents with the rejoicing of a shepherd (and his friends and neighbors) over a lost sheep that's found; and with the rejoicing of a woman (with her friends and neighbors) over a lost coin that's found. Jesus is comparing something unknown to them -- the goings-on in heaven - with something familiar: a shepherd finding a sheep or a woman finding a coin. The joy they know when those lost things are found, Jesus teaches, is like the joy God knows when a sinner repents, and comes back to God.
The challenge for us in understanding these parables - thousands of years later - is that the situations so familiar to those first listeners aren't familiar to us. We don't have first-hand experience with them. Most of the parables talk about farming, herding or fishing. For us city dwellers who - at most - fish only for recreation, herding, farming and fishing are something we know about only through stories or movies - and of course farming and fishing were different back then. The examples in the parables are also unfamiliar to us because technology has changed. To refer to another parable, in these days of cheap and easy electricity we don't know what it means to make sure you have enough oil to keep your lamp burning - so we aren't properly scandalized when those five foolish bridesmaids leave their oil at home. But it's not just that we're city dwellers rather than country dwellers, or that we live in a high-tech rather than a low-tech age. Our "heads" are different. We think and feel differently about things.
Let's go back to sheep and coins. In that time and place, finding a lost sheep or a lost coin would have been a cause of deep relief, rejoicing and celebration. Sheep and coins were not easy to come by - they were highly valued and always needed. A sheep or a coin could make the difference between food and hunger; between clothing and rags; in some cases, surely, between life and death. Every sheep and every coin counted. Every one was precious. So when a sheep was lost, a shepherd would search high and low until it was found. (I should say that scholars argue whether a competent shepherd would leave 99 sheep in the wilderness so what is Jesus saying, but the parable assumes the 99 righteous sheep are safe). Likewise, when a coin was lost, any woman would use precious oil to light a lamp in her small windowless house, so she could sweep and search carefully until it was found. And then every one would celebrate!
It's not like that for us. Thinking first about sheep, how little we value each one! Few of our sheep or cows or chickens can even wander -- they're crammed in on factory farms where it's accepted - as the cost of doing business - that a good number will die from disease or smothering. In a way that's efficient - we have cheap meat - but no sheep or chicken or cow in that system is precious and ultimately it's wasteful. Thinking of other animals, how many are lost on the path to extinction and we don't even know it! Scientists calculate that if we continue heating the planet as we're now doing, a third of all plant and animal species could be extinct in the next 100 years (Rough Guide to climate change, 147, citing Nature 2004 article and IPPC report) . Now, extinctions are part of creation, they happened even when humans weren't around; but because of our activity we're losing plants and animals at breakneck speed, at a speed that could lead to system-wide collapse - and most of us don't even notice the loss.
Let's think about coins: we seldom even look for lost ones anymore - they stay in our couches forever. Granted, coins are less valuable now, but we also lose track of the bills in our wallets or the numbers on our bank statements. Even when we're struggling - and in this recession many people don't have enough - there's so much waste built into the way we live that we're casual about all sorts of things. Water. Gas. Food. Electricity. Clothes. We're attached and accustomed to many material things in our lives, but we don't value them or even notice when they're lost. And because we don't know what it means to find lost things and rejoice, we can't fully hear what Jesus is saying about how very precious every person is in the sight of God. We don't get the way God rejoices - along with all the angels in heaven - when a lost person is found. The parable loses its punch.
Now, there are people in the world today - many people - who understand how relieved and overjoyed the shepherd and the woman would be. There are many people in the world today - even here, but especially in places like Bangladesh and Ethiopia - who carefully guard not only every sheep but every grain of rice and every piece of bread and every single coin. But still they go hungry, or have no safe place to sleep, or have no care when they're sick. And when we step back, we can see that our accumulation of stuff, our high spending life-style keeps other people from having enough. It's not the only reason for poverty. But each day, as we learn more about the limits of our earth and the limits of our atmosphere, we see that using more than our share - both in the past and today - leaves too little for others. Too little for the poor of the earth, and too little for our children and grandchildren. We've lost our way.
It's time to start listening to these parables backwards. Because each person in this world is precious in God's sight, we need to start taking care of those sheep and keeping track of those coins. Not so we can eat more lamb or buy more things -- but so we can make do with less and have more to share with others. So we can live more lightly on the earth and leave enough for everyone. So we can protect the diversity of plants and animals on this planet, for our children and grandchildren. We may think of frugality as tightening up and not being generous, but really, it's about opening our hearts, broadening and deepening our love for God's creation and all who live in it. And it's something we need to do not just in our own homes and in our own lives. We need to care for those sheep and keep track of those coins in our government policies and in our laws -- because so much of the waste in our country goes beyond what we do in our homes or what we buy in the store. We need to care for those sheep and those coins so that all will have enough -- children in Camden, farmers in Bangladesh, sheep herders in the Sahel, seal hunters in the Arctic. And if we're able to repent from our wasteful ways, those ways which separate us from God, creation and neighbors we know this: that there will be rejoicing in heaven. For every one of us is precious in the eyes of God.